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Why is Carlsen Dominant? (A Theory) Print E-mail
By GM Cristian Chirila   
August 22, 2015
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Magnus Carlsen at last year's Sinquefield Cup, in Burning Boards by Glenn Kaino, Photo Courtesy WCHOF

Throughout the history of chess there have been very few individuals that have managed to dominate the chess world. Among them we can recall names such a Bobby Fischer, Garry Kasparov, and more recently Magnus Carlsen. Many will argue that Carlsen's dominant reign is just starting and that there is nobody on the chess map that could possibly pose any problems in the near future. Carlsen himself said in one of his recent interviews that he had expected for a long time that somebody would stabilize above 2800, but nobody did. That stratospheric number is still one where the oxygen rarifies and not many can maintain a constant presence.  Caruana is the latest example, he skyrocketed to 2844 and immediately plummeted almost 50 points.

While some would attribute Carlsen's dominance to his style of grinding down his opponents until they crack under pressure, I would like to go beyond that and try to understand why so many of his opponents lose positions in which you would expect the players to shake hands and sign the score sheets for a draw. I have seen this countless of times and the ability with which Carlsen manages to overcome these barriers is simply out of this world. Nobody at this time can do that as often as Carlsen does it, it seems to me that this type of game outcome has become a habit of both Carlsen and his opponents. But why?

My answer to this question lies behind a tool that has been used by sport psychologists to increase the potential of their athletes, it is called the anchor effect.  There is no doubt that between the mind and the body there is a powerful connection, therefore as long as we manage to build specifically crafted links between the two, we can enhance one's potential and get the best results possible. The concept of anchoring was first brought into discussion by Dr. Ivan Pavlov's notorious experiments on dogs, where he proved that he can condition the animals to salivate before they were shown any food just by ringing a bell. The same stimulus ->response type of behavior can be conditioned by sportsmen to perform at their best capability. Great performers often have a large number of conditioned stimulus that help them achieve full potential, and they allocate extra time to create and enhance these anchors. So what are the world champion's secret weapons?

Carlsen's positive anchors

The OJ
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In the first Sinquefield Cup, Kamsky vs. Carlsen, Photo Daiim Shabazz at chessdrum.net


One of Carlsen's main anchor was, until not so long ago, his infamous orange juice. That juice placed in a water bottle was not only his beverage of choice, it was a powerful anchor that reminded him of the times he reached the pinnacle of his performance. Just by interacting with the bottle during the games, he reinforced that stimulus which triggered the desired response: not to lose focus and determination. The one important characteristics of anchors is that they fade in time, they lose their stimulus effect and therefore they become useless. In the case of Magnus, the orange juice has stopped giving him that sought reinforcement and therefore he started looking for stronger anchors.

The sunny escapes

In recent times we have seen the world champion always looking for a sunny escape before his important tournaments (as in the Hamptons before his trip to Saint Louis). I believe that he attached a great anchor to his travels, using that time to prepare mentally and remember how he felt when performing at his peak (stimulus). The response has been amazing, Carlsen has won almost every tournament he has participated in the last year, including three world championship titles and a few Grand Prix honors. Let's see a few example when Carlsen uses his well-known technique.

Carlsen,Magnus (2837) - Karjakin,Sergey (2779) [C65]
Wch Rapid Astana (10), 07.07.2012

Karjakin played a very good game up to this point, defending very accurately and reaching a completely drawish position. Nevertheless psychological anchors were triggered for both players at this moment. While for Carlsen they were positive, for Karjakin the negative ones clouded his judgement.
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34.Rf7 Rd1+

34...Bd4 was the easiest way to draw and definitely not a difficult solution 35.Rxc7 (35.Be7 c5³) 35...Bxc5 36.Rxc5 Ra3 37.Rc2 Rf3=
35.Kg2 Rd2+ 36.Kf6
Now white's active king starts creating troubles
36...Rxa2 37.Rxc7 Kg8 38.h4 Rc2 39.Rc8+ Kf7 40.Ke4 Rc4+ 41.Kf5 Bd4?
41Bd4.jpg

Too hasty, as the white king becomes more active, black starts feeling claustrophobic and starts looking for fast ways to simplify the position. [41...a5 42.Rc7+ Kg8 (42...Ke8? 43.Ke6 Re4+ 44.Kd5+-) 43.Ke6 Bf8 44.Bd6 Rxc7 45.Bxc7 a4=]

42.Rf8+ Kg7 43.Bd6 Rc6 44.Rd8 Bc5 45.Be5+ Kf7 46.Rd7+ Be7 47.h5± Ke8 48.Ra7 Rh6 49.Bg7 Rc6 50.h6 Kf7 51.Ke4 Ke8
51...Rc4+ 52.Bd4 Rc6 53.f5 Ke8 54.Be3 Kf8 55.Kd5±
52.Ra8+ Kf7 53.Rh8 Rc4+??
53Rc4check.jpg

