Sun. Dec 16th, 2018

A Strategic Analysis Of Trent Alexander-Arnold’s Chess Match With Magnus Carlsen

The young Liverpool fullback challenged the defending World Champion to a friendly game. It went about as well as you’d expect.

(BBC Merseyside)

There really should be a complicated German word for the odd feeling that happens when several of your interests smash into each other.

Before checking in with England for international duty, Liverpool fullback Trent Alexander-Arnold sat down for one of the toughest tests of his young life— a chess match against the defending World Champion, Norwegian GM Magnus Carlsen.

Alexander-Arnold, who celebrated his 20th birthday on Sunday by helping grind out a goalless draw at home against Manchester City, is an enthusiastic amateur chess player. Having learned the game from his dad as a kid, his most frequent opponent these days is teammate Ben Woodburn, who often play each other on their phones while travelling for away fixtures.

Carlsen, ranked #1 in the world with a rating of 2839 (as of press time), is in London promoting the upcoming FIDE World Championship match, in which he will defend his title against American sensation GM Fabiano Caruana. As the World Champion— and as someone with a bit of charisma and media savvy, a somewhat uncommon trait among elite chess players— Carlsen is often asked to play exhibition games against famous non-chess people. One notable example was his game against Microsoft founder Bill Gates, in which Carlsen won in nine moves.

Needless to say, this was a once-in-a-lifetime experience for Alexander-Arnold.

The Liverpool defender had a bit of help for his game in the form of expert advice from two young British chess prodigies— 12-year-old Kyan Bui and 9-year-old Shreyas Royal, the latter being a FIDE Candidate Master with a current rating of 2114. (Pardon me, I have to go ponder my inadequacy AND  mortality for a few moments.)

Alexander-Arnold was also given time odds, where he had five minutes to complete all his moves while Carlsen only had one minute.

Even so, Carlsen managed to win handily in just 17 moves. To Alexander-Arnold’s credit, that’s a pretty good showing against the reigning World Champion. Grandmasters have wilted in less time. (Certainly he fared better than Gates did.)

Below is the full game in interactive embeddable form, courtesy of Lichess.org, along with my haphazard attempt at analysis of the match.

  1. e4

Probably the most common opening move in the game— and with good reason. It establishes a presence in the center of the board and provides an outlet for several pieces to develop, both of which are key principles in the early part of a game.

  1. …d6

I got really excited when Alexander-Arnold played this move. It seems a bit passive— surrendering control of the center to White as it does— but it can prove quite deadly in the right hands. It’s primarily known as the first move in the Pirc Defense, but can also mark the beginning of the Black Lion opening— both of which I like to play with the Black pieces in tournaments, hence my excitement.

  1. d4

Making the most of Black’s acquiescence of the center.

  1. …Nf6

Attacking White’s pawn on e4 and threatening an incursion into opposition territory.

  1. Nc3

Defending the pawn and developing a piece. Solid.

  1. …Bd7

Definitely a curious choice here by Trent. A better move might have been …Nbd7.

  1. e5

Posing the question to the knight on f6.

  1. …Ng8

Retreating back to its home square, thereby yielding a lot of ground to White and losing precious time. Carlsen definitely has momentum here.

  1. f4

It would’ve been tempting to push the pawn further (perhaps sacrificing it in order to break Black’s kingside structure) or taking on d6. Instead he chose to solidify his position, reinforcing his hold on the space in Black’s defensive half and cramping his opponent.

  1. …Be6

In general you don’t want to have to move the same piece twice in the opening. Alexander-Arnold has done that with TWO different pieces! Definitely not his best work.

  1. Nf3

Putting more pressure in the center and defending his pawn on e5.

  1. …g6

Perhaps intending to fianchetto his Bishop and try to re-establish a presence in the center.

  1. d5

Attacking the bishop, which has scant few squares to retreat to.

  1. …b6

And Alexander-Arnold completely ignores the threat! He’s in real trouble now!

  1. dxe6

It’s a free bishop. Of course you take it.

  1. …fxe6

Getting some meager compensation for the lost exchange. All it cost him was a bishop and the breakup of his kingside pawn structure.

  1. Ng5

A strong outpost, with the looming threat of Nxe6.

  1. …dxe5

Opening up a central file and offering an exchange of queens. I really didn’t like this move— the only way Alexander-Arnold could’ve played his way back into the game was to engineer opportunities for counterplay, and the queen could’ve been useful for that. Ultimately, Alexander-Arnold needed his queen more than Carlsen needed his.

  1. Qxd8+

Carlsen accepts the offer.

  1. …Kxd8

Black is now down in material, with a busted kingside position, the king is exposed, and can no longer castle. By any objective measure, the World Champion is just crushing Alexander-Arnold.

  1. Nf7+

A strong enough idea, winning a rook for free and pressing his advantage. However, Nxe6+ might’ve been a better move.

  1. …Kd7

Better would’ve been Ke8, but Alexander-Arnold has taken every basic principle of chess and lit it on fire at this point, so, YOLO I guess.

  1. Nxh8

White is now up a rook and a bishop, albeit down a pawn as well. If you want to say something nice about Black, you could note that White is still behind in developing his pieces. But barring some massive blunder, there’s just no way Black can realistically come back from this.

  1. …Bg7

Attacking the knight and putting pressure on a long diagonal. Would’ve been more useful like eight moves ago but ¯_(ツ)_/¯.

  1. Nf7

Getting out of the bishop’s way while still exuding menace in enemy territory.

  1. …Kc8

Sure, why not.

  1. Bc4

Threatening Bxe6+ and forcing the Black king to stay on the run.

  1. …Kd7

Protecting the pawn on e6. If White can get a couple more pieces into the action it’ll be lights out for Black very soon.

  1. Bg5

Piling up on e6 and threatening to win even more material.

  1. …Nc6

Does nothing to address the threat.

  1. Bxe6+

Black’s only hope to stay alive is to run back to the eighth rank, with either Kd8 or Ke8. Even then, he’s still in a lot of trouble.

  1. …Kd6

I never thought I would get to write this for this particular outlet in regards to anything other than soccer, but… what a howler!

  1. Nce4#

Ballgame.

This is an analysis of the game by open source chess engine Stockfish, in convenient line graph form. That big spike was 7. …b4, the crucial moment in the match.

Still, well done to Alexander-Arnold for squaring up to the World Champion. He’s surely braver than I am.


 

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