Speelman: How will Karjakin fare against Carlsen?

3/30/2016 – After a fortnight and a bit of ferocious combat we can now congratulate Sergey Karjakin on becoming Magnus Carlsen's next challenger. It's been a roller coaster ride of wildly swinging emotions and will certainly merit much examination in retrospect. GM Speelman looks at it not only from a historical point of view, but also from personal experience as a player and as a second.

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How will Karjakin fare against Carlsen?

By Jon Speelman

For the moment I'd like to look forward to the Carlsen vs Karjakin  match, currently scheduled for New York in November and discuss Karjakin's chances. First though, a digression as to what the world championship entails.

I've observed two championship matches as a second and been the principal in four Candidates matches. Admittedly, it was a long time ago, but I still remember the ever-present and sometimes crushing tension, the wild emotion which you have to try to keep in check, and the sheer physical strain.

The matches (even just in the Candidates) are utterly compelling, hijacking your life for months in advance, pummelling you body and mind for their duration and leaving aftershocks that can last for years or decades.

To illustrate this, let's start with one of the most famous final positions in chess history:

After 22(!) games of their world championship match in Moscow 1951, and with two to go, David Bronstein was leading Mikhail Botvinnik by a point. With a white to come in game 24, he needed to avoid defeat in game 23, to give himself a huge chance of becoming champion.

Botvinnik had only been champion three years when he saw his title almost go to Bronstein

However, after sacrificing a pawn, Botvinnik got an endgame with two bishops against two knights and began to "Patriarch" Bronstein (I can hardly use first or even surname for "The Patriarch") in the manner  that Carlsen has "Magnussed" his opponents in modern times. After the adjournment Botvinnik's advantage increased and in the diagram after 57.Bg5 putting him into zugzwang, Bronstein thought 40 minutes before resigning.

Botvinnik easily drew the final game against a dispirited Bronstein who
was haunted by game 23 for the rest of his life and would still sometimes
bring it up in conversation three or four decades later.

We fast forward more than three decades to the final game of the fourth match between Garry Kasparov and Anatoly Karpov. Champion since the end of the second match, Kasparov had to win this game to equalise and so retain his title. He maintained the tension by starting with a slow Reti and finally won a pawn adjourning in this position. Of course, he managed to convert and retain his title. Perhaps the most interesting lesson of this game though was in the opening  choice: a slow burner can often put more pressure on the opponent than an attempted blitzkrieg.

Here Kasparov sealed 42.Kg2

Live footage of the moments before and when Kasparov adjourned this dramatic game to save his title

The games in a match are played in real time but there is, of course, enormous preparation both before and during the event itself. Some critical moments are opportunities that occur during the games but others are more regarding planning.

The famous double blunder in the second Carlsen vs Anand match is an obvious case of the former. After 26.Kd2?? Anand replied 26...a4? after a minute's thought, missing that 26...Nxe5! would have obliged Carlsen to fight for his life in a game he later won.

The moment Carlsen played his move, one can see the hesitation as he writes his move, realizing the terrible
blunder he made. After Anand misses it, Carlsen is so shaken up he buries his head in his arms more than once.

With a number of games to play against the same opponent timing can be crucial and this is best exemplified by one of the matches I was a second at.

After a series of draws, Anand had broken the deadlock against Kasparov by winning game nine, their fifth Scheveningen after a transposition from the Najdorf. (ie starting 1.e4 c5 2.Nf3 d6 3.d4 cxd4 4.Nxd4 Nf6 5.Nc3 a6 6.Be2 e6)

In his previous whites, Kasparov had probed in a Nimzo-Indian and then a Reti, discovered that Anand was  playing the Open Spanish in game six and temporised with a Scotch in game 8. Anand now had to decide whether to continue with the Open Spanish or unleash his surprise weapon the Centre Counter.

Playing his first World Championship match, Anand faced Kasparov in 1995

He continued with the Open Spanish but ran into a massive theoretical punch and got slaughtered. With perfect timing, Kasparov then shifted to the Dragon, caught Anand on the hop and won that too.

