This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon: I wonder if World Champion Viswanathan Anand is nervous.
The idea sounds a bit oxymoronic, as the Indian grandmaster has remained undisputed in his reign since 2007, but I find it hard to believe he wasn’t watching the next challenger to his throne at the Sinquefield Cup. And I wonder if what he watched made him uncomfortable.
Norwegian phenom Magnus Carlsen, the No. 1 player in the world, the “Mozart of Chess,” made one last appearance before he comes for Anand’s title in November. It also was the first time Carlsen had played out in the open since May, and Anand must have been curious to see what kind of form his opponent was in.
Which means he saw the same thing we saw.
Carlsen did not lose a single game during his stay in St. Louis, sweeping a set of the strongest grandmasters this country has seen in decades. The Sinquefield Cup offered two of the best players in America, our national champions for the past five years, but Carlsen set aside both of their intentions.
Without saying a word, Carlsen made a few statements. The first: He has no respect for his elders. Anand has lived 43 years to Carlsen’s 22; and while there is something to be said about experience, there is also much discussion on stamina and endurance.
Carlsen completely dismantled our veteran Gata Kamsky. The reigning national champion has been a global name in chess for two decades, a challenger for the world title himself against Anatoly Karpov in 1996. It is unfair to call the 39-year-old’s play in the Sinquefield Cup “bad,” but, that said, chess is no place for circles. And Carlsen ran a few around Kamsky.
And the Norwegian grandmaster showed just as much agility with the old dog as he did the new tricks. Hikaru Nakamura is America’s version of the young prodigy, the 25-year-old who has crossed out Bobby Fischer’s name from several records books. In the first home super tournament of his life, our nation’s best player was riding high on a great new wave of American chess fanatics as he vaulted his rating up to fourth in the world.
But he crashed upon Carlsen’s rocks. Nakamura is known for his sharp and aggressive style of play, never afraid to completely blow up a position and attack his opponent with confusion, but Carlsen easily navigated the complexity. The two draws between them were, perhaps, more of a nod to Nakamura, though he has still never beaten Carlsen in 22 games.
So let’s assume that Anand will tap the fountain of youth in November, and that he will come with his own bag of new tricks. But knowing that November’s World Championship match will likely be won by the smallest of margins, I wonder how Anand felt after watching Carlsen squeeze blood from absolute stone.
In the Sinquefield Cup’s final round, against the second-best player in the world Levon Aronian, Carlsen needed only a draw to cash the tournament’s top prize of $70,000 – and after 40 moves, he found himself in the required deadlocked position.
But Aronian could have shaken up the standings with a win; so, for just a moment, he pursued. And though the rest of us would not have noticed without the aid of high-powered, computer-assisted chess engines, Aronian made just the slightest of missteps: Just one awkward move by his king in the wrong direction.
It looked like nothing. But five moves later, after Aronian conceded that he would find no way to victory, he happily extended his hand to award Carlsen his necessary draw for the tournament win – and it was refused. Carlsen grinded granite to unearth an unbelievable victory from the narrowest of cracks, against the world number two, for no other reason than to win. Just because he could.
It was a statement, without saying a word. It certainly ran shivers down my spine, and he's not even looking for me this November.
Brian Jerauld is a chess instructor to area students, including his own children, and a student of the game himself through the Chess Club and Scholastic Center of Saint Louis. He is also a Mizzou journalist with a decade of experience writing about boats, sports and other odds and ends. This column is a weekly look around St. Louis, the U.S. Capital of Chess.