Carlsen’s Bizarre Decision Has Sent The World Chess Championship To Overtime

For hours, the play in Monday’s Game 12 of the World Chess Championship was filthy. Then it was weird. Things did not look drawish! But because of a remarkable decision by the world’s top grandmaster, they ended in a draw anyway.

Over more than two weeks, more than 600 moves, 48 hours of play, one scandalous video and one black eye, the world’s top two grandmasters have now fought to a dozen straight draws. The World Chess Championship match between Norway’s Magnus Carlsen and the U.S.’s Fabiano Caruana remains deadlocked at the end of regulation, and the title will be now be decided by speedy tie-breaking games including, perhaps, a sudden-death format known as Armageddon.

But before the tiebreakers came a wild, oscillating Game 12. Carlsen, with the black pieces, and Caruana, with the white, began with the Sveshnikov Sicilian, just as they had in Game 8 and Game 10. Carlsen was the first to deviate from the earlier contests, perhaps a stratagem to take Caruana out of his seemingly excellent preparation for the championship, and to angle for a decisive result at last. By the 12th move, the two were in uncharted territory, looking at a board that that no two people had created before at this level of chess.1

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“This is going to get really dirty, really soon,” said Levon Aronian, the world No. 11, on a Chess.com broadcast. Sharp, gnarly and double-edged attacks appeared to be arriving soon, and the game was surely bound to be the first decisive result of the match. Surely!

Caruana thought for about 25 minutes before making his 17th move. It’s hard to blame him, as the position on the board was very complicated. Worse for Caruana, it soon became complicated in a way that favored the Norwegian. “It looks like black is having all the fun in the position,” the grandmaster Robert Hess said after Caruana’s 21st move. All of black’s cavalry was mounted and armored and ready to charge. Black had more space in which to prepare its plans, and its bishops would likely soon eye an attack on the kingside.

Undeterred, with his 21st and 22nd moves — rook to h2 and castling on the queenside, readying a heavy battery — Caruana signaled his willingness to fight.

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It was a willingness that led to real trouble. After Caruana’s 25th move, he was down more than 30 minutes on the clock and the equivalent of nearly two pawns, according to a supercomputer analyzing the game. The middlegame became a wild rumpus, and a scary one for fans of the American, one that neither human grandmasters nor chess superengines could make all that much sense of. Swings in advantage were wild, and time pressure was mounting. After Carlsen’s 31st move, Caruana had less than nine minutes remaining and faced this position.

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An attack was coming Caruana’s way, his time was dangerously low, and he was about to make the eight most important moves of his life2 under various flavors of high pressure. But Carlsen reached out his hand before Caruana could move and offered a draw — a pacifistic bolt from the blue. Caruana happily shook it.

I’m not a grandmaster — far from it — but the position above looks nothing like a draw to me. There are, to put it professionally, soooooo many pieces left, including a ton of firepower, plus a pawn rolling down the left flank for black and various pieces that are under attack. And yet, a draw. Another draw.

“I wasn’t in a mood to find the punch,” Carlsen said by way of explanation after the game.

“I should be really happy with a draw,” Caruana said. “My position had no chances to win.”

Caruana said he was surprised by the draw offer. So was everyone else.

Let’s leave a deeper discussion of whether Carlsen’s shocking gesture is good for chess for later (it’s absolutely not) and take a look at how we got here.

Our championship computer analysis chart is now completed, but its contents weren’t enough to determine a winner. According to the match rules, here’s what the grandmasters will do on Wednesday:

  • They’ll play a mini-match of four rapid games, in which each player gets 25 minutes plus 10 bonus seconds after each move. Points will be awarded as they were during regulation: 1 point for a win, half a point each for a draw.
  • If the score is still tied after those four games, they’ll play a mini-match of two blitz games, in which each player gets five minutes plus three bonus seconds after each move. If that’s tied, they’ll play another and another and so on, for up to five mini-matches, or 10 total blitz games.
  • If all of those two-game blitz matches are tied, they’ll play a single game of Armageddon. In this format, white gets five minutes, black gets four minutes, and a draw counts as a win for black. Lots are drawn (no pun intended) to determine who gets which color.

For the risk averse grandmaster, there was an incentive to head to tiebreakers: The 1 million pound prize fund is divided 60-40 to the winner, unless the match is decided in tiebreakers, in which case, it’s 55-45.

But who will win 55 percent of the money? Probably Carlsen, and the faster the tiebreakers get, the bigger Carlsen’s advantage.

To see why, let’s do a little math to calculate each player’s win probability in each potential round of tiebreakers. First, we need some measure of the players’ strengths in the speedier formats — I’ll use FIDE’s Elo ratings. Carlsen’s rapid rating is 2880, and his blitz rating is 2939; Caruana’s rapid rating is 2789, and his blitz rating is 2767. We also need a measure of how likely draws are in these faster formats. I’ll use historical data. In last year’s World Rapid Championship, for example, about 30 percent of the games were draws. In last year’s World Blitz Championship (which Carlsen won), about 20 percent of the games were draws.

Combining those facts and running a bunch of simulations give the following probabilistic picture of the world championship tiebreakers. Carlsen is a roughly 80 percent favorite — again, based only on the quantitative factors mentioned above. These simulations do not care about Caruana’s strong form in the 12 lengthy games that have been played so far or his confident utterances during recent post-game press conferences. (In real life, the two have played 23 speedier games against each other, according to Chessgames.com — Carlsen won 13, Caruana won six and four were draws.)

