Carlsen vs. Karjakin: Strengths & Weaknesses

Magnus Carlsen and Sergey Karjakin at their most recent game, this year's Bilbao Masters. Photo Bilbao Masters Magnus Carlsen and Sergey Karjakin shaking hands before their most recent game at Bilbao Masters. Photo Bilbao Masters
“The cherished dream of every chessplayer is to play a match for the World Championship.” -Mikhail Tal, the 8th World Chess Champion, Tal-Botvinnik (1960)

Just typing the words, “Carlsen vs. Karjakin”, brings me excitement. World Championship matches can change history, creating many of the greatest games ever played, showcasing the fascinating struggles and stories of the players, and inspiring timeless literature. And, this is the match of my generation, of two players I can relate to.  Carlsen’s playing style has a magnificent clarity, unaffected by the age of over-reliance on opening preparation. He’s known for his ability to press for a win long after most grandmasters would’ve shaken hands peacefully. Because of this, he single-handedly raises the percentage of decisive games in every event he competes in. And then there's Karjakin, the player with endless determination. I remember watching Karjakin fight his way out of his ‘win-at-all-costs’ 0-2 deficit against Peter Svidler in the final of the 2015 World Cup. Even back then, I knew---every move he made envisioning the seat across the board from Carlsen in New York. It’s fairly established that Carlsen is the match favorite with odds ranging as high as 7 to 1. Yet, odds are simply a reflection of what’s happened previously, not a concrete prediction of the future. As we've seen whenever someone achieves an upset victory against a titled player, odds can play little role in the course of a singular struggle.  What it’s going to come down to is: What are the comparative strengths and weaknesses of each player? And, which player will be able to lead the games towards positions where they excel? Let's take a look at who has the advantage in each key aspect of a chess game, starting with the player's assessments of each other:

Sergey Karjakin on Carlsen:

Magnus is a great player. He has a lot of strong skills. He is a brilliant technical player. Also he fights for the initiative very well. He sees tactics excellently. So he doesn’t have many weaknesses. But still, he is a human, not a computer, and he also sometimes makes mistakes and loses. So I will study his games hard and try to find any weaknesses if I can. -"I am not afraid of Magnus"

Magnus Carlsen on Karjakin:

"Karjakin is defensive, tenacious and has a great ability to find positions he can defend even if they may look ugly.”  -"Inside the home (and mind) of World Chess Champion Magnus Carlsen"



Advantage Carlsen

Recently, I came across a position from Karjakin vs. Ivanchuk (Loo 2013) while solving puzzles in Grandmaster Preparation: Attack & DefenseTo my surprise, Karjakin was on the attacking side. As I was solving the exercise, I thought: A rare treat, an attacking game by Karjakin! After I wrote down my guess, I turned to the solution page and found this explanation by GM Jacob Aagaard:

“Karjakin overlooked two very nice wins in this game. In the last few years, his technique has improved, but his tactics have declined. I think? In the game, Karjakin played the standard 27. Nd3? with a slight advantage. The game was drawn ten moves and a few mistakes later.”

The assessment that Karjakin's "tactics have declined" is very rare in regards to a 2750+ player, but not surprising. Many of Karjakin's recent games seem to favor resilience and carefully converting a safe edge into a win. Can you find what Karjakin overlooked?

Karjakin vs. Ivanchuk

White to move.

Level: Challenging

Show Solution

"Include all the pieces in the attack." -GM Jacob Aagaard

Show Solution

[pgn][Event "RUS-chT 20th"][Site "Loo"] [Date "2013.04.09"] [Round "3"] [White "Karjakin, Sergey"] [Black "Ivanchuk, Vassily"] [Result "*"] [ECO "B46"] [WhiteElo "2786"] [BlackElo "2757"] [SetUp "1"] [FEN "4q1r1/3nbpk1/p3p3/2p1Pr2/2PpRB1p/1P6/PN2Q1PP/5RK1 w - - 0 27"] [PlyCount "9"] [EventDate "2013.04.07"] [EventType "team-swiss"] [EventRounds "7"] [EventCountry "RUS"] [Source "ChessBase"] [SourceDate "2013.05.15"] [WhiteTeam "Malakhit"] [BlackTeam "Economist SGSEU"] [WhiteTeamCountry "RUS"] [BlackTeamCountry "RUS"]27. g4 $3 (27. Qg4+ {is tempting, but Black's king finds shelter on h8. 1. g4!! either wins the exchange or forces Black to remove his h4-pawn cover.}) 27... hxg3 {"The only move that does not lose the exchange, but slightly dodgy. Black should accept his material loss and fight on from there."} 28. Qg4+ $1 { "The point."} Bg5 $5 ({If} 28... Kh8 {now} 29. Qh3+ {is possible and Black loses immediately:} Kg7 30. Qh6#) (28... Kf8 29. Bh6+) 29. h4 $1 {winning a piece. If} f6 30. exf6+ Nxf6 31. Qxf5 *[/pgn]

