Hell, it’s about time! 25-year-old Magnus Carlsen vs. 26-year-old Sergey Karjakin. Norway vs. Russia. And the chess world is excited (surely I am!).
What will be the first move? Will there be opening revelations/revivals, like the “Berlin” 16 years ago? Who will shed first blood? Will there be another pool party as in Chennai 2013? So many questions …

The fight for the iron (chess) throne will start on November 11th, taking place in the Seaport District of New York City. Certainly a day to be marked in every chess player’s calendar. Highly anticipated since Spring 2016, when Karjakin emerged from the candidates tournament as the challenger to reigning World Chess Champion Magnus Carlsen.

World Champion Magnus Carlsen | photo: Andreas Kontokanis

World Champion Magnus Carlsen | photo: Andreas Kontokanis

A part of chess history will be written within a mere 20 days of autumn, or “Fall” for our American readers. What fall you ask?
Maybe the fall of our Norwegian genius Magnus, savior of the chess world, fighter for more media coverage, publicity and coolness in a nerdy sub-world?
Or will it be the fall of our Ukrainian/Russian contender Sergey, trying to crown his remarkable career, 14 years after becoming the youngest Grandmaster ever.
Surely it won’t be an easy task for him. The Swedish alternative rockers “Caesars” famously sang in 2005 “It’s not the fall that hurts, but when you hit the ground”.

Playing Magnus though, things might be different. With his style of slowly grinding his opponents, permanently holding up the pressure and waiting for the slightest of inaccuracies, I don’t think it’s a whole lot of fun to defend certain positions.Sergey experienced this for example in Wijk aan Zee 2013.


Carlsen – Karjakin, Tata-Steel 2013. 40 painful moves later: 1-0

At this point, let me tell you a personal anecdote. I’ve always had quite a hard time playing with Black against the traditional main line of the Scotch (with Nf6, 5. …Bb4 and 10.Bg5). When I told my teammates and asked for advice, they responded with disbelief, rightly claiming that it’s just dead-equal in basically every line. Well yeah… thanks. The problem is that White can’t possibly lose the arising positions, having some interesting ideas up his sleeves, while the Black side is doomed to defend, not fall asleep and be very cautious. Unfortunately, engines were not very helpful in these situations neither, showing 0.00 no matter what. Somehow they just don’t seem to be very sensitive for human sorrows! But then…suddenly I stumbled across a game, played with the Black pieces by none other than Sergey Karjakin. And choosing the precise move orders – he did. 0.00 for real.


Karjakin had just played 13….Nf6-d7!? and solved all his problems by preparing Nc5 and being able to respond with 14….Nb6 after the standard 14.Na4

Of course, compared to the level of play and opening preparation at the World Championship, this story seems ridiculous. But still, it’s safe to say that Karjakin is one of the best defenders around. Thus, style-wise, I’m very curious about games where Carlsen maybe gets a slight edge out of the opening and tries to squeeze more than half a point out of it. If he manages to create some of these positions that he likes over the 12 games, probably he’ll score one or two wins out of them, don’t you think?
That is not to say Karjakin is without chances. Actually I would say that he’s quite pragmatic and will try to seize opportunities, if given. But generally, we really don’t have to argue who’s the favourite here.

  • It will be Magnus’ 3rd World Championship match, against Sergey’s 1st. I believe that experience matters a lot, for example when it comes to nerves. Probably this will even out during the match, but I wouldn’t be surprised to see in game 1 a calm Magnus and a relatively shaken Sergey.
  • We all know that the World Champion enjoys different kinds of sports. It really feels that it is not a burden to him to get in shape, but simply a lot of fun instead. You can’t say the same about Sergey. For the later stages of the match, a lot will depend on the Russian’s physical fitness. Jon Speelman wrote in his ChessBase column that his opponent “had apparently lost nearly six kilos” during their match. Let’s hope Sergey is not trying to imitate his rival’s career as a model.

