2016 WCC, Tie-Breaks: The Elegant End
Lock the doors, this ends tonight!
Is the current World Championship format good for spectators?
In any chess match or tournament there will be draws. This World Championship we saw 12 games. Games 1,2,5,7,9 and 11 were “normal” length draws. Games 3 and 4 were marathon draws. Games 8 and 10 were decisive. The frustrating games for spectators were 6 and 12. Both draws were very short, and neither player really tried to win, especially Game 12. Game 12 lasted 35 minutes, and it was clear from the beginning both players wanted to go to tie breaks.
Intentional draws or "Grandmaster Draws" are a bit like an "intentional walk" in baseball. A big hitter comes up to the plate, and the pitcher decides to throw deliberately bad pitches in order to let the big hitter on base so the pitcher can face a less talented hitter afterwards. But baseball doesn’t have entire games where a team says: “we don’t want to face the Yankees, they’re too tough. We’re gonna not try in this game, so we can save our strength to go face the Milwaukee Brewers.”
I don’t know if it’s possible to get rid of “grandmaster draws.” Tournament organizers certainly try. The players are contractually obligated to play till move 30 (Game 12 lasted exactly 30 moves). But the key concept is: it’s hard to force people to fight each other, when either one, or both of them, don’t want to.
I’ve heard two interesting suggestions. The old World Championship format was: you have to beat the champion to become the champion. Meaning, the challenger must be ahead after 12 games to win. If it’s a tie, the champion retains his title. The advantage of this format is that someone is always ahead, and someone is always behind. Someone always wants to fight.
The other suggestion I heard last night from my friend Jerome is: If the players draw their classical game, they play a rapid game. If they draw the rapid game, they play a blitz game. If they draw the blitz game, they play a blitz armageddon game. That way there is a decision every day. If you’re a spectator, you will see a decision. The potential downside of this idea is the potential for some very late nights. I also don’t know how good the chess quality would be coming out of marathon draws, like Games 3 and 4. Just a couple of ideas I’ve heard. But let us get to why we are here.
This is it
Karjakin and his Wife, arriving to the tie-breaks- Photo Courtesy of World Chess
This is it. Take a deep breath. Seriously do it. Turn off your phone and go in a quiet room. Now take five deep breaths and count down from 10: breathe in 10, breathe out 9, breathe in 8, breathe out 7 and so on.
This is why we play chess. Tie breaks, World Championship, Magnus Carlsen, Sergey Karjakin all tied up: this is epic. Appreciate the historic moment. Appreciate the effort by these young men. Appreciate the technology that allows you to see the moves from your mom’s basement. Enjoy being alive to see this historic moment.
Tie-Break Game 1
Karjakin put his king pawn to work in the first game, Carlsen lead the game into the familiar classical Ruy Lopez. The game was a 37 move draw. Karjakin’s pieces never got past white’s 5th rank, with the exception of 19.Bxe6. This match showed Karjkain’s incredible defensive prowess, but you are not going to be World Champion if you barley get your pieces past the board’s equator!
Tie-Break Game 2
Now it’s Magnus’ turn with the white pieces. Magnus is just coming off of his chess.com blitz championship against Hikaru Nakamura. Perhaps that was just a warm-up.
Here’s the first key position from Game 2, black to move.
Karjakin decides to target e4. After 18...bxa4 19.Rxa4 Bxe3 20. Bxe3 Rxa4 21. Qxa4 Nxe4. The point, all previous exchanges were to draw the queen away from the e pawn. How would you continue for white?
22. Rc1, pinning the c6 pawn ...Bd5 23. b5 cxb5 24. Qxe4! Qxc1 25. Qxd5!. Carlsen just won a bishop and a knight for a rook and a pawn, the computer giving him a slight edge.
At this point I got really excited and ran into the spectator’s hall to try to get Karjain resigning on film.
Had I learned nothing this match? Poor, eager, stupid Tyler. I took about 52 30-second videos. I saw the players shake hands, but who won? What happened? Here’s the final position on Game 2.
Stalemate. Does Karjakin have Silman’s Endgame book under the table!? I mean seriously! Karjakin has used every trick in the book to steal wins from Carlsen. How did Karjakin bring this about?
g5! Another insane save. I urge you to look at the whole game in the above study.
I was extremely worried for Carlsen. He tilted hard after Game 5, and we all saw what happened after game 8. Before the match it was unclear if Carlsen has any weaknesses. Now it’s clear, Carlsen’s greatest weakness is his own emotions. Would he be able to hold it together after another heartbreaking draw?
