Caruana's first reaction

by Macauley Peterson
3/29/2018 – Moments after winning the Candidates tournament, Fabiano Caruana was waiting, alone, in the players' rest area adjacent to the playing hall. Macauley Peterson followed him, for his first comment after officially becoming the next challenger to Magnus Carlsen. Pictured leaving the board, you get the feeling that the full impact of his achievement has not yet set in. But that was about to change. | Photo: Niki Riga

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Moments of relief

Waiting for the outcome of the final game, the crowd on the ground floor of the Kuehlhaus thickened gradually. Mamedyarov had acquiesced to a draw with Kramnik a few moves earlier, leaving little room for doubt. It was only a matter of time. 

On Grischuk's move, Caruana paced the hall, periodically strolling to the far corner of the room where a monitor displayed the four games. On his own move, he looked concentrated, to be sure, but, despite being on the verge of the biggest win in his career, his stoic frame was basically indistinguishable from his appearance at any other moment of any other game.

He played 48...h4 and casually adjusted the two empty Isklar water bottles at the edge of the table into a neat line. As his winning advantage grew, the outcome became more and more certain. 

Caruana round 14

Move 61, just eight moves before the end of Caruana's huge last round win | Photo: Niki Riga

When the final handshake came, there was sustained applause for 45 seconds (abbreviated in the clip below). Juergen Brustkern, an FM who was covering the event for the Austrian magazine Schach-aktiv, had been waiting for the game's conclusion and draped an American flag over Caruana's shoulders. 

Caruana retreated to the players' area behind black curtains — "backstage" from the central arena where the games were played. It was a warmly lit room with comfortable seating, coffee and tea, and a variety of snacks. Vladimir Kramnik was there, having waited for his teammate Alexander Grischuk, who rounded the corner soon thereafter, and the pair promptly left. 

Caruana was expected upstairs presently, to close out the official live webcast with a winner's press conference, but we had a few minutes to chat while final preparations were being made. He was remarkably calm. Outwardly you would not know that he had just achieved a crucial piece of a lifelong dream. 

Fabiano Caruana's talks to Macauley Peterson moments after winning the Candidates 2018

Macauley:  You’re going to play a World Championship match. How does it feel? 

Fabiano Caruana: Good. It feels great. I couldn’t have expected it to go any better. Even before today I was not at all sure — with the lead but — I mean everything went perfectly today.

MP:  All the cards fell into place — the other results.

FC: Yeah, I wasn’t even nervous at some point because I missed the time trouble phase of Kramnik’s game and when I saw the game after move 40 it was already going to be a draw and so I could kind of play without any pressure. It’s nice. And of course I could offer a draw at any time.

MP:  But you didn’t. You stuck it out.

FC: Yeah, I mean I’m winning I thought. After time control I thought that it would be a draw but he couldn’t really consolidate and so I thought it would be a shame to not play this position at least.

MP:  There were definitely some tense moments.

FC: Yeah, there were. After I lost to Karjakin I was almost sure I wouldn’t win the tournament, but somehow it worked out. 

MP: And Grischuk didn’t offer a draw at any point either. You would have declined it. 

FC: When Shakh [Mamedyarov] was still playing I thought — just in case something happened — I should play on. And after it was done his position was already losing so I don’t think he thought about offering a draw and I didn’t really think about it either. 

Fabiano Caruana against Grischuk

Caruana played it cool against Grischuk in the final round and won the biggest prize of his career | Photo: Niki Riga

MP:  In the last moments, was it hard to contain your emotions about being the first American to become a World Championship challenger in decades. 

FC: I was just worried — it would be the worst way to not qualify if I’d blundered something at the end, in a completely winning position. So I was just double-checking everything. But yeah, I didn’t really think about the historical importance of it. For me, it’s just the most important thing. Last time I was close and this time somehow I managed to do it.

MP:  What do you think the difference was between the two? 

FC: This time I was just much better prepared. Last time I came to the tournament and I just wasn’t prepared and somehow I only got as far as I did because I was fighting very hard. I was also very lucky — I could have lost so many games, against Svidler, against Anish — I could have been out of contention long before the end. And this time it went well from the start. And then I had a rocky patch of a few games, but it was clear that this time I was in better shape, more prepared, and more ready to actually try to win it. Last time I don’t think I was really, before the tournament, thinking that I would win, and here I had some sort of belief that I had a good chance. 

MP:  You implied that the loss [to Karjakin] took a little bit of the pressure off of being the leader in some way. 

FC: Yeah, that loss was very important for me. 

MP:  How did you prepare for this final game. You ended up going with the Petroff, you want to try to keep some chances alive. 

FC: I thought that, statistically, my best chance will be if I should make a draw, because, of course, Karjakin could win, Mamedyarov could win but he’s black against Kramnik — you don’t win this game every day. Ding hasn’t lost a single game. So, I thought that if I drew I would have maybe a 60 or 65% chance, and if I play something crazy then I might have a 60 or 65% chance of losing the game, which would completely ruin it. And I also thought he would play a game, we would get something, and it would be some sort of fight. I mean I didn’t expect him to trade all the pieces off or something, and if he did I wouldn’t be upset. If he makes a draw and somehow I don’t qualify it’s just bad luck. 

MP:  But it seemed to work like a charm actually.  

FC: Yeah, I got a game, and I was comfortable after the opening, and it worked out. 

[At this point, I gestured to the American flag which Caruana had deposited on a chair nearby.]

MP:  I wonder how he had the idea to bring the flag. 

FC: I’ve known that guy for like 18 years or so. He played in the First Saturday tournaments back when I was a kid. I would go to Budapest to play in the First Saturday tournaments and he was there. He was a player, and we played like five games or so. I mean, I don’t know where he got an American flag.

MP:  I guess anywhere you can get an American flag.  

FC: Yeah, he came prepared. 

MP:  But you had no idea. It must have been a funny surprise. 

FC: No, I saw it near the end of the game, I glanced in that direction and I saw a flag, and I was really surprised.

MP:  You had some warning when he’d put it over himself.


At this point, a World Chess staff member wearing a headset, who was communicating with the team upstairs, approached and motioned that they were ready for Fabiano up on the fourth floor, where the press and fans were waiting for Caruana to give his final press conference. 

As we walked to the elevator someone passing said, "good luck against Magnus".

"Thank you", Fabiano replied.

I guess he's going to hear that a lot from now on. 

Caruana's last press conference

Remarks at the closing ceremony

Fabiano Caruana: It's such an honour to be here, celebrating the biggest success of my chess carer. This is a dream come true for me, and something which I've worked very very long and very hard for. And still it doesn't quite feel real, but it's just an amazing feeling. 

I didn't get here alone, I had a lot of help from a lot of people and so I'd like to thank them. I'd like to thank, first of all, my family for supporting me throughout the tournament and also throughout my entire life. And my close friends — I've had so many who supported me before the tournament and during the tournament — and it really helped me. I'd also like to thank my coach, who's here, Rustam Kasimdzhanov. He's helped me for many years now and it's very important that he was also here helping me. And finally, I'd like to thank World Chess for hosting the event, for organising it and for doing their best to make the players feel as comfortable as possible. 

Caruana and Zaragatski

Caruana gets the microphone from the night's Master of Ceremonies, GM Ilja Zaragatski, who also hosted the official German commentary | Photo: Niki Riga


Macauley served as the Editor in Chief of ChessBase News from July 2017 to March 2020. He is the producer of The Full English Breakfast chess podcast, and was an Associate Producer of the 2016 feature documentary, Magnus.


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