The crowds have been good, the venue exemplary, the organization strong, the controversies minimal, and the media coverage ample.
And finally, the actual chess rose to the occasion.
Following seven somewhat deflating games to open their title match, Russian challenger Sergey Karjakin broke through to score the first win over Norwegian champion Magnus Carlsen, putting the champion in a 4½-3½ hole with just four games to go in the scheduled 12-game match in New York City.
The heavily favored Norwegian champion, famous for his ability to squeeze out victories in long, arduous endgames, made the final losing blunder after a game of many vicissitudes in which Karjakin at one point seemed to be winning and then Carlsen pressed himself for the victory. The loss was so upsetting that the champ left the playing hall at Fulton Market in Manhattan’s South Street Seaport without answering questions at the mandatory post-game press conference with reporters.
The loss was even more painful as Carlsen was playing the White pieces with the advantage of the first move. Karjakin, who has proven himself a dogged defender in this match, managed to neutralize White’s surprise Colle-Zukertort Opening, surviving a White onslaught that included the temporary sacrifice of two pawns. Black appears to have missed a clear shot as the two players faced time pressure ahead of the 40-move first time control.
Black may have been close to winning after 35. c5?! Rxd8 36. Nxd8 Nxc5 37. Qd6, when 37…Qa4! 38. Qxb6 Ncd7 39. Qc7 Qb5 would have left White struggling to save the pawn-down ending. Instead, after 37…Qd3? 38. Nxe6+! fxe6 (Nxe6 39. Qxd3) 39. Qe7+ Kg8 40. Qxf6 a4 41. e4! Qd7 42. Qxg6+ Qg7 43. Qe8+ Qf8, Carlsen had a draw in hand with 44. Qg6+ Kh8 45. e5 a3 46. Qb1, and neither side can make progress.
But White gets greedy for the win and pays dearly deep into the second time control: 51. Qe6 h5 52. h4?? (GM Fabiano Caruana said here that White’s game may for all practical purposes be beyond salvation, but Carlsen could have tried 52. Qa6!, as Black dare not risk 52…Qc3 53. Qa7+ Nf7 54. h4 Qb2 55. e5 a2? 56. e6! and the extra queen will not protect Karjakin’s king from the coming onslaught) a2!, and White is doomed after 53. Qxa2 Ng4+ 54. Kh3 (54. Kh1 Qc1+ 55. Bf1 Qxf1 mate) 54… Qg1 55. Bf3 Nf2+ and wins. Carlsen resigned.
The run of draws to open the match is not unprecedented. The first eight games of the Garry Kasparov-Vishy Anand 1995 title match — also played in New York — were drawn, and Kasparov famously drew 17 straight games and then another 14 straight in his epic, aborted 48-game first championship match against Anatoly Karpov in 1984. But the shorter duration of the Carlsen-Karjakin match appears to have made both players loath to take risks, as a single misstep could spell disaster.
To be clear: Not all split points are created equal. The 1972 Fischer-Spassky match included several scintillating draws, especially in the second half, and some of the most epic struggles in title matches have ended in a draw. It was exactly 130 years ago this week that Wilhelm Steinitz and Emanuel Lasker produced one of the most memorable draws ever in Game 4 of their 1896 match in Moscow. Steinitz, seeking to reclaim the title he lost to his young German rival two years earlier, was already trailing badly in the match and only Lasker’s cool defense prevented him from clawing his way back into the fight.
In a QGD, White sharpens the play with 16. Nd4 Bf6 17. g4!?, opening up his own kingside in a big to crack open the b1-h7 diagonal. The fun really kicks in with both kings under fire after 25. Rfd1 Bxh2+ 26. Kf1 f5? (better was 26…b6!, meeting 27. Nc6+ [Qxa8?? Ba6+] with 27…Kf8 28. Qb4+ Kg7 29. Qd4+ e5 30. Qd3 Bb7, and Black has the edge) 27. Rxb7+! Bxb7! (the only move — 27…Kf8 [Kf6 28. Qc6 Qg8 29. Rb5 and wins] 28. Nxe6+ leads to mate) 28. Qxb7+ Kf6 (see diagram).
