Jonathan Zalman recaps the first eight games of the world championship match.By JONATHAN ZALMAN Nov. 22, 2016 2:59 p.m. ET 14 COMMENTS
The showdown between World Champion Magnus Carlsen and Russian challenger Sergey Karjakin was billed as the most anticipated chess match in decades. Not only would the World Championship take place stateside for the first time in 21 years, it featured a sometimes brash, often charismatic two-time defending champion from Norway versus a defensive-minded underdog.
Who would win this epic battle of East vs. West? For 11 days, the answer to that question was apparently no one.
The pair played to seven straight draws to open their best-of-12 match taking place in lower Manhattan. But on Monday, there was finally a breakthrough.
In Game 8, Karjakin scored the first win and took a big step in his quest to unseat Carlsen. Few anticipated the Russian to be the one to draw first blood, especially while playing with black. “It’s much better to play well than to play white,” he said afterward.
It’s entirely common for chess games of the highest caliber to end in a draw, when both players agree that the position on the board is unwinnable for either side, resulting in a half point for each competitor. And before Karjakin’s win, the streak of seven drawn games to begin a World Chess Championship was nearly a record: In 1995, Garry Kasparov and Viswanathan Anand opened their Classical title match atop the World Trade Center with eight straight draws.
Maybe it’s something in the autumn air of New York City. Or maybe it’s pure mathematics.
In official, head-to-head world chess championships, beginning in 1886, 954 title games have been played, including tie-breaks, with 526 of them resulting in draws, for about a 55% draw rate across various match formats. In Carlsen’s first championship title win in 2013, he drew 70% of his games with Anand, losing none. A year later, Carlsen accomplished a near exact end result, but this time with one loss in the mix.
One main reason for such frequency in draws at the top level is the sheer depth of information available to players—thousands upon thousands of games throughout history whose opening, middle, and endgame patterns and strategies have become cemented into the memories of top grandmasters. Computer technology, of course, has democratized much of this knowledge, which has translated into more objective chess; calculations are precise.
“Chess engines have entered our world—we train with them, we learn from them,” said Susan Polgar, a Hungarian-American grandmaster and coach of the No. 1-ranked college chess team at Webster University in Missouri. “On the opening, sometimes the preparation goes as deep as 20, 25, 30 (moves), or even further.”
Polgar also points to a long set departure from the playing styles of masters from the “Golden Era of Chess,” greats like Paul Morphy and Adolf Anderssen who executed brilliant sacrificial strategies. “The defensive skills are so much more refined now,” she said.
“Chess, by definition, is a drawn game,” said Polgar. “If both sides play perfectly, it’s an equal game. In order for either side to win, the other side must make a big mistake or multiple smaller mistakes. We have perfected the game in a way.”
Neither Carlsen nor Karjakin have thus far played perfectly, and neither player had broken through before Karjakin’s win on Monday night. The people, despite seven hard-fought games, wanteddecisive action and bloodshed, and they got it. Karjakin leads 4.5-3.5, and is two points away from becoming the World Chess Champion.
If you are just bringing yourself up-to-speed, here’s a breakdown of how the first eight matches played out:
Game 1, which took four hours and 42 moves before it was drawn after repetition, was perhaps most notable for Carlsen’s opening attack called the Trompowsky. When asked if there was something behind his choice, as it occurred just three days after the U.S. election, Carlsen said, “I wanted to get an unusual position.” When pressed, and asked if it was perhaps a nod to Donald Trump, Carlsen, joked, “a little bit.” Game 2 lasted three hours and the players agreed to a draw after 33 moves. Essentially, the grandmasters were feeling each other out.
Games 3, 4, and 5 injected the championship with an air of possibility, as both players appeared to have winning chances.
Carlsen had the white pieces in Game 3, a six-hour-plus affair. Here, in the graphic below, is a critical sequence in the match during which Karjakin needlessly pushed his pawn to c5 (move 31), rather than sitting pat in his defensive position, or moving his bishop.
Seeing an opening, Carlsen moved his rook to g8, simultaneously attacking Karjakin’s bishop on f8. The move forced black’s king to protect the bishop and move away from protecting the pawnon f5. With the threat in place, Carlsen retreated his rook back to g2, thereby protecting his pawn on c2, which freed his knight from its job and allowed it to capture black’s pawn on f5. Karjakin then pushed his pawn to d3 to ruin Carlsen’s pawn structure, and Carlsen captured it. Though he increased his edge into the endgame, the World Champion was unable to turn this pawn advantage into a win after 78 moves.
After the game, Carlsen asked his challenger. “Did you see a win for me?”
“No, but it was very close,” said Karjakin.
Game 4 was a torturous, 94-move battle that lasted 6.5 hours. Here, below is a blunder by Karjakin, playing with the white pieces. But for the second straight game, the Russian’s defensive prowess was able to mollify his inaccuracies.
In move 18, Karjakin, playing white, has ideas to destroy Carlsen’s king’s side by capturing a pawn at h6. After Carlsen’s response of Qc6, which protects his knight on f6 and aims to take control of the center, Karjakin ought to have retreated his bishop back to c1. Instead, he took Carlsen’s knight on c4, and exchanged his bishop, which Carlsen took with his pawn. Then, Karjakin finally pulled his bishop back to e3. Despite black’s ruined queen-side pawn structure with doubled up pawns on the c-file, black now has an opening from which to operate and unopposed control of the light squares. But Karjakin’s defense held.
In Game 5, a five-hour-plus affair, Karjakin, playing black, had the opportunity to seize a promising attack but he missed it—and instead chose to play it safe. This was the first time in the match that Carlsen appeared to be in real trouble—here, in the sequence below
After move 43 when Carlsen takes Karjakin’s pawn with Qxd4, Karjakin could have seized the h-file by moving his rook to h8, causing some discomfort to Carlsen’s king. Instead, Karjakin chose the more conservative move of bishop to d5. In doing so, he actually ceded control of the h-file several moves later— Carlsen was able to move his rook to h2 after his king out was safely out of the way on g3. The players agreed to a draw soon thereafter.
After the match, Carlsen was visibly upset with himself. “I screwed up,” he said. “I was lucky not to lose.”
Two lackluster games followed. Karjakin played with white in Game 6, a very quick draw, and Game 7, another drawn contest. After Game 6, a boy in the audience with black circular glasses asked the grandmasters, “When are you expecting your first win?” Both players chuckled and said they didn’t know.
Then came Monday’s pivotal moment.
In Game 8, Karjakin, playing black, and Carlsen dueled to what appeared to be a draw early on. But in the middlegame, both players entered into what Karjakin would later call a “crazy” position. Carlsen would soon push a bit too much, an otherwise signature and effective strategy of his,and both players soon found themselves in a time crunch. Perpetual check was a possibility. But Karjakin kept finding the best moves and eventually his passed pawn on the a-file, compounded by two Carlsen’s errors, was the difference. Karjakin sealed the victory in the endgame with move 52: pawn to a2.
This is a completely lost position for Carlsen. After white’s queen takes the pawn on a2 (Qxa2), Karjakin would then move his knight to g4, putting Carlsen in check. Carlsen is then forced to move his king to h3 (if he moved to h1, it would soon be checkmate). Then, Karjakin brings his queen to g1. From there, Carlsen will be forced to lose his queen, and the game will be over. So after five hours of play and 52 moves, Carlsen resigned.