  In Carlsen’s first classical victory over Karjakin, Karjakin attempts to build up an attack on the kingside, but Carlsen takes over the center and shuts down the attack before it even leaves the ground. In one of the variations, Carlsen comments that it, “stops any illusions of a white attack”.

[pgn][Event "Corus"] [Site "Wijk aan Zee"] [Date "2010.01.27"] [Round "10"] [White "Karjakin, Sergey"] [Black "Carlsen, Magnus"] [Result "0-1"] [ECO "C11"] [WhiteElo "2720"] [BlackElo "2810"] [Annotator "Carlsen,M"] [SetUp "1"] [FEN "2r2rk1/1bqnbppp/p1n1p3/1pppP3/3P1P2/P1N1BN2/1PPQB1PP/3R1R1K w - - 0 14"] [PlyCount "26"] [EventDate "2010.01.16"] [EventType "tourn"] [EventRounds "13"] [EventCountry "NED"] [EventCategory "19"] [Source "ChessBase"] [SourceDate "2010.03.17"]14. Qe1 {A typical manoeuvre. White intends to gradually start an attack on the kingside. Therefore I decided to start counterplay in the centre immediately.} cxd4 15. Nxd4 Nxd4 16. Bxd4 Bc5 17. Qh4 $2 {While this move might objectively speaking not deserve a question mark, it was definitely a turning point in the game, as after my reply, Karjakin became very uncomfortable with his position.} (17. Qf2 {or something similar was required, as the queen needs to have more influence in the centre after I play ...f6, which is bound to happen sooner or later.}) 17... Bxd4 18. Rxd4 f6 $1 19. Bd3 { This one probably doesn't help much either, but since it was part of the plan with Qh4, I will not attach any mark to it.} h6 20. exf6 (20. Qg4 Qb6 $1 { would not help White.}) (20. f5 fxe5 21. Rg4 Nf6 {stops any illusions of a white attack.}) 20... Rxf6 {Now it is clear that something has gone wrong for White. The rook on d4 is exposed, f4 is weak, and he will be facing tactical problems with ...e5 quite soon. The "bad" bishop on b7 is certainly no worse than the white knight, which has dominated it in so many textbook games.} 21. f5 (21. Rg1 Rcf8 22. Ne2 e5 23. fxe5 Nxe5 {would not have been much of a relief; the black pieces are just much more active than their white counterparts here.}) (21. Qg3 Rcf8 22. Rf3 Nb8 $1 {leaves White on brink of disaster.}) 21... Rcf8 22. Rg1 Nc5 $1 {The most energetic.} ({The tempting} 22... e5 23. Nxd5 Bxd5 24. Rxd5 Nb6 {trapping the rook, gives White very good drawing chances after} 25. Qe4 Nxd5 26. Qxd5+ Kh8 27. Re1 {.}) 23. fxe6 Nxe6 24. Rg4 $6 (24. Nxd5 Bxd5 25. Rxd5 Nf4 26. Rd4 Qc5 {forces White to give up the exchange with Rxf4, as} 27. c3 Nxd3 28. Rxd3 Qxg1+ 29. Kxg1 Rf1# {is mate. That being said, it would probably have been a better try.}) 24... Nf4 25. Qg3 Qe7 $1 {The last key move, after which Black is completely winning. The point is to control e2, leaving the white knight without a good square after ...d4 next. The tactical justification, based on a slightly surprising queen sac, is: } 26. Rxf4 {After this Black will only have to make a couple of more good moves to win the game, but White was probably lost in any case.} (26. h3 d4 27. Re1 (27. Ne2 Nxe2 28. Bxe2 Bc8 $1 {wins an exchange, while}) ({nach} 27. Nd1 Bc8 28. Re1 Qf7 29. Rh4 Bb7 30. Rg1 Nxg2 $1 (30... g5 {is also very good of course}) 31. Rxg2 Rf3 32. Qg4 Re8 {leaves the uncoordinated white forces defenceless against the threat of ...Re1.}) 27... Qxe1+ $1 28. Qxe1 Nxd3 {and Black will be material up in every line.}) 26... Rxf4 {and Carlsen went on to convert his extra exchange without too much trouble.} 0-1[/pgn]

 “When Karjakin initiates an attack, it usually backfires no matter how promising it looks.”

