Wednesday, November 30, 2016

Carlsen Retains World Chess Championship in Spectacular Style

Magnus Carlsen, the 16th linear World Chess Champion, retained his title by defeating challenger Sergey Karjakin 3-1 in a Rapid tiebreak match after the two competitors tied 6-6 in 12 games contested at a Classical time control. While Karjakin did not quite crack the Carlsen code, he pushed the Champion to the brink; Carlsen did not enjoy a lead in the title bout until he won the third game of the tiebreak match after the first two games were drawn. In game two of the tiebreak match, Karjakin displayed remarkable composure and grit as he held off the highest rated player of all-time to draw an endgame that was objectively lost.

The tiebreak match had extremely high entertainment value, culminating in the decisive move of the fourth game that compelled Karjakin's instant resignation: Carlsen's 50. Qh6+!, a beautiful Queen sacrifice that forces checkmate in all variations. While the climactic combination was not necessarily difficult for a player of Carlsen's caliber, it was still an impressive finish considering the stakes and the small amount of time that each player had remaining to complete the game.

However, from a chess purist's standpoint this was a terrible way to decide the World Chess Championship. As Grandmaster Yasser Seirawan pointed out, there are separate World Chess Championship titles for Classical, Rapid and Blitz time controls, so it make no sense to decide the Classical title with a tiebreak match using Rapid time controls. As he asked rhetorically, will the Rapid Championship now use a Classical time control if a tiebreak match is necessary?

Granted, even if the match conditions were decided purely on aesthetic and sporting considerations--which will never happen in the real world, when economics and logistics inevitably play a role in determining such things--there is no perfect format. An automatic rematch clause if the Champions loses--a perk enjoyed by Mikhail Botvinnik from 1948-63--is a huge advantage. Enabling the Champion to retain his title in the event of a tied match is also a significant advantage. In 1984-85, we saw the perils of a format that forces one player to win six games with draws not counting: Anatoly Karpov and Garry Kasparov battled for 48 games before the match was suspended with Karpov leading 5-3.

All of that being understood, the 2016 format--a 12 game Classical match followed by (if necessary) a four game Rapid match, a two game Blitz match and a one game winner take all "Armageddon" battle with White having five minutes and Black having four minutes plus draw odds--leaves much to be desired. I agree with Grandmaster Seirawan's suggestion that an 18 game Classical match would lead to better play because one victory would not necessarily be decisive; in a 12 game match players tend to be cautious and steer toward the tiebreaks as opposed to fighting it out and possibly losing the one game that could spell overall defeat. The boring and quick draw in game 12 of the Carlsen-Karjakin match made a poor impression, no matter how understandable it was strategically given the circumstances.

In the 2016 World Chess Championship, Carlsen proved that he is a great Champion and Karjakin demonstrated that he is a worthy challenger who may very well wear the crown one day. I commend both players for their performances under great pressure. I just hope that in the future the World Chess Championship match will last longer than 12 games and will be contested entirely at a Classical time control.

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