Fabiano Caruana will play a World Championship Match against Magnus Carlsen this November after winning the Berlin Candidates Tournament by a full point. He ended with a Carlsenesque statement of intent as he played on and beat Alexander Grischuk despite by that stage only needing a draw to clinch overall victory. It was a tense final round in which Shakhriyar Mamedyarov and Sergey Karjakin were held to draws by Vladimir Kramnik and Ding Liren, with Karjakin in fact lucky still to be able to set up a fortress after blundering a pawn.
Before the final round all the talk was about the complicated potential tiebreaks, but in the end the only decisive result was the one that meant there was nothing to calculate – Fabiano won it all:
Our English commentary team of Jan Gustafsson and Peter Svidler was in fine form for the final day:
Relive all the action:
In the 2016 Candidates Tournament in Moscow he came very close to earning a World Championship match, only losing out to Sergey Karjakin in the final round when he was forced to play for a win with the black pieces. Coming into the 2018 tournament the weight of expectation was lowered after he finished on -3 in his last tournament, the Tata Steel Masters in Wijk aan Zee. He explained, however, that he’d been able to shrug off that failure:
I wasn’t worried about that result. After I left that tournament I immediately forgot about it. I just didn’t think about it after that. We had planned a very nice training camp with several grandmasters in Miami, so I went to Miami for nearly three weeks. Rather than freezing in the cold in St. Louis it was 80 degrees every day, we went jogging in the morning, we ate outside in the evening - it was beautiful! We went to the beach and we worked on chess pretty much all day, so it was the perfect way for me to prepare for the event.
The tournament got off to the best possible start for Fabiano as he beat Wesley So with a sharp and finely calculated attack, while one of the turning points of the event came in Round 4, where he managed to win a rollercoaster game against early leader Vladimir Kramnik.
Another wild tactical encounter with Levon Aronian in Round 7 saw Fabiano end the first half of the tournament in the sole lead on +3, a score that had traditionally been enough to win a Candidates Tournament. That was when Fabiano felt that things began to get tough for him, with his game against Ding Liren in particular a big missed opportunity to increase his lead. Then he was dealt a huge blow in Round 12 when he lost to Sergey Karjakin, a game that saw him lose the lead and know that if he finished level with Karjakin he would lose out on the tiebreak of their head-to-head score. It turned out, though, to be a blessing in disguise:
After I lost that game I felt awful for a few hours, but then the next day I felt much better. It was like a weight was lifted from me. My play was so heavy for a few days and it culminated in that loss, and after I lost that game I started to feel much freer in my play and more confident. I still had a feeling that I’d thrown away the tournament, but ok, I thought I had my chances, and at least I was playing better. Ok, the games kind of showed it!
A win after more tactical mayhem against Levon Aronian in the penultimate round put Fabiano back in the driving seat, though it was far from clear how he should approach the final game with Black against Alexander Grischuk. He explained his reasoning:
Going into this game I thought a draw would be a good result. I didn’t want to do anything crazy. I thought if I did something crazy I might have a higher chance of losing, especially as the other two games were likely to be drawn, because a draw is always very likely in games between top players.
He put his chances at 60%, up from 15% before the tournament began, while a certain watching World Champion put them a smidgen higher!
Most of us could just settle down to enjoy the show:
In the end Fabiano was spot on when he commented, “things couldn’t have gone better”. He played the Petroff Defence he’d relied on earlier and got the ideal position for his tournament situation – solid but complex, with the potential to play for a win if events in the other games demanded it. It wasn’t so easy to keep tabs on those, though, since the unusual layout in the venue – splitting the players off into four separate sections – meant that when time trouble arose it was impossible to follow the action on the other boards.
A first critical moment arose on move 21:
Grischuk was already down to just over 4 minutes, while Fabi had 21 and spent 8 of them here. The best move in the position seems to be the knight sacrifice 21…Nxb4 cxb4 Bxb4, when Black’s queenside pawns will take some stopping. That looked like an unnecessary risk given the tournament situation, though, and Caruana instead went for the strong bishop manoeuvre 21…Bg5 and 22…Bf4 next move. Black was on top, and Caruana soon showed he wasn’t afraid to make committal but strong moves:
31…d4! left Black with an advantage he never lost, and by the time control Caruana knew he was on the verge of overall victory, since while his position remained tricky to convert it was already clear that a draw would be enough as neither of his rivals would win.
