Game time!

Reigning Chess Champion Magnus Carlsen, Actor, host Adrian Grenier and Chess grandmaster Sergey Karjakin attend 2016 Gala Opening for World Chess Championship at The Plaza Hotel on November 10, 2016 in New York City. Photo: Jason Kempin/Getty Images for World Chess ChampionshipReigning Chess Champion Magnus Carlsen, Actor, host Adrian Grenier and Chess grandmaster Sergey Karjakin attend 2016 Gala Opening for World Chess Championship at The Plaza Hotel on November 10, 2016 in New York City. Photo: Jason Kempin/Getty Images for World Chess Championship

Update: Carlsen starts match with white

The drawing of lots is the lead story on Norwegian media right now, I can hear an analysis on the main state radio network in the background.

Carlsen shrugged off the importance of this first result – he was on record as hoping to pull black for the match start.

«It is maybe best with black,» the world champion told newspaper VG just before the draw. «I liked Sochi when I had white in the sixth and seventh games.»

«It is completely OK,» manager Espen Agdestein told VG. «This means an offensive start and it is the same as Magnus had in Chennai.»

The strategizing is due to the reversal of colors at the midway point. Rather than the traditional straight alternation of colors, when having white to start would have no disadvantages – the match could end early and an odd number of games would mean more first moves – now playing white in game one means a double black in games six and seven, when the second half of the 12-game match begins with the sequence reversed.

The Sochi rematch versus Anand featured four decisive games out of 11, all went to the white pieces, Carlsen winning 3-1 (6.5 – 4.5). But Karjakin’s only classical chess victory over Carlsen came with the black pieces…

Little more than a week has gone since my last curtain-raiser. I must confess to being pleased with that piece’s examination of the Carlsen-Karjakin match from the viewpoint of the challenger’s ‘narrative’, and to being worried about how much more material would appear to flesh out this article. Well, being in chess-mad Norway, where this is THE national media event, the real problem is just the opposite – how to even mention all the coverage generated as the rest of the world joins in banging drums for the match. And game time is finally about to arrive.

by Jonathan Tisdall.

Point of view

Coincidentally, the Karjakin narrative has turned out to be a surprise killer angle for state broadcaster NRK’s warm up for the match, and their Nov 10 program featured a top-notch documentary feature on the challenger. Some of the material appeared online, and includes some great quotes («The first time I heard of Magnus Carlsen? It was in 2003. Magnus was 13 and everyone said he was talented. But I was much stronger, so I didn’t think about him much.») from an open-hearted challenger. It very much explores the coming match as being the culmination of what has always looked to Karjakin as his own winding path to becoming world champion.

The TV version goes into fascinating detail about Karjakin’s struggle to fulfill his potential, with family history and interviews and even Ruslan Ponomariov speaking with quiet but powerful honesty about his friend and former Ukrainian teammate’s journey to becoming a visible Putin supporter. An English language version of this program is supposed to be in the pipeline for online broadcast soon, and I urge chess fans to watch out for it.

Thursday’s pre-match press conference in New York did not produce much to write about, but did provide a few fascinating insights.

One aspect was impossible to miss; Magnus was extremely comfortable, and smiled and joked his way through the seance. He is said to relish the electric hum around this most tense of occasions. Sergey was painfully nervous to begin with, but did boldly tackle the event by fielding and answering questions in English rather than shielding himself behind an interpreter.

The most interesting moments to me as a long-time match observer were the few questions that they chose to sidestep: Carlsen refusing to divulge any of his assistants except for Peter Heine Nielsen, who is in NY; and Karjakin not saying what he thought Magnus’ strengths or weaknesses were, marking those observations as secret. Besides these isolated items, the event accentuated the cordial atmosphere of mutual respect but self-confidence the players have always shown each other.

Preparations, geopolitics, security and magnified molehills

The past week or so has seen a scramble to explore fresh match angles, and the Norwegian media have been mining hard. A VG revelation that Microsoft was supporting Magnus ballooned out of all proportion when it was picked up and spread to a wider audience by The Telegraph.

Microsoft Norway representative Vibeke Hansen appeared to be focused on explaining secure communication tools for the Carlsen team, reputedly spread out across the globe and not on site in New York, which is how the Norwegian usually works. And while discussing encrypted sky technology and computing power sufficient for serious variation crunching, it was a possible anti-Russian hacking angle that captured media fancy.

Team Carlsen felt that the idea that they were actually worried about Team Karjakin digital skullduggery was silly enough to need debunking at the press conference, and this set up Sergey’s best line of the event, when he noted that he felt that his downloading some antivirus software was security enough.

Turncoats? Seconds?

Carlsen draws white in the first game of the World Championship. Chief Arbiter Takis Nikolopoulos observes.. Sergey Karjakin at the opening of the World Championship Match. Photo by Jason Kempin/Getty Images for World Chess Championship.

Carlsen draws white in the first game of the World Championship. Chief Arbiter Takis Nikolopoulos observes.. Sergey Karjakin at the opening of the World Championship Match. Photo by Jason Kempin/Getty Images for World Chess Championship.

On the always popular topic of seconds, Carlsen has been probed about his former associates Vladimir Potkin, and particularly friend Ian Nepomniachtchi, being part of Team K. Potkin has a longer connection with the challenger, and Magnus pointed out that ‘Nepo’ has not been confirmed as a ‘full time’ second (though Karjakin has stated that they have done some work together). In any event, the champion seemed stoic about it all, and unconcerned. He has never been terribly opening focused.

