Kramnik: "Magnus needs to get rid of this fear of losing the title"

by Macauley Peterson
11/28/2018 – Former World Champion Vladimir Kramnik is one of many grandmasters and chess fans crestfallen at the string of twelve draws we have witnessed over the past three weeks. He thinks Magnus Carlsen is still the favourite in the tiebreak (60%/40%) but that Caruana has won over a lot of fans, and if he has a good tiebreak match strategy worked out in advance, and makes use of his chances, he can win. | Photos: World Chess

My Path to the Top My Path to the Top

On this DVD Vladimir Kramnik retraces his career from talented schoolboy to World Champion in 2006. With humour and charm he describes his first successes, what it meant to be part of the Russian Gold Medal team at the Olympiad, and how he undertook the Herculean task of beating his former mentor and teacher Garry Kasparov.


Vladimir Kramnik on the match

The 14th World Champion has himself been involved in a World Championship tiebreak — the first one after the rule was instituted which decided his 2006 match against Veselin Topalov. On Tuesday, he weighed in on questions about the match as a whole, specifically on game 12, and what to look for in Wednesday's tiebreak.

Who has the best chance?

"Magnus is the favourite in this tiebreak but you never know. You shouldn’t underestimate Fabiano — he’s not a bad rapid chess player at all. It’s not his strongest point but he’s strong enough to give a serious fight and even to win under circumstances. I would rate chances at 60/40 but not more…It was a very respectable performance in any case [for Caruana]."

On his disappointment in Magnus' handling of the match:


"It could have been a fantastic great match with a lot of tension. If Magnus had been in a more fighting mood it could have been one of the greatest matches ever in chess.

When you want to win, you concentrate and usually you find a way in a winning position. It’s nothing to do with chess it’s more that you are eager to find a way. This kind of energy, winning energy, he was missing. It was so simple in the first game already. He played very well and then when it was already just practically given — it was very easy — he started to make some strange decisions. It was a reflection of his not perfect state of mind for the match.

Even if he wins the tiebreak, it’s a very equal match, there is absolutely no proof that he is any better than Fabiano. Of course not worse also, but it’s something quite important to show that I’m world champion that I’m really the best player."

On Game 12

"I understand that he was happy with a draw before the game. That’s normal. But when you’ve got a position that’s one-sided…it was practically winning — how can you not try to grab this chance? All of a sudden you’ve got a great chance, you have to go for it. Even if you’re happy for a draw you’ve got to play for a win if the position allows it.

There was no risk. If you don’t want to take the slightest risk, you shouldn’t play because you can always blunder a piece, but if you don’t make any bad blunder there was no risk at all. And a blunder you can make anywhere — in rapid chess for example.

Even the final position if you just play until the time control, humanly it looks extremely unpleasant for white. Even the final move [31...]Ra8 is the worst time to offer a draw because White has a very difficult decision to make right now and he was already short of time."


"The decisions are quite difficult for White because Black has a clear plan, as I understand, he wants to play Ra6, Rfa8 and then probably a3, b3, Rb6 and tactics will come. So White has to really think what he should do and he has little time on the clock and a lot of tactical motifs are possible. He can go at some point Qa3 but then some Rb8 and b5 can be coming — b5 a very serious issue as well. In the worst case, White manages everything and he just builds a fortress. OK, a fortress draw.

Maybe it’s too strong to say a “nervous breakdown” but he just couldn’t hold the pressure of the game. In this particular position, you just cannot do it as a practical player…In my opinion, even in the last position, the chances of him winning are quite high.

I cannot imagine him doing this a few years ago."

The key to the tiebreak

Kramnik thinks the most important factor will be how the players manage to control their nerves, and adopt the right psychological approach for the circumstances, as the match develops.

"It’s very important, first of all, to get this drive to win — this small but needed [nervousness] to be alert fully, to be a bit nervous — not too much — but to be in this kind of very energetic state of mind."

The chief difficulty for Caurana, as Kramnik sees it, is to find his rhythm and to prevent himself from falling too far behind on the clock. Time management in rapid and blitz is one of Carlsen's strengths.Caruana

Openings are more important for Fabiano:

“It’s very important to get his types of positions. It’s quite clear that some positions which are not really his type or he didn’t study well enough, he might start to go wrong — like the last game — he takes a lot of time and he cannot find the best setup of pieces. Magnus is usually better at this. In almost any type of position, he can manage quite quickly to get the deep sense of it. For Fabi, it’s more difficult."