After so many energetic moves, Steinitz now misses his best chance: 29. Nxf5!, when both 29…exf5 30. Qc6+ Kf7 31. Rd7+ and 29…Qg8 30. Qe7+ Ke5 (Kg6 31. Ng7+ Kh6 32. Qf6 mate) 31. Nd6! Rc8 32. c4! Rxc4 33. Nxc4 mate win for White. Lasker shows off his defensive chops on White’s dangerous 29. Nxe6!? Qg8! (Kxe6? 30. Bb3+ Ke5 31. Qd5+ Kf6 32. Qf7+ Ke5 33. Qe6 mate) 30. Nd4! Rd8! 31. Bxf5 (31. Qc6+ Rd6) Be5! 32. Be4 Qc4+! 33. Bd3 Qxc3 34. Qe4 Bxd4 35. exd4 Qxd4.
Black has won the exchange, but his king is so exposed that it can’t escape the coming checks. The epic battle concluded with 37. Re1+ Kf8 (Kd7 38. Qe6+ Kc7 39. Rc1+ Kb8 40. Rb1+ Kc7 41. Rc1+ also draws) 38. Qf5+ Kg8 39. Qe6+ Kf8, and the players agreed to a draw.
Carlsen — Karjakin, FIDE World Championship Match, Game 8, New York City, November 2016
1. d4 Nf6 2. Nf3 d5 3. e3 e6 4. Bd3 c5 5. b3 Be7 6. O-O O-O 7. Bb2 b6 8. dxc5 Bxc5 9. Nbd2 Bb7 10. Qe2 Nbd7 11. c4 dxc4 12. Nxc4 Qe7 13. a3 a5 14. Nd4 Rfd8 15. Rfd1 Rac8 16. Rac1 Nf8 17. Qe1 Ng6 18. Bf1 Ng4 19. Nb5 Bc6 20. a4 Bd5 21. Bd4 Bxc4 22. Rxc4 Bxd4 23. Rdxd4 Rxc4 24. bxc4 Nf6 25. Qd2 Rb8 26. g3 Ne5 27. Bg2 h6 28. f4 Ned7 29. Na7 Qa3 30. Nc6 Rf8 31. h3 Nc5 32. Kh2 Nxa4 33. Rd8 g6 34. Qd4 Kg7 35. c5 Rxd8 36. Nxd8 Nxc5 37. Qd6 Qd3 38. Nxe6+ fxe6 39. Qe7+ Kg8 40. Qxf6 a4 41. e4 Qd7 42. Qxg6+ Qg7 43. Qe8+ Qf8 44. Qc6 Qd8 45. f5 a3 46. fxe6 Kg7 47. e7 Qxe7 48. Qxb6 Nd3 49. Qa5 Qc5 50. Qa6 Ne5 51. Qe6 h5 52. h4 a2 White resigns.
Steinitz — Lasker, World Championship Match, Game 5, Moscow, November 1896
1. d4 d5 2. c4 e6 3. Nc3 Nf6 4. Bg5 Be7 5. e3 O-O 6. Qb3 dxc4 7. Bxc4 c5 8. dxc5 Qa5 9. Nf3 Qxc5 10. O-O Nc6 11. Bd3 Nb4 12. Bxf6 gxf6 13. Bb1 Rd8 14. a3 Nd5 15. Qc2 f5 16. Nd4 Bf6 17. g4 Nxc3 18. bxc3 fxg4 19. Qxh7+ Kf8 20. Be4 Ke7 21. Bg6 Rf8 22. Rab1 Qg5 23. Bc2 Rh8 24. Qe4 Be5 25. Rfd1 Bxh2+ 26. Kf1 f5 27. Rxb7+ Bxb7 28. Qxb7+ Kf6 29. Nxe6 Qg8 30. Nd4 Rd8 31. Bxf5 Be5 32. Be4 Qc4+ 33. Bd3 Qxc3 34. Qe4 Bxd4 35. exd4 Qxd4 36. Qg6+ Ke7 37. Re1+ Kf8 38. Qf5+ Kg8 39. Qe6+ Kf8 Draw agreed.