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John Watson Book Review (111)

John Watson Book Review #111: Carlsen Books

Magnus Carlsen books. Photo ©

Magnus Carlsen books. Photo © |

John Watson reviews two recent books about Magnus Carlsen becoming world champion Carlsen's Assault on the Throne by Vassilios Kotronias & Sotiris Logothetis and Magnus Force: How Carlsen Beat Kasparov's record by Colin Crouch and also mentions Simen Agdestein's How Magnus Carlsen Became the Youngest Grandmaster in the World. As he says there will be many more books in the future on Magnus but these are the most current.

John Watson Book Review #111: Carlsen Books

Carlsen's Assault on the Throne

Carlsen's Assault on the Throne; Vassilios Kotronias & Sotiris Logothetis; 304 pages; Quality Chess 2013


Magnus Force: How Carlsen Beat Kasparov's record; Colin Crouch; 288 pages, Everyman Chess 2013

How Magnus Carlsen Became the Youngest Grandmaster in the World

How Magnus Carlsen Became the Youngest Grandmaster in the World: The Story and the Games; Simen Agdestein; New in Chess 2013

As time goes by, we will undoubtedly be seeing more and more books about Magnus Carlsen, probably way too many. In this column, I'm going to review two recent works, the first two in the list above. But it should be said right off that Simen Agdestein's book How Magnus Carlsen Became the Youngest Grandmaster in the World: The Story and the Games is the most interesting and original book if you're looking for the story of Carlsen's early days, his family, training, travels, and years as a Junior. Published in 2013, I believe it is an exact republication of Agdestein's 2004 Wonderboy Magnus Carlsen: How Magnus Carlsen Became the Youngest Grandmaster in the World, albeit with a revised Foreword. Which is fine, because the book is a well-written and entertaining, and the only one that covers this biographical material. Just be aware that if you have the 2004 edition, you won't need this one.

Carlsen's Assault on the Throne

Vassilios Kotronias' and Sotiris Logothetis' Carlsen's Assault on the Throne takes the reader through the 2013 Candidates Tournament in London, in which Carlsen qualified to play Anand for the World Championship, and then the 2013 Championship match itself. There is also an introductory chapter called 'the Contenders', with a brief description of Carlsen's 'evolution' as a player and a shorter recounting of how Anand did in the World Championship cycles and tournaments. The book is a hardcover with a plethora of professional-quality colour photographs throughout, taken by Anistasiya Karlovich. There's an index of photos at the end, but it is missing most of them, and I'd guess there are at least 80 in total. A few are wonderful full-page photos, and the majority are definitely more attractive and exciting than the usual players-facing- each-other-across-the-board sort. These photos alsone will already be reason enough for collectors and devoted Carlsen fans to scarf up a copy of the book.

I'm confused as to who wrote what. In the Publisher's Introduction, Jacob Aagaard says, "In what follows there is a clear division of labour between Vassilios [Kotronias] and Sotiris [Logothetis] - Vassilios wrote Part 1 and, in the rest of the book, he analysed and annotated the games, while Sotiris wrote everything else. So when you see a game heading, you can imagine Sotiris stepping aside and Vassilios taking over." Okay, but then, several pages into Part 1, which is written in the first person and includes the writer's own opinions and impressions, the writer suddenly says "Here is a typical example from that earlier period, with my esteemed co-author sharing a personal experience", and there follows a Kotronias game versus Carlsen, with Kotronias' notes. So did [Sotiris] Logothetis actually write Part 1 after all?

Be that as it may, the author of Part 1 states: "The early stages of Carlsen's chess career have been covered elsewhere in great detail, by people much better suited than the authors of this book." That's fair enough, but in my opinion much of the rest of the chapter could have been skipped. There are a series of opinions without any backing, for example, "Child prodigies usually emerge in countries where chess is firmly established in the collective mind and a certain structure is in place to aid the development of chess talent - think of former states of the Soviet Union or Yugoslavia, for example." First, which chess prodigies came from Yugoslavia? And although it's hard to define who is a prodigy and who isn't, acknowledged pre-contemporary prodigies like Morphy, Capablanca, Reshevsky, and Fischer don't fit this mold (in fact, what early prodigy does?). And if you look at currently active players, the ones who are most often described as 'prodigies' (accurately or not) are spread around the world.

Then in a lengthy essay on 'Draws in Chess', we find out that before Fischer, chess was drawish. Then it became a fighting game during an unidentified Fischer period, and then drawish again during Karpov's reign (with the remarkable comment that "the mid-to-late 70s and early 80s saw what was perhaps the most pacifist period in the history of top-level chess"). We are then told that Kasparov's time at the top was characterized by fewer draws, but in modern times (beginning towards the end of his career), 'death by draw' has returned because of 'deep opening preparation'. Well, maybe this is true, but I seriously doubt it (even if it were, the percentage shifts would be very small), and none of these claims is backed up by research or numbers.

