An Amateur Looks at the WCC 2016

An Amateur Looks at the WCC 2016

Dec 6, 2016, 3:39 PM |

The chess world spent the last month with their eyes fixed on one main event—the World Chess Championship. Emotions ran hot and many were disappointed with the outcome. Some are claiming it was the death of classical chess. Still others wished to see Carlsen unseated from his short tenure as WCC. Some believe the format of the match was unsatisfactory. As an outside observer, and an average amateur player, I'd like to take this opportunity to share my thoughts about the match.

The Players

Though it may go without saying, winning the World Championship is the highest position any chess player can aspire to. Naturally, it is a long, hard fight to the top, and theoretically, the strongest player in the world should hold the title. Since this is the case, I came to the match with high expectations of Carlsen. He holds the highest rating of all time and is mathematically, and in many Masters' minds, one of the strongest players in history, in the company of such players as Fischer and Kasparov. I watched him in the recent Grandmaster Blitz Battle and was astounded by his amazingly talented and accurate play. (Indeed, he was very much the favorite to win the WCC—see this article of expert predictions.)

Karjakin, on the other hand, was a new name to me. The current #9 in the world, I have never heard his name beyond the context of this WCC—I am much more familiar with names like Giri, Nakamura, Caruana, So, Nepomniatchi, and Anand. He won the Candidates' Tournament before I even knew what it was, and I have read that it was a close win. Nothing I read leading up to the match impressed me. He seemed a mediocre player—bland, boring, non-creative. But being #9, I still hoped for a good match.

The Games

When the games began, I expected a firestorm from Carlsen. I figured Karjakin would get a few wins, but I thought he would ultimately get trounced, and wondered if perhaps the match would be over before game 12! I have read about and witnessed the high volume of draws at the highest levels of play, but I was not prepared to see that in this match—and honestly, I don't think most of the chess world was either.

By game 4, I was still in shock over all the draws. Carlsen is famous for his powerhouse endgames, and I have in the past found myself wondering, "How in the world did he win that?" But instead, I was now wondering, "How in the world didn't he win that??"
By game 6 I was disillusioned. Severely disappointed in Carlsen's play, I stopped following the match as closely. An amateur like me can only handle so many draws before he gets bored. This was not the Carlsen I had come to see.

Then came game 8: Karjakin strikes first blood! I saw the headline and couldn't believe my eyes—I was honestly dumbfounded and didn't know what to think. Who was this guy, who I'd never even heard of before, who was beating the World Champion?? He came out of nowhere! Already disappointed with Carlsen, I now began to fear that his inability to convert the advantage would mean his untimely demise as WCC.

After game 9 and another draw, I started to panic a bit, but with Carlsen's win in game 10, I breathed again. But from that point on I expected the match to go to tiebreak, which of course it did. I had no expectations for the tiebreaks though, because I was so severely disappointed at seeing 10 draws in a match of only 12 games!

The Tiebreak

On tiebreak day, though I had expected to remain quite sullen and disinterested, I actually couldn't stop thinking about the match and had difficulty focusing on work! I found the time to watch about half of games 2, 3, and 4. When game 2 ended, with two more draws now completed, I was disappointed all over again. I was dumbfounded that Carlsen actually stalemated Karjakin (though I later realized it would have been a draw anyway) and wondered how I would feel if Carlsen lost the match in the Armageddon round.

I expected another draw in game 3—who didn't?—but when Carlsen got a good position and a huge time advantage, I held my breath. Then Karjakin timed out, and I couldn't believe it! I was so excited, and thought maybe, just maybe, this match wouldn't go on for another 7 hours. Even another draw (which I really didn't want to see) would win the match for the reigning champ. But I couldn't help but feel that winning the World Championship by a time out would be a bit... well... cheap.

