When the dust had settled at the World Chess Championship in Manhattan on Wednesday night, the expected had happened. In his second defense match since winning the title in 2013, Magnus Carlsen of Norway vanquished the most difficult foe of his still-young chess career: 26 year-old Sergey Karjakin of Russia.
For the first time since Nigel Short faced off against Garry Kasparov in 1993, this month’s match has offered us the spectacle of a western player facing down a representative of the former Soviet Union. Those media outlets that have deigned to cover the championship have gleefully slotted it into the old Cold War template; from the first lines of this New York Times piece you’d think the Kremlin had deployed troops to lower Manhattan ― or that we were living a real-life version of Okkupert, the Norwegian TV series in which Russia invades Norway to gain control of its oil resources. Of course it is hard to ignore politics when Vladimir Putin’s press secretary is in attendance at the match. Or when the Russian president is said to be receiving personal updates on the challenger’s progress. Or when one of the players is posting instagram photos like this:
But the truth on the ground is more mundane. If you ask the representatives of FIDE (the International Chess Federation) or Agon (the company producing the match) they’ll tell you that this kind of talk is a distraction. What they care about is chess. They would say that, of course, but it’s pretty much correct. Carlsen and Karjakin don’t see themselves as representatives of clashing political ideologies. They’re chess players. Their personal ambitions are about as political as Lebron James’s. It was the same for Bobby Fischer and Boris Spassky during their title match in 1972 - now considered the ultimate Cold War chess showdown. Then as well, both players seemed to think of the political talk as a distraction.
It was certainly far from the players’ minds when, after their 12-game match ended in a 6-6 tie, they sat down on Wednesday afternoon to begin a tiebreak round. The format was a series of four 1-hour games: the shorter time format means that the players have less time to think and consequently the game becomes more random. This gives them more hope of breaking out of the pattern of endless draws that had so far characterized the match. As U.S. #1 Fabiano Caruana told me after round twelve on Monday, “in quick play games, anything can happen.”
In earlier rounds, the ceremonial first move was often played on the board by some visiting luminary, like actor Woody Harrelson or astrophysicist Neil DeGrasse Tyson. Bizarrely, Wednesday’s first move was played by prominent tech billionaire, Donald Trump transition-team member, and opponent of women’s suffrage Peter Thiel.
That game ended in a draw, but in game two Magnus gradually built up a promising position. He appeared to be successfully pushing it home; the live computer evaluation at one point gave him a 98% chance of winning. In the spectators’ hall, an anticipatory hush fell over the crowd. Was this the decisive moment they’d been waiting for?
No. Carlsen mishandled the end of the game and Karjakin came up with a hugely creative sequence of moves that allowed him to force a draw by stalemate. “Unbelievable,” said Judit Polgar in the live commentary booth. “I would shoot myself, I think, in Magnus’ place.”
Recovering from a missed opportunity like that is a difficult psychological task for a chess player. Game 3 appeared even less promising for the champion, and as the game developed it too seemed to be headed for a draw - until, with his final seconds ticking away on the clock Karjakin made a terrible mistake. Magnus pounced. When the challenger extended his hand in surrender, a massive cheer went up from the assembled crowd. For the first time in the entire match, the champion was in the lead; and while there were some nervous Russia fans in the house, for the most part NYC is Magnus Carlsen country.
That meant that the champion only needed a draw in the fourth rapid game to defend his title. He had the white pieces, and thus the advantage of the first move. Carlsen quickly established a solid, impervious structure with his pawns. None of the experts saw much chance for Sergey to break through. He began to flail about like a cornered animal, playing moves that were objectively unjustified but which represented his only real chance of mixing things up. It’s an unfortunate spectacle to see a grandmaster reduced to playing in this manner, but the challenger had no choice; he needed a win. Nothing else would do; and at the elite level there are few things more difficult than trying to force a win against an opponent determined only to draw. As his position became more and more desperate, Karjakin’s clock time dwindled once more. His eyes flitted about as he looked frantically for a way, any way, to keep his lifelong championship dream alive. As he assembled his rook and queen in a battery formation in a final desperate attack on Magnus’ king, he overlooked a tactical sequence that allowed Carlsen to sacrifice his queen and deliver checkmate. It was all over.
Spectators in Moscow watch the final round (from Sergey Karjakin’s instagram)
As the players emerged to greet the press and spectators, a chorus of “Happy Birthday” went up. Wednesday was Magnus’ 26th, and it’s hard to imagine a better present than the winner’s share of a $1.1 million prize fund. When Carlsen thanked his opponent for a great match, a roar of applause arose from the crowd and continued for a full minute. Sergey Karjakin maintained his traditionally impassive expression, but it was just possible to detect a quiver of emotion underneath. When he accepted his runner-up prize, he informed the crowd that he had gotten a message from his wife. “Our son,” he said. Sergey was searching for the right English word, but eventually settled on mime. He wiggled his two fingers in a walking motion. “He started to make his steps.” The crowd let out an “aaaaaww”.
