Magnus Carlsen of Norway, the defending world chess champion and No. 1 player, had a nice Thanksgiving in New York City: He won a game of chess. In the 10th game of the best-of-12 world championship match, on the banks of the East River in lower Manhattan, after eight draws and one loss, he finally triumphed Thursday in 75 moves and six and a half hours of play. The day before, he’d parried sharp threats from his challenger, Sergey Karjakin, the Russian world No. 7, fighting to a 74-move draw. The score is now tied at 5 in this race to 6.5 points and chess immortality.1
Wednesday continued the match’s main theme: lengthy, tense draws, with one side scratching for survival. Thursday saw the first breakthrough for the Norwegian and a sigh of relief from his fans. And away from the venue, New York chess fans — and the city’s chess elite — kept a watchful eye on the match.
The two grandmasters began Wednesday’s Game 9 with another Ruy Lopez — the fifth time this opening sequence of moves had been played in the match and the untold millionth time it has been played since its eponymous Spanish priest undertook the first systematic study of the sequence in 1561. It’s a natural way to start a chess game — two knights leap into action and then a bishop provides some tension.
Things proceeded largely without incident until around Move 39. Karjakin, playing white, was clinging to a small positional advantage, per the computer chess engine Stockfish. Carlsen, playing black, opened the door for him even wider. Carlsen retreated his knight, from d5 to e7, on Move 38. Karjakin contemplated the position below for more than 26 minutes, burning his time allotment down to less than a minute. He glanced occasionally at the clock but mostly stared at f7, the square occupied by a lowly black pawn near his opponent’s all-important black king.
Then Karjakin pounced. He forayed dramatically into enemy territory, capturing the pawn on f7 and sacrificing his bishop at the hands of black’s king in the process. For the first time in the two weeks of the match, what could honestly be described as a cheer erupted from the crowd in the Fulton Market Building in the South Street Seaport. Karjakin was on the attack!
The serious threats thereafter posed to black’s king by white’s invasion allowed Karjakin to make up for his lost bishop a few moves later, trading rooks and winning black’s knight. But the offensive wasn’t enough. Despite a one-pawn advantage, the Russian couldn’t ensnare the Norwegian king, settling for a draw. In the position shown above, the computer preferred a less direct — but incredibly complicated — variation: sliding the queen to b3 first to provide some backup before the bishop attack. That approach may have been winning for the Russian. But computers and may-haves aren’t worth a whole lot at the World Chess Championship.
The game was clearly drawn for the next hour, but Karjakin kept playing, swinging his queen around the board, bothering but never truly threatening Carlsen and his king. The Russian seemed to be lording his then 1-point advantage over Carlsen. At some point, the game wasn’t really about chess. It was about the players.
“I’m just happy to survive,” Carlsen said afterward.
Despite notions that Carlsen would venture something exotic the next day, handling the white pieces, to secure a badly needed win, Thursday’s Game 10 saw yet another Ruy to start — the sixth in 10 games. The Spanish priest would be proud.
Karjakin had a juicy chance to force a draw early on via perpetual check, which would have put him a huge step closer to the title, but he missed the opportunity. The grandmasters fought on. Unlike in the previous day’s game, however, the heaviest artillery came off the board, when queens were traded on the 24th move. But her loyal subjects survived: Not a single pawn was captured until the 34th move. These smallest of pieces formed an intricate lattice around and through which each of the grandmasters’ knight and two rooks had to navigate. Carlsen held a small edge, according to Stockfish, as the castles and horses were picked up, put down and rearranged in a shuffle worthy of an amateur Shakespeare production. It still looked somewhat draw-ish, as the chess commentariat is quick to say, until Move 56. Karjakin (black) had this to deal with:
His slid his rook, in the upper right corner, south one square, to h7. It didn’t look like much to me at first, but it cost him any chance of a draw. Karjakin, whose impenetrable defenses had helped secure an unlikely lead in the match, had crumbled. The issue with rook-to-h7 is that black can no longer address his many problems at once. His pressure points are the squares b7, the pawn next to his king, and e6, another lonely pawn. Tucking one rook behind the other limits its ability to help defend these. Indeed, the pawn on e6 would fall a few moves later, while b7 became a focal point of white’s attack. (Better, according to the silicon, was leaving the rooks be and taking the knight to h6.)