As long as Kramnik-Mamedyarov continued he had to keep playing, but even when that game ended in a draw he decided not to offer Grischuk the draw that would have been instantly accepted and made him the tournament winner. It was impressive to watch, with Peter Svidler comparing it to Magnus Carlsen’s decision to play on for a win in the final game of the 2013 Anand-Carlsen match in Chennai. Magnus needed only a draw to become World Champion, with Rustam Kasimdzhanov, now Caruana’s coach, commenting on one of Carlsen’s decisions:
Centralising and going for it! This felt risky, given the circumstances, but fear doesn't seem to be a word that features much in Magnus' world. How I envy that...
Carlsen eventually drew that game, but Caruana went one better. When asked afterwards he explained:
If my position wasn’t completely winning I might offer a draw, but there was no counterplay for him either. I thought it would be a shame to not play this position, especially as it was so automatic.
I had no counterplay at all. If I had even a hint of counterplay maybe he would offer a draw, but I just had no chances to win whatsoever.
Fabiano didn’t put a foot wrong until Grischuk finally resigned on move 69:
The game deserved a round of applause:
And the praise and reaction continued online:
Suddenly everyone had a photo or story:
Thoughts were already turning to the match this November against Magnus Carlsen - it’s tempting to add, “in London”, but there must be a non-zero chance that Rex Sinquefield will now offer a significantly higher prize fund than the bare minimum Agon usually provide for their events in order for FIDE to switch the match to St. Louis.
Fabiano was asked how he thought Magnus might feel and responded, “I don’t know, maybe he’s worried?” while when asked if he wanted to send a message to Magnus he added, “We’re going to actually play in a few days, so hopefully I’ll send a message there!” He was referring to the GRENKE Chess Classic, that starts this Saturday. chess24 are the official broadcasters, with Jan Gustafsson joined by a different Peter, Peter Leko, for the live show.
Watch Fabiano Caruana’s post-tournament press conference:
The other games were eventually rendered unimportant by that
result, but that was far from clear when the day’s action began.
This was the one game of the day in which both players had chances of winning the tournament. If Karjakin won that would be enough if neither Caruana nor Mamedyarov won, while if they both lost even a draw would suffice. For Ding Liren, meanwhile, only a win would do, with Mamedyarov having to draw while Caruana lost. That latter sequence of events was of course unlikely, and Ding Liren showed maturity in simply playing a solid Ruy Lopez and hoping that his opponent would overpress, which is eventually what happened.
Sergey felt he went astray on move 17:
Here he explained that in a normal situation he would play what he considered the best moves, 17.axb5 axb5 18.e5, but he felt that position would be very hard to win, and went instead for 17.b3!?, later lamenting, “I should not have tried to complicate the position by playing not the best moves”. Ding Liren shut things down with 17…e5! 18.Ra2 b4!, and though our commentators were initially horrified to see the Chinese no. 1 put all his pawns on the same colour as his bishop, the computer approved and they eventually had to admit it was right.
Sergey’s hopes of a World Championship rematch were fading, and his attempt to get some play led only to a crude blunder – 27.Nd5??
That ran into 27…h3+!, when Sergey admitted he simply missed that after 28.Kxh3 Black has the instantly crushing 28…g4+! (if the king takes it’s mate-in-3). There was good news for Karjakin, though, as it turned out that after 28.Kg1 Rxf3 29.g4! White was able to set up a fortress despite being two pawns down.
After the game Karjakin considered Caruana the deserved winner of the event:
Two years ago he was close to winning the tournament and now he will probably win – at least one of the tournaments he deserved to win!
Karjakin had scored a brilliant 5/7 in the second half of the event, but the damage had been done with two losses with the white pieces in the first four games – one an unnecessary endgame loss to Shakhriyar Mamedyarov and the other an opening mix-up against Levon Aronian.
For Ding Liren, meanwhile, his first Candidates Tournament had been a huge success. He finished on +1 as the only unbeaten player, with his games much more eventful than the 13 draws would suggest.
Watch the post-game press conference:
This was another fantastically entertaining game featuring former World Champion Vladimir Kramnik, but he was trying to keep things under control. As he explained:
I also felt responsibility. I have sympathy to Shakhriyar, I don’t mind at all if he would win, but ok, I cannot do it to the other players. I thought I shouldn’t blunder at least. I can lose, I fight, but if I blunder it would be very painful for other players. The position was very sharp, so that was my main concern - to play a sharp, good game. Ok, if I lose, I lose, if I win, I win, but I really wanted to avoid some stupid loss. To lose stupidly, because it simply would be unfair to other players.
