After seven games and seven draws, the tension was becoming almost unbearable at the World Championship Match between Magnus Carlsen and Sergey Karjakin at the Fulton Building in Manhattan, and you could almost sense that something - or someone - was going to snap soon. And in one of the most emotionally-charged conclusions in recent years to a world championship game, Carlsen was the one to snap…literally.
Clearly frustrated by Karjakin’s safety-first match strategy of avoiding any complications while seeking to exchange pieces as early and as often as possible, Carlsen went back to the future with an old opening last played in a world championship match over 125-years ago that at least allowed him to keep the tension in the game for longer than he’s been able to. But what started out as an incredibly boring game dramatically turned into the most exciting so far of the match, thanks to a lethal combination of time pressure/blunders in equal parts by both players.
And throughout it all, with a bizarre display, it was almost as if Carlsen was the one behind in the match, playing as if he had to win it at all costs. So the world champion pushed and pushed the envelope as only he can, in an attempt to take Karjakin out of his comfort zone - only to discover that he’d pushed the envelope and his luck too far this time, as his Russian challenger produced a series of stunning study-like moves that finally broke the deadlock in the match.
But there was more drama to come off the board. As Carlsen and Karjakin made their way to the press conference after five-hours of tension-infused play, NRK - Norwegian state television; who have exclusive rights to the match - cornered the Russian to comment on his win. Annoyed, and still sore at the cruel conclusion to the game, Carlsen marched on to the press conference, and after a couple of minutes waiting for Karjakin’s interview to finish, the Norwegian suddenly changed his mind and stormed off and couldn’t be convinced to return.
“I can’t take waiting here for him,” Carlsen told his manager Espen Agdestein. “I can’t do it.” And with that, he left the building - and it could prove to be a costly walkout for the Norwegian, as it’s a breach of contract for either player to miss the press conference, with the maximum penalty believed to be 10% of a player’s purse, so potentially a 40,000-60,000 euro fine (depending if he loses or retains his title). And last night a video of the incident was made available by match organizers Agon.
But the fine is the least of Carlsen’s worries right now. With only four games remaining, the odds on an upset victory have dramatically switched heavily in favor of Karjakin. And for Carlsen now, it’s not just the financial penalty but his reputation, future dominance, sponsorship revenues, everything on the line now. The stakes have suddenly become extremely high for the world champion, and with games and time running out fast now.
If it’s any comfort for Carlsen, I am reminded of the last world championship match to be held in New York in 1995, where after a start of eight draws Vishy Anand broke the impasse by beating an equally frustrated Garry Kasparov - but this only angered him into immediately striking back with a brace of wins, as he went on to retain his title. Could we be witnessing New York world championship history repeating itself - can Carlsen channel all his anger and frustration now to stage a dramatic comeback?
Match score (best-of-12-games)
Carlsen 3.5-4.5 Karjakin
(Game 9 is on Wednesday)
Magnus Carlsen - Sergey Karjakin
World Championship, (8)
1.d4 Nf6 2.Nf3 d5 3.e3 e6 4.Bd3 c5 5.b3 The Colle-Zukertort Attack, named after the early 20th century Belgium master Edgard Colle, and the mid-19th century master Johannes Zukertort, who in 1886 lost the first official world championship match to Wilhelm Steinitz - and remarkably, Steinitz and New York was involved the last time this was played during a world title match, Gunsberg-Steinitz in 1890! 5...Be7 6.0-0 0-0 7.Bb2 The Colle-Zukertort Attack is a solid, positional opening system for White with a lot of manoeuvring and strategies involved - but more crucially it keeps all the pieces on the board, so all in all an ideal choice for Carlsen to try and thwart Karjakin's match strategy of safety-first and exchanging pieces as quickly as possible to avoid any complications. 