Kramnik on seeing Carlsen was “the next Federer”

Magnus Carlsen was on the ropes against Fabiano Caruana in
Round 7 of Altibox Norway Chess, but the slow-moving game was the perfect
opportunity for our commentators Vladimir Kramnik and Judit Polgar to talk
about just what makes Magnus so special. Kramnik in particular talked about how
two encounters with 16-17 year old Magnus convinced him that we had a
player who was not just a potential World Champion but someone who could
dominate the game as Roger Federer did in tennis. We’ve selected the key
20-minute segment of the commentary, with a full transcript.

Vlad and Judit were commentating while Magnus Carlsen found himself in real danger of falling to a first classical loss in five years against world no. 2 Fabiano Caruana. The game ended in a draw that Magnus made from a position of strength – a perfect illustration of what our commentators were talking about! Watch the video below:

The segment starts from a discussion of whether it’s possible to play at a high level nowadays without deep opening preparation. 

Kramnik: Magnus
is maybe the only player who can manage to compensate it somehow and who still
has chances to be number one maybe even not working on chess, but in general
the importance of chess preparation nowadays is getting bigger and bigger.

Polgar: How is it
possible that Magnus’ development was somehow improving in parallel his
opening, middlegame and endgame strength? I remember when we were playing
together in the London Chess Classic, which was quite some years ago, somewhere
maybe in 2012, 2013, something like that, and I think Magnus was number 1, but
he was not the World Champion yet. And you were telling me this sentence, it’s
still in my ear, that, 

“well, with Magnus it’s ok to make a draw, but how to
beat him?” 

And I remember that you were saying this and this was really keeping
you busy, of course, quite a lot, that he’s got good and it’s not a problem to
handle and balance, but how to beat him? How could he get so good, do you
think, that he can keep it in such a balance that he’s not making drastic
mistakes, and he was not doing it already then?

Kramnik: Yes, but
that’s class. First of all, he was very quickly… usually most players they get
this high class of play, it takes them time to reach this, you know by 25, 30
they become a really classy player, and Magnus he was a very, very high
positional class player already at the age of 17, 18. That is, of course, his
huge talent, and actually a core, I believe, of his talent, is this feeling for
the position. 

He doesn’t need to think too much to know which piece to put
where, he has a very, very delicate touch. He really feels the smallest,
slightest nuances of the position.

I remember when I played with him the first Wijk aan Zee
tournament, which actually he didn’t finish so well, on -3 or something, when
he was 15 [Magnus was 16], in the A Group, but I played a game with him. It was a draw, and
then we just analysed a little after, post-mortem on the board, just for 20
minutes, and for me everything was clear after that, because I could feel how
delicate his feeling is for very slight positional changes – something I
frankly not always can witness even with Top 10 players, who are 40 years old. 

I was trying this move, that move, and it was amazing to me that a 15-year-old
boy, it was a very positional game, and then he would immediately switch his
plan or set up his pieces differently in accordance with what I would do as
White, and it was most of the time, in my opinion, totally correct. And then
you could say, ok, at 15, at this age, to be able to catch it so quickly,
that’s a sign of a huge talent, of a huge positional talent. I haven’t seen it… 

I can tell you even Kasparov didn’t have it at this age. 

It was really…

Polgar: What
about Karpov?

Kramnik: I think
Karpov not also. I saw his games when he was young. I think he slowly, slowly
was building it, but it seems like for Magnus it was from birth, it was
natural, it was absolutely natural, so that makes a big difference, and of
course he’s young, he’s very motivated, at that time already. When you’re young
you keep concentration very well, but usually what is the minus of a young
player? You calculate well, but then all these small positional nuances etc.,
there you start to “swim” [drift], so to say. You start to make mistakes. And
ok, he covered, because it’s his natural talent, he was covering this part of
the game basically by nature, and then it makes you a very, very complete
player, already at such a young age, which very seldom happens.

And also I have another story with Magnus, since I see no
moves are played. I remember also another story, I think Magnus was 16 already,
and already probably a Top 10 player, but that was also extremely impressive. I
was very impressed, it’s a small thing which you catch, and then it’s not like
a tournament victory or beating a World Champion at this age, it’s something
which amazes you as a professional. For an amateur maybe it’s the other way
around, but sometimes there are these small things which are amazing.

I remember I played in the Monaco tournament. There is one
blindfold, one rapid game. I don’t already remember who was doing how, but ok,
I had this two-game match with him. One of the years, frankly maybe it was 2007
or, I’m not sure exactly, or 2006 maybe, and ok, I managed to win the first
game with White
. I was quite lucky, actually, it was very complicated, I think
he lost on time, or he forgot the position in blindfold, and then I was playing
Black in the second game
. It was some Petroff, he played a random line, I
slowly outplayed him, and we ended up in a position like I have an endgame, I
have rook, bishop and 5 pawns against rook, knight and 4 pawns.

