The Carlsen years (4): Twelve draws

by Carlos Alberto Colodro
12/4/2021 – Magnus Carlsen is leading the World Championship match against Ian Nepomniachtchi after scoring a memorable win. In our fourth and final instalment of Carlsen’s previous matches, we look at his 2018 confrontation against Fabiano Caruana. For the first time in a match for the crown, all the classical games finished drawn. The defending champion won the rapid tiebreaks categorically though, and thus kept his title. | Photo: Niki Riga

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A top-notch challenger

Even in his first outing at a World Championship match, in 2013, Magnus Carlsen entered the contest as the clear favourite. The second time around, again facing Vishy Anand, he was even more of a front-runner going into the match, while against Sergey Karjakin the Russian’s chances were mostly connected to his preparation — Carlsen was considered the ‘better player’ by most analysts.

A different scenario was seen in the prelude to the 2018 match: the new challenger, Fabiano Caruana, was regarded as an extremely dangerous contender for the champ. Having transferred to the United States in 2015, the man from Miami with Italian roots was rated merely three points behind Carlsen. For the first time in six years, the Norwegian’s status as the world number one was being seriously challenged. A few months before the match, Carlsen and Caruana faced each other at the Sinquefield Cup — a win for Caruana would have granted him the top spot in the world ranking, but it was Carlsen who failed to make the most of his winning chances.

Known for his laid-back attitude — more noticeable in his younger years — Carlsen looked more tense than usual prior to the match. And understandably so: for the first time, he was facing a challenger younger than him, and one that was going through a tremendously successful run. Would this turn out to be a new historic rivalry, comparable to Karpov vs Kasparov?

Fabiano Caruana

Right after winning the Candidates | Photo: Niki Riga

The match took place at The College in Holborn, London, on November 9-28, 2018. Caruana had convincingly won the Candidates Tournament, finishing the event with a win over Alexander Grischuk for a 9 out of 14 score which allowed him to end the event a full point ahead of Shakhriyar Mamedyarov and Sergey Karjakin.

Media attention was heightened not only due to the contenders being evenly matched, but also because Caruana was the first American challenger since Bobby Fischer. Moreover, Caruana was being openly supported by chess maecenas Rex Sinquefield, who had already made of Saint Louis one of the main epicentres of chess in the world — a status that his club continues to hold, by the way.

No decisive results

After all the anticipation, chess fans all around the world got to witness the first World Championship match that ended with all the classical games drawn. Naturally, this result provoked a dose of controversy, as, after winning the rapid tiebreakers convincingly, Carlsen had defended his title for a second consecutive time without getting ahead on the scoreboard in the classical portion of the match.

Given his prowess in faster time controls, it was understandable for the world champion to avoid over-pushing in the classical games, although his decision to offer a draw from a better position in game 12 was somewhat more polemical. Former world champion Vladimir Kramnik was very critical of Carlsen’s decision:

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 with 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.

Nonetheless, from a purely competitive point of view, Carlsen’s draw offer in game 12 turned out well for him, as he got to keep his crown for three more years. And, to be fair, the Norwegian himself has proposed to change the World Championship format in the past, even introducing ideas that would prompt the reigning champion to lose some of his privileges — and he did it when he was already the champ.

Magnus Carlsen

Carlsen looking worried during game 6 of the match | Photo: Nikolai Dunaevsky

The games

There was no lack of winning opportunities during the classical portion of the match. Carlsen missed chances in game 1, while Caruana could have got ahead on the scoreboard in game 6. According to Vishy Anand, the most exciting encounter was game 10, while much was said about the final position in game 12, when Carlsen offered a draw that took the match to rapid and blitz playoffs.

Below we present the critical positions of the aforementioned games with commentaries by the ever-articulate Vishy Anand.

In game 1, a 115-move draw, Carlsen spoilt an advantageous position. Had he kicked off the match with a win, we would be telling a whole different story about this match.

 

Anand: It is very strange that Magnus did not win this position. It was one of the big misses of the match. What was striking is that Magnus’ play until this point had been exemplary. Everyone praised him. Before cashing in he could have slowly  improved his position. I would only put one caveat in this situation — it is very easy to sit at home and say this is how you should have done. God knows I have spoilt many winning positions as well. It’s not my aim to make light of this. But it’s a missed opportunity. There is no way going around this.

Halfway through the match, Caruana got his chance after using his main weapon with the black pieces — the Petroff Defence. In game 6, he had a knight for a pawn in an endgame and missed a subtle opportunity to get the full point.

 

Caruana played 68...Nf3 and the position was eventually drawn. But he had chances to win if he had played 68...Bh4.

Anand: Obviously, it was not easy. I haven’t even delved into it entirely. But the piece up position was not a forced win, which means that White could have used his bishop better to corral the knight in some other way. I saw Svidler’s recap of this ending and I have forgotten the details. The funny thing is that Svidler while doing the recap was also saying, “I have to check my notes and corresponding squares!” It’s a very difficult ending.

Magnus Carlsen, Fabiano Caruana

It was a tough match for both contenders | Photo: World Chess

The following was the final position in game 12 of the 2018 World Championship match, when Carlsen offered a draw with black.

 

Anand: Essentially you should wipe your head and start thinking ‘I have an advantage’ and start playing for a win. But sometimes it is very difficult to make this switch. You have been thinking for a draw for so long that it is very difficult to make this switch. But Carlsen was never lost in this game. He didn’t have to switch. But I think he was fighting a battle in his own head. He wanted a draw badly in this game because was worried that he might lose it, and he was not able to switch that thought. After making all the allowances, and understanding the circumstances, I am still surprised that Magnus Carlsen offered a draw here.

Replay all the games from the match (including the playoffs) with commentaries by Anand and Daniel Fernandez on our dynamic replayer below.

 

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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