Carlsen-Karjakin, WCh 2016: A Preview
This match is a big unknown. For the first time we get two players from the new generation, both born in 1990, raised and educated by the mighty computer. They have been rivals since their childhood years, they know each other very well, they have been looking what the other is doing all their lives. And now they get to play for the highest title.
Let me start with my expectations. I expect a highly technical match with a lot of draws. I wouldn’t be surprised if all 12 games end in a draw. My impression is that Karjakin will be cynical in playing openly for a draw (and I hope I’m very much wrong about this). His idea – to put pressure on Carlsen by getting the match to the later stages when Carlsen might lose patience and try something harsh and then Karjakin would strike from the counterattack. And if that doesn’t happen then obtain the boasting rights of having drawn a World Championship match against Carlsen (at least the classical part).
The openings are another murky territory. It’s clear that both will go for the Berlin with black, the safest weapon black has against 1 e4. Carlsen has been successful with the 4 d3 lines against it, always managing to pose some problems to the black players. A fine example of this was his win in the second game of his match against Anand in Sochi. A more recent example was his demolition of So in the Bilbao Masters in July. That is a possibility for both players, to try to pose small problems here and there in the 4 d3 lines, but perhaps there is more fruitful territory after other first moves. Bear in mind that all this means that playing for a draw 1 e4 is the best move!
Both players are able and willing to venture into the territory of closed openings. Ever since Carlsen’s 1 Nf3 against Anand in Chennai in 2013 (and although not very successful with it in that match), the move has become white’s way of saying “let’s play without an advantage for me, but I’ll try to get you to a position where I know more”. Karjakin successfully used this strategy in his excellent win against Anand in the Moscow Candidates. It is a possible way to go for both players, to “just get a game,” but I think Carlsen is stronger in pure chess terms, so I expect Karjakin to use his preparation to defuse Carlsen’s attempts at “getting a game.”
Of the other first moves, 1 d4 has the problem that black has several theoretically very solid openings to counter it – the Nimzo, the QGD, the Slav, the Grunfeld. Both players have spent enormous masses of time on preparation and it is possible to prepare well against them all – Karjakin may have done it, but Carlsen is usually more practical in the openings so perhaps he aimed his preparation in another direction. An important point to note is that Karjakin had problems in the Queen’s Indian in the Moscow Candidates (although he didn’t lose a game in it) but I am pretty sure he won’t be repeating it in New York.
The English Opening after 1 c4, at one point seen as an escape from the Berlin and the openings mentioned above after 1 d4, has already been next to exhausted. After either 1…e5, with the Reversed Sicilian doing excellently for black, or 1…c5, black is in excellent shape. And here I’m not mentioning the various transpositions after 1…e6 or 1…Nf6. But it is quite possible that both teams have found new ways in these already well-trodden paths.
After this short analysis you can now understand why I have trouble expecting (or predicting) the openings in the match. This makes me even more curious to see what they thought of, in which direction they will go, where they will choose to pose problems. After all, the World Championship matches are the trend-setters and are always breaking new ground in the openings.
As for the match strategy, I mentioned above that I fear Karjakin will be draw-oriented (again, I hope I’m wrong and he essays the Sicilian, preferably the Najdorf). Carlsen will most probably stay true to himself, doing what he does best – put pressure on his opponent and keep playing excellent moves consistently. Karjakin is a wonderful defender and sooner or later he will end up in a position when he will have to suffer against Carlsen’s methodical play, but he will be ready for this and may not necessarily crumble, which is what usually happens to Carlsen’s opponents.
I will finish this preview with a prediction. Everybody’s doing it so I might as well do it myself. My prediction: 1-0 for Carlsen with 11 draws.