Chess: Magnus Carlsen aims for all-time ranking record of 2,900 in Wijk aan Zee | Magnus Carlsen


Magnus Carlsen will kick off his new campaign to achieve a 2900 Fide rating, the Everest of overall tournament performance, when the world champion takes his first step on Saturday (1pm start) in the first round of ‘chess Wimbledon’ at Tata Steel Wijk aan Zee. Reaching the round number after being stuck twice at 2882 is the 31-year-old’s main target for 2022.

After four successful defenses of his world crown, Carlsen says he won’t do it again until 2023 if his opponent is current No. 2 Alireza Firouzja, 18, or another next-gen grandmaster.

3798: Mark Taimamov versus Bukhuti Gurgenidze, 1993 senior world championship. White moves and wins. Black threatens to shoot by Nxa5, so white needs a quick fix,

Calling the 2900 target an Everest is an apt metaphor. Add another zero for what was once calculated as the exact height of the mountain, although it was publicly stated as 29,002 feet to avoid the impression that 29,000 was a rounded estimate. A century ago, in 1922, there was an expedition to Everest, two years before the tragedy of the famous 1924 attack.

Carlsen’s chances of reaching his personal peak are much better than those of George Mallory and Andrew Irvine. His current ranking after his world title match in Dubai is 2865, and he will need to score 9/13 in Wijk to earn a single ranking point. A total of 10/13 would take him to 2876, within reach of his personal bests. It reached 2882 in Fide’s monthly listings in the years 2014 and 2019, while its unofficial daily peak on live ratings is 2889.

Having come so close, why hasn’t number 1 already exceeded its target? His tournament record performance rating of 3002 was achieved as early as 2009 in Pearl Spring, China, which among minimum nine-round TPRs ranks second to Fabiano Caruana’s 3103 in St Louis in 2014. Carlsen’s performance at the first half of 2019 was also well above the required target at 2,942.

The problem is that once in a while a mediocre performance slips in among the sparkling successes. One of them was at Wijk 2021, where Carlsen finished only sixth after his shock loss to Russian Andrey Esipenko, then 18. In total, he has won Wijk seven times, the record number of wins of n any player on the windswept Dutch coast, and his opposition for 2022, while high quality, misses his two closest rivals in the standings, Firouzja and Ding Liren.

Firouzja, the world number 2 who left his native Iran and now represents France, had a run-in with organizers Wijk in the final round in 2021 when he was bothered by the tables being moved to accommodate the play-off for the first prize between the Dutch Jorden van Forest and Anish Giri.

The teenager was invited to Wijk 2022 but demanded compensation for the incident on the last day, and also wanted a much higher starting fee than the organizers offered, so the negotiations fell through. Ding, the world No. 3, whose tournament appearances last year were considerably low due to China’s pandemic struggles, is also absent from Wijk.

For Carlsen to go from 2865 to 2900 over the next three weeks, he would likely need to give up just one draw in 13 games. More realistic is 10/13, a gain of six ranking points, which would be enough to show that the champion is on his way to the goal he has set for himself. On the other hand, being second behind Caruana would be disappointing but would keep Carlsen’s dream alive.

Game Changer by Matthew Sadler and Natasha Regan was a bestseller that revealed the secrets of AlphaZero and its free open source counterpart LeelaZero.

Now Sadler has followed up with The Silicon Road to Chess Improvement (New in Chess, £25), which includes all-computer games as well as training games between computers and the grandmaster author, as well as an analysis of important themes and tips on how to use your own engine to improve your game. Sadler reveals that he used to regularly play two matches a day, one with each color, on his daily travels, losing almost all of them against Stockfish but analyzing them when he gets home. He believes practice games are more useful than the normal practice of checking out your own fully human encounter with the website engine after the game is over.

Sadler also analyzes typical engine strategy themes, techniques and plans. Some of these are already widely known, notably the advance of Harry the h-pawn against a fianchetto bishop, with its ultimate version 1 d4 Nf6 2 c4 g6 3 h4!?

Other ideas will be new to many players. Engines are more willing than humans to seek endgames with opposite-colored bishops, especially with rooks still on the board, with the logic that dominating half the board outweighs the risks of reaching a sterile null position.

Maxime Vachier-Lagrave versus Jan-Krzysztof Duda
Maxime Vachier-Lagrave versus Jan-Krzysztof Duda

The power of the entrenched pieces controlling the game from inside the opposing camp is another favorite driver. Long ago Adolf Anderssen or Wilhelm Steinitz may have claimed (sources are lacking) that with a knight on e6/d6 you can fall asleep and let the game win, and the writings of Aron Nimzowitsch show many examples of dominant riders. However, the entrenched piece in the heart of the opponent’s position is more likely to be a bishop.

Today’s top GMs quickly become familiar with useful engine concepts, and there is an example of a play rooted in a game being played after Sadler’s book was published, in the tiebreak game Maxime Vachier-Lagrave vs. Jan-Krzysztof Duda in the World Flash Finale.

Vachier-Lagrave’s Bc6, difficult to eject or exchange by normal means, dominates Black’s surrounding heavy pieces, and this proved decisive in the game and the match.

Silicon Road is a high-level read, which should be especially useful for strong and/or ambitious players rated around 2000+, or keen juniors 1800+. A negative point for this reviewer: the book is over 550 pages, therefore a thick volume, and the binding is such that only the central part opens flat.

3798: 1 Nxh6! gxh6 2 g5! hxg5 3 h6 Ne7 4 h7 Ng6 5 Kg2 when the WK advances on g7 and the h queens pawn. In the game, Black tried 1 Nxh6 Re6 2 Nf5 Nxa5 3 Nxg7+ Kf7 4 Nf5 Resigns as White’s g and h-pawns advance.

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