Carlsen vs Caruana: Looking back and looking ahead

by Conrad Schormann
9/9/2018 – The World Championship match between Magnus Carlsen and Fabiano Caruana in London will begin in exactly two months on November 9th, and their last direct encounter before the match in London was at the Sinquefield Cup 2018 in Saint Louis. Together they won the tournament along with Levon Aronian. They drew each other, although Carlsen was close to winning. What does that mean for the World Championship in London? CONRAD SCHORMANN looks for answers, and you can have your say in our poll! | Graphic: World Chess

Master Class Vol.8: Magnus Carlsen Master Class Vol.8: Magnus Carlsen

Scarcely any world champion has managed to captivate chess lovers to the extent Carlsen has. The enormously talented Norwegian hasn't been systematically trained within the structures of a major chess-playing nation such as Russia, the Ukraine or China.


Onward to London

As the World Championship match in London approaches, Magnus Carlsen can feel Fabiano Caruana breathing down his neck. For six years Carlsen has been the number one on the rating list but had Fabiano Caruana won his direct encounter with Carlsen in round seven of the Sinquefield Cup 2018 in Saint Louis he would have been the new number one on the live rating list, and presumably also the September FIDE list.

Carlsen sketch by Willum Morsch

No wonder the last game between C&C before their match in London was a nervy affair. "There was a lot at stake today. I was a bit nervous," admitted Carlsen after the game; a game that showed that the World Champion is able to play his best when under pressure — at least for 26 moves.

Now he has to work on keeping the tension high before the opponent admits defeat. In Saint Louis, he failed to do so — and in spectacular fashion. When he was close to winning against Caruana, Carlsen decided to enter the "Confessional" to go live on air to send a message to his critics to shut up. He did so with a gesture that is quite common in professional sport but has never been seen before in the history of chess.

Right: Carlsen as seen by Willum Morsch (@WillumTM on Twitter)

Carlsen endeavouring to silence his critics?

However, when returning from the "Confessional" things no longer went smoothly. Carlsen lost his way, missed the almost winning move 27.f5-f6, and allowed Caruana to save his neck.


The position was ripe for 27.f6 Nd5 28.Ng4 g6 29.c4 with a solid white edge

To bring a confident and optimistic mood to the board in London, Caruana and Carlsen will both try to focus on what was good for them in their recent encounters. Both will find a lot. Carlsen will be optimistic because he was on top of Caruana in their most recent games, Caruana will like that he managed to draw two of the three games he might have lost and that, all in all, he has played at least on the same level as Carlsen — if not better.

After winning two World Championship matches against Viswanathan Anand, Carlsen enjoyed the reputation of being a patient and ruthless finisher who will bring the game home, and who basically forces his opponents to collapse if he manages to build up and to sustain just a little bit of pressure. Recently he seemed to have lost this ability but in Saint Louis, he might have found it again.

Caruana sketch by Willum Morsch

Though he lost his grip on the game against Caruana, two long wins against Nakamura and Karjakin helped Carlsen to win the tournament together with Caruana and Aronian.

But Carlsen was unhappy about his pragmatism which actually is a hallmark of his style. The position from the game against Caruana in which he could have cashed in with 27.f6! is, in a way, similar to a position from a game against Wojtaszek played in May 2018. In this game Carlsen played his own version of a Sicilian and saw the winning move 18.Nd5! but preferred a solid move which kept the pressure instead of spending a lot of time searching for a possible immediate win. Against Wojtaszek, this approach to shy away from concrete play worked, against Caruana it gave the game away.

Above: Caruana as seen by Willum Morsch

Or, as Grandmaster Jonathan Tisdall put it on his blog last week:

Magnus did what he used to do best, use absolutely every atom of possibility in every position, and just pose too many problems. While it was encouraging that this power has returned, he will almost certainly need to produce a little bit more in terms of problems vs. Caruana. One cannot count on trouble at the molecular level being enough to wear down the challenger.

Recently Caruana has had considerable difficulties against Carlsen but all in all, Caruana had a fantastic 2018. Even at the Altibox Norway tournament in Stavanger where Carlsen had homecourt advantage and Caruana lost in their direct encounter, he still managed to finish ahead of the World Champion.

Carlsen-Caruana, Altibox 2018


GM Daniel King analysis Round 1 of Norway Chess

The Reliable Petroff

The Petroff (or Russian) Defence which is characterised by the moves 1.e4 e5 2.Nf3 Nf6 has been popular at the highest levels for many years and enjoys the reputation of being an extremely solid defence.

The last clash before the match

Will we see further Petroff debates in London? At any rate, it will be World Championship match in which the number one and the number two of the world battle it out — the first such match in decades. And before the Candidates Tournament in Berlin it was even an open question who is the world's number two and if there's a clear number two at all. But in the last six months, Caruana has answered this question convincingly. If Caruana now finds a way to avoid getting regularly into trouble against Carlsen and stops the tactical mistakes that sometimes plague him he may well be the new number one at the end of November.


Caruana and Carlsen will each have one more tournament before the November match. Caruana plays board one for the top-seeded USA team at the Batumi Olympiad starting September 23rd. There he will not only face strong opposition, providing a good warmup for the match, but the American team is also defending their 2016 Olympiad gold in Baku, this time as the Elo favourites.

Carlsen decided to give the Olympiad a pass but he will compete in the European Club Cup, beginning October 12th, in Halkidiki, Greece, for the Norwegian team Valerenga, ranked sixth.

So, what do you think? Will Carlsen's match experience prove decisive, or will Caruana's solid 2018 form give him the edge? Two months out...


