Carlsen-Karjakin 2016 – Game 9

Still no time to panic, is what Carlsen’s second Peter-Heine Nielsen (more or less) said to the Norwegian media before Game 9.

Business as usual, is what Svidler said when describing Kramnik’s behaviour when he was losing to Leko in their World Championship match in 2004. Kramnik was doing things normally until the penultimate game, when he essayed the Benoni with black – he nearly won that game, before actually winning the last game of the match to level the score and keep his title. Carlsen won’t immediately keep his title if he levels the score, the regulations have changed and the match will go into tie-break, but that one win seems very big for him right now.

Carlsen chose the Neo-Arkhangelsk (one of the possible names for the line they played) variation in the Spanish, varying from his usual choice of 5…Be7 from the previous games. My impression is that he wanted a repeat of Game 6 – get his preparation in and make a quick and easy draw without much effort. The line is susceptible for such a thing to happen, it is sharp and as usual nowadays with sharp lines, full of dead-ends leading to a draw. But things didn’t exactly go to plan…

They followed Nakamura-Kasimdzhanov from the Tromso Olympiad and Carlsen demonstrated the obvious improvement on Kasimdzhanov’s play. But then I think he forgot what he was supposed to play (after Game 4 he said that he quickly forgot what he should play in the opening, hence my conclusion that the same happened here) and spent half an hour trying to remember and calculate – never a good combination (you either remember exactly or calculate without trying to remember). This led to an imprecision but not a very big one as the game continued to be balanced. The next imprecision was a bigger one, on move 33 Carlsen had a straight-forward way to solve all his problems, but he didn’t and his problems only grew from there onwards.

The critical moment was just before the time control. A very curious situation, Carlsen played a strategically desireable move, but one that looked horribly suspicious tactically. But I guess I can say he was lucky here – the move wasn’t losing. The variations after the sacrifices on f7 were very complex and difficult to see, so either he saw them all (Karjakin for example missed some things) or his intuition served him perfectly (he played the move 38…Ne7 trusting his intuition that it wasn’t losing, in spite of all the dangerous looking lines he undoubtedly saw).

And looking from the other side of the board you can say that Karjakin was unlucky. Such a wonderful opportunity and yet it’s not winning! Sometimes chess turns out like this. Karjakin did take on f7 and the game transposed to a drawn endgame that Carlsen didn’t have trouble holding.

What next? Even though he didn’t make it quick, Carlsen got the draw he desired from this game. Two whites in the last three games is an advantage, but winning opportunities have been scarce for him lately. Another problem is his imprecise play, also witnessed in this game. The only realistic chance for him is if he manages to lift his spirits after this difficult save and start playing at his usual (or even better) level. Then he can come back. Game 10 should give answers to some of these questions.

Alex Colovic
A professional player, coach and blogger. Grandmaster since 2013.
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