Finally cracking under pressure. If 53...Bf6, it is easy to see that white can't make anything out of his extra pawn 54.Rxh7 (54.Bxf6 Kxf6 55.Rxh7 Kg6 56.Rh8 Re6+ 57.Kf3 Re1) 54...Kg6 55.Rh8 Bxg7 56.hxg7 Kxg7]

54.Kf5+- Rc5+ 55.Be5 Bf8 56.Rxh7+ Kg8 57.Rh8+ Kf7 58.Rxf8+ 1-0

Radjabov,Teimour (2793) - Carlsen,Magnus (2872) 

FIDE Candidates London (13), 31.03.2013
47rb8.jpg

47.Rb8 Rb7

Carlsen peacefully offers the rook exchange. But behind this exchange there is a poisonous sting. Radjabov should not have accepted the exchange, as his rook is the most active piece and the only piece able to create enough counterplay.
48.Rxb7+?
48.Ra8 Kd6 49.Kd2 Rd7 50.Kc3 Rc7 51.Rb8 Rb7 52.Ra8=
48...Nxb7
Now the grind starts.
49.Kd2 Kd6 50.Kc3 Bf7 51.Nb3 Ke5 52.Bf1 a5 53.Be2 Be6 54.Bf1 Bd7 55.Be2 Ba4 56.Nd4 Nc5 57.Kb2
Carlsen patiently acquires small advantages and places his pieces on the right squares, waiting for his opponent to make a mistake

57...Be8 58.Kc3 Bf7 59.Nc6+ Kd6 60.Nd4 Nd7 61.Nb5+ Kc5 62.Nd4 Ne5 63.Nb3+ Kc6 64.a4?
64a4.jpg

An obvious error, a move that a 2800 player would not consider without being forced to do so. Radjabov should have reminded himself of the moments in which he saved difficult positions and should have triggered the anchor to release those feelings. 64.Nd4+ Kd6 65.Nb3 a4 66.Nd2 Kc5 67.f3! this is the key move Radjabov should have found. Instead he decided that he is in zugzwang and that the only defense would be to play a4, unfortunately that will become the weakness Carlsen needs to increase his pressure 67...exf3 68.Nxf3 Nxf3 69.Bxf3 Bxc4 70.e4 fxe4 71.Bxe4 Bf7 72.Bd3=

64...Kd7 65.Nd4 Kd6 66.Nb5+ Kc5 67.Nd4 Be8 68.Nb3+ Kd6 69.c5+ Kc7
Perfect precision, the one move that creates the most problems [69...bxc5 70.Nxa5 Bxa4 71.Nc4+ Nxc4 72.Bxc4 Ke7 73.Bd5 Bb5 74.Bb3 Bd3 (74...Kf6 75.Bc4 Bc6 76.Bg8=; 74...Be2 75.Ba2 Bd3 76.Bb3=) 75.Bd5 Kf6 76.Bc4 g5 white saves the day with a very beautiful move, if you have time then pause the analysis here and try to find the move by yourself. 77.f4!=
70.Kd4 Nc6+ 71.Kc3 Ne7 72.cxb6+ Kxb6 73.Nd2 Bxa4 74.Nc4+ Ka6 75.Na3+ Kb7 76.Nc4 Ka6 77.Na3+
77.Nd6+ Ka7 78.Bc4 Kb6 79.Bf7 Bb5 80.Nxb5 Kxb5 81.Kb3 Kc6 82.Ka4 Kc5 83.Ka3 (83.Kxa5? Nc6+ 84.Ka4 Ne5 85.Bb3 Kd6 86.Kb4 Ke7 87.Kc3 Ng4-+) 83...Kb5 84.Kb3 a4+ 85.Ka3 Ka5 86.Be8=
77...Ka7 78.Kd4
78kd4.jpg

78.Bc4 only move to keep survival chances 78...Be8 79.Be6 Kb6 80.Nc4+ Ka6 81.Kb3= black can't make progress

78...Nc6+ 79.Kc5
79.Kd5 Nb4+ 80.Kd4 Be8 81.Kc3 Bf7 82.Nc4 Nc6
79...Ne5
79...Nb4 this was better, the game continuation is not the most precise.
80.Nc4?
The last critical mistake [80.Kd4 Nc6+ and black has to try Nb4 next, I'm sure Carlsen was just testing his opponent (80...Nd3 81.Bxd3 exd3 82.Kxd3=)
80...Nd3+ 81.Kd4 Nc1 82.Bf1 Bb5 83.Nxa5 Bxf1 84.Nc6+ Kb6 85.Ne7 Nd3 86.Nxg6 Kc7 87.Ne7 Bh3 88.Nd5+ Kd6 89.Nf6 Bg4 0-1
finalcarlsenradj.jpg


Carlsen's negative anchors


It is hard to find holes in the world champion's shinny armor, nevertheless he has had a few moments in which he seemed to be a part of the mortal ranks. His performance in Norway Chess 2015 comes immediately to mind. He also had singular failings in the third round of 4 consecutive events in the 2014-2015 season! Carlsen has attached a very dangerous and negative anchor to these third round encounters. During these games he chose openings uncharacteristic to his style that landed him in very difficult situations where his resilience and competitive determination did not seem to be at the same level as he accustomed us to see. He himself had a good "laugh" with his twitter followers about this:
carlsen twitter.png

These negative anchors can be quite detrimental to one's personal results, but if they are recognized then it will be much easier to eliminate them and even replace them with positive ones.

