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Winning the Magnus Carlsen Invitational: Behind the Moves with Anish Giri

Chess Grandmaster and Optiver brand ambassador Anish Giri won the 2021 Magnus Carlsen Invitational, defeating Ian Nepomniachtchi in the playoff. Optiver software engineer and chess enthusiast Martin Wolf interviewed Anish after his triumph.

Congratulations on winning the tournament! While watching the games, there was a sense of deja vu with the Tata Steel tournament earlier this year: you took an early lead, but ended up in a shared first place after the last “normal” game, so the final winner was decided by blitz games. Unfortunately, in the Tata Steel tournament, you lost the final tiebreaker game; this time you won both blitz games convincingly. Is there anything in particular you can attribute your success in the tiebreaker round to in this tournament?

True, things go often down to the wire and tiebreaks are a common occurrence. I believe both, myself and my opponents are so experienced at this point, that the final straw is usually just a matter of having the luck on your side and of course keeping the head cool to be right there to use the chances you get.

That was a lot of Najdorfs in your games against Nepomniachtchi in the finals. And then in the final game he decided to shake things up with the relatively uncommon 1. b3, which you defeated convincingly. Were you happy when your opponent opened that game with what is generally regarded as a second-tier opening, or were you worried that he may have something nasty in store for you?

Indeed, the match was very exciting from the openings point of view, as we had played a lot of Sicilians, with me defending the Najdorf and Ian the Taimanov Sicilian. Ian has actually played the offbeat 1.b3 a lot in blitz over the last couple of years, so it didn’t come as a shocker. A dangerous idea in the Najdorf would have been more challenging to face, without a doubt, but it is not so easy to find it on demand and Ian didn’t have much time before that blitz game. In the end I think he decided to take the gloves off and fight without any element of preparation, which often makes sense.

Now of course the next big event is going to be the Candidates tournament, resuming in April given the cancellation last year, with the winner getting to challenge Magnus Carlsen for the World Champion title. You already faced several of your biggest opponents in the Candidates, in this tournament, and you defeated all of them, including Carlsen himself. So how do you rate your chances?

If we were to start the Candidates from scratch, I would be even more optimistic. Now I am still a point behind Maxime Vachier-Lagrave and Ian (who seems to be in a fine shape lately, despite losing the final narrowly). I think it will largely depend on how things start. If the leaders start well, it is going to be hard, at the same time if I get a fortunate start, I will be back in the mix.

There was a lot of speculation in the usual chess forums, that the players in the Carlsen Invitational would be holding back their best “prep” for the Candidates. Was that an issue for you? Do you think it was an issue for the other players? Can we expect the players in April to be springing a lot of new novelties onto each other?

These days it is really rare to come up with a new idea that brings you a big advantage, as the opponents are also well prepared and by now they know to avoid the main pitfalls. The preparation is a lot more about choosing a battlefield where you are more comfortable than your opponent and picking something that the opponent didn’t expect before the game. I don’t expect any giant Kasparov-like opening bombs, but I do expect players to come up with a lot of surprises. I don’t know whether Carlsen Invitational’s information is helpful or not, it is like poker-games, you know that they know that you know etc.

In the final weeks before the Candidates, what does your daily life look like? Presumably you already spend a lot of your time studying chess, so are you doing anything different now, or just more intensively? Are you spending every waking hour studying, or also taking time to take a break and clear your head? Any tips in case one of us might find ourselves preparing for a chess world championship some day?

One can prepare forever, it is a limitless road to perfection and one can find endless new ideas in chess. What I feel is important for me now, is to find time to recharge. Taking a small break at the right moment is key. That would probably be my tip, as I have no doubt – passion and hard work is something we all are too familiar with.


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