Reports Nov 16, 2018 | 9:39 AMby Colin McGourty

Carlsen-Caruana 5: Magnus can't match his idol

The first five games of the 2018 World Chess Championship match in London have now been drawn, after Magnus Carlsen turned out to be well-prepared for some Fabiano Caruana aggression in the opening. Magnus slow-played that stage of the game, which Alexander Grischuk felt tempted Fabiano into taking a gamble that could have backfired. The Carlsen of 3-4 years ago, who Magnus called his “favourite player from the past” in the post-game press conference, lived for grinding out slightly better endgames. The 2018 version, however, let his prey slip from his grasp almost immediately.

Magnus after Fabiano unleashed the 6.b4 gambit | photo: Niki Riga

Magnus said after Game 4 that he’d probably just prepare for the next game on the rest day, but while he no doubt did that he also stuck to his usual tournament routine of getting in some sport:

He may still have been thinking about his opponent!

It was Fabiano who would come out punching in Game 5, in a clash that has now been analysed by Peter Svidler. As Grischuk put it, “I don’t need to check – there is Peter’s recap!”

You can also replay all the games with computer analysis using the selector below:

A bold opening

Once again in Game 5 we got the Rossolimo Sicilian, but Fabiano Caruana also stuck to his plan of being the first to vary. He went for 4.0-0 instead of capturing on c6, and then set the board on fire with the gambit 6.b4. When Magnus took 5 minutes to respond, and also took the same time on his next two moves, it seemed that Fabiano might have caught his opponent out in a super-sharp position.

On the other hand, it was barely conceivable that the World Champion’s team hadn’t considered this option, since the list of players to have gone for it was extensive, including:

Or with an exchange on c6 first:

One player to have faced the opening was Alexander Grischuk, who was deeply unimpressed!

It was a weird preparation by Fabiano. This b4, it’s not like it’s something new, not even close to it. Even I think two years ago Bacrot played it against me in Paris rapid, so it’s nothing new. It’s a little bit cheap to hope that Magnus simply doesn’t know this move, when ok, it’s clear that Magnus prepared this Sveshnikov and Rossolimo with g6 for the World Championship match. It’s not like he’s playing it just from scratch or something. It’s either some major blunder by his team during preparation, or I don’t know what. I don’t know what they were hoping for.

After the game Magnus limited his comments to, “Obviously the move b4 wasn’t new to me - that’s all I’m gonna say”, while Fabiano explained:

Well, this line is really interesting and if Black is cooperative it can get very exciting, but Magnus knew the line quite well and I think played in a very logical way.

The critical position of the opening perhaps came after 11…Ne7:


Whether either player was aware of it or not, it was known to theory:

In his live commentary Grischuk expressed the hypothesis that Fabiano knew the main line here was 12.cxd6 Qxd6 13.d4, after which White is running no risks but the game will likely end in a draw. However, tempted by the slow speed at which Magnus had been playing, he decided to gamble with 12.Qe2!?, when Black needs to play precisely (for instance, 12…b4! is an only move) to avoid ending up worse. We may never know if that was case – as Grischuk noted, it’s not something Fabiano’s going to admit in a press conference – but what was clear was that after 13.Qc4 Qa5! and the subsequent play leading up to 18…Ra8! Black was doing very well:


After the game Magnus described the opening as “a great success”:

To be honest, I was pretty happy about the opening. I felt as though after it calmed down only Black can ever really be better, but I couldn’t find a way to push.

In this position Caruana settled into a 32-minute think:

Sopiko Guramishvili perhaps got more than she bargained for when she asked Alexander Grischuk what Fabiano could be thinking so long about!

Actually for me it’s very easy to understand such a thought process. Basically it’s very easy to explain, it’s just, basically, “Hmm, I don’t like Bc3. Kc7 I don’t like. Shit, why have I got this position? Ok, Nc3 Nb4 Rd1, ok, maybe interesting. Ah no, Kc7, aha, shit, why have I got into this position?” And so on, with circles going around. Then ok, there are maybe some thoughts of something just completely unrelated to chess come into your mind at some point, and so on. This is basically how my whole career in chess is going!

