And the challenger is…

by admin on March 28, 2016

In case you didn’t see it on any of the zillions of other chess news sites on the Internet, the Candidates Tournament in Moscow ended today with a clear winner: Sergei Karjakin.

Karjakin and Fabiano Caruana entered the final round tied for first with 7½ points out of 13, and by a stroke of good fortune they were paired against each other in the last round for all the marbles (specifically, for a chance to challenge Magnus Carlsen for the world championship in the fall). In case of a draw, the tournament would be decided (strangely enough) by the Anand-Svidler game. A win by Anand would create a three-way tie for first and give the title to Caruana on tiebreaks, but a loss or draw by Anand would leave Karjakin and Caruana in a two-way tie for first, and Karjakin would win the tiebreak.

In my last post, I wrote, “A future world champion ought to qualify for the championship match: not by staggering in by means of a tiebreak (and possibly a third-party result), but by vanquishing their main foe.” And fortunately, that is exactly what happened. Although Anand and Svidler drew, so that Karjakin could coast in with a draw, he never acted as if he were playing for a draw. First he played an unclear pawn sacrifice that left Caruana’s king somewhat exposed in time pressure. Sure enough, Caruana made a mistake and allowed Karjakin a beautiful rook sacrifice that won by force. A performance that was truly worthy of a world championship challenger!

So, what should we expect for the Carlsen-Karjakin match? It may not be such an automatic win for Carlsen as you might think. Unlike the two matches with Anand, in this one Carlsen will not have a significant age advantage. Karjakin is a few months older, but they are essentially contemporaries, and both in the prime of their careers.

I think that Carlsen has two advantages. First, he has more experience in world championship matches (obviously). The only matches that Karjakin has played have been the hyper-abbreviated two-game and four-game matches of the World Cup, which are not really long enough for him to experience any match strategy or for the protracted probing for weaknesses that goes on in a twelve-game match.

Second, ratings don’t lie. Carlsen is 2851, and Karjakin pre-tournament was 2760. At that rating level, 90 points is an enormous chasm. For Karjakin to win, I think he needs to find some “special sauce,” the way that Vladimir Kramnik did against Garry Kasparov in 2000, that will nullify the advantage of Carlsen’s overall superior play. But good luck finding that “special sauce” against Carlsen. His whole schtick is that he won’t be pinned down to one opening or one style of play.

Out of curiosity, I looked up their previous head-to-head results on Chessbase. If you ignore blitz games, Carlsen’s record against Karjakin is +3 -1 =15. In blitz games Carlsen leads +14 -7 = 5 (at least in Chessbase; they may have played more that aren’t recorded).

Finally, I’d be interested in what my readers think about Caruana, who came so incredibly close. If he had only won the theoretically won endgame against Svidler in round 13, then he wouldn’t have had the win-or-go-home pressure in round 14, and maybe he could have been the next challenger. Can you imagine how much publicity there would have been? A world championship match on American soil, with an American player for the first time since Bobby Fischer?

After Caruana’s collapse in the last two rounds, do you think his moment has passed, or will he get over it and continue to progress toward a championship? He’s even younger than Karjakin and Carlsen, so in principle there is still time for him to improve. But something about his epic fail here reminds me of Bronstein against Botvinnik in 1950. This is when he should have won, and he didn’t, and now the chess gods are going to turn their backs on him.

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{ 5 comments… read them below or add one }

Roman Parparov March 28, 2016 at 3:14 pm

Caruana’s is more like Boleslavsky’s collapse against Bronstein.

I can’t be glad for Karjakin qualifying. I can’t stand the guy from the moment he gained his GM title in the market tournaments in Crimea and then boasted his world record status. He’s notorious for his pro-Putin tweets.

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paul b. March 28, 2016 at 4:22 pm

I’d love to see a time histogram of every important game, one which shows the time remaining after each move. This might illuminate how many games are lost due to time pressure. Could it be that tournament games should be made longer?

The TV show “Survivor” uses the gimmick of an “immunity idol”; this concept might be ported over to chess during major tournaments – every player would get one pass per tournament to use an extra 30 minutes of time in a single game. The idea is not so bizarre because playing times have been reduced markedly in modern times, or so it seems.

On that theme, I played in a blitz tournament at the Marshall a few years ago. All games were to be 5 minutes long. The club director – an erstwhile Germanic type – explained the rules and then took questions. I raised my hand and asked “How do we adjourn a game?”

He looked shocked by my question and started to respond “It’s only 5 minutes…” when he realized that he had been had. “Ja ja, you are trying to fool me, ja ja.”

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Jason Repa March 30, 2016 at 4:24 am

You’re really missing the point here with regards the final round game with Karjakin and Caruana. You need to understand that it would be a completely different scenario if there were no tiebreak formulas to worry about and Caruana could play with the knowledge that if he were to draw Karjakin, they would then proceed to a playoff. The fact that Caruana was in a must-win situation with the black pieces (save for the faint hope clause that an unmotivated Anand wins with black against a solidly-playing Svidler) changes everything. Caruana had to play with desperation. The pressure of the tiebreak advantage for Karjakin was exerting itself tremendously on Caruana.

Of course congratulations is still in order for Karjakin who kept his nerves in this final game and didn’t cower or desperately play for a draw (which usually results in a loss). But you wouldn’t expect anything less from such an experienced veteran.

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admin March 30, 2016 at 9:28 am

I concede that calling Caruana’s last two rounds an “epic fail” was too strong. But I think the comparison with Boleslavsky, which Roman suggested, is an apt one. Boleslavsky was in the driver’s seat to get to a championship match against Botvinnik in 1950, but he didn’t come through and he never had a good shot again. Caruana’s job now is to avoid that fate. I am certainly hoping that he will; among other reasons, because it would be great for the health of chess to have an American competing for the world championship again.

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Mary Kuhner March 30, 2016 at 8:57 pm

I think chess today is very different from chess of the previous century, and I would certainly not count Caruana (or anyone else in that tournament, except probably Topalov) out. It’s only two years to the next one, isn’t it?

The US championship should be quite hot this year!

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