Magnus Carlsen came into the final classical game of the 2018 World Chess Championship determined to force tiebreaks against Fabiano Caruana on Wednesday, and he got what he wanted, but at what cost? His draw offer on move 31, in a better position with more time, shocked the chess world. Anish Giri noted, “when his life is on the line, suddenly he’s not Magnus anymore,” which was echoed by Garry Kasparov: “Tiebreaks require tremendous nerves and he seems to be losing his.” Will Caissa forgive her wayward favourite?
Whatever happens now Magnus Carlsen will emerge from the World Championship match as the world no. 1, and in rapid and blitz chess on Wednesday he must still be the clear favourite against Fabiano Caruana. Nevertheless, even if everything goes to plan, Game 12 of the match in London may take a while to live down. Peter Svidler takes us through a game that could only be explained in terms of the match situation:
Magnus had famously played a quick draw with the white pieces against Sergey Karjakin in New York to take that match to tiebreaks, and there was no reason to think he’d have a problem with a similar outcome with the black pieces in London. He very nearly got what he wanted.
The game began with the Sveshnikov Sicilian, but in contrast to the two previous games in the match Magnus went for the 2nd most popular move 8…Ne7 instead of 8…Nb8. By move 11 there was already a silent draw offer on the table, but Caruana went for 12.h4, just as Vladimir Kramnik had against Serbia’s Milos Roganovic at the recent Batumi Olympiad. Vlad won that game, but he later told Anish Giri that his opponent’s opening play had been good. This is where things deviated, though, as Magnus replied not with 12…a6 but 12…h5:
That sent Fabiano into a 9-minute think, earning Alexander Grischuk’s almost daily description during the match of, “completely miserable preparation by White.” The move had actually been played in a high enough profile computer game to enter normal databases… by Stockfish against Houdini in the TCEC Season 11 Superfinal!
We never got to find out if Magnus would have replied to the obvious 13.Bg5 with Stockfish’s 13…Qb8!?, since Fabiano eventually went for 13.Qa4, and after 13…Bd7 14.Qb4 Bf5 there was again a draw by 3-fold repetition for the taking:
As Fabiano pondered whether he should accept a draw, down on the clock after being surprised in the opening, Anish Giri, not averse to the occasional draw himself, felt that might be a mistake:
“Bottle” here means “courage” or “willingness to take risks” in colloquial British English, and after 8 minutes Caruana found enough of it to go for 15.Be3!?. It was the first of a number of bold decisions by the challenger, the most dramatic of which came with 21.Rh2!?
When Svidler later commented, “Fabi’s not going to die wondering [what might have been] today”, Grischuk summed things up perfectly with, “Yes, bravo for his sprit. His spirit is much better than his preparation today!"
From here on it was a shaky ride for Fabiano, with the clock not his friend:
Although he did manage to justify the rook lift by bringing the rook to c2, his knight ended up awkwardly placed on f2 and, in almost any other circumstances, Svidler felt 25.f4? would have been a losing move against Magnus:
Grischuk chimed it at around this point, “It looks like Fabiano had Topalov syndrome in this game - just avoiding normal moves to avoid a draw”. That referred to the final game of the 2010 World Championship match against Vishy Anand, when Veselin Topalov committed chess suicide with the white pieces rather than play tiebreaks. This would be the first of many amnesties in the match in London, though, as Magnus quickly played 25…a5 26.Qd2 e4 rather than going for the b5-break or 25…exf4!
Why hadn’t Magnus gone for more? As he said afterwards:
The answer is very simple – this was just not my goal! Once again, my approach was not to unbalance the position at that point. I had a very clear path with a5 and e4 that gave me a completely safe position that I could maybe play for a win. It seemed nonsensical to go for anything else.
Magnus wasn’t bothered about computer evaluations:
Our commentary team had picked up on the World Champion’s approach during the game:
Another gilt-edged chance to win the match in style came on move 29:
Magnus played 29...a4, but 29…Ba4! was shown by Fabiano after the game. 30.b3? would lose to 30…Bxb3!, while 30.Rcc1 would get hit by 29…b5! As Svidler pointed out, this wasn’t one of those extremely difficult computer lines that no-one could be blamed for missing, but something that you probably find if you consider 29…Ba4 at all. As Magnus put it in the press conference, “I probably was not in the right mindset to go for it”. Before the press conference he also gave a brief interview:
The irony, in a way, was that despite not really pushing for it Magnus still had an extremely promising position as well as a more than 20-minute advantage on the clock. Vladimir Kramnik was giving it as 50:50 whether Caruana would survive… when suddenly, it was all over!
Fabiano Caruana later described himself as, “a bit surprised by the draw offer,” and even paused to think about it. Psychologically that was a show of strength, but as Grischuk noted, it was the kind of offer you might be tempted to accept if you were trailing by a point in the match and it still meant defeat but would save a few rating points! Whereas in this case…
The shock reverberated around the chess world, with former World Champions not exempt:
Norwegian and US fans were equally stunned:
And other top players were shocked or disappointed:
Carlsen’s words afterwards did nothing to diminish what was perceived almost as a crime against chess and all the champion had stood for:
I dunno, but to be honest I was just trying to make natural moves. Everybody could see that I wasn’t necessarily going for the maximum. I just wanted a position that was completely safe and where I could put some pressure, but I mean – if a draw hadn’t been a satisfactory result obviously I would have approached it differently.
Perhaps only how Anish Giri held a mug came in for as much opprobrium:
It’s highly-recommended that you check out how our own commentators Giri, Svidler and Grischuk reacted to the news of the draw, just when they were reflecting that they’d never heard the words, “I offer a draw,” come out of Magnus' mouth (and Grischuk was midway through an anecdote about the German/Norwegian coastguard and "I am sinking/thinking"...). The video should be cued up to start at that moment, while they go on to have a fascinating 30+ minute discussion of the match result, tiebreaks and the general ramifications for chess. Does something need to change?
Just as a teaser, you wouldn’t want to miss Alexander Grischuk’s alternative tiebreak system!
So where does that all leave us? Well, Magnus is where he wanted to be before the game started, going into tiebreaks after a historic sequence of all the classical games of a World Championship match ending in draws:
The format on Wednesday, starting at the usual time, will be as follows - if there’s a winner in any of these mini-matches he takes the title with no more games played:
It could be a very long day, but what can we expect? Well, before the match Hikaru Nakamura had been scathing of Fabiano Caruana’s chances, but he’s clearly been impressed by what he’s seen:
On the other hand, one of the reasons Nakamura had so little faith in Caruana winning was that he felt tiebreaks would mean almost certain victory for Magnus. The World Champion is the rapid and blitz world no. 1 and generally considered even better at those forms of chess than at classical chess - as an intuitive player his level of play seems to drop less than that of other players when he speeds up. He also specialises in tiebreaks when titles are on the line:
And of course, unlike Fabiano, he’s been there and done that:
Still, there’s little doubt Fabiano has put a lot of work into perfecting his speed chess skills in the run-up to the match, and if you combine that with a little luck with preparation, and some nerves from the champion, anything could still happen.
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