11/28/2016 10:47 pm ET Updated Jul 21, 2017

The World Chess Champion Just Took A Massive Gamble

Magnus Carlsen makes a move in game 12 of the World Chess Championship
Zach Young
Magnus Carlsen makes a move in game 12 of the World Chess Championship

The crowd assembled for game 12 of the 2016 World Chess Championship was small but excited. The match between Magnus Carlsen of Norway and his challenger, Sergey Karjakin of Russia, was tied; if either player managed to win in the final round, they would take the match and the title.

By a few moves in, though, the commentators were already describing the position as “solid,” which is chess-speak for “boring.” In a few more moves it became quite clear that Magnus had no ambition of victory today. He wanted a draw. The #1 U.S. player (and #2 player in the world) Fabiano Caruana was in attendance and was asked during the live broadcast if he thought there was any chance of avoiding a draw today. “No,” responded Caruana simply. Indeed, game 12 ended with a draw in only 35 minutes ― by far the shortest game of the match so far. “I really didn’t expect it, I thought he would try for something,” Caruana added. “I thought he would at least try to create some problems for Karjakin.”

“I want to play a tiebreak,” the champion explained to an interviewer after the game. “That’s all I can say.”

“Can you tell us why you want to do that?” she asked. 

“We’ll see,” said Carlsen with a smile.

To understand the champ’s decision we only have to look at the format of this event. The rules state that if the match arrives at a 6-6 draw ― which, thanks to Carlsen’s gambit, it now has ― it will go to a series of four rapid games. In these, each player has 25 minutes for their moves, meaning each game is under 50 minutes.

If, somewhat improbably, the match is still tied after that, it goes to a round of 2 blitz games, which are faster still: five minutes for each player. If it’s still tied, they repeat this portion, up to four times. If after all ten blitz games the score remains level (now we’re getting into the super-improbable) Carlsen and Karjakin play a “sudden death” (also known as armageddon) game. Armageddon is the chess world’s secret weapon against endless draws. If an armageddon game is drawn, the player with the black pieces wins. In exchange for this disadvantage, the player with the white pieces gets an extra minute of time on his clock. In other words, an armageddon game always produces a winner.

Today in the last “normal” game Magnus had the white pieces, and thus the first move; this is an advantage, and when you “have white” the onus is on you to shake things up, to take risks. For many chess professionals, it’s something approaching a moral obligation for white to try to win. For white to deliberately play for a draw, even for sound match-strategy reasons, is thus a violation of chess principles. Members of the game’s elite took to twitter this afternoon to express their dissatisfaction, among them England’s Nigel Short:

... and Robin Van Kampen of the Netherlands:

(In fact, it was announced after the game ended that anyone with a ticket for game 12 would be admitted for free to Wednesday’s tiebreak round)

Carlsen himself is known to believe deeply in the principle of always pushing for a win with white. Or so it seemed, before today. It’s a fact of grandmaster chess that the harder you try to win, the more likely you are to lose. Winning against a player of Karjakin’s calibre requires you to take risks. It seems Carlsen simply wasn’t willing to run the risk of losing, but today he took what might be an even bigger gamble: he punted on the last game and staked all his hopes on the tiebreak round. While the champion is ranked #1 in rapid chess, Karjakin is formidable there as well. It’s not clear that Magnus’ edge will be any greater with less time on the clock.

After earlier rounds, Carlsen often seemed annoyed or distracted during the press conferences, massaging his forehead impatiently and brushing away questions. Today, by contrast, he was in a puckish mood. “I apologize to fans who might have wanted a longer game,” he said with a slight smile. “But it was not to be.” Chess Federation press officer Anastasia Karlovich asked Magnus if his approach to the last game means he thinks he has a better chance in tiebreaks. “That’s one interpretation,” the champion said. He smiled again.

Carlsen’s chipper attitude seemed an odd reaction to what must for him be a disappointing result: for the first time in a championship match he was unable to really dominate his opponent. Perhaps the explanation lies in the fact that Wednesday isn’t just the final day of the match; it’s also Magnus’ 26th birthday.

When I got ahold of the mic I asked Carlsen how this championship has compared to his 2013 and 2014 showdowns against Viswanathan Anand of India - specifically, whether it’s been harder. “For sure,” Magnus replied. “This is the first time I was down in a match and it’s going to tiebreaks, so that in itself is tough. I think [Karjakin]’s shown himself to be a great fighter in this match. Whatever happens in the tiebreak it will certainly be my toughest match so far.”

After the crowd had left the building, I spotted Fabiano Caruana milling about in the spectator’s hall. Had things gone just a little differently at the Candidate’s Tournament back in March, the American #1 would have been in the hot seat today, taking on Carlsen. In the final round of that event, Karjakin defeated Caruana in a dramatic game to become challenger for the world title. Many in the chess world still see Fabiano - who, at 24, is even younger than Magnus - as one of the main threats to Carlsen’s crown in the coming years. I asked him what he thought of Magnus’ gamble today. “It’s not what I would’ve chosen,” he told me. “If he wins [the tiebreak], it looks great. If he doesn’t, then it looks like he made a big mistake.”

“He is the favorite, but I wouldn’t say he’s that heavy of a favorite,” said Caruana of Magnus’ vaunted blitz chess skills. “I don’t think he’s maybe as confident as he appears. Because there’s always a chance he’ll lose. In quick play games, anything can happen.”

The tiebreak round begins Wednesday, November 30th, at 2 p.m. EST. You can find my previous coverage of the championship here, here, here, here, here, and here.

Magnus Carlsen was in a mischievous mood today
Zach Young
Magnus Carlsen was in a mischievous mood today