Features Dec 6, 2016 | 8:10 AMby chess24 staff

A psychologist analyses Carlsen-Karjakin

After the end of the World Championship match, Spanish sports psychologist Carlos Martínez sent us his detailed analysis of the encounter. Carlos, like many others, highlighted the importance of the psychological struggle at difference stages of the match and gave us his assessment of some of the strong and weak points of both Magnus Carlsen and Sergey Karjakin.

There were tough moments in New York for World Champion Magnus Carlsen | photo: Anastasia Karlovich, FIDE


Carlsen has always stood out as a player who seeks to win in every position. Even if the positions he reaches often look innocuous, he constantly manages to apply pressure to his opponents who, more often that not, are unable to retain their balance and end up committing a mistake. And with Magnus a mistake is almost always synonymous with defeat. Karjakin, however, demonstrated that he'd come well-prepared to the World Championship and knew perfectly what he had to do: to defend as no-one else in the world can, so that the pressure of failing to win would begin to weigh on Magnus.

Turning points

1.      Games 3 and 4. Magnus was clearly well on top in both games (winning, in fact) but he couldn't find a way to finish off his opponent and pick up the full point.

2.      Game 8. Magnus provoked Sergey on various occasions, attempting to get the game onto "his" territory, but the Russian kept implacably following his own strategy. Magnus continued to press and failed to sense the coming danger. By the time he tried to pull the emergency brake it was too late and Karjakin had already scored the first point of the match.  

With 24.bxc4 Magnus compromised his pawn structure in exchange for retaining some activity

3.      Rest day after the loss. I think this rest day is one of the psychological keys to the World Championship. Although we'll never know what would have happened, a game immediately after the defeat might have led to Carlsen pressing and taking more risks in order to level the score immediately, which, given how Karjakin was playing, might have backfired against the Norwegian. The rest day no doubt allowed Magnus to release his rage and frustration over the lost point and face the rest of the match with a new outlook.

Spanish no. 1 Paco Vallejo disagreed

4.      Game 9. Magnus was on the verge of getting knocked out but managed to survive.

5.      Game 10. A win for Carlsen. Karjakin failed to spot that his opponent had allowed a line that would have forced an early draw.  From that point onwards Magnus seized the initiative and won an excellent victory in his trademark style - giving his opponent no chances and little by little building on small advantages until he broke through to win.

20...Nxf2 would have forced a draw, leaving Karjakin a point ahead with only two games to go

The World Champion: Magnus Carlsen

Three factors can be cited as essential to Magnus' victory:

1.      Unwavering confidence. He was looking to win in every position (you could leave out only the final game) and constantly fought to break down the steely defence of his opponent. Despite having let won positions slip in a way he never usually does, he kept trying to pose maximum problems to Karjakin, fully confident in his ability (regardless of his opponent).

2.      Resilience. This concept, so popular nowadays in psychology (the capacity to respond to adverse situations) can perfectly explain another of the characteristics demonstrated by the Norwegian over the course of the match: in various moments he had to overcome problematic situations, such as failing to finish off a won game or losing a game in which he hadn't been in danger until he destabilised matters. Magnus managed to respond impressively, always demonstrating reserves of energy.

Carlsen managed to mount a comeback | photo: Anastasia Karlovich, FIDE

3.      Human. This refers to those moments where we saw the World Champion out of sorts, such as when he stormed out of the press conference. 

Of course it's an ugly gesture, but it has to be understood in context and, far from trying to justify or apportion blame, I'm highlighting this moment since it shows anger and frustration at having lost after so many failures to win. What's important, as in life, is not what has happened but what you're going to do about it from that point onward. And although Magnus was overwhelmed by emotions he found a way to manage and get beyond that moment.

Sergey Karjakin - a great challenger

Despite the fact that Karjakin lost the match, he demonstrated a very high level and often looked more like a champion than a challenger. I'd like to point out his:

1.      Emotional control. Karjakin's ability to withstand the pressure of the match, not losing his calm but controlling his emotions in difficult situations, was one of the critical factors of the match.

Karjakin's sangfroid was, once again, one of his main weapons | photo: Anastasia Karlovich, FIDE

2.      Infinite resistance. This theory, proposed by FM Bill Jordan, refers to the ability to defend a position for an unlimited length of time, and couldn't have a better model than Karjakin. When he found himself in situations that most players would have struggled to hold for a few moves, he found truly stunning defences and was willing to suffer for hours until he got his chance.

3.      Following a strategy. This is the final ability that we'd like to stress with Karjakin, since he remained faithful to the strategy adopted by himself and his team and in no circumstances deviated from it. They managed to grasp the ways in which they could triumph in the match, both on account of Karjakin's potential and the possible weakness of Magnus. That ability to set out a plan and follow it, without getting distracted by other factors, is truly noteworthy, and came very close to unsettling the World Champion enough to achieve victory.

Aspects to improve

Are there any weak points that we could detect during the match in either player?

Although we're talking about exceptional players who compete at a stratospheric level I'll dare to highlight one factor in each player (at the risk of being lynched, even by myself):

At certain points in the games Carlsen seems to have been unable to control his ambition to win and demonstrate his superiority. That lack of control was a liability and might have cost him the title (after the loss in Game 8 his fans could fear the worst). It may turn out that emotional and mental control is one area in which Magnus can still improve.

In purely chess terms, Carlsen was very well-prepared, with Nielsen, MVL, Fressinet, Grandelius, Shankland and now Radio Jan all outed as his seconds... (unless they just liked Norway in November)

Karjakin, in turn, demonstrated a certain lack of ambition in some moments of the match, when he could have made the World Champion suffer more. It's possible that in the near future this match might be repeated, and in that case Sergey will have to play with more energy in key moments in order to be able to get the better of his opponent.

Karjakin is getting used to stardom, here kicking off a match for Spartak Moscow yesterday

See also:

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