Magnus Carlsen: the Mozart of the chess board

The 2018 chess World Championship finished this week with Magnus Carlsen retaining his title, and with it his reputation as one of the greatest chess players of all time.

The handshake with which Fabiano Caruana conceded defeat in the final game of the match

Before the match began, expanding on a throw-away remark by the challenger Fabiano Caruana at the pre-match press conference, I compared Caruana’s style of play with hip hop music. Caruana was responding to a journalist who repeated a well-worn comparison of Carlsen with Mozart. So, was the 2018 title match indeed a victory for Mozart over Kendrick Lamar?

When did Magnus play like Mozart?

The match will probably be most remembered for two individual moments, both of them in endgames, and both undoubtedly destined to feature in future manuals of endgame technique. One was the extraordinary ‘fortress’ that Magnus Carlsen constructed in Game 9, when he deftly arranged his weaker forces so that the challenger could extract no more than a draw from a position in which he had two pieces and one pawn against Carlsen’s one piece and two pawns.

The other moment is truly Mozartian in its elegance and brilliance, though. It is the single move that effectively won the match and confirmed Magnus Carlsen as World Champion. All twelve of the standard length match games were drawn — a feat unprecedented in the history of the chess World Championship — which meant that the match was to be decided in a series of four ‘rapid’ games, in which each player had only twenty-five minutes on their clock, with an extra ten seconds added after each move. In the first game, Carlsen had the white pieces, and he brought about an endgame with one rook remaining on each side, and an advantage of one extra pawn for White — a definite advantage, but not enough necessarily to win. Carlsen allowed Caruana to capture the extra pawn, in order to bring about the following position at move 37. The analysis that follows owes a lot to the excellent coverage of the match by Grandmaster Daniel King (@DanielKingChess).

White to move. What would you play?

In this position, Carlsen did not do what I (and probably more than 99% of all chess players) would have done, and take the pawn on g7 with his rook [R x KKt7]. If he had done so, Caruana could have  obtained a draw by giving check to Carlsen’s king with Ra2+ [R-QR7 check], and after the king retreats to h3 [K-KR3], the black king comes to f3 [K-KB6] and draws because of the threat of checkmate (White must prevent Ra1 followed by Rh1 [R-QR8 and R-KR8]).

Instead, and with almost no time to pause and think, Carlsen played a move of stunning, truly Mozartian elegance.

White plays 37.Re7+!! [R-K7 check!!]

For me, this is not only the move that effectively won the match, but it is truly the move of a World Champion. Black is forced to take the pawn on f5 [K x KB4] before White takes the pawn on g7, with the result that the white king can no longer be trapped.  Carlsen did indeed go on to win. Caruana must have been devastated; forced to press for victory at any cost, he lost both the next two games and Carlsen took the tie-break match 3-0.

This moment shows just how complex and difficult endgames can be, despite their apparent and deceptive simplicity. Magnus Carlsen’s ability to spot the only winning move, and the fact that it is what looks like a harmless and inessential move, shows why the comparison with Mozart is fully justified.

When did Mozart play like Magnus?

Perhaps the most appropriate comparison should be of Carlsen’s play with a piece written by Mozart at exactly the same age (Carlsen retained his title two days before his twenty-eighth birthday). Even better, Mozart’s piece is also an example of ‘rapid’ play, since it is a symphony he wrote in just four days.

In 1783, the twenty-seven year old Mozart and his wife Constanze were returning to Vienna from Salzburg where they had been visiting Mozart’s father. Leopold Mozart had disapproved of the marriage, but had been partially assuaged by the fact that they had named their newly-born first child after him. On the way home, they stopped at Linz, to stay at the castle of Count Thun, the local aristocrat, whose wife was a patron of Mozart’s in Vienna. To Mozart’s surprise, the Count had already advertised a concert to be given by his court orchestra on the following Saturday (four days after their arrival), to be conducted by Mozart and featuring a new work by him. Mozart wrote back to his father, “I have no music with me, and so am having to write a symphony at top speed”.

Whether Mozart was able to remember and reconstruct a symphony he had been working on in Vienna, or whether he really did compose Symphony 36 (the ‘Linz’) entirely from scratch in those four days, we cannot be sure; but he did indeed conduct the new work on the Saturday, and it is a masterpiece.

Magnus Carlsen’s moment of brilliance came towards the end of his game, so I shall choose a moment of brilliance from the last movement of the symphony.

The moment in question is the following sequence of little three-note motifs:

Mozart, Symphony No. 36 ‘Linz’, K425, last movement (presto), bars 308-311

These are so simple, so unassuming. But they are also extremely memorable. Whether it is the slightly off-beat nature of the rhythm, or the subtle difference between the second group, which alternates two notes, and the others, which go in step, I cannot be sure. But these four bars, which are not important in the sense of being a main theme in the movement, are nevertheless the moment that sticks in my mind after I hear the work, and the moment I look forward to before it begins. As Roland Barthes might say, this is the moment in which I as a listener do not just take pleasure [plaisir], but find bliss [jouissance] (read Le plaisir du texte if you want to know more on that score).

These little groups of three notes grow out of motifs in the first subject:

And also the second subject:

And by the end of the movement, you hear ghosts of these three-note groups everywhere:

Perhaps the most delightful thing about them, though, is the way that Mozart deploys them when they occur. While many composers might use little motifs of this sort, it takes a Mozart — a World Champion of classical composition — to recognise how ideally they work in counterpoint. With a sureness of touch very like Magnus Carlsen’s incredible ability to think in several divergent lines simultaneously — I compared chess logic to counterpoint in Reti and Bach: four-piece counterpoint  — Mozart passes these motifs in turn from the top of the orchestra to the bottom:

This looks simple enough on the page. But the effect is astonishing, and the judgment it displays is truly brilliant. When you listen to it in a moment, you can hear how Mozart follows this passage with further wonderful contrapuntal work for these three-note motifs as they accompany the main themes of the movement.

So, why does this little bit of Mozart remind me of Magnus Carlsen’s endgame brilliancy? Like Carlsen’s move, these little motifs seem inessential; they are almost a passing detail. But in fact, they are so embedded in the texture of the movement that they seem to grow naturally from its main themes, and infect every part of what follows. Similarly, the opportunity for Carlsen’s brilliancy was created by his superb judgment earlier in the game — he used nine of his twenty-five available minutes considering just one move (the twenty-seventh), after which he steered the game into this endgame — and it is the one moment that makes sense of every other move he played.

Here is a performance of the last movement of the Linz Symphony, with the sort of graphics that appeal to me. You get to hear the motifs I have been talking about three times, at 0′ 57″, 3′ 00″, and 6′ 00″. Sit back and enjoy brilliance such as we are seldom privileged to witness.


Author: Robert Samuels

I teach music for The Open University and play chess for Cowley Chess Club in the Oxfordshire Chess League.

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