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Greg on Chess: Magnus & Openings Print E-mail
By IM Greg Shahade   
March 8, 2013
Magnus Carlsen on the cover of the January 2013 Chess Life
With the Candidate matches in London just a week away, something incredible is happening in the chess universe. In the world of technology, of ultra deep Houdini preparation, we have a player whom is by far the number 1 rated player in the world. In fact he is the highest rated player in the history of chess. And somehow Magnus Carlsen seems to care little about the opening! In fact sometimes it feels like he just shows up and plays whatever he wants.

Let’s look at the openings from his monumental victory at Tata Steel Chess:

Typical Carlsen, just playing some Botvinnik system that involves no theory and playing chess. He slightly outplays Caruana and gets a small edge, but Caruana defends well enough to hold the draw.

In my database 6....Nc6 has been played 10 times out of about 2000 games. Carlsen just doesn't care, gets his typical somewhat worse position with black, but holds on the draw.  
This time it's Van Wely who plays a pretty rare move, as 9...Qb6 hasn't really been played since 2009 in top level chess. Carlsen makes the opening look quite bad with clear and logical play, outplaying Van Wely in tremendous fashion.

So not to overstate my point, Carlsen said in the post-game press conference that he knew Van Wely's line was bad. Surely, as the World #1 he knows plenty about opening theory, but it seems he often chooses not to use it.

Another case in point:

The Ponziani Opening? Need I say more?

5……Be7 is a very rare move, played approximately 2–3% of the time in this position. (5...d5 is standard). Carlsen gets his usual slightly worse but solid position and Anand can do nothing to punish him. Life is easy for Magnus.

Although it's a theoretical line, the Spanish is so closed with so many options, that it's a great choice for someone who isn't obsessed with opening theory. White can just play chess and usually there will be ample opportunity to outplay his opponent.


This time it's Leko who plays a rare line against the Berlin that's considered pretty harmless. 9...Ne8 is not the most common move and Leko makes Carlsen suffer for a long time, but Magnus is never in any serious danger of losing. The question remains...if Magnus had white.....would he have been able to win? It wouldn't surprise me given his game against Karjakin.


"Hello, I'm Magnus Carlsen and I can just do whatever I want and then get some rook+bishops of opposite color endgame with equal pawns and grind you down like you are not one of the top players in the world.  "

Ok this time someone plays the Ponziani against Carlsen? Pretty sure Carlsen just became the first person in decades to play both sides of the Ponziani in a super tournament.
The Tiviakov line begins with 7.N1e2. The idea is simply develop your pieces, get some playable position and hope to outplay your opponent. Obviously Carlsen succeeds.

Kind of a normal opening from Carlsen, although Hao avoided theory and decided not to test Carlsen in the Open Sicilian. Hao pushed hard and got an advantage, but Carlsen held on for the draw.
Here we have a main line Kalashnikov and on move 6 Carlsen plays a move that almost no one plays (my database has like 20 times out of 2000 or so in top level chess). He wins with complete ease.

My database has 4...e5 being played once in 1985. Carlsen is getting whooped in this game but as usual, Giri can't finish him off and he gets away with a draw. Even when Carlsen gets a worse position, he plays so well and defends so hard that he can usually hold the draw. Although in this game he really cut it close.
After looking at these examples you can see that Carlsen is not winning because his opening preparation is superior to anyone else. He just plays chess so unbelievably well, that it doesn’t matter that his opponents have the edge in the opening. So when you are confronted with this, it really makes you look yourself in the mirror and ask yourself: “Is my time spent better on improving my overall chess skills, or in learning even more openings?”

I think it depends on the player. I suspect that there is a happy medium for most players, and that ideally one should spend maybe 20% of their chess studying time on openings. Perhaps put aside one day per week for the openings, and the rest of the time ignore them and focus on other areas of chess. Lately I’ve been through a phase where I haven’t studied openings at all, I think I’m taking it too far to the extreme.

Some players who haven't laid their opening groundwork may need to spend more than 20% for starters. But once you form your repertoire and get the hang of maintaining it, take inspiration from Carlsen and focus on the heart of the game.

See Greg Shahade's latest editorial on being wrong about norms, and look for coverage of the Candidates by GM Ian Rogers starting with a preview next week.