Carlsen-Karjakin 2016 – Tie-Break

It turned out that Carlsen was getting ready for the tie-break the moment he drew Game 11. He was happy to level the match in the previous game and decided it gave him more chances to win if he played 4 rapid games than risk it all on one classical game.

Eventually he was proven right. But the going was far from easy, even though the general tendency of the tie-break was one of his dominance.

In the first game Karjakin repeated the d3,a3 and Nc3 line in the Spanish. He also repeated it in the third game of the tie-break, for a total of 4 games in this line (the result: three draws and one loss). The variation never brought him anything out of the opening, so a valid question here is: what on Earth did he prepare for this match? Allegedly he spent 1 million euros on preparation, is this highest amount of money wasted in the history of chess preparation? The game was a controlled affair and by move 30 it was a dead draw.

Things started happening from Game 2. In an Italian Giuoco Piano Carlsen with white got next to nothing but then imperceptibly outplayed Karjakin and posed him problems. With only 1 minute against Carlsen’s 10 Karjakin chose an objectively losing move but one that allowed him to make a lot of moves without spending much time. Carlsen was winning, but not by force and again his technique failed him. First he didn’t finish the game with the queens on and then after their exchange, when he got to a position when he was winning by force, he failed to calculate it. Twice, to be more precise, as the same idea occurred some moves later. Another miraculous save by Karjakin!

I thought this missed opportunity would turn the match in Karjakin’s favour. Such a huge disappointment for Carlsen and surely a surge of optimism for Karjakin. Now it was the time to strike with white and decide the match, so many missed opportunities for Carlsen in this match surely couldn’t go unpunished?! And yet something completely different happened. Instead of sensing the turn of the tide and go aggressive, Karjakin again reverted to his usual defensive role and allowed Carlsen to take over the initiative with black. The principle of “if you don’t take your chance, your opponent will take his” worked for Carlsen this time – Karjakin didn’t take the chance to strike and go aggressive so finally he was punished.

Carlsen was playing much faster in the tie-break and as in the whole match he was the one dictating the course of the games in the openings. With one game to play and in a must-win situation Karjakin had no choice but to play the Sicilian. Karjakin came back from being 0-2 down against Svidler in the final of the World Cup in Baku in 2015, so Carlsen needed to be careful. Carlsen again managed to surprise Karjakin in the opening (instead of his favourite 3 Bb5+ he went for the relatively rare 5 f3 line) and got a very safe and advantageous position. The match situation was such that Karjakin was forced to play moves that kept pieces on board and this led him to an inferior and later lost position. Carlsen was fully in control when it seemed Karjakin was getting some play and the game finished in style.

An excellent game by Carlsen, who kept his cool and things under control in a tense situation. On his 26th birthday he won the tie-break 3-1 and successfully defended his title.

A few words about the match in general. Karjakin’s strategy to play for safety and not oppose draws turned out successful only because of Carlsen’s failure to win at least one of the winning positions in Games 3 and 4. This made Carlsen nervous and led to him overextending and forcing Karjakin to beat him in Game 8. Then Karjakin had the best chance to win the match, he was so close to winning in the next game, but he failed to nail it and this brought Carlsen back from the dead. He got his confidence back and even though Karjakin missed yet another chance in Game 10 (this time to draw by force early on) Carlsen managed to equalise and continued to play with confidence until the end of the match in the tie-breaks. Questions remain of Karjakin’s opening preparation. Lauded and feared, it was non-existent. True, Carlsen was changing openings in every white game he played and changed sub-variations in his black games, but surely it was possible to pose more problems after half a year of preparation?!

Carlsen wasn’t at his best, as the missed wins early in the match was something that he usually doesn’t do. But he was the one pushing in this match, he was the one who was making things happen and looking for chances. He was the only player who tried to win games. And eventually this positive approach triumphed. There have been examples in sport when a defensive and negative style brought victories, but even then the winning team had to attack and score, at least once. In this match Karjakin’s only victory came after he was literally pushed by Carlsen, not because he went on the attack willingly. There were several occassions in the match when he willingly chose not to attack even when it was very promising and chose safe and solid lines. Simply put, you don’t win games like this, you don’t win matches like this, you don’t become World Champion like this.

Theoretically the match showed the infinite soundness of the positions after 1 e4 e5, black’s ultimate defence against 1 e4 nowadays. Whether it is the Berlin or the other lines in the Spanish, white is having big problems posing even the slightest problems there. As Anand put it, 1 d4 refutes the Berlin Defence. Carlsen admitted that he prepared more for black than for white and it showed – with black he had no problems and to compensate for this lack of preparation for white he changed his openings in literally every white game he played. In the only opening he repeated, the Giuoco Piano, played in Game 5 and in the 2nd game of the tie-break, he quickly varied on move 8. And this tendency, to vary a lot, especially when playing white, is something modern chess is very susceptible to. With the aid of computers it is relatively easy to prepare any line and the versatility makes it more difficult for the opponents to prepare. Karjakin himself admitted that he frequently forgot his preparation because he didn’t know what to expect from Carlsen, once he realised that there will be another opening in every game.

To sum up, Carlsen won deservedly and his era continues. At least for 2 more years.

Alex Colovic
A professional player, coach and blogger. Grandmaster since 2013.
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2 Comments
  • Dec 3,2016 at 12:27 am

    Well, Anand did switch to 1 d4 completely in their second match, and he did fare better than with 1 e4 in the first. But I'm sure Karjakin and his team were considering their options and there were reasons for him sticking to 1 e4. Now, what those reasons were I would also very much like to know! 🙂

  • Dec 1,2016 at 6:43 pm

    I was surprised that, given how 1 e4 was such a failure for Karjakin, why he didn't try 1 d4 again, and also why in that one Slav game, he chose the harmless Queen's Gambit Accepted transposition. I wonder whether the next challenger to Carlsen will try to make anything of 1 e4 as White.

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