This game was vintage Magnus, though, grinding down an opponent and pursuing a small advantage, undeterred, for hours. Karjakin resigned on the 75th move. This spelled relief for Carlsen fans. For those without a rooting interest, there was another reason to be excited — the match was tied, and faster tiebreaker games could be in store. And perhaps the player everyone had expected when they shelled out $75 for their ticket — the Mozart of chess — had finally started composing.
A simple Elo-based simulation of the rest of the match puts Carlsen’s chance of winning in 12 games at 38 percent, and Karjakin’s at 10 percent. The chance of tiebreakers is 52 percent.2
The only American chess world champion of the modern era is Bobby Fischer, who won in 1972. There were high hopes that the list would double in length this year. Two Americans — Fabiano Caruana and Hikaru Nakamura — competed in March’s Candidates Tournament for the right to challenge Carlsen. Caruana, who grew up in Brooklyn, New York, fell 1 point short; Karjakin beat him in the final round to clinch the spot.
Still, this championship is resonating beyond the four walls of its venue with the chesserati in the Big Apple.
On a recent match off-day, I visited the Marshall Chess Club in New York’s Greenwich Village. The club, along with the outdoor tables in nearby Washington Square Park that chess hustlers call home, is the beating heart of chess in the city. A 13-year-old Fischer played the “Game of the Century” there in 1956, and a corner of the club is adorned with memorabilia from his 1972 championship match. Stanley Kubrick and Marcel Duchamp have counted themselves as members. Carlsen has played there. The club celebrated its 100th anniversary last year.
I was invited to a lecture about the first games of the championship match. I arrived early, and the unmistakable thwack of chess clocks echoed in the hall as I climbed the stairs to the main room. As I turned the corner, there was Caruana, the world No. 2 and top American player, playing speed chess as a crowd of about 15 gathered tightly around his table. He was seated under a sketch of the competitors for the 1935 world championship — Alexander Alekhine and Max Euwe. Alekhine was the defending champ; Euwe was a heavy underdog. Euwe won by a point.
When Caruana finished his session, I asked him about the other, more public chess games taking place two miles south. He had put the disappointment of the Candidates behind him, he told me, and had been following closely, staying up “very late” to analyze a recent game. “It’s a very unusual match,” he said. “I think both players are probably not at their best. There’s a lot of psychology going on. Carlsen is normally not affected psychologically, but he has some sort of barrier in this match. He’s playing moves he wouldn’t normally play.”
I asked him what we can expect. “If Magnus takes it to tie-break, he’ll probably win the match,” Caruana said.
Alone in a back room of the club, two men sat at a chessboard in front of large picture windows. Jay Bonin, an international master for whom the club is a de facto office, was giving a lesson to Dave Rabinowitz, a lawyer who lives nearby. They’d both been following the Carlsen-Karjakin match faithfully. Rabinowitz was following online (“with some degree of comprehension”), and Bonin had attended a couple of games. But they had their complaints. Rabinowitz seemed to long for an age of chess not too distantly past. “Chess has evolved,” he said. “You can see them being very careful, and they were not going to make any egregious mistakes. It’s different from even the way it was 50 years ago.”
Bonin would have preferred a different result at the Candidates. “I would’ve been more interested if there was an American player challenging Carlsen,” he said. “I’d root for an American.” Nevertheless, Bonin, who has played many thousands of tournament games and competed against a young Caruana, craved more coverage of the match. “I look in my daily newspaper, and I hardly see anything,” he said.
Here’s some more: Game 11 is Saturday afternoon, and Game 12 is Monday afternoon. I’ll be covering them here and on Twitter.