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Who Will Dethrone Carlsen?
GM Danny Gormally

06 November 2018

With the upcoming World Championship match due to take place in London very soon, I thought it was a good time to discuss who, if anyone, is likely to dethrone Magnus Carlsen over the next few years.

Clearly as he has first shot then the most likely candidate is Fabiano Caruana. If I had to describe Caruana’s style, then I would describe it as “relentless.” He has this ability to just keep going - to keep chipping away at the other guy, with relentless accuracy, engine-like chess that will inevitably induce a nervous collapse from the opponent sooner rather than later.

Leaving all the cliches behind for a moment (a difficult thing for a writer of my ilk to do, it must be said), what do I truly think of Caruana? What do YOU think of Caruana?

To be completely honest, there is nothing particularly memorable or interesting about Caruana’s chess. Not when you compare him to some of the great players from the past. Maybe I’m being harsh, but I feel that in fifty years time Carlsen’s games will be remembered, but Caruana’s won’t. Or maybe neither will be remembered. All swept away in the tide of cybernetic clones that appear in the meantime.

Perhaps I’m just a Carlsen fanboy, but if you think of his best games they seem quite memorable, even if a little bit boring - the long endgame grinds where he managed to win from seemingly unwinnable positions. Carlsen has that distinctive quality, which I feel that Caruana lacks.

Again, all this seems quite harsh, and again when you think of Caruana’s games, you think of this relentless accuracy, which reflects his work with the computer. Clearly he calculates very well, is extremely well prepared and is willing to take risks. He’s a bit of an all-rounder who can do everything well, which seems to be the fashion these days.

Gone are the lop-sided players of the past, who adhered to the “Big Claw” theory. The following game emphasises the influence of the computer. Caruana is willing to open up his king, not in any sense worried about any weaknesses that might have developed in his King’s position.

The Iranian Matthew Sadler.

The chess world is a dynamic, ever changing place. New talents appear all the time. One player I hadn’t even heard of till about ten days ago was Parham Maghsoodloo, from Iran.

Parham is 18 and he won the World Junior Championships with a round to spare. There seemed something almost inevitable about his victory as soon as a youtube video emerged where Parham, when interviewed at an earlier tournament, claimed to be working up to twenty hours a day and at worst only ten hours a day (slacking?).

While I’m often sceptical about such pronoucements (where would you find the time to sleep?) and believe that sometimes such claims are made to intimidate the opposition, this one seemed to have the ring of truth. There’s no doubt looking at Parham’s games, given the depth of opening preparation, and his ability to find his way through the complications, that he’s working extremely hard on chess on a regular basis. It’s very hard to do these things purely on natural talent.

Chess has a history of rewarding the obsessional. Think back to the times of Bobby Fischer, who even with all his talent, at the end of his short-lived career simply outworked the opposition into submission. Perhaps that’s why his career was so short-lived; he may have suffered from burn-out. And whether working on chess for ten hours a day is in anyway more productive than working on chess for four hours a day, I don’t really know. What it will do is help your stamina. If you are prepared to sit at home for long periods studying chess then long gruelling games in tournaments are unlikely to hold any fear. That’s a big advantage over your opponent already. And I think that’s an advantage that Fischer used as well.

Personally speaking, if I spent at least ten hours a day studying chess, I’d be quite likely to go insane (some might argue I already am) and it’s also unlikely to help with developing any social skills. But if the ambition is there to reach the very top, then that kind of ability to work obsessionally hard is likely to give you an edge. From what I hear through the grapevine, even most of the top guys players don’t work that hard. They probably did at some point, then got on the Sinquefield Cup/Grand Chess Tour gravy train, and the hunger waned.

Maxed out?

When discussing some of these top players with a friend of mine, he would often refer to such and such a player as being “maxed out”. In other words he’s already worked so hard on chess during the course of his career that no more improvement is likely to be forthcoming.

