A gripping analysis of the encounter between two chess titans provides insights into how age, experience and style fed into their individual strategies. For business leaders, there is plenty of food for thought embedded in the chess speak.

Going In

The Anand-Carlsen match was billed as a clash of generations with Viswanathan Anand upholding the legacy of erstwhile stars of a previous era. In the meantime, Magnus Carlsen of Norway, his young adversary, had made waves in the chess world by moving into the top spot in the International Chess rankings with an enviable rating of 2870.

To win a game in a world championship match, one has to overcome resistance, be very resourceful, foresee inevitable complications and withstand tension by not allowing the opponent to get back into the game. Technique, physical endurance and confidence – all play a key role. Concentration must be of the highest level. The combination of all these factors is very difficult to achieve, though not impossible.

The battle on the chequered board between these two players with contrasting styles has generated enormous interest among the chess fraternity. The statistics regarding their head to head encounters in classical chess tournaments are interesting. Until that point, they had played each other 29 times with Anand enjoying a 6-3 lead, apart from 20 drawn encounters. But the important detail was that Anand had not beaten Carlsen after his victory over him in London 2010, while he had gone down twice to Carlsen in 2012.

The challenger was nearly half Anand’s age. The veteran had a lot of invaluable experience. After losing to Gary Kasparov in the World Championship final in New York in 1995, Anand had become a very mature player and was a force to reckon with in high intensity matches. He had demonstrated the stability of his game psyche by beating players such as Kramnik, Shirov, Topalov, Gelfand in a convincing fashion. He had also remained very consistently at the top for nearly two decades.

Anand’s achievements in chess were clearly impressive going into the tournament. Playing before the home crowd in Chennai might have placed him under greater pressure, since the crowd expectations were high. However, he is very resourceful and probably one of the best in accelerated time controls. Still, a lot hinged on the depth of his opening preparation with the use of any surprising innovation.

Carlsen, on the other hand, was probably motivated to add the title to his other achievements as the World’s No 1 rated player. He had nothing to lose and everything to gain. His planned strategy going in would likely have been to play long games to tire out his senior opponent. He had already established himself as one of the strongest players in the chess circuit by winning tournaments with a great degree of consistency.

Differences in Style and Technique

Anand is good with calculations and was expected to have an edge over Carlsen when it came to tackling sharp positions with queens on board. He was expected to aim for positions that gave rise to immense tactical complications. In order to accomplish this, he had to carve out opening preparations that would allow these tactics to proceed with clinical accuracy.

Post-mortem analyses of games in which Anand had beaten Carlsen in the past supported this. The veteran had defeated the youngster in battles arising out of sacrifices, attack, counter attack, and double-edged positions, which are Anand’s forte.

However, Anand also needed to be wary of his young opponent’s knack for seemingly strange and unexpected piece manoeuvres.

At the relatively advanced age of 43, it appeared to be difficult for Anand to demonstrate his former vigour and aptitude for calculations in order to ferret out combinations with accuracy. There is evidence to support this conjecture since Carlsen has been known to be uncomfortable in unclear positions that keep changing quickly. Nevertheless, he showed tremendous positional sense and his pieces invariably moved to the right squares.

Anand did not go all out in terms of risk taking but was able to hold his own in matches. He did not take drastic measures to adjust and adapt to less tried out lines that promise complications. Rather, he preferred to choose lines where he was comfortable, unless the situation clearly warranted a different approach. Playing for complications compounds the risk factor but one has to resort to this, if it is justified.

Carlsen’s confidence level was high and he played for a win in all positions, probably after concluding that he was stronger than his opponent. It was interesting to see that he wasn’t necessarily looking to curb his natural instincts and settle for safer methods in keeping with the norms of a premium world championship title match.

Yet, Carlsen never underestimated his opponent and played according to the position by not being unnecessarily speculative.

He chose openings that have not been tested much at higher levels as well as variations to lead his opponent into independent play and detours from the beaten track, as quickly as possible. Taking opponents head on – in popular variations arising from direct computer analysis – has traditionally not been his cup of tea.

The Final Result

Carlsen did well with the black side of Berlin variation of the Ruy Lopez in which the queens get exchanged early in the game, leading to lengthy positional manoeuvres.

As Anand was not able to come out with any effective antidote to counter the ‘Berlin wall’, he switched to 1.d4 in the latter part of the series but by then, the young challenger had a comfortable 2-point lead. With pressure mount-ing, Anand played an aggressive 9th game but an eventual blunder moved the score to 3-0 in Carlsen’s favour. Anand then tried to break the jinx by lashing out with the double-edged Sicilian defence in the 10th round but it was too late.

The game ended in a draw. Carlsen won 6.5-3.5 in the best of 12 series to become the 20th World Chess Champion.

Related thought starters: What factors impact risk taking propensity? What can we use to guide us in taking calculated risks? How does one keep pressure from affecting performance? How do we ensure that we consistently play to our strengths?

DV Prasad is a former national champion and the chief...