Reports Nov 10, 2018 | 12:02 PMby Colin McGourty

Carlsen-Caruana 1: Magnus lets Fabi off the hook

Magnus Carlsen was on the brink of opening the 2018 World Chess Championship in London with a brilliant win with the black pieces, but just when Fabiano Caruana’s luck seemed to have run out the World Champion showed some of the frailty that’s crept into his game in recent years. He fumbled the win, let the lion’s share of his advantage slip on the time control move, and was eventually held to a 115-move, 7-hour draw. “Magnus is not as invincible as he used to be,” noted the watching Garry Kasparov.

We couldn’t have asked for more on the opening day of the World Championship match in London, except perhaps when it came to the first move, which was made, as in 2016, by US actor Woody Harrelson. He decided to play a couple of what turned out to be deliberate “jokes”:

Fortunately both players remained oblivious, and all the focus turned to an intriguing psychological and chess battle. You can replay the game with computer analysis here, and, in case you missed it, you should check out at least some of a 7-hour tour de force of commentary by Peter Svidler, Sopiko Guramishvili and Alexander Grischuk – with the latter joining merely for the last six hours!

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Magnus would later say he wasn’t “in the mood for a draw”, and that was clear early on as he played the Sicilian Defence. We got the Rossolimo Variation with 1.e4 c5 2.Nf3 Nc6 3.Bb5, and the way the game went may have brought back painful memories for Fabiano Caruana. In Jan Gustafsson and Pepe Cuenca’s video series Carlsen vs. Caruana: 2015-2018, the first game they covered there was a big win for Magnus in the 2015 Tata Steel Masters in Wijk aan Zee:

Jan notes the opening in the game hadn’t been repeated in subsequent games by the players, and the way it went (here Black chose 7…b6 compared to 7…Nd7 in London) Magnus actually mixed up his move order and blundered a pawn. Fabi didn’t exploit that, though, and soon it was the World Champion attacking on the kingside with a move he would also play in London:

He went on to win after whipping up a lethal attack seemingly out of nowhere and forcing resignation before the time control. That came in the context of Magnus reasserting his dominance of the chess world after Caruana’s brilliant 7-game winning streak (almost an 8-game streak with two wins over Magnus!) in the 2014 Sinquefield Cup a few months earlier. It was part of a 6-game winning streak of Carlsen’s own that saw him go on to claim clear first in the Tata Steel Masters.

Four years later in London, things would turn out very differently. This time in the opening it was Magnus who was flawless, with Alexander Grischuk providing a stream of insights into what proved to be a very tricky position for Caruana. Here he is after 13…h6! 14.Qd2:

Fabiano would later echo that comment in the post-game press conference:

I was sort of familiar with the line, but it is a bit confusing because there are many different ways that Black can play and all moves more or less the same, and I couldn’t quite remember exactly how I should play this position. Already I was trying to find some sort of idea after h6, unsuccessfully.

In the position above Carlsen continued, again with an echo of Wijk aan Zee 2015, with 14…g5, and after 15.Raf1 Qd6 Fabi followed up with 16.Ng4!? (“I played a bit too directly with Ng4. After I played it I immediately started to regret it”). 16…0-0-0! 17.Nf6!? and the silicon beasts were already beginning to chalk the game up as a win for Black!

A couple more of Grichuk’s thoughts seemed relevant at this point. On some pre-game interviews the World Champion had given:

If Magnus is saying that Fabiano is, "my most difficult opponent," it means he's not afraid of him - otherwise he wouldn't say that!

And he had an aphorism for the match:

I have a feeling that Magnus is afraid to lose this match, but he's not afraid of Fabiano. And Fabiano is not afraid to lose this match, but he's afraid of Magnus! So it cancels out.

It spoke of Carlsen’s belief in his judgement that, with Fabiano’s time running out fast, he decided, instead of playing for a long-term edge, to give up a pawn to open up paths to the white king:

Grischuk later added:

It shows how much he wants to win this game! After the match with Sergey it’s understandable – there it took him 10 games to finally win one!

This was the kind of Magnus we’d seen back then in Wijk aan Zee:

The gamble was richly rewarded, with Carlsen gaining a totally dominant position by move 34:

Our commentary team, unarmed with computers, pointed out that switching the queen to the queenside looked crushing, with 34…Qe5 threatening both to infiltrate with the queen among the white queenside pawns, or to bring the rook to g3. In looked so hopeless for White that time no longer seemed such a factor, “now Caruana can have one and a half days and it will just prolong his suffering” (Grischuk) and it was just a question of whether White would make it to move 40.

Suddenly, though, Magnus began to go astray (beginning 34…h5!?), remaining focused solely on the kingside. Svidler noted the position, “looks much more survivable”. Fabiano later commented, “it was only when Magnus played 39…Qg7 that I felt like I might escape this one”, but objectively there was a still a win available for Black until the final move that needed to be made before the players received an extra 50 minutes on their clocks after move 40:

Magnus himself let his time drop to under a minute before playing 40…Bxc3?, and after the pawns were exchanged with 41.Qxf4 the escape was well and truly on for Fabi. Watching commentators gave their verdicts on what we’d witnessed:

And a living legend:

The job wasn’t done just yet for the US challenger, though, since after 41…Bd4 he had to pick his poison:

Grischuk explained that if he was certain that 42.Re2 didn’t lose by force it’s the move he would have picked, since in that case it was conceivable “by a miracle” that White could also win. Instead Caruana exchanged queens with 42.Qf7+ and settled in for a grim defence. Magnus later commented:

Obviously the games are going to be long – it’s a World Championship. I’m going to try even though I felt that the chance had passed. I’m going to try and squeeze every little drop of water out of the stone. If it doesn’t work it doesn’t work, but that’s the way you have to play!

We got another 73 moves and 3 hours of play before the game finally ended on move 115, with Caruana having made the defence look about as comfortable as it could in the circumstances:

For some more insight into the game check out Niclas Huschenbeth’s analysis - for most future rounds Peter Svidler will do a recap, but this weekend he’s had to step in to play for Baden-Baden in the Chess Bundesliga:

Psychologically, who did the game favour? Well, Caruana had the relief of pulling off what he admitted was a “fortunate save”, but it was another in a tough sequence of games against Carlsen. As Grischuk put it:

Caruana defended very well from some point, but it’s a little bit of a bad sign for him that this year it’s already their third or fourth game, and in each one he gets outplayed just entirely. All games – this game with 2.Bc4 in Norway Chess, the Petroff in St. Louis, and one more game in GRENKE… and today. It just could be 4:0 in those games, quite easily, but on the other hand, the fact that he saved 3 out of 4 of those games should give him optimism.

Magnus pointed out that in terms of the standings a draw with Black is never bad:

I’m not too thrilled, but nevertheless if you look at it from a pure standings point of view things are slightly better than they were yesterday, which is a good thing.

You can check out the full post-game press conference below:

Fabiano has Black in Saturday’s Game 2 and is likely to come under serious pressure, but on the other hand, his success in 2018 has in many ways been built around wins with the black pieces. You won’t want to miss it, and while Peter Svidler is away playing himself Alexander Grischuk is planning to join Sopiko Guramishvili for the full show… as well as play Banter Blitz afterwards! If you missed his first session it’s well worth watching now on our shows page.

So make sure to tune into our Game 2 commentary here on chess24 from 16:00 CET!

See also:

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