Magnus Carlsen keeps the crown

by Antonio Pereira
11/29/2018 – The 2018 World Championship match in London concluded on Wednesday. Two days before his 28th birthday, Sven Magnus Øen Carlsen confirmed his status as World Champion for at least two more years. And he did it in style, getting a 3:0 wipe-out in the rapid tiebreaks over Fabiano Caruana. Both players were deservingly praised for their efforts afterwards, in what was considered one of the most far-reaching chess events in recent history. GM DANIEL FERNANDEZ and GM YANNICK PELLETIER analysed all the games of the tiebreaks. | Photos: World Chess

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Tour de force

A lot can be said about what happened during the classical portion of the match, especially about the fact that it ended without a single decisive result. However, the palpable tension and the increasing rise of expectation established before the tiebreaks gave way to a fascinating final showdown scenario. For the chess world, Wednesday was clearly the most important date in this year's calendar — a champion was to be crowned no matter what. For such high-class competitors as Magnus and Fabiano, it probably would not have made much of a difference if the tiebreaks would have been played on a desert island...

But they were far from isolated. Chess fans all over the world tuned in to follow the action, while mainstream media outlets also showed up in London to report for a much wider general audience — networks as big as NBC, ABC, CBS, USA Today, the New York Times and Eurosport were present. Lucy Hawking, the daughter of one of the most influential scientists of the twentieth century, Stephen Hawking, made the first move — she shared a childhood experience:

I used to play chess with my father, but since I was a little girl I didn’t understand that he was a genius…I was mystified [by] why he always won.

Lucy Hawking almost played 1.c3? for Magnus, but then corrected to 1.c4

For those of us more in touch with the game, Carlsen's decision to so intentionally go for the rapid tiebreaks made a lot of sense. After all, we have seen through the years how dominant he is when it comes to accelerated time controls. And not only that — we have also seen how this is clearly not Fabiano's forte. Before the games, the difference in rapid ratings between the two contenders was no less than 91 points (now the gap has widened to 136, with Magnus having an outstanding 2902 live rating!)

Nevertheless, Fabiano had shown great nerves throughout the match, and Magnus did not appear to be at his best. Everything was still possible.

Four games with 25 minutes per side plus a 10-second increment were to be played, with blitz mini-matches and Armageddon to follow in case of a tie. The first game started at 3 p.m. in London, so it was not hard to imagine for things to wrap up by around 9 or 10 in the evening, particularly if we take into account how close and tense the classical games had been. 

But a different plot was in store...

Tiebreak summary

GM Daniel King presents a brief summary of the games

Game 1

Carlsen had the white pieces and opened with 1.c4, taking the battlefield to his terrain of controlled positional struggles — the Norwegian used a rare line with 4.e4 to reach this goal. Soon enough, it was clear that Fabiano was having problems in handling the position, and by move 27 the players reached a rook endgame in which White was a pawn up:


Would Magnus manage to convert this? After all, he could not take advantage of a very favourable position in the first classical game. 

The maxim "all rook endgames are drawn" seemed close to being once again proven true, as Fabiano put up great resistance. However, first he let Magnus' king off the back-rank with 34...Rc3 — "not losing, but a bad idea" (D. Fernandez) — and then completely gave away his drawing chances when he grabbed the e-pawn:


37.Kxe4? turned out to be the losing blunder, when it was necessary to check White's king with 37...Ra2+ — the idea was to create mating threats on h1 with the kings on f3 and h3. Carlsen showed good technique and took the full point after 55 moves.

This was the first decisive game of the match, and one that was a definite turning point — Magnus' boost of confidence provoked by this victory was key in what was to come.

Magnus showing he is well-versed in rook endgames

Game 2

The pressure was now on Caruana, who opened 1.e4 for the seventh time in London, and Magnus offered to explore a similar Sveshnikov Sicilian as the one seen in game twelve — the champion did not change his strategy after getting the advantage in the match. Fabiano, true to the nature of the position, played 12.h4, a move favoured by the engine but also a manoeuvre that according to Judit Polgar was not easy for Fabiano, as "he couldn't feel the dynamics of the position".

