Magnus Carlsen became known to the world as a chess artist. Nearly 13 years ago he began a sparkling attacking victory in a Dutch tournament with sacrifices on a single square: first the Bishop, then the Rook. I dubbed him the Mozart of chess in the Washington Post and soon the moniker spread around the globe.
On November 30, on his 26th birthday Carlsen found the same square again, this time to sacrifice his Queen. This artistic stroke won him the World Championship match in New York against the Russian challenger Sergey Karjakin.
Chess artists can suffer when they try to play too creatively. Carlsen knows that. Chess is a sport for him and the results count. "I want to win. No one's interested in excuses if I lose," said the late world chess champion Bobby Fischer in 1969. Winning becomes more than flashy combinations. Mind over matter plays a secondary role. Chess makes you humble if you don't win. Even the world champion can struggle.
In the first nine games of the World championship in New York, Carlsen could not win a single one. It never happened to him before. Karjakin put up a good fight. He based his strategy on defense, presenting difficult puzzles to Carlsen during the classical part of the match. Moreover, after the Norwegian grandmaster tried to force things on the board, Karjakin was on the verge of match victory, but could not seal the deal. Carlsen calmed down, found joy in his play and won the match in the rapid tie-break. His final move, a brilliant queen sacrifice, will grace many future world championship books.
The match started slowly with seven draws. It was more like slow shadow-boxing, chess within chess, grind without fireworks. Some promising advantages were neutralized by both players. To the untrained eye and to sports fans who believe that winning is everything, seven draws were seven too many.
It was not the volcanic Icelandic saga of Boris Spassky versus Bobby Fischer from Reykjavik 1972. That match held the world in thrall and inspired millions to pick up chess. The violent overture featured three decisive results in the first three games. The swashbuckling start of the first world championship match in New York in 1886 was even better.
Johannes Zuckertort lost the first game, but quickly won the next four. His opponent William Steinitz cut the lead in Saint Louis, decided the match in New Orleans and became the first official world champion. It was over in 20 games, Steinitz won 10 of them. Final score: 12.5-7.5.
In the world championship matches the players usually pick up one opening variation. It becomes their chess piñata. It can be hit from many angles until most secrets fall out and not much is left. Karjakin was prepared to go that way, but Carlsen made evasive moves. For some years he has been following, perhaps unknowingly, the advice of Lajos Portisch.
"Your only task in the opening is to reach a playable middlegame," wrote the all-time best Hungarian grandmaster in 1973 in the RHM book How to Open a Chess Game. Carlsen was able to shift the fight into middlegame and beyond before finally settling to defend the Main line Spanish.
The first decision came in Game 8. It seemed that Carlsen pushed too hard, making positional concessions in favor of vague tactics that probably made the chess hustlers in the Washington Square happy. Karjakin committed a few inaccuracies and Carlsen was still in the game. Have a look at the last two moves of the game to understand how difficult and tense the battle was.
Carlsen,Magnus - Karjakin,Sergey
World Championship, Game 8, New York 2016
The former world champion Jose Raul Capablanca preferred a Knight to accompany his Queen instead of a Bishop. The Knight can reach both black and white squares and often turns the Bishop into a hopeless spectator like in the final moments of the game.
The knight is also an excellent defender of the king, limiting the enemy queen to long checks. It also blocks the pawn on e4 and prevents the bishop from stopping the passed a-pawn.
Carlsen stops the a-pawn advance, but cannot check the black King. Arguably, two moves could steer the game to a draw:
A. 51.Qb7+ Nf7 (51...Kg8 52.Qb8+ Kf7 53.Qb7+; 51...Kg6 52.Qa6+) 52.Qa8 (52.Qa6 Qc3 53.Qa7 Qb2 54.e5) 52...Qc3 53.Qa7 Qb2 54.e5! =
B. 51.h4 h5 52.Kh3 Ng4 53.Bf3 Qg1 54.Qb7+ leads to a perpetual check.
Surprisingly, White has no good moves. The Black King can hide on h6, if necessary. After 51...Nf7 52.e5! opens up the Bishop and Black cannot win: 52...Nxe5 53.Bd5=
Loses outright. Chess can be a cruel game. Sometimes one single square makes the difference. If the white King stood on h3 already, Black would not be able to win. But now there is not much White can do.
For example, after 52.Kh1 Black has two paths to victory:
A. 52...Qc1+ 53.Kh2 Qb2 54.Qe7+ Nf7 55.e5 a2 56.e6 Qf6 57.Qxf6+ Kxf6 58.exf7 Ke7 wins.
B. Opening the position has a pretty point in the line 52...h4! 53.gxh4 Qc1+ 54.Kh2 Qb2 55.h5 (55.Qe7+ Nf7 56.h5 a2 57.h6+ Kxh6-+) 55...Nf3+ 56.Kg3 Qe5+ wins.
It is too late to return to the a-file: 52.Qa6 Qc3 53.Qa7+ Kh6 54.Qa6+ Ng6 wins.
Additional point of Black's last move comes after 52.Qf5 Ng4+! 53.hxg4 Qxf5 54.exf5 a2 wins.
A decisive deflection leading to a mating attack: 53.Qxa2 Ng4+ 54.Kh3 Qg1 55.Qb2+ Kg6 the black Queen covers the only reasonable check on b6 and after 56.Bf3 Nf2+ wins.
Karjakin was in the lead and played well to win Game 9, but his promising position fizzled out into a draw. In game 10, Karjakin could have repeated moves twice, and make a draw, but he missed it. Carlsen's positional squeeze slowly picked up speed and he equalized the score.
