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18 Nov

In The Wee Small Hours

The United States played a unique role in organising and sponsoring the very first official world championship match in 1886 between Wilhelm Steinitz and Johannes Zukertort: a three-stage affair, that was shared between New York, Saint Louis, and New Orleans. On rest days during that match, Steinitz and Zukertort played whist together! Nowadays, the players spend the rest days recovering rather than challenging each other to a genteel game of cards.

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After 42...d4!

And after two epic, back-from-the-dead survival performances in the $1.1 million World Championship Match being held at the Fulton Market Building in midtown Manhattan to thwart defending champion Magnus Carlsen, there’s no truth in the rumour that Sergey Karjakin spent his rest day not by playing cards but by relaxing with a cage match against Conor McGregor.

The recent games have been tough, and we’ve now had another draw, the fifth successive draw of the match. This is what world championship chess is all about, and remember the last time there was a match in New York, it was in 1995 when Garry Kasparov played Vishy Anand at the ill-fated Twin Towers - and in that match, there were eight draws in a row followed by 3 spectacular decisive games in a row!

But right now, Magnus Carlsen’s pre-match prediction that Sergey Karjakin would be a tough opponent for him to breakdown is ringing true, as the challenger has great survival instincts. Not only that but Karjakin, for the first time in the match, came off the ropes to show that he can attack as well as defend - and for a moment, he almost caught the world champion off-guard.

NRK, the Norwegian TV network, has been showing live TV coverage of the match - and with the time difference between New York and Oslo seeing those long games going into the wee small hours, apparently a lot of Norwegians have been going to work tired the next day. And Espen Agdestein, Carlsen’s manager, has said that the Norwegian prime minister had also texted and hoped for a shorter game, as the government was frazzled after so many long nights!

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NRK behind the scenes - Carlsen rests while Norway frazzles!

Well, those long nights could well continue to get long and even longer for the Norwegians, as after the fifth successive draw, the tension will inexorably mount perhaps more so for Carlsen now, as Karjakin will have the added advantage of successive whites going into the next two games, as the match reaches and surpasses the halfway stage and the color order switches.

Match score (best-of-12-games)
Carlsen 2.5-2.5 Karjakin

Magnus Carlsen - Sergey Karjakin
World Championship, (5)
Giuoco Piano
1.e4 e5 2.Nf3 Nc6 3.Bc4 The name Giuoco Piano - one of the oldest recorded openings in chess, played in the 16th century - means 'quiet game' in Italian. And like its name, it is initially very quiet with a slow build-up as both sides position their pieces for the middlegame battle. 3...Bc5 4.0-0 Nf6 5.d3 0-0 6.a4 d6 7.c3 a6 8.b4 Ba7 9.Re1 Ne7 10.Nbd2 Ng6 11.d4 c6 12.h3 exd4 13.cxd4 Nxe4! Often this trick in the opening gives Black instant equality. 14.Bxf7+ The alternative 14.Nxe4 d5 15.Bd3 dxe4 16.Bxe4 Be6 17.b5 Bd5 18.bxc6 bxc6 19.Qc2 is already beginning to look like an early draw in the offing. 14...Rxf7 15.Nxe4 d5 16.Nc5 h6 17.Ra3 Bf5 18.Ne5 Nxe5 19.dxe5 Qh4! Has Carlsen forgotten that Karjakin is also allowed to attack? The opening hasn't worked out particularly well for the world champion, and for the first time in the match, Karjakin has emerged with the more realistic attacking chances! 20.Rf3 Bxc5 Karjakin has to cede the bishop-pair; a safety measure just in case Carlsen gets counter-play with the annoying e6. 21.bxc5 Re8 22.Rf4 Qe7 23.Qd4 Ref8 24.Rf3 Be4 25.Rxf7 Qxf7 26.f3 Bf5 Carlsen may have an advanced passed pawn - but it is far from dangerous, as Karjakin has it well covered. 27.Kh2 Be6 28.Re2 Qg6 29.Be3 Rf7 30.Rf2 Qb1 31.Rb2 Qf5 32.a5 Kf8! The sign of a strong player. Karjakin voluntarily marches his king over to the queenside, and not just for some exercise. Here, the king can protect b7, but more importantly, Karjakin wants to later throw his kingside pawns up the board to open lines towards Carlsen's king - and he can't do this with his king on the kingside, so it takes a brisk walk over to the queenside. 33.Qc3 Ke8 34.Rb4 g5 35.Rb2 Kd8 36.Rf2 Kc8 37.Qd4 Qg6 The threat of ...h5 and ...g4 is now awkward for Carlsen. 38.g4 h5! 39.Qd2 Rg7 40.Kg3 Rg8 41.Kg2 hxg4 42.hxg4 d4! Karjakin's pawn sacrifice suddenly sees Carlsen's king coming under a lot of pressure - the opening of the d-file can come in useful for Karjakin's rook in certain lines, but more importantly, it allows his bishop to come join the attack. If 42...Qh6 43.Qd4! Rh8 all looks dangerous and threatening, but 44.Kf1 Qg6 45.Ke2 Qc2+ 46.Bd2 and it is difficult to see what - if anything - Black will have here, as there no clear way to continue attacking the White king. 43.Qxd4 Bd5?! A missed moment for Karjakin, who so far throughout the match has been continually on the ropes and under pressure. But we can all easily be armchair super-grandmasters armed with a reliable playing engine to land an unlikely blow on Magnus' king. This is not an easy position for a human to see the way forward, and during the press conference after the game, Karjakin says he dismissed 43…Rh8! 44.Qe4 Qh6 45.Kf1 Qh1+ 46.Ke2 Rd8 47.Rf1 Qh2+ 48.Rf2 Qh1 etc. - not realising that 46...Qa1! was the stronger follow-up, as there's now serious threats at Carlsen’s king with...Rh1 and ...Bd5 and suddenly it is all awkward to defend against. There's no clear knockout blow, but there is very strong attacking chances for Karjakin - and indeed, this would have been the first moment in the match that the Russian would have been off the ropes and throwing punches instead at the world champion now on the ropes. 44.e6 A good practical defensive choice by Carlsen. Realising the dangers, the world champion now covers the h8 square to stop Karjakin getting his rook on the h-file. All the engines gave 44.Kg3! - which Carlsen follows up with on the next move - as best, completely equalising. But in fairness to both players, their choices the last couple of moves were the most practical options. 44...Qxe6 45.Kg3 Stoping any later awkwardness of a ...Qxg4, and also clearing the way for Rh2 and at least Magnus' rook is back in the game again. 45...Qe7 46.Rh2 Qf7 47.f4 gxf4+ 48.Qxf4 Qe7 49.Rh5 Rf8 50.Rh7 Guaranteeing the draw. 50...Rxf4 51.Rxe7 Re4 ½-½

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