The World Championship Deja Vu

The World Championship Deja Vu

| 21 | Fun & Trivia

[Note: GM Serper reflects on the first half of the 2016 world chess championship.]

At the time of this writing, the first part of the world championship match is over, and the score is still even: 3-3. Nobody would have predicted six straight draws in a row to start of the match, especially considering the heavy odds given to the world champion by bookmakers.

So, what's going on, and what should we expect in the second half of the match?

While watching this exciting encounter, I cannot help but experience a severe case of deja vu. I have definitely seen it before. 30 years ago, the first match between Anatoly Karpov and Garry Kasparov, which started in September 1984, was one of the most remarkable in chess history. In that match, which was to end when one of the players scored six wins, Karpov was leading 5-0 at some point. Yet Karpov was never able to score that final win, and ultimately the match was interrupted by the FIDE President Campomanes when the score was 5-3. What happened then?

Kasparov admits that before the match he had no doubts that he was going to win it and become the new world champion.

A recently crowned Kasparov with Rafael Vaganian in Dubai in 1986. | Photo Wikimedia.

He tried to attack in almost every single game, but he met a formidable opponent he had never faced before in a match. When after only nine games Karpov was leading 4-0, Kasparov realized that he was far too optimistic before the match and that this mistake had cost him dearly. So, he completely changed his strategy in the match. As he admits in his book, instead of his trademark attacks, he started playing super-safe chess, avoiding any risk. As a result, the opponents had a series of 17 draws in a row! Then Karpov won again, and with the score 5-0, it looked like the match was going to be over in a week or so.

But Karpov was never able to score that final win because he was now facing a different opponent. 30 games against the world champion was the best school Kasparov could ever dream about. Instead of the impulsive "boy from Baku" from the beginning of the match, Karpov was playing a seasoned match player by the end of the match. Besides, when the score was 5-0 and everyone expected the match to be over soon, Karpov couldn't help but relax. He didn't want to go for any complicated positions anymore. He was just waiting for a good opportunity to pick a low-hanging fruit.

As you can see, at this point in the match, both opponents tried to avoid any risk, and each missed many promising opportunities to score. Moreover, when you don't play your best chess, sometimes you miss the moves that you would never miss otherwise. A case in point is the notorious 41st game:

Karpov spent around eight minutes calculating 33.a6! which would instantly finish the match, and ... he didn't play it! Why? Under normal circumstances, Karpov would be able to calculate all these short and relatively simple variations in 1-2 minutes, but this was not a "normal" situation. His new match strategy was telling him "Why bother with all these calculations? Just play 33.Rd1, and keep torturing him with your extra pawn!" That's how a sure opportunity to finish the match was missed.  Moreover, this dangerous state of mind failed Karpov again in game 47.

After Kasparov played 11...a5 he offered a draw. In his book Kasparov explains that even though Karpov clearly wasn't too happy with the outcome of the opening, he wouldn't agree for a draw at this point. Indeed, Karpov rejected the offer saying, "It's too early". According to Kasparov, Karpov's reply  sounded like, "I don't mind a draw in general, but let's just play some more moves." As a chess player in that position, Karpov wouldn't mind a draw at all. But as a person who was very confident that the match was more or less over anyway, he didn't want a draw and waited for a good opportunity to score. This dangerous case of a "split personality" led to one of his worst games in the match. The following game was not much better:

I vividly remember the day of that game. I was just a candidate master and observing the way that Karpov played the last two games, I had a strange feeling that even I would be able to beat him

I didn't have any doubt that the match was over, and surprisingly, I was correct. The match was indeed over but not the way I anticipated. FIDE President Campomanes unexpectedly stopped the match!

Fast forward to the match Magnus Carlsen vs Sergey Karjakin.Before the match started, everyone and his brother predicted an easy win for the world champion. It strongly reminded me of the situation in the Karpov vs Kasparov match after the score became 4-0. In both matches, the challenger played ultra-safe chess, avoiding any risk, and the world champion waited for the low-hanging fruit. There is only one difference: In the Carlsen vs Karjakin match, the score is still even!

After two relatively uneventful draws, Carlsen missed numerous chances to score in the third game. Nevertheless, it is really difficult for me to criticize the world champion for missing a forced winning variation shown by a computer. It is absolutely natural that a human player, even a genius like Carlsen, misses such a tricky computer-line after almost seven hours of play!  

Carlsen's mistake in the fourth game was more serious from a practical point of view.

45...f4?? turned out to be a decisive error that allowed Karjakin to build an impregnable fortress. After the game, Carlsen said that he didn't believe in fortresses, and he was sure that he would be able to win. Obviously, I am not in a position to criticize one of the best endgame players ever, but both the computer's 45...Be6! and the more human 45...fxg4 would clearly leave White less opportunities to create a fortress.

The third and fourth games were a big warning sign for the world champion. Normally he would be expected to score 2.0/2 in positions like that. The fifth game was even more concerning for Carlsen.

The "theoretical" draw in the sixth game, where the opponents showed the fruits of their home preparation, concluded the first half of the match. 

While the score is still even, the main question is: Who benefited the most from the first six games? In my opinion, it is definitely Karjakin!

First of all, Karjakin gained priceless experience in playing the world championship match. Also he got six invaluable lessons from professor Magnus. Now don't forget the psychological side of the match. Karjakin has proven that it is possible to play endgames against King Magnus, even (gasp!) bad endgames!

Now look at the first part of the match from the Magnus Carlsen's perspective. No doubt before the match he was absolutely sure that he was going to win comfortably. So, it looks like his strategy was to cast a wide net looking for a low-hanging fruit, just like Karpov did in his match versus Kasparov. We can see the dangerous similarities for Carlsen between the two matches. While Carlsen's missed opportunities in the third and fourth games can be compared to Karpov's mistake in game 41, Carlsen's slip in the fifth game can be compared to Karpov's game 47. The only difference is that unlike Kasparov, Karjakin was satisfied with a draw and didn't even try to play for a win with 43...Rh8.

In my preview of the match, I predicted that Carlsen would rely on his superior endgame skills, and Karjakin would not attack. Instead, he would wait for a good opportunity to counterattack. So far it is exactly what's happening in the match.  Carlsen is visibly annoyed by the stubborn defense of his opponent, but this is exactly what could be expected from Karjakin. This is the "Soviet character" I mentioned here and here

Thanks to Yogi Berra's tip, I know that, "It is tough to make predictions, especially about the future". Yet, I think one of two things is going to happen: Either Carlsen keeps waiting for a low-hanging fruit, and Karjakin gets an opportunity to strike, or Carlsen realizes that this match is not that easy as many made him believe, and he starts playing more challenging openings trying to beat the challenger in the middlegame. For example, consider the following game:

I still stick with my prediction from this article and evaluate the opponent's chances for the rest of the match as 55-45 in Carlsen's favor.

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