After 11 often grueling games over the past 16 days, the World Chess Championship is right where it started — tied. There is one full-length game remaining.
Magnus Carlsen of Norway, the world No. 1 and defending champion, has spent the past two weeks jousting with his challenger, the underdog Sergey Karjakin of Russia. With defensive stands worthy of the Battle of Thermopylae, and an improbable win with the black pieces in Game 8, Karjakin is still alive. If he wins as black on Monday, Karjakin will unseat Carlsen, the heavy favorite and “Mozart of chess.” If Carlsen prevails with white, he’ll have successfully defended his title for the second time. The match has been a tense human drama. But the watchful eyes of computer chess engines have also been observing, quantifying the ups and downs and framing the conversation for commentators and spectators.
Saturday’s 11th game of the best-of-12 World Chess Championship in New York City was a quick, 34-move draw — the ninth draw of the match — and took just more than three hours. The match is now tied at 5.5 in a race to 6.5 and chess’s ultimate prize.1
Yet again, the game began with an opening called the Ruy Lopez — the seventh time in 11 games. While the match between the two grandmasters is tied, the real winner might be Rodrigo (Ruy) López de Segura, the Spanish priest who undertook the first systematic examination of this opening in 1561.
This most recent game may have revealed more about the players’ states of mind than any deep chess truths or dramatic or instructive positions. Karjakin was handling the white pieces for the final time in the set of 12 games. Chess fans expected (and many hoped) he’d “push,” opting for sharp attacking lines, playing for a win rather than settling for a draw. Instead it appeared to be Carlsen who was seeking winning edges as black. On the 24th move, Carlsen faced this position:
An obvious move here, and the one preferred by the computer chess engine Stockfish, is for black to take the white pawn on d3 with his own. Carlsen, however, did not surrender one of his pieces so easily. Instead, he pushed that same pawn to e3, a step closer to its possible promotion to a queen, seeing if there was still any blood to be squeezed from the stone of a position. There wasn’t. Karjakin blocked the pawn’s advance, and the two grandmasters agreed to a draw 10 moves later.
But one wonders how much fight Karjakin has left in him. “I’m not happy with how I played, but at least I managed to hold,” Karjakin said after the game.
“In the first part of the match, it was 80 percent chess,” he added. “Now, it’s 80 percent psychology.”
Carlsen, meanwhile, said it’s still about the chess. “The match is trending in a positive direction for me, and today, I have to say, I was a lot calmer than I was in the last few games,” Carlsen said. “I’m optimistic about the rest.”
If Monday’s game is drawn, the match will be tied at 6. That tie would then be broken, and a world champion crowned, Wednesday with four rapid chess games — 25 minutes a side with 10 bonus seconds added per move. If those are tied, two blitz games — five minutes a side with three seconds added per move — will follow. If those are tied, they’ll play another two five-minute games up to four more times. And finally, if those are tied, they’ll play a final sudden-death game, using a format known as armageddon. In armageddon, black gets “time odds”: White gets five minutes while black gets just four, but a draw counts as a win for black.
Carlsen is the No. 1 rapid player in the world and the No. 2 blitz player. Karjakin is No. 11 in blitz. Wednesday also happens to be Carlsen’s 26th birthday.
“The computer says …”
This is a common refrain at the championship venue on the East River in lower Manhattan. It’s repeated in the spectators’ gallery, the cafe and the press room. It is also declaimed on live-streaming chess broadcasts and bounces around Chess Twitter. It’s the lens through which the world championship is viewed and the rubric by which the players are praised and criticized.
“The computer” is a chess engine. There are many incredibly strong engines, capable of laying easy waste to the best humans. They go by names such as Stockfish, Komodo and Houdini. After a few split-seconds of considering a position, an engine like Stockfish spits out an “evaluation.” This is a single number, measured in fractions of a pawn. If the number is positive, the computer sees the position as better for white, and if it’s negative, better for black. This is how “the computer” has seen the match’s ups and downs so far:
Watching the World Chess Championship is an essentially digital experience. The players still play analog — they sit in chairs in the same room as each other, pushing boxwood pieces across a rosewood and maple board. But the pieces are equipped with sensors that digitize the moves, sending them to phone and laptop screens around the world. Even at the venue, only a small minority watch the actual human players through the thick one-way glass in the viewing hall. Far more stare at large flat-screen monitors, or at smartphones or tablets, exactly as they’d be doing were they watching in their living room.
Along the lefthand side of the chess board in the official match broadcast, and in other popular live streams such as chess24, is a bit of data visualization. It’s a long bar, a certain proportion of which is filled white, the other black. In an even position, the split is 50-50. If white is clearly winning, it may be something like 65-35, say.
“It’s bullshit,” one grandmaster told me at the match.
And it is, in some ways. The most obvious way to interpret the bar is as a winning percentage for white and for black, but that’s inaccurate. The bar doesn’t include a proportion for draws, for example, which are the single most likely outcome at the beginning of a grandmaster game. The computer is also bad at recognizing clearly drawn endgames, often giving an advantage to one side when none truly exists. It also seems miscalibrated. If the bars read 80 for white and 20 for black, black is toast in these elite-level games and would resign forthwith. So shouldn’t the bars have read 100-0?
To the extent that “the computer” and the almighty bar blind us to the chess being played, they’re a problem. We shouldn’t be watching the World Bar Shifting Championship. My colleague Ben Morris, who is watching the match from afar, noticed this effect.
But to the extent that they illuminate the deep chess being played, and teach a middling-at-best player like me what makes a position comfortable for white, or troublesome for black, they’re a boon. Like advanced metrics in other sports, they are debated — loved and hated. But the digital tools can serve as a complement to, rather than a substitute for, what’s happening on the field (er, the board).
One of the players in the match has dominated the public digital chess experience. Carlsen recently won Chess.com’s internet Grandmaster Blitz Battle. Carlsen’s personage is now prominently plastered on two apps — one launched during the championship match. Carlsen has a slickly designed home page, magnuscarlsen.com, featuring cool-sounding sponsors like Nordic Semiconductor and Arctic Securities.
The other player has struggled with his online presence. The websites sergeykarjakin.com and karjakin.com, as of this writing, redirect to Carlsen’s website. Karjakin has said he’s considered suing, while the Carlsen team has denied any involvement. Using a whois query, the closest I could come to identifying the true owner was through a domain registration privatizing company, with a Phoenix address and a Google Voice number, called PrivacyGuardian. (Magnuscarlsen.com is registered to an owner in Oslo.) I left a voicemail at the number and sent a message for the domains’ owner through the PrivacyGuardian website, saying I’d like to talk.
The next day, someone going by “A A” emailed me back from a nondescript email address. They didn’t identify themselves, but they did make me an offer. A bundle of 11 Karjakin-centric domains, they wrote, including karjakin.com and sergeykarjakin.com, was available. The quoted price: 46,464.64 euro. “Anyone can buy the domains and make a gift to the future of the world chess champion,” they wrote.
Game 12 is Monday afternoon, and the tiebreakers, if necessary, will be Wednesday afternoon. I’ll be covering the rest of the match here and on Twitter.