And the pawn structure is such that it’s actually quite
difficult to win, I would say it’s really a 50:50 chance to win. It’s one less
pawn, but he gets some control and he’s passive but it’s very difficult to
improve. And I have like 7 minutes against 10 seconds. He’s playing on
10-second increment. Ok, basically it’s impossible to defend under such
circumstances. It’s already quite a difficult position anyway, and I play, I
play, I try, but finally 40 moves were played, it was a draw in the end, I
couldn’t manage to win, and also what was amazing was that I could see him
playing very accurately, slowly, no nerves, nothing, making many moves on 1 or
2 seconds, pressing the clock, not even pushing the clock, and ok, I was
puzzled, how could it be? Of course you might not win this game, but how can it
be that a person can defend.

So I thought ok, maybe I missed certain things. I come back
to my room and I see out of these 40 moves he played something like 35 first
line [of the computer], maybe three second line and two third line. 

It’s just
absolutely amazing defence, playing on 10 seconds a difficult endgame, and I
saw I didn’t make mistakes as well, it’s just that he defended almost like a
machine on 10 seconds. It’s just absolutely amazing! That was something which
puzzled me more than any brilliant sacrifice or tournament victory sometimes.

Then I understood. Ok, it was already clear before, but then
it became clear. I think I even said that year, or the beginning of next year
in my TV interview, to some European, I don’t remember whom, 

I said that in my
opinion he’s going to be the next Federer. It was not obvious at all yet, he
was just a Top 10 player, but I could see that not only he has good chances to
be World Champion one day, but also that he really can be dominating the world
of chess, because you barely see such a combination of class, character, very
sportive character, high concentration, a fantastic nerve system for chess. 

like made haute couture, everything
is exactly in the right dosage.

Polgar: Same

Kramnik: Just the
perfect proportions, yes.

Polgar: And also
we shouldn’t neglect that his physical preparation is immensely exemplary, I

I’m not sure we can say that we have had such an athletic World Champion

Kramnik: Garry
was quite strong physically, he was making a lot of sports, but yes, Magnus is…
it’s like he’s covering almost everything.

Polgar: I had the
feeling with Garry that he was doing it because he knew that it’s part of the
preparation, but with Magnus I have the feeling that he simply enjoys it and he
likes it very much, and he’s not doing it only because it’s part of the preparation
but he’s doing it because he loves it.

Kramnik: Because
he loves it, yes, for me it was always like a torture! I did quite a lot when I
was playing matches, but if not part of preparation I wouldn’t have done it,
but for Magnus it’s quite obvious he just likes it.

Polgar: I saw the
documentary about him and also I was reading a little bit the book about him
and you hear stories here and there, and it was very interesting to see for me
in the movie that actually his father was travelling with him and they were
playing ball games, even in the room sometimes, so probably it’s because he was
a kid, he had a lot of energy, and even if not all the time, he had the opportunity
to go the soccer field or do sports with others, they were still throwing balls
to each other in the room of the hotel, so it was like a very systematic
preparation and I think we should highlight Henrik’s role in Magnus’
development was somewhat exceptional, I think.

I remember how amazed I was that I saw that Henrik was
standing behind, and it was clear that whatever Magnus wanted he was around to
help him out and be there, just there where he was expected to be for Magnus.
It’s such an amazing human relationship between a father and son, that even
today I think somehow Henrik feels so much what is the proportion that he has
to be around, and when he’s not…

Kramnik: It’s a
unique setting, because on top of it it’s very important that there’s a lot of
support from people who are around you, they give all their time, all their
soul, there is a big team which is working for him, not only chesswise, but
managers and you’re taken care off.

Polgar: But this
is only for the last few years. When he was a kid – because I saw parents and
of course my parents were like that that they were so supportive that they were
giving the direction for me, which direction to go, they were helping out who
to work with, which tournaments to play in, and so on. In most of the cases
parents would somehow like to give the guidelines to the kids and sometimes
pushing it more than they should and sometimes they are just giving good
directions, but still usually they are much stronger characters from the point
of view to push which way to go, who to hire for training. And with Magnus,
what I felt was that his father Henrik was really there watching his thoughts
and trying to understand every thought of Magnus, and try to figure out, but it
was always Magnus who directed the directions and then he just put in the small
things, or bigger things, or things which seemed to be small from outside, but
it was essential for Magnus to develop the way he did.

Kramnik: All in
all it’s a unique setup, of incredible talent, incredible personal qualities
like nerve system, physical etc. etc. and a fantastic setup of people around
who are doing, I guess, a very good job to make him realise his full potential.
So of course that happens very rarely, and that’s why we see such a unique

I’m sure that in the history of chess he will stay as a very huge
figure, if not the major figure, and we now, when we live and even play
with this person, watch his games, we maybe don’t measure the scale of his
achievements and talent, and frankly it is huge, absolutely huge.

Polgar: And now
he’s in a very good period of his life, I think, we can see him being happy,
being smooth, he’s visiting us every day practically, so you can see that he’s
in a very good state. I remember when I was commentating on the last World Championship
match between him and Fabiano, he was kind of struggling quite a bit and he had
a very difficult period of time, I believe, and it was very hard to explain
some of the mistakes he did, it was a huge struggle for him, you could
understand it. And he tried, he tried, he tried, and for sure he worked a lot,
and probably not less than before, but sometimes you get into such a crisis and
I think that was a huge victory for him, maybe one of the most difficult World
Championship titles.

