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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