What the experts say: predictions, views, opinions

11/10/2016 – Magnus Carlsen vs Sergey Karjakin - who will win the match in New York? Is there a clear favorite? What are strengths, what are weaknesses of Carlsen and Karjakin? We asked experts, officials, and chess authors how they see the match and what they expect from Carlsen and Karjakin. A lot of experts, a lot of opinions. Statements.

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Ruslan Ponomariov (Photograph by Pascal Simon)

Ruslan Ponomariov

Ruslan Ponomariov, FIDE-World Champion 2002, (on Ponomariov’s way to the FIDE World title Sergey Karjakin, who was 12 years at that time, worked as a second for Ponomariov)
I think Carlsen is the stronger player and a clear favorite in this match. But fortune often smiles on Karjakin. At any rate, after the Brexit and Donald Trump’s victory in the US elections nothing can surprise me.

Yasser Seirawan with colleagues at the Blitz World Championship 2015 in Berlin

Yasser Seirawan, Grandmaster and a four-time United States Champion
Old lions have given way to the young. This is the first inter-generational match that doesn’t feature the names: Viswanathan Anand; Veselin Topalov or Vladimir Kramnik. In fact in terms of age this will be the youngest world championship match in history. Magnus and Sergey are truly, “children of the computer age.” They have honed their game with the use of engines and databases. For me their styles are quite comparable.

They both play a wide variety of Openings and Defenses and are therefore moving targets in that phase. Both players excel in their fine defensive skills. They spot dangers from a long way away and are very difficult to defeat. They both have good attacking skills and fine endgame techniques. Both have very admirable qualities. The problem for Sergey is in their ‘numerous similarities of strengths’ Magnus has the edge. To this I’d add that Magnus has two World Championship match experiences while Sergey will be making his debut. For these reasons I make the defending Champion the clear favorite.

However, it would be a mistake to think that Magnus will ‘easily’ defend his title. The match will be short, only twelve games long. Six Whites, six Blacks. Opening preparation will simply be a huge factor in the match. As will the form of both players. To win Sergey will have to catch Magnus in an off-beat Opening or Defense that Magnus might try. Good fortune in the team’s guesswork will be needed. With their chess skills so well matched the victor might well be decided by other factors: Nerves. Time trouble pressure. Physical condition. Confidence. Will all play important roles. Magnus will want to grind out long games where he has an advantage to test Sergey’s mettle. To ‘exhaust’ him in such contests so that he will not have the energy to return the favor the next day. I’m expecting a good well-fought match where the first to score will likely prevail.

Mikhail Golubev, Grandmaster and author
Carlsen's chances are higher: he is not necessarily more talented but somewhat more stable and more resistant than Karjakin. Unfortunately, the time control at the top level is quite boring nowadays. They are normally playing the safest openings and are extremely well prepared. I expect this match to be tough and boring, maybe with one or two interesting games. The most probable outcome is +1 for Carlsen.

Daniel King, Grandmaster and author
Although on paper Carlsen is favorite, in this kind of match I don't see the World Champion's usual strengths coming into play. Carlsen has great physical stamina that often allows him to power through in the latter half of a tournament; Karjakin has been training hard on his physical fitness and will match the Norwegian in this regard. Carlsen is deadly at killing off the weaker players in a tournament, but there is only one opponent here. Carlsen's nerves are strong; the same can be said about the stolid Karjakin. His calm performance in winning the Candidates was impressive. Although Carlsen has won two World Championship finals, this is the first time he is facing a player of his own generation, so to some extent he is also facing a new challenge.

Underpinning Karjakin's challenge for the title is the massive support from the Russian Chess Federation, both practical and financial. The Federation has close links to the Kremlin who would love to see the chess world title captured in New York and returned to its rightful place in Mother Russia. I'm sure they haven't stinted on funds. For Carlsen, this is going to be the toughest challenge of his chess career.

Karsten Müller, Grandmaster and author
I think Carlsen’s chances to win the match are roughly 60/40. That is roughly what the Elo difference between the two would lead you to expect and not such a great superiority. Magnus has only a slightly better score from their previous games, and Karjakin is a very stubborn defender. Moreover, the match is short and I don’t see Carlsen as a 70/30 favorite. Karjakin calculates very precisely, particularly when he is defending. I think both have very good nerves though Carlsen has of course more experience with playing matches on this level.