When will the chess end? And will it end in Armageddon?
Cumulative chance of winning championship
Tiebreak Round Chances of playing Carlsen 🇳🇴
Caruana 🇺🇸
Rapid game 1 100.0% 0.0% 0.0%
Rapid game 2 100.0 0.0 0.0
Rapid game 3 100.0 31.6 5.5
Rapid game 4 62.9 63.8 17.1
Blitz match 1 19.1 76.2 19.0
Blitz match 2 4.8 79.3 19.5
Blitz match 3 1.2 80.1 19.6
Blitz match 4 0.3 80.3 19.6
Blitz match 5 0.1 80.4 19.6
Armageddon 🔥
0.0 80.4 19.6

While I hate to disappoint, these somewhat crude calculations suggest only a 0.02 percent — or 1-in-5,000 — chance of Armageddon at the World Chess Championship.

Then again, maybe the conventional wisdom is all wrong. For what it’s worth, the longtime world champion Garry Kasparov reassessed his own prediction of the tiebreakers following Monday’s draw.

The tie-breaking games begin Wednesday at 10 a.m. Eastern, and a world champion will be crowned. I’ll be covering them here and on Twitter.

Caruana ‘Suffers Successfully’ In Game 11 Of The World Chess Championship

With his last chance to command the white pieces in a regulation game in the World Chess Championship, defending champion Magnus Carlsen was unable to drum up any attacking chances. Game 11 — like the 10 that preceded it — ended in a draw. Carlsen’s challenger, Fabiano Caruana, defended admirably and the two are tied 5.5-5.5 with one regulation game to go.

Saturday’s game began with the Petroff Defense, Caruana’s favorite opening with the black pieces. Not surprisingly, this was familiar mental territory for the No. 1 and No. 2 players in the world. Within 90 seconds, they’d blitzed out their first 10 moves, arriving at the position below.

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This specific choice of opening was interesting for two reasons. One, Sergey Karjakin, the 2016 championship challenger, won a game with the white pieces from this exact position in 2016, against the elite Indian grandmaster Pentala Harikrishna. Two, the infamous deleted video that appeared to show secret aspects of Caruana’s pre-match preparation once again reared its head. That video showed a laptop screen with a variation of the Petroff that included the move “9…Nf6.” And indeed, on his ninth move, Caruana moved his knight to the f6 square.

But little else was interesting on Saturday. That “leaked” variation led to nothing sharp from either player and the secretive preparation unleashed no interesting secrets.

Karjakin happened to be in attendance at the venue in London on Saturday, and he provided some early commentary for the viewers that has also become the mantric chant of this match: “It looks very drawish,” he said. He was right. The queens came off the board by the 14th move. Only a pair of bishops and some pawns remained by the 26th. Thirty fruitless moves later, Carlsen and Caruana shook hands.

This is what an uneventful world championship draw looks like at high speeds. Come for the Petroff, stay for the bishop dance.

“Not much really happened today,” Caruana said after the game, to a bit of uncomfortable laughter from the crowd.

While Caruana may have very briefly felt some unpleasantness in the middlegame, “he may suffer successfully,” said Sam Shankland, the U.S. national champion, on a Chess.com broadcast. (To suffer successfully — what a lovely idea.) And indeed Caruana did. Indeed we all have over these past two weeks. Here’s exactly how, according to the computer’s unblinking eye:

“Chess in its present form will die the death of the draw,” wrote Emanuel Lasker, a former world champion, nearly 100 years ago. Yet here we are! Draws “are ingrained in the fabric of the game, a part of chess theory and culture,” another former national champ, Joel Benjamin, wrote in 2006. “Grandmasters play the opening better and make fewer mistakes. Willpower alone cannot ensure a decisive result.”

There is an austere beauty in the equilibrium of draws that this match has reached: Two goliaths, pushing each other with all their might, yet moving nowhere. At any moment, though, the ground can shift.

The mounting draws bring both good and bad news for the American challenger. On one hand, Caruana has proved beyond a doubt his ability to hang with and even outplay Carlsen, perhaps the best player of all time, in lengthy games under the sport’s brightest lights. On the other, should the match remain tied after the final game, the two will move on to speedier tie-breaking games. I wrote about what those look like in 2016. Carlsen is rated No. 1 in the world in both speedy chess formats that will be used, and he is almost universally thought to be a heavy favorite in the tiebreaker.

The match rests tomorrow. Game 12 — the final game of regulation and in which Caruana will have the white pieces — begins Monday at 10 a.m. Eastern. The tie-breaking games, if necessary, will happen on Tuesday. I’ll be covering it all here and on Twitter.

Chess World Celebrates A ‘Sensational’ Move … That Leads To A Championship Draw

Magnus Carlsen and Fabiano Caruana, the world’s top two grandmasters, spent Thanksgiving in London in a soundproof glass box, staring at a small table, guzzling bottled water and continuing their deadlocked battle for the World Chess Championship.

The match was already a record-breaker, having started with more consecutive draws than any championship on the books. As the holiday began, the best-of-12 race for the title sat level 4.5-4.5. Tensions ran high. #LooksDrawish was trending on Twitter (I assume/dream).

I awoke in my Brooklyn apartment early Thursday morning, put on some heavy-duty coffee and watched as the grandmasters opened Game 10 with another Sveshnikov Sicilian, just as they’d done in Game 8. Caruana steered out of Game 8’s lane on his 12th move, with a novel “pawn to b4,” and they were left with the position below.

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“It’s going to be a complicated game,” said the grandmaster Judit Polgár, providing the official match commentary.