Poll closes on September 17th at midnight UT


Conrad Schormann, skilled newspaper editor, runs an agency for editing and communication in Überlingen, at Lake Constance. But he lacks time to play chess which is partly due to the fact that he very much likes to write about it, for Chessbase, in the Reddit chess forum, or for his chess teaching blog Perlen vom Bodensee...


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genem genem 9/15/2018 10:56
At the end of the 2016 M.Carlsen - S.Karjakin Match World Chess Championship (MWCChamp) match, there was talk that we should eliminate speed/Blitz games as the tie-breaker, and return to a modified version of the 1950's era tie-odds for the defending champion. The modification idea was to add one more game (a 13th game), wherein the challenger would get the white pieces.
Unfortunately, all the animated discussion of this idea occurred in the days immediately after the 2016 match, and no further discussion seems to have occurred in the early days of planning the upcoming M.Carlsen - F.Caruana Nov 2018 MWCChamp match.
Keshava Keshava 9/10/2018 05:23
Finally we have a match between the #1 and #2 players in the world! If they can't find enough sponsors to make this at least as lucrative for the players as was Fischer - Spaasky 1992 then they need to hire someone who can. o.k. rating is deceptive since Caruana can peak at certain events and then outperform his rating expectation. For instance did he not recently win a rapid playoff with Wesley So who is higher rated in rapid? Also, do we know of any chess playing entity (besides an engine) that can go 7 -0 in the strongest tournament ever held? Against Taimanov and Larsen Fischer would get up to 3 - 0 and then of course the matches were basically over and then Taimanov and Larsen probably couldn't care less - Fischer did because he was nuts. However Fischer was in a different class than Taimanov and Larsen - Caruana wasn't in a different class when he did what he did - he just managed to peak for that event and play like an engine. IF he manages to do that against Carlsen then we would have a new world champ - decided in the classical. Understand that this whole match depends on which Caruana shows up. If he decides to turn into an engine again then you might hear this scary stuff: "He's not making a mistake"– Those were Maxime Vachier-Lagrave's words when describing Fabiano Caruana's play in the 2014 Sinquefield Cup. "I've never seen this. I've never even seen Carlsen play so well."
fons3 fons3 9/10/2018 04:15
@ Ty Riprock: or maybe he'll be a Kramnik. ;)
fons3 fons3 9/10/2018 04:10

Some quotes from this article on "The Deloitte/FIDE Chess Rating Challenge, a worldwide contest to determine the most accurate rating algorithm for predicting chess game outcomes,"

"As expected, there was a wide variety of methodologies used. It wouldn’t be nearly good enough to just use the Elo system, or other well-known approaches such as Mark Glickman's Glicko algorithm or my own Chessmetrics formula. You would need an artificial intelligence "machine learning" algorithm that could search through N-dimensional space, using “stochastic gradient descent” to hunt for the set of ratings that minimized your error. Or you needed to use what is called an “ensemble” approach, combining dozens of simplistic rating calculations and other indicators, and allowing the computer to search for the most effective way to combine the simple indicators into a complex and effective predictive system."

"My model wasn’t a rating system because a rating is a weak predictor. To my knowledge, Shirov never beat Kasparov, even though their ratings were close enough, hence it will not work to try predicting a score for a Shirov vs. Kasparov or Shirov vs. Kramnik game from the same ratings."

"This type of contest is based upon the fundamental premise that "predictive power" is useful in a chess rating system. This is a concept that many people have a big problem with, insisting that ratings are only supposed to describe what has already happened, and are not intended to predict anything about the future."

"we find that the Winners’ Ensemble method is much more likely to make a better prediction than the Elo method for everyone’s final score:"

"And it is clear that whether you are predicting the final standings in each tournament, or evaluating each game independently, the top finishers have developed rating systems that are far more accurate at predicting future outcomes than the Elo system"
lajosarpad lajosarpad 9/10/2018 12:11
I am convinced that after the match the world champion's name will start with Car...
Ty Riprock Ty Riprock 9/9/2018 07:28
At this point, Carlsen has the best one-on-one record with almost every potential opponent except Giri [who hasn't net him in as many of the elite events lately]. So did Lasker v Capablanca. Capa v Alekhine, Spassky v Fischer . . . this is the closest match by rating in history. Carlsen hasn't exactly dominated matches. He went to tiebreak v Karjakin; in his second match with Anand, if Vishy didn't overlook the chance to win the Exchange by knight fork, the match is suddenly even late. Caruana has no real match experience. Will he prove to be a Kasparov who thrived in match play, or an Ivanchuk whose nerves kept him from the pinnacle? We shall see . . .
pulern pulern 9/9/2018 07:16
Nice article but I would like to add a couple of points:

It might be a mistake to put to much into the last tournament and encounter as any results here are more likely to be due to variance than anything else. I would argue that is better to look at long term rating trends.
The gap between Carlsen and Caruana (and for that matter the rest of the absolute elite) has slowly been diminishing over the last couple of years. So Carlsen is probably less of a favorite against Caruana, than what he was against Anand or Karjakin.
According to the live ratings the chance of either player winning the match during the first 12 games:
-Carlsen: 48%
-Caruana: 34%
-Draw: 18%

The last 18% is however a huge advantage for Carlsen, as Caruana plays relatively much weaker at faster time controls. If the live rating list is an accurate reflection of playing strength, then the chance of either player winning the match (tie-break or no tie break):
-Carlsen: 64%
-Caruana: 36%

regards, Paul
TomE57ach TomE57ach 9/9/2018 05:29
It WILL be close.