Of course, preparation is an interesting issue. Karjakin will be very well prepared, for forced lines in particular. It will be crucial whether Carlsen manages to avoid concrete lines – as he has done time and again in his career. Okay, if Carlsen has to take a hit by Karjakin in a forced line, Carlsen is in trouble. As a defender Carlsen is very tenacious but in that respect Karjakin is really outstanding. It is impressive how many bad positions he managed to hold in the Candidates.

As far as the endgame is concerned, one has to say that Karjakin has played a lot of rook endings extremely well in the course of his career. In fact, if you want to learn something about rook endings it is a good idea to take a look at these games by Karjakin. But Magnus is of course also extremely strong and has a good feeling for harmony and how to coordinate the pieces. Maybe he is particularly strong if he has enough pieces left on the board which he can coordinate. However, all in all I see a slight endgame plus for Carlsen.

Robert Rabiega, Grandmaster and teacher
Magnus Carlsen is as much favorite to win against Sergey Karjakin as he was favorite to win against Viswanathan Anand, perhaps a 60/40 favorite.

Carlsen’s key strength is to get positions which are playable but seemingly inconspicuous. He then tries to outplay his opponents from these positions which he understands better than most other players. But Carlsen also is mentally ready to play these positions to an end. Back in the day a lot of players back were content to settle for a draw in such positions. Carlsen’s way of playing chess might influence the next generation of chessplayers though the current generation might be unable to adopt this style which in fact is difficult to imitate.

As far as opening preparation is concerned, Karjakin is really strong. He is still young and has a lot of energy. Like any other world class player he has a universal chess education. If players reach a certain level they tend to play on a similar level tactically. Maybe here Carlsen is similar to Bobby Fischer who had some slight weaknesses in complicated tactical positions – on a high level, of course. Karjakin has to try to reach highly complicated positions.

But as always, psychology is the issue. There are only a few players who do believe that they can really win against Carlsen. This might be Karjakin’s handicap. This is similar to the match Fischer against Spassky: before their match in 1972 Spassky had a tremendous score against Fischer but Fischer had a huge winning streak before the match against Spassky. I believe that players such as Vladimir Kramnik or Fabio Caruana or Anish Giri would think: okay, I can win against Carlsen. But does Karjakin believe it?

Dorian Rogozenco, Grandmaster and author
In my opinion the main open question is how will Karjakin be able to deal with the huge pressure of the match in New York City, because he doesn't have experienced playing World Chess Championship matches before. This encounter is something Karjakin has worked on really hard, basically all his life, and it represents the culmination of his career. In the last years Sergey demonstrated on several occasions that he is able to stand up the pressure in the most critical moments, but all that doesn't even come close to a World Chess Championship match. In my opinion chesswise Karjakin is not weaker than Carlsen, but Magnus has the better cards when it comes to dealing with extreme pressure. Therefore my prediction is that if Karjakin will manage to concentrate on chess and get rid of the pressure put on him (which is huge), then the chances are about even. To summarize... my general prediction is something like 55 to 45 for Magnus. A close match.

Jörg Hickl, Grandmaster and director of schachreisen.eu
My yearly view into the crystal ball of chess reveals: all in vain once again!

Making predictions for such a short match is almost impossible. In a 24-game match Carlsen would be clear a favorite and according to Elo he actually is the favorite in this match. But strengths and weaknesses are often not the decisive factors in a match – the psyche and sometimes even luck play a more important role. This can quickly end like an election in the U.S..

However, it is not easy to bet on the underdog – therefore: 60 percent winning chances for Carlsen!

Martin Breutigam, International Master and journalist
I think that Carlsen will have to give it all against Karjakin. If he is ready to do so I would bet on a narrow win for Carlsen. Karjakin will definitely be optimally prepared; his good nerves and his defensive skills are well-known. And I do not see any significant weaknesses in his play (and definitely none in Carlsen’s).

Elisabeth Pähtz, World Youth Champion Girls 2002 and World Junior Girls Champion 2005
Carlsen will win the match. He simply is the better player and he also has more match experience. Perhaps Karjakin puts his hopes on his better opening preparation. But if he does not get anything out of the opening, he will be worse in the middlegame and in the endgame.

