by Ian Rogers
It has gone down in history as the epic fail of chess predictions.
Travel back almost six years to the Wijk aan Zee tournament in January 2011. The world was different then; Veselin Topalov and Viswanathan Anand were battling for the world number one ranking and Magnus Carlsen was just a 17-year-old rising star.
In round four Carlsen had been close to beating Levon Aronian but accurate defence had enabled the Armenian to reach the diagrammed position.
Carlsen v Aronian Wijk aan Zee 2009 – Position after White’s 65th move.
Instead of capturing Aronian’s last pawn and trying to win the resultant rook and knight versus rook endgame Carlsen simply offered a draw.
It is true that the rook and knight versus rook endgame is a technical draw – one which I have tried four times to win without success. However top GMs have managed to lose this endgame even from a generic starting position – most notably US GM Alexander Onischuk. (Judit Polgar also lost a famous R+N v R ending versus Garry Kasparov but she entered the ending with the disadvantage of having her king already pinned to the back rank.)
After the Wijk aan Zee game, Aronian did not hide his astonishment at Carlsen’s draw offer. There was something wrong with the kid, Aronian opined, if he did not even try to play this endgame. To Aronian this indicated a lack of fighting spirit, something which would prevent Carlsen from ever becoming a truly world class player.
Of course just nine months later Carlsen was to score his breakout victory in Nanjing, 2.5 points clear of then world number one Veselin Topalov. By January 2010 Carlsen was world number one himself.
Perhaps word of Aronian’s opinion filtered back to Carlsen because two years later at Wijk aan Zee, when presented with a similar opportunity, he played – and won – the same endgame he had given up as drawn two years earlier.
Carlsen-L’Ami, Wijk aan Zee 2011 – Position after White’s 93rd move
Here L’Ami, unwilling to set up a self-stalemate with 93…Kh5!, erred by playing the more natural
Black was forced to resign as his rook was lost.
Fast forward to 2014 and Monday night’s seventh game of the Carlsen v Anand World Championship match.
After 77 moves the players reached the following position:
Carlsen v Anand Sochi 2014 – Position after Black’s 77th move
The new, improved Carlsen – with extra fighting spirit – began slowly rounding up both of Black’s pawns, finishing the job on move 104.
Carlsen then set about trying to see if Anand knew what he was doing in the rook and knight v rook endgame.
Carlsen had 50 moves to torture Anand before a draw could be claimed, but used less than 20 of them before offering an exchange of rooks and agreeing to a draw after only 122 moves and 6.5 hours play.
Only 122 moves when Carlsen could have played on for more than 150? What a wimp – maybe Aronian was right after all!