Facing Magnus Carlsen, you have two problems. The first is obvious — he’s the best player in the world. The second lies in your awareness of the first. Countless players have seemed bewitched by the world champion, drained of the confidence needed to push for a win. In a single game, a strong grandmaster may well hunker down and steer the game towards a draw, but that’s a doubtful strategy in a long match, where critical mistakes will inevitably occur.
I didn’t credit Hikaru Nakamura with much of a chance against Carlsen in the finals of the Magnus Carlsen Chess Tour, the series of elite online events held over recent months. On paper, he is a strong contender. Online rapid chess plays to Nakamura strengths, and he is even more dangerous in blitz playoffs. But head-to-head, Nakamura has always struggled against the Norwegian. Though he pulled off a surprising match victory against Carlsen in the Lindores Abbey leg of the tour, Carlsen has otherwise shown exceptional form, winning three out of four events on his way to the final.
The match format was exciting, but daunting for the underdog. It was played as a series of seven tennis-style ‘sets’, each consisting of four rapid games, followed by more blitz games in case of a tie and a possible ‘armageddon’ blitz game tiebreak. In a simple series of games, you can attempt to maintain equanimity, and inch ahead at an opportune moment. The ‘tennis’ format means that sooner or later, you will be rattled.
Nakamura came out swinging on the first day and even won the first set. Carlsen struck back to win the second set the following day. That’s the point, I feel, when many players, even very strong ones, would start to crumble.