Anand,V (2792) - Carlsen,M (2863) [D37]
WCh 2014 Sochi RUS (3), 11.11.2014

At this point the match was already in Carlsen's hands. He just won a game in his usual style in round 2 and his match situation couldn't have been better. There was only one problem, round 3 was coming!
1.d4 Nf6 2.c4 e6 3.Nf3 d5 4.Nc3 Be7
4be7carlsen.jpg

Already rare for Carlsen. I assume his new team member, Adams, was somewhat involved in this opening choice.

5.Bf4 0-0 6.e3 Nbd7 7.c5 c6 8.Bd3 b6 9.b4 a5 10.a3 Ba6 11.Bxa6 Rxa6 12.b5 cxb5 13.c6 Qc8 14.c7 b4 15.Nb5 a4 16.Rc1 Ne4 17.Ng5 Ndf6 18.Nxe4 Nxe4 19.f3 Ra5 20.fxe4!N
20fxe4.jpg

Quite a rare occurrence for team Carlsen to miss such an obvious improvement. After this move black's position is desperately worst, as his queen is stuck on c8 without any prospect for improvement [20.Qe2 Qd7 21.fxe4 Rc8 and black had the better position in Aronian vs Adams due to his timely switch between the queen and the rook.

20...Rxb5 21.Qxa4 Ra5 22.Qc6 bxa3 23.exd5 Rxd5 24.Qxb6 Qd7 25.0-0
25.Qa6 this would have probably been more precise 25...Rc8 (25...Qc8 26.Qc4± black is stuck again, Rb1-b8 is coming) 26.Rb1 Rxc7 27.Rb8+ Bd8 28.Bxc7 Qxc7 29.Rc8 Qd7 30.0-0+- Maybe Anand simply preferred to keep the c7 nail and not allow Carlsen get any scent of counterplay
25...Rc8 26.Rc6 g5 27.Bg3 Bb4 28.Ra1 Ba5
28...h5 29.h3 Be7 would have been more resilient, nevertheless black's position is still close to collapsing.
29.Qa6 Bxc7 30.Qc4 e5 31.Bxe5 Rxe5 32.dxe5 Qe7 33.e6 Kf8 34.Rc1 1-0
FinalAnandCarlsen.jpg



Naiditsch,A (2706) - Carlsen,M (2865) [B06]

3rd GRENKE Chess Classic Baden Baden GER (3.3), 04.02.2015

1.e4 g6
1g6.jpg

Carlsen's repertoire is huge, nevertheless this is quite a surprise even from him. The third round negative anchor can already be felt.

2.d4 Bg7 3.Nc3 d6 4.Be3 a6 5.a4 Nf6 6.h3 0-0 7.g4 e5 8.d5 c6 9.Nge2 cxd5 10.exd5 Bxg4?
NaiditschCarlsenbg4.jpg

Carlsen goes berserk for no reason, his position was completely fine and this sacrifice is clearly unsound. Difficult to pinpoint the reason behind this move...or maybe we know it! [10...Nbd7 11.Ng3 Nc5 12.Bg2 b6 would have been a perfectly normal sequence.

11.hxg4 Nxg4 12.Qd2 Nd7 13.Ne4±
White managed to win his game after losing some of his advantage along the way. Judging by the unnatural way Carlsen played this game, we can safely say there were some psychological reasons behind it. Carlsen surely had in mind his recent third round disasters. 1-0


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GM Cristian Chirila
How you can build your own anchors


If you don't have the option of consulting a professional sports psychologist, there are easy ways in which you can create your own powerful anchors. Here is an example:

1.       Choose and think of a distinctive stimulus, this will be your anchor and will trigger the desired response. This can be as simple as a hand squeeze, an eye roll, or whatever your imagination can come up with. The most important is that this anchor triggers only the specific response attached to it.

2.       Think of the last time you performed at your maximum potential, now think of how you felt during that time (mental & physical) and try to emulate those feelings.

3.       Now it's time to launch the anchor, this will create the link between the state of mind and the personalized trigger.

4.       Now completely break the state you were in. Think of a completely neutral subject and completely detach yourself from the previous mental state.

5.       Repeat this process at least three times, this will install the anchor into your system. The more you will use the anchor with good results, the stronger the anchor will get. Whenever you feel good about your performance, launch the anchor and it will create the desired bond.

Now that you know an easy way to develop your own anchors, let's see where that takes you. Athletes that create strong anchors will have a substantial advantage over those that don't have this tool in their arsenal.

This one is for those professionals that want to test the anchor effect. If you manage to ever solve a specific problem, make sure you attach an anchor to it. This is one of the toughest practical problems I've ever attempted to solve, I guarantee the positive feeling you will get from finding the solution will be a powerful asset to your anchor arsenal. Good luck!

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