After three weeks of 12 games fought in a soundproof box, Magnus Carlsen of Norway defeated his challenger, Sergey Karjakin of Russia, on Wednesday, winning his third consecutive World Championship title.
Carlsen’s victorious double-fist bump marked the monumental conclusion of a tabletop slog that evoked the Cold War battles of yore and represented a new generation of chess, as it was the first time that two players who grew up in the computer era vied for the title. What’s more, the two 26-year-olds (Carlsen’s birthday was Wednesday) represented the youngest-ever World Championship face-off, a dynamic organizers hope will lure more young fans and players to the game.
Whatever differences Carlsen and Karjakin may have as people and players, they are united in being members of the computer-chess generation. Historically, computers were lambasted by chess pros. Even after IBM’s Deep Blue defeated Garry Kasparov in 1997, resistance remained high. Today, the way computers calculate chess moves has trained and informed players at the highest levels of chess; computers in chess have morphed from buffoon, to threat, to brilliant opponent.
Under gray sky and drizzle, perfect weather for a nerd sport, fans lined up (in some cases for more than an hour) outside the Fulton Street venue for the competition Wednesday afternoon. Dozens of members of the chess press, many in suits and ties having earned grandmaster titles of their own, packed into a media center where they avidly watched the moves on large projection screens. A labyrinth of black walls separated the sequestered players from VIPs from lay minglers, festooned by cartoon representations of Carlsen and Karjakin. It was dorky. It was glorious. It was chess.
Carlsen, 26, entered the tournament as the No. 1 player in the world and was heavily favored to win. A rockstar in his native Norway, he became a grandmaster at the age of 13 and won his first World Championship title in 2013, defeating India’s Viswanathan Anand without losing a game. He defended his title again in 2014 against Anand.
Karjakin, 26, came to New York with a No. 6 ranking and a colorful political backstory. An outspoken supporter of Russian president Vladimir Putin, he emerged as a formidable opponent to Carlsen, rattling him in a few key moments. He holds the record for being the world’s youngest grandmaster at 12 years and 7 months old and won the 2016 Candidates Tournament over top-ranked American Fabiano Caruana. Reports have swirled that Putin has been avidly following his progress in the tournament.
According to lichess.org, Carlsen and Karjakin have faced each other 21 times in classical chess, which is chess that is 100 minutes for the first 40 moves, 50 minutes for the next 20 moves, and then 15 minutes for the rest of the game, plus an additional 30 seconds per move starting from move 1. Carlsen has won 4, Karjakin has won 1, while 16 games ended in a draw. But a closer parsing of the data shows “Karjakin’s core strength: Staunch Defense.” And that Carlsen, in spite of his brilliance, can still be prone to blunders.
The World Championship began in earnest on November 11 and was contested over 12 games in lower Manhattan’s Fulton Market Building, not far from the famed chess shops of Greenwich Village once frequented by Bobby Fischer, or the tables at Washington Square Park, where speed chess remains a year-round pastime. (Fischer’s legendary 1972 victory over Boris Spassky in Russia is the last time an American won the world title.) Aside from anemic crowds, awkward post-match press conferences, and the World Chess Federation’s leader, Kirsan Ilyumzhinov, being barred from the United States for ties to President Bashar al-Assad of Syria, the championship has run relatively smoothly.
Monday’s match was one of the fastest ever contested in championship play — 30 moves over 35 minutes. As FiveThirtyEight noted, that could have been interpreted as a dud match, beyond an inspired Berlin Defence, but Monday’s play effectively leveled the competition. A title that had been expected to be Carlsen’s, heading into Wednesday, was in jeopardy.
It all came down to a single, final day of a rapid-fire setup. To win the championship, a player needed to reach a score of 6.5 points, but because the two found themselves in a dead heat, Wednesday’s tie-break play kicked in. Only a handful of championships prior, most recently in 2006 and 2012, have had tiebreakers deciding their title. The drama drew 10 million people to watch the match online, organizers said, and an estimated 10,000 spectators in and around the Seaport.
Wednesday’s play was to commence with four rapid games — 25 minutes per player per game and 10 seconds added after each move. Should that still not produce a winner, the format calls for two blitz games and if that results in a tie, the players keep playing two blitz games until a total of 10. From there, if still tied, players have an “Armageddon” game where white has five minutes, black four minutes, and black only has to draw to win the title, according to championship organizers. On paper, it would appear that the tie-break format would have favored Carlsen, as he also has World Rapid Championship and World Blitz Championship titles.
Billionaire, Donald Trump transition team member, and Gawker-crusher Peter Thiel moved the first piece and the initial rapid bout began with predictable moves, and it was soon clear that it was destined to be a draw. Hunched over a black table, Karjakin in a navy blazer, Carlsen in black, and bedecked by no fewer than a dozen bottles of water next to the table, Carlsen’s blazer was off less than five minutes into play, his hands clasped around his face as blinders. Curiously enough, and much to the consternation of chess bloggers, Carlsen donned NBA socks to the competition. Karjakin’s face was steely, calm, and the two leaned forward in black, leather office chairs, seldom making eye contact with each other.
After the first rapid round resulted in a predictable draw, Carlsen and Karjakin began the second round with an assertive handshake, this time Karjakin shedding his blazer, too. Carlsen asserted himself with a series of deliberate moves that placed Karjakin at an imbalance, both in terms of time on the clock and strength of pieces on the board. Yet in the last minute, Karjakin pulled off a stunning defense, securing a draw as the crowd beyond gasped.
In the third round, Carlsen reclaimed his confidence and pulled off the win handily, by sacrificing a pawn for more significant pieces. But he would still need the fourth rapid fire to result in either a win or a draw to keep Karjakin at bay. The sprint of speed chess had turned into a brutal marathon, akin to watching Nicolas Mahut and John Isner’s 11-hour, five-minute affair at Wimbledon in 2010.
By the fourth round, Carlsen’s advantage as white was clear, and he closed in on the win. The prize fund for the tournament was $1 million Euros (about $1.1 million USD), with Carlsen receiving 55 percent and Karjakin 45 percent. With the victory in hand, he leaped from the table with a wide smile, applause echoing through the building.
Following the match at a press conference, Karjakin vowed to challenge Carlsen again and commended his opponent’s playing, saying that it was the toughest competition of his career
And those in attendance sang “Happy Birthday” to Carlsen.