In the meantime 3 games were played in New York. Brace yourself for a monster post and analysis of all three!
Game 6 was the first of the two whites in a row Karjakin got in the middle of the match (such are the regulations, the idea being that both players get to be white after a rest day, in this case Carlsen in the first part of the match and with this switch Karjakin in the second half. This was introduced after Kasparov complained of being too tired to try to win with white after playing (and usually suffering) with black the previous day in his match with Kramnik in 2000). Even though Karjakin missed a good chance to win in the previous game, he seemed unfazed and continued with his strategy of not avoiding draws (this time let’s put it like this). He repeated the opening from Game 4, but now Carlsen went for the theoretically best move 9…d5. Carlsen went on to demonstrate the depth of his preparation and practically made a draw without breaking a sweat. He continued to dominate the openings and was probably happy to get one black game out of the way.
For Game 7 Karjakin decided to switch to 1 d4. It implied that he wanted to fight, because he couldn’t possibly foresee which defence Carlsen had prepared. And sure enough, Carlsen’s choice of the Chebanenko Slav surprised him. As usual in such cases, he immediately went for an innocuous line (5 Bd3) aimed at simplifications. Even in this relatively rare line Carlsen had an improvement ready and after Karjakin’s dubious 11th move he could have started to play for more. But he didn’t and this was surprising! Realising that he can draw easily, it seems that Carlsen was content – he didn’t try to press with black like he did in Game 4, which he could have easily: on move 15 he had a wonderful opportunity to force a favourable position with no risk involved and one that he could play for ages trying to win. This slackness showed again one move later – on move 16 he blundered a pawn! Luckily for him, this meant massive simplifications and a transposition to an endgame with opposite-coloured bishops that was a relatively easy draw. Karjakin didn’t even try to play on. I got the impression that Carlsen was happy to draw both his black games so that he could concentrate on his remaining 3 whites, hence his careless play once he got out with a safe position out of the opening. But careless play is omnipresent – if you’re careless in one game, it tends to permeate to your other games as well. Generally speaking, Carlsen’s play lacked his usual precision in this match, starting from the missed opportunities early in the match (Games 3 and 4), his loss of control in Game 5 and now the failure to get the maximum out of the position, coupled with his blunder.
Game 8 was expected with eagerness. After successfully navigating his black patch, it was expected that Carlsen will step on the gas in a forceful manner and this should finally produce a positive result for him. The opening was again a different one from all the others we saw when he was white – the Zukertort System is not a one you get to see often on this level. Even though it served as a surprise, the system isn’t particularly frightening so black got out with a fine position after the opening. Carlsen was spending more time than Karjakin (for the first time in the match!) trying to make the symmetrical position come to life. So he took risks. They worked in the beginning, since Karjakin was too much draw-oriented, as usual (for example, missing 19…Qg5) and this gave Carlsen the false security that he can take even bigger risks. While watching this I remembered that I actually correctly predicted this strategy by Karjakin in my Preview – “…[Karjakin will be] cynical in playing openly for a draw… to put pressure on Carlsen by getting the match to the latter stages when Carlsen might lose patience and try something harsh and then Karjakin would strike from the counterattack.” And Carlsen seemed hell-bent on winning the game, disturbing the equilibrium by creating weakneses in his camp that were compenstated by his greater piece activity. He even sacrificed his a-pawn to increase his piece activity, but black was solid and without weaknesses and he had enough compensation for equality at best. That wasn’t enough for him, he kept pushing and in mutual time trouble he overstepped the mark – Karjakin could have won, but he also erred so the game was back to normal and it should have ended in a draw. Yet after the time control Carlsen’s level dropped. Instead of taking the draw on several occassions, he allowed his position to become uncomfortable and missed his last (human) chance to draw on move 49 – you can see the details in the analysis below. For the first time in a World Championship match Carlsen is trailing and he only has 4 games to do something about it. Carlsen is known for playing so much stronger after a loss – it seems that a loss is sharpening his senses and motivates him to strike back. With Karjakin probably continuing with his strategy he may even opt to try and strike back immediately in Game 9, even though he will be black. Yet it is a Herculian task to beat Karjakin – he does make mistakes, but so does Carlsen – if only Carlsen managed to lift his level then he could capitalise on those mistakes, but so far he has been unable to do that. Plenty to think of during the rest day and I cannot wait to see what does he come up with, not only for Game 9, but also for the remaining of the match – he must change something, otherwise Karjakin’s cynical strategy will prevail and even though I must admit that every strategy that gives good results has a right to exist, I have always been in favour of positive and proactive approaches. Interesting games ahead!