The New and Improved Magnus Carlsen
Friday, July 19, 2019 at 3:04PM
Dennis Monokroussos in Magnus Carlsen, Tyler Cowen

That is the title of a blog post by economist and chess enthusiast Tyler Cowen (FIDE rating 2230). It's a nice little piece, but I'm a bit skeptical about a couple of Cowen's claims. He says that thinks that Magnus Carlsen is showing up

better prepared in the openings than his opponents, probably for the first time in his career. Yet his preparation has taken an extraordinary spin. Other grandmasters prepare the opening in the hope of achieving an early advantage over their opponents. Magnus's preparation, in contrast, is directed at achieving an early disadvantage in the game, perhaps willing to tolerate as much as -0.5 or -0.6 by the standards of the computer.... Nonetheless these are positions "out of book" where Magnus nonetheless feels he can outplay his opponent, and this is mostly opponents from the world top ten or fifteen.

Cowen is a brilliant guy who does know something about the game, but I think that he's somewhat mistaken. Only in part; he is right that Carlsen is looking for non-mainstream opening ideas that give him play and avoid the opponent's preparation, without caring too much about the engine's evaluation. That is correct...and has been correct for much of the last decade--it isn't new at all. Of course the aim isn't and never has been to get a disadvantage, which would be dopey, but to fly under the opponent's radar as he looks for the engine's top choices.

Second, while this has been a part of his modus operandi, it is not the whole. He has, now and in the past, also looked for lines that give him an objective advantage with White and full equality with Black.

Third, I suspect that Cowen is basing his conclusions in part on a misunderstanding of Carlsen's comments after his game with Ian Nepomniachtchi. Despite some goading by Maurice Ashley, Carlsen made a point of noting that his position wasn't as bad as it looked, and in fact Fabiano Caruana was willing to go for an almost identical position against Viswanathan Anand the next day. It's also forgotten that a -0.5 or so quickie evaluation on our personal computers doesn't mean that that was the evaluation on the super-computers he had access to, before and after long and deep analysis checked by his seconds.

So, there is something to Cowen's conclusions, but they are overstated.

Article originally appeared on The Chess Mind (
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