-GM Gregory Serper, when annotating Karjakin’s blitz games against Carlsen, “Carlsen vs. Karjakin: The Final Countdown”

Carlsen, on the other hand, is a very versatile player, ready to attack if the position calls for it. In one of their most recent encounters at Bilbao Masters, Karjakin equalized comfortably in the opening. Yet, Carlsen was able to gradually build up a very strong attack against Karjakin’s king.

[pgn][Event "9th Masters Final 2016"] [Site "Bilbao ESP"] [Date "2016.07.15"] [Round "3.2"] [White "Carlsen, M."] [Black "Karjakin, Sergey"] [Result "1-0"] [ECO "B50"] [WhiteElo "2855"] [BlackElo "2773"] [SetUp "1"] [FEN "2r3k1/pp1nppb1/q2p3p/3Pn1p1/2r1P3/2N3BP/PPB2PP1/1R1Q1R1K w - - 0 22"] [PlyCount "37"] [EventDate "2016.07.13"] [EventType "tourn"] [EventRounds "10"] [EventCountry "ESP"] [EventCategory "22"] [Source "Mark Crowther"] [SourceDate "2016.07.18"]22. f4 gxf4 23. Bxf4 Qb6 24. Qh5 Nf6 25. Qf5 Qd8 26. Bb3 Rd4 27. Bxe5 dxe5 28. Rbd1 Qd7 29. Qf3 Rb4 30. Rd2 Rf8 31. g4 a5 32. Rg2 Nh7 33. h4 Rb6 34. g5 Kh8 35. Rfg1 f5 36. Qh3 Rb4 37. gxh6 Bxh6 38. Qg3 Nf6 39. Qg6 Ng4 40. Rxg4 1-0[/pgn]


Opening Preparation:

Advantage Karjakin

“If you want to become the best, then you have to know all the opening setups and theory. That is what I think.” -Sergey Karjakin, "I am not afraid of Magnus"

Karjakin often relies heavily on home opening preparation to gain an advantage against an opponent. Contrastingly, Carlsen’s style seeks a reasonable, sometimes even slightly worse position (if playing Black), where he can gradually outplay his opponent in the middlegame and endgame.

I think to win the match, Karjakin needs to take Carlsen out of his comfort zone. He needs to play very sharp openings and take huge risks. The problem that Karjakin faces is that everything he does well, Carlsen does well too. Karjakin is a good grinder, Carlsen is an even better grinder. Karjakin is an excellent defender, Carlsen’s defensive skills are out of this world. You can see the problem that the Russian faces in that respect. The good news for Karjakin is that he does have one ace to play---he’s very good with White. -GM Danny Gormally, Carlsen vs. Karjakin: Who Will Prevail?

For example, in Karjakin's first ever victory against Anand at the Candidates Tournament, he uses a novelty to make Anand's position uncomfortable, by encouraging weakening moves on the kingside:

[pgn][Event "FIDE Candidates 2016"] [Site "Moscow RUS"] [Date "2016.03.15"] [Round "4.3"] [White "Karjakin, Sergey"] [Black "Anand, V."] [Result "1-0"] [ECO "A06"] [WhiteElo "2760"] [BlackElo "2762"] [PlyCount "85"] [EventDate "2016.03.11"] [EventType "tourn"] [EventRounds "14"] [EventCountry "RUS"] [EventCategory "22"] [Source "Mark Crowther"] [SourceDate "2016.03.21"]1. Nf3 d5 2. e3 Nf6 3. c4 e6 4. b3 Be7 5. Bb2 O-O 6. Nc3 c5 7. cxd5 Nxd5 8. Qc2 Nc6 9. h4 {"Our home preparation. I was quite happy with this position because it is nice for White to play it." -Karjakin} b6 10. a3 f5 {"I wouldn't want to play this move if not forced to. But there is no easy way to discourage White to act on the kingside." -Maxime Vachier-Lagrave. And Karjakin went on to win by slowly pressing on Black's weak points.} 11. Bb5 Bb7 12. Nxd5 exd5 13. d4 Rc8 14. dxc5 bxc5 15. O-O Bf6 16. Rfd1 Ne7 17. Bxf6 Rxf6 18. g3 Ba6 19. Bxa6 Rxa6 20. Qc3 Rb6 21. Rac1 Qd6 22. Ne5 {Note how Black's 10...f5 leaves the e5 square weakened.} Rb7 23. Nd3 c4 24. bxc4 Rxc4 25. Qe5 Qxe5 26. Nxe5 Rxc1 27. Rxc1 g6 28. Rc5 Kg7 29. Ra5 Kf6 30. Nd3 Rc7 31. Ra6+ Kg7 32. Nf4 Rd7 33. Kf1 Ng8 34. Ne6+ Kf7 35. Nd4 Ne7 36. Nb5 Nc8 37. a4 Rb7 38. Rc6 Ne7 39. Ra6 Nc8 40. Rc6 Ne7 41. Rd6 Rb6 42. Rd7 a6 43. Nc3 1-0[/pgn]

