Can't take on No.1 by playing safe. Ask Vishy Anand


If you want to take on the No.1 in any sphere, it’s better to be disruptive rather than conservative. That’s a lesson we can draw from the 2013 world chess championship.

Viswanathan Anand was the reigning world champion and Magnus Carlsen the title contender, but in practical terms, it was the other way round. That’s because Carlsen has been No.1 in the world chess ratings for two years now, during which time Anand has never beaten him. In fact, Carlsen’s rating is the highest in chess history.

If Anand had seen himself as the challenger, and not the champion, he might have approached the championship differently. He was probably better off taking more risks, instead of opting for safety play, from the very beginning. But he only did that after falling way behind Carlsen and finding himself in a desperate situation.

The moral of this story for the rest of us is to pay attention to one’s position vis-à-vis a competitor when formulating a business strategy. A challenger is more likely to succeed by upsetting the applecart with disruptive moves, instead of worrying too much about having all the bases covered. It’s a risky approach, and needs to be well thought out – can’t go rushing off into the sea, expecting it to part for us – but being conservative doesn’t cut it. Not unless you are happy to settle for being second best or third best.

As former world champion Garry Kasparov, who mentored Carlsen in his formative years, put it: “Trying to win with tiny advantages in quiet positions against Carlsen is nearly impossible. Even objectively inferior chaos is better.” He was clearly not on Anand’s side, but his words did prove prescient.

In every sphere of business, Kasparov’s remark can be engraved in stone for challenger brands. Trying to beat the No.1 with tiny advantages is impossible. It’s better to create chaos with innovative products and services – or out-of-the-box moves. Now let’s see how this principle played out in the chess world championship at Chennai.

When Anand gave Carlsen a scare

Admirers of Vishwanathan Anand would have been gutted not just by his third loss to Magnus Carlsen, which sealed his fate, but by the manner of it. For a five-time world champion to be on the verge of a possible comeback only to lose abruptly after a simple oversight was sad indeed. But, before he made that silly blunder, Anand also gave the world a glimpse of what had made him a champion in the first place.

Game 9 in the 2013 world chess championship playoff in Chennai was when Anand finally allowed himself to go into an all-out attack. Suddenly Carlsen no longer appeared as unbeatable as he had done in earlier games, and was reduced to responding to what Anand did. To his credit, the young Norwegian went for a counterplay, rather than pure defence, and this ultimately paid off for him, thanks to Anand's blunder under pressure.

Safety first approach

Seeing the exhilarating chess in Game 9 left one wondering why Anand had been so cautious earlier in the championship, and what might have been if he had played in such a risk-taking fashion from the very outset. In the first game of the championship, he quickly opted for a forced draw with repeated moves, which was understandable because Anand opened with black pieces. But in the second, when he had the advantage of white, did he have to bail out when Carlsen surprised him by opting for the Caro Kann defence?

This is not a defence favoured by Carlsen; in fact, Anand has used it more often in the past. And when the Caro Kann was used against Anand earlier this year in April, he demolished Chinese grandmaster Ding Liren in 32 moves.

Carlsen was therefore being the provocateur here, ready to use the same defence that had led to Ding’s downfall. It was obvious to Anand that Carlsen had studied that game and come up with some new lines of play. But he could have waited to see what tricks Carlsen had up his sleeve, but chose to deviate from the line he had used against Ding, exchanged queens and quickly settled for a draw.

Playing into the hands of No.1

In Game 3 too, when Anand did take Carlsen out of his comfort zone into a complicated middle game, Anand appeared to opt for a safer play rather than press home his advantage. Carlsen admitted later that he was relieved to get out of a jam.

Then, from Game 4 onwards, Anand was sucked into playing to Carlsen’s strength – prolonged end games in which the younger player waits for a mistake from a mentally exhausted opponent. Anand escaped with a draw in the fourth, then faltered in the fifth, and blundered into a morale-sapping loss in the sixth.

Two uneventful drawn games followed. Carlsen was happy to maintain his lead. And Anand was content to end the streak of losses, go into a rest day and recoup for Game 9 to come out in attack mode at last.

Reversal of roles

In his early days, Anand was usually the aggressor - the kid who liked to play fast and take risks. Then he settled down to a middle phase of a more controlled aggression, which took him to the pinnacle of world chess. It is after that, in the latter part of his career as world champion, that Anand has been happy to sit back, play a risk-free game and wait for the title contender to come at him. It worked for him in the 2010 world championship when Veselin Topalov got desperate in the 12th and final game after a string of draws, over-reached and lost. Topalov was trying to avoid a tie because Anand is known to have the edge when it comes to the rapid chess of a tie-breaker.

The 2013 championship was different in one crucial respect. Anand was playing a man ranked No.1 in the world, and considered by many to have the potential to be the greatest chess player ever. Anand would have had to play out of his skin and act like the challenger for any chance of toppling this Norwegian wonder from the top of the world rankings. If that had been his mindset, he would have taken more risks from Game 2 itself. On hindsight, it would appear that Anand went into the 2013 championship with too conservative a strategy. He might have lost with a more aggressive strategy too, if Carlsen produced consistently better quality chess, but Anand’s best gameplan was to create lots of complications early on. He may well do that too if they meet again in the 2015 world chess championship final.


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