And indeed it was going to be — for the players and your humble chess correspondent. My parents were in town, my sister was sweating over an oven, and forgotten provisions had to be procured. A table had to be set. Mashed potatoes had to be eaten. I tore away from the match and headed into the city.

Having nervously missed a handful of moves on my train ride, I ascended from the serviceless subway station in time to witness something special from Carlsen, the defending world champion who had yet to do much special at all. One grandmaster told me his move was “phenomenal.” Another tweeted that it was “incredible.” A chess writer called it “sensational.” A chess instructor called it “fascinating.”

So just what was it that Carlsen did with the black pieces here?

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It was pawn to b5.

Erwin l’Ami, the grandmaster who called it “incredible,” described the idea behind the move, which ostensibly loses a pawn for Carlsen, as follows: Once Carlsen pushes that pawn to b5, Caruana can win it by moving his pawn to b6. (That may not appear to be a legal move, but it’s a special capture known as en passant, in which a pawn can diagonally capture another pawn that has just hopped up two squares next to it.) Carlsen could then take the rook on a3 with his rook, and Caruana could take that rook with his knight. Carlsen could then push his pawn to f3, encroaching further into white’s territory. Two pawn captures then ensue on that same square, followed by Caruana capturing there with his bishop. And then Carlsen could bring his knight into the action on e5. The result of that hypothetical line would have looked like this — a “huge attack” on Caruana’s king.

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After snacking nervously with this chess idea in our heads, my parents and I emerged from a serviceless restaurant worried (or at least I was) that we may have missed the final Norwegian triumph and the de facto end of the world championship. Someone may have won! We found instead that we hadn’t missed many moves and that Caruana hadn’t bit on Carlsen’s aggressive pawn sacrifice. No devastating attack had come. The position (my phone told me) was once again level. It looked drawish.

Wine store: drawish. Whole Foods: drawish. Elevator: drawish.

When we arrived at last at my sister’s apartment, her boyfriend already had both the chess game and the football game on large screens, thereby forever cementing his value to the family. He’s not much of a chess player, but he did have some interesting thoughts on rook endgames. Lucky thing, too, because by that point the game looked like this.

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With my attention divided between how-to-carve-a-turkey videos on YouTube, a glass of Cabernet, and the soundproof glass box in London, I was nevertheless unsurprised to see Carlsen and Caruana shake hands for the 10th game in a row, agreeing to a draw on the 54th move. The match — needless to say — sits level at 5-5 with two games to go.

Brin-Jonathan Butler, a Canadian journalist who was therefore presumably unencumbered by Thanksgiving, had been keeping a close eye on the match and called me to say that it has been “as eventful as a bus keeping its schedule.” And indeed, that schedule continues: Game 11 begins Saturday at 3 p.m. Greenwich Mean Time — that’s 10 a.m. Eastern. I’ll be covering it here and on Twitter.

It Was Finally Fabiano Caruana’s Turn To Survive At The World Chess Championship

Magnus Carlsen got a black eye before Game 9 of the World Chess Championship. But it didn’t hinder his vision of the board as Wednesday’s play began.

For the first time in nearly two weeks of play, Carlsen, the defending champion, was able to successfully command the white pieces to an attacking advantage. Throughout much of Game 9, Carlsen outdueled his challenger, Fabiano Caruana. Caruana, the world No. 2, appeared to reel at points, and his allocated time melted off his clock as he pondered his defense.

But Carlsen’s advantage melted, too. The game was drawn after 56 moves over 3.5 hours of play. It was the ninth consecutive draw and the best-of-12 match sits level at 4.5-4.5.

Before the game Wednesday, the list of colorful stories orbiting the match ballooned to two. First came the infamous deleted YouTube video appearing to show elements of Caruana’s pre-match strategic preparation. Now we had the black eye.

Instagram Photo

NRK, the Norwegian broadcaster, reported that Carlsen collided — excuse me, “kolliderte” — with one of its own journalists while playing soccer on Tuesday, a rest day from the chess. Questions were raised about Carlsen’s mental soundness — a grandmaster should do nothing but grandmastering, apparently. Per Google’s translation of NRK, he was reportedly “dumbfounded” after the crash. “If he has to use pain relief, there may be a potential problem,” NRK wrote.

But those neurological questions seemed quickly answered at the board and Carlsen said he felt no pain while playing.

The first eight moves on Wednesday exactly matched the first eight from Game 4 — their name sounds like something out of Tolkien, an English opening that became a Reverse Dragon. But the game took a radical and aggressive turn on move 9, when Carlsen scrambled his bishop to the g5 square, into enemy territory and with its mitre directly pointed at Caruana’s queen.

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This specific position has only ever materialized on a tournament chessboard once before, according to the ChessBase database, in an otherwise uncelebrated game in 2008 between two Croatian non-grandmasters. (Though black won that one.) The attack was on, and Caruana contributed with a misstep on his 17th move, capturing a knight in Carlsen’s territory that he oughtn’t have. That capture sparked a series of moves that eventually allowed Carlsen’s bishop to escape, flying across the board to capture the black pawn on b7.

As deep into the game as the 18th move, Carlsen hadn’t spent more than a minute on any one move and quickly opened up a 40-minute advantage on the clock. One knock against the champ in this match has been his apparently lackadaisical preparation. But he was solidly prepared for his aggressive line on Wednesday, sailing through his moves. Caruana, meanwhile, took 9 minutes to make his 12th move, 21 minutes on his 13th, 8 on his 14th and 13 on his 17th.

The fruits of the Norwegian’s preparation appeared to be a comfortable position: Either he would win or he would draw. Before Carlsen’s 24th move, the position looked like this.