    Challenger Sergey Karjakin | photo: Galiya Kamalova

    Challenger Sergey Karjakin | photo: Galiya Kamalova

  • On the rating list, Magnus is in the top spot for quite a while with an Elo of 2853. Sergey is N°9 with an Elo of 2772, which means a gap of 81 points!

For the defending champion it could theoretically go oh-so-smoothly once being on +1. Known to be a huge football fan, he could just take a chapter out of Diego Simeone’s book from Atletico Madrid. But you know how it is with expectations…

Chess players (and in particular chess blog readers) are smart people, so you’ve probably figured out already that the video above is just a metaphor. I don’t think Magnus expects the two of them to make out during the match.

Let’s take a look at the competitors’ games history. According to my database, they played 21 classical games, of which the Mozart of chess won 4, 1 went to Karjakin, and 16 ended peacefully. Empirically speaking, that is quite a horrible distribution for the Russian. In rapid (blindfold excluded) they are even: 3 wins/losses and 3 draws. In Blitz however, Magnus was on top again: +8, -3 and =1.

That means that for a single classical game, the expected number of points for Magnus (with respect to the above empirical probabilities) is 4/7 or approximately 0.57, in comparison to an expected number of points of 0.61, when calculated on basis of the elo rating. Of course, calculated over many consecutive games, these probabilities will be much higher.

I’ve mentioned above that they will play 12 games in total. If the score is 6:6, they will play four rapid games. If the rapid score is even as well, they will play up to 5 best-of-2 mini-matches in blitz. And only then, an Armageddon blitz game (which always finds a winner) terminates the Championship.


Assuming the easiest of possible models (for the nerds: 12 independent and identically distributed random variables [games] according to the above empirical probability distribution for each time mode respectively) the odds for the challenger look grim: Carlsen has a 77,6% chance of winning the match within 12 classical games, i.e. making 6.5 points or higher! Overall, the probability of him defending the title is even 83,6%!

The expected number of points for Sergey (within 12 games) is 5,14 and the expected number of decisive games is only 2,86 (let’s be optimistic and say 3).

So you think it’s all said and done? Why bother playing at all? Well, … things aren’t that easy fortunately. Karjakin had a lot of time to prepare and a lot of help – from machines and humans. As usual, the identities of the seconds are held a secret. If Magnus believes in Sir Alf Ramsey’s “never change a winning team” his line-up consists of Michael Adams, Laurent Fressinet, Peter Heine Nielsen and Jon Ludvig Hammer. Or maybe he got rid of a second, who’s “too weak, too slow”, who knows?

Less is known about Sergey’s team. During the candidates tournament he received help from Vladimir Potkin and we know that he’s friends with Shak Mamedyarov. Maybe the Russian Chess Federation is funding some seconds as well? Both players were born at a time, when the Berlin wall started to become a tourist attraction, but still, I feel like there lies some kind of “East against West” atmosphere in this match.


First moves in overall games between Carlsen and Karjakin

And as always, the importance of opening preparation will be huge. IM David Martínez has already published two articles on chess24 with his thoughts and predictions. Sergey usually plays 1.e4 with White, as you can see in the chart above. This means that the likelihood of seeing a “Berlin” is quite high, even if Magnus played the “Spanish fianchetto” in their last classical encounter without the knowledge, that Sergey strives for the throne (Wijk 2016). The real question for me is, whether Sergey stays faithful in his usual openings like the Queen’s Indian with 4….Ba6. Even if objectively his openings are very solid, I wouldn’t recommend to play what everybody is expecting. I could easily imagine Magnus preparing some sidelines that result in a drawish endgame, but which he has analysed for days and feels comfortable in.
The World Champion on the other hand is much more flexible and tries to get a playable and interesting position out of the opening. That’s certainly an easier task to achieve than trying to find advantageous lines. In the end, we’ll have to wait and see.

You can check out the official website of the match here. This time however, the online-broadcast-pass costs $15.

But of course, here at beyond-chess.com we’ll provide you with plenty of content. There will be in-depth recaps of the games as well as photos, interviews and insights live from the playing venue! I hope you’ll be looking forward to it.