No matter who wins the World Championship, Game 3 will be remembered and studied for years to come

Game 3 of the 2016 World Chess Championship ended in a draw, but it was an epic battle. If Sergey Karjakin, the Russian challenger, goes on to beat Magnus Carlsen, the reigning champion from Norway, and win the title, Game 3 may go down as the turning point in the match as Karjakin found a nearly miraculous way to force a draw. 

The match, which is being held in the South Street Seaport in New York City, is now tied at 1.5 points apiece. The first player to 6.5 points will become champion. The prize fund is about $1.1 million.

Carlsen had White for the second time and played 1 e4 instead of 1 d4 as he had in Game 1. Karjakin replied 1 e5 and the players soon entered the Berlin System of the Ruy Lopez, which has become very popular at the elite level in recent years. Instead of playing what is considered the most testing line – 5 d4 Nd6 6 Bc6 dc6 7 de5 Nf5 8 Qd8 Kd8, etc. — Carlsen opted for 5 Re1 Nd6 6 Ne5. 

After nine moves, the game had reached a quite well known position. Then Carlsen played a curious move – 10 Re2 – that placed his rook on an awkward square and blocked one of his bishops. Even more curious was that he then played 11 Re1 a move later. (In the press conference afterward, Carlsen joked that the rook had slipped out of his hand on move 10, so he corrected his error a move later. Karjakin said, however, that 10 Re2 had been played before and was a known idea.)

As in Games 1 and 2, by move 20, most of the pieces had been traded off, but whereas that led to early draws in the first two games, things were just getting started in Game 3.

After the exchanges, Carlen had a knight, rook and pawns vs. bishop, rook and pawns for Karjakin. Though the pawn structures were symmetrical, an early advance on the kingside of one of Karjakin’s pawns had left holes that the knight could potentially exploit. It was the type of situation and position in which Carlsen thrives and he went to work, patiently maneuvering to try to create more weaknesses and inroads. He succeeded.

By move 25, Carlsen had fixed one of Karjakin’s weak pawns on f5, where it could easily be attacked. Karjakin hunkered down for a long, tortuous defense. Defending difficult positions is a skill for which Karjakin is known and it was clear he would have to do it again if he were to survive. By move 35, Karjakin had to give up a pawn, but, in winning the material, Carlsen’s pawn structure was fractured making it easier for Karjakin to potentially find counterplay. 

Carlsen continued to improve the coordination and placement of his pieces up through the first time control at move 40. At that point, his king had taken an advance position and Karjakin, in addition to being down a pawn, was dangerously passive. 

But Carlsen could not find a knockout blow. As Karjakin continued to stubbornly resist, Carlsen’s advantage seemed to ebb. By move 55, it seemed that his winning chances had all by disappeared.

He found a new regrouping maneuver, however, and as Karjakin’s time ticked down to the final seconds for the second time-control at move 60, it was clear that Karjakin was again in trouble. Carlsen slowly closed in and it again seemed that Karjakin would fold. 

Then Karjakin found the most surprising idea of all. Faced with losing his bishop, he simply let Carlsen take it and then sidled his king up to Carlsen’s remaining pieces. Carlsen had to lose one of his two remaining pawns, while Karjakin was able to hold on to his remaining pawn on the h-file, which was far advanced. Grandmasters and amateurs feverishly analyzed the position at tables around the venue trying to figure out if there was still a path to victory for Carlsen. There was not and Carlsen soon acquiesced to a draw by forcing a repetition of the position after 78 moves and more than 6 hours of play. 

In the press conference afterward, Karjakin was noticeably relieved. While Carlsen cracked some jokes, there was no doubt in anyone’s mind that he was disappointed and perhaps even angry with himself. 

The game will probably be analyzed for years to come, but Karjakin proved how resilient he is. It is also clear that this match is going to be a fight and perhaps a war of attrition. 

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Dylan Loeb McClain is a journalist with more than 25 years of experience. He was a staff editor for The New York Times for 18 years and wrote the paper’s chess column from 2006 to 2014. He is now editor-in-chief of WorldChess.com. He is a FIDE master as well.