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“I think there are some long-term dangers here for black,” said Hikaru Nakamura, a top American grandmaster commentating for Chess.com. Carlsen’s white bishop, for example, was far more active than Caruana’s. “If Caruana doesn’t find the right moves, he will lose.”

It appeared to all the world that the Norwegian chess superstar would finally make real progress in the match, and indeed that a victory in the moves to come would effectively decide the match — and the world title — itself. “There are certain types of positions where Magnus is stronger than a computer,” said Anish Giri, the world No. 5, on a chess24 broadcast.

It’s an evocative claim, but it was not true on Wednesday. Carlsen may have rushed his attack on move 25, shortly after the position above. He pushed his pawn up the flank on the edge of the board, to h4 and toward Caruana’s king. He then pushed it again, to h5. It may have been a square too far, or at least too soon. (The computer engine Stockfish preferred involving that active white bishop instead.)

“He’s just not playing his best chess,” added Peter Svidler, the world No. 19, on that very same broadcast. The position simplified dramatically and the two shook hands — which they must be getting very good at — after 56 moves.

Ah, chess is cruel. Here’s a chart to quantify that cruelty — and we’ll keep it updated throughout the rest of the match. There are three regular games left, and speedier tiebreaker games will follow on Nov. 27, if necessary.

This match has been different for Carlsen than his 2016 World Chess Championship encounter against Russian challenger Sergey Karjakin, which began with seven consecutive draws. Many of those found Karjakin on the backfoot, escaping like Houdini from the shackles of the world champion. Caruana, however, has rarely been in real trouble until Wednesday, and this year Carlsen has been forced to play the part of escape artist.

Carlsen would, however, be an enormous favorite should the tiebreakers become necessary.

“I’m really not thinking about the tiebreak now,” Caruana said after the game. “I really don’t agree with most people about my chances in the tiebreak.”

Game 10 begins Thursday at 3 p.m. Greenwich Mean Time — that’s 10 a.m. Eastern. But that’s also Thanksgiving. As a result, our next dispatch will come on Friday. Chess waits for no turkey, but FiveThirtyEight does. I’ll be covering the rest of the match here and on Twitter.

One Bad Pawn Move Has Kept The World Chess Championship Deadlocked

One has to be better than good to win at the World Chess Championship. One has to be nearly perfect.

Fabiano Caruana, the world No. 2, was reminded of that today in his eighth game against the reigning champion and world No. 1, Magnus Carlsen. As he did two games ago, Caruana leapt to an early advantage. If he could only retain it going into the endgame, he’d likely be able to collect a win against Carlsen, who has looked mortal a few times during this match.3

But to capitalize against a player as good as Carlsen requires relentless rightness — one wrong move and a tenuous advantage can slip out of your grasp.

Caruana, so sure-handed for 23 moves on Monday, forgot to dry his hands before the 24th. Just like that, Caruana’s advantage was lost. Game 8 ended the way all the others had. After 38 moves and nearly four hours, the two men agreed to a draw — the eighth in a row. The best-of-12 match is level 4-4.

The two began in the Sicilian Defence, an opening that the book “Modern Chess Openings” assures is “active and unsymmetrical.” (In other words, lots of action, and from very different setups for each player.) That was indeed the case on Monday. Specifically, the players were engaged in the Sicilian Defence: Lasker-Pelikan Variation. Chess fans were hopeful that this pelican would fly on Monday afternoon in London.

And it began to, at least for Caruana and the white pieces. Carlsen’s early moves were thought to be slightly careless, and Caruana nursed an advantage. “I’m a little bit surprised by the opening, especially for Magnus,” said Hikaru Nakamura, the American grandmaster and world No. 16, on a Chess.com broadcast. “I think Fabiano is doing quite well.” And not only that, by the 18th move, Carlsen had backed into a 30-minute deficit on the clock.

Caruana began to mount an attack on the queenside, including an aggressive knight that he’d installed in a forward outpost on b6, which hampered black’s artillery. Meanwhile, Carlsen’s available laser beams were pointed down the kingside, and he began to push his pawns down that flank. One of these moves — pawn to g5 — “was not a Magnus move,” Nakamura said. In other words, it was a mistake.

As Caruana pondered his response a bit later, on the 21st move, the board looked like this:

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Carlsen (playing the black pieces) appeared to be overextended on the kingside, and his king itself sat largely unprotected. The game would come down to the next couple of moves. Carlsen’s time deficit had swelled to an hour. And if Carlsen’s knight on e5 was dislodged from its station, Caruana’s warpaths toward Carlsen’s king would be opened wide.

Would Caruana see “21. c5!”? The chess world waited on the edges of seats and the edges of their boards. If he did, Carlsen would not be able to capture the pawn right away, as that would leave his knight undefended, allowing the bishop on c3 to attack without repercussion. The white pawn could puncture black’s territory, potentially wreaking havoc. It was likely the highest leverage move of the match thus far. Caruana thought, starting at the position above, for nearly 34 minutes.

Then he pushed the pawn. The chess world was jubilant. Maybe overly so.

But pawn moves can give, and pawn moves can take.

Carlsen’s position had been successfully breached, but he responded by putting Caruana on the backfoot, trading pieces with Caruana to keep him occupied and away from the pawn drama.

But then, on Caruana’s 24th move, the American pushed a different pawn, this one to h3. Better, perhaps, was dispatching a queen into Carlsen’s territory, which would have continued to apply the pressure. It was a subtle but crucial misstep — a move too slow and plodding for what a successful attack on the world champion would require.

“No, no. He’s done something wrong,” Nakamura said. “This does not feel right.”