In a rich position, the Challenger showed courage with a pawn break:


With his king still in the centre, Caruana opened up the position with the sharp 21.c5. Here is when Carlsen showed his class, though. In the following sequence of moves, he did not falter despite the difficulties — and then he took advantage of Caruana's mistakes. The American was already in deep trouble after, once again, pushing his c-pawn:


Black's knight is about to get to e5 with decisive effect, so it was imperative to defend against this strategical threat with 26.Bd4. Caruana's 26.c7?, on the other hand, was losing. It was evident that Carlsen had calculated this idea, as he immediately captured with 26...Bxc7. The game continued 27.Nxc7 Ne5, and Caruana erred again with 28.Nd5?:


Fabiano is counting on a knight fork from e7 — Carlsen, aware of this, did not take long to play the cool and accurate 28...Kh7. Everything is hanging in White's position. At this point, Caruana looked a bit shell-shocked; he took a few glances at the clock and resigned. 

Carlsen was up 2:0 and only a miracle could save the American.

Three long weeks that followed a long preparation phase about to be over

Game 3

The previous game had proven that Carlsen was in 'beast mode', completely in control of his emotions and with his confidence up to its usual (very) high standard — that did not change in the third encounter. He set up a Maroczy Bind structure from a Sicilian and created a harmonious position, with total control over the d5-square:


Caruana started to look for chances with 21...Ne7, but in the long run, as it tends to happen in these situations, he only managed to give White space and opportunities. 

The position was objectively balanced, but the match situation clearly called for Black to try to muddy the waters. Carlsen did not falter, though. It was all about control, and apparently nothing could perturb the champion's concentration. By move 49, he was already winning, and he even managed to finish off the match with two queens on the board:


The same c-pawn that caused Fabiano to lose game three promoted into a queen in the next encounter. After 50.c8Q f4 51.Qg4, Caruana resigned and Carlsen kept his title after getting a whopping 3:0 score in the tiebreaks.

Carlsen showed his strength

Tiebreak games analysed by GM Daniel Fernandez

English GM Daniel Fernandez provided expert analyses of Carlsen's three rapid victories:


The aftermath

A clearly satisfied Magnus started the press conference with a relaxed statement: "I felt that I had a really good day at work today. [...] Everything went perfectly". Caruana humbly accepted the result, declaring in a post-game interview: "I think the results show that he is the strongest player in the world…and he is the World Champion, so it's quite fitting".

The final press conference

In the closing ceremony that followed, Carlsen thanked his team and the organisers. He was emphatic when praising his opponent:

Thanks to my opponent for a great fight. He showed himself to be an extremely strong player, versatile and very, very tough to beat. [...] I don't think we've seen the last from Fabiano in this particular context.   

Regarding his decision from the twelfth game, the champion said:

I made a sporting decision that I felt very comfortable with at the time, and I would have believed it to be the right one regardless of the result in the [tiebreaks].

He then clarified:

I've been a chess professional now for many years [...]. One of the things that I've never done very well is listen to other people's advice. I've always gone my way and that's what I did this time. [...] And it's brought me this trophy today.

Carlsen with trophy

A satisfied champion | Photo: Niki Riga

Former World Champion — and former Magnus' trainer — Garry Kasparov congratulated Magnus and Fabiano on Twitter. He noted what Caruana’s ‘mistake’ was:

As per usual, Fabiano showed great sportsmanship and quickly posted:

It was a unique and hard-fought match, with a deserving winner and a worthy challenger. Will we see a rematch in 2020?  

A great Challenger

Replay the first moves of the tiebreaks with commentary

Judit Polgar and Anna Rudolf provided live commentary for the official boradcast

Final press conference

Carlsen: "Everything went perfectly"

Round-up shows

GM Yannick Pelletier reviews the game

All games of the match


Macauley Peterson contributed reporting from London


Antonio is a freelance writer and a philologist. He is mainly interested in the links between chess and culture, primarily literature. In chess games, he skews towards endgames and positional play.


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