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The Houdini Of Chess Has Escaped Again At The World Championship

The French word for chess is échecs. The French term for Tuesday’s game at the World Chess Championship is déjà vu.

On Monday, world No. 1 and defending champion Magnus Carlsen of Norway fought his challenger, world No. 9 Sergey Karjakin of Russia, in a sweeping 78-move, seven-hour classic worthy of Terrence Malick — a draw for the ages. On a gloomy Tuesday in lower Manhattan, the players sat down in front of 32 pieces and 64 squares and did it again.

The result was a 94-move, six-hour-plus draw that kept the best-of-12 world championship match tied for yet another game. After four games and four consecutive draws, the grandmasters’ tally is now 2-2.1 Whoever gets to 6.5 points first, wins.

Harry Houdini was known to escape after being handcuffed, nailed into a wooden box and dumped into the East River. Sergey Karjakin should now be known for escaping in a suit jacket from a thick glass box just a block away from the East River — a box containing two chairs, a chess set and the brain of Magnus Carlsen.

Tuesday’s game saw a familiar opening, one that’s becoming de rigueur in this match: the Ruy Lopez, in which each side plays its king’s pawn, each develops a knight, and white attacks black’s knight with a bishop. It’s been a staple in chess for over half a millennium because it develops pieces quickly and creates tension, and it’s been played in each of the last three championship games. In fact, each of the players’ first five moves in Tuesday’s Game 4 exactly matched their first five moves in Game 2. Nevertheless, Tuesday’s early board developed into a complex tapestry — both strategically and tactically rich — with no clear early advantage to either side. Not a single piece was captured until the 16th move.

But soon after that capture, this latest game looked like it had slipped away from the Russian. On his 19th move, Karjakin, playing white, faced this position.

chess-1116-move19

He had just snuck his bishop into enemy territory, capturing a black pawn that had been camping on h6. The computer chess engine Stockfish screamed “Escape!” suggesting Karjakin bring the bishop back from whence it came, returning it to safety on c1. But Karjakin (with no access to a computer, of course) chose a more adventurous path. He captured black’s knight on c4 with his other bishop, essentially trading those two pieces, since black’s pawn could then easily capture the bishop. Neither the computers nor the human analysts liked this one bit.

That move forced black to double up its pawns on what’s called the c-file, which is chess jargon for the c column on the board. Doubled pawns are usually a no-no, but the move benefited black in other ways. Robert Hess, a grandmaster and chess.com contributor, explained to me that it created a ton of space for Carlsen’s two bishops to operate and it opened up the b-file for either of black’s rooks to swoop down and attack. From then on, Carlsen’s momentum built, and for hours you couldn’t find anyone who wasn’t predicting a Carlsen victory. He looked unbeatable.

Move after move, hour after hour, Carlsen nursed a roughly one-pawn edge.2 Move after move, hour after hour, Karjakin crafted his fortress. The siege would begin soon.

But Carlsen eventually slipped, and the peanut gallery, reveling in laptop-aided hindsight, began to doubt his tactics. On his 45th move, Carlsen (black) faced this board.

chess-1116-move45

He slid his pawn down a square, to f4. It didn’t look like much to me at first. But the online assemblage seemed to say “f4” in the same way a Red Sox fan might say “Bucky Dent.” Stockfish preferred sliding the bishop down to e6, pressuring white’s pawn. As Hikaru Nakamura, a top American player, explained on Twitter, that pawn move constipated the board, limiting the pieces’ ability to move (what chess types call “closing the position”). That in turn contributed to Karjakin’s fortress and denied black the dynamic board it needed to secure a victory.

Some were blunter in their analyses than others.

Even an acquaintance of mine, who was emailing to make plans to have coffee, had something to say. The email ended: “Also, re today: F4??”

Over the next 50 moves — an endgame masterclass — bishops jockeyed for position, kings chased each other around the board, and pawns mostly stood frozen in fear. But eventually the siege ended. The fortress held. Another bloodless classic.

Monday’s nearly seven-hour game may have taken its toll on both players, perhaps even contributing to the inaccuracies. Somewhere around move 17, Carlsen wandered away from the board and cameras captured him on the couch in his private player’s room, seemingly collecting himself:

Mercifully, the players have a day off Wednesday. The match resumes Thursday afternoon, and I’ll be covering the rest of the games here and on Twitter.

Footnotes

  1. Wins are worth 1 point, draws are worth 1/2 a point for each player, and losses are worth 0 points.

  2. It’s common in chess to measure a player’s advantage in terms of “material,” or pieces remaining on the board. There’s a rough point system: pawns are worth 1 point, bishops and knights are 3, rooks are 5 and queens are 9.

Oliver Roeder is a senior writer for FiveThirtyEight.

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