And, poof — Caruana’s enormous two-pawn advantage, at least according to a supercomputer analyzing the game, evaporated. The position quickly simplified, as the queens and a pair of rooks were traded. The two grandmasters entered a rooks-and-bishops endgame that looked like this:

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It looked drawish and indeed it was — Carlsen and Caruana shook hands on the 38th move, agreeing to the match’s eighth consecutive draw. These are the ebbs and flows that have kept the match deadlocked so far. “There’s a lot of chess to be played,” Carlsen said after the match. “For today, I’m happy with a draw with the black pieces.”

Four games of the regulation 12 remain, and quicker tie-breaking games will follow if necessary. The match rests tomorrow and resumes with Game 9 on Wednesday at 3 p.m. Greenwich Mean Time — that’s 10 a.m. Eastern. I’ll be covering it here and on Twitter.

Another World Chess Championship Draw — It’s Time For Caruana To Attack

Seven games. Seven draws. And the World Chess Championship in London, between the two top-rated grandmasters in the world, remains level with five games to go.

Magnus Carlsen of Norway, 27, is No. 1 and trying to successfully defend his title for the third time. Fabiano Caruana of the U.S., 26, is No. 2 and trying to become the first American world champion since Bobby Fischer in 1972. On Sunday, Carlsen marshalled the white pieces and Caruana the black.

The first nine moves of Game 7 exactly matched those of Game 2, which ended in a 49-move draw this past weekend. These moves fall into a category of chess opening called the Queen’s Gambit Declined, Harrwitz Attack. In 1858 in Paris, Daniel Harrwitz deployed his eponymous attack to victorious effect in a game against Paul Morphy, the great American player and unofficial world champion. But “Attack,” in Sunday’s case, was a bit of a misnomer.

“What I did was just way too soft,” Carlsen said after the game.

Caruana’s 10th move — retreating his queen back to its home on d8 after it essayed an aggressive journey to a5 — was a rarity. And after the 11th move, the two grandmasters were in completely uncharted chess territory, according to the ChessBase database. That looked like this:

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The game’s brakes locked in this complex position, and moves 12, 13 and 14 alone took an hour and a half to complete as the players each contemplated a number of plans.

But the game never really appeared to anyone like anything but a draw. (I’ll renew my pro tip here: If you want to sound smart about a championship chess game, just say it “looks drawish.”) In an interview at the venue in London, Demis Hassabis, the co-founder of DeepMind and co-creator of the impossibly strong chess-playing program AlphaZero, predicted a draw at this point. Bookmakers put the live chances of a draw at around 97 percent. The supercomputer assessed it at 0.00 — dead level. And Maxime Vachier-Lagrave, the world No. 6, predicted a draw within the next half hour on a Chess.com broadcast.

But Carlsen wasn’t quite done yet.

“Magnus likes to play these positions until he’s sucked the life out of them,” Vachier-Lagrave said. Such is Carlsen’s reputation at the board. The position in question was a bishop-versus-knight endgame with constellation of pawns that looked like this after the 36th move:

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The sucking took more than half an hour, but the vampiric approach drew no blood on Sunday. All four rooks had came off the board in quick succession around move 20, and the queens were cleared a dozen moves later. Caruana, for his part, was playing like he was happy with a draw, and why not? He’d survived a mid-series gauntlet where he had to play two games in a row against Carlsen and the white pieces and their first-move advantage.

Carlsen and Caruana agreed to a draw on the 40th move after about 3.5 hours of play. We’ll keep the chart below updated throughout the match.

Someone will win eventually. If the 12 games end with the score tied — a possibility that is drifting toward a probability — the two grandmasters will play a tie-breaking series of much faster “rapid” and possibly “blitz” games — and possibly even an “Armageddon” game. According to the live world ratings, Carlsen is the No. 1 rapid player and the No. 1 blitz player in the world. Caruana is No. 8 and No. 16, respectively. Given that Carlsen would be the heavy favorite in the tiebreakers, meta-match strategy seems to dictate that Caruana should favor the gas pedal in the five lengthy games to come. If he has any secret attacking weapons, the time has come to fire them.

Watching every second of this match has taken on the cast of a Buddhist meditation — the games are drawn and the mind is cleared and the mantra is repeated. It is, frankly, a rather lovely routine and a cheap bit of self-care. I’ve also been starting to dream about this match. Last night’s installment featured Caruana and an unidentified friend sitting on the ground in the center of a large complex of tennis courts, with me on the outside of its chain link fence, looking in. Players on these courts were equipped with strange wooden spatulas, rather than racquets, and white tennis balls. Caruana and friend had given up playing this weird quasi-tennis, cast their spatulas aside and sat playing with purple Gameboys. What does this augur for the rest of the match? I do not know. Freudians, get in touch.

Game 8 begins Monday at 3 p.m. Greenwich Mean Time — that’s 10 a.m. Eastern. I’ll be covering it here and on Twitter.

Chess World Rattled As Someone Nearly Wins Game

Magnus Carlsen of Norway, the world’s No. 1 chess player, fended off a vicious siege at the hands of U.S. grandmaster Fabiano Caruana, the world No. 2, in London Friday. It was the sixth frame of the World Chess Championship, and one that for hours appeared likely to give the American a critical lead. But Carlsen escaped, and the match remains level, 3-3. Each of the six games so far have been a draw.

“It’s a miracle save,” said Robert Hess, an American grandmaster commentating on the match for Chess.com.

To catch you up: Carlsen is seeking his fourth world title while his challenger Caruana is trying for the first American world championship since Bobby Fischer in 1972. Their horns are locked in the middle of a best-of-12-game match for the game’s most important title.

