Carlsen or Karjakin: who wins the World Championship 2016?

Nov 10, 2016
StaffCoachIGMLessenmakers 2379
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Yesterday I visited the Max Euwe Centre in Amsterdam in order to give a lecture on the upcoming World Championship match between Magnus Carlsen and challenger Sergey Karjakin. I tried to give an impression on the strengths and weaknesses of each player, but we started by examining the route Sergey Karjakin had to walk, to become a challenger to the throne.

Two excruciating tournaments Karjakin had to win in order to qualify. The first one was the World Cup, held last year in Baku. The World Cup starts with 128 world class players. Through a series knock-out rounds, the number of contestants is halved with every passing round. In a crazy final, Karjakin proved to have the better nerves as he edged out Peter Svidler in the rapid tie-break.

The nerves of Sergey Karjakin

The first game I want to show, however, is not from that final with Svidler. It's from his match in the 2nd round against American GM Alexander Onischuk. It should be pointed out that a match consists of two games and Karjakin had lost the first one. It was in this, 2nd game, he had to win the game in order to secure a rapid tie-breaker. It's interesting to see how a player handles himself under such pressure.

Karjakin - Onischuk, FIDE World Cup 2015

1.e4 e5 2.Nf3 Nc6 3.Bb5 Nf6

The solid Berlin-defence makes perfect sense when you are playing for a draw.

4.d3 Bc5 5.Nc3 a6 6.Bxc6 dxc6 7.Nxe5

A remarkable choice! Our first instincts in must-win situations is often to play hyperaggresive chess, but with his last move, Karjakin allows for the position to be simplified tremendously.

7... Qd4 8.Be3 Qxe5 9.d4 Qe7 10.dxc5 Nxe4 11.Qd4 Bf5 12.O-O-O O-O 13.Nxe4 Qxe4 14.Qxe4 Bxe4 15.f3 Bf5 16.Bf4 Rac8

Opposite-coloured bishops is always drawn, or so we generally think. With rooks on the board, the issue already becomes somewhat different, and here c7 is a weakness. However, can that be enough to win the game? How can white possibly break through here?

17.Rhe1 Be6 18.Re3 Rfe8 19.Rd4!

Diagram #1

The rooks are now ready to swing over to the queenside. First of all black has to deal with the threat of Rb4.

19... b6 20.Rb4 a5 21.Ra4 Re7

With his last two moves, white ensured that black's pawn structure has been somewhat weakened. But what is the next step? Take a moment to think about it before reading on!


Diagram #2

Kudos if you came up with this one! The point becomes clear immediately:

22... Rd7 23.cxb6 cxb6 24.c5!

Diagram #3

Very instructive, black has no satisfactory way of dealing with this pawn push. His reply is forced.

24... bxc5 25.Rxa5

Diagram #4

What a tranformation! The arrows now indicate white's plan for the next couple of moves. First he will try to exchange one pair of rooks, with Ra3 followed by Ra8 (the red arrows), after that he will try to install his bishop on c3 and push his a-pawn up the board (green arrows).

25... c4?

Diagram #5

And this is perhaps already the decisive mistake! Activity is always of the essence in the endgame and our case in point is no exception! With 25... Rcd8! black could have stopped the above-mentioned plan by forcing 26.Re1 and now for instance 26... h6 when its not clear how white can increase the pressure. Trying to place the bishop on c3 27.Be5 runs into 27... Rd2! 

26.Rea3 Rdd8 27.Ra7 h6 28.Rc7!

Diagram #6

28... Rxc7 29.Bxc7

With one set of rooks of the board, black can forget about counterplay on the d-file.

29... Rd3 30.Ra8+ Kh7 31.Ba5!

Diagram #7

On his way to the beautiful suqare c3. From there it well help push the a-pawn forward.

31... h5!?

Diagram #8

A desperate attempt for counterplay. Black can't sit and wait untill the a-pawn queens and tries to create weaknesses by pushing the h-pawn.


Diagram #9

Simple and strong. Why to allow counterplay like 32.Bc3 h4 33.a4 h3?

32... Bf5

Diagram #10

Trying to get to g2, but Karjakin has it covered.

33.a4 Rd6 34.Bc3 c5 

34...Rg6 35.Ra5! wins at once. With his last move, black does threaten Rg6.


Diagram #11

Not fearing any ghosts.

35... Rg6 36.a6 Rxg2 37.Rf8!

Diagram #12

And not 37.a7?

