The World Chess Championship match between defending Champion, Magnus Carlsen of Norway and his challenger, Russia’s Sergey Karjakin, concluded in New York City on November 30th. It saw Carlsen retain his title, on what was also his 26th birthday.
It was by no means a convincing performance, however, one would have to say — after 7 draws, (a couple of which saw the Champion fail to take chances, though the same can also be said for his opponent), he lost game 8 and seemed extremely out of sorts and frustrated. The challenger was not without chances in game 9, either and Carlsen was beginning to look rather vulnerable. As with all great champions, however, the stops were pulled out in game 10, which saw Magnus win in order to level the match. This, after Karjakin had twice refused (or missed) drawing chances.
With only two games left, the question on everyone’s lips was whether the players would take risks and try to win the match or play safe and go for tie-breaks. The fans and followers knew what they wanted, a bare knuckles fight for the title, but did the players agree? With no margin for error anymore, trying to win could mean losing. It seemed that neither Carlsen nor Karjakin wanted to go down this route, with two rather eventless games ending the standard games.
6-6 the score, the match would go, rather unsurprisingly, to tiebreaks.
Tie-breaks for the match consisted of 4 rapid games and, if needed, 5 sets of 2 blitz games. If the scores were still level, there would be an armageddon game, (White having 6 minutes to Black’s 5, but having to win), but there was a lot of chess to play before this was needed.
The first two rapid games saw draws as the players settled down. Sergey Karjakin stuck with his match tactic of not really trying anything, content to hold things together and obligate Magnus Carlsen to push if he wanted to decide the match before the blitz games arrived. However, in game 3, he was punished for this as Carlsen was in no mood to keep the draws going. The World Champion was allowed to penetrate to the challenger’s second rank and he scored the full point with the Black pieces.
This was optimum timing and meant that Carlsen was a point ahead, with one rapid game left. Karjakin was in a must win situation with the Black pieces. Game 4 saw the first Sicilian of the match and Carlsen in full control throughout. Karjakin was forced to push and this saw his position worsen gradually. In the end, White had an overwhelming advantage and finished the game nicely, with Black on his way to being mated.
This made the rapid score 3-1 and Magnus Carlsen retained his title — congratulations to him!
So, the status quo is restored and the chess world carries on as normal. I think it’s fair to say, however, that opinions are very split when it comes to the quality (or lack thereof) of this World Chess Championship. We saw hardly any ‘fighting’ chess in this match, Karjakin brought very little to the table, despite it being rumoured that he was coming armed with lots of preparation. I have no idea where these rumours originated, we certainly didn’t see much of it, if any. When it comes to Magnus Carlsen, it has to be said that he did not have a very convincing defence of his title, the first half of the match was certainly not his best or sharpest chess. Whether this was to do with nerves or complacency, or that he was struggling to cope with Karjakin’s passive approach, we can never know; but like all greats, he seems to be his worst enemy at times and is by no means without kinks in his armour.
The amount of draws in the match has led to many discussions on social media as to how this sort of thing can be avoided in the future. To be honest, I think this is unlikely to be sorted out very easily. On the one hand, fans and spectators want to see exciting fights and such ‘non-combative’ play treads on the toes of that. This has potentially serious consequences, namely when it comes to event sponsorship. This match was certainly not the best advertisement for chess as being an exciting marketting forum, capable of attracting wide attention and giving a good return on investment. However, it must also be remembered that the players are not there to entertain the masses, but to not lose games and ultimately win the event by hook or by crook. Undertaking measures to combat the dullness that this can result in, risks treading on the toes of individual match tactics.
For what it’s worth, my thoughts on the match, is that it was a very dull affair, but I don’t agree that it was boring. Karjakin’s chess, while unadventurous, did unsettle Carlsen and he was most certainly rattled after his loss in game 8. To observe this and see whether he could respond, (and how), was very intriguing. Karjakin himself, I personally found a disappointment — I expected more bite from him. I think the right player won in the end.
As to what can be done in order to combat dull play and draws, answers on a postcard to that one. I am not exactly sure that anything needs doing, draws are part of the game and in themselves not necessarily without tension and intrigue. They did get rather too much in this match, though and some were very feeble affairs. This can not really become the norm for World Chess Championship matches, that is for sure.
Perhaps the organisers for events such as this could consider either implementing a penalty for ‘non-combatance’ such as in Judo or some kind of game restart, such as in Snooker? Grandmaster Robert Ris also had an interesting suggestion on Twitter, namely to play the tiebreak before the match, which I find very intriguing; but, would one player knowing that he is safe with a 6-6 score and one knowing that he isn’t, necessarily increase the likelihood of excitement? Perhaps, but there is no guarantee. At the end of the day, incentive is probably a better way to go than punishment, with cash bonuses being offered for wins and brilliancy prizes. However, the cash is already quite high for World Championship matches, (well, I would not complain at it!) so could this be a big enough incentive?
After all, if the prospect of being World Champion is not enough to get a player to roll up their sleeves and go for it with gusto, then what is … ?
I’d like to end on a personal note, firstly apologising for the lateness of this report. Unfortunately, my day job is not always cooperative when it comes to my first-love of chess. I hope better late than never. I would also like to thank you for your interest and support, HOTCH visitors have risen dramatically during the World Championship and that is very humbling and rewarding. It’s been really great to have you following along and I hope you continue to enjoy your visits here. There is the London Chess Classic still to come this year and Wijk aan Zee in January, just to name a couple of the events I hope to cover in the near future. Thanks again!