London Chess Classic: Caruana's playoff

by Macauley Peterson
12/13/2017 – Fabiano Caruana won in the fourth blitz tiebreak game to take the London Chess Classic trophy and bragging rights. A fitting conclusion to the tournament, as he not only was the first grandmaster to win in London, but he also managed to win his clutch last round game against Mickey Adams. Ian Nepomniachtchi took an early draw and had the benefit of hours of rest, but as Fabiano explains, that may have been a mixed blessing. Interview and transcript. | Photo: Pascal Simon

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Cool as a Caruana

Before the start of the London Chess Classic playoff for first place, Fabiano Caruana had 30 minutes break. Time to prepare? No. Time for a snack? Sure. Time to watch his ex-manager IM Lawrence Trent challenge Maxime Vachier-Lagrave in time-odds blitz? Yes please! Apparently, kibitzing on someone else's blitz game is a decent way to warm up for your own.

3 minutes for Trent, 1 minute for MVL!
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They continued for several more games, but Carauana was soon summoned to the auditorium for the games that really counted. The format to decide the winner of the 2017 London Chess Classic was two 10 minute plus 5 second delay games, then if still tied, two 5 minute plus 3 second games. The fourth game was won by Caruana, giving him the title and, as his last tournament of 2017, he ends his the year on a high note.

The next day, I paid a call to Fabiano's hotel room, to hear how he managed to Keep Calm and Play Blitz. You can listen to the interview in full, or follow the transcript along with diagrams, games, and video below.

Fabiano Caruana chats with Macauley Peterson about his playoff

Macauley Peterson:  Hi Fabiano. It’s the day after the London Chess Classic. Last night we saw a playoff that was extremely tense and very exciting. What struck me most was actually how calm you were going into it. You seemed to be not like someone who was just about to play a playoff that was actually important for tournament standings.

Fabiano Caruana: Well I think that after you play like a six hour game you kind of just relax mentally after it’s over, and so I relaxed mentally. I cared about the playoff, I wanted to do well, but I’d already seen it as achieving my main goal, which was shared tournament victory. And the playoff for no money, just the title and bragging rights — I mean obviously I did really want to win because it was my first time winning the London Classic, a major supertournament with all the best players in the world, but it still kind of felt like the main task was done and so I could just relax and play blitz and have some fun. And I think he felt more pressure — it’s probably the reason why near the end he was getting shaky and I managed to hold it together.

The playoff on the stage

The stage was cleared out for the final playoff games | Photo: Lennart Ootes

MP:  In the first game, it was a King’s Indian Attack, and you ended up agreeing for a draw when you were both very low on time, so my impression was that you both had the sense that you wanted to try and settle it on the board and not have something that got too hairy [a wild time scramble].  

FC: Well, I was worse the whole game, I thought maybe losing at some point, but in the endgame, once we got into it, I started to outplay him. And at some point, after being low on time for most of the game, we kind of equalised on time; we both had like twelve seconds. And he offers a draw, and I think for a little bit, and then I see I have seven seconds. And at that point I just couldn’t make a decision in that time. I was like, OK, a draw is fine. It would have been a mess if I’d played on. I’m probably better, but I figured, first of all, I don’t see a clear move, and I’ll probably be on the back foot psychologically if I decline the draw offer. If feels like suddenly the onus is on me, and he’ll just make moves very quickly and I’ll kind of be struggling. And I had a feeling that I would get very low on time, and things can go wrong. I mean I might have won the game, and it’s possible to criticise my decision, but I think that it could have gone either way, and basically it would just be 50/50 and I didn’t want to let the playoff hinge on a random time scramble.  

MP: Yeah, I think that’s a feeling that a lot of people have had on all levels, when you have this sort of strategic draw offer.  

FC: Yeah. 

Fabiano Caruana Ian Nepomniachtchi

Fabiano Caruana and Ian Nepomniachtchi share an amusing moment | Photo: Lennart Ootes

MP:  The second game, you had this sort of Chameleon Sicilian, that ended up being closed, but it seemed like it was a little bit of a similar situation. He offered a draw when you were low on time. 

FC: I think that he was better again, and he didn’t really press it too hard. He could have probably posed me very serious problems. But in the final position it’s more or less equal. I’m a little bit worse, and I had still I think like four minutes — enough time to solve the problems. So I was already not worried at that time and it seemed like he had given up his hopes of winning the ending. The interesting thing about that position is that even in endgames it’s really hard for him to win, because if he takes my pawn on a3 then very often his bishop gets trapped there with my knight on d3, so it’s hard to imagine him winning that position even if things go very well for him. So a draw seemed like a good result for me after the opening.

Game / 10 + 5


King's Indian Attack

The King’s Indian Attack is a unique opening system in that it offers White a dynamic and interesting game but without the need to know reams of theory. In addition to being easy to learn it has an excellent pedigree, leading exponents including great players such as Bobby Fischer, Tigran Petrosian, David Bronstein, Viktor Korchnoi, Leonid Stein and Lev Psakhis. GM Nigel Davies presents a complete repertoire for White.

Live commentary of the 10 minute games

The playoff, Game 1 | Source: Saint Louis Chess Club on YouTube

MP:  So then you went to the five minute games, and the third game was a standout for having this unusual blunder on move 13, but then he managed to just keep the position close and keep playing until the clock became a big factor. How did you experience that game?


