On Chess: Reigning world champion, Magnus Carlsen, defends in tie breaks

Dec 8, 2016

The World Chess Championship is the pinnacle event of the chess world. The process to earn the right to challenge the reigning world champion is grueling, and the match itself is by far the most intense event in chess. The championship is 12 games played over three weeks.

This year's championship was held at Fulton Fish Market in the South Seaport neighborhood of New York City. The reigning world champion, Norwegian Magnus Carlsen, was challenged by Russia's Sergey Karjakin, the youngest grandmaster in the history of chess. The prize fund? A cool $1.1 million.

In many ways, the match was seen as east vs. west, with all of Russia, including huge financial backing by Putin's government, behind the challenger. As a rising young player, Karjakin had been seen by many as someone who would eventually be the contender for the maximum title; but his career did not skyrocket as many predicted. Karjakin was consistently close to breaking into the top-10 players in the world but was always just outside.

His path to challenging Carlsen came from a spectacular run at the World Cup, which he won in an incredible comeback against Peter Svidler. Earlier this year, Karjakin had an outstanding performance in the Candidates Tournament, where he faced off against the best of the best in the world and came out on top, including a decisive last round victory against America's  No. 1 and World No. 2, Fabiano Caruana. Hundreds of spectators came in every day to the New York venue, while hundreds of thousands followed online.

Karjakin's style is distinct. He is a defender, a counter puncher; he takes few risks if he doesn't see the need. He is a deep theoretician, and his erudition of opening knowledge is rivaled by few, even if his repertoire is somewhat narrow. He is known to draw a lot of games, and in a match setting, mano-a-mano, that style came as an unbreakable wall to Carlsen.

The match started off with seven draws. The Norwegian was pressing hard in every game and had incredibly good winning chances in games three and four. The match was going as most people predicted: Carlsen throwing punches, Karjakin defending and holding. However, things weren't so clear.

In game five it was Karjakin who put the pressure on Carlsen. A powerful pawn sacrifice almost gave him a winning edge, but the Russian slipped and let his rival go.

It was the eighth game in which we finally saw a decisive result. The champion, Carlsen, took many risks to make the position as sharp as possible. The challenger was having none of it, and enticed Carlsen to try even harder, which he did, but it was too much. The champion over-extended. Karjakin's counterattack was too fast. The Russian took the first victory. The psychological pressure on both players was obvious. Carlsen could not even stay for the press conference, his attitude incredulous.

Determined, the Norwegian came back in game 10. After missing a chance to force a draw, Karjakin was simply outplayed. Carlsen won in his most typical style, obtained a slight advantage and squeezed his opponent to death. The match was tied and continued to be so during 'regulation time': 6-6.

The finish of the World Championship came down to an electric rapid tiebreaker. In this format, Carlsen shone. Karjakin miraculously held on during game two, but he was not so lucky on game three of the four-game match. Needing a win to tie the match with the black pieces in the last game, Karjakin finally had to play risky chess, and Carlsen came out on top. In 3-1 tie breaks, the champion retained his title. A stunning 764,000 Norwegians followed every single minute of the tiebreak, one fifth of the population, on the NRK TV Channel.

The process to determine the next world champion has already begun. The Grand Prix series has started, which qualifies for next year's Candidates Tournament. America has three incredibly strong hopes not only to qualify to the event, but to win it and challenge Carlsen: Caruana, Wesley So and Hikaru Nakamura. There is no doubt that any three of these young players can qualify to become challengers, and there is no doubt that all three can take Carlsen down in a good match.

Alejandro Ramirez became a FIDE Master at the age of 9, an International Master at 13, and earned his Grandmaster title by the age of 15. That achievement set Ramirez as the first Centro-American to earn the elite GM title and, at the time, the second youngest grandmaster. Ramirez is a new resident of St. Louis and is the new coach of the Saint Louis University Chess Team.

On Chess is provided by the Chess Club and Scholastic Center of St. Louis.