Speelman: Karjakin’s decision-making in Moscow

4/10/2016 – Sergey Karjakin’s emergence as Magnus Carlsen’s challenger has sparked an intense debate of his chances, which Jon Speelman was delighted to stoke a week ago with an article here. Even though he agrees that Carlsen is a favorite, he presents here some analysis of Karjakin's key moments and just how good his decision-making was in Moscow, under pressure. Fascinating analysis.

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Opinions vary wildly, but the majority believe with me that Carlsen is a fairly hot favourite. The question is just how hot, and the last time I suggested that Karjakin’s chances of becoming champion are somewhere between 3 to 1 and 2 to 1. I’d like to support this now with some analysis of just how good his decision-making was in Moscow, under pressure, which was extreme though certainly far from what he will experience when he plays Carlsen.

A single tournament can obviously never be enough to characterise a player, otherwise based on his performance in the 2nd Sinquefield Cup in 2014, Fabiano Caruana would be expected to win every tournament he played in at a canter. Still, it can give an indication of his or her potential, and Karjakin’s play in Moscow was extremely impressive.

Of course he made many suboptimal moves and a few outright errors – you’d expect nothing less in such a tough tournament, but in the vast majority of the games he remained well focussed with minimal “drifting” and at the critical moments took excellent practical decisions without using too much time on the clock

In order to finish on a high, I’m going to begin with two examples where things didn’t go so well. Of course these games have already been heavily analysed here and elsewhere, and not wanting to repeat this will concentrate on the critical moments when Karjakin had to make choices.

In the first round of the second cycle, or round eight, Peter Svidler tried an idea
in the opening that backfired and was on the ropes. With the g2 bishop close to
dead Black “merely” needs to take control to get a more or less winning position. 

It’s not at all an easy task but I was reminded of a game I lost to Anatoly Karpov in the 1988 Brussels World Cup. I made an exchange sacrifice which looked quite good but I didn’t really believe in. I couldn’t see how to refute it but imagined there was a way and he quickly showed me. I presume that Karpov in that form, and a number of other players at their peak, would have buried Svidler, bishop and all. 

Karjakin had an 'easy win that was not quite so easy

This would best have been done with 19...hxg5! when two salient lines are 20.Nxg5 Nf5!  21.Nh3 Ncxd4 22.Nxf4 Qh4;  and 20.Kh1 Nd4 21.Bxd4 Qxd4 22.Nxg5 Bd7 23.Qxa7 (else Black has nothing for his pains) 23...Qe5 24.Bh3 Bxh3 25.Nxh3 Nc6 26.Qa6 Nd4 with the massive control Black sought..

After the game continuation 19...h5 20.Rfd1 Nd4 21.Bxd4 Qxd4 22.Qxa7 Qd7 23.Qa3 h4 24.Qc3 Bf5 25.h3. it was already not easy because White can menace the h pawn with Qe1. Karjakin decided that he could capture on h3 retreat the bishop and play ...h3 but after 25...Bxh3? unburying the bishop he’d missed  26.Qe5! after which Svidler got on top.

25...Bxh3 was very odd and Black must be able to do better after 19...h5 earlier though lines like 20...Bd7 21.Qc2 Nf5 22.d4 Nh4 23.d5 Ne5 are also far from clear .

Perhaps 19...h5 really was a serious error though. I’m certainly

finding it amazingly hard to find anything remotely simple and clear afterwards. One thing I would say is that I suspect that computers overrate the two bishops so in analysing this you shouldn’t take too much notice of them.

This position after 30 moves against Anand is pretty unpleasant, whatever our silicon
friends may say (Houdini is currently giving me +0.25 to White after 30...Bh7)

Once the white rook was established on c7 it looked worse, and one sensible idea is 30...Ke8 when White will win the e pawn though matters should be within bounds. One line goes 31. bxc6 (a bit antipositional perhaps, but since the rook isn't getting to c7 he opens the b-file for a rook)  31...bxc6 32.Rxe7+ Kxe7 33.Rxe4+ Be6 34.Rb4 Rd8 35.Bd4 Bc8! 36.Kg2 Ba6 and White can play on for ever but Black should surely hold.

Instead it went 31...Rce8 31.b6 a6 32.Rc7 Kf8 33.c4 Be6 34.Rxe4 Kf7 35.f4

Position after 35. f4

Whatever Houdini et all say, this is already critical in a human game. Karjakin quite rightly decided that he must bail out but got it wrong: After 35...Rxc7 36.bxc7 Rc8? (36...f5! was best by far) he was obviously expecting 37.fxg5 fxg5 38.Bxg5 Rxc7 which must indeed be defensible but had missed 37.f5! Bd7 38.h4!

If now 38...gxh4 39.Rd4!. Karjakin tried 38..g6 but by now the game was effectively over, even though it lasted till move 70. (I don't believe they have but wouldn't care if the monster engines did find some miracle defence - for a human it was curtains.)

Turning now to happier moments for Karjakin we begin with his round three game with Anish Giri.

Position after 18. Re1

The best move here is probably  18...Ne4, the point being that if 19.f3 Nxg3! Black has enough for the piece. (A nice counterpoint to his previous game with Nakamura when ...Nxg3? had been a fatal blunder.) Karjakin chose a different move but the important thing is not that you play "the best" but that you have an idea and back it up.18...h5 19.Bh3 Ng4 20.Nf4 g6!

Rather than grovelling after 20...Bxf4 21.exf4, he was prepared to sacrifice a pawn for the two bishops and white squares. 21.Bxg4 hxg4 22.Qxg4 Nf6 23.Qg5 Be7! Another really confident move. Believing in his calculations, Karjakin was happy to induce Giri to make an obvious piece sacrifice.