The two began Friday’s Game 6 in one of Caruana’s favorite openings: the Petroff. (Specific lines of this opening were featured in the deleted video that scandalized the match days ago.) Game 6’s first three moves appear in 12,289 other games in the ChessBase database. In 11,802 — or 96 percent — of those, white moves its knight to f3 on its fourth move. In 17 of those — or 0.1 percent — white moves its knight to d3.

Carlsen moved his knight to d3.

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Chess players are second only to maybe biological taxonomists in their proclivity to elaborately name things, and sure enough even this rare position has its own proper name: the Karklins-Martinovsky Variation. But neither player was troubled by Karklins-Martinovsky, they said after the game. Its theory is well known to these elite players.

And so they played on. The powerful queens came off the board by move 8, but this loss took no edge off the fight. For a while, the game looked less like a battle and more like a dressage competition, as 66 percent or more of each player’s first 12 moves were knight moves.

Many moves later, as the game cantered through its middlegame, winning chances emerged and swelled for Caruana’s black pieces, according to both the computer engine and human grandmaster commentators. (Surprisingly, black, which is usually at a disadvantage, has often had an advantage over white in this match.) While there was no single blunder for Carlsen, there was an accumulation of … what to call them? “Mistakes” seems too serious. “Slip-ups” make them sound like pratfalls. Let’s go with “inaccuracies.” Carlen admitted after the game that he’d made a number of imperfect moves. By move 34, knights and bishops were the only firepower left on the board, and they threatened salvo after salvo in a crucial struggle over the pawns.

By the 47th move, Carlsen was down a knight but up three pawns, which gave him a few slim hopes. Two had open routes to the end of the board, where they could become queens. Much delicate, asymmetrical and impossibly complex maneuvering commenced, as Caruana tried to prevent the pawns’ promotion.

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A dozen moves later, Caruana had captured three of Carlsen’s pawns, including those aspiring to become queens, and still had one of his own. That left him in a victorious position — if only he could see it. On the 68th move, a supercomputer analyzing the game found a guaranteed checkmate a distant 30 moves down the road — down a lengthy bridle path, say.

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Caruana is an unbelievably strong player — though not that strong. As play continued, the silicon’s guarantee quickly went away. If only Carlsen could eliminate the pawns, he’d survive: a bishop and a knight versus a bishop is a theoretically guaranteed draw.

Finally, through many feats, Carlsen was able to spirit away his king to a fortress on black’s side of the board.

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Despite black’s apparent material advantage, there was no progress to be made. The players agreed to a draw on the 80th move.

Carlsen had walked a slippery bridge and survived. His escape act drew attention. As the tension built toward the end of the game, the match became the most-viewed stream on the popular game-streaming site Twitch. Books could be written about this endgame. (Though not by me.)

So, another draw, huh? Yawn, am I right? Not so fast. Today’s Game 6 was an instant classic. Journalist David Hill, who’s been in London reporting on the match, tweeted that there can be beauty in draws. Not all of them are created equal.

And while the six consecutive draws we’ve seen thus far is a lot, it’s certainly not a record. Carlsen and Sergey Karjakin began their 2016 world championship match with seven draws. Garry Kasparov and Viswanathan Anand fought to eight in a row to open their 1995 match. And at one point in Kasparov’s 1984 championship match against Anatoly Karpov, there were 17 straight draws. “There was a 20-second burst of applause” after a decisive game broke the grueling streak, the New York Times reported. That match, which began in September, was finally halted in February of the following year — 40 of its 48 games were draws.

The data scientist Randal Olson analyzed hundreds of thousands of chess games in an article a few years ago. The closer players are in rating, he found, the longer games tend to go. And as the players get better, draws become far more common. Carlsen and Caruana are as good — and about as close in rating — as you can get. Indeed, they are even beyond the scope of Olson’s chart below, with Elo ratings (which measure the strength of players given the opponents they’ve played) north of 2800.

We’ll keep the draw-filled chart below updated throughout the match. And perhaps we’ll be able to add a decisive result to it at some point. Or perhaps not. And that could be exciting, too.1

The match rests tomorrow. Game 7 — in which Caruana will once again have the black pieces — begins Sunday at 3 p.m. Greenwich Mean Time. That’s 10 a.m. Eastern. I’ll be covering it here and on Twitter.

What’s It Gonna Take For Somebody To Win A Chess Game?

Game 5 of the World Chess Championship began under a cloud. Not a literal cloud, though there were those in London, too. Rather it was the lingering hubbub of a published and deleted video. Since that video was released, a prominent chess writer resigned and, oddly, the event’s organizing body announced that it had hired a security firm that was ready to sweep for illicit electronic devices and deploy polygraphs on the players if necessary. Was the latter related to the video? To some other bit of intrigue yet to fully emerge? Or just because chess’s governing body is, how do you say, filled with plenty of intrigue of its own?

I have no answers for you. But I do have some chess to relay. To catch you up if you’re just joining us: Magnus Carlsen of Norway is seeking his fourth world title. His challenger Fabiano Caruana of the U.S. is trying to become the first American world champion since Bobby Fischer in 1972. The pair began the day’s game tied 2-2 in the best-of-12 title match.1 It didn’t end much differently.

The two grandmasters started Thursday’s game with the Rossolimo variation of the Sicilian Defence — the third time they’ve opened with that sequence of moves in the match’s five encounters. But then came a lightning bolt that briefly illuminated the match. It was known as “6. b4!?”

Caruana’s sixth move — his white pawn to b4 — electrified the encounter. This is what the board looked like after it struck.

