Magnus Carlsen and Sergey Karjakin will break their tie with speed chess and, if needed, the dreaded ‘Armageddon Game.’
Armageddon may strike New York City on Wednesday. This cataclysmic moment could finally decide a winner—the East versus the West—in a long-simmering battle for global supremacy. In chess.
Magnus Carlsen and Sergey Karjakin find themselves tied in the World Chess Championship after completing their best-of-12 match in Manhattan over the last month. In 10 of the games, there was no winner. Karjakin, the Russian challenger and the world’s No. 9-ranked player, stole one win. And then Carlsen, the No. 1-ranked champion from Norway, took a game of his own to even the score.
Their dead heat has sent the championships to a tiebreaker that will be held Wednesday. Carlsen and Karjakin will play a series of rapid and blitz games—and, if necessary, what’s known in chess as an “Armageddon Game.” It’s a game that’s guaranteed to produce a winner with rules so frenetic they could introduce never-seen-before controversy into the chess universe.
“The tension would be unbelievable,” said Dylan McClain, a master-level player. “I would suspect there would be people who are not happy.”
In an Armageddon Game, the players will draw lots and the winner gets to choose if he is white or black. White will have five minutes to complete his moves and black will have four, but with a twist: If the game ends in a draw, black wins.
No World Chess Championship has ever been decided this way. This one just might. “Let’s hope there won’t be Armageddon, because it’s a little bit too much,” Karjakin said.
Exactly how the chess world arrived at a moment dates back decades to a time when championships took even longer. For example, the 1984 World Chess Championships between Garry Kasparov and Anatoly Karpov were abandoned after 48 games that stretched over five months and into 1985. The president of FIDE, the governing body of chess, eventually called it off, citing the concerns over the health of the players. Karpov had reportedly lost upwards of 20 pounds during the grueling affair.
Since then the matches have been shortened, resulting in the best-of-12 format that began in 2006. They also got rid of draw odds—where the reigning champion retained the title in case of a tie—because two different players had claimed to be the champion after the title split in 1993. All of this led the way to the elaborate tiebreaker system which will be seen on Wednesday.
First, Carlsen and Karjakin will engage in four rapid games, in which they have 25 minutes apiece. If they’re still tied, they would progress to a round of “blitz” matches, where they have five minutes aside. Should they remain tied after the blitz games, the Armageddon Game will settle it all.
Carlsen says he’s not sure if he would rather be white or black in the Armageddon Game—with all of their draws so far, black might be logical, but it would also depend on how the earlier tiebreaker games go. Karjakin wouldn’t even answer which he prefers.
The World Chess Championships have reached tiebreakers twice in this format—in 2006 and 2012—but neither of those went as far as chess’s version of the apocalypse. And should it head there on Wednesday, controversy would be a near certainty. Which is exactly what happened in 2008 when the United States women’s championship was decided in this format.
Irina Krush ran out of time in that 2008 Armageddon Game. Her opponent, Anna Zatonskih, was declared champion. Zatonskih had one second left. Krush said Zatonskih played moves even before her own ones were completed and disputed the result, saying Zatonskih maintained her waning clock time through illegal means. After the game, Krush slammed a piece off the board and stormed off.
“I would certainly welcome any initiative to decide the title in over-the-board games, with real time controls that don’t degrade the participants into clock punching monkeys,” Krush wrote in an open letter afterwards.
This boils down to the fact that such a frantic game is a distant cousin of the methodical matches that make these players the best in the world. It’s the chess equivalent of penalty kicks in soccer—a solution that quickly produces a winner, even if it’s barely a measure of the skill that got the competitors to that point in the first place.
Should these fast games become necessary, Carlsen would appear to have the edge. He’s ranked No. 1 in rapid chess and No. 2 in blitz, while Karjakin is No. 11 in blitz and not in the top 100 in rapid. “I want to play a tiebreak,” said Carlsen, who will play for the title on his birthday. When asked if he was comfortable drawing the last game because of his skill as a speed player, he added: “That’s one interpretation.”
Then again, few thought Karjakin would play Carlsen so tightly in the first place. So even an unlikely proposition like an Armageddon Game suddenly seems realistic.
“2016 has been weird,” said Kassa Korley, an international master. “Between Brexit, Trump, LeBron and the 3-1 deficit, things have just been shocking all around.”