Turning tables

The champion was visibly weary and disgruntled after game 5, and dragged himself through the post-game press duties. Photo: Tarjei Svensen

National fever

After two marathon battles a rest day was even welcome for the huge Norwegian viewing public, who had been staying up glued to their screens until the tiny hours, and feeling the wear and tear. How many? The tweet below from NRK studio host, IM Torstein Bae, reports peak viewership figures of 400 000 for game four. Considering Norway’s total population is around the 5 million mark and the previous pair of games lasted past 3 am on weekdays – and this is chess – and you get an indication of national enthusiasm levels behind Magnus.

PM quip

Carlsen manager Espen Agdestein told TV here that he had received a lot of text messages, including one from a member of the office of Norwegian Prime Minister Erna Solberg ‘asking’ if today’s game could be a bit shorter. The government is currently involved in some very delicate cross-party budget negotiations and she said they were all a bit frazzled from following the match as well!

Forecast

I started the working day early on social media, and decided to make a prediction for a change. It was a good one.

As I later tweeted: «I am now of course deluded into thinking I understand the respective psychologies behind the opening choices…» I can air my reasoning, based on many years of staring at looong world championship matches ringside, and having to find angles to write about, sometimes for months on end.

To me the evolution of the opening battle was beginning to reveal a pattern. Magnus was not necessarily armed with heavy theoretical weaponry – he wasn’t expected to be either. But he is looking well prepared. He is full of ideas, even if I have a nagging suspicion that the real point behind some of his new moves in this match is primarily to gain time on the clock. But he has achieved two key aims with regularity – he gets the kind of positions he wants, and has gotten them quickly. He was also sharpening play slightly with each passing game.

With this in mind, and the desire to keep shifting the battle turf, the Italian/Giuoco Piano seemed a logical choice. It has a very similar feel to the Spanish variations they have been testing, and it lends itself well to Magnus’ man-to-man combat aims. He would probably find it easy to keep material on the board and maintain tension, and it would be a minor surprise. Many boxes ticked.

Bluff?

The game was another roller coaster. Simen Agdestein on VGTV diagnosed Carlsen’s long thought after 13…Nxe4 indicated poor or lack of preparation – calling it a sign of bluffing. That is a strong word. As I said, I suspect one aspect of the prep is to get started safely and gain time on the clock – the opening had utilitarian aims, and this was just where the fighting happened to start.

Paranoia?

Magnus’ decision to take on f7 to maximize the complexity of the game clearly indicated his mood, and to be honest, I was already getting a strong sense that he was prepared to take a lot of risks today. This is not characteristic of Magnus at his best, when he relies on his sense of harmony. Was he becoming frustrated by Karjakin’s constant escapology, or was he intoxicated with the confidence earned by constantly battering his rival? Or was I overthinking things, and he was just doing his best player in the world thing, and most of us just don’t get it?

A bit later, while Karjakin was considering his 19th move, the feeling that Magnus was pushing things a bit too hard was getting difficult to ignore, and while I moaned: «I think this is the critical position of the game and one of the critical positions of the match. Is Karjakin going to go active with black?» Scottish GM Jonathan Rowson fueled my fears for the Norwegian: «Not to get carried away, but after 19..Qh4 it’s first time in the match Karjakin has had the slightest whiff of initiative.»

Business as usual

But this sudden whiff soon dissipated and Sergey opted for a sterile alternative. His position now appeared to have no active prospects,though it also looked far less dangerous than what he had endured in the previous two games.

So every one settled down for another loooong evening watching Magnus gradually making monsters out of molehills. Again Karjakin found a tough defensive plan, migrating with his king, to introduce an element of risk in Carlsen’s eventual plans for positional expansion. As time control approached, Magnus pushed forward, and something odd happened.

After the game he explained that he noticed he had made a notation error on his scoresheet, and even though he was sure he had played 40 moves, he couldn’t figure out why his scoresheet said he’d played only 39. As a result he rushed out an extra move, and it was a serious error, allowing his Russian opponent a venomous counterattack.

Suddenly Carlsen’s king was in a crossfire. If he stumbled here, not only would he fall behind against a currently immovable object, but the match colors are about to turn, and Karjakin will have white in the next two games. In a flash the champion could go from constantly hammering away, to being on the ropes.

Very strong sense of crisis for Magnus after …d4. Magnus is far from the best defender in the world in this type of position – I hope I’m wrong.»)

Balance

Fortunately for Carlsen, and perhaps with a bit of payback for his own missed opportunities, Karjakin fumbled the attack, and the Norwegian displayed his own defensive skills by instantly returning the tables. Another draw, and another full-blooded drama.

In the post-mortem Sergey could be heard immediately bringing up the critical moment where he misplayed the attack, and explained what he thought he missed. Magnus was slumped in his chair, telltale signs of frustration visible.

Carlsen tried to sidestep the NRK interviewer, but completed all his media duties. While Karjakin was his usual smiling, imperturbable self, Carlsen grew ever more clearly irritated during the press conference, struggling to pull an occasional smile, and nearly losing his temper when having to discuss the game.

Magnus was angry that his control over most of the game was overshadowed by his trouble near the end, but admitted he had also probably been lucky not to lose. Sergey was in a much better mood but far from ecstatic. He was pleased to finally have experienced a good position, and was just looking forward to his coming whites and more fighting. By the end of the session Magnus looked liked he was about to fall asleep.

A full house of curious journalists and fans was the last thing Carlsen wanted to see after another off day at the office. Photo: Tarjei Svensen

A full house of curious journalists and fans was the last thing Carlsen wanted to see after another off day at the office. Photo: Tarjei Svensen

How to sum up?

The obvious answer is that we have been seeing a crescendo of successes from the challenger, but there is only limited confidence to be gained from suffering. The idea that this can be some kind of strategy to egg Carlsen into overextending strikes me as more than far-fetched. No one could intentionally sign up for the punishment Karjakin took in games three and four and expect to survive and profit.

But today’s narrative did indicate that Magnus had become either frustrated or overconfident – I would put my money on the latter. One way of looking at today is that it was a free warning for Magnus – that he may need to calm down and regain his equilibrium.

From my experience watching Magnus close up, my gut feeling is that the visible frustration he displayed is a good sign. He wears his emotions prominently, and is very good at converting self-criticism into heightened focus. There is every chance that disappointment will now galvanize him.

Meanwhile, Sergey seems unflappable. He’s here to do his best, fight for his life, and see what happens. So far, so good. Now he gets two whites, and really must produce.

  • jimijr

    Thank you for a your insights, Jonathan. May I say we met when we both used to play at the Syracuse CC in the early 70s. Erich Marchand (RIP) was around, too. «Tis the Wiz» we used to call you. 🙂