Describing Carlsen's ascent, we find that

"In 2009 Magnus was an established member of the elite...At this point he embarked on a collaboration with Garry Kasparov..The fruit of working with the world's best ever player, as many consider Kasparov to be, showed almost immediately: a completely refreshed Carlsen showed up in the Nanjing tournament in October, with new (and very sharp) openings, and swept the field on his way to a remarkable tournament victory; his excellent performance won him enough rating points to catapult him into the coveted first place in the rankings, at the age of 19... the assistance of a highly qualified trainer, the best player in the world, had surely worked wonders for Carlsen's self-confidence, and the news of their collaboration had visibly shaken his opponents. The Nanjing tournament commenced a fantastic rise in his rating...Working with such a tremendous analyst and theoretician as Kasparov helped Magnus improve his openings; he now had a wide array of dangerous opening ideas at his disposal, plus excellent advice on even the most complex ones..."

This strikes me as a rather thoughtless dissemination of a popular myth. Is Kasparov a 'highly qualified trainer'? If you simply look at Carlsen's rating progress, it was steadily upward for years before Nanjing. He did gain an impressive 10 points there (on the other hand, he had gained 13 at Bazna much earlier in the year), but then uncharacteristically stalled at his next two tournaments, using that sharp style, and only gained rapidly again after he had not worked with Kasparov for some time. Significantly, he had dropped those sharp openings and returned to the safe and relatively unambitious opening style he retains to this day. From then on it has been almost straight up, especially driven by leaps two years later of +13 and +11 at London 2012 and Wijk aan Zee 2013 respectively. Any evidence that Kasparov's 'training' helped his play is hidden from objective view, to say the least, and it's tiring to hear such claims made without evidence. I also remember Carlsen saying that he had taught Kasparov some things! In the book described below, Crouch makes a similar point about Carlsen's experiments with sharp openings.

Part 2 is about the London Candidates Tournament, held in order to pick a challenger to play against the World Champion Vishwanath Anand. This is a great topic for a book. A tournament where elite players have to deal with all of their peers twice is almost inevitably more interesting (in chess terms) than a single short Championship match, and to make it even better, this tournament came down to the final round in which it was completely unclear who would win. The last time Quality Chess did a tournament book on a World Championship event, San Luis 2005 (for the FIDE championship), the result was a superb book that I would still strongly recommend to everyone. In this case the excitement is also there, and the analytical notes are excellent (not too complicated, and comfortable for the average reader), which is the most important thing. Readers will both enjoy the games notes and profit from them. But I'm less happy with the author's descriptive commentary. There's way too much rambling (a lot of it boring, at least to my taste), and opinions that the author doesn't bother to justify. Admittedly it's a matter of taste, but I really don't care about the author's personal movements (e.g., we find that he goes to the hotel and back), whether he's too tired to watch some game he doesn't care about, or who's eating sushi in the press room. He has a conversation with a friend about Bitcoin and drinks three cups of coffee. One day when Logothetis gets hungry he notices a candy bar on Kramnik's table and after the game is happy to find that Kramnik has left it unconsumed. He tells this 'story' to his friends, who later give him a bag of the same candy bars. Is this really worth the reader's time? There's also an irritating amount of pseudo-psychological interpretation. After Carlsen's round 5 draw with Ivanchuk, a game in which he refused a draw, tried too hard to win and got in some trouble, Logothetis says: "It's clear to me that the first game between this duo should have rung an alarm bell for Magnus concerning their second-half encounter, but, apparently, in the heat of the tournament, he didn't hear it well enough ...". This sort of thing is irritatingly childish: With three rounds to go in the most important tournament in his life, only a half point ahead of Kramnik, Magnus forgets that Ivanchuk is a dangerous opponent and therefore loses? The actual course of their hard-fought back-and-forth game makes this idea even sillier.

The biggest omission, especially in such a lengthy book with so much idle verbiage, is a meaningful description of the styles and personalities of the tournament participants. You get no feel for the players and their foibles, nor their approach to the game. It's hard to understand how something so vital to the drama of the tournament and its understanding by the reader could be neglected.

Part 3 is called 'Match Preparations'. It has head-to-head games between the players and some of their tournament experiences during the pre-match time period. This is well-done although again, some of the description could easily have been skipped in the interests of brevity and readability.