Another Ruy Lopez. On Carlsen’s 30th move he unleashed e4, sacrificing a pawn, but opening the a1-h8 diagonal and potentially freeing the e5 square for his queen. This sacrifice activated all of Carlsen’s pieces, and forced Karjakin in to doing what he does best: not losing!
Karjain took a fatal misstep on his 38th move of the 3rd game. In the above position he played Rxc7. Rb1 was required, harassing the queen, if then Qc2, then Rc1. Carlsen played 39. Ra1, and the game ended. The f1 bishop will quickly fall, along with the rest of white’s position.
Carlsen is ready - Courtesy of World Chess
Now Karjakin is in the must win situation. Would we finally see a new opening or some aggression?
When Karjakin played 1...c5 there was a burst of applause in the spectators hall. The sicilian is the most versatile, flexible, and widely played opening in response to 1.e4. Many have pined for Karjakin to take up this strategy sooner in the match.
Carlsen’s 5.f3 is very much in line with the opening strategy he’s used this entire match: not really best, but equal, let’s play chess. For the record 5.Nc3 is about 50 times more common.
This game saw Karjakin turn into a desperate attacker. He tried to chip away at Carlsen’ position from the wings of the board by exchanging his a and h pawns. He tried doubling his rooks on the a file. But now it’s was Carlsen’s turn to build a fortress.
Go ahead Karjakin, move past the 5th rank, see what happens.
Karjakin tried sacrificing the exchange, on move 34, but his time was too low, and his pieces too few. Karjkain’s last 15 moves or so were made with less than 2 minutes on his clock.
Carlsen ended the 2016 World Chess Championship in the most elegant way possible, can you find white’s final move?
The final move of the World Chess Championship was Qh6+!! If king captures Rh8#, if pawn captures, then Rf7#.
Carlsen wins rapid tie-breaks by a score of 3-1, becomes the 3-Time World Chess Champion.
The crowd sang “Happy Birthday” to Carlsen as he came out for the press conference.
Carlsen’s first words in the press conference were to thank Karjakin for the amazing match and Karjain received a huge ovation from the NYC crowd.
Carlsen thanked many people in his acceptence speach. The most touching moment was when Carlsen explained how central his father is to his success.
A very proud father- Courtesy of World Chess
Final thoughts on the match
At the beginning of the match everyone’s worst fear was a Carlsen blowout. No drama, no excitement, just a beatdown. What we got was three weeks of accumulating suspense around the chessboard. Books will be written about Karjakin’s defenses. We saw Magnus Carlsen frustrated in Game 5, and an outburst of emotion after his Game 8 loss. It was looking very much like Karjakin would join Donald Trump and the Chicago Cubs as the unlikely underdogs of 2016.
On Thanksgiving Karjakin made, what he called, the biggest mistake of the match. He could have easily secured a draw with 20...Nxf2, but missed the drawing line of 21...Nh4+. With that draw Carlsen would have had to win either Game 11 or 12 just to stay alive in the match. But Karjakin played 20...d5??, allowing Carlsen to continue, and later win the game. Carlsen even admitted if this had gone different, we very easily could have a different World Champion.
Thank you for reading
This was my first time covering a chess match and part of me is worried no match will ever live up to this one. I live in Brooklyn, so I took the train 20 minutes to the venue, watched Carlsen and Karjakin play. Then tweeted and wrote articles about what I saw. The response I got on twitter was incredible, so thank you everyone for your likes and retweets. Thanks to the tens of thousands of readers on lichess, redditors, and whomever else found my words.
Thanks to my wife travelling solo with our baby this Thanksgiving, allowing me to pursue my dream with my full attention. Thanks to arex, Nojoke, Clarkey and thoughtful readers who kindly pointed out ***ahem*** a couple typos. This was truly ‘high steaks’ work we all did!
Thanks thanks of course to Thibault for making lichess.org, and having me as "Head of Media"!
It was such an honor to join the official World Chess broadcast not once but twice! Thanks to the World Chess Team for having me.
Tyler with the Queen of Chess Judit Polgar!
I love chess and New York with my whole heart. So although this was a lot of work, it was a true pleasure, even when I snapped and stopped caring about chess for two hours. I would love to cover chess events in the future, so if that is something you’d like to see, let me and lichess know! For now, this is Tyler Schwartz for lichess signing off!
About the Author
Tyler Schwartz is a passionate chess ambassador. Tyler is the President of Chess at 3, teaching chess to children all over the world at the suprising age of 3. He is the Head of Media at lichess.org. Tyler also manages a chess club on the upper east side of Manhattan.