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This is a rare move in this position at the game’s highest levels, and it’s an aggressive one — one often reserved for speed-chess games, rather than the lengthy, classically timed games of a world championship. Carlsen had faced this move with the black pieces only once before, according to ChessBase — in a 2005 game against the Dutch grandmaster Daniël Stellwagen, when Carlsen was just 14. (That game ended in a draw.) Given Carlsen’s prodigious memory for positions, it would be no surprise if he remembered that game well. And he claimed not to be troubled.

“To be honest, I was pretty happy about the opening,” Carlsen said after the game.

Lichess’s analysis tool calls that sixth move the “Sicilian Defense: Nyezhmetdinov-Rossolimo Attack, Gurgenidze Variation.” Gurgenidze was the Georgian grandmaster Bukhuti Gurgenidze, and “one of the most original and striking players of the Soviet era,” wrote ChessBase upon his death in 2008. The early part of Thursday’s game was striking, too. Grandmasters called it the sharpest opening they’d seen in world championship history.

Generically, this sort of move, a pawn to b4, is called a wing gambit, and it can be ventured in a few different openings. White sacrifices a pawn to potentially gain an advantage in the center of the board and in the mobilization of his pieces — the claiming of territory and the arming of his troops. Indeed, it was perhaps the first time in the match that the player with the white pieces had been able to sustain anything one might be able to call an attacking advantage.

Yet Carlsen was able to parry the threats. He appeared calm throughout the game, occasionally throwing one arm over the back of his chair, ever so suave in his gray suit.

By Caruana’s 19th move, he was perhaps regretting that his brief advantage had fizzled. And indeed it had. He spent nearly 32 minutes on that move, head often in both of his hands, pondering the board. Carlsen and Caruana agreed to a draw after 34 moves and just over 3 hours, in the position below. The match now sits level, 2.5-2.5.

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Given the way the championship’s scheduling works, Carlsen will play with the white pieces — and its first-move advantage — for the next two games. It will prove a critical gauntlet for Caruana’s title hopes. Here’s a visualization of how things have gone, and we’ll keep the chart below updated throughout the match.

Game 6 begins Friday at 3 p.m. Greenwich Mean Time — that’s 10 a.m. Eastern. I’ll be covering it here and on Twitter.

The Biggest Blunder Of The World Chess Championship Is A Deleted YouTube Video

Game 4 of the World Chess Championship in London began with a fitting surprise: the “English Opening.”

Magnus Carlsen of Norway, the three-time defending world champion and world No. 1, began the game by pushing the white pawn in front of his left bishop to the c4 square — a relatively rare move at the game’s highest levels. Fabiano Caruana, the U.S. challenger and world No. 2 trying to become the first American world champion since Bobby Fischer in 1972, pushed a black pawn to e5. And with that, the English had come. Few bells would be rung for the rest of the game.

Game 4 ended in a draw, just as the three previous games had. It was an uninspired 34-move, 2.5-hour episode. The match for the game’s highest prize remains level, at 2 points apiece in a race to 6.5.1 The boring result failed to overshadow the real drama of the day: the Zapruder film of this world championship.

But first, the chess.

“Carlsen is trying to avoid that really annoying Petroff,” Robert Hess, a grandmaster, said during a broadcast on Twitch. The Petroff Defence is one of Caruana’s favorite chess tools when he has the black pieces, but he can deploy it only when white cooperates by opening with a pawn to e4. Carlsen’s opening move, therefore, was preventive — or “prophylactic,” as chess players like to say. (Bards of the game, one and all.)

The pattern of pieces that developed on the board is called, rather delightfully, a “Reverse Dragon.” The Sicilian Defence has a variation called the Dragon — named after the resemblance of the pawns to the constellation Draco — except in this case its colors were reversed. But the position breathed no fire on Tuesday.

After 10 moves, the game was an exact match of a game that Caruana played against Wesley So, another top American grandmaster, earlier this year — the only such game that had ever featured this position, according to ChessBase. Given how recent and high-profile it was, this was a game that Caruana and Carlsen almost certainly both remembered well.

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After that, the two entered previously unseen territory. But the uncharted wilderness did not provide much in the way of excitement. Carlsen and Caruana agreed to a draw after 34 moves, in the position below. Despite the many pieces on the board, the grandmasters’ expertise told them that there was only one way this was likely to go.

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Here’s how things have gone on the chessboard thus far, and we’ll keep the chart below updated throughout the match.

The day’s humdrum play was overshadowed by some excitement off the board, though. A chess-world controversy — or at least what qualifies as one — erupted. Before the game, the posh Saint Louis Chess Club posted, and quickly deleted, a YouTube video appearing to show aspects of Caruana’s pre-championship preparation sessions. The club is Caruana’s de facto office and was founded by the billionaire retired financier Rex Sinquefield, who also helps fund Caruana’s chess career — both the club and Caruana are totems of Sinquefield’s deep pockets and deep love of chess. A chess columnist named John Hartmann tweeted this screenshot from the video.

It shows a laptop screen, complete with chess ideas in progress — a “Fianchetto Grunfeld,” various Queen’s Gambits Declined (an opening that was played in Game 2), and a number of ideas related to the favorite Petroff. It also shows a number of games from the 2016 world championship, to which Caruana was surely paying close attention.

A clip of the video shows Caruana leafing through a book of Carlsen’s past championship games and then handing it across a chessboard to his grandmaster coach and “second,” Rustam Kasimdzhanov, while grandmaster Alejandro Ramírez sits nearby.

Scandalous, I know.

