In an excellent feature on Magnus Carlsen in the Telegraph, Nigel Farndale writes:
He [Carlsen] has always been interested in the history of chess and has had the chance to play both Karpov and Kasparov, two legends of the game. But if he could play anyone in history who would it be? ‘I think the top ones would be Fischer and Capablanca, maybe Mikhail Tal, but I think I would beat Tal pretty easily. Fischer would be more difficult, but I think I could beat him too.’
Carlsen isn’t being arrogant, just honest. And here’s the thing: he’s unquestionably right. Chess is actually that one sport where the best player of the current generation is likely to be the best ever in objective terms. That is because the body of knowledge expands enormously with every generation, as do the tools of analysis (and therefore preparation). If Fischer at his 1972 peak met the Carlsen of today, he would be bound to lose. Indeed, I believe he would lose to some other top players as well, such as Caruana and Nakamura, simply because they’d be much better prepped. Of course, if Fischer was born in the same year as Carlsen, it could be a different story. But that’s a counterfactual, and all we have to go by is the games they actually played. So Carlsen is right.
I think when he doesn’t speak of Kasparov, he’s just being respectful. Kasparov coached him at one point, and bumps into Carlsen now and then as a grandee in the chess circuit, and Carslen would want to avoid awkwardness. But I have no doubt he believes he can beat Kasparov as well.
We will find out in March which of eight contenders takes on Carlsen for the World Championship later next year. Whoever it is, Carlsen will be favourite to win. But he does, according to me, have one weakness: his tendency, in poker terms, to go on tilt. Here’s an old piece I wrote about it, though Anand sadly could not capitalise.
And ah, Farndale also writes in his piece:
For someone who exhibits phenomenal powers of concentration at the chessboard – he is capable of calculating ‘lines’ that are 30 to 40 moves ahead – Magnus Carlsen is easily bored.
I hate to quibble, but Farndale is wrong here. No human can actually calculate 30 to 40 moves ahead accurately. In fact, as a famous study once demonstrated, experts actually calculate the same number of moves ahead as novices do—but they calculate the right ones. This is not a glib remark: grandmasters have a far wider understanding of recurring patterns on the chess board and motifs than lesser players do, and this knowledge is implicit, their responses to it instinctive. So a top GM would not even consider some lines a lesser IM might, and an IM would instantly see things on the board that would escape me completely. But we’d all see the same number of moves ahead!