Anish Giri: happy to play over 100 moves

24.Nxg6 fxg6 25.Qxg6+ Kh8 26.Nc5 26.e4 was also interesting but Black can defend then too. starting 26...Bb4 27.Re3 Bd2! 26...bxc5 27.dxc5 Rf8 28.Qh6+ Kg8 29.Qg6+ In the end, Karjakin achieved a very painless draw against a man who is quite happy to play well over 100 moves.

In round six, playing black against Caruana, Karjakin had been forced to jettison his queen a few moves earlier. After 28...h6 it might conceivably still be defensible but is very nasty. Instead he found a much better idea, especially as the time control loomed.


This is a move you'd certainly see, and very possibly play in a blitz game, but in such a serious context it's much harder to play and Karjakin analysed/judged it very well.

Round six was a fight between Fabiano Caruana’s excellent home preparation against Karjakin’s tenacity

29.Qxc4 d3 30.g5?

Enormously tempting, but 30.Kh2 (or Bf3 first) 30...d2 31.Bf3 d1=Q+
32.Bxd1 Rxd1 perhaps gave more chances after 33.Ra6 say - but not
33.h4 Ree1 34.h5 Rh1+ 35.Kg3 Rdg1+ 36.Kf4 Bxh5! holding

30...d2 31.gxf6+ Kh8 32.Bf3 Be4! 33.Kh2 Bd5!

After these two excellent bishop moves, Black is okay.

34.Qg4 Rg8 35.Bd1 Rxg4 36.hxg4 h6 ½–½

In fact, when the game ended I wondered if Caruana could still play on since the black king is so bad, but he can't really. For example, after
37.Kg3 Kh7 38.Bc2+ Kg8 39.Kf4 Be6 40.Bd1 Kh7 41.Bc2+ Kg8
42. Ra1?! Rc8 it's now White who must be careful - 43.Bd3 Bb3 44.Be2 Rd8 45.Bd1 Bxd1 46.Rxd1 Kh7 47.Ke3 and it's dead.

Karjakin's last two games were superb given the pressure. They began with an ingenious defence against Levon Aronian.

Aronian had just played the very strong 29.Rc6-c5! attacking the knight

If Black tries to bail out now with 29...Rb3 30.Rxb3 axb3 31.Qxb3 c6 then 32.Ra5 Rxa5 33.Qb8+ Qe8 34.Qxe8+ Bxe8 35.Bxa5 is the sort of disadvantage you really don't want to have. There are a lot of moves here of which software initially at last likes 29...Nb5 the best but Karjakin  chose a forcing line which gave very good chances a piece down.


If now:

[Event "FIDE Candidates 2016"] [Site "Moscow RUS"] [Date "2016.03.27"] [Round "13"] [White "Aronian, L."] [Black "Karjakin, Sergey"] [Result "1/2-1/2"] [ECO "A29"] [WhiteElo "2786"] [BlackElo "2760"] [SetUp "1"] [FEN "rr5k/2p1qbpp/5p2/2R1p3/p3N3/n2Pn1P1/QR3PBP/4B1K1 w - - 0 30"] [PlyCount "18"] [EventDate "2016.03.10"] 30. Rxb8+ Rxb8 31. Qxa3 {Aronian was not unnaturally afraid of} Nc2 {. After} 32. Qc1 Nxe1 33. Rxc7 Qf8 34. Qxe1 a3 35. Qa1 {and Black can proceed two ways:} a2 ({Black can also leave the pawn on a3. After} 35... Bg8 36. Ra7 a2 {White must try} 37. Rxa2 ({Not} 37. Nc3 $4 Qc5 $1) 37... Bxa2 38. Qxa2 {and with Black so solid that looks far from easy, though perhaps White can somehow whip up a mating attack.}) 36. Nc3 Bg8 37. Nxa2 Qa3 38. Rc2 Qa6 {leaves White in a horrible pin. Perhaps he can get out by playing h3, g4, Kg2 and then d4 to answer exd4 with Qf1 but it's far from trivial (the first time I tried this I played it without g4 and ran into Qf1 Bxh3+)} 1/2-1/2

Returning to the first diagram after 29...Nxe3!? 30.Qxa3, it  continued 30...Rxb2 31.Qxb2 Nxg2 32.Kxg2 a3 33.Qb7 Qd8 34.Qxc7 Qxc7 35.Rxc7 Bd5 36.Rc5 a2 37.Bc3 Bg8 38.Ba1 Rb8

Position after 38...Rb8


Allowing Black to get the d3 pawn. 39.Rc1 Rb1 40.Rf1 was better when White can meet Be6 with 41.Nd2! but still very difficult.

Rb1 40.Bc3 Rd1 41.Kf3 Rxd3+

Having got this pawn, Karjakin was okay since the a pawn is very disruptive to White and his kingside pawn structure is tremendously solid.

It all came down to this crucial game

And finally to the last round - not the finish when Caruana blundered which was pretty but easy to see and calculate and morally forced. But the move that in essence set it up.

Realising that the flow of the game was against him, Karjakin here played 30.e5! to change the course of play and put maximum pressure on Caruana in the run up to the time control. It wasn't necessarily the "best" move, but it was certainly the best in the circumstances by a mile and not so easy to play in a game which Karjakin absolutely had not to lose.

To reiterate: Karjakin made many questionable decisions in Moscow and a few outright bad moves - he's a human being after all. Nevertheless, the good far outweighed the bad. He showed coolness and composure under extreme stress and while he'll have to move up a notch or two to succeed against Carlsen it's far from impossible.

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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