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Carlsen Wins Trivially in Iceland (Why Greg Shahade is Right) Print E-mail
By GM Ian Rogers   
March 15, 2015
Photo Cathy Rogers

One of the attractions of the Reykjavik Open (March 10-18) – apart from the chance to play in a seriously strong tournament in marvellous Iceland – has been the side events accompanying the Open: from blitz tournaments to a football match to a Pub Quiz.

The 2015 Reykjavik Open – played during Iceland's worst winter in living memory, with snow storms, hurricane strength winds and floods, featured a special guest, World Champion Magnus Carlsen, visiting for three days.

Soon after emerging from a delayed flight to Keflavik Airport – due to bad weather, of course – Carlsen found himself at the Center Hotel forming a team in the Pub Quiz with his fellow Norwegian Jon Ludwig Hammer. The team was nicknamed MC/Hammer, though Carlsen's Pharrell-designed (or was it Marvin Gaye-designed?) t-shirt spoke of other musical tastes.

The Reykjavik Open's Pub Quiz, a chess trivia night, is into its sixth iteration and becomes more popular every year. In 2015 more than two dozen teams of two attempted to solve 30 chess-related questions with the atmosphere relaxed; only a few teams had serious ambitions to win.

Of course Carlsen has serious ambitions to win everything in which he participates. However one might have expected chess trivia, featuring plenty of chess history, to pose serious challenges for a team with both members under the age of 25.
The top team- GM Hammer and World Champ Carlsen, Photo Cathy Rogers

Nothing could be further from the truth, as Greg Shahade foreshadowed when he wrote (in a CLO piece last year): “There is one very reliable sign to how much potential and how strong a young chess player is or is going to be... How likely is this student to recognize a famous game/position and know the players involved?”

If Shahade's hypothesis is correct, then Magnus Carlsen should recognize a huge number of games and positions – and he does!

We already know how strong Carlsen is but the breadth of knowledge he showed in the trivia quiz was extraordinary.  Team mate Hammer must also be given credit, but from the answer sheet submitted it seemed that Carlsen had answered the vast majority of the questions.


The first position recognized by Carlsen was the following:


There have been many hundreds of similar Ruy Lopez games, but Carlsen knew that this was the first game of the Fischer-Spassky rematch in Yugoslavia 1992 – the game won brilliantly by Fischer and which offered hopes, soon dashed, that the former World Champion had maintained his 1970s form.


Later came an identification which could only have been possible if Carlsen had read a book such as 'The Art of the Checkmate' by Renaud and Kahn.


The diagrammed position arises after the moves

1.e4 e5 2.Nf3 Nc6 3.Bb5 a6 4.Ba4 Nf6 5.0–0 Nxe4 6.Re1 Nc5 7.Nc3 Nxa4 8.Nxe5 Nxe5 9.Rxe5+ Be7 10.Nd5 0–0 11.Nxe7+ Kh8 12.Qh5 d6 

Contestants were asked “What is the name of the checkmate which arises after 13.Qxh7+! Kxh7 14.Rh5# ?”

The correct answer was Anastacia's Mate.

While every serious player knows some of Renaud and Khan's nomenclature – the Epaulette Mate, for example (let alone Smothered Mate) – and plenty more know mates arising from common opening traps, such as Legal's Mate. Anastacia's Mate is an order of magnitude more obscure.

Carlsen later explained his wide general knowledge with, “I like chess, I like chess books. You'd be surprised – I do read as much chess as I can.”

Another position with which Carlsen had few problems was the following:


This may appear to be a rather random position but it is in fact the climax of one of the greatest games ever played in a Candidates match, a win by Yusupov (Black) against Ivanchuk. Here, because 30.Nce7 loses to 30...Qh1+!!, Ivanchuk was forced to play 30.Qg8+!, which almost hung on. 

Quiz contestants were asked for the name of the winner plus either the name of the opponent or the move played by White. MC/Hammer gave all three.

Carlsen's most remarkable feat of identification was the following:



Contestants were presented with these two diagrams from the Hastings 1974/5 tournament, the first position arising after move 12 and the second after move 24, and asked who was the joker who handed Swedish GM Ulf Andersson (White) 12 free moves and still won the game?

The correct answer was English IM Michael Basman; the man who convinced Tony Miles to play 1.e4 a6 against World Champion Anatoly Karpov and win – a game which formed the basis for another question.

So how did Carlsen know such a relatively obscure game? Carlsen's answer wasn't very illuminating. “It was a pretty normal Queen's Indian position where Black just moved his bishop back and forth for 12 moves and Andersson still lost the game. I came across it at some point; I don't remember where.”

