World Championship Game 1: Caruana dodges a bullet

by Macauley Peterson
11/10/2018 – The game started with a daft joke and ended with a draw, but in between chess fans were treated to an intensely dramatic middlegame where Carlsen was on the verge of winning with black while Caruana's clock was perilously close to zero. A remarkable Game 1 which bodes well for the excitement of a hotly anticipated match that the world is watching. Star analysis by GMs YANNICK PELLETIER and JAN-KRZYSZTOF DUDA | Pictured: Actor Woody Harrelson making the first move to start in Game 1. | Photo: Nikolai Dunaevsky / World Chess

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You still have to win the game…

Garry Kasparov knows a thing or two about World Championship matches and, as luck would have it, he joined the Chess Club and Scholastic Center of St. Louis' live webcast "Today in Chess" at an opportune time — just as the game was reaching its dramatic apex. As Carlsen's advantage increased, and Caruana's time pressure intensified, he interjected a bit of flesh-and-blood sanity into the discussion:

“Whatever the machine tells you, it’s still not the end of the story. You still have to win the game."

Carlsen didn't manage. A few inaccuracies from the World Champion in pursuit of Caruana's shakey king allowed the American to escape with a well-earned draw. Carlsen has never won the first game in his prior three World Championship matches (all ended in draws), and winning here, especially with Black, would have been a huge achievement. On the other hand, the psychological edge now goes to Caruana for saving a game in which he knew he was in deep trouble. Both players were clearly tired by the end of the nearly seven-hour marathon, yet in good spirits after the game. 

The opening move in the first game of this championship fight was made by American actor Woody Harrelson, known for films such as "Natural Born Killers", "Zombieland", "No Country for Old Man" and many others. Woody Harrelson is an avid chess fan who has had casual contacts with members of the Carlsen entourage (although he only formally met Magnus here in London). He was invited to make the first move at a game of the 2016 New York match so he has some experience with the ceremony at the World Championship level.

Surprisingly, before executing the first move he toppled over of Caruana's king, in what some observers initially regarded as a clumsy accident, but which in fact, upon closer inspection, was clearly deliberate.

After the game, I asked Harrelson about the incident and he was quite candid about having planned it in advance as "a joke".

"I thought it would be funny if I accidentally knocked over the king, but then it turned out the joke's on me when I played d4," Harrelson explained, referring to the fact that he Caruana had whispered for him to advance e4, but was misheard. The move was retracted and 1.e4 played instead.

Harrelson subsequently told the Norwegian crew from VG the same story.

I don't doubt that he meant well, and merely relished the privilege of kicking off a World Championship match, but given the importance of the event, the prank could easily have proved a distraction to either player. Fortunately, it did not — both players later said they assumed it was accidental and simply laughed it off.

Respondents to our impromptu Twitter poll (as of Friday evening) were evenly split on the humour of Woody's ruse:

What do you think? Yay or nay?

GM Daniel King offers a brief summary of the day

On to the game...

Caruana's 1.e4 was met by 1...c5 from Carlsen, and as he often does Caruana after 2.Nf3 Nc6 Caruana played 3.Bb5 — the Rossolimo — most recently played against Boris Gelfand in the Batumi Olympiad, but also in a game against Carlsen himself from the 2015 Tata Steel Chess tournament. Carlsen won that game but nevertheless was the first to deviate with 7...Nd7.

In the middlegame, Caruana began to fall behind, both in the quality of his position and, equally worryingly, on the clock. Playing essentially on the 30-second increment for his last seven moves, the challenger managed to hold his position together and reach the time control only slightly worse. The game soon liquidated into an ending where Carlsen won a pawn, but Caruana was good chances to hold the draw. It was no easy matter, as Magnus attempted to "squeeze every drop of water from the stone", as he later put it, pressing on for 115 moves.

Carlsen is no stranger to long World Championship games. He played 122 moves with Viswanathan Anand in Game 7 of their 2014 match, but he said at the press conference that this one felt longer, because had been a more challenging fight before the endgame phase.


Caruana remained stoic as usual, despite the pressures of the biggest match of his life | Photo: Nikolai Dunaevsky / World Chess

Our first guest annotator is Jan-Krzysztof Duda, the number one player under 21 in the world who previously tied for first in the World Junior Championship. He writes of Game 1:

"A fighting, nerve-racking, and unpleasant game for both players. Fabiano Caruana didn't manage to get even the slightest of an opening initiative and quickly had to defend himself. Magnus Carlsen, on the other hand, was winning several times before the 40th move, but in time trouble he spoiled, what looked like an easy win, and had to settle for the endgame which was drawn. Still, eleven games to come, and it seems it will be an entertaining match!"

Game 1 analysis by Jan-Krzysztof Duda

The Sicilian Rossolimo for White

The Rossolimo Variation 3.Bb5 is considered to be one of the strongest replies to 2…Nc6 in the Sicilian Defence. The fact that the move has been played by practically all the top players proves its popularity and strength. But the most interesting aspect of playing 3.Bb5 is that we force sharp, attacking players who love to have the initiative to forget about the Open Sicilian and to adjust themselves to a new world, one full of positional ideas, manoeuvres and nuances.

Round-up show

GM Yannick Pelletier analysis the games for ChessBase Premium Members

Today in Chess

The 13th World Champions Garry Kasparov discusses the climax of Game 1:

"Today in Chess"

Lastly, word has been getting around the something big is right around the corner at ChessBase, namely the next iteration of our flagship database that gives the company its name. We'll have a lot more on the subject in the very-near-future, but for now we'll just point to US Chess writer/reviewer John Hartmann, who put one of the new features to good use today:

Andre Schulz contributed reporting


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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