Reset day

Deadlocked after 11 games. The players can't hide some signs of wear and tear. Photo: Maria Emelianova

We are now just one more nervous game away from the unthinkable – deciding a classical world title by playing increasingly faster games. I know that it happened not so terribly long ago, but I still find unthinkable a good word for it. Because the champion seemed such a clear favorite, and because I don’t think I will ever find it a satisfactory way to settle such an important event.

by GM Jonathan Tisdall

But the same things were certainly said when Anand and Gelfand squared off after a 12-game deadlock. Rules are rules, the challenger will have earned it, and the spectators will relish one final day of guaranteed action, drama and best of all, bloodshed.

The match in New York stands 5.5-all after challenger Sergey Karjakin spent his final white carefully neutralizing yet another evening of pressure from champion Magnus Carlsen.

The defensive job was fairly tame in the context of many unpleasant slogs over the course of the match, but after game 9, where Karjakin enjoyed his best performance with white and came tantalizingly near taking a lethal two-point edge, this dud of a game must have been a disappointment for him. For the first time in the match, Sergey showed small signs that he is feeling the pressure.

To be honest, about half-way through this game I was just waiting for the post-game interviews. The signs of another draw were fairly clear once Sergey began applying the brakes at the first hint of trouble, and at this stage of the contest the most intriguing info is psychological, and to be found by scrutinizing the players, and what they have to say. I had some very strong ideas about what to look for.

Linguistics

After an earlier article I received a reader query about whether I had meant to write rest when I suggested Magnus needed a reset. I meant reset, and wondered for a second if I’d gotten my vocabulary signals crossed, which periodically occurs when you’re used to thinking in two languages and not noticing which one is talking. And this led to the consideration that Magnus’ native tongue might be an element in his exceptional ability to disengage, relax and renew.

The Norwegian term for reset, which is a constant consideration in their sporting discussions, is «nullstille«, literally, to set to zero. This is something their athletes talk about incessantly, its importance after winning, losing; it is part of the zen of peak performance, putting your feet back on the ground and getting into the cliché state of being able to ‘take one game at a time’.

Magnus did a good impression of starting anew, insistently seeking to extend the fight as long as possible, but without reckless overconfidence. Photo: Maria Emelianova

Magnus did a good impression of starting anew, insistently seeking to extend the fight as long as possible, but without reckless overconfidence. Photo: Maria Emelianova

This is a more precise and specific definition of ‘reset’, and besides any musings about whether this might help make Magnus more efficient at the task, it struck me as a perfect segue to discussing the aftermath of game ten – which to my mind demanded that both players get ready for square one again.

After game ten I drew up a checklist for signs that the players were properly reset for what was once again a deadlock, and now a nervy and weary two-game match.

Remembering the beginning

Photo: Maria Emelianova

Photo: Maria Emelianova

Magnus was obviously liberated from the frightening specter of defeat that he admitted had haunted him after his loss, but his biggest task would be not to let this great lift in mood restore the feeling of invincibility that led to earlier recklessness.

Sergey would need to shed any feelings of disappointment or depression about losing a lead late in the match. I would guess that his task is easier as he has, at least verbally, made it very clear that he is focused on each game and doesn’t want to think about the ‘result’ until the points are counted up after game 12. For someone who has appeared mentally prepared throughout, it is highly unlikely that he was anticipating going through this match undefeated, and would probably have taken ‘tied after 10 games’ as a good result.

I wonder also if Team Karjakin has not always had a firm focus on the psychological, and if consultants Potkin and possibly Nepomniachtchi brought greater insight than just chess wrinkles to their preparation; that their friendship with Magnus might afford them some important knowledge about what makes him tick.

Photo: Maria Emelianova

Photo: Maria Emelianova

Meet the press

It might be my imagination, but even the gathered journalists seemed to be showing signs of fatigue, with a startling number of repetitive questions.