What is very important for both players, but especially for Fabiano today, is to have a very well thought out plan for what he’s going to do [in various cases that may arise in the match.]" 

In other words, Caruana needs to have worked out how to respond whether he's ahead or behind or the match is even, and have opening weapons, and the ability to adjust his relative risk-taking / risk-aversion accordingly. It's much easier if you have mapped out a plan in your mind in advance rather than have to make tough decisions on the fly.

"For Fabi, he’s not the favourite and in order to win he needs to use all his chances. He needs to make everything perfect — which is not impossible — but this required deep preparation.

Magnus just needs to get rid of this fear of losing the title. Otherwise, he doesn’t have to do much." 

Kramnik observed how Caruana has struggled with White, and suggest that for the tiebreak he will either need to find some new concrete ideas or else to make some more radical change. With Black he’s been fine — no changes needed there. 

"It’s clear that he’s not going to win the tiebreak unless he can turn White in his favour…he needs to put at least pressure — to win he has to pose problems, and not just sit there and defend." 

The way Game 12 ended helps Caruana:

"Frankly, I believe that Fabi already thought that the tiebreak would not happen. It’s a big relief that you got a chance at least. I’m pretty sure he was ready for the worst in this game. For Magnus, I don’t think it will change that much. He got what he wanted, he got a draw.

I can see that it turned the publicvery significantly in favour of Caruana. Most of the public will be for him, rooting for him. I think it actually helps. You cannot explain it scientifically, but like the advantage of the home field is very significant in football…psychologically it’s helpful, because he got more supporters. More people want him to win than before game 12.

Fabi is fighting well. He just cannot get the grip on the opponent, but at least he is doing his best and he is trying hard, he’s fighting and nothing critical can be said about him. He does what he can and he’s doing it with honour.

Reactions from the Twitterverse

Opinions were split on whether Carlsen's strategy makes sense, though he certainly came in for a fair bit of criticism on balance, not just for the sporting decision itself, but also for the optics — the impact on how chess is perceived by the wider chess-interested public.

Time for a reality check

Magnus has an opportunity, win, lose or draw, for great self-awareness:

"Whatever will be the result of the match he should start to think a little bit, to ask himself a few questions: Why does he play chess? Does he really enjoy it? What does he want in chess?

Carlsen ponders

It seems like he just wants to keep his title and to get rid of this match somehow.

I understand it might sound harsh, but I think I have a right as least as a [former World Champion] that it was really wrong — wrong in a human sense — in a chess sense as well, he had no risk and he was still better and he had a fair chance to win this game if he would have continued. But wrong in a higher sense. We know that Magnus is a big fighter. He was always playing until the end, always ready to fight, and that’s one reason why he has so many friends and admirers all over the world. Yesterday, I think he lost quite a lot of it. Not only that it’s a World Championship match — and there’s a responsibility to produce something, to fight — but also just for himself. It’s like a sign that something is wrong, and it doesn’t matter if he’s going to win the match or not.

In fact, I don’t even know what will be better for him as a person. Maybe losing wouldn’t be so bad now. It might give him time and the opportunity to rethink certain things. To me he is in the wrong direction…he needs to think deeply about certain global questions.

Of course, also chess lost a lot. It was quite a blow yesterday, this draw offer. People are very disappointed…Being World Champion is also a responsibility and somehow I think he was not doing right under the circumstances in any case. In all senses, it was a clear signal that something is wrong.


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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niceforkinmove niceforkinmove 12/5/2018 05:06
Does chessbase ever get tired of posting where people complain about the rules of chess? Agreed draws are part of the game, and taking or accepting one is up to the players.

I do however dislike the rules where people can angle to draw the match because tiebreaks involve a different game - speed chess. I would rather a drawn match just mean the champ retains the title. Im tired of sponsors trying to force feed fans speed chess. If speed chess tournaments are so popular with fans then why not just have them on their own and leave classical events alone? Answer: no one cares about speed chess events so they borrow from the interest in classical events.
imdvb_8793 imdvb_8793 12/3/2018 05:36
Petrarlsen, the problem isn't that Carlsen is a huge favorite against ANYONE in rapid and blitz, it's that Fabi is just not good at those at all, for a top player. Somebody like MVL or Naka, let's say, would have had very decent chances against Carlsen, to say the least, in any tiebreak. We need somebody like that to qualify for the next match, so that Carlsen will understand he can no longer be sure of being a clear favorite in tiebreaks, or fail to do so at his own peril...
sunnyside sunnyside 11/30/2018 11:11
Why is a draw by Fabi justified by saying he's putting a good fight? If Fabi was playing for a win while Magnus was playing as bad as his critics put it, wouldn't Fabi win?

