NEW YORK — Chess is a game of strategy, and reigning World Champion Magnus Carlsen was nothing if not strategic in Game 12 of his match against Russia’s Sergey Karjakin on Monday.
With the score tied at 5.5-5.5, the title-holder from Norway, with white, invited Karjakin to play the Berlin Defence, and the challenger obliged.
The Berlin yet again lived up to its drawish reputation, and after a mere 30 moves and roughly 45 minutes of play, the men shook hands.
The match will now go to tiebreakers, 25-minutes “rapid” games, beginning Wednesday at 2 PM ET. There will be four of those. If there’s still no winner, the 2016 World Chess Championship goes to five-minutes blitz games.
Carlsen is not only the world’s number-one ranked player in classic chess — he’s also number one in rapid and second only to China’s Ding Liren in blitz, according the the most recent FIDE rankings. Like any top Grandmaster, Karjakin is no slouch at either rapid or blitz, but Carlsen is, on paper, a lot better.
So it’s abundantly clear why Carlsen decided to avoid pushing for a decisive result. He has white, he could push for an advantage, but the opening is a tough one to crack open, and if he makes an error, he blows his title. He likes his chances in rapid and blitz against the conservative Karjakin, who hasn’t made a lot of mistakes in standard chess during the championship.
But still! You’re the World Champion! You have white! It’s the final standard game of the World Chess Championship! Time for some fireworks, right?
Fans were hoping for more, but honestly, a thrilling Game 12 was probably too much to hope for. Besides, both Carlsen and Karjakin are 25 years old (Carlsen turns 26 this week) and are are children of the computer age. Their play is deeply informed by powerful “analysis engines,” computer programs that have taught them to ruthlessly evaluate positions and maintain equality.
Carlsen isn’t completely beholden to this “new age” of elite chess. He sometimes appears indifferent to opening theory and would rather outplay his opponents in long games where a small advantage can be nurtured, or when the pressure yields late-game errors.
But Karjakin is a slightly scary combination of risk-averse player and skilled calculator. Over and over again in the championship, he’s found the right move, mirroring computer evaluations. In a weird way, the matchup has been both perfect — and perfectly boring. Karjakin’s refusal to self-destruct has set Carlsen up for the marathons he wants. But Carlsen hasn’t been able to provoke the ruinous inaccuracies from Karjakin that’s he’s needed.
And so: ten draws and only a single win for each player.
A lot of fans, not to mention plenty of GMs and chess commenters who don’t want to see the World Champion turn into a dreary slog, are depressed by this. A solution might be longer standard match schedules, 20 or more games rather than 12, to encourage players to go for wins knowing that they will be able to recover from losses.
But that would mean a major commitment of time from players and fans — and there’s no guarantee that the result of such a match wouldn’t be 10-10.
Anyway, we can now root for some flashier rapid games.
Not much to say about Game 12, in which the pieces and queens were exchanged, leaving rooks, bishops, centralised kings, and symmetrical pawns on the board. It’s a more-or-less textbook draw: