Magnus Carlsen’s aura of invincibility has cracked. The Norwegian became, at 19, the youngest ever world No1 with an all-time rating second only to Garry Kasparov. But a run of five defeats in nine games at the Olympiad and now in Bilbao has cost him the top ranking and made him look vulnerable.
Carlsen’s three losses at the Olympiad, including one to the England No1 Michael Adams, sparked rumours that he had been pressured into playing to aid Norway’s successful bid to host the 140-nation event in 2014.
His opening-round defeats at Bilbao by Vlad Kramnik and Vishy Anand meant that India’s world champion became No1 in the daily rankings. Carlsen denied there was a crisis, but after a 174-move draw with Alexei Shirov he had to struggle for half a point with White against Kramnik. Then he fought back, beating Alexei Shirov well, but was under pressure for much of the final round against Anand before escaping with a draw. The Indian stays No1, and Kramnik won Bilbao.
Arguably the Carlsen crash was an accident waiting to happen. His style, often grinding out long endgames, is prone to produce fatigue and stress, while his earlier long unbeaten run is unusual for great masters, most of whom only acquire the highest levels of stability in their mid-20s.
There is a parallel with Bobby Fischer, who was also 19 in 1962 when he won the interzonal in style, was touted as an imminent world champion, then failed in that year’s candidates and Olympiad. Fischer’s first reaction was to claim his Russian rivals had cheated, but his more considered approach was to compete much less during the next few years, hone his game in private, and return in his chess prime.
Carlsen, too, may soon need a break to regroup. In the past year Magnus-fear among his opponents meant that many only aimed for a draw against him, and his sudden vulnerability will make them more ambitious. And the new power shift at the world top will add spice to the London Classic at Olympia on 8-15 December, where Carlsen again takes on Anand and Kramnik as well as England’s top four grandmasters.
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– GM Susan Polgar