Nepo has given some match commentary that sounded convincingly neutral,  … but his sudden leap up the rating lists looks very much like the performance of a man that has recently been forced to learn how to work unusually hard. Weighing those factors up is just part of the fun of the second-guessing game.

The Norwegian’s reputedly unconventional preparation methods got some rather startling coverage in an article about chief trainer Heine Nielsen. The Danish GM was quoted by VG questioning the importance of himself and the rest of the secret squad.

«Magnus is so good that he could have won without a trainer and a team around him. But I hope that I and the others can increase his chances, it would be sad otherwise,» the Dane, who began his top-level assistant career as Anand’s second, told VG with a smile.

«I see it a bit like the Tour de France. We can be ‘domestiques’, but when we get to the mountains, he will cycle away from the rest of us. With Anand we tried to achieve something heroic, with Magnus it is different. If we help him to neutralize Karjakin in the opening phase, keep him from disadvantage in the opening, then much of our work is done. Regardless, he will outplay his opponent afterwards. I’m not saying it isn’t difficult, but it is a completely different situation,» Peter said.

Last minute scooplets

Hideouts and bankrolls

Magnus’ Caribbean hideout and other geographical secrets were finally revealed by tireless VG, who reported that the champ had begun his preparations in the French Alps (Chamonix), before soaking up sun in the Bahamas, which shares a time zone with New York.

«Magnus has had plenty of time to charge up,» manager Espen Agdestein told the paper. «He went with his team in mid-October, and for the last week he has just relaxed with the rest of his family in the Bahamas.»

Another leading Norwegian daily, Dagbladet chose Karjakin-focus in the final warm-ups, revealing that the Russian’s manager, Kyrillos Zangalis, had admitted to preparation costs of one million euro, for expenses that include a physician, training team, travel and hotels. Media reports had already noted the inclusion of retired tennis pro Anna Chakvetadze, who had joined Team K to gear up the challenger’s physical training levels.

«We have had six major sessions in Moscow and Sochi. Now, just before the match Sergey was in Miami. In total we have used over a million euro,» Zangalis told Dagbladet, adding that the Miami trip had been personally financed by billionaire president of the national chess federation, Andrei Filatov.

Predictions and speculation

Photo by Jason Kempin/Getty Images for World Chess Championship

Photo by Jason Kempin/Getty Images for World Chess Championship

The chess world can’t be so insular as to ignore the US election, especially when the title match is being held in Manhattan. Eventually social media began to chirp about the possible chain of upset results – Brexit, Trump … Karjakin? Well, the world championship doesn’t belong in that set, since it is not decided by the voting public. But it could be a warning to a complacent corps of expert commentators, pundits and predictors. (And let’s not make Norwegians nervous by adding the Chicago Cubs to the discussion …)

Do the pundits take the result of the match for granted? The consensus seems to be Magnus is the very safe bet, but at the same time, there is nearly universal respect for Karjakin’s chances. Norway’s first chess sensation and former Carlsen trainer, Simen Agdestein, took this line, backing it up with an intriguing explanation for his concerns about the favorite.

«I think there will be many draws. Karjakin is very solid, it isn’t easy to beat him. It isn’t easy to beat Magnus either, but he can have days where he suddenly doesn’t function,» Simen said. «He has walked on water and performed endless miracles. Then it is easy to believe that he can do it again – but it isn’t so easy.» Agdestein summed up the match as being a «55% percent chance of Magnus winning – which means in principle it is wide open.»

Mutual respect

Sergey Karjakin at the opening of the World Championship Match. Photo by Jason Kempin/Getty Images for World Chess Championship.

Sergey Karjakin at the opening of the World Championship Match. Photo by Jason Kempin/Getty Images for World Chess Championship.

Dagbladet also unveiled a Karjakin interview they had been saving for the last minute. This too explored the challenger’s life story, and his strong feelings for Russia, despite his early life in Ukraine. Sergey related how his recent success had brought with it an unaccustomed amount of media attention and public spotlight at home, and massive support from both Putin and Filatov.

He admits to chats about the chess scene with Putin, and feels that his current state of ‘unlimited support’ is just an equalizer for the more comfortable situation Magnus has been in for most of his life. Karjakin also talks about the prime importance of family, and how this puts the title match in perspective.

About Magnus: «I can’t say that we are best friends, but we have never had any problems. We have a good relationship. I don’t feel any need to create an enemy of Magnus to perform better. Why should I think badly of him? He is just trying to do his best as well.»

This is maybe the most surprising angle of the match, a ‘cold war’ refusal completely the opposite of the traditional championship-as-symbolic-political-conflict that characterized earlier title matches, from Fischer-Spassky through Karpov-Korchnoi and even Karpov-Kasparov. Perhaps instead this civilized atmosphere on US soil can offer a much needed counterpoint to the current global political climate?

And we can just concentrate on rooting for our personal favorite on the board.

Further reading (in English):

If you like your pre-match musings numerical rather than philosophical – these two articles have a look at the players using Chess.com’s Computer Aggregated Precision Score (CAPS).

Former Carlsen second and long-time chum Jon Ludivg Hammer has been analyzing the event in advance, even in English. His insights demand reading.

  • Obsicle

    Karjakin switched from Morton real estate (red jacket patch) to Legacy Square Capital (the Berlin rapid sponsor, Palikhata). But probably not a question he wants to answer, at least until the event is over.