7...b6 8.dxc5 Bxc5 9.Nbd2 Bb7 10.Qe2 Nbd7 11.c4 dxc4 12.Nxc4 Qe7 13.a3 a5 There's nothing in the position; but lots of pieces still left on the board to give Magnus some hope, though Karjakin has very sensibly Karjakin-like developed his pieces. 14.Nd4 Rfd8 15.Rfd1 Rac8 16.Rac1 This is all pretty standard fare for the Colle-Zukertort with the development of both sides. However, to try and mix it up a little, Carlsen soon deviates slightly from the usual. 16...Nf8 It's also very easy to want to lash out against the Colle-Zukertort - but this isn't generally advisable, as often it can backfire: 16...e5? 17.Nf5 Qe6 18.Ncd6 Bxd6 19.Rxc8 Bxc8 20.Nxd6 Nc5 21.Bc4 and already Black is in a bad way. 17.Qe1 Magnus is looking to the future here with this unusual retreat, hoping maybe later he can push forward with b3-b4 and some pressure on the queenside. 17...Ng6 18.Bf1 And another reason for 17.Qe1 is to retreat the bishop from the congestion on the d-file - and on f1, the bishop also defends the kingside from the influence of Karjakin's Bb7. 18...Ng4 19.Nb5 Bc6 A very typically safe Karjakin approach. He has a match strategy and he's sticking to it regardless, and that's to play as uber-safe as he can to frustrate Magnus - and the strategy seems to be playing on Magnus' mind. Of course, the obvious move here is 19...Qg5! and the makings of a dangerous attack - but it is far from simple to follow through, and White also has some 'murky' resources that perhaps Magnus was banking on to take Karjakin out of his comfort zone here, such as 20.Nbd6!? (20.h3? N4e5 21.Nxe5 Nxe5 can only be good for Black with his forces primed now at White's forlorn looking king.) 20...Nh4 21.Nxb7 Nf3+ 22.gxf3 Rxd1 23.Rxd1 Ne5+ 24.Bg2 Nxf3+ 25.Kh1 Nxe1 26.Rxe1 and we have a wild, messy position where White has three-pieces for the queen, which is difficult to assess properly in the tensions and confines of a critical world championship match. It would certainly have been a big departure here for Karjakin to risk this now. 20.a4 Swings and roundabouts, as this allows Magnus to keep his knight rooted on b5, but it does now leave a big black hole on b4 later for Sergey's bishop. 20...Bd5 Again, very Karjakian to centralize his bishops and block the d-file. 21.Bd4 Bxc4 22.Rxc4 Bxd4 23.Rdxd4 Rxc4 24.bxc4 Carlsen continues to push the envelope a little further here, as he strives to unbalance the position. Here, the correct recapture was 24.Rxc4, but that would have led to a symmetrical set of pawns on both wings and the opposing rooks dominating the open c- and d-files. This is where Karjakin would look to quickly simplify the position further with mutual exchanges and yet another draw in the offing. 24...Nf6 25.Qd2 Rb8 26.g3 Carlsen's only card here is that his bishop controls the long h1-a8 diagonal - but unfortunately, there's nothing for it to bite on. 26...Ne5 27.Bg2 h6 It's always wise to leave your king an escape from any back-rank happenings. Better to be safe than sorry, no matter if you are a beginner, lowly club-player or even world championship contestants. It's all so very easy to fall for the likes of 27...Ned7? 28.Na7! Ne5 29.f4 Qxa7 30.fxe5 Ne8 31.Rd7! Qa6 (Not 31...Nc7?? 32.Qd6 Rc8 33.Rd8+ and White has a big winning advantage.) 32.Rd8 Qa7 33.Bc6 winning the knight and with it soon the game. 28.f4 Carlsen wants to be the one making the action, not reacting to it. The "safe" 28.h3 Qb4! either forcing the queens off or leaves White with a bad position with weak pawns on a4 and c4, not to mention Black playing Nd7-c5 and asking the big question of how is White going to defend those pawns? 28...Ned7 29.Na7 Qa3! Carlsen may have got his Na7-c6 plan in, but it is not so effective now after this move, as White pawn on e3 is left hanging with a check at the end that changes everything. 30.Nc6 Rf8 31.h3 As the multiple exchange on d7 leads to a likely draw by repetition after a timely ...Qxe3+, Carlsen opts to press on by leaving an escape hatch for his king. Yes, he begins to drift a little, and even although he loses a pawn, the position is not so dangerous for him yet, as he's in no danger here of losing. It's Magnus being Magnus and he continues to push and push the envelope, trying to make something out of nothing. 