FC: He blundered a piece and I was kind of shell-shocked into taking more time than I should have. It took me maybe even 20 seconds after he played Ne4 to fully understand what I was missing — because I’d seen the move before, and I’d seen that I just play hxg5 and he’s down a piece. And then he started to play very quickly, posing problems. I never felt like I was clearly completely winning. Then at some point I thought I would win all his queenside pawns and it would be over, but he kept resisting, I was getting low on time, and the problem is in this kind of position, you get to like three seconds and you can’t regain time. You have three seconds for the rest of the game. At some point I remember when my time went to three seconds I thought ‘I might even lose on time in this game’. I missed f5, although I think at that point, even if it is winning, I’m never going to be able to do it. But he resisted excellently and I didn’t play fast enough. That’s basically what it came down to.


The final drawing trick

MP:  Basically at the end you have to find some precise moves somewhere and you just don’t have the time.  

FC: Yeah, I have to at least come up with a plan, while also not blundering, and the combination of that is difficult. Because usually to not blunder you have to kind of play passively. The easiest way not to blunder is to just keep your position stable, but to actually make progress you’ll have to kind of go out of your way and start to calculate things.  

MP:  When you do draw a game where you were clearly winning like that, there’s a danger that that can stick with you to the next game, especially when you only have five minutes between them, but in fact in the fourth game you were quite dominant. This move that gave you a strong advantage with 37.Nd7 — Yasser [Seirawan] described that as “a star move”.


A star move, or a standard tactic?

FC: Eh, it looked like a pretty standard tactic to me. I thought maybe he had missed that Qc6 then comes, and then I missed Nd4 but thankfully his king on e5 is not getting away any time soon. And then strange things happened. I figured I must be mating him, but I didn’t have enough time to fully figure it out, but I was also spending too much time and then playing the obvious moves. I should have either calculated it fully to mate, or just played quickly and kind of kept my edge. Then at the end it again came down to a time scramble but thankfully one in which I don’t think I blundered anything major. Maybe I endangered the win a little bit, and definitely when he played e3 I started to panic a bit.


Keep calm and give a check

But somehow I kind of held it together, although I have a feeling that the position is so winning that basically I can at some point start making random moves and win it.

Game 5 + 3


An Anti-Sicilian Repertoire

Tired of spending hours and hours on the boring theory of your favourite opening? Then here is your solution, play an Anti-Sicilian with 3.Bb5 against 2...d6 or 2...Nc6, and 3.d3 against 2...e6. In 60 minutes you will get a crash course in how to avoid mainstream theory and in understanding the ideas of this Anti-Sicilian setup. After these 60 minutes you should be able to survive the Sicilian for a long time, without being bothered by new developments found by engine x supported by an x-core machine. Now that it finally comes down to understanding, let's play chess!

The playoff, Game 3 | Source: Saint Louis Chess Club on YouTube

MP:  You have at times struggled with your blitz game, although you have also had some good results this year. Is that something that has improved, have you worked on it, or is there another reason?  

FC: I don’t think I was ever bad at blitz, but I have really had a lot of bad results, especially in these tournaments right before major tournaments. They would have the blitz to decide the colours, and I would usually just score atrociously.  

MP:  Tournaments like Zurich...

FC: No, Zurich I actually always did well — I won one year and one year I think I scored plus one and had second place. I never did badly there, but before Norway Chess, I think twice I scored atrociously, before the Tal Memorial several times, before London one time. But I always felt like it was kind of circumstance — I was not in form on that day, things were just not going well for me. I never felt like I was clearly inferior to other players in blitz. I’m arguably not at the same level as, lets say, Maxime or Levon or Hikaru, but definitely competitive with all those players. Blitz has gone well for me the last few months. Against Grischuk, obviously that was a huge success for me, to beat three-time World Blitz Champion, in blitz. And, OK, the tiebreak yesterday was obviously shorter and kind of chaotic, but still Nepo is a great blitz player — a great player in general, but he’s sort of noted for his strength in fast time controls, so that was also a nice success. 

MP:  But you have elected not to play in Riyadh [at the World Rapid and Blitz, later this month], if I’m not mistaken. What was your thinking about that decision?

FC: I would love to play. I mean the money is hugely attractive. I also like playing in these events, I mean if I could get a world title, of blitz or rapid champion that would be a perfect end to the year. But the scheduling can’t possibly work out for me, because there’s this and I live in the US to I have to go back there at some point, and then time changes, and I have Wijk aan Zee soon after that. It becomes a complete mess — I don’t even think I’d be able to go back, so I’d basically have to spend like three months away from home. I thought the year ended pretty nicely. Why should I just keep chasing after stuff? Just relax a bit and look forward to the next two events. 

MP:  It probably doesn’t help that they only announced it a month and a half before. 

FC: Yeah, it was very last minute too, and that’s difficult. 

MP:  So you’ve got Wijk aan Zee and that’s your next major tournament and also the last one before Berlin?

FC: Yeah.

MP:  All right, well, good luck there!

Malcolm Pein Fabiano Caruana

Malcolm Pein presents the London Chess Classic trophy to its winner | Photo: Lennart Ootes


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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