The greatest champions are defined not by winning when all the tumblers are aligned in their favor, but by how they persist and problem-solve and pull it from the bag when they’re not at their best. Serena Williams scratching out points at the net when her thunderbolt serve has betrayed her. A flu-stricken Michael Jordan, dehydrated and barely upright, willing the Chicago Bulls to victory in the NBA finals. The great ones don’t merely find a path to victory, they invent it. By that measure, Carlsen’s fightback from the brink will be remembered long after the chess itself has been forgotten.
The queen sacrifice has been described as the beauty of chess incarnate, a tactical flourish that highlights the aesthetic potential of a game that’s increasingly – and never more than in the generation since Deep Blue v Kasparov, 1997 – become informed by the machinelike objectivity of the supercomputer. Sixty years ago, a gawky 13-year-old in blue jeans named Robert James Fischer used the willful concession of his strongest piece to defeat the leading American master Donald Byrne in the Rosenwald memorial tournament at the Marshall chess club in Greenwich Village. That game sparked a meteoric ascent that culminated with the Brooklyn prodigy’s epochal world championship win in 1972. Yet it was Fischer’s extraordinary victory over Byrne that’s come to be known as the game of the century. Style matters.
For nearly three weeks, the freewheeling adaptability that has been Carlsen’s calling card – the daring abandon of memorized opening lines in favor of chess-playing – had been stifled by a stubborn Russian challenger hellbent on transforming this year’s world championship match into attritional war. They had drawn all but two of the 12 games in regulation, forcing a tie-breaker consisting of four rapid games (in which each player starts with 25 minutes to complete his moves) on Wednesday afternoon in the sound-proof studio on the third floor of the Fulton Market Building at the South Street Seaport.
They’d drawn the first two with Carlsen missing a win in the second, but the Norwegian used his time better in both, and was never in danger of losing. Then in the third as Karjakin once again ran short on time, a blunder on the 37th move handed the Carlsen the crucial victory. Now the champion needed only a draw with the white pieces in the finale to win the title.
But Carlsen, who is also the world’s top-ranked rapid player, had no interest in backing into the championship. He took control of the center and forced Karjakin backward, tightening his grip on the position and choking off all points of escape. Then Carlsen offered to surrender his strongest piece to ensnare Karjakin’s queen in a mating net, a coup de grâce all the more breathtaking given the faster time control of rapid play. “It was the kind of move every chess player dreams about getting a chance to make,” commentator Maurice Ashley told NRK, the Norwegian public broadcasting network which had aired the match in primetime. “That move will be remembered forever.”
Carlsen will now hold the title for two years before he’s required to defend it. Karjakin, as he alluded in Wednesday’s aftermath, will be there waiting. But he will rue how close he came here in Manhattan, while Carlsen can take heart in his taste for the fight.
“It’s good to know that I can win even if things don’t go my way, since what happened up until the 10th game basically was the worst-case scenario,” he said. “It’s been a fight throughout. It hasn’t been particularly pretty. Of course the finish was pretty, at least from my point of view, but it’s most of all been a fight. For me that’s what chess is about and what these matches should be.”