Part 4 is the match itself. This time every game gets its own mini-chapter (with some great photographs). Having gone on so long already, I'll simply say that the authors do a competent job here and on the balance I think the average reader will be satisfied. Again, the annotations carry the day. It's hard to do too much with a match that was so one-sided, but Kotronias' notes are clear, to the point, and full of energy without being artificially dramatic. I think the balance he strikes is perfect for the reader who is a fan but still wants to learn something. I won't belabor my point about the surrounding commentary, which again drifts and contains too many speculative psychological claims. Nevertheless, this Part keeps the reader's interest and manages to make the events surrounding the match a relevant part of the narrative.

In conclusion, while I think that Carlsen's Assault on the Throne could have been considerably shorter and more focused, I find it easy to recommend it to players on all levels (past beginner), but especially for club players and above.


Colin Crouch's Magnus Force: How Carlsen Beat Kasparov's record is about tournaments which preceded the Candidates, emphasizing the two tournaments in which Carlsen gained enough points to surpass the all-time highest rating held by Garry Kasparov. Magnus Force is a very different type of book from Carlsen's Assault on the Throne. It isn't as physically attractive as the Quality Chess book is, and doesn't have any photographs (apart from the cover). But it does have one advantage that all Everyman books share and that I find invaluable: you can buy it as an e-book, which means that you can play through all of the games and notes on ChessBase or any other program that reads pgn files. This is a boon for those who want to learn from the notes and variations. What's more, it allows you to enter your own analysis and/or comments, while checking lines with an engine should you so choose.

I'll let Crouch describe his own book (from the Preface):

"The core of this book is to analyse all the games by Magnus Carlsen, in the London Classic, December 2012, and Wijk aan Zee, January 2013. This is just a small segment in time, but it is clearly the start of a new chapter of chess history....

A significant point though is that Carlsen had overcome an earlier crisis, when suddenly he lost a lot of games in 2008 and early 2009, sometimes with some unexpectedly bad games...

No attempt has been made here to try any sort of standard biography (Carlsen learning how to play, Carlsen as a junior, etc). There are other players far better placed to write something much more detailed and informative; Simen Agdestein for a start..."

Crouch's approach is interesting. The first chapter is an analysis of a set of Carlsen's losses from the two years leading up to the two tournaments. He does this in 57 pages, partly to examine Carlsen's style and weaknesses, but also to understand what parts of his game he improved to take the final steps of his rise to an all-time best rating. Although Crouch quite rightly looks at periods in which Carlsen's play is unconvincing, I should point out that during this period his rating steadily improved and in fact very seldom did he actually lose rating points at a tournament. But sometimes Carlsen went into mini-slumps and his mistakes are revealing.

Here's Crouch's description of Carlsen's style from the Introduction:

"Carlsen would appear to think about chess very much in the style of Emanuel Lasker, World Champion 1894-1921. All the time, he is thinking very much about his opponent, almost as much as the board. Naturally, like Lasker, he has an extremely deep understanding of the position, and given a straightforward technical edge, he will try to convert this without too much trouble. There is however a massive gap between what is happening in the start of the game, when all possibilities are open, and neither player has yet gone wrong; and a much later position, when one of the players is winning, or both players, after a battle, will end up with a draw, with best play by both sides.

The chess psychologist, gifted also with exceptionally clear thinking, will be trying to give himself every opportunity for his opponent to make a mistake, whether before move ten, or by move twenty, thirty, forty, or whatever. Carlsen also tries to grind out his opponent in the endgame, often a long way into the second session.

Carlsen, when playing against an opponent that he knows well, and an opponent he has analysed in depth, will tend to grasp very quickly his opponent's strengths or weaknesses. In preparing his openings, he will not try to catch up with the latest analysis twenty moves deep. He would be thinking instead of which sort of opening would make his opponent feel slightly uncomfortable, and therefore more likely to make a mistake..."

In spite of this fine characterization, I don't think Crouch actually demonstrates what he's described in his game annotations. The prose sections of the book do show that Crouch is a fan of top-level chess and has respect for all the leading players. But his emphasis tends to be analytical and not overly concerned with sporting aspects of the game. As noted above, he thinks a good part of Carlsen's strength is assessing his opponents psychology and exploiting their individual weaknesses. Nevertheless, in his notes to games, he seldom identifies how this occurs, only very occasionally mentioning that an opponent might be uncomfortable in a certain position, and even then not differentiating that particular opponent from any other in that respect.

In the end, the most interesting part of the book consists in Crouch's analysis of why Carlsen is strong and in what ways he continues to overcome weaknesses to improve. For example:

"Carlsen excels under pressure in positions when he is worse, and also in strategically complicated positions in which both players are forced to play with great care. He is not quite so convincing when it looks as if he is clearly better, and it seems a matter of technique to haul in the full point. Often he seems to try to make life complicated, when all that is needed is simple chess. Of course, if the position is genuinely complicated, and requires difficult decisions on both sides, Carlsen is very much in his element.

