At the end of 20 days and over 50 hours of tense play, chess has found its new world champion.
It is also Norway’s way of telling the world why Premier League football is reduced to ticker tape back home whenever Magnus Carlsen is playing.
Five years ago, Carlsen had arrived in Chennai as challenger to the then reigning world champion Viswanathan Anand and left lugging a giant trophy in his cabin baggage. After a record-breaching 12 drawn games this time, Carlsen took the rapid games by the scruff against American opponent Fabiano Caruana to end the world No 1 vs world No 2, Ali-Frazier-like duel.
Anand had his computer switched on in his Chennai home through the entire duration of the tie-break.
“Well, the better rapid player won,” Anand tells ESPN almost instantaneously. “Fabiano never got off in the tie-breaks, had problems from the first move and once you have the score going against you, it kind of slips away. I sat down for Game 1 and it turned out to be gripping in the sense you could not take your eyes off. Game 2 was over in a flash and after that my attention started to wane, but I was still following it, of course.”
In Caruana’s path to defeat in the first rapid game Anand felt a stab. “I was reminded of my fifth game (in the 2013 World Championship) with Carlsen. I still believe it was that game which lost me the match.”
“I had the game well under control. Then I started making imperceptible mistakes and my position went from absolutely fine to slightly unfavourable. Then he made a move with rook on the 6th rank and I realised I was just lost and couldn’t stop it. It’s what came back to mind when I was saw Caruana’s rook-end game.”
While some may have argued through the course of the 12 drawn games that the lack of decisive results wasn’t the best advertisement for the sport, there was some evidence of blood and spill.
Just before Game 4, a snippet of Caruana’s preparation was leaked online and on another day Carlsen showed up on the board with a gnarly black eye, one that he sustained while playing football on a rest day.
Of course, the ‘leak’ itself amounted to nothing — so much so that even questions of whether it was a ‘plant’ arose. Anand himself dismissed the leak as ‘silly’, suggesting it may have well been a practical joke.
Carlsen made up for all the inconclusive results on the board by lighting up post-match press conferences with his characteristically wry wit. After Round Five for instance, when both players were asked about their favourite chess players from the past, Caruana predictably named Bobby Fischer while Carlsen brought the house down with: “Probably myself, three or four years ago”.
What earned Carlsen some flak, though, and had even former greats like Garry Kasparov and Vladimir Kramnik suggesting he’d lost his nerve, was his draw offer in the 12th game despite being in a favourable position. This was met by Carlsen with a ‘they are entitled to their stupid opinions’ retort following his title win.
Anand says that his reading of the game then was of Carlsen coming into the match with a decided intent of playing for a draw — or at least not running into big risks. “Sometimes you expend so much energy in playing a draw and saving the game somehow that you can no longer think beyond it. In a way it worked for him, it freed him to play rapid chess. So from being the mistake of a man having slight confidence issues or hesitation it turned out to be the decision of a man who took a fully informed decision. My respect for him in that sense has grown.”
Validating Anand’s inference, Carlsen would confess after his win that he was steering for the playoff and came into the game having made up his mind to offer a draw at the slightest favourable position.
What his fourth successive world title also brings with it is the obvious GOAT question. One that Anand says he doesn’t mind living without a resolution.
“I thought Carlsen had (made an attempt to settle this question) before. He’d done all the hard bits earlier – record rating and years without a single tournament he didn’t win. I thought he needed to pad it up a bit… dot the I’s and cross the T’s kind of thing and that would have been a very good argument. I don’t know if he exactly clinched it here but it’s one more world title which should pad it up nicely.”
But Anand doesn’t necessarily see Carlsen enjoying an untroubled, unbroken run ahead.
“One of my beliefs is that no one can dominate for too long because eventually challengers will come. So, someone who can pose problems and understand how to play Carlsen will come along. It could be a player we already know. As a world champion, you’re never allowed complete peace and quiet.”