Here is the complete game.


Black's Rope-a-Dope strategy worked perfectly and Basman moves in for the kill on move 44.


44...c5!!? 45.Qxc5?
45.dxc5! d4 46.Qd2 Re3 47.Re1 would hang on, which is why computers regard Black's 45th move as unduly hasty. Still, computers are not too keen on Basman's play for the bulk of this game anyway – unlike Mohammed Ali, Stockfish fails to appreciate the merits of letting an opponent exhaust themselves trying to knock you out so that you can later move in for the kill.
Now White's king is hopelessly exposed, the downside of all those 'bonus' pawn moves between moves 12 and 24.
46.Qxd5 Qh3+ 47.Kf2 Qh2+ 48.Bg2 Qxf4+ 49.Bf3 Bg4 50.Rc3 Qh2+ 51.Bg2 Qxh4+ 52.Kg1 Re1+ 53.Bf1 Bh3 0-1

So how would someone come across this game and then remember it? First of all, Andersson is famous for losing very few games – Carlsen might have played through the game just to see how a lowly English IM beat one of Scandinavia's greatest players.

More likely the game was mentioned in a book or magazine read by Carlsen – and once you have been shown the ultimate Rope-a-Dope game, you are unlikely to forget it quickly. It was simply serendipity that the information became useful later.

It should be stressed that such memories can fade. I almost certainly saw the Basman game as a teenager whose main diet of chess news in Melbourne in the 1970s was British chess magazines. In addition, a couple of years later I won a game at Wijk aan Zee with a ...Kh8-g8-h8-g8 manoeuvre, which I doubt I would have had the courage to play without a precedent, especially with former World Champion Max Euwe looking over my shoulder. (Euwe had been told to keep an eye on my games by Cecil Purdy and no doubt wondering how Purdy's judgement of chess talent had become so warped.)

However when the Pub Quiz question came around, my only recollection of a successful joker at Hastings was Tony Miles, the wrong answer.

Carlsen showed his strength on the only question where chess skills were required, viz “If the square e0 is added to a board, does this change the assessment of the endgame K+N+N v K?”

At first sight the 65th square makes no difference at all, but Carlsen realised that there is a new mate – place the Black king on g1, the White king on h3 and if the two knights are on g3 and e0, the Black king is mated – a mate that can be forced, unlike the normal K+2Ns ending.

On one question Carlsen would be thought to have had a clear advantage over the field; “Arkadij Naiditsch in Baden Baden beat Carlsen for the second time in a row, following his win at the Tromso Olympiad. Who was the previous player to beat Carlsen twice in a row?”

Carlsen (correctly) answered Ivanchuk, though admitting to one of the commentators that he was not 100% sure he was right! Perhaps there is one things top players can forget – their losses!

Carlsen in the booth with WIM Fiona Steli-Antoni , Photo Cathy Rogers

In the end, Carlsen and Hammer had scored 26 points from a possible 30, a point clear of two chasing teams. It was a great winning score – last year Icelandic GM Helgi Olafsson and New in Chess editor Dirk Jan ten Geuzendam won with only 21 points.

So on which questions did Carlsen and Hammer err?

Showing that the Encyclopaedia of Chess Opening codes, developed by Chess Informant in the 1960s, are no longer essential knowledge for top players, neither Carlsen nor Hammer knew that the A45 code represented the Trompowsky opening. (Since Carlsen had twice prepared for world title matches against Viswanathan Anand, and the Indian had used the Trompovsky to win a critical game against Anatoly Karpov in their 1997 FIDE World Championship match, team MC/Hammer's guess of the Reti Opening is doubly surprising.)
Photo Cathy Rogers

Failure to identify a photo of a slim Alexander Alekhine enjoying a beer in Czechoslovakia in 1934 proved too difficult for most teams, MC/Hammer included.

Naming three of the four players who finished above Fischer and Olafsson in the 1958 Portoroz Interzonal was a near miss. Carlsen and Hammer received no credit for correctly naming Tal and Petrosian because their third choice was Keres. (Gligoric and Benko were the other two.)


“What was the highest ranked IMDb movie to feature chess?” elicited the response 'The Thomas Crown Affair' which has a rather more substantial chess scene – but a much, much lower IMDb ranking than the correct answer, and the top IMDb film, 'The Shawshank Redemption.'


So how did Carlsen regard his performance in the Pub Quiz?

“It was interesting. I have spent a lot of time not only playing chess but also studying all kinds of classic but also obscure games, so that was fun to be able to use some of that knowledge.”

The winning team! Photo Cathy Rogers

And, most importantly, to prove Greg Shahade right.