Here's an observation that he makes on more than one occasion:

"While I was watching this game live on the Internet, [Carlsen-I Sokolov, Wijk aan Zee 2013] it suddenly dawned on me how Carlsen manages to win so many games, and how he has such an enormous win percentage in his games. He quite simply outplays his opponent in the centre. Furthermore, if for some reason he is in difficulties, and this happens every so often when playing with Black, he is able to secure the centre, and avoid further trouble. As always, this is a simplification, but it seems to encompass what was going on in the London Classic, and at Wijk. Carlsen must have done some hard work on this part of the game. In the last few years, he lost games badly every so often, losing central control. He needed to cut out many of his weaknesses in that part of the game; they have become strengths."

Crouch demonstrates this insightful point about the centre with a considerable number of examples. On the other hand, he sometimes makes some odd statements about Carlsen's approach that don't make much sense, for example, "Carlsen, after his streak of losses in 2010 and early 2011, has quietened his play down. He does not try for a win at all costs with Black, and he is less likely now to believe that he 'has to win'. He is more likely now to pick up a few draws, and to make sure that he avoids losses. Still, even in 2012 or 2013, Carlsen is not at his potential peak. He is good at turning worse positions into wins, but he has not yet found the ability to end up in worse positions in the first place." This seems to be a mis-wording, and I assume Crouch means that Carlsen hasn't found the ability to avoid worse positions. But even then, it could be argued that he is better at avoiding worse positions than any other player in the world (excepting perhaps Kramnik, until very recent times).

I noticed one unusual aspect of the book: Crouch either didn't have his computer on all the time or had a rather weak engine, because he occasionally gives lines in notes as equal although the computer immediately find either a winning or very strong continuation. One time he says that 'the computer prefers' a certain move, although it's never mentioned by either engine I put on it and in fact there are two much stronger moves the computer latches on to right away. One possibility is that Crouch, who has severe vision problems, might find it more difficult to use engines to the fullest extent. In any case, this apparent faults in computer coverage could also be looked upon as a point of pride, since these days we are all way too dependent upon our engines and a fresh, independent look at positions is sometimes more interesting than colourless detail. Nor did this hurt my enjoyment of the book or undercut his general observations. It's worth mentioning, however, because such lapses might distract the reader from attending to the high-quality commentary (if you're reading the e-book edition, and you're like me, you probably have your engine turned on). That would be a shame.

Crouch is at pains to explain why in some periods Carlsen wins more games but also loses more games. In 2010 and the start of 2011, Crouch lists losses to various opponents rated a hundred points lower than him (notice that in only one of these did he play White):

Jobava (2710) vs. Carlsen (2826), Olympiad 2010

Adams (2728) vs. Carlsen (2826), Olympiad 2010

Sjugirov (2627) vs. Carlsen (2826), Olympiad 2010

McShane (2645) vs. Carlsen (2802), London 2010

Carlsen (2814) vs. Giri (2686), Biel 2011

Vachier Lagrave (2722) vs. Carlsen (2811), Biel 2011

Vallejo Pons (2716) vs. Carlsen (2823), Bilbao Grand Slam 2011

Crouch then focuses on what happens when Carlsen does the opposite and cuts down his losses: in one period from 2011 to 2013, he lost only two games out of 100! This is particularly staggering because it came mainly against supergrandmasters (with a few 2600+ types thrown in). Towards the beginning of this stretch, Carlsen sometimes didn't win enough games to dominate, but at the end, he combined a decent winning percentage with this amazing ability to avoid defeat.

The bulk of the book consists in annotations for all the games of London 2012 and Wijk aan Zee 2013. That's 29 thoroughly annotated games. Like Kotronias in the Quality Chess book, but even more so, Crouch's notes are more verbal than analytical. This makes for easy and pleasurable reading. The main difference is that Crouch concentrates upon instructing the reader about various types of positions and what they require. This includes broader explanations as well as tips and advice. I found the notes consistently interesting and seldom over-analytical.

In a four-page final chapter, Crouch reflects upon events after Wijk aan Zee 2013, mainly the FIDE Candidates (see above), and his prospects versus Anand. Crouch correctly predicts Carlsen's victory and looks forward to the inclusion of younger players in future Candidates. The absence of Caruana and Nakamura in the recent cycle doubtless disappointed him.

Of course, Magnus Force doesn't have the dramatic pull of Carlsen's Assault on the Throne. After all, Carlsen won both tournaments with some margin, and the world championship wasn't at stake. This is more of an intellectual and educational book, not concerned with conveying the atmosphere of a tournament. Rather, Crouch explains what are the important factors in positions and what goes into making decisions. He does so clearly and effectively, and I can happily recommend this book to all developing players as well as experienced ones.

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