25 November 2016

Karjakin -- Carlsen 2016: Critical Positions

The World Chess Championship is tied 5-5 after ten games. Today is a rest day. Before the match, many were predicting a victory for the reigning champion, Magnus Carlsen. Some even thought that Carlsen would retain his title in fewer than twelve games, regarding Sergey Karjakin as clearly the inferior player. Karjakin had not been a favorite to win the Candidates tournament either. Nonetheless, Karjakin defended well in difficult positions early in the match. Perhaps Carlsen had a stronger move in a few cases. Karjakin also missed a few better moves. Some of those positions are presented below.

The first game was not particularly eventful. Although Carlsen managed to create weaknesses in Karjakin's pawn structure, the challenger managed to hold the position without too much pain. Looking at the final moves from my position as a class player, however, I did not know at a glance whether swapping the last pair of minor pieces could give either player an advantage in the pawn ending.

Black to move
After 40.Nd4+
The game concluded 40...Kd6 41.Nb5+ Kd7 42.Nd4 Kd6 and a draw was agreed due to repetition assured.

Had Karjakin played 40...Bxd4, would the game be drawn as well? Grandmasters probably understand the resulting pawn position at a glance, but many other chess players could do well to play it out against a friend or computer.

Carlsen's play with Black in game two deprived Karjakin of any real chance for an advantage.

Ruslan Ponomariov, who wrote the annotations to the first two games for ChessBase, thought that Carlsen could have presented Karjakin with a tactical problem to solve with a different move 26, but Karjakin probably would have seen the trick clearly.

Black to move
After 26.b4
Carlsen played 26...Re6 and the game was drawn on move 33. Ponomariov thought that 26...c5 27.Nxb5 cxb4 28.Nd6 Re6 29.Nxc8 Rxa6 might lead to complexities.

In the third game, Carlsen secured an advantage and then pressed hard for a win. The ending generated a lot of interest around the world. Yasser Seirawan was at a dinner in Saint Louis, where he joined Viswanathan Anand, Hikaru Nakamura, Veselin Topalov, and Fabiano Caruana following the game on Caruana's smartphone. Seirawan's annotations for ChessBase presented a drawing opportunity missed by Karjakin from this position.

Black to move
After 70.Nc6
The game was drawn after 70...Kxf5 71.Na5 Rh1 72.Rb7? (72.Rf7+ seems to be winning) 72...Ra1! 73.Rb5+ Kf4! 74.Rxb4+ Kg3 75.Rg4+ Kf2 76.Nc4 h3 77.Rh4 Kg3 78.Rg4+ Kf2.

Seirawan's analysis, presenting the ideas of four other Grandmasters who "out-rated" him, after 70...Rc3!! is worth checking out at the link. Credit Anand for convincing the others that Karjakin could hold.

Chess fans following the game with the aid of engine analysis quickly spotted Carlsen's decisive error as he was pressing for a win in game four. However, Carlsen thought the line he played was winning. It took many more moves before Carlsen's winning ideas had been proven illusions.

Black to move
After 45.Nd1
How many humans could have found 45...Be6 and then had the ability to convert against Karjakin's defensive efforts? Carlsen played 45...f4, gaining a secure passed pawn on the kingside that left him plenty of time to penetrate with his king on the queenside. Many times during the next fifty moves, Karjakin had only one piece that could move without his position collapsing. Sometimes his king had to move. Other times his knight could move, and often only the bishop could. He was very close to zugzwang, but not quite.

Karjakin was slightly better in game five and spent a lot of time in this position, which my advanced students were watching on the demo board at chess club while it was taking place.

Black to move
After 42.hxg4
Karjakin's pawn sacrifice, 42...d4!, brought pressure against the White king. Carlsen returned the sacrifice two moves later and managed a draw.

Gmae six was the least interesting game, except to those who seek to understand the Marshall Gambit and its variants when Black needs a draw against the Spanish. In the annotations for ChessBase, Tiger Hillarp Persson points out Karjakin's method and the computer's method of securing a clear draw from this position as White.

White to move
After 20...Rfe8
For game seven, Karjakin switched to 1.d4 but made no progress. Already at move 15, he needed to secure equality.

White to move
After 15...O-O
16.Ba3 forces material off the board. Karjakin ended up with an ending in which he was a pawn up, but had no chance to fight for a win.

After failing to get an advantage in the two shortest games of the match, and his two consecutive Whites, Karjakin explained, "it is better to play well than to play with White." In game eight, he broke the historic run of draws (the longest in a world championship match sine 1995), winning with the Black pieces.

Both players made errors in the time scramble just before move 40. Carlsen made a bad move in a bad position and then Karjakin missed the strongest continuation. Play went on into another hour.

White to move
After 48.Nd3
It is easy for a computer, and for a human looking at computer evaluations, to understand where White needs to place his queen in such a position. Perhaps the queen is where she belongs and something else should move. For human players, however, it is very difficult to find the right move. World Champion Magnus Carlsen played 49.Qa5? and Karjakin found a way to bring home the full point.

In the ninth game, Sergey Karjakin might have had a chance to put Carlsen away and gain the upper hand in the match.

White to move
After 38...Ne7
Karjakin thought for a long time, finally choosing 39.Bxf7+. Commentators favor 39.Qb3. Neither move has consequences that are clear to human players.

In the tenth game, Karjakin missed a forced draw early in the game and then suffered a long time.

Black to move
After 20.Nd2
How many players can find a draw here without engine assistance?

Karjakin finally cracked after defending a difficult endgame for many hours, allowing Carlsen to even the score.


  1. The number of positions arising in this match, which I would have mis-evaluated had I not known who was playing were significant. In many positions, Karjakin was able to keep tension when I thought he was clearly worse. I don't think a couple of the positions you presented above were the most difficult to evaluation (but you are listing critical positions here, I understand). The ending for game one is straightforward enough, and I'm downright shocked that Karjakin didn't see the forced draw in game 10. in fact, unless he said he missed it, I can't believe he didn't see it, but rather chose to play to win. As a player whose barely cracked 1800, I saw the drawing line as soon as I saw the position. This would be a Kramnik-esque moment of blindness, not exactly akin to Fritz's mate-in-one vs Kramnik, but very similar. Unless there is a clip of Karjakin saying he didn't see it, I can't believe it.

    Great blog post.

    1. Karjakin said in the press conference that he missed the draw. He saw Nxf2, of course, but not the whole line. Starts about four minutes in: Game 10 Press Conference