Some chess commentators suggested that it was a huge blunder; others suggested that it was a deft piece of a disinformation campaign. The Saint Louis Chess Club did not respond to my emailed requests for comment, and Caruana’s manager declined to comment. Caruana himself declined to comment at a post-game news conference, and Carlsen claimed that he hadn’t seen it but was aware of its existence.

World Chess Championship preparation is always closely guarded. Kasimdzhanov warned me last spring that anything I might write about Caruana’s prep would be pored over by his Norwegian opponent and his team of hired chess guns for any shred of usable information. A player readying for a championship match typically enters seclusion with a small, handpicked crew of grandmaster aides and other associates. Even revealing their identities could be risky, I was told, because different grandmasters have different chess tendencies, and revealing the grandmasters might signal a game plan to the opponent. When Fischer was readying for his championship match, at a resort in upstate New York where prizefighters trained, he told an interloping New York Times reporter to “shove off” and stopped answering the phone.

In April, FiveThirtyEight was promised access to Caruana’s training camp by Caruana’s managers — a promise that was rescinded in July. That change of heart was not unique to this website. At least one other major online outlet was promised exclusive access to his training camps — another promise that was rescinded in July.

But the players will have to play their moves in public eventually. Perhaps one of them will even win a game of chess.

The match rests on Wednesday, but Game 5 begins Thursday at 3 p.m. Greenwich Mean Time — that’s 10 a.m. Eastern. I’ll be covering it here and on Twitter.

The World Chess Championship Is Deadlocked After Game 2

Heavy rain showers, a gentle breeze and 57 degrees in London, the BBC reported this morning. The top American grandmaster Fabiano Caruana was unprepared for such weather, arriving for Game 2 of the World Chess Championship sporting a wet blazer.

Never mind the sartorial dampness, however. He arrived excellently prepared for the chess.

His opponent is Magnus Carlsen of Norway, the three-time defending world champion and world No. 1. Caruana, the world No. 2, is vying to become the first American world champ since Bobby Fischer won the title in 1972. The pair had already played an epic, 7-hour, 115-move draw in Game 1 on Friday, and the best-of-12-game match sat level, 0.5 points apiece.1

The result in Game 2 on Saturday was the same — but the path to it was much shorter. After a 49-move, three-hour draw, the grandmasters are level at 1 point apiece, and the championship remains deadlocked.

Carlsen and Caruana began Game 2 — Carlsen with the white pieces, Caruana with the black — in an opening called the Queen’s Gambit Declined. Everything went according to well-established chess theory until Caruana’s 10th move, which can be rendered in chess notation as “10…Rd8!?”

The “!?” denotes an “interesting move.” (The “10” means it’s the 10th move, the “…” means we’re talking about the black pieces, the “R” means the rook, and the “d8” indicates the square the piece is bound for.)

“Surprise is very important,” said Judit Polgar, a grandmaster commentating the match.

The surprise appeared to pay off, as Carlsen, playing the white pieces, thought for 17 minutes, head in his hand, looking rather perturbed. This is what he saw:

r1br2k1/pp3ppp/2n1pn2/q1bp4/2P2B2/P1N1PN2/1PQ2PPP/3RKB1R w K – 0 0
You must activate JavaScript to enhance chess diagram visualization.

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Tick tock.

Tick tock.

“Magnus almost touched a piece!” yelled Anna Rudolf, another match commentator, capturing quite faithfully the causes of — and level of — excitement that accompanied Game 2 of the World Chess Championship.

Carlsen eventually did actually touch a piece, breaking the unbearable tension, moving his bishop to e2. And by this point, this particular chess position had only ever been seen once before in a competitive game according to ChessBase — in an obscure contest between two English players in 2014 in Aberystwyth, Wales.

Nevertheless, Caruana appeared ready for everything, moving quickly through the novelty. He was prepared for the chess, if not the rain.

This trend continued. Carlsen thought for another 12 minutes before making his 12th move, 9 minutes for his 15th move, 15.5 minutes for his 16th move, 9 minutes for his 19th move and, well, you get the idea. In many ways, the roles were reversed from the first game. Caruana, whose own time had ticked down to mere seconds in Game 1, opened up an hour advantage on the clock in Game 2, and looked rather comfortable.

Carlsen faced another ?! — er, I mean interesting — position while contemplating his 17th move, shown below.

r1br2k1/pp3pp1/3bp2p/q2nN3/P4B2/2P1P3/2Q1BPPP/3R1RK1 w – – 0 0
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The chess computer engine that keeps me warm during the games suggested a rather dramatic sacrifice: taking black’s pawn on f7 with the white knight. Black’s king would take the white knight, but white would gain exciting but complex attacking chances. Carlsen opted against the gambit — instead developing a bishop to f3 — perhaps because his clock was loudly ticking in his ear.

Caruana started scratching his own head at this point — but the tension soon slackened. By move 26, the queens and remaining bishops had been traded off the board, leaving the two in another endgame involving only rooks and pawns, just like they had on Friday. This version, however, ended much more quickly than the marathon that came before.

1r4k1/pp3pp1/3Pp2p/P7/8/2P2P2/5P1P/1R4K1 b – – 0 0
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Carlsen and Caruana played around here for a bit, but shook hands and agreed to draw after 49 moves.

The match now sits at 1-1 in this race to 6.5, and will likely stretch to the end of the month. We’ll be keeping the chart below updated throughout.

Sunday is a rest day, and Game 3 begins Monday at 3 p.m. Greenwich Mean Time — that’s 10 a.m. Eastern. I’ll be covering it here and on Twitter.