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Karjakin Unmoved By Surprising Pawn Sacrifice, Holds Game 11

Karjakin Unmoved By Surprising Pawn Sacrifice, Holds Game 11

GM Magnus Carlsen played a wonderful idea today, but it wasn't enough to create winning chances. With one game to go in the 2016 World Championship, to be played on Monday, his match with GM Sergey Karjakin is tied 5.5-5.5.

Only twice before has a world championship been decided in a playoff (Kramnik-Topalov, 2006 and Anand-Gelfand, 2012), but we could well be seeing the same scenario this year in New York. After Carlsen's wonderful 19...d5, both a good move and a psychological punch, Karjakin took a deep thought, kept his cool, and then the game quickly petered out to a draw.

After another rest day, the world champion will have the white pieces in game 12. If things are not decided on Monday, we'll see a playoff on Wednesday (again starting at 2 p.m. New York time) consisting of four rapid games, and if necessary, blitz to follow.

The game itself saw another 6.d3 Ruy Lopez, the same choice by Karjakin as in the second game of the match. But again it was Carlsen who was the first to deviate: He played 9...Be6 instead of 9...Na5.

Once again Carlsen did not give his opponent the chance to improve upon earlier play.

GM Peter Svidler, the biggest expert in this line among the top grandmasters, stated today that he stopped playing this variation because he "didn't like giving White all this free pressure."

(After the game Carlsen said he did not watch Svidler's video series on this line. "I'm a big fan of his work in general, but no. I don't think he'll be too disappointed.")

As it went, Karjakin didn't make the most of White's theoretical edge. Whereas Anand and especially Cuba's number one player Leinier Dominguez had made life difficult for Black in similar positions, the challenger failed to do so.

"I'm not happy with how I played but at least I managed to hold," said Karjakin.

White lost his advantage with the slow push 12.h3, which commentator Judit Polgar didn't like—one of the reasons being that the typical maneuver Rf1-f3-h3 was no longer an option for White. "It was probably a very bad move," Karjakin would later admit. 

As if he wanted to "refute" this little pawn move, Carlsen came up with the amazing 18...c3 19.bxc3 d5!?, a concept praised by experts in New York and on Twitter.

Maybe objectively speaking Carlsen's idea wasn't even better than taking back on c3 immediately, but it was definitely the more challenging option. Karjakin had to calculate a lot of moves (and a lot of branches of variations connected to them), such as 20.c4, 20.fxe6 and 20.Bg5.

Suddenly, there was a lot of room for White to make a mistake.

After 27 minutes, Karjakin chose to trade the bishops, and practically speaking, that was an excellent decision. As Svidler put it, "Once the position threatened to get slightly out of control, [Karjakin] went for the most solid option."

So, did he see 19...d5 coming or not?  "I have seen basically all these ideas for Black but I didn't understand that they are so good," said Karjakin at the press conference. "I thought that it's maybe equal. I agree that it was a bit careless from my side."

Karjakin was a bit "careless" today.

Only heavy pieces remained on the board, and yet again, Carlsen decided to sacrifice a pawn by going 24....e3, thereby pointing out that Black was still the only one with winning chances, however small they might be.

Black's passed pawn went all the way to e2.

The passer wasn't in danger of getting captured any time soon, if only because 27.Kf2?? would have been the absolute worst move in the position! In the game, the peace treaty was signed soon.

"I thought in general with the pawn on e2 I don't run too many risks, but of course, I did not want to overdo it," said Carlsen.

Video Analysis by IM Danny Rensch

With one game to go, the psychological edge is on Carlsen's side again. Not only does he have White on Monday, but Karjakin will spend his Sunday with the knowledge that he didn't play a great 11th game.

"I'm not impressed with how I played today," he said at the press conference.

"At least I'm done with my black games now," said Carlsen. "It's not a dream situation, but it could be worse."

No doubt the final game will be very tense, with both players probably going for safety first. "It's so close that anything can tip the scales," said Carlsen.

"In the first part of the match, it was 80 percent of chess, now it is 80 percent of psychology," said Karjakin. Carlsen countered: "Today was a normal day. I felt OK, I felt calm. I think it's still about the chess." 

Despite the tremendous pressure, the players were in a pretty good mood today.

The players were asked about the current format of the match. Karjakin's reply was: "If there's no winner after 12 games, it's completely normal to have tiebreaks." Carlsen said: "It's no secret I've been an advocate of change, but it's really not the main focus right now."

Carlsen's take on that has been reported before, but here it is to refresh your memory:

"I have long thought that moving to an annual knock-out event, similar to the World Cup, would be more equitable. This change would in effect improve the odds of becoming World Champion for nearly every chess player, with the exception of the reigning World Champion, and potentially a few other top players who would no longer be favored by the current format. Creating regional qualifying events combined with rating spots, the participation of all the top players in the world and the undisputed World Championship title at stake, I truly believe this would make the World Championship cycle more accessible to everyone."

The press conference ended on a light note, with a kid getting the mic for the final question. He asked the players what's their main reply to 1.e4, besides 1...e5. To the joy of the spectators, Carlsen then named 1...c5, 1...e6, 1...c6, and even 1...d5 and 1...Nf6!

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