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 is Editor in Chief of ChessBase News in Hamburg, Germany, and producer of The Full English Breakfast chess podcast. He was an Associate Producer of the 2016 feature documentary, Magnus.
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klklkl klklkl 11/11/2018 11:15
@Aighearach You apparently missed the first half of the game. The position at move 38 is as lost as positions ever get in chess.
Raymond Labelle Raymond Labelle 11/10/2018 03:41
Daniel King explains in his post-game excellent resume, and it is also mentioned in the analysis above, that if Magnus had played 38... Rg3, it was game over. It is sacking a R for N, but White’s remaining pieces would have been confined to blockade the passed Black pawns on the K side which would give liberty for Black to mop out the pawns on the Queen side and then advance his own pawns. Despite the fact that Magnus did not play this, the position was still difficult for White who was in defense and requested high precision in high time pressure. So, yes, Fabiano did dodge a bullet.
marek1969 marek1969 11/10/2018 02:35
Great game thank you Jan Krzysztof Duda for analizys.
KevinC KevinC 11/10/2018 01:52
That one game was more exciting than the whole Carlsen-Karjakin WC match in 2016.
KevinC KevinC 11/10/2018 01:50
@Aighearach, he did dodge a major bullet. Instead of 34...h5, 34...Qf6 was -3.36 per Stockfish 9 at a depth of 27.
Daniel Miller Daniel Miller 11/10/2018 01:39
Jan says above that iIt appears that in zeitnot, even the World Champion plays below his strength. This is misleading. For those of us who watched the game, Carlsen was not in time pressure. It seems that lately, the World Champion is good at getting won positions. He just is not good at winning them.
FabriceWantiez FabriceWantiez 11/10/2018 01:32
It seems Duda has never see any game from 60 years ago... What else do you want to play apart from 19.g4 ? It was a classic move for Botvinnik and even for Steinitz. Some of today's players do not have a clue of how strong the players of the past were.
RaoulBertorello RaoulBertorello 11/10/2018 11:47
@Aighearach: 'Caruana dodges a bullet'. I think Duda was referring up to move 40, that is till Stockfish assessment of white position was pretty negative. Then, yes, sure, from move 41 onward, including therefore from black move 45 (or, more clearly, 55) on, that you are referring to, with that upper pawn which is in fact leftmost sided, the engine evaluates rightly black advantage as half a point and implies a plain draw.
Stupido Stupido 11/10/2018 11:25
So these are the days kibbitzers are supposed to cheer about a Rossolimo rather than a true Sicilian game like the Dragon, the poisoned pawn or the Polu variations?
graand graand 11/10/2018 09:32
Jan-Krzysztof Duda - thanks for superb analysis.
fons3 fons3 11/10/2018 05:59
Carlsen was not a Natural Born Killer in this game. Both players will be in Zombieland after this marathon game. This match is No Country for Old Men.

PS: why are we supposed to obsess over these ridiculous celebrities? I'd rather see some chess playing kid make the first move, or a past champion like Judit Polgár (who is doing commentary).

BTW Woody Harrelson's father was a hitman convicted for killing a judge and alleged to be involved in the killing of John F. Kennedy. Hollywood's a creepy scene.
Aighearach Aighearach 11/10/2018 03:47
Woody Harrelson loves chess, when he's in my town sometimes he puts on a disguise and plays at the local coffee shop. The chess players know who he is, but the disguise prevents a distracting scene.

So great to see him included in the WCC!
Aighearach Aighearach 11/10/2018 03:44
When you're down a pawn and the computer analysis says you're down by half a pawn, and you're in rook and pawn endgame, the implication is that the position is drawn.

Dodging a bullet would be if he had a losing position, but his op made a mistake and let him draw.
TomE57ach TomE57ach 11/10/2018 03:03
And we're off! Great game!!