The challenger remains quite cheerful but his patience was tested at times tonight. Photo: Maria Emelianova

The challenger remains quite cheerful but his patience was tested at times tonight. Photo: Maria Emelianova

To my eye, there were cracks in the Karjakin veneer at today’s session, as the same topics came up. He struggled to find his usually easy smile, he looked like each discussion of his squandered white frayed his temper, and after the nth time of saying he was just intending to do his best and fight, he started to sound defensive rather than defiant. At times he looked as painfully nervous as at the pre-match conference, but he did offer one fine quote: «In the first part of the match it was like 80% chess, now it’s 80% psychology.»

Magnus seemed intent on putting a positive spin into his replies; he made constant references to how he was back from the brink and things were going his way. «I thought today was a normal game. I felt OK and quite calm. At least I’m done with my black games now. It is not a dream situation but it’s better than it was.»

Magnus Carlsen. Photo: Maria Emelianova

Magnus Carlsen. Photo: Maria Emelianova

While Sergey emphasized the need for care in the last pressure-cooker game, Magnus again went on the offensive. «It’s tougher to play against a well prepared opponent, someone that doesn’t make very many mistake. But the match is now trending towards me. I was a lot calmer today than in the last few games, I’m optimistic.»

Magnus had the most questions to field, and got the old conundrum about whether chess is sport, science or art. He got to the point on this one.

«Chess in this form is definitely a sport more than anything else. The work done at home has something to do with science. I’m afraid to find art you have to go elsewhere,» he smiled. «It becomes mostly about getting the right result in the end.»

Both players are stunned when someone had the nerve to ask them both to say who they thought was the favorite now. After a pause where they simply grinned at this invitation to bad manners, Magnus finally broke the silence. «I will only say that it looks better for me than it did a few days ago.» Sergey followed up with: «No comment!»

Second guessing – overlooked answer

Mr. Matt & Patt,  Tarjei Svensen, tipped me off that there seems to be clear confirmation of a Carlsen second, and that it has been in a public space since the beginning of the match. In a video made to promote the computer security assistance that Team C received, footage can be seen of French GM Laurent Fressinet at work. This is not huge news since Laurent has been a team member before, but it is rather odd that this has not been spotted, especially since the story about IT security became mainstream news just before the match.

Overtime

The always cheerful Galiya Karjakina re-appeared in New York to support her husband Sergey in the final games. Photo: Maria Emelianova

The always cheerful Galiya Karjakina re-appeared in New York to support her husband Sergey in the final games. Photo: Maria Emelianova

For those already debating the possibilities of the spiral of rapid to blitz to armageddon in the event of a 6-6 tie, there is one important statistic to note. It is easy to assume that since Magnus has held the world titles and number one spots on the rapid and blitz lists that the playoffs will favor him more, but in fact the two combatants are most closely ranked on the rapid rating list, where Karjakin is currently number three in the world.

Going out on a limb before the final game of a title stand-off is too reckless for a sensible pundit. Today’s performances – and by that I mean primarily the press conference – look very much like both players have gone back to zero – and for Karjakin that means he appears to have had the confidence he gained in the first 9-10 games rattled, either due to his one defeat, or fatigue. I sense that Magnus has good chances to end this in game 12, but that ignoring Karjakin’s incredible resolve – which he has repeatedly shown under extreme pressure – is his greatest danger.

  • It’s ludicrous that the players should be required to discuss what they were thinking during the game. This reveals their thought process to the other team. They should «plead the 5th» * as we say in the US, and refuse to divulge their thought patterns. (* «the 5th»: The fifth amendment to the US Constitution provides that an accused cannot be required to witness against himself.)

  • jimijr

    Very nice article Jonathan, just what I was looking for, thank you. I’m pretty sure they will both be in top form, a great game is coming!

  • Mattias

    Thanks for, yet another, great article. It’s easy to find thoughtful analyses of the games, but you truly capture that there’s more to this series than just what’s taking place on the board. Looking forward to another mindmoving session on Monday.