That was very special, and of course the last game where he
made a draw, if you remember, that he had a very nice position and he agreed to
a draw
, and it was an exceptionally interesting decision by him. He had to have
such self-confidence and know what he’s doing, and I think maybe his coaches
were not aware of it and I’m not sure his coach Nielsen was happy about it, but
it was very clear that he has this very clear vision of what he wants and he
goes accordingly, and actually he was right, looking back.

Kramnik: It
depends! I still believe it was a mistake. I was very critical about it, and I
still am, absolutely not from the sportive point of view. But ok, of course
it’s his decision, and I think that even if you win it’s still not right, in my
personal opinion. 

Let’s put it this way, I wouldn’t have done it, for sure, in
any situation. Even if I know I’m going to win the tiebreak, because it’s
something different than chess. 

Anyway, of course it’s his life, his decision,
but it’s quite clear than he had a certain difficult period and… but we all
have, everybody does, so I also know, I guess you too, Judit, that during your
career you have some periods when just you don’t feel right, something is not
right, and you don’t know what, but then, at least with me always, there was
some moment when the new period was coming, when all of a sudden, also without
any very big reasons, you start again to feel back in your shoes.

Polgar: But for
him it was something that there was too much at stake, and I think obviously he’s
a character and he’s a player, and that’s one of the reasons of his success,
that he can always challenge himself, he always wants to improve, and he
desperately loves to win.

Kramnik: That’s a
problem, yes!

Polgar: And in
this situation I think he just simply assessed the situation, what it is, and
he realised before the game that the best chance I have is if I make a draw,
whatever happens, and my mind is already switched to the playoff. Even though I
don’t think he was happy to win the World Championship title in a playoff, but he
said, ok, it’s still better to win in a playoff than not to win.

Kramnik: I don’t
think he was risking anything! It’s more a philosophical issue. I can tell you
why I was very critical. Ok, who am I to criticise? He has a right to do what
he is doing, but I felt I have a right to tell what I think.    

It’s a more anthropological issue, philosophical, if you
want. It’s about basically… how to say, you get challenges in life sometimes,
and those challenges are sometimes very difficult, and I feel like sometimes
life challenges you and you just have to go through it. 

It’s like your
obligation, you’re obliged morally if you’re in this situation, it’s like a
test for you, and sometimes it ends badly, but my feeling is that sometimes
life puts you before a wall and tells you, ok, now you fight, now you show
what you do, and that is the situation. Last round, ok, he’s better, actually
risk-free, and millions of people watching, and for me I would feel like, “Ok,
it’s a test”. If I’m the champion, if I feel I’m a real champion, a big
champion, of course – Magnus is, of course, and it’s just my perception – I
have to do it, even if I shouldn’t pragmatically. But it’s like, ok, even if I
know that doing the other way around would maybe be pragmatically better… But
ok, maybe I’m strange and old-fashioned. I don’t insist, but it’s just my point
of view.

Polgar: I think
it was a very interesting situation, and of course I understood in some ways,
but I completely understood the critics of that. I remember I was also kind of
having absolutely mixed feelings, but at the same time we can’t deny that we
have an exemplary World Champion for different reasons, and actually even in
such a difficult situation that he’s in now, he just went to the confessional
booth, and we have a quick translation from that.

Kramnik: Excellent!

Polgar: So let me
read it for you and for our audience. He said:

“I think now that Stockfish is in the preparations every
day. I knew h4 was the critical move there, but I messed up immediately, like a
dyslexic, in the various positions. I see a lot of things, but can’t quite put
it together. I think when I played Na5 I may have underestimated his plan with
g4 a bit. g4 now looks really, really dangerous.”

But actually we have h5 on the board!

“The only thing I can imagine playing is Qb6, I think, and
take back with the king on f6. But it won’t be the most surprising thing in the
world if he has something planned. We’ll see! If he can’t break through
immediately I may be doing ok.”

So what a guy! What a World Champion, he’s suffering here,
he’s going to get in time trouble – right now exactly he has one hour less than
Fabiano, and he spends time to entertain us and the audience, to share his

Kramnik: But
sometimes it actually helps, when you’re tense and you have a lot of emotions,
lots of ideas of how you can play and what your opponent can do, and sometimes
in this tense situation it might be even easier.

Polgar: You let
it out!

Kramnik: You get
rid of it. You get rid of this steam which is boiling there.

Polgar: But I
think it’s simply a beautiful idea to have the confessional booth. It’s an
option, it’s an alternative for the players – if they feel like it they can
share, it’s definitely great entertainment and spice to the game, for the
commentators, for us, and for the audience. But h5 was played, when probably it
seemed like maybe he was more afraid of g4.

Kramnik: So yes,
g4 was your move, h5 was my move, so you are Magnus Carlsen and I am Fabiano

Polgar: I
wouldn’t be ashamed of either, to replace the world no. 1 or the world no. 2! 

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