Well, that was interesting – a 16-move draw in the first game of the Championship match.
It was a Reti (an opening I suggested was quite likely, but frankly I didn’t expect it in Game 1) turned Fianchetto Grunfeld, but one that was quite harmless after the shockingly ignored 9…dxc4! 10.bxc4 Nb6 after the following position was reached:
r2q1rk1/pp1nppbp/2p2np1/3p1b2/2PP4/1PN2NP1/PB2PPBP/R2Q1RK1 b - - 0 9)
After the subsequent 11.c5 Nc4 12.Bc1 Nd5 13.Qb3 Na5 14.Qa3 Nc4 15.Qb3 the game was drawn with one more repetition:
r2q1rk1/pp2ppbp/2p3p1/2Pn1b2/2nP4/1QN2NP1/P3PPBP/R1B2RK1 b - - 0 13)
Looking at the game on my own before reading the player comments and notes (I don’t stay up for these games given they only start at 1:30 AM Pacific time), I thought that 13…b5 was one option and that after 13…Na5 14.Qa3, 14…b6 was another option to keep playing. And on my own, I was inclined to believe that 13…b5 was the better option, but in fact, it seems to be the …b6 plan that is better.
Essentially after 13…b5, White should play 14.cxb6 (e.p.) Na5 15.Qb2! axb6 16.e4 (Anand said he thought 16.Ne5 would hold the balance, but 16…Be6 then seems to preserve some plus, but not that much) Nxc3 17.exf5 Bxd4 18.Nxd4 Qxd4 19.Bg5 with more than enough compensation in my view.
r4rk1/4pp1p/1pp3p1/n4PB1/3q4/2n3P1/PQ3PBP/R4RK1 b - - 0 19)
Black’s up a pawn, but with two bishops, an open position, and no obvious tactical shots with the knights, my initial assessment would be that it’s going to be tough to secure any long-term plus. This isn’t my computer’s first line, but it looks human enough and if guided along this path, Houdini begins to conclude that Black has no realistic shot at an advantage here.
However, with 13…Na5 14.Qa3 (?! in my view, but more on this later) b6!, Black has a more serious chance at an advantage. Admittedly, it’s not easy to prove, but with Houdini’s help, I think there’s something.
(a) On either 15.e3 or 15.Re1, I think Black’s plan should be a typical one in this setup – get the central light squares with 15…Nxc3 16.Qxc3 Be4 followed by 17…Qd5. There are plans of …e5 and so on then.
(b) 15.Ne5 is not one that I cracked on my own: 15…Nc4! 16.Nxc4 Nxc3 17.e3 (the d4-pawn needs to be protected) Ne2+ 18.Kh1 Nxd4!! 19.exd4 Qxd4 20.Nb2 bxc5 and Black is clearly better – a piece down, but there’s no way for White to untangle.
r4rk1/p3ppbp/2p3p1/2p2b2/3q4/Q5P1/PN3PBP/R1B2R1K w - - 0 21)
This could have been avoided though with 14.Qb2! instead, which after 14…b6, allows a transposition into the 13…b5 lines with 15.cxb6 axb6 16.e4 and so on.
The 16-move draw has already raised the usual commotion from the peanut gallery. But the game to me seems to be a decent start, with some positives for both players.
For Magnus, the positives can be limited to (1) he’s got the first game nerves out of the way and (2) that Anand didn’t quite calculate the …b6 lines to the exact conclusion of a computer.
For Anand, the positives are more numerous I think: (1) he too will have gotten the first-game jitters out of the way; (2) he got an easy draw with Black; (3) as the older, less fit, player, he’ll have conserved some energy, despite Magnus’s team explicitly saying part of their strategy would be to expose his fitness and stamina; and (4) that despite one of Magnus’s seconds having had the position after 8…Nbd7 in one of his own games recently, they hadn’t looked at this …dxc4 and …Nb6 plan somehow.
Just for comparison, Kramnik played the Exchange Slav in Game 1 versus Anand, something that was very unlikely to have been his main preparation. So first-game jitters after months of not playing a serious game is probably typical even for a battle-hardened (or weary?) player..
I’d also point out that for all the chatter about how Carlsen plays to win with both colors, everybody would like to win with both colors. And against strong players (I put the cutoff at top-30 in the world for the London 2013 writeup), Carlsen typically scores a whopping 70% as white and “only” 54% as Black. Both those numbers lead the pack, but clearly for all his striving as Black, he’s not exactly winning so many games with that color. So getting one of Magnus’s whites out of the way is not a bad thing for Anand’s odds.
With one Reti out of the way, what are the odds of Magnus switching to 1.e4 in the next game … and consequently of a French showing up?! That’s really what I’m waiting to see.