Diagram #13

37... Rg1+ 38.Kd2 Ra1 when it's very hard to get the a-pawn forward.

37... Be6 

Now 37... Rg1+ 38.Kd2 Ra1 39.Rxf7 wins the entire house.

38.a7 Bd5 39.a8=Q Bxa8 40.Rxa8 Rf2 41.Rc8

and black resigned. Given the peculiar situation Karjakin was in, I found this a remarkably cool-headed game. It's an example of Karjakin's fine play in technical position as well as his great set of nerves!

Karjakin as a fighter

The next example shows Karjakin as the fighter that he is. It was played in the 2nd tournament he won on his way to New York; the candidates-tournament in Moscow. Caruana introduces an interesting new idea in the opening to which Karjakin very confidently replies:

Caruana - Karjakin, FIDE Candidates tournament 2016

Diagram #14

With his last move (11.a3) white is hinting at the idea that after any other move then ...c5, he will play b3-b4. Karjakin indeed played

11... c5 12.dxc5 bxc5 13.Ne5 Bb7 14.Bf4 Nbd7 15.Nc4

All played in lightning speed by Caruana. For Karjakin, the game has already 'started' after 11.a3.

15... Nb6 16.Na5 Ba6 17.b4

The reason why I show this example is for this exact moment in the game. As mentioned, Caruana played all his move without thought, meaning there was some serious computer-analysis backing up his play. In such situations, it can be very hard to play. You are, after all, not playing your opponent, but his home computer. Psychologically that is difficult. Karjakin dug in, started calculating, and came up with a remarkable solution.

17... cxb4 

For completeness sake, it should be mentioned that 17... d4!? 18.b5 Bc8 is an interesting exchange sacrifice. Taking it will severely weaken the light squares around White's king.

18.axb4 Bxb4!

Diagram #15

The start of a queen sacrifice.

19.Nc6 Bxc3 20.Nxd8 Bxe2 21.Qb3 Bxa1 22.Rxa1 Raxd8 23.Rxa7

The dust has cleared and as your computer will tell you, White holds an advantage of around +1.00. In reality, though, as play takes place on only one wing, Karjakin has correctly assessed this position as being a fortress. Computers generally have big problems evaluating fortresses and this is no exception.

23... Nc4 24.h3 Bh5 25.Bg5 Bg6 26.Bxf6 gxf6 27.g4 Kg7 28.Qc3

Isn't this still a bit scary for Black, with Ra6/g4-g5 is in the air?

28... d4!

Diagram #16

A firm no!

29.Qxc4 d3

Excellent calculation, the d-pawn will guarantee Black the draw.


Diagram #17

30... d2 

A dangerous attempt! Now 30... fxg5 31.Bd5 d2 loses to a check on d4 or c3.

31.gxf6+ Kh8 32.Bf3 Be4!!

Diagram #18

Accuracy until the very end! Instead d1=Q+ 33.Bxd1 Rxd1+ 34.Kh2 doesn't look like a fortress to me. You can try to confirm that for yourself!



Diagram #19

33... d1=Q+ 34.Bxd1 Rxd1+ 35.Kh2 Rg8! closes the mating net around white's king.

33... Bd5!

Diagram #20

34.Qg4 Rg8 35.Bd1 Rxg4 36.hxg4 h6

and the players agreed on a draw. I think Karjakin showed excellent calculation and confidence in this game!

Carlsen or Karjakin: who is favorite?

Onwards to the match! First off; how is the track record between these two players? Carlsen is leading 4-1 with 16 draws.

Carlsen rarely engages in opening debates as he prefers to play human vs human to checking who has the better chess computer at home. There is much to say for this strategy when you are the strongest player in the world. His middlegame play is superb and his endgame play, I believe, is of a level not previously seen to man.

For Karjakin it will be of the utmost importance to have some smart opening choices. If Sergey can manage to keep the door closed with Black and pressure Magnus with the white pieces, he has chances. Also, his ability to hold on in bad positions will come in handy during the match.

Look, for instance, at the following diagram. 

Diagram #21

The position up is taken from the game Carlsen-Karjakin, Bilbao 2012. White is a bit better because c5 is somewhat weak, but then again, the b2-pawn also needs protection. Karjakin, perhaps in time trouble, commits a big error.

33... Rb5? 34.Bc7 R8b7 35.Bxd6 Bxd6 36.Nc4 

when White got a typical endgame with good knight vs bad bishop. Most top players would have had a pretty tough time holding this position against Magnus. This, however, is one of Karjakin's strengths, just like against Caruana he dug in and made a remarkable easy draw. See the game viewer to find out how the game continued.