Coming into game 4 (which ultimately was the final game), I was pumped. This was Carlsen's chance to keep his title and actually his first time in the lead. Game 4 was everything I'd been waiting for all match! For the first time, I saw the Carlsen who I had watched previously, and boy did he shine! His final mating blow was something I'll never forget, and I bet it will go down in the WCC history books.

Finally, I got to see what I'd been waiting for for weeks: Carlsen wins the WC by 2 points (the margin I had originally predicted!).

The Aftermath

Though Carlsen retained his title as predicted, the match was not what most expected. Many people were upset with the match for varying reasons.

Some say that the match signified the death of classical chess, because all that two of the best players in the world could do was draw almost every game, such that the match was ultimately decided by rapid. Many of these same people were also upset with the tournament format, holding that rapid (and blitz, though we saw none this year) has no place in the WCC.

On the flipside, there are those who believe this match proved that classical chess should be done away with! They believe that it was well-demonstrated that classical chess at the highest levels will almost always result in a draw, and that chess should move with the times, making rapid the new standard.

Though some were bored with the draw-ridden match, still others believe the match was too short. They wish to see the match returned to its previous state of a much longer match with many many more games, to more adequately give both players a chance to prove themselves.

And on top of all this, players on both sides of the isle were wildly disappointed with the player they had hoped would win. I saw at least one person say that in the days of Fischer and Kasparov, we would never have seen such a ridiculous number of draws. But in reality this isn't true. For example, Kasparov-Karpov had dozens of draws, at one point even reaching 17 consecutive draws! We're no worse off now than we used to be.

My Thoughts

I have taken my time since the match to decide how I really feel about it overall. I was very bored with all the draws, and disappointed not to see the Carlsen wins I've come to expect. Game 16 helped me feel a bit better, I guess because Carlsen finally showed up—better late than never! I can't help but wonder if he over-prepared, focusing too much on book lines and technical advantages, and not enough on just being Carlsen.

For my first exposure to Karjakin, I was at first highly unimpressed. After all, what good is a chess player who can only draw? But the more I've thought about it, the more impressed I've become. Why? It takes skill to consistently draw a player who has a reputation of winning drawn games. It may not be wins, but it's still a very difficult thing to do. He held Carlsen off for a long time, and I think he deserves the 45% of the prize fund that he secured for himself! I would've liked to have seen more decisive games (from both players), but 12 draws and a win against the World Champion isn't something to sneeze at.

I do not, however, think that the format of the match was responsible for creating draws. I was personally relieved by the time game 12 rolled around, because I couldn't imagine weeks of more and more draws. If the match had been longer, I would've stopped watching, so I'm glad they cut it off. With regard to the tiebreak, I am conflicted. On the one hand, I think it is fitting that the World Chess Champion show himself to be the best in multiple time controls—if he's the best, he should be able to win any time control. But on the other hand, this isn't the World Rapid and Blitz Championships (and neither player is even blitz champion), and I feel I probably would have been livid if Carlsen had lost the title on tiebreaks. Perhaps a simpler rule would be better: possibly in the case of a draw, the WC retains the title?

Despite the draws, I don't believe this match marks any change to the world of chess. Theoretically, perfect play results in a draw every time, so it makes sense to see draws in near-perfect play. I think it's unavoidable, if not perhaps a bit disappointing as an observer. It may not be fireworks, but it's chess. I don't think we need to make an across-the-board (pun intended ) switch to rapid chess—though as a player that is the time control I prefer.

This was my first WC match, and though for me it did not live up to the hype, it was still a good battle. Not every match can make it into the WCC history books—nor should they. Now that my emotions have cooled down, I am satisfied with the match. Chess isn't explosions and shows of strength; it's an exercise of patience and superiority of the mind. It was never intended to be a spectator sport, and we should remember that before rushing to judgement on the players, hosts, or FIDE. No, it wasn't what I expected, nor what I'd hoped. But I'll always remember when I watched Carlsen retain his title against Karjakin in the 2016 WCC match—isn't that what matters?