I think the chess world championship contender can only be said to have played well if he win. Both condenders failed to win and for Magnus to offer a draw in game 12 was just a way to say he tried all he could in the past 11 games without a success and it was time to get to the next phase.

Kramnik should also note that the draw offer at game 12 was simply an acknowledgement that Fabiano was equally stronger in a classical time control. But still Fabi should consider winning in a classical format since it is his only obvious chance to dethrone Magnus, or the blame should directly go to him for failing in his only hope.
pipopalazzo pipopalazzo 11/30/2018 04:16
A possible solution could be that if the challenger ties the match 6-6, then the champion retains the title but must participate in the next cycle of candidates (a sort of provisional champion, or in other words, with suspended benefits).
Then, the two best players will come out for the next match for the world title.

This would force both players to try to risk a little more in their games.
nbeqo nbeqo 11/29/2018 11:48
Carlsen's response in the press conference says it all, " Gary and Vlad are entitled to their stupid opinion"!
Petrarlsen Petrarlsen 11/29/2018 06:25
@ lajosarpad: In my opinion, practically speaking (and I already wrote this somewhere on ChessBase before this match), with Carlsen as a World Champion, the Rapid and Blitz tiebreaks are more or less the equivalent of the "draw odds to the Champion" rule, and we have seen how one-sided yesterday's playoff was.

So my opinion is that Carlsen's draw offer was justified, as he obviously considered that drawing this last game meant that he was nearly certain to win one more World Championship.

By the way, I think that, in fact, the present format gives a bigger advantage to Carlsen as the "draw odds to the Champion" rule would: Carlsen's opponent is "lured by the system" to think he has a chance to win if he draws the classical part of the match, while, in fact, if he draws the classical games, it means more or less the end of the story for him. For example, if the "draw odds to the Champion" rule had been used for this World Championship, Caruana wouldn't have accepted Carlsen's draw offer in the 12th game (and would also perhaps have fought more in the 11th game), and he could have least have benefited from a blunder by Carlsen (which could have been possible with the increasing tension at the end of the "classical part" of the match). While, as he obviously thought that he had some chances in the playoff, he went into the playoff without fighting particularly hard in the last two games... and was duly completely crushed by Carlsen in the playoff. One more reason to suppress these Rapid and Blitz playoffs, in my opinion...
lajosarpad lajosarpad 11/29/2018 11:39
I understand that Carlsen thought he has better chances in a rapid tiebreak, but I would expect some backbone from the World Champion. Caruana fought bravely, but failed to beat Carlsen. Were he in a must win situation in the last game, he would have declined the draw offer and would have continued to play that inferior position, trying to muddy the waters. I do not agree with banning draw offers, but nevertheless the World Champion should be a noble person. Steinitz, when he lost his world championship title to Lasker made hurray for the new champion thrice. That kind of noble attitude should we see from the demigod of chess, Carlsen therefore should have played on in the last game not because some rule forces him to do so, but, because he feels responsible for his actions as a world champion.
michaelriber michaelriber 11/29/2018 09:07
It's not so much that Carlsen played cynically, made this one of the msot boring WC matches ever and took a big fat dump on classical chess because he figured tiebreaks would be his best chance of winning - he was obviously right about that. He didn't decide the format - FIDE should be criticized for allowing the WC to be decided in rapid/blitz games, not the player who took advantage of it.

The big problem with Carlsen as WC and the no. 1 ambassador for the game is that, unlike Caruana, Mamedyarov or Ding, he's just not a likeable person. Which is not something you can learn.
simonec simonec 11/29/2018 08:20
I'll not comment on Carlsen choice: in hindsight, as Carlsen himself told us, this is Sport and strategy is a part of it. In any case, it was not only him who decided about the draw: Caruana accepted that offer, didn't he? I concur that we would not have expected it, but surprise in life and chess are not necessarily a bad thing. :)

What I would like to comment about, is Susan Polgar's comment: remove the possibility to offer a draw!?! Does it make any sense? I mean, there are many ways to get to a draw, and this change would be totally ineffective, because you cannot take them all away . Chess is not like football, ping pong or anything else: we should not get a rule from other sports simply because it does work for them, or viceversa. Draws didn't decrease the value of the fight, therefore I do not understand why to act in a rush to change the rules.