Arno Nickel

Arno Nickel, Grandmaster of correspondence chess and publisher
If you follow the bookies Carlsen is clear favorite. But in a World Championship match a number of issues play a role and these issues are hardly predictable. How well did the teams work and which resources do they have? The desire of the Russians to bring the crown finally back to their great realm has been growing bigger and bigger over the last years, and one can therefore presume that Karjakin will receive more and more focused support by experts of all kinds, including sport scientists, psychologists and physicians than Carlsen can possibly get – no matter, if he wants such help or considers it useful.
In the end psychology will decide the match. Who is the first to deeply unsettle the opponent and bring himself into top-form? This is not necessarily connected to the choice of openings, even though the opening is the first important choice of direction. But against Carlsen all phases of the game are equally important. Maybe the role of challenger allows Karjakin to surpass himself. But it is also possible that Carlsen in the end will again have seen a lot more than his opponent.

Morten L. Madsen, President of the Norweigan Chess Federation

Morten L. Madsen, President of the Norweigan Chess Federation
I expect a completely new arrangement, with innovative solutions, as presented earlier by Agon during the Olympics in Baku. I also look forward to a tight and exciting match between two players, brought up under different cultures. 

I’m excited and proud. The Norwegian newspapers and TV-channels already fill their pages and broadcasts about the match. Maybe as much as half of our population In Norway will follow this!

Herbert Bastian, President of the German Chess Federation
I expect to see an excellently prepared Karjakin, who will first of all try to make Carlsen nervous and to provoke him. I also think that Carlsen will have problems to get going, as he has so often had before. But when Karjakin will have used up all the surprises he has in store Carlsen will find his rhythm and overcome the nervousness of the beginning. The match will offer much to talk about, not least because of Agon’s innovative marketing concept, but also because a Russian in America wants to bring the title back to Russia.

In the past, to become World Champion you had to introduce a new wrinkle to the game to exploit a weakness of your opponent. And one was well advised to avoid dancing to the tune of your opponent. Carlsen plays his own kind of chess, he avoids the well-trodden paths and does not rely much on theoretical variations. As far as Karjakin is concerned I can think of no characteristic feature of his play which would allow him to leave his mark on top level chess. But I think Karjakin is very disciplined, and in a match against Carlsen, who at times likes to experiment, this might be an advantage. In tournaments discipline leads to solid but only rarely to exceptional results. All in all Carlsen who I consider to be the better player, will probably achieve a narrow win.

Carsten Schmidt, President of the Chess Federation Berlin, Germany
I think it will be a match in which the opponents are on a par with each other. They are both about the same age and fitness should not play such a big role if both have the right approach.

Thanks to good management Magnus Carlsen by now is a brand name which is immensely important for chess. I don’t know how a World Champion Karjakin would be received by the general press. However, now hardly a day passes in which Carlsen is not mentioned in some newspaper, magazine or blog (which are not geared to chess fans).

In any case, to play important chess matches in big cities is the way to go because in these cities you do have a lot of chess fans who will want to follow the match as spectators. This at least runs counter to the rather consumer-unfriendly commercial live-transmission. My prediction: Carlsen wins +2 after a narrow match.

Ullrich Krause, President of the Chess Federation Schleswig-Holstein, Germany
I first heard the name “Magnus Carlsen” in 2001 when Simen Agdestein, who back then was coach of Carlsen and also played for Lübeck in the Bundesliga, at dinner after a match, said about Carlsen: "I have taught chess to lots of children but with this boy it is something special." Fifteen years later one can only confirm this statement. There are not many sports which have such a relaxed and likeable World Champion. I think Carlsen is a godsend for chess! Of course Sergey Karjakin is a worthy challenger but I still want Carlsen to win the match, and I also think that he is favorite to win. However, with only twelve games everything is possible.

Yannick Pelletier, Grandmaster
No question, the Norwegian is the clear favorite. But the challenger does have some trumps, which I would sum up as follows.

At first, backed by his chess Federation and the Russian government, Karjakin has had endless means to organize his preparation, with all trainers, psychologists, and other things he could wish for. Despite Carlsen's versatility in the opening, this is a phase of the game where Karjakin may be able to take an edge. The Russian is also a tough defender. This resilience may be very helpful against Carlsen's famous technique.

The first few games of the match may be crucial, as the Norwegian often struggles to find his rhythm at the start of tournaments.

Finally, Karjakin has been considered by many (and of course also by himself) as a potential future World Champion since he is about 10. Sometimes, children's dreams come true!

Nevertheless, Carlsen is simply the better player. Unless terrible form, illness, or another unexpected factor comes into play, I do not believe that Karjakin will be able to beat him. My forecast is a 6.5-4.5 win for Carlsen.

... and what do you think about the chances of Magnus Carlsen and Sergey Karjakin? Share your opinion in the comments!



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