Carlsen,Magnus - Karjakin,Sergey
World Championship, Game 10, New York 2016
Karjakin just doubled the rook on the 7th rank with 56...Rh8-h7. The retreat 56...Nh6 was better. With his pieces placed on optimal squares, Carlsen begins the assault. He aims for the weak pawn on e6.
57.b5! cxb5 58.Rxb5 d4
A faint attempt for a counterplay will be neutralized by Carlsen. After the passive 58...Rhf7 59.Rb6 Ng7 60.f4 Black can barely move.
59.Rb6! Rc7 60.Nxe6 Rc3 61.Nf4! Rhc7
Karjakin could have exchanged the Rooks first 61...Rxd3, but after 62.Nxd3 Rc7 63.Rxg6 Rc3 64.Rf6! White should be winning, for example: 64...Ne3 65.Nf4 Rc1 66.g4 hxg4+ 67.fxg4 Rh1+ 68.Kg3 Rg1+ 69.Kh2 Rd1 (69...Rxg4 70.Kh3 Rg8 71.h5+-) 70.g5 d3 71.Nxd3 Rxd3 72.e6 wins.
62.Rxg6 Rxd3 63.Nxd3 Rc3 64.Rf6 leads to the previous note.
62...Rxd3 63.Nxc7 Kb8
Forced. Otherwise the black King succumbs to a mating attack, for example 63...Rxf3? 64.Nb5+ Kb8 (64...Ka8 65.Rf6!+-) 65.a6 Rxg3+ 66.Kh2 Rf3 67.Kg1! d3 68.Rxb7+ Kc8 69.Rc7+ Kd8 70.a7 wins.
64.Nb5 Kc8 65.Rxg6 Rxf3 66.Kg2 Rb3 67.Nd6+ Nxd6 68.Rxd6
After all trades the rook endgame should be won by White. Karjakin makes Carlsen's task easier.
Here was the last chance for Karjakin to confuse Carlsen. He should have played 68...Kc7 for example 69.Rxd4!? Rb5 70.e6 Rxa5 71.e7 Re5 72.Rd5! Rxe7 73.Rxh5 and it seems White should prevail, but it is not simple. For example, Black can create a counterplay with the b-pawn after 73...Kc6 74.Rh8 b5 75.Rc8+ Kd7 (75...Kd5?! 76.Rb8 Kc4 77.h5 and White should win.) 76.Rb8 Re5 77.g4 Kc7 78.Rf8 b4 and eventually blockade White's connected pawns.
With this pawn advance, White conquers the vital fifth rank.
Or 69...Re5 70.Kf3 Kc7 71.Rxd4 Rxe6 (71...Kc6 72.Re4!+-) 72.Rd5+-.
70.Rxd4 Rxe6 71.Rd5! Rh6 72.Kf3 Kb8 73.Kf4 Ka7 74.Kg5 Rh8 75.Kf6 Black resigned.
After he drew Game 11 as Black without problems, Carlsen figured out that he has better chances to win the match in four tie-breaking rapid games and quickly drew the last classical game.
The score was 6-6, but the tie-break went Carlsen's way. Karjakin's play was heavy handed. He escaped in the second game, but couldn't withstand Carlsen's pressure and lost the third game. It was down to the fourth rapid game, but before we go there, let's revisit the historical moment in Wijk aan Zee in 2004. Watch what the 13-year old prodigy did on the square h6.
Carlsen,Magnus (2484) - Ernst,Sipke (2474)
Wijk aan Zee 2004
Carlsen now begins a string of sacrifices on the square h6 to open the h-file.
21.Bxh6! gxh6 22.Rxh6+!!
This gorgeous Rook sacrifice is based on the vulnerable 7th rank.
22...Nxh6 23.Qxe7 Nf7 24.gxf7! Kg7
After 24...Qb6 White wins after 25.Qe5+ Kh7 26.Rh1+ Qh6 27.Rxh6+ Kxh6 28.Qf6+ Kh7 29.c3! cxd4 30.g4 d3 31.g5 d2 32.Qh6 mate.
25...Qb6 26.Rg3+ Qg6 would only prolong the game.
26.Rg3+ Rg6 27.Qe5+ Kxf7 28.Qf5+ Rf6 29.Qd7 mate.
The final epaulette mate crowns the artistic performance of the young Magnus.
It took Carlsen nearly 13 years to revisit the square h6 and end the magical journey. Here goes the brilliant finale:
Carlsen,Magnus - Karjakin,Sergey
WCh Rapid TB, Game 4, New York 2016
47.Qxf4 Ra2+ 48.Kh1 Qf2
After 48...Qxf4 49.Rxf4 Bg5 50.Rc8+ White wins.
Some commentators predicted 49.Qg3, but Carlsen found a brilliant finish.
After 49...Bf8 50.Rxf8+ Kxf8 51.Rxf7+ Ke8 52.Rf8+ Kd7 53.Qf7+ Kc6 54.Qd5+ Kc7 55.Rf7+ Kc8 56.Qc6+ mates.
This astonishing Queen sacrifice should be printed on Magnus Carlsen's visit card. Black is mated: 50...gxh6 51.Rxf7#; or 50...Kxh6 51.Rh8#. Black resigned.
Who can say that Magnus Carlsen is not a chess artist? With the 3-1 tiebreak win Carlsen retained the world title.
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Images by Albert Silver