Challenger Sergey Karjakin has seized a 4.5-3.5 lead in his title match with Magnus Carlsen, preventing a record-tying world championship sequence of eight initial draws by winning with black in a heart-stoppingly dramatic game that was far more excitement and emotion than precision. The champ now has only four games left to solve the invincibility enigma posed so far by his Russian adversary.
by GM Jonathan Tisdall
‘Think we’ve had our calm, time for a real storm.’ I launched that into the Twittersphere to gauge the online mood before today’s game. The response seemed to indicate a lot of people expecting real action today. I assumed that we were feeling the law of averages, the accumulated tension from the seven-game deadlock.
The prediction game is very hard: in game eight I am going for a Carlsen win. Another long grind.
— Andrew Martin (@AMartinChess) November 21, 2016
I think it’s safe to say that none of the people predicting a breakthrough today, no matter who for, anticipated just what kind of a spectacle they were in for.
Business as usual?
«I hope he attacks with white,» Carlsen manager Espen Agdestein told VGTV i New York. «The tension is rising and rising. Errors have to be avoided.» Espen added that both players were afraid to fall behind, so it was hard to foresee what kind of a game it would be. «I hope he’s as relaxed as possible and plays his game, and doesn’t think about it being a dramatic situation in a good title match.» There was a lot of insight in that pre-game quote.
I felt ex-Carlsen second Jon Ludvig Hammer’s assessment of Magnus’ apparently limp first moves was spot on – «This is the perfect opening for Magnus Carlsen – ‘all pieces on board – game on’,» Hammer said. It was the champion’s mantra – Faith in his own fundamental playing strength, to hell with detailed preparation.
Chess24.com pundit Peter Svidler had similar thoughts, opining that Magnus is winning the opening duel in the match, by always getting what he wants. This has been the conventional wisdom throughout, that the Norwegian had to avoid stepping on a Russian mine in the opening as black, and get regular pressure with white. There was an interesting opposing view from another world star.
The fact that Carlsen does not enter a single main line is pleasant for Sergey and his team. #carlsenkarjakin
— Teymur Rajabov (@rajachess) November 21, 2016
Interesting. I would have thought it made the team look and or feel unemployed. Surely their job was to anticipate where he would go and ambush him? Maybe not… Before long, there were other critical voices as there was a distinct lack of the speed and precision that the champion displayed in earlier games.
Carlsen is down by about 20 min on the clock in spite of having white #CarlsenKarjakin It shows his lack of familiarity with this opening.
— Susan Polgar (@SusanPolgar) November 21, 2016
Another member of the Polgar family chimed in, official match commentator Judit reacted to the mix of Carlsen body language, plodding pace and lack of visible plan.
@TarjeiJS Magnus looks agitated at the board, twitching around and doing strange stretches with his arms. #CarlsenKarjakin #worldchess2016 pic.twitter.com/PhueUkNN8J
— Jason Henderson (@Jason_AW) November 21, 2016
Once again, much of the action was hidden beneath the surface. Sergey appeared to have another chance to try and seize the initiative, but for whatever reason, kept focused on staying solid and avoiding risk. Svidler’s banter partner Jan Gustafsson diagnosed the situation, concluding that Karjakin would always choose the safest option, even over favorable complications. Was this designed to drive Magnus crazy, or just a fundamental philosophy – nothing silly, no defeats?
Meanwhile, today’s pace was glacial. Of course, to the savvy spectator, that meant delayed gratification. A time scramble could be in the offing, and even if things were still tepid, there was plenty of material on the board. And remember how much entertainment they drummed up with almost no tools in game three.
There has been no release of the tension so far. Don't be surprised if a blunder comes at some point #CarlsenKarjakin
— Nigel Short (@nigelshortchess) November 21, 2016
As Magnus took more and more startling decisions to amp up complications – and the risk factor – by compromising his position in search of aggression, it became impossible to ignore that this was not the harmony-driven Carlsen, but one revved up by either ambition or overconfidence. He was going to turn this thing up until the arrow went past the red zone, someone was going down today.
Anyone who complains about boring match is not allowed to watch any more games, ever. #CarlsenKarjakin
— Jonathan Tisdall (@GMjtis) November 21, 2016
As the game spun into a wild time scramble, Carlsen’s determination reached terrifying heights, but it was a chess version of street violence, like watching someone under restraints trying to batter his foes with his face. Suddenly he was lost, then somehow he headbutted his way back in the final seconds. When Carlsen walked offstage after reaching the time control, he looked confident again.
To be honest, I have always understood the comparison between chess and boxing, solitary mental and physical extremes that have many similarities despite appearing to be polar opposites. One microsecond of distraction can cost you everything, brutally, painfully, instantly, no matter what went before. Magnus still had some hurdles to clear after move 40, but stumbled as Sergey posed maximum problems and doled out precise punishment. An unpleasant defensive task ended in an abrupt attack. The challenger had ended the run of draws, winning with black.
If you keep playing with fire, eventually you get burned #CarlsenKarjakin
— Nigel Short (@nigelshortchess) November 22, 2016
As Norwegian broadcast partners cornered Karjakin, Magnus stormed past, ignoring his home press, and went directly into the conference room. After a few minutes waiting for the winner’s interviews to finish, the champion suddenly changed his mind and stormed out.
«I can’t take waiting here for him,» Magnus told his manager. «I can’t do it.» Espen ran after the departing champion, but couldn’t convince him to stay. According to state broadcaster NRK this breach of contract could be very costly for the Norwegian – the maximum penalty is supposed to be 10% of a player’s purse, so potentially a 40,000-60,000 euro fine.
The organizers would not comment but NRK reports that Agon and FIDE were discussing the matter on Monday night.
A video of the incident has been made available by Agon.
Meanwhile, the unflappable Sergey Karjakin carried out his communication duties, looking very much the way he has the entire event. Grounded and consistent. There was no visible elation. «I feel great – to win against Magnus in a tough game is incredible. At some point Magnus probably overestimated his position, he should try to make a draw somehow. After time control I think black is better, but he could defend better,» was the sober assessment. He refused to discuss how decisive this moment might be. «One of us had to win sooner or later, and I am happy that this person was me.»
Alone with the gathered press, Karjakin tried to explain what had happened in the frenzied time scramble, what he had seen and what he had missed. Some of his closing remarks made a great impression on me.
«I don’t want to say Magnus played badly today. He really tried, he sacrificed two pawns, created very interesting game. Thanks to Magnus it was a big day,» Karjakin said. Asked if he ever felt in trouble in the first session he said: «No. I just thought the position was completely crazy and that anything might happen. But I was a pawn up and I hadn’t played badly to be lost.»
On the recurring topic of colors: «I repeat, it is much better to play well than to play white,» he smiled. «There are still four games and basically anything can happen. I don’t want to speak about who is favorite – I am sure it will be a big fight.»
And suddenly I wondered – maybe the pundits had it all wrong. Maybe Karjakin had focused on being just like Magnus. Not caring about colors, or openings, and that was why the match was looking the way it did. He has prioritized facing his opponent – and readied himself above all – to just play. And he refuses to be distracted, not even by winning, or leading, until this match is done.
Now Carlsen faces the ultimate test of character that so many of his predecessors – Kasparov, Kramnik, Anand – endured; coming from behind. NRK spoke to sister Ellen, who had watched the nerve-wracking performance, and asked what was ahead on the rest day.
«He must reset and do what he usually does,» she said. «I don’t think he had seen that this was possible earlier today. He must release the tension in his body now. We will just try to act like nothing has happened and try to find out what he wants to do.»