Peter Svidler backed up his Russian colleague:

I fully endorse what Alexander said there. That would be my first guess as well. I wanted to hear you say it, because everything is funnier when you say it, but yeah, it’s basically a combination of 3-move lines which you don’t like with this overriding emotion of, “Why am I playing this position?”   

The replay of the live commentary below should start at that moment, but you can of course rewind and fast-forward to see the whole show:

Fabiano eventually settled on 19.Bc3, and seemed to be in for a very long and tough day at the office, but as in previous games in the match Magnus let him off lightly. After 19…Kxc7 20.d3!? he took 22 minutes himself to play 20…Kb6!?, which seemed to give up almost all the advantage:


The more promising alternative was 20…b5!, since after 20…Kb6 21.Bd2! it turned out that White now had everything under control. Both players were precise after that, with the black king going on an interesting journey:

When it reached e4 Grischuk was happy, since he’s admitted he’s a fan of relatively quick draws! He had fun with the after-game acronyms used on the internet ("good game", "well-played", "for the win"…):

Ke4, ok, so well done, Magnus! gg, wp, ftw, ftd… ftd! For the draw!

As in Game 4, the fifth game ended on move 34:

The final handshake | photo: Niki Riga

The way the game eventually went could be considered a disappointment for Magnus, who had won the opening battle but then failed not only to win but even to apply pressure. It wasn’t the Magnus we all recall from a few years ago, so that the funniest moment of the post-game press conference was also almost poignant:

I’m not really the person to have idols. I admire what people can do, not necessarily the people themselves, and I would say, keeping that in mind, my favourite player from the past is probably myself like 3-4 years ago!

The follow-up to that question requires some back story. Ian Rogers introduced himself with, “not sure who I’m working for at the moment”, which related to a decision he’d tweeted earlier in the day:

The question of how to handle “videogate” is one everyone has had to deal with. The relevant screenshot from a Saint Louis Chess Club video on Fabiano’s preparation has become ubiquitous…

…but not everyone has seen it. Grischuk commented on our show when asked if he wasn’t curious:

I am, but I really don’t respect paparazzi and people who do this stuff, and I respect chess players in general, they’re my colleagues, and I don’t want to get information like that. 

Svidler meanwhile commented on Ian Rogers losing his job:

It’s a confusing story and it’s just regrettable that it seems like it is now influencing real life, and not even the real life of people involved with the match directly, so that bit I felt was quite sad.

Back to the press conference, though, where Ian Rogers referred to the Magnus of 3-4 years ago:

Rogers: Will you ever be able to emulate your idol?

Carlsen: No, he won his first game in Game 5 of the World Championship, so that ship has sailed!

The five draws at the start of the match aren’t unprecedented, of course.


It was difficult to tell who was the happier, Magnus... | photo: Niki Riga

...or Fabiano? | photo: Niki Riga

In the last match in New York the first seven games were drawn, before Sergey Karjakin won in Game 8. This time we’re entering into a key stage, since on both Friday and then Sunday Magnus will have the white pieces. He was asked what that meant:

It’s like any round-robin tournament. If you have a double White or a double Black you kind of single that out as the tournament starts as that’s either your opportunity to strike, or when you’re at your most vulnerable. I’m looking forward to it, obviously!

On the other hand, so far Black has been dominating the match. Magnus added:

I’m more or less happy with the way things are going with Black and, as is visible with the naked eye, there’s serious room for improvement with White.

Unless he wins in Game 6 the momentary advantage will essentially have gone, since after that Fabiano will have a rest day before just a single game with the black pieces again. That means if there’s one game in which to strike it’s this one, so you won’t want to miss live commentary once again with Peter Svidler, Sopiko Guramishvili and Alexander Grischuk!

See also:


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