“Gonna be a draw,” a grandmaster texted me as the setting sun cast a red tinge on the East River off lower Manhattan. It was around 5 p.m. on Thursday, and my attention was split between the light filtering through the masts of the tall ships at the pier outside the window and the crucial but lumbering game of chess being played by two geniuses on the other side of the hall. Shortly after 6 p.m., a commotion broke the calm. An official with the World Chess Championship rushed into the press room. The game would end soon, he said, and we should be ready. Sergey Karjakin, the Russian underdog, was winning.
This was exciting news indeed. The first four games of the match had ended in draws — two of them epic — between Karjakin and his opponent, the defending world champion and No. 1-rated Magnus Carlsen of Norway. In Thursday’s fifth game, it seemed, there would be blood.
In the previous three games, the two players had opened the game with a set of moves called “the Ruy Lopez” — also known as “the Spanish.” On Thursday, they moved across the Mediterranean to play the “Giuoco Piano,” also known as “the Italian.” “Giuoco piano” means “quiet game,” but the opening is known for creating a tense, maneuvering contest. White aims to control the board’s center while black tries not to lose the battle for space.
Karjakin, handling the black pieces, came out of this opening battle slightly ahead, according to the computer chess engine Stockfish and a preponderance of onlookers in New York. This was a rarity, as the Russian had previously been relying on costive, defensive goal-line stands simply to stay alive in the championship match.
But on the 20th move, a minor theme of the previous games re-emerged, blunting Karjakin’s edge. He faced the following position:
Stockfish thought the better play for Karjakin was to move the black bishop back a square, from f5 to g6, which would reveal the black rook and apply further pressure on an already strained board. Karjakin’s human brain, however, preferred trading a bishop for a knight by capturing on c5. As in previous games, Karjakin played more passively than might have been optimal, going with the move that released some of the game’s tension but also perhaps some of his advantage along with it.
Nevertheless, the Russian would get another unexpected crack at victory. The game proceeded, quite level, for another 20 moves — solid grandmaster chess — and another draw seemed inevitable. (Hence the text and my staring at the ships.) Eventually, however, Carlsen (playing white) erred when facing the following position on the 41st move:
My laptop and the brains of those around me liked moving the rook over to h2. From there, it would stare down the juicy far-right column (h-file in chess parlance), which provides a useful conduit into black enemy territory and could have come wide open if some pawns were exchanged. Carlsen did, more or less, the opposite. He moved his king down a square, to g2.
Carlsen may have thought that the game was a dead draw and that any move would be a means to that end. He was wrong. The white king on g2 blocked the white rook’s access to the right edge of the board and, possibly, to black’s king. This swung the pendulum swiftly in Karjakin’s favor. “Carlsen played with his hand and not with his brain,” Robert Hess, a grandmaster and chess.com contributor, told me.
The Norwegian champ agreed with Hess. “King to g2 is a huge blunder,” a visibly upset Carlsen said at the postgame press conference. Up to this point in the match, Carlsen had generally seemed calm and comfortable, but after this game, he sat disturbed, face in hand, brusquely and testily answering questions. He’d have been halfway to his hotel already, one felt, were it not for his contractual obligations.
This blunder may have been due to a clerical error by Carlsen, NRK, Norway’s national broadcaster, reported after the game. Tournament players are required to record on a scoresheet all the moves played during a game. Carlsen, who’s done this many thousands of times, told NRK that he forgot a move earlier in the game. Once a player makes his 40th move, he receives 50 minutes of additional time on his clock. Carlsen received his extra time but initially seemed confused as to why. The king-to-g2 blunder came immediately after, on his 41st move.
After Carlsen’s mistake, the players had a full role-reversal, with the Norwegian playing Houdini and the Russian the stifled aggressor. But as the game progressed, Karjakin’s advantage fizzled, Carlsen’s defenses held, and the players agreed to a draw after 51 moves over five hours. The score is tied 2.5-2.5 in this race to 6.5.1
It’s been an impressive streak of draws, but there have been more to open a world championship. Garry Kasparov and Viswanathan Anand fought to eight in a row in 1995, the last time the championship was in New York. But those — only one was longer than 30 moves — pale in comparison to the legendary draws this year.
I’d witnessed some 18 hours of play over the previous three game days. On the train on my way home from the venue, the man sitting next to me was staring at his smartphone. He was playing chess.
Game 6 begins Friday afternoon. I’ll be covering the rest of the games here and on Twitter.
CORRECTION (Nov. 18, 10:47 a.m.): An earlier version of this article misstated the amount of additional time players receive after their 40th move. It is 50 minutes, not an hour.