After only two games it is possible to see the contours of Carlsen’s strategy with white: playing unexpected openings (that was obvious with the Trompowsky, the unexpected in Game 3 was the choice of a line that is known to be very drawish) he manages to find equally unexpected but far from innocuous new ideas that pose problems. The finest point of his preparation is that the computer always shows 0.00 and these ideas are easy to miss, while playing these positions over the board is anything but easy, even though they look deceptively drawish.
Karjakin discovered this for himself in Game 3. A rare move by Carlsen (10 Re2) and he was already out of book. The ensuing endgame looked simple, but if a defender like Karjakin managed to mess it up then it probably wasn’t. Don’t look at what the computer says, it’s always 0.00, an unpleasant 0.00 doesn’t mean anything to it. But Karjakin was patient and played well up until a point where he seemed to lose the patience from Game 1. Instead of continuing to play solid moves he lashed forward in search of active counterplay and miscalculated. This was surprising, as, after seeing Game 1 and the way he played up until move 30 in Game 3, I thought that his pre-match preparation was to learn how to defend these slightly passive yet defensible positions, akin to the learning Alekhine did before his match with Capablanca. And yet he lost the patience.
After losing the pawn Karjakin started doing what he does best – put up resistance. It was a very difficult endgame to play for both sides, for two reasons. There were many lines to calculate and it was difficult to evaluate the ensuing positions. Take for example the most characteristic moment, on move 42 – having a choice between two checks, 42 Rb8 and 42 Re5, Carlsen chose the latter and the weaker one because he misjudged the position after the exchange of the d-pawns. Again, if the the world’s best players misjudge positions then it means that these positions are extremely difficult to play. And difficult to play positions produce mistakes.
There were mistakes from both sides, Karjakin missing draws, Carlsen missing wins. Even the winning lines, when white manages to take the h-pawn and remain a piece up are still tricky – remember the 4th game of the match Kramnik-Kasparov when black (Kasparov) saved a position when he was a piece and a pawn down (rook, knight and pawn for Kramnik against a sole rook for Kasparov)? Here the material was similar, Karjakin had a pawn in addition to his rook and this saved him.
A grandiose battle and I expect more of these to come. Usually the player who has saved a lost position is the one who has the psychological advantage, but these things are fickle and can change at a moment’s notice. Game 4 will show us whether and how.
Here is Game 3 with analysis.