The line to enter the World Chess Championship venue in lower Manhattan on Sunday afternoon snaked around a plaza in the South Street Seaport. Winter had arrived in New York that morning. Temperatures hovered in the 30s, a stiff wind blew under a gray sky, and a giant Christmas tree stood half-decorated nearby. The shivering sellout crowd was anxious to get inside. They wanted to warm up — and to see someone win a game of chess already.
One out of two ain’t bad. The two grandmasters they were there to see agreed to a draw after just over two hours and 33 moves of a largely forgettable Game 7 in the best-of-12 match.
With Sunday’s result, this year’s championship is quickly becoming the Groundhog Day Match: All seven games so far have been draws. The race to 6.5 points and chess’s highest title is now knotted at 3.5-3.5.1 Despite a few promising chances, the defending champion and world No. 1, Magnus Carlsen of Norway, has yet to break through the brick walls erected by his challenger, Sergey Karjakin of Russia. Karjakin earned a minor victory of another kind Sunday, however. Thanks to this series of draws, he improved his world ranking from ninth to seventh in the ratings, leapfrogging the American Hikaru Nakamura and former world champion Viswanathan Anand of India.
At least Sunday’s opening offered something new. Karjakin, playing as white, began by pushing his queen’s pawn forward two squares, and Carlsen returned the favor. Karjakin then pushed a pawn up to join the other on the left, deploying what’s known as the Queen’s Gambit. In this strategy, white offers one of its pawns as sacrifice to black, in exchange for control of the center of the board and promising attacking chances. In this game, Carlsen declined to take the pawn, instead moving one of his own up a square. Declining the Queen’s Gambit like this is called the Slav Defense. The Slav looks like this:
According to the database of chessgames.com, Carlsen had played the Slav just four times before as black, winning only once. Perhaps he’d cooked up some Norwegian Slavic magic in his chess lab back in Oslo.
With Carlsen’s 10th move, the two grandmasters found themselves deep in the wilderness, in a position that had been seen only three times before in top play, per the ChessBase database. Had Carlsen unleashed a secret weapon?
The position may have been rare, but the computer engine Stockfish saw the balance of the game as quite even. The only real tactical eyebrows were raised an hour or so later, on Move 16, when Carlsen (black) faced this position:
The Norwegian slid his rook in the corner over two squares to c8, hoping to get it involved in the fight. But the Russian sparked a calculated volley of captures to his advantage. First, he put black in check by moving his knight to f6, revealing his bishop along the long diagonal in the process. Then all hell broke loose. In quick succession: bishop took knight, bishop took bishop, bishop took rook, bishop took knight, bishop retreated, bishop took rook, queen took queen, rook took queen, rook took bishop. When the dust settled, the board was decimated, and a mass grave of boxwood pieces lay at its side. Karjakin then quietly took Carlsen’s black pawn on a6, coming out of the skirmish ahead.
But in the end, the one pawn advantage just wasn’t enough firepower. Karjakin won the battle but drew the war.
This world championship match has been visited by more than its fair share of problems and scandal: a world chess official’s troublesome Syrian ties, hacking fears, applications for restraining orders, expensive tickets and monotonous results.
The chess kids in New York didn’t seem to care.
On Sunday, the venue was lively, and in many areas, the floor was littered with backpacks, sodas, snacks, chess boards, chess pieces and cross-legged children.
One, sitting in the front row of a cafe viewing area, was poring over a copy of “Carlsen: Move by Move” as if it were a holy text. (The 25-year-old Magnus, who became a grandmaster at 13, was a favorite with the younger set.) A contingent from P.S. 166’s Manhattan Knights chess team giggled nearby. Mothers and fathers watched admiringly over speed chess games, their children sitting on their knees to reach the pieces.
Logan, 8, and his friend Kai, 8, were spread out on the floor in the back of the viewing hall, re-creating the grandmasters’ game using a board of their own. They came from the Bronx and elsewhere in Manhattan to watch.
“Magnus is my favorite player who’s living, but he’s not my favorite,” Logan told me between potato chips. “My favorite is Bobby Fischer. He made some amazing moves, and I looked over some of his games. There were some interesting moves, and Magnus also made some interesting moves so far.” (Fischer grew up in Brooklyn.) Early on in Sunday’s game, Logan thought Carlsen might have the better position, but he and Kai foresaw a draw.
Twelve-year-old Aidan and his 10-year-old sister, Sarah, live in Brooklyn and took the subway to the match. Aidan was a Carlsen fan, too — he didn’t really have a reason, but he respected Carlsen’s popularity and that he has an app. “As you can see, Magnus Carlsen is down a pawn, and I’m wondering what’s gonna happen next,” Aidan told me between frequent neck-wrenching glances back to the screen where the game was being shown. I asked him to make a prediction. “Oh, I wouldn’t do that,” he said.
Sarah admitted that Aidan was the stronger player but said that she’s catching up. Who is her favorite chess player? “I’d have to say probably not one of those people,” she said, gesturing toward the screen. “I like female chess players.”
David Brodsky, 14, came in from Westchester County and was standing in the cafe with his mom, watching the game unfold on an iPad. He learned to play chess “a long time ago” and is now ranked fourth in his age category in the U.S. “I don’t think it’s going exactly according to plan for Carlsen,” he said. “I was surprised he didn’t win Games 3 and 4.” This was Brodsky’s first time at the match, but he’d been watching on the internet: “I think I’m rooting for Carlsen this match. I don’t want some boring draw.”
At the postgame press conference, another kid, maybe 10, asked if it was “weird” that the two grandmasters were drawing every game. The crowd laughed.
“It’s quite normal that games end in a draw, even when there is a fight,” Carlsen told him. “But, yeah, it is unusual that every single game has been drawn. But I don’t necessarily think it will happen from now on. We’ll see.”
Game 8 begins Monday afternoon. I’ll be covering the rest of the games here and on Twitter.