If a half-hour chess draw is played by two grandmasters in front of a mostly empty viewing hall in lower Manhattan, does it make a sound?
Such was the riddle presented at the World Chess Championship on a chilly Monday afternoon in New York. Magnus Carlsen of Norway, the world No. 1 and defending champion, raced to a draw in the championship’s final regulation game with his challenger, Sergey Karjakin of Russia, the world No. 6, in 30 moves over 35 minutes. It was reportedly the fastest world championship game ever played. The players’ best-of-12 match is now deadlocked at 6 points apiece. This year’s tie is part of a long history of deadlocks, draws and impasses that have shaped chess at its highest levels for more than a century.
In one sense, Monday’s game was a dud: perfunctory, repetitive, rapid and uninspired. On top of that, general-admission ticket prices for the game were raised from $75, as they had been for most of the match, to $200, leaving the venue eerily empty. In another sense, however, the game was historic. It leveled the match, and the title and legacy of Carlsen, the heavy favorite, are still at risk. The world championship now comes down to tiebreakers: On Wednesday, a series of games, potentially accelerating in speed, will be played until the world chess champion is crowned.
Monday’s game began with the Berlin Defence of the Ruy Lopez — the eighth time the Ruy has been played in 12 games. The opening — also known as the Spanish — has been a staple of chess for 500 years (and a staple of these articles for about three weeks).
But after the opening, there was little in the game worth mentioning. And that may be generous. The moves flew onto the board; major pieces were exchanged quickly; and after the 26th move, just one bishop per player, pawns and kings remained. After Karjakin’s 30th move, the two competitors agreed to a draw. By rule, this was the soonest they could do so.
Perhaps they were prepping for the hastened pace of Wednesday’s tiebreaker games. Those will begin with the “rapid” format: a mini-match of four games, each with 25 minutes per player and 10 seconds added after each move. If the players remain tied after those games, they’ll move on to “blitz”: five minutes a side and three seconds added after each move. They’ll play up to five mini-matches of two games apiece in that format, as long as they remain tied. Finally, if none of that breaks the deadlock, they’ll settle the score with “Armageddon.” In that format, white gets five minutes and black just four — but a draw counts as a win for black.
The rules for handling tied championship matches have changed over time, along with the game itself. For many early decades, the champion was given special deference: A tie meant he retained the title. Later, after a schism at the top levels of chess, a new champion had to be decided, and the rules were altered. And now the tiebreakers are seen as exciting crowd-pleasers in the game’s modern, internet age: a one-game baseball playoff, a soccer penalty shootout, college football overtime.
In 1910, the defending world champion Emanuel Lasker faced challenger Carl Schlechter in a series of 10 games in Berlin and Vienna. This year’s match is reminiscent of that 20th-century encounter: The challenger drew first blood, the titleholder finally tallied a win in the 10th game of the match, and the rest of the games were drawn. At its end, the 1910 match was level at 5 points. Historians disagree about how the players arrived at the tie. Some think the rules stipulated that Schlechter needed a 2-point winning margin to take Lasker’s title, which could explain Schlechter’s aggressive (and unsuccessful) play in the final game. Either way, according to the standards at the time, a tied match meant Lasker retained his crown. He would eventually cede it to the legendary José Raúl Capablanca, the “human chess machine,” in 1921.
Mikhail Botvinnik and David Bronstein, both representing the Soviet Union, met in Moscow for the 1951 world championship. Each player won five games, there were 14 draws, and the match lasted two months. (Pity the Soviet journalists.) The rules stipulated that with the tie, Botvinnik, the defending champion, retained his title. Bronstein is widely considered one of the greatest chess players never to be the world champion. Botvinnik eventually lost his title to Tigran Petrosian, who lost it to Boris Spassky, who lost it to Bobby Fischer in 1972.
The 2006 world championship, between Veselin Topalov and Vladimir Kramnik, was meant to reunify the world title, which had been split in 1993 between the FIDE (the sport’s current governing body) and a rival organization. Topalov held the former’s title and Kramnik the latter’s. As such, a tied match couldn’t end with the retention of the title by the defending champ — they both held titles, after all. Enter the tiebreaker. Like this year’s match, the regulation games in the Topalov-Kramnik encounter ended 6 to 6. (Each player won three games, and the rest were drawn.) Also, the tiebreaker format was essentially identical to this year’s. Kramnik won the second and fourth rapid games — and the unified championship. Four years later, Topalov found himself in another close world championship, against Viswanathan Anand. Topalov, in an attempt to avoid tiebreaker games, which were generally thought to greatly favor Anand, fought too hard in the final game. He lost that game and the championship.
Anand fought in yet another close championship two years later, in 2012, against Boris Gelfand. Like this year, each player won one of 12 games and the rest were draws. Anand won the second rapid tiebreaker game, drew the rest and won the championship. He lost it the next year to a 22-year-old named Magnus Carlsen, who’s held it since.
After Monday’s game, Carlsen seemed to be genuinely excited about the tiebreakers. “It’s fun to play rapid chess,” he said. “There’s no reason not to feel good.” (Wednesday is also his birthday.) But he also added that this was “for sure” his toughest world championship match.
Karjakin sounded more tentative. “Let’s hope there won’t be Armageddon,” he said.
The tiebreakers are on Wednesday afternoon. I’ll be covering them here and on Twitter.