Carlsen vs Karjakin:  Who Will Win?

Carlsen vs Karjakin: Who Will Win?

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The Candidates' Tournament 2016 is a part of chess history already. You all know the results, so there is no point to recap it again. Two popular internet memes summarize very well how the tournament will be remembered.

One of them depicts President Putin sporting a tattoo of Sergey Karjakin. 

Another one shows the following position:

Then three candidates suggest their moves:

  • Nakamura: Qg8 
  • Caruana: Qg7
  • Giri: Qg6

(As the rumor goes, the author of this brilliant chess joke is Canadian GM Eric Hansen).

While it was impossible to predict the unbelievable result of GM Giri, who drew every single game in the tournament, the win of Sergey Karjakin was not a big surprise. In fact, just three rounds before the finish Anand and Caruana were sharing the lead, GM Emil Anka asked my opinion about who was going to win the tournament and I answered: "Karjakin!"  

If you read this and especially this article you'll understand my reasoning.

Now we have a big match --  Carlsen vs Karjakin --  coming soon.

Who is going to win? While everyone and his brother predict an easy win for Carlsen, I am not so sure. To some extent the coming world championship match reminds me of another one where the incumbent was a heavy favorite: Fischer-Karpov. Unfortunately, we will never know what would have happened.

But in his book "My Great Predecessors," Kasparov expressed an opinion that Karpov had good chances to win even if Karpov himself repeatedly claimed that it wasn't his world championship cycle.

What really makes both matches similar is the big government support of the challengers. Much was written about Karpov's preparation for the match where no expense was spared and all top Soviet grandmasters had to help "our Tolya."  When last week the official website of the Russian Ministry of Sports published the report about the meeting between the Russian Sport Minister Vitaly Mutko and Sergey Karjakin, it really felt like a throwback to a bygone era.

In particular Mr. Mutko assured that Sergey Karjkin can choose any federal facility for his training camps and increase the number of his coaches and seconds if necessary.

Now let's examine the chess elements of the coming match.

Disclaimer: in the following part of the article the games of Sergey Karjakin will be shown. In my previous article I quoted George Soros and got flak from some of the readers in the comments. Please note that Fischer's brilliant games I frequently use in my articles have nothing to do with his outrageous opinions about the world outside of the 64 squares. The same way, while I heavily use Alekhine games and ideas, it doesn't mean that I approve of his fascist articles that he published in 1941 in Pariser Zeitung. 

So, let's talk chess! Please keep your comments politics-free!


We already discussed in this article that in simple technical positions no one can come close to Carlsen. If Magnus manages to steer the match towards these kind of positions, then Karjakin has no chance. Of course Karjakin knows it very well and will try to get complicated, unbalanced positions that he plays quite well.  

Judge for yourself:

Even if Karjakin finds himself in a difficult situation, but the position is dynamic, as a rule he is very creative and resourceful:

Now take a look at Karjakin's play in a boring, technical position (the territory of Carlsen!):

Finally it is very important to mention Karjakin's amazing will power (or what's known in Russia as "советский характер").  The decisive game of the Candidates' tournament is the best illustration. Please remember that whenever we evaluate any player's decision in this game, we need to remember that the game was worth about one million dollars (the world championship match!).

Let's start!

Yes, it is already a very brave decision. White had more restricting options (1.d4 or 1.Nf3), but Karjakin doesn't mind a big fight!

If it was just a regular super tournament, I wouldn't even mention this move. But imagine that all you need is just a draw to win a cool million dollars, would you weaken all dark squares around your king just to get your bishop a good c4 square?

Especially when the last move of your opponent was a6-a5 preparing a5-a4! That's what I am talking about!

This is another remarkable moment! The variation after 32.Qxd5 would have led to a simple technical position where a super-GM like Karjakin should be able to achieve a draw without much troubles. Yet, true to his style, Karjakin goes for a complicated position!


The final combination is not very difficult but cute!

I hope you see now that you shouldn't get brainwashed by some outrageous odds that you can find on the Internet (up to 3:1 in Carlsen's favor). I think the real odds should be closer to 55-45 in Carlsen's favor.

It is a shame that we don't have  instruments to arbitrage the difference between the implied and real odds. A hedged bet, like buying the outcome of the match and selling the individual games (sort of a "calendar spread' to borrow the financial term) could be very profitable.

I guess it was my long-winded way to say that in my opinion the coming world championship match is going to be very interesting and Karjakin will give Carlsen a run for his money. But most important, the match should finally answer the question from the Fischer-Karpov non-encounter: what will prevail, the genius of an individual or the iron grip of the Soviet team?

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