After 7 consecutive draws and the scores level at 3.5 points, the World Chess Championship saw a changing of the tide in game eight and would leave the chess world both stunned and baffled. At the end of the round, Magnus Carlsen, the reigning World Champion, would trail his challenger, Sergey Karjakin by a point.
Carlsen came out looking comfortable and in good spirits for the game, for which he would have the White pieces. It really didn’t go at all as planned, that is for sure. His choice of the Colle opening was a surprise it has to be said, and perhaps he will rue the choice and wish that he had stuck with something he knows better. Both players played some strange moves (to a mere mortal like me anyway) and Carlsen seemed to be hanging back with 17.Qe1 and 18.Bf1 and trying to provoke Karjakin into taking some form of action. It worked, but unfortunately for Carlsen, Karjakin became more and more active, taking a grip on the position. He was better.
The players both experienced time pressure, during which Karjakin’s position really came into it’s own and the Russian was soon potentially winning. Had he found 37…Qa4(!) then the game could have ended very soon after the time control, but Karjakin played the flawed 37…Qd3. The problem with this move, was that it obligated Black’s knight with the defence of his Queen and this allowed Carlsen’s 38.Nxe6+(!). The necessary 38…fxe6 allowed the White Queen to slip behind Black’s defence and have a constant harassment towards the Black King. And from here a forced draw looked likely.
Carlsen, however, seemed to be trying to prove a point and did not take the draw by repetition. Ultimately, this ended up giving the challenger another crack of the whip. Karjakin once again became more active, and with a nice Queenside passed pawn, steadily improved his position. His 51…h5(!) was like placing a feather on a car that was balancing on the edge of a cliff and White was going to plummet sooner or later. Unfortunately for Magnus Carlsen and his supporters, the Norwegian made it immediately, his 52.h4(??) allowed Karjakin to push his pawn to within a square of queening, with no way for Carlsen to stop it without getting mated.
It was a brutal turn of events for the defending Champion, but ultimately, one that he brought upon himself. Karjakin took the first victory in the match, and a point’s lead.
So what now? Well, I do not subscribe to the belief that Sergey Karjakin is now favourite to take the title. If we look at World Championship history, we see that this is not an unprecedented situation and has some parellels to when Kasparov played Anand for the PCA World Title in 1995. That match, (interestingly enough, also played in New York City), opened with 8 draws. Kasparov seemed rather lack-lustre and unable to achieve any knockout blows against his opponent.
If my memory serves me well, I recall that one of the chess pundits at the time, was asked what he thought Kasparov had to do in order to win a game. He replied, “lose one,” and this is what happened, when Anand won game nine. Kasparov’s response was to win the next two. Infact, he won four of the next five games and successfully won the PCA World Title 10.5-7.5.
Is it possible that Magnus Carlsen can do the same? Absolutely! Firstly, Carlsen has the same pride and arrogance that Kasparov had when he was at the top and that can not be under-estimated. He has the same belief that he is invincible and can out play his opponents and shatter their futile defences — “I do not accept the concept of the fortress … I just normally break through”. In game 8, he has been shown that although he might be right in most circumstances, he can not take liberties.
Game 8 will have hurt him, embarrassed him (he lost it twice), and this might be just what is needed to spur him on and to persuade him to roll his sleeves up, drop the half measures and fight for his title. I don’t even think that the title is the issue, or the money for that matter, I think he will want to show Karjakin and the chess World that this is not how it goes. That he can turn it on at will and that he is still number 1.
It has to be said, however, that with 8 games played of a 12 game match, he has a lot less time to recover his situation than Kasparov did with 9 out of 18. If he wants to win the match without needing tiebreaks (which of course he does) then he needs to win … now. The next games of the match, will be perhaps the toughest test that we have seen Carlsen face. He is rarely defeated and has never been behind in a World Championship match. We are about to see how his nerves and character can cope with that.
It can also not be overlooked, that the same test of nerves and character also faces Sergey Karjakin. He came into this match on a level playing field but as the clear underdog. He now finds himself with a lead to protect and the World Title in touching distance. This is also new territory for him. Karjakin said himself, in the press conference after game 8, that there was a lot of chess left in this match yet and I agree.
I would also not bet against more drama.