A Guide for Non-Nerds: How the World Chess Championship Was Less Boring than It Should Have Been

(image via WorldChess.com)

Trump over Clinton. The Broncos stampeding over the Panthers. The Cavs down 1-3 to the 73-win Warriors. It’s been a year of upsets.

Similar to the karmic rebound of the Cubs clawing their way back from a 1-3 deficit against the Indians, Magnus Carlsen has defeated Sergey Karjakin in tiebreaks after an ugly, sometimes boring, sometimes thrilling match that spanned nearly three weeks and ended on the champion’s birthday.

Quite frankly, I wasn’t expecting much out of the match. Carlsen has won most of the major tournaments over the past five years and taken two prior championship matches. None other of an authority figure than Garry Kasparov himself said it best.

“Karjakin is a fine player. Magnus is an exceptional player.”

Games 1-4: The Snoozefest

The match format is simple, with twelve long games at classical time controls. Games 1 and 2 were eloquent studies in boredom. Games 3 and 4 weren’t that much more exciting, with Carlsen playing his trademark python style, slowly grinding out a win in a barren endgame. He has long excelled at eking out wins from miniscule advantages even with few pieces on the board.

With the psychological edge of basically winning everything and his unbelievable stamina in winning nothing positions that would be draws for other top-class grandmasters, it was clear he was going to fulfill his favorite status. Except that Karjakin is a phenomenal defender, perhaps his one trademark. When he rescued two draws for 2-2, it seemed that he was only delaying the inevitable.

Game 5: The Hiccup

Even a slight hiccup in Game 5 did little to deter my belief. In five straight games of symmetrical king pawn openings in the Giuco Piano (the Italian Game) and the Ruy Lopez (the Spanish Game), a flicker of something interesting happened. With a small but solid advantage, Carlsen briefly slipped and allowed Karjakin a counterattack, which he almost immediately let slip away as well.

I didn’t count it as anything. But maybe it rattled Carlsen. Maybe it stuck.

Games 6-7: The Nap

I went back to sleep for Games 6 and 7. Two more stale draws that were notable merely for finally switching to a queen pawn opening.

And then Game 8 happened.

Game 8: The Bomb

After pressuring heavily in two games, four eventless draws, and one lightning back-and-forth that was instantly defused, Carlsen went in for a Colle System as white. Carlsen has often gone in for these toothless openings, favored among low-ranking Internet amateurs because they are solid and avoid memorizing any complicated lines that go dozens of moves deep. Typically he relies on his ability to beat you through technique over opening theory, and more often than not, he does.

Caught in an awkward position, Carlsen was slowly pushed back. Karjakin didn’t jump aggressively enough with a queen sortie and missed the opportunity to attack. But Carlsen, perhaps frustrated with his passive play began to play over-aggressively to avoid the inevitable draw. And in time trouble, he allowed Karjakin a passed pawn. With a second queen coming soon for black, Carlsen not only was forced to resign, but squandered a precious white game with only four rounds left.

Completely distraught, Carlsen didn’t even show for the contractually-obligated post-game presser, which could technically forfeit a tenth of his prize money (read: a lot).

Game 9: The Desperation

With the scary match situation, many grandmasters speculated if Carlsen would take an easy draw with black and try to counterpunch with white or go all out. He opted for the latter, throwing down the aggressive Archangelsk variation of the Ruy Lopez. It was exactly the sort of complicated opening with tons of theory and variations that Carlsen typically avoids.

Karjakin cleverly steered the game to a line where he had all the advantages, which is the problem with such aggressive gambit defenses as black. They can crush unprepared players, but players that know the defense can defang them quite easily. Karjakin is easily of the caliber to do it.

Pretty soon everyone was staring in shock as the websites followed the live feed. Carlsen was hanging on the precipice, his king’s position riddled with holes like Swiss cheese as Karjakin’s heavy pieces and bishop pair stared him down like Catholic lasers.

When Karjakin unleashed a sacrificial attack, it seemed like it was over. But the powerful computing chess engines quickly calculated that he had missed better winning chances. Carlsen managed to scratch his way into a slightly worse but very holdable endgame.

Draw. 5-4.

Game 10: The Swing

This was classic Carlsen. Another boring Giuco Piano (also called the “quiet game” for obvious reasons). He achieved a tiny advantage and nursed it.

Except on the 20th move, he made an inaccuracy and allowed an attack that would’ve forced him to take a draw or mate. With only three games left, wasting another white would have been a huge missed opportunity. Luckily for him, Karjakin missed the same.

Slowly, he repelled the attack and traded off queens. He then used long-term positional advantages to grind down Karjakin in another endgame. He targeted a doubled pawn weakness and then switched the attack to the king, who was hiding on the queen side. After a long time of maneuvering and probing, Carlsen induced a slip-up. Karjakin got his rooks crossed up like two left feet and they couldn’t come to his king’s defense. Carlsen finally broke through.


Games 11-12: The Anticlimax

There was a brief flicker of complications in Game 11 with Carlsen pressing as black before quickly fading away. I couldn’t watch the last game as my interest had died somewhere along the way as I stared into the vast, boring abyss.

It was clear both players wanted to settle the championship in the tiebreaks.

The Tiebreaks

In four rapid games (25 minutes apiece), Carlsen held large, winning advantages in Games 2-4. With the quick play, it’s far easier to make mistakes. While missing a massive chance in the second game, Carlsen capitalized on a huge blunder by Karjakin, who was already under heavy pressure in the third.

Forced to go all out with black in the fourth, Karjakin opted for an aggressive Sicilian Defense. Carlsen reacted well, forcing his opponent into a passive position where he would either gain a win or a draw. So Karjakin did the only thing he could do: try to whip an attack out of nowhere.

And it quickly went nowhere.

In a dominating position, Carlsen concluded the match and the championship with a spectacular queen sacrifice.

With Black looking like he whipped up a nasty attack, Carlsen played 50.Qh6!! If black captures with the king, 51.Rh8 mates. The pawn capture leads to 51.Rxf7 and curtains. (image via Chessbase)

The Postmortem

NBA analyst Kevin Pelton of ESPN likes to say that just because the favorite typically wins doesn’t mean the win was always inevitable.

It sure seemed like that at the beginning, but there is a reason they play the games. There is a reason the Cavs didn’t prostrate themselves before the Warriors and offer them the crown. There is a reason people vote in elections.

It didn’t match the magic of the Cubs win (How many things can?), but for Carlsen, after staring down the double barrels in Game 9, I’m sure it did.

Enjoy the trophy, and enjoy the birthday cake.


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