“Success with openings will be a crucial part of his [Karjakin’s] match strategy, and he has a great team in place to make that happen. -GM Jon Ludwig Hammer, Carlsen’s second during his two World Championship matches with Anand, "Carlsen-Karjakin: Hammer's Preview"


Positional Grind & Quiet Positions:

Advantage Carlsen

“What I think are Magnus Carlsen’s three greatest strengths are his versatility, his unpredictability, but, maybe most importantly, his skills as a grinder… What do I mean by grinding skills? Basically, I define grinding as being able to outplay your opponent from a seemingly equal position and really putting pressure and managing to get the most of your positions.”

-GM Jon Ludwig Hammer 

In his video, Why Magnus Will Defend His World Championship Title, Hammer analyzes Carlsen vs. Karjakin at Tata Steel in 2013, starting from a position the computer evaluates as equal on the 15th move. Watch how Carlsen carefully improves his pieces, emphasizing his bishop pair, and induces weaknesses in the Karjakin's position, until he has an overwhelming advantage. Here is the game:

[pgn][Event "Tata Steel-A 75th"] [Site "Wijk aan Zee"] [Date "2013.01.20"] [Round "8"] [White "Carlsen, Magnus"] [Black "Karjakin, Sergey"] [Result "1-0"] [ECO "A11"] [WhiteElo "2861"] [BlackElo "2780"] [SetUp "1"] [FEN "r2q1rk1/1p2bppp/2p5/p2n4/3p4/P2P1BP1/1PQBPP1P/1R3RK1 b - - 0 15"] [PlyCount "154"] [EventDate "2013.01.12"] [EventType "tourn"] [EventRounds "13"] [EventCountry "NED"] [EventCategory "20"] [Source "ChessBase"] [SourceDate "2013.03.14"]15... Qd7 16. Rfc1 Rfe8 17. Qc4 Nc7 18. h4 a4 19. Bb4 Nb5 20. Kg2 h6 21. Bc5 g6 22. Qb4 Bf6 23. Qd2 Kg7 24. Rc4 Ra6 25. Qd1 b6 26. Bb4 c5 27. Bd2 Nc7 $1 28. Rcc1 Nd5 29. Qh1 $5 {"An original way to cast some doubt over the advance of Black's queenside pawns. The d5-knight has lost some of his stability." -GM Marin} Be7 30. Kg1 Rd8 31. Rc2 Qe6 32. Qg2 Ra7 33. Re1 Rad7 34. Kh2 Rc8 35. Qh3 Qxh3+ 36. Kxh3 h5 37. Rb1 Ra8 38. Kg2 Ra6 39. b3 axb3 40. Rxb3 {"The white rooks are trying to get at this pawn on b6. However, the pawn on b6, for the moment, is well-defended. The computer now thinks White is marginally better." -GM Hammer} Bf6 41. Rc4 Rd6 42. Kf1 Kf8 43. a4 {Trying to undermine the c5-pawn's defender (the b6-pawn). "The fewer pawns there are on the board, the stronger the bishop pair becomes." -GM Hammer} Nc3 $6 44. Bf4 Re6 45. e3 Nxa4 46. Bd5 $1 Re7 47. Bd6 b5 48. Bxe7+ Bxe7 49. Rxb5 Nb6 50. e4 Nxc4 51. Rb8+ Kg7 52. Bxc4 Ra7 53. f4 Bd6 54. Re8 Rb7 55. Ra8 Be7 56. Kg2 Rb1 57. e5 {Hammer concludes, explaining that "Even though material is equal, White managed to get a way superior position. We can see the difference in strength between the white bishop and the black bishop." And Carlsen went on to went after another 35 moves.} Re1 58. Kf2 Rb1 59. Re8 Bf8 60. Rc8 Be7 61. Ra8 Rb2+ 62. Kf3 Rb1 63. Bd5 Re1 64. Kf2 Rd1 65. Re8 Bf8 66. Bc4 Rb1 67. g4 $5 hxg4 68. h5 Rh1 $2 $18 69. hxg6 fxg6 70. Re6 Kh6 71. Bd5 Rh2+ 72. Kg3 Rh3+ 73. Kxg4 Rxd3 74. f5 Re3 75. Rxg6+ Kh7 76. Bg8+ Kh8 77. Kf4 Rc3 78. f6 d3 79. Ke3 c4 80. Be6 Kh7 81. Bf5 Rc2 82. Rg2+ Kh6 83. Rxc2 dxc2 84. Bxc2 Kg5 85. Kd4 Ba3 86. Kxc4 Bb2 87. Kd5 Kf4 88. f7 Ba3 89. e6 Kg5 90. Kc6 Kf6 91. Kd7 Kg7 92. e7 1-0[/pgn]