Anand shifted to a different Spanish in game 12 and drew but he lost a second Dragon as White and by the time he finally tried the Centre Counter in game 14, although he got a fine position he lost that too.

The timing was everything and had Anand thwarted Kasparov by shifting to the Centre Counter in game 10 then the course of chess history might again have been quite different.

Kasparov v Anand New York 1995 game 10. After 13.bxc3 Qd3 Kasparov hit
Anand with a massive theoretical blow 14.Bc2!!

After this extended digression, we return to Carlsen vs Karjakin.  I've seen some online discussion which dismisses Karjakin's chances but he played a tremendous tournament in Moscow and the very act of qualifying will have tempered him (in the sense of increasing his strength).

He now has about seven months to prepare and there are (at least) three absolutely key areas.

The first is the obvious one of deciding on the openings he wants to play and preparing the lines to a very high standard. It's what he and all the players of this computer age do every day though the demands of a world championship, in which In particular he will have to defend himself six times as Black, are qualitatively higher than in nay other event.

Secondly there is physical fitness. A match takes a huge toll on the body as well as the mind and during one of my Candidates matches of a fortnight or so my opponent had apparently lost nearly six kilos. Karjakin is a young guy and must be pretty fit already, but he will need to be absolutely sure that he's as near as possible to his peak when he plays Magnus.

The third crucial element will be how to counter Carlsen in the quiet positions he plays so magnificently. You have some control over what positions you get in a match but it is the natural entropy of a chess game to decay to some sort of more or less tense endgame and you can't expect  to avoid these entirely.

When Alexander Alekhine took on and beat the supposedly unbeatable Jose Raoul Capablanca in 1927 he embraced his opponent's apparently dull style to compete with him. Karjakin really ought to do some similar work regarding Carlsen. This would presumably involve playing quiet but tense positions against a really strong opponent. In the absence of Carlsen himself, Vladimir Kramnik is the obvious choice if he's available. Otherwise there are a number of other very good technicians and one possibility is even (so great a monster is Carlsen) for Karjakin to train against a "centaur" - a strong endgame player with a limited amount of computer assistance but not the really silly lines they generate.

However well he prepares for Carlsen, Karjakin will have to face the initial shock of playing him for the world championship. In 1963, Tigran Petrosian in his first game against Mikhail Botvinnik played in his own words "roughly at first category player strength, not even at candidate master" By game five after three draws, he scored a very famous victory and went to defeat Botvinnik.

Petrosian v Botvinnik (1963), game five. Adjourned position

In spite of playing dreadful in the first games, per his own words, Petrosian was able to
get himself together and win a brilliant game in the fifth game and turn the match around

In the first of his many matches with Anatoly Karpov, the young Garry Kasparov, still a weaker player, was crushed in the early games and it took until game 32 of the "Moscow Marathon" for him to score his first win.

Karjakin, with just a twelve game match, obviously has much less time to adapt. But he has a perfectly reasonable score against Carlsen and has beaten him several times. (Ignoring blindfold and blitz games I make it +6 -5 =17 to Carlsen but would need verification on this).

After winning Moscow, Karjakin is up to 2779.2 on the unofficial live ratings still 72 points behind Carlsen or about an expected score of 59% - 41% in Carlsen's favour.

Given Carlsen's huge extra experience in  world championship match play I would put it at rather more than that maybe as much as 2-1 but not much more and certainly less than 3-1.

About the author

Jon was born in 1956 and became a professional player in 1977 after graduating from Worcester College Oxford where he read mathematics. He became an IM in 1977 a GM in 1980 and was a member of the English Olympic team from 1980-2006.

Three times British Champion he played twice in the Candidates reaching the semi-final  (of what was then a knockout series of matches) in 1989 when he lost 4.5 - 3.5 to Jan Timman. He's twice been a second at the world championship for Nigel Short and then Viswanathan Anand against Garry Kasparov in London 1993 and New York 1995.

He's written the Observer (weekly) since 1993 and The Independent since 1998. With its closure (going online but without Jon on board) he's expanding online activity and is also now offering online tuition.

He likes puzzles especially (cryptic) crosswords and killer sudokus.

If you'd like to lambast Jon or otherwise he can be contacted via his email



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