Monday, 18 March 2013

2013 Candidates, Round 3: Gelfand-Carlsen

Last but not least, the Gelfand-Carlsen game. It has to be said that Magnus Carlsen's games stand apart from those of most of the other elite players of the moment, and this was vintage Magnus. A Carlsen opening tends not to be a coming-together of two independent and highly abstruse laboratory experiments. It's more minimalist than that; a succession of reasonable, rational moves designed to produce a position with just a ghost of an idea some moves down the line.

I was going to describe his opening moves as "innocuous seeming" but there is no reason to qualify the adjective - objectively, most of them are innocuous (at least, to other elite players). But they come with the brand name 'made in Norway'. Think Ikea (but more upmarket). He may not be world champion yet but the Carlsen fear factor already plays on the minds of his opponents. Is anyone immune? That is a question this tournament may answer, but it might well be in the negative.

The game started with the Cambridge Springs variation of the Queen's Gambit Declined. It is an ancient line from the 1890s which was first played by the second world champion, Emanuel Lasker, with whom Carlsen is frequently compared. Lasker, like Carlsen, preferred the practical to the theoretical. This has been all the most noticeable in Carlsen's play since his few months study with Kasparov three years ago. Though Carlsen evidently learnt a lot from the former champion, he reacted against Kasparov's intensive work ethic and developed his own distinctive style, which consists mainly of doing most of the work at the board and wearing the other guy down rather than preparing vast arrays of complicated theory designed to blow opponents apart before they sit down. The Cambridge Springs Defence is perfectly playable for Black, though unfashionable, but it is easy to see why the world number one took a shine to it.

Boris Gelfand and Magnus Carlsen at their round three press conference

The game took a familiar course, with a fairly level position on the board until move 36, when Boris allowed Magnus to have two passed pawns on the queenside. That would probably have been OK had he not chosen an inferior move on move 40 - the last move of the time control. He still might have had drawing chances but he chose to exchange queens, perhaps figuring that the black knight could not shepherd home the passed pawns without support from the black king, which was kept busy babysitting White's passed h-pawn. But Carlsen proved decisively that the knight and pawns could do the trick without help from the king.

The first three movements of this particular Carlsen symphony were rather derivative but you have to say that he rounded it off with a supremely assured coda in the fourth (which proved molto doloroso for Boris). Emanuel Lasker would have smiled, taken a big puff of his cigar and exclaimed "that's my boy!".

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