“In static positions (and especially in endgame positions where not many tactics can be found), Carlsen has a huge edge thanks to his trademark squeeze.” -GM Gregory Serper, "Carlsen vs. Karjakin: The Final Countdown"




According to Karjakin himself, counterattack is one of his main strengths, and he’s hoping to utilize it during the match: 

"If he tries too hard, I can beat him on the counterattack. That's my plan."

-Karjakin, "Russian grandmaster aims to dethrone chess king Carlsen"

To demonstrate Karjakin's counter-attacking skills, GM Gregory Serper, in "Carlsen vs. Karjakin: The Final Countdown", looks at the following blitz game, Carlsen-Karjakin, Tal Memorial Blitz 2008. After Carlsen's 24. e5 pawn thrust, Karjakin is able to activate his pieces and take control of the position.

[pgn][Event "Moscow Tal Memorial Blitz"] [Site "Moscow"] [Date "2008.08.29"] [Round "11"] [White "Carlsen, Magnus"] [Black "Karjakin, Sergey"] [Result "0-1"] [ECO "A29"] [WhiteElo "2775"] [BlackElo "2727"] [SetUp "1"] [FEN "r6k/1p1rnbpp/1qp2p2/p7/3NP3/P1Q3P1/1P3PBP/2RR2K1 w - - 0 24"] [PlyCount "30"] [EventDate "2008.08.29"] [EventType "tourn (blitz)"] [EventRounds "34"] [EventCountry "RUS"] [EventCategory "20"] [Source "ChessBase"] [SourceDate "2008.11.05"]24. e5 fxe5 25. Nf3 Nd5 26. Qxe5 Re8 27. Qf5 Rde7 28. Rd2 Bg6 29. Qh3 Re2 30. Rxe2 Rxe2 31. Qc8+ Re8 32. Qg4 Qxb2 33. Re1 Rf8 34. h4 Qxa3 35. h5 Bf5 36. Qg5 h6 37. Qh4 Qb4 38. Qh2 Bg4 0-1[/pgn]

However, Carlsen also has confidence in his ability to counter-attack at the optimum moment:

"I can’t count the times I have lagged seemingly hopelessly far behind, and nobody except myself thinks I can win. But I have pulled myself in from desperate [situations]. When you are behind there are two strategies – counter-attack or all men to the defenses. I’m good at finding the right balance between those."



Will Power:


Both players are known are their immense will power, and this may turn out to be the deciding factor: Who can maintain their highest level of chess and make rational game decisions despite the strain and pressure of a World Championship match? It can be especially stressful to play against the same opponent day in and day out:

"You see, in a match there are no other competitors, no outsiders and a chessplayer cannot plan in advance from whom he will win without fail, with whom a draw will be sufficient and (as often happens!) to whom it will not be shameful to lose. The cost of each point in a match in comparison with a tournament grows twofold: if one chessplayer wins, then his rival automatically loses, and therefore match games always evoke a greater feeling of responsibility." -Mikhail Tal, Tal-Botvinnik (1960)

Will Karjakin be able to bring out the iron nerves that he showed at the 2015 World Cup?

Will Carlsen show the same determination to win that he had at Bilbao Masters this year, where he recovered from his first ever loss to Hikaru Nakamura by going on to win more games in the tournament than every other player combined?


Carlsen vs. Karjakin: Who Will Prevail?

"I still think he can be beaten. No one is unbeatable."

-Sergey Karjakin, "Russian grandmaster aims to dethrone chess king Carlsen"

"Some people think that if their opponent plays a beautiful game, it's OK to lose. I don't. You have to be merciless."

-Magnus Carlsen

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