What if the World Championship match is decided in blitz games?

by New In Chess
11/21/2018 – Two years ago, in New York, Magnus Carlsen defended his title by winning the rapid tiebreaker. Traditionalists will shudder at the thought of blitz games deciding the world championship match in London. GM MAXIM DLUGY looks at the players’ chances if that scenario becomes reality and has suggestions for how Fabiano Caruana, despite a whopping rating gap of 172(!) points, might beat the odds.

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New in Chess on the potential tiebreak scenario

As the World Championship between Magnus Carlsen and Fabiano Caruana was around the corner, and the bookmakers’ odds were only slightly in favour of the World Champion, there seems to be every reason to wonder what would happen if, after 12 classical games, we’d see a tiebreaker with a faster time-control. Whether there would be rapid games, as we saw in New York two years ago, when Magnus faced Sergey Karjakin,  or whether we would even go to blitz games if the rapid games yield no decision either.

NIC special issueWhile Magnus Carlsen also excels in rapid and blitz chess, Fabiano Caruana’s strength clearly lies in the classical time-control. Does this mean that Magnus has the pleasant option of just coasting to the tiebreaker, as he did against Karjakin once he had equalized the score with two games to go? Is the champ such a clear favourite in the faster time-controls that his challenger will have to steer clear of the tiebreak at all cost and put all his efforts into the first 12 games?

On the face of it — yes! At the time of writing, the difference between the two players in the classical time-control is 12 rating points, while the difference in the rapid ratings is 91 points, and the gap in the blitz ratings even a whopping 172 points!

From my discussions with former World Champion Anatoly Karpov, who had the privilege of talking to Arpad Elo, the inventor of the current rating system, I learnt that the difference in ratings is just an indication of the expected score between players in the long run, and in no way an indication of a foregone conclusion. In fact, Prof. Elo was annoyed when FIDE decided to use his system to include and exclude players from certain events, merely on the basis of these numbers — he never meant it to be used that way. 

Notwithstanding this, we live in a practical world, and it does seem to us that if a player is 170 points lower, he is the underdog, even if we shouldn’t expect the top dog to automatically score 7½ points in a 10-game match, as predicted by the rating system. This doesn’t bode well for Caruana, who it seems has shown serious weakness in playing blitz against the top players in the world. His recent 20½-6½ loss to Levon Aronian in the Chess.com championship created a sensation, while his struggling in the blitz part of the Grand Chess Tour has become the norm, rather than the exception.

Does that mean that Magnus only needs to tie the match, split the four rapid games and finish Fabiano off in the two-game blitz playoff? I don’t think it will be that simple. First of all, as any odds player knows, the positive expectation of results plays out very well over the long haul, but in a short match, anything can happen. Even if Fabiano’s expectation in a two-game blitz match is half a point out of 2, it’s very easy to beat the odds, either by catching your opponent with an opening novelty and winning one game or simply by managing to draw both games, which would take the match to a totally unpredictable Armageddon shoot-out. The nervous tension in those two blitz games would be as high as with a throw-in in the final seconds of a basketball game with the shooter’s team down one point. Here, too, the ability to control your nerves will be the main factor.

To showcase what can happen when time runs short, I would like to direct the reader to the following incredible game, which may hopefully demonstrate the kind of situation that could arise in the final countdown. This blitz game, played last year between Fabiano and Magnus in the Paris leg of the Grand Chess Tour, demonstrates how a lack of time can make the best players in the world come up with seemingly random moves.


The Blitz Whisperer column, by Max Dlugy
Republished with kind permission of 
New in Chess magazine

Free 50-page Carlsen-Caruana Match Special

special World Championship issue includes a preview by Jan Timman and an interview with Sergey Karjakin about his 2016 match with Carlsen (who confesses to overlooking dedicated training in rapid in advance of the match)

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