After three weeks, the championship match that seemed at various points like it might produce nothing but draws finally had a decisive result; yet a slightly unpleasant stench still lingered in the air. An event meant to prove superiority in long-time-format (known as “classical” chess) had been decided by rapid playoffs. It’s by no means rare for the world champion to be chosen in this way; the 2012 match between Viswanathan Anand of India and Boris Gelfand of Israel ended with exactly the same score, 1 win each, with 10 draws, and so it too was decided in a rapid tiebreak. But that finale left a lot of people cold, a bit like the anti-climax of deciding a World Cup on penalty kicks.
Many top players lamented that the classical portion of the match had been unable to produce a winner. Syrian-American grandmaster Yasser Seirawan wrote a piece after the final classical game on Monday in which he proposed radically altering the rules of the championship to eliminate the need for a tiebreak round, but his solution has its own grave pitfalls. In general there was a palpable longing for the kind of clear-cut win that Magnus had pulled off in his first championship match in 2013 when he dethroned Viswanathan Anand of India.
Yet it was hard to avoid the slightly awkward fact that Wednesday’s rapid mini-tournament had been by far the most exciting part of the entire match. The hall was as packed as it had ever been; the games produced edge-of-your-seat suspense and real human drama. The rapid time format (25 minutes per player, total games usually in the 40 or 50 minute range) has some obvious advantages from the spectators’ point of view. It’s long enough for an observer, with the help of expert commentators, to wrap their head around the strategic drama of what’s happening on the board, but it’s quick enough that you don’t have to set aside your entire Saturday to watch a single game. Grandmaster Maurice Ashley summed it up in the live commentary. “[The match] has been a little bit boring,” he said. “But the rapid [games] have been more much more entertaining.” I spotted Ashley in the spectator’s hall after the closing ceremony and asked him if he’d had second thoughts. “I have not had ANY second thoughts!” he told me. “I think that most of the [classical] games were not that interesting. Rapid chess is where it’s at, all that action, all that excitement. I think we should see more of that.”
Maurice Ashley is best known for being the first African-American to earn the prestigious grandmaster title from the International Chess Federation. He was born in Jamaica but moved to New York at age 12, eventually becoming a chess educator and coach. The New York chess scene has long been influenced by the culture of “chess hustlers” who play passersby and one another in Manhattan’s Washington Square and Union Square parks; as a proud New Yorker, Ashley retains a certain affection for this style of chess, in which rapid-fire trash-talk is as much a part of the game as castling. “The chess championship belongs in New York,” he told me with a smile.
Earlier in the match - long before the prospect of a tiebreak round reared its head - I spoke with Andrew Murray-Watson, press spokesman for Agon Unlimited, and asked him if he thought rapid play might have more of a future. “There’s definitely a place for it,” he told me. “But it’s a bit like eating candy floss every meal of the day (British for cotton candy ― Murray-Watson is English). Candy floss is great, but you don’t want to have a diet solely consisting of candy floss.” The view that Murray-Watson is expressing here is a standard one in the chess world. Long games are the highest standard of chess, its purest incarnation.
Maurice Ashley disagrees. “I think that’s overstating the case dramatically. The old-style purists are gonna say that classical chess is where it’s at, we’re willing to take those boring, six-hour draws that go no where, because you get more “pure” chess. But look at the games - when you look at the classical games, how many mistakes did you see? I mean, there were lots of mistakes in those games! What do the purists have to say about those games?” It’s a simple fact that chess fans like to see players falter, they like to see mistakes, they like to see suffering and triumph and turnarounds and tragedy as much as fans of any other sport. It almost made up for this match’s endless, seven-hour draws to see the final game end with a queen sacrifice, the chess equivalent of a slam dunk. Maurice Ashley concurs. “The best ending possible. Really beautiful. Scintillating stuff.”
Magnus Carlsen took to instagram after the match to express his satisfaction with the result. After endless months of training, preparation, sweat and tears, the champion was finally ready to enjoy some time off.
Nearly three weeks ago, the night before the first game, I spoke to Magnus’ father Henrik, who is the champion’s constant companion and closest confidant during his matches. I could sense his mixture of confidence and nervousness about the challenge that awaited his son. “You never really stop being nervous,” he told me. “But I think it’s good to be a little nervous.” Henrik features prominently in a new documentary about the world champion, Magnus, which had its U.S. release as the match in New York was going on.
There’s something a bit eerie about seeing little Magnus, barely more than ten years old, looking into the camera and saying “I hope to be world champion.” Unlike most people, Magnus actually made his insane ten-year-old dream come true.
The question now is just how long he’ll be able to hold on. Not long ago he seemed all but invincible, but with his near-loss in this month’s match it’s clear that Magnus can be beaten. Everyone has their own idea about who will be the one to do it; some point to 24-year-old U.S. #1 Fabiano Caruana, some to Anish Giri of the Netherlands, others to Magnus’ old rival Levon Aronian of Armenia. Others still point to the wildly talented Chinese prodigy Wei Yi, who recently obliterated Carlsen’s old record to become the youngest player ever to cross the 2700 elo-rating threshold. Magnus himself was asked after the match how long he plans to remain champion. He smiled. “At least until 2018.”
You can read my previous coverage of the championship here.