Clutch Chess International Final: All square

by Carlos Alberto Colodro
6/14/2020 – The first half of the final hardly could have been more exciting, as Magnus Carlsen and Fabiano Caruana each collected four points after trading blows in the last four games of the day. The match started with two draws, and from that point each of the finalists scored two wins with white. Game 6 was the biggest thriller — Carlsen got a winning position out of the opening, erred in time trouble, and ended up conceding defeat. | Photo: Justin Kellar

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Trading blows

No previous match of the Clutch Chess International had reached half-time with a levelled score. The main event, however — in which the two highest-rated players in the world are facing off in the final — is now tied after six games.

Carlsen was consistently down on the clock, following the trend that began in the first events of the Magnus Carlsen Tour. The world champion had a better position in game 1 (which ended drawn) and got the lead twice on day one — first after game 3 and then after game 5. Caruana bounced back both times. However, the American grandmaster could have easily gone into day two trailing by four points, as Carlsen had a clearly superior position in the last encounter of the first half.

Caruana was mostly relieved after a tough day at the office:

Considering that I was never really in the lead today and I was sort of playing catch-up, it's very good to be on equal footing with him now.

On the other hand, Carlsen was very frustrated after losing that last game. He is not one to let such turns of fate to demoralize him though — especially when he feels he has been the stronger player in the match: 

I think I'm a better chess player, and I also think I'm playing better most of the time. I felt like in the last game he didn't really understand the essence of the position at all, and I got a winning position without any effort whatsoever — but, I mean, I gotta convert. Obviously he's a strong player, he fights incredibly well. 

The winner will be decided on Sunday, when six more games will be followed by blitz tiebreakers and Armageddon if the score remains tied.

Clutch Chess International 2020

Games 3-4: White wins

The first two games ended in draws — Carlsen missed a big chance to kick off the day with a win. In game 3, the world champion did not let his opponent escape though. He gained an edge in the early middlegame and found the right timing to play the kind of pawn breaks that are often included in strategy manuals:

 

White turned his positional trumps into a visible edge with 25.f5 gxf5 26.c4. The game continued 26...Nd4 27.Rxd4 Bxd4 28.Bxe8 Rxe8 29.Qxh5 and the black king is in deep trouble. Caruana resigned eight moves later.

While Carlsen responded to 1.e4 with 1...e5 in game 1, he would turn to the Sicilian in his next two encounters with black. In game 3, he held the initiative for a while, but when an endgame ensued it was Caruana who got the upper hand:

 

Black already needs to be very precise to keep the balance. Here, 42...Ne5 was called for, while Carlsen's 42...Kc6 gave way to 43.Nxh5 Rxh5 44.Rxg4 and the passer on the g-file decided the game in White's favour.

Two clutch games, each worth two points, were yet to be played, and the score remained tied.

Games 5-6: White wins, again

In the first clutch game of the day, Caruana played the Petroff Defence, a system that had served him well back in 2018, both before and during the London World Championship match. The world number two was under some pressure in the middlegame, but a great defensive effort allowed him to restore equality and enter a drawish queen endgame. As he explained afterwards, though, it was on him to be precise in order to hold the draw. And he faltered on move 44:

 

44...Qf4 would have kept an eye on the d4-pawn while pushing White to find a way to infiltrate with his queen. Caruana's 44...bxa5, on the other hand, opened up lines for Carlsen to create an imbalance — the game continued 45.Qa6+ Ke7 46.Qxa7 Kf6 47.Qxa5 Kg7 and 48.c4, starting to push the queenside passers. Soon after, Black threw in the towel.

Carlsen was two points up on the scoreboard, and quickly got the upper hand with some bold play out of a Sicilian Defence in game 6. However, he was spending way too much time on his clock.

Things came to a head on move 24, when Carlsen lost his advantage after his opponent played a move he was not expecting:

 

Caruana's 24.f6 posed White a question: how would he continue to make progress from his stronger position? Carlsen did not have a plan against this pawn push and, hurried by the clock, played 24...Bb5 allowing 25.a4 Ba6 26.Ng4. The world champion had not found the precise path forward in a complex position and, probably aware of what had just happened, faltered again with 26...Kb8:

 

White took the initiative with 27.Nxa6+ Nxa6 28.Nxe5, as Black cannot capture with 28...Qxe5 due to 29.Bf4. It was not all smooth sailing for Caruana from this point on, but he correctly decided to simplify into a winning endgame when he got the chance.

In the end, the American scored a crucial 54-move victory, which means he will go into day two with the momentum on his side.

  Total G1 G2 G3 G4 G5* G6* G7 G8 G9 G10 G11** G12**
Magnus Carlsen 4 ½ ½ 1 0 1 0            
Fabiano Caruana 4 ½ ½ 0 1 0 1            
*Games 5 and 6 are worth two points each
** Games 11 and 12 are worth three points each
 

Select an entry from the list to switch between games

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Carlos Colodro is a Hispanic Philologist from Bolivia. He works as a freelance translator and writer since 2012. A lot of his work is done in chess-related texts, as the game is one of his biggest interests, along with literature and music.

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