Magnus Carlsen will play rapid, blitz and potentially Armageddon against Sergey Karjakin to decide the 2016 World Chess Championship after the last classical game of their match ended in a damp squib. The most anticipated game of the last two years lasted barely half an hour and was artificially prolonged by the rule preventing draws before move 30. Magnus clearly believes in his speed chess skills, which he’ll get to test on his 26th birthday this Wednesday.
The match in New York hasn’t always been a thriller, but the failure of either player to break clear – Karjakin came closest in Game 9 – has meant it’s remained hugely tense. Going into the final classical game we had every reason to expect something spectacular, since Magnus had the white pieces and a last chance to avert the potential lottery of tiebreaks. Fans couldn’t wait:
Even our man Peter abandoned his English understatement (secretly, we blame him):
The whole team was ready:
Needless to say, both Norway and Russia were on tenterhooks.
Our favourite outpouring of support for Sergey Karjakin came in the form of an
adorably imperfect mannequin challenge from young students of Alexandra
Kosteniuk’s chess school (the signs can be translated as “Go, Karjakin!”):
It wasn’t just fans or commentators who were talking up the battle, though. Alexander Grischuk described the strategy and what we could expect:
Magnus, judging by yesterday’s game (11), has started to get back to his old self. That was his first top-class game – true, he didn’t have resources to play for a win, but it seems to me he conducted it at his level. Carlsen is the favourite in the final encounter, but perhaps Sergey has a very real chance of catching him out after a mistake. What’s important is for him to approach the game with the necessary mentality, not dreaming only of a draw. To play solidly, but still to keep in mind that he can win.
Carlsen will undoubtedly try to win, but it’s hard to say how he’ll act. I think Sergey has to remember that he can win – he needs to wait for his opponent to give him a chance and then try to exploit it. And he’ll have chances of winning that game, perhaps even bigger ones than of winning on tiebreaks.
All those hopes were soon dashed on the rocks of the Berlin Defence. Magnus chose to repeat his approach in Game 3, but instead of the subtle rook retreat to e2 on move 10 it went back to the standard e1-square, and then apart from a minor move-order nuance the game hurtled its way towards a draw. Afterwards Karjakin tried to talk up how Carlsen had outplayed Kramnik in the same line in the rapid tournament in Leuven earlier this year, but it was clear that Magnus had never in his wildest dreams imagined that Sergey could fall for a similar trick in a World Championship match. Draw in 30 moves and about the same number of minutes.
Peter Svidler drew the short straw and was the commentator who had to recap the game afterwards, though not before he played a Banter Blitz session! (click on the link to watch it):
Here’s his less than hour-long recap:
You can also see how our commentary team fared, with Fiona Steil-Antoni just managing to make an appearance at the end!
The reaction had started even before the game was over:
If we needed a scapegoat Miguel Illescas, a former second of Vladimir Kramnik, was ready to offer himself up as a co-architect of the Berlin Wall:
It was clear who would have to face the music, though, with Karjakin at least having the alibi of the black pieces:
You can watch the full press conference below:
As you’ll see, Magnus wasn’t trying to shy away from the reality:
There isn’t too much to say. Lots of pieces were chopped off and we made a draw. I apologise to fans who might have wanted us to play a longer game, but it was not to be.
He said he “didn’t feel that today was the day to take any major chances” and was just happy with how the classical match had ended:
All I can say is, I was down with three games to go, and so from that point on having a tiebreak is an achievement in itself for me. You cannot be 100% confident before these things, but the situation is much better than it was before. Looking forward to playing at least four more games of chess!
When asked about fan frustration, Magnus made a reasonable point:
I think we’re not at the penalties stage yet. We’re at extra time and I understand that sometimes if both teams are not trying to score in the last minutes of regulation that can be frustrating, but also having extra time is exciting, so I’m not like proud of the game today, but I think there is a trade-off.
It’s true, of course, that many fans were hoping for tiebreaks...
For some the match strategy was hard to grasp, though, with one kid asking perhaps the saddest (in the original meaning of that word) question of the whole match:
Magnus Carlsen, when you did h3, were you thinking of f3 instead?
By that stage, of course, the main concern had been correctly counting to move 30, though Magnus did go on to explain:
Yes, sure. I thought that I should place my pawns on the kingside on light squares. I could have played f3, I could have played h3. Both moves are good, I think.
It seems the most interesting post-game answer from Sergey came when he was speaking to Russian reporters:
Magnus was playing the last game with White and he basically just exchanged off all the pieces and agreed to a draw i.e. playing White, you have a slight advantage, but he didn’t even try to develop that. I don’t want to threaten him like boxers before a round, but I can see a kind of uncertainty in Magnus, because if he’d been in a comfortable situation he would of course have played for a win with White.
The classical match ended with one decisive result apiece in 12 games:
So the match is going to tiebreaks on Wednesday, and just for anyone who missed it, let’s restate the format:
Magnus picked a black pawn during the press conference, meaning he starts the first rapid game with the black pieces.
Both players can claim to specialise in rapid and blitz chess. Magnus has won the last two World Rapid Championships, though Sergey himself became World Rapid Champion back in 2012 in Astana – with a brilliant comeback just when it had seemed Carlsen was guaranteed to win. Carlsen does, of course, feel confident in speed chess, and both our commentators and our regular video contributor Niclas Huschenbeth felt the strategic thinking may have been:
On the other hand, Karjakin, as Carlsen himself noted, has demonstrated nerves of steel in previous events like the World Cup final and the last round of the Candidates Tournament. It’s simply too close to call… plus there’s the birthday factor! Magnus turns 26 on Wednesday, and although he noted he’d scored a win and a draw in World Cups on previous birthdays and said, “it’s always nice to have a birthday”, our commentary team had their doubts during the live commentary:
Peter: People are saying Magnus wants to play some chess on his birthday. I think that actually is probably significantly untrue. I’m pretty sure that particular coincidence is not going to bring him much joy.
Jan: We talked about this before. I’m not sure there’s any empiric data on this, but I believe it’s a disadvantage. People normally don’t perform well on their birthday.
Peter: I think empirical data says that it makes you slightly less favoured to do well on the day.
Jan: Kind of unfair, right. Shouldn’t you be stronger on your birthday?
Peter: I’m not even sure why that is, to be honest. It is a day like any other. Maybe you get distracted a little bit more. Occasionally you get presented with flowers and there’s a small speech made by the arbiters, which I guess is a distraction and maybe even somewhat cringeworthy, depending on how hammy the speech is.
Jan: Do you think Sergey is going to bring him flowers?
Peter: He might pay for someone to bring him flowers – we don’t know. All the subtle plays!
Well, they had to talk about something
After that anticlimax we’re now absolutely guaranteed action and a winner and loser in Wednesday’s tiebreaks. It's going to be fast!
in for commentary from Peter Svidler and Jan Gustafsson at the same time on Wednesday! You can also watch the games in our free mobile apps: