The World Champion squandered another golden opportunity, allowing Sergey Karjakin to survive by building a fortress

It has been said that chess can be a cruel game. Game 4 of the World Championship served as a reminder of how true that is.

As he had done in Game 3, Magnus Carlsen, the reigning titleholder from Norway, gained an enormous advantage against Sergey Karjakin, the Russian challenger. But, just as in Game 3, he was unable to convert his edge into a win as Karjakin found a way to build an impregnable fortress.

All four games in the match have now been drawn and the score is level at two points apiece. The best-of-12 match is being held in the South Street Seaport in New York City. The prize fund is about $1.1 million.

Karjakin had White in Game 4 and, as he had in Game 2, he opened with 1 e4. As he had in Game 2, Carlsen answered with the classical Ruy Lopez, avoiding the Berlin Defense that has become so popular in recent years.

The classical Ruy Lopez was an interesting choice. It requires a great deal of preparation and, like the Berlin, it often requires patient defense. (Indeed, one nickname of the classical Ruy Lopez is the Spanish torture.) Unlike the Berlin Defense, however, the classical Ruy Lopez has many more latent dynamic possibilities. In short, it potentially offers Black more opportunities to turn the tables and win than does the Berlin, even if it is a bit riskier. In choosing the classical Ruy Lopez, Carlsen was signaling that he wants to try to maximize his chance to win each and every game.  

The opening went smoothly for Karjakin until move 18 when he erred and took a pawn on h6. Somehow, he overlooked Carlsen’s reply (18… Qc6). He then compounded his mistake by playing 19 Bc4 instead of 19 Bc1, when he would have not had a significantly worse position. (In the press conference after the game, Karjakin admitted he was a bit rattled by his first mistake and that led to his second.)

Carlsen gained the advantage of having a bishop pair and the game headed for an endgame in which Carlsen had a distinct edge. Indeed, after White’s 43rd move (g4), it seemed that Black had a clear path to victory and two equally good choices on how to get there. One was to force an exchange of pawns on the kingside and then try to advance his remaining passed pawn, supported by the bishops. The second was to create a protected passed pawn. Carlsen chose the second option and it turned out to be incorrect as Karjakin was able to build a fortress.

Carlsen tried for another 50 moves to break Karjakin’s resistance, but Karjakin, who is noted for his defensive prowess, held once again. After 94 moves, and about six-and-a-half hours of play, Carlsen reluctantly agreed to a draw.

Afterward, in the press conference, Carlsen was visibly annoyed with himself. He said that he had not carefully calculated the possibilities when he made his decision to create a protected passed pawn. On the other hand, Karjakin was clearly relieved and happy. When he was asked what he thought about the game, he replied, “Fantastic.” Peter Doggers of Chess.com read out a tweet that someone had posted saying that Russia’s president, Vladimir Putin, had announced that he was going to make Karjakin Russia’s new Secretary of Defense.

After the first two games, Carlsen had complained about the schedule, which has a rest day after each pair of games. He said then that he would have preferred to continue playing and not take any breaks. After Game 4, despite having played 13 hours of chess over the previous two days, Carlsen said once again that he wanted to continue. Why not play another six-hour game? “Chess is a hard game,” he said.

Since he could not play, Carlsen was asked what he would do. “Probably stick to my routines,” he said.

Anastasia Karlovich, the World Chess Federation’s press officer, then turned to Karjakin and asked if he had any plans for his rest day. “I’ll probably go to Central Park,” he said. And would he play any chess? “No!” he said, shaking his head vigorously.

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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.