That said, I would have been more happy if Caruana would have won the Championship, but life is like that: you take your beatings, you learn and improve, and you try again. And no matter if you lose again: you already won by standing up after the fall. Go Caruana!
Petrarlsen Petrarlsen 11/29/2018 01:57
@ Grandsleeper:

- "Since Carlsen could try to win the 12th game without any risk (...)"

"(...) without any risk (...)" is in my opinion quite exaggerated; Stockfish 8 at 31 plies gives a -0.56 evaluation, this in a middlegame position with nearly all the material on the board (only one pawn and one Knight are lacking for each player), this against a 2800+ player; we all know that in chess, all can happen, in particular in very tense situations (and what could be more tense that the last game of a World Championship match?), and, in my opinion, it would be impossible to say that Carlsen could have been 100% sure of at least saving a draw in this game.

- "But even if it were realistic that Carlsen would have wanted the tiebreak (regardless of his chances in the normal games), this attitude would also be a disgrace, because it would lift up rapid chess and blitz etc. to the preferred decision mode of the World Championship!"

I am quite opposed to Rapid and Blitz playoffs.

But, unlike you, I think that Carlsen's choice is one of the things which could have the more chances to end up in a new World Championship system without Rapid or Blitz tiebreaks, because my impression is that more and more people consider this as completely illogical: with Carlsen, half the time, the classical World Championship is decided in Rapid games (....and furthermore, this year, it isn't Carlsen, but Anand, who is the Rapid World Champion - what a mess...). Carlsen superiority in Rapid and Blitz games and his open choice of favoring the playoff highlights very clearly the lack of logic of the current system.
Grandsleeper Grandsleeper 11/29/2018 01:02
Since Carlsen could try to win the 12th game without any risk, it is not a logical argument to say "he valued his chances in the tiebreak higher".
But even if it were realistic that Carlsen would have wanted the tiebreak (regardless of his chances in the normal games), this attitude would also be a disgrace, because it would lift up rapid chess and blitz etc. to the preferred decision mode of the World Championship!
All in all, however, my clear impression is that this was a manipulation and that the tiebreak was wanted from the beginning of the match. There is no other way to explain the incidents of this match in a way that makes sense.
And it would be pathetic if now nobody would care any further about what happened! Meanwhile also the manipulative and criminal and perishable betting business finds its way into the world of top chess, which complements my impression only fittingly. So bye bye top chess, that's it, no more honest and real thing, done. Welcome to the age of extensive corruption!
Teoma Teoma 11/29/2018 12:54
I am quite surprised about Kramnik, Kasparov and others opinions. It seems Carlsen is more rational than they are.
If he thought the propability of winning game 12 is 95%, but the propability of beating Caruana in Rapid and Blitz is 98%, then he was right.
Bravo Carlsen !
Konigspringer Konigspringer 11/29/2018 12:11
My take on the situation is that the challenger needs to defeat the world champion to take the title. The champion only has to defend his title in order to retain it. This is how it has always been. To suggest that the challenger only has to draw a match to gain the title is utterly ridiculous. By that logic Bronstein would have been crowned in 1951! I agree with those who have said that the classical world championship match should not be decided by non-classical time control games. To play such a tiebreak is to give the challenger, who has already failed to defeat the champion in classical time controls, the undeserved chance to win the world championship in rapid/blitz games. But, since those are the established rules for this match, Carlsen can hardly be criticized for winning within those parameters. He is clearly superior to Caruana at faster controls. Logically then, it is good match strategy to steer in that direction. To criticize Carlsen for winning fairly within the established rules is perverse in my opinion. If the rules are not liked by those who would criticize, then change the rules! As far as Kramnik's comment "Magnus just needs to get rid of this fear of losing the title. Otherwise, he doesn’t have to do much." That seems like the height of hypocrisy from Mr. Berlin Defense himself (or was he trying to win with the Berlin?). Can Kramnik honestly say he wasn't afraid of losing his title when he still had it? Sorry, but I for one am not buying that.
David Herz David Herz 11/28/2018 11:28
Excellent commentary by Kramnik, no surprise here. I sincerely hope Carlsen reads this. Caruana should have refused the draw offer and saved Carlsen't honor. Wouldn't that have been chivalrous?
wok wok 11/28/2018 10:06
@fons3: Magnus did not exactly what he did last time. Last time the 12th game against Karjakin was equal throughout the game. This time he offered a draw in a favorable position offering him good winning chances.

@trill: with all due respect, unfortunately Fischer did the worst thing a world champion can do by refusing to defend his title at all.

