Surprise, surprise

Change of scenery - the challenger decided a new first move was required. Photo: Maria Emelianova

In Chennai, pundits and certainly Anand fans were hysterical at this point in the match for a switch to 1.d4. Does the same advice hold for Karjakin? Maybe – the decision would give some insight into the challenger’s state of mind.

by Jonathan Tisdall

Of course Vishy was behind in Chennai 2013 at halftime, and urgently needed to exploit his remaining whites. Sergey may feel he just needs to hang in there and wait for a chance to emerge from their interminable wrestling. If Karjakin did shift his choice of first move, it would signal, to my mind, the combination of frustration and ambition that indicates he wants more than he’s been getting.

A champion’s observations

Their draw in game 7 was their ninth consecutive draw where Karjakin is white. Photo: Maria Emelianova

Their draw in game 7 was their ninth consecutive draw where Karjakin is white. Photo: Maria Emelianova

And from afar, the ex-world champion weighed in on the tussle in New York. In an interview in India Anand assessed the state of the match: «I don’t think Carlsen is playing badly. He is doing quite well. Mistakes that happen at the highest level are normal,» Vishy said.

«I think Carlsen is playing well, but Karjakin is defending well too. So far, the match has been building up, but the first blow hasn’t happened. If you remember, when I played Carlsen in Chennai, we had four draws, and suddenly the match turned against me. It can happen any moment. The tension is building.»

«Carlsen may be troubled sometimes, but he has solutions. He avoids opening problems. I do not recollect Carlsen having many difficulties. Karjakin is defending well, but that is not the same as posing a problem. He has not been able to trouble Carlsen so far,» Anand concluded.

Subtle drama

According to Agon, tickets for every round in the match have been sold out. Photo: Maria Emelianova

According to Agon, tickets for every round in the match have been sold out. Photo: Maria Emelianova

That sub-heading may sound like a contradiction in terms, but that is part of the attraction and mystery of chess as a spectator sport. Much of what we call action is hidden beneath the surface. A quick NRK interview with Carlsen trainer Peter Heine Nielsen is an excellent illustration. He called the opening ‘dramatic’ after two surprises of sorts were uncorked in the first two moves. «This is very exciting for me as an openings trainer,» Peter said.

The Danish GM was skeptical to suggestions that Karjakin was now improvising after getting nowhere with 1. e4, judging the decision as ‘time to shift gears’. And ‘surprise’ is a relative term when it comes to the Russian changing turf. Match preparations would have covered this eventuality, the only question is whether Team C were expecting it today.

Stops and starts

From mutual early hesitations, it seems fairly clear that neither was fully expecting what was unfolding in the opening. Again, the challenger truly surprises with a lackluster decision on move 11 that completely fritters away any hope of white advantage, and even angers some more excitable corners of the twittersphere.

But even the calmer, if somewhat inclined to sarcasm, commentators were quick to see the game setting up as another gradual squeeze from Carlsen, rather than the anticipated bit of suffering through a double black.

Photo: Maria Emelianova

Photo: Maria Emelianova

Indeed, there was a rather unusual chance for Carlsen to put Karjakin under very early pressure, but neither player noticed, most likely because the idea was both unconventional and unexpected. Conventional wisdom and intuition indicated that such an opportunity shouldn’t exist at this stage. But black’s very comfy equality-plus suddenly went out the window, and once again an unforced error injected sudden drama into the game.

This time it was Magnus who stumbled, sloppily ignoring or forgetting the only white idea in the position.

World number two Fabiano Caruana told Norwegian state broadcaster NRK that he felt Magnus has been trying to win every game, and that Karjakin had yet to show something – Fab was particularly surprised by how little the challenger had produced with white. At this point a spectator began to yell that Magnus had wasted a white with his Trompowsky ‘pun’ at the start of the match. Caruana calmly told him, «Trump can be blamed for many things but not game 1.»

The combination of bizarrely inaccurate play today, and the long sequence of draws no doubt, provoked even those with full sympathy for the players and nervous climate to indulge in a bit of sarcasm.

Luckily for Carlsen, this aberration did not fall outside the margin of error for the position, and after a long think and a bit of head-shaking, he had little trouble finding a way to erect his own fortress and the seventh consecutive draw was recorded.

Carlsen took off his jacket and was ready for a fight, but the game ended in a draw after just above two hours. Photo: Maria Emelianova

Carlsen took off his jacket and was ready for a fight, but the game ended in a draw after just above two hours. Photo: Maria Emelianova

After the game the champion admitted that he had just blacked out. «I blundered a pawn completely unnecessarily but luckily the margin of error was such that I could still hold a draw,» Carlsen told VGTV. «Now I need to save energy and prepare for the next game. The level in the match has been quite good, though the last two games have been anti-climactic. We don’t play perfectly of course, but we fight.»

The conditions at the hall have been cramped for press and public, and larger than expected crowds have grumbled about difficulties seeing and hearing the action. Photo: Maria Emelianova

The conditions at the hall have been cramped for press and public, and larger than expected crowds have grumbled about difficulties seeing and hearing the action. Photo: Maria Emelianova

Karjakin shrugged off repeated questions about the importance of the two consecutive whites he had just squandered. «I think that I should use my chances when I have them and the only chance so far was in game 5 when I was black. So color is not so important – it is important to use chances when you have them and I hope to have some more!»

Carlsen told the press conference «I prefer white obviously, but I agree with Sergey – the main thing is to play well. The last few games have not been too interesting, I hope for something more fighting in the next few games, but the result of the last two games is decent for me. Anything can still happen.»

Asked about how much time he had to see New York, Magnus smiled: «Well, first it is about the match, and second – it is about the match,»  though he did agree it was a great setting and he appreciated the crowds turning up.

History

The press conferences have its moments, but clearly have room for improvements. Photo: Maria Emelianova

The press conferences have its moments, but clearly have room for improvements. Photo: Maria Emelianova

This match is now one short of the record bloodless start to Kasparov-Anand 1995. That match exploded in game 9, with then-challenger Anand taking the lead before a ferocious resurgence from the defending champion kept the title. But that was a much longer match. This time one victory  – or one careless moment – could decide the crown.

Both of the two great champions that contested the 1995 match – also in New York – experienced the nervous electrical storm of title defences decided in final games; Anand even enduring a rapid tie-break finish. The chance that Carlsen’s place in history may require a similar trial by adrenaline is coming ever closer.

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