The last time the two players faced each other was in the super tournament in Bilbao. Carlsen drew his black game with Karjakin, and the 2nd game with white, is seen below.

Carlsen - Karjakin, Bilbao Masters Final 2016

1.e4 c5 2.Nf3 d6 3.c3

As usual, Carlsen steers the game away from theoretical waters.

3... Nf6 4.Be2 g6 

4...Nxe4 is not advisable.

5.O-O Bg7 6.Bb5+ Nc6 7.d4 Qb6 8.Ba4 cxd4 9.cxd4 O-O 10.d5 Nb8 11.Nc3 Bg4 12.h3 Bxf3 13.Qxf3 Nbd7 14.Rb1 Rfc8 15.Bc2 Ne5 16.Qe2

A typical start of a Carlsen game. He has no opening advantage whatsoever but he makes sure that both players are on their own. Initially, Karjakin continues well:

16... Nfd7 17.Bg5

If 17.Kh1 with the idea to prepare f2-f4, Black has the strong reply 17... Qa6! when 18.Qxa6 bxa6 would give Black enormous pressure along the b- and c-file.

17... h6!

Diagram #22


Because 18.Bxe7 g5! keeps the bishop locked up. For instance 19.Nb5 Ng6! 20.Bxd6 a6 and white will lose material.

18... g5 19.Bg3 Qa6 

A first step in the wrong direction. Black is slightly better after Ng6! 20.Kh1 Nde5 with total control on the dark squares. One point of this regroup is that 21.f4?!

Diagram #23

is no longer an effective plan. Black simply plays 21... gxf4 22.Bxf4 Nxf4 23.Rxf4 Bf6 followed by Kh7 and Rg8 when it's actually White who has to be worried about an upcoming attack.


As mentioned earlier 20.Qxa6 bxa6 is a dream endgame for Black.

20... Rc4 

Perhaps 20... Nc4 was Karjakin's original intention, but I could imagine 21.Bd3 Nc5 22.Be2!? scaring him off. The pin on the c4-knight looks scary and taking a pawn with 22... Bxc3 23.bxc3 Nxe4?

Diagram #24

24.Bd3 Nf6 25.f4 is incredibly dangerous.

21.Kh1 Rac8 22.f4!

Diagram #25

22... gxf4 23.Bxf4

What a difference with the note to Black's 19th move! Here White has gotten f2-f4 in without having to give his black squared bishop. Note how with every next move Carlsen slowly but surely increases his advantage.

23... Qb6 24.Qh5 Nf6 25.Qf5 Qd8 26.Bb3 Rd4 27.Bxe5 dxe5 28.Rbd1 Qd7 29.Qf3 Rb4 30.Rd2!

Diagram #26

Signaling the final assault.

30... Rf8 31.g4!

Diagram #27

31... a5 32.Rg2 Nh7 33.h4

He makes it look easy sometimes!

33... Rb6 34.g5 Kh8 35.Rfg1

The pressure on the g-file is about to reach the boiling point, so Karjakin hits the panic button.

35... f5 36.Qh3 

Calm and strong. 36.gxf6 Rbxf6 37.Qg3 Rg8 would have givenBblack fighting chances, as 38.d6 e6 39.Qxe5 Qf7 followed by Nf8, is a surprisingly good defense.

36... Rb4?!

Diagram #28

Speeding up the end, but at this point, it was hard to advise anything.

37.gxh6 Bxh6 38.Qg3

With the crude threat of mate in 1. After the further...

38... Nf6 39.Qg6 Ng4 40.Rxg4!

Diagram #29

...Karjakin had seen enough 40.Rxg4 fxg4 41.Qxh6+ Kg8 42.Qg6+ Kh8 43.Qh5+ Kg7 44.Rxg4+ forces Black to give his queen in order to prevent mate.

The challenge of a lifetime

For Karjakin this will be the challenge of a lifetime. It's his first world championship match, and rumor has it he has received over 1 million dollars of state support. He is facing a stronger opponent, but as mentioned earlier; with smart opening choices, good form and the ability to grab every chance that comes his way, I think this match is going to be much closer than people think!

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tactician 13:00 - 14 Nov 2016
I was able to see the first game in "Game Viewer". However I couldn't figure out how to look at the second game in Game Viewer.
Thank you for the great article.
tactician 13:02 - 14 Nov 2016
Never mind, I figured it out finally. Thank you.

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