I’m not completely convinced by that argument, although there are some slightly cautionary tales through chess history that backs up this “maxed out” argument. The English player who I would most compare to Parham is Matthew Sadler, as Sadler was known for being an extremely hard worker. He too, would spend at least ten hours a day studying chess when he was a full-time professional player.

Of course Sadler reached a very high level - somewhere around the 2680 mark, and yet when he was exposed to the super-elite - the Kramniks, the Anands - I think he realized that this was a level that he would struggle to ever reach. He could compete with them but they would always have some kind of edge. You can only get so far on hard work alone. So he got a full-time job, and now when he plays part time, he plays as well as anyone around.

A similiar story is Gata Kamsky, although he got much closer than Sadler to the greatest goal - the World Championship title, eventually losing to Anand in the final of the PCA World Championship, and also to Karpov in the final of the FIDE version. Kamsky would work up to 12 hours a day, driven on by his father in pursuit of the title, and yet when he tried to summit the very top of the pyramid he came very close - yet ultimately came up short.

So when people on social media make extravagant comments about Parham being World Champion within three years you have to acknowledge the truth - that Carlsen at the same age was already rated 2800, and the next step-up is much harder.

In the next game Parham looks under severe pressure, but uncorks a startling combination, no doubt planned in advance.

The Mysterious Child from the East.

Now we move on to a different type of player altogether - Rameshbabu Praggnanandha, a 13 year old prodigy from India. “Pragga” as he is already known (presumably to save energy for the commentators) belongs in that category of players who come along only every so often - the Super-Talents.

Indeed such has been this young players progress over the last few years that his elevation to the top of the game seems almost pre-ordained, and in fact it would be surprising if over the next few years Rameshbabu didn’t find his way to the top super grandmaster tournaments. The only question is when.

I’ve often wondered, given the history of prodigies within chess and how there seems to be nothing stopping a young player attaining supreme mastery of the game, whether or not we could have a teenage world champion. Would it be possible to have a 15 year old world champion, for example?

Indeed, it seems that in the internet age it’s much easier than ever before for brilliant prodigies to breakthrough. Would you be surprised to see Pragga competing against Carlsen and Caruana at the age of 15, 16 on equal terms? I wouldn’t. And the mystery has been stripped away for the public about such players - gone are the days when we’d have to wait every three years for a Leonard Barden column in the Evening Standard, proclaiming the latest mysterious prodigy from the east.

Pragga already has quite a large collection of his blitz games, played in various events around the world, available to watch on YouTube. It’s quite clear from watching these games that he has a stable, positional style, not unlike a player that he is often compared to in Viswanathan Anand. And like Anand he also has the ability to change gears - a subtle tactical eye will pick out any weaknesses in the opponents position.

The X-Factor

These super-talents show their hand early on, in the sense they display an x-factor in their games that very few players possess; in other words that ability to show a brilliance that is not common. This is one of the reason that I’m not convinced that Caruana is the World Champion in waiting - his games just don’t seem to have that indefinable quality. Kasparov had it, Carlsen has it, and now it would seem that Pragga has it, if his combination against Wesley So in a recent match, is anything to go by:

Do Juniors have the Fear Factor as well?

One of the things I noticed from watching Pragga’s games on YouTube is how terrified some of his opponents seemed to be. In theory it should be the other way around, the younger player should be intimidated by taking on those who are older and more experienced, but instead the social embarrassment of losing to someone who just looks like a young child seems to override this logic.

I used to have a very bad record against junior players and have managed to improve it in more recent times. I guess you just have to tell yourself that fearless prodigy sat opposite you, will one day be just like you - a washed-up chess pro with a beer gut. Juniors are beatable and fallible - even if sometimes it doesn’t seem like they are - you have to put yourself in a position to take advantage of their lack of experience. In the next game Pragga plays extremely precisely through one phase of the game, only to experience a meltdown as the game reaches it’s crescendo.

About the Author
GM Danny Gormally

Danny Gormally is a talented English Grandmaster. He lives in the bustling market town of Alnwick, somewhere near Scotland.

Danny’s first DVD for Ginger GM, Improve Your Practical Play was released in September 2013.