Blood from stone. Slow strangulation. Positional mastery. Journalists were left reaching for the dominant cliches in trying to describe Magnus Carlsen’s ability to squeeze a win out of passive, quasi-drawn positions after the challenger broke the deadlock at the World Championship with a win in game five against Viswanathan Anand.
Almost all the details of the win came from the Carlsen manual — an opening choice that avoided theoretical battles, long-drawn positional struggles in the middlegame, and an endgame that required extremely precise defending under pressure over improbably long stretches. Before the match began, it was understood that the nature of the game would have a big bearing on who among Anand or Carlsen would have the better chances of winning it. Anand is better at handling shorter, double-edged games while Carlsen is more at home in longer games involving passive positions. Until Friday, the games had either been short and passive (games one and two) or long and dynamic (three and four), and the players had been unable to break through. Game five, though, was played on Carlsen’s terms and Anand paid the price for his strategic naivety.
Carlsen began with 1. c4 (English opening), a variation from 1. Nf3 (the Reti system), which he had employed with white in games one and three. It may have been a different choice of opening, but was still principled. Carlsen had been looking to avoid the traditional king (1. e4) and queen pawn (1. d4) openings against Anand and the flank attack of the English system in game five was consistent with what he had tried earlier.
Further, unlike the 1. e4 and 1. d4 systems, 1. c4 has not been as extensively studied over the years and the fact that it allows for transpositions (again, like the Reti complex) meant it required a lot of over-the-board decision making, annulling Anand’s experience in the more traditional opening systems. Here, the opening transposed to a Queen’s Gambit Semi-Slav structure.
At the end of the opening phase, Carlsen came out with a minimal advantage; the position may even have been level. Still, it was a success for Carlsen in the sense that the middle game it led up to was exactly the kind he thrives in. Black had a few static weaknesses -- four pawn islands as compared to white’s three and a weaker light-squared bishop. Carlsen brought his forces to bear on these pressure points,