31...Nc5 32.Kh2 Nxa4 Karjakin has to be careful here, as 32...Qxa4? 33.Rd8 and, with the added dimension of the time pressure and the tension, this could become problematic for Black to accurately defend against. 33.Rd8 The players were also down to their last couple of minutes here, so a slip-up on either side is also a possibility. 33...g6 34.Qd4 Kg7 It takes strong nerves to voluntarily move into a pin when you are under pressure from the likes of Carlsen here. 35.c5? A blunder, plain and simple. One of Carlsen's greatest attributes is that he often goes with his gut instinct - and here, he admitted he played instinctively on the basis of one ploy, the disconnect with Karjakin's Rf8 and Na4, not realizing that missed a cunning riposte. He should have played 35.Ne5 Rxd8 36.Qxd8 Qf8 37.Qc7 Nc5 38.Qxb6 a4 and the passed a-pawn, supported by the Nc5, should see the game being a draw now. 35...Rxd8 The only move to stay alive - but Carlsen hasn't yet seen the possibility of a winning shot for Black. 36.Nxd8 Nxc5 37.Qd6 With Carlsen believing the threat of Qe7 forced the follow up of ...Qd3, he probably thought he was safe as then would have Nxe6+ and the worst-case scenario of a perpetual. However, Karjakin misses a table-turner. 37...Qd3? After Carlsen's blunder with 35.c5?, Karjakin returns the compliment, unaware that he had the wonderful winner here of 37...Qa4! and now if 38.Qe7 Qd7! Black has everything covered on e6 and f7 and simply threatens to push his passed and unstoppable a-pawn up the board. 38.Nxe6+! Taking full advantage of the overloaded Nc5 that also defends Karjakin's queen. 38...fxe6 39.Qe7+ Kg8 40.Qxf6 a4 Both players just make the time control - but the position now should just be a draw due to Karjakin's king being vulnerable to the queen checks. 41.e4 The only move of Carlsen's that Karjakin apparently missed in his time-trouble calculations of this extremely tricky position. 41...Qd7 42.Qxg6+ Qg7 43.Qe8+ Qf8 44.Qc6 Qd8 45.f5 Carlsen attempts to further prise open Karjakin's king so that he can get his bishop into the game. 45...a3 In a difficult position, now Karjakin's instincts tells him to push his passed a-pawn to give Carlsen something to worry about - and he played it almost instantly. 46.fxe6 Kg7 47.e7 For the first time in this game, Carlsen could have had the upper-hand with the unlikely 47.Qb5 Qd6 48.Qb4! that pins the Nc5 and holds up the a-pawn due to the threat of Qb2+ - but after the forcing continuation now of 48...Qxe6 49.Qc3+ Kf7 50.Qxa3 Nxe4 51.Qa7+ Kg6 52.Bxe4+ Qxe4 53.Qxb6+ Kh5 I can't see anything other than this ending in a draw here, as White's king is going to be way too open and vulnerable to avoid a repetition of queen checks to make anything of the extra pawn advantage. 47...Qxe7 48.Qxb6 Nd3! This is more resourceful than ...Nxe4, as Karjakin retains the dangerously passed a-pawn and now his knight also will have a wonderful outpost on e5 as it dominates Carlsen's bishop stuck on g2. 49.Qa5 Better was 49.Qa6 hitting Nd3 and would have prevented what now follows that had everyone off their seats. 49...Qc5! Despite being a pawn down here, Karjakin suddenly springs to life with a sensational series of moves that centralizes all of his pieces to threaten a mating attack that leaves Carlsen stunned. 50.Qa6 The queens can't be exchanged as the a-pawn passes, and ...Qc5 also stops Qa7+ and Qc7+, and yet again the poor forlorn bishop on g2 is locked in further. 50…Ne5 51.Qe6 It looks like salvation, as Carlsen's queen defends against ...a2 and sets up a saving perpetual with Karjakin's king now with no cover. 51...h5!! This just had to have rocked Carlsen's world at this moment. Remarkably, the world champion doesn’t have a single useful move he can make here, and Karjakin, left to his own devices, has the simple threat of 52... h4 53. gxh4 Qc7! 54. Kh1 Qc1+ and Qb2-+ forcing home the a-pawn. 52.h4 What else is there, as Carlsen is lost in all lines? 52...a2! 0-1 The final twist of the dagger in Carlsen's back The world champion resigns, as 53.Qxa2 Ng4+ 54.Kh3 Qg1! 55.Qb2+ Kg6! and with the king coming up the board, the ...Qg1 also covers against the only check on b6, and now here's no way to prevent ...Nf2+ winning the queen and then the king. A wonderful final few moves finale from Karjakin for the first breakthrough of the match.