Mamedyarov thanked his opponent for giving him a chance to play, and there was a lot at stake. If Shakhriyar managed to win with Black then only a Caruana win could stop him becoming the World Championship challenger. Predictably, mayhem ensued, and the best way to see that is in the fantastic variations the players showed after the game:
The moment of truth came when Kramnik played 31.h3?!
Kramnik thought this was “very nice, very accurate”, but there were issues with the move. One was that there were better options. After the game the players looked at 31.Bh6! and 31.g4!?, while the computer gives 31.Bg5! as its top move and almost winning. The other issue was the exquisite combination that Black demonstrated at the board: 31…Bxf2! 32.Qxf2 Bxh3+! 33.Kg1 Qxf2+ 34.Kxf2 Rxe5! 35.Bxe5 Ng4+! – the final fork makes it all work out. It’s hard to resist playing something like that if you see it, though perhaps in the tournament situation Shak should somehow have tried to maintain the tension instead, if only to keep the pressure on Fabiano. As it was, the ensuing position was a relatively simple draw and in the tournament situation Kramnik restrained himself from going for any outrageous "winning attempts".
That result saw Mamedyarov finish in second place, while Kramnik’s fifth place was of course not what he was hoping for:
Vlad defended his decisions, though:
I personally don’t have regrets on the way I play. I just have regrets on certain concrete decisions I made, but in general of course I’m not happy with the result, but I’m quite happy with my play. It was really entertaining…
He noted that now he plays the way Mamedyarov played a few years ago, but it wasn’t a conscious decision:
I didn’t make a change, I didn’t think about it really. It just happened. I achieved quite a lot already in chess, all possible things, and you know, to try to gain another half point, another five Elo points of rating, doesn’t make any sense. I have maybe another couple of years, and I want to enjoy it, to give joy to the public. In a way maybe I’m the most unprofessional player in the field - sometimes I feel like this, that I’m the least professional one, but that’s the way I play. It’s the way I feel I should play, and it brings some pain sometimes… fortunately also joy.
Mamedyarov hopes he’ll play like Kramnik at the age of 43, but for now he remains the world no. 2 and fell just short of qualifying for a World Championship match. His best quote at the press conference:
It’s really a very long tournament, 22 days. Next time I need to come with a PlayStation, because there’s too much free time!
This was the one game that would decide nothing on the final day, and as if to leave the stage clear for the real action the players made a very quick draw in 17 moves. Neither player could be happy with their tournament, though Wesley seemed already to have abandoned any hope after his strange 7th round loss to Karjakin. He then more or less cruised home with 7 draws in the second half. He quipped of his -2, “At the very least I was hoping to get the Anish score of 50%”, talked about valuable experience, and added, “I’m quite sure this won’t be my last Candidates”.
Levon, still only 35, can also look forward to more Candidates Tournaments, but this was a 6th such event in a row where he’s failed to win the prize, and this time he didn’t even come close. Minus 5 and 27 rating points dropped is an almost unimaginably bad score for many people’s pre-tournament favourite. For instance, Jan had picked him:
Anastasia Karlovich asked about that after the game:
Anastasia: There was a preview of Jan Gustafsson of chess24 and he said that you have a lot of good things, you have a lot of experience, you have knowledge, everything, but the only problem can be the weight of expectation. Did you feel something like that? Did you feel that it can be a problem, or it has nothing to do with this event?
Levon: No, I didn’t feel like any pressure or anything. Generally, if you feel pressure, why the hell are you here? You better let some other players play if you can’t cope with the pressure. Just I’ve played some really, really bad games in the start and I think the game that I lost against Kramnik, the 2nd one (and also the first one) was kind of the turning point for me. I think after that second loss I wasn’t fighting any more, just mentally preparing for the next tournament.
Before that Aronian summed up more generally:
I wasn’t playing well, so when you’re not playing good moves you’re generally feeling disgusted, so at some point I think I needed to do what I did today – limit the damage – which I didn’t, so that was a mistake, but generally my play had to be better when it comes to preparation and also just generally, so I don’t know if there is any good game I had here. I don’t think so, but I look forward to the next tournaments. It’s always interesting to bounce back and it’s one of my favourite things to do!
So that's all for the 2018 Candidates Tournament. We hope you enjoyed the live shows, video recaps and reports!
The next tournament for Levon, as well as for Carlsen and his challenger Caruana, is the GRENKE Chess Classic, where they’ll be joined by MVL, Anand, Vitiugov, Naiditsch, Hou Yifan, Meier and Bluebaum. Aronian has a title to defend, and some honour to restore! It all kicks off on Saturday.