The World Chess Championships starts in New York in a few days time and already commentators are falling over themselves trying to predict the outcome. Most are forecasting a comfortable win for Magnus and indeed the odds reflect that - generally speaking the bookmakers make Magnus about a 75 percent favourite to win. In an effort to stand out from the crowd I made some comments on Facebook saying I think the match would be closer than many people think - saying that perhaps only Magnus would just edge it.
However to at least manage some research for this article, I decided to check their lifetime score against each other, and it revealed that Magnus leads 18-9 in decisive games, if you include rapid and blitz as well. This rather suggests that Carlsen is a much heavier favourite than I was giving him credit for.
In fact the situation for Karjakin is even bleaker when you consider a lot of his early wins were recorded when they were both very young. Both players were considered prodigies earning the usual hypebole of journalists of “chess phenomenon” and other such sobriquets. And although Karjakin has had a very successful career, it is only Carlsen who can really lay claim to superstar status.
Clearly the match will be a very difficult one for Karjakin. But does he have a chance? In this article I’ll look at each players strengths and weaknesses and try to come to a conclusion.
If you look at a video of the following blitz game on YouTube then it leaves a lasting impression. The impression you get is that Carlsen doesn’t rate Karjakin at all, supplementing his victory with several yawns and generally looking extremely bored, as if dealing with a player like Karjakin is rather equivalent to a lion’s lazy slap away of a fly.
No doubt this is pyschology on Carlsen’s part, as perhaps rather insightfully he understands that Karjakin is one of his main rivals. But it’s also true that talent wise, Karjakin is not in the same league as Carlsen.
In my view Carlsen is not just the best endgame player in the world he’s the best middlegame player as well, which might explain why he holds such a position of dominance over the world rankings. In golf, a sport I follow avidly, (much to the detriment of my wallet) you have stats to show in which area each player excels, like putting, driving etc. Carlsen would be like the equivalent of Spieth. His driving (or opening play) can often be shaky, but when he has a chance to score he never misses.
Karjakin by contrast would be an excellent driver of the ball, but he wouldn’t be in the same class as Carlsen when it comes to putting the ball in the hole, so to speak. It’s a shame it’s not as easy to work out the stats for chess as it is for golf. It’s impossible (or extremely difficult) to work out mathematically who the best players are in each phases of the game, but if there is an area where Carlsen has a potential weakness, it’s in the opening.
It’s not as if Carlsen doesn’t know any openings, after all he has a phenomenal memory. But his style is geared towards getting the kind of positions from the opening where he can prolong the battle until later in the game. He doesn’t try to destroy the opposition in the opening like Kasparov did. The problem is, this desire to avoid sharp theoretical lines can often land him into trouble, as his play in the opening can often look flaccid and in fact rather toothless.
Just look at the following example:
Clearly if Karjakin is going to do well in this match against a player he has historically done badly against, then he needs to show something he’s never shown before. In my view Karjakin is such a highly trained player that he’s almost robotic, and at times his play lacks imagination. It actually reminds me of what I heard about some snooker players- players like James Wattana who were highly creative attacking players in their youth and then got overtrained by Terry Griffiths. They turned into boring, positional players.
You see this in every sport - in golf for example Henrik Stenson plays in a rather robotic fashion although it seems to work for him. In fact Karjakin reminds me in chess of Gata Kamsky - another workhorse who rose very far through methodical hard work, and yet could not breach the very highest level, the World Championship, as his play lacked the spark of creativity neccessary to take him over the threshold.
I think to win the match, Karjakin needs to take Carlsen out of his comfort zone. He needs to play very sharp openings and take huge risks. The problem that Karjakin faces is that everything he does well, Carlsen does well too. Karjakin is a good grinder, Carlsen is an even better grinder. Karjakin is an excellent defender, Carlsen’s defensive skills are out of this world. You can see the problem that the Russian faces in that respect.
The good news for Karjakin is that he does have one ace to play - he’s very good with White. The problem (again) is that Carlsen has still beaten him a couple of times in recent years with Black.
For me, Carlsen gets unfairly pegged as just a grinder as he’s probably the best middlegame exponent in the world. Time and again when the game reaches it’s crescendo, he seems to click into “terminator” mode, finding top computer move after top computer move. This has lead some rather paranoid internet commentators to label him a “centaur”, ie someone who profits from cybernetic assistance in the game.
I’m pretty sure Carlsen isn’t using an engine. In fact his BRAIN is an engine. The reason why Carlsen is so strong and so able to hit the top engine move is that he’s so good at finding the right plan, the right idea.
The problem for Karjakin as I’ve already stated, is that his strengths are also Carlsen’s strengths. Therefore in order to win he’s going to have to focus a lot more on the opening phase and trying to gain an advantage. What will work in his favour is that he’ll have the power of Moscow behind him. The unstable political situation in Russia might actually work in his favour, as is well known Karjakin is a supporter of Putin and what he is doing in Ukraine. A bunker like mentality seems to developing in Russia right now, and this might just help to focus Karjakin’s energies and inspire him to a famous upset.
If he is to win though, he needs to cut out the sloppy little errors. It seems to me that Karjakin could still improve his positional understanding. The folllowing game is a particularly tragic example:
Karjakin is a tough guy to beat, there’s little doubt about that. He demonstrated his tactical resourcefulness and rottweiler like nature in the final candidates game against Caruana.
Perhaps the strongest argument in Karjakin’s favour is that a match of 12 games is very short, and favours the underdog much more than the extremely long matches which we used to see in the past. If he starts well and wins a game then he already puts Carlsen under pressure, and such a scenario is much more interesting from the spectators perspective than Carlsen simply running away with the match.
The other question mark is that how does Carlsen operate when he’s behind? I’d like to see him under extreme pressure and whether he can demonstrate some champion spirit. I also think from Carlsen’s perspective, I would like to see him play some mainlines in this match and take Karjakin on. I think if we see too many Reti’s and dull play from Carlsen in the general then that will surely play into the hands of Karjakin and his team, who will certainly have prepared for just such a strategy.
All in all it looks set to be a very interesting match and it’s a shame that AGON have decided that if people want to follow the match live they will have to cough up 15 dollars to do so. Chess should be making itself more accessible to the general public, not doing the opposite.
Final match score prediction: Carlsen 6.5/3.5 Karjakin
Danny Gormally is a talented English Grandmaster. He lives in the bustling market town of Alnwick, somewhere near Scotland.
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