After the first seven games ended in draws, the challenger won the first decisive game of the match.

The World Championship match finally has a leader and it is the challenger, Sergey Karjakin. After the first seven games all ended in draws, Karjakin won Game 8 after Magnus Carlsen, the reigning championship, pushed too hard and too far in an effort to win the game.

Karjakin now leads the best-of-12 match by the score of 4.5 to 3.5 points. The match, which is being played at the South Street Seaport in New York City, has a prize fund of about $1.1 million.

Carlsen had White and led off with 1 d4 for the second time in the match. The position quickly became symmetrical and then Carlsen made a somewhat curious decision: on move 8, he traded his d-pawn for Karjakin’s c-pawn, which relieved the tension in the center. Though not an unknown move, it did not seem to be a very ambitious idea. Indeed, after 12 moves, the position was almost perfectly balanced and by move 18, the game seemed to be headed for yet another draw.

On move 24, however, after a series of exchanges, Carlsen intentionally unbalanced the position by taking a piece with a pawn instead of another piece. It was a risky idea and clearly indicated that, after so many draws, Carlsen was anxious to try to win, even if it meant taking some risks.

The position quickly became complicated, with Carlsen pushing forward with his pieces at the cost of creating structural weaknesses in his position. By move 32, Karjakin had won a pawn and then, on move 35, Carlsen sacrificed a second pawn in an increasingly desperate effort to keep his initiative alive.

Both players were now in time trouble as they approached the first time control and, in the scramble, Carlsen was able to win back a pawn and break apart the pawns protecting Karjakin’s king. Though Karjakin now had a powerful passed a-pawn, it seemed increasingly likely to the packed house of spectators that Carlsen would be able to draw by some sort of perpetual check.

But Karjakin kept finding the best moves and putting Carlsen under pressure. Carlsen seemed to be up to it until move 49, when he probably should have sacrificed his e-pawn with 49 e5 to give his bishop some breathing room. Instead he stubbornly hung on to the pawn by playing 49 Qa5. He then compounded his error two moves later with 51 Qe6. Suddenly, White was nearly in zugzwang. After 52… a2, Carlsen resigned as he would have had to play 53 Qa2, when he faced a hopeless endgame following 53… Ng4 54 Kh3 Qg1 55 Bf3 Nf2 56 Qf2 Qf2.

Carlsen was clearly furious with himself afterward and bolted the building without attending the press conference, which is required of both players. Meanwhile, Karjakin was understandably happy.

Karjakin said that he did not think that Carlsen played badly. “He really tried and he sacrificed two pawns and he created a really interesting game but somehow he did not manage to make a draw,” said Karjakin. “Thanks to Magnus, it was a really big day.”

Carlsen’s play in Game 8 was altogether curious. He clearly was feeling the pressure prior to the game, perhaps because he felt as if he was expected to easily win the match and had been unable to beat Karjakin, despite coming close in Games 3 and 4. (One indicator that he might have been anxious was that he showed up to the board well before Karjakin, as he had done before Game 7.)   

Whatever the reasons for his decision to press so hard in Game 8, Carlsen now finds himself in a hole for the first time in a World Championship match. While he lost a game to Viswanathan Anand in the 2014 match in Sochi, Russia, he had won the previous game in that match, so the loss only brought him to an even score. With four games to play, he has time to even the score, but his back is now against the wall and time is not on his side. 

Game 9 will be Wednesday, Nov 23, at 2 PM EST. The game can be viewed live on WorldChess.com, the official site of the match. 

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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.