I like Susan Polgars suggestion to forbid any draw offers. Of course draws by threefold repetitions still may occur. Maybe we even need a new scoring system: In case of a threefold repetition the game score is 1/3 : 2/3 (the one repeating for the third time losing)
fons3 fons3 11/28/2018 09:33
Kasparov - Kramnik World Championship Match 2000 London
Kramnik leads 7–5 with 4 games to go. (Kasparov has draw odds)

Game 13:
Kasparov vs Kramnik
1. e4 e5 2. Nf3 Nc6 3. Bb5 Nf6 4. O-O Nxe4 5. d4 Nd6 6. Bxc6
dxc6 7. dxe5 Nf5 8. Qxd8+ Kxd8 9. Nc3 h6 10. h3 Ke8 11. Ne4 c5
12. c3 b6 13. Re1 Be6 14. g4 1/2-1/2
fons3 fons3 11/28/2018 09:22

When amateurs mention too many draws they are scolded by the professionals.
Magnus makes a draw and suddenly it's THE END OF CHESS.

No offense but the criticism is so over the top that it's beyond ridiculous.
But thanks for the laugh.

(And not sure why everybody was so surprised, he did the exact same thing last time, and for good reason, as he proved today. Kasparov btw made 40 draws in his first WC match. FORTY.)
Peter Barkman Peter Barkman 11/28/2018 08:01
Most people are going to hate this idea, but once it's 6-6, I would have liked to see 4 more games at the same time control, but, have them play two games a day, with no rest day. If it's still tied after that, there can be rapids or something.

However, 2 games a day has a decent chance of generating inaccuracies and mistakes through exhaustion. This is not ideal, but it increases the possibility of the match being decided by classical games. It would have been nice, of course, if Carlsen and Caruana could have just played a 24 game match, but I guess those days are gone.
trill trill 11/28/2018 05:58
"Some sacred cows need to be sacrificed e.g. Challenger can get the title if they just tie the match after 12."

Hmmm... Your logic seems to imply that the World Chess Champion needs to prove that he is the better chess player and to retain the title he should prove superiority by winning the match. That idea is reasonable.

On the other hand, the argument can be made that the World Chess Champion should retain the title when the challenger does not prove that the challenger is the better chess player by winning the match.

Bring back Fischer and Kasparov who proved themselves worthy champions by winning (or losing) world chess championship matches.

Consider that Carlsen did not win the candidates tournament in 2013. He "won" the tiebreak over Kramnik. Then he goes on to defeat an opponent twice his age in 2013 and 2014, but is unable to defeat in classical chess opponents his own age in 2016 and 2018. Drawn world championship matches in classical chess do not demonstrate dominance or superiority.

So who is the "greatest of all time" in classical chess?
Raymond Labelle Raymond Labelle 11/28/2018 05:45
"As Kasparov pointed out there should not be tie-breaks to begin with." Hhorse.

In which case, with the rule that champion keeps title in case of equality, the one to which Kasparov refers, Magnus would have had even a bigger interest in drawing game 12. Would have that rule applied, Magnus would already be the 2018 champion without having to pass through the tiebreaks.
Chris Holmes Chris Holmes 11/28/2018 03:07
Does anybody know the statistics on sudden death games with either 6-5 minutes or 5-4 ?
Hhorse Hhorse 11/28/2018 02:57
As Kasparov pointed out there should not be tie-breaks to begin with. Since there are already championships for other formats (Blitz, Rapid) this should match be decided only by playing Classical chess.
Some sacred cows need to be sacrificed e.g. Challenger can get the tile if they just tie the match after 12. Or one extra classical game with Draw odds for Black, etc. It is a travesty to allow Carlsen to keep going to blitz and claim he is the champion.
Petrosianic Petrosianic 11/28/2018 02:45
I don't think Game 12 was as good for Black as everyone else does. After 32. Qa3, followed by doubling Rooks on the c file, and Nd1-c3, Black has no way to increase his advantage without b5, which is very difficult to get in. If he does get it in, it's not clear that he still has anything. And White may even be able to accept doubled pawns after Nb5 Bxb5, completely blocking the pawn structure. Black could certainly have kept playing without risk, of course, but his advantage seems slight, and White has natural moves to get him to the time control.
axegod axegod 11/28/2018 02:39
Fabiano has survived to this point in the match but now needs to spring some technical novelties to surprise Magnus. You can afford to be reckless in rapid chess but not stupid. Let's see some blood spilled today.....