Sergey Karjakin came within a coin flip of taking an almost unassailable 2-point lead after Game 9 of the 2016 World Chess Championship match in New York. Magnus Carlsen admitted he was “just happy to survive” after he found himself adrift after a long theoretical opening. In the end it took a combination of brilliant defence and luck, since Sergey sensed his moment but played a bishop sacrifice that turned out to be only the second best move in the position. Magnus held in 5 hours and 40 minutes and now has White in two of the remaining three games.
Sergey Karjakin came into Wednesday’s game in the entirely novel position of being the favourite to win a World Championship match. Someone who knows how that feels is Boris Gelfand, who won Game 7 of his match with Vishy Anand in Moscow in 2012 after the first six games had ended in draws. He went on to lose Game 8, but Boris explained in an interview with Sport-Express.ru that there was one key difference for Karjakin:
It’s of huge significance that Sergey has a rest day ahead, which back then I didn’t have. It’s very important to survive your victory, to come to terms with it. For the challenger, particularly if he’s playing a match at such a level for the first time, there’s a wealth of emotions after a win. No doubt I was unable to 100% put that behind me in the next game, but Karjakin has one and a half days and a very good team who should help him. I’d like to warn them all against considering the match won. It’s all just getting started - Carlsen will play with redoubled strength and Sergey needs to be prepared for that. Although I’m sure he understands that perfectly well himself.
We could expect a grim struggle:
The obvious approach might have been to aim for draws at all costs in the final four games, but Boris felt that was inadvisable:
The main thing, in my view, is to get a good night’s sleep, remain calm and continue to play as if the score is level. When everything is going well for you and it’s all working out there’s no sense changing anything.
Whether Karjakin was aware of those words or not, he arguably played his most confident game yet. Carlsen met his Ruy Lopez with the sharp 6...Bc5 variation that Vlad Tkachiev, sometimes credited as its inventor, himself attributes to the maverick Kyrgyzstan Grandmaster Leonid Yurtaev (1959-2011), who showed him the idea. Sergey went on to demonstrate the kind of deep opening knowledge we’d expected from him but hadn’t yet seen in the match. Without too many pauses on his part, we reached a position that was the final one covered in that line in Svidler’s Archangels video series here on chess24:
Peter had a catchy assessment of the position for Black:
This is playable, maybe drawable, but not particularly enjoyable and definitely not equal.
Svidler was so sure that Magnus would have had this position in his preparation and know what to do next that he offered to eat his hat if that proved not to be the case. Cue a long half hour…
What followed was a passage of play in which White always had a nagging edge and was threatening to burst through. Both players had spotted a beautiful potential trick that Sergey christened “my little hope”:
Instead it remained incredibly tense. Magnus found some
ingenious resources but Sergey resolutely refused to go for the easy option of
taking a draw (see Peter Svidler’s recap video later for all the details!). The
play culminated in a position where Carlsen gambled his World Championship
crown on 38…Ne7!?. If he could get the knight to f5 without anything dramatic
happening his position looked likely to hold, but that was a big if:
Sergey knew he had to act fast while Black was uncoordinated, and he also sensed this was, as Svidler described it, “a hidden match point” - to go 2:0 up with only three games remaining would be a huge step towards the World Championship title. Karjakin therefore invested the 25 minutes he had remaining in delving deep into the alternatives. Neither was trivial, and it turned out from the post-game press conference that Sergey’s thought processes had closely mirrored those of our commentators.
Some had been criticising Karjakin for playing second fiddle to his opponent and going for almost no attacking moves…
But on this occasion he summoned all his courage to play the bold 39.Bxf7+!?:
Paco Vallejo was one of those to sing the challenger’s praises:
Alas, it turned out not to have been the best option - our commentary team felt with only three minutes instead of 25, Sergey would have been less likely to spot potential problems after the more powerful 39.Qb3 and might have played that move. As it was, the position soon simplified to the point where Magnus only required a modicum of care to hold a draw. He knew he’d dodged a bullet:
More than 30 moves and almost two hours followed, but the drawn outcome never looked in doubt. For a full account of all the twists and turns of the game you simply have to watch Peter Svidler’s half-hour recap video:
You can also replay the full live commentary on Game 9:
The press conference wasn’t as dramatic as the day before, with Magnus attending and in fact revealing his team had appealed the decision to fine him for storming off after Game 8. The World Champion admitted Game 9 had been no walk in the park:
It was in general a very difficult game so there were many difficult points, for sure, and I’m just happy to survive.
Magnus also talked about his match predicament:
It’s not a very comfortable situation, of course, but the way I have to think about it is that I have to win one game out of three, and normally that’s something I’m capable of doing.
It’s worth adding that two of those games are with the white pieces. Karjakin, meanwhile, was looking confident again and is getting better at handling the media by the day. His manager tweeted, “well then, shall we enter the endgame?”
It’s going to be a thriller, with Magnus playing White on Thursday, and no sleep for European chess fans!
Tune in again at the same time to commentary from Peter Svidler and Jan Gustafsson! You can also watch the games in our free mobile apps: