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Reports Nov 20, 2018 | 11:21 AMby Colin McGourty

Carlsen-Caruana 8: Fabi lets another chance slip

Fabiano Caruana missed his best chance yet to take the lead in the match as he got the better of Magnus Carlsen in the opening to Game 8 but then hesitated and played too modestly at the critical moment. The World Champion’s position was on the verge of collapse, but he pounced instantly when given a chance to steer the game to an 8th consecutive draw, admitting afterwards that he was “happy to have survived”. That leaves only four games remaining in London before potential tiebreaks.

Magnus and Fabiano have a different approach to chess | photo: Niki Riga

It’s been 8 draws so far in London, but you really can’t complain when they’re as exciting as Game 8 was. Replay all the action with computer analysis using the selector below:

And even better, if you have the time, relive some of the action with the commentary of Peter Svidler, Sopiko Guramishvili and Alexander Grischuk:

And for an in-depth look at what happened in the game, check out Peter Svidler’s recap:

1. Caruana wins the opening battle

Fabiano again opened 1.e4, which this time got the stamp of approval of Demis Hassabis, co-founder of AlphaZero creators DeepMind:

Magnus went for the Sicilian, but after three Rossolimos in a row with 1…c5 2.Nf3 Nc6 3.Bb5, Fabiano Caruana chose Game 8 to finally go for 3.d4 and an Open Sicilian:

After 3…cxd4 4.Nxd4 Nf6 5.Nc3 e5 it was the Sveshnikov, while after 6.Ndb5 d6 Caruana and his team chose the second most popular move, 7.Nd5, avoiding the main lines after 7.Bg5:

Anish Giri had also noticed that the highest profile recent game to continue 7…Nxd5 8.exd5 was played by a former World Champion:

Magnus played 8…Nb8 rather than 8…Ne7, though, and both players moved relatively quickly until the modest 12.Bd2 (rather than the natural 12.Be3, attacking the a7-pawn as well as developing a piece) appeared on the board:

Only a handful of games had been played in this sideline, including two by Grigoriy Oparin against Boris Gelfand in the 2017 Nutcracker Battle of the Generations Tournament in Moscow. Magnus thought for 9 minutes before replying 12…f5, while 13.a5 had only ever been played this year by chess24 author Niclas Huschenbeth.

Niclas’ opponent played 13…Nf6 rather than the 13…a6 of Magnus, but Niclas considered best play to be what followed in the game: 14.Na3 e4 15.Nc4 Ne5 16.Nb6 Rb8 17.f4 exf3 18.Bxf3:

Niclas needn’t be too critical with himself for missing what Magnus played now, however, since although 18…g5?! meant guaranteed excitement for chess fans…

…Peter later concluded it was likely losing by force. What had happened? Well, given the relatively fast speed of the previous moves the hypothesis that Magnus mixed up his preparation looks very plausible:

Carlsen would later say when asked if he was satisfied with his seconds:

My team are there working their asses off and I’m very happy with them. It’s just up to me to do better.

2. Fabiano’s goal-mouth opportunity

When Caruana took jujst 5 minutes to respond 19.c4, Magnus must have feared the worst. Grischuk commented:

Magnus definitely doesn't like such positions with the king weakened and it purely tactical. Such a position can even stop him from playing the Sveshnikov… I think he hates his position.

Another tough day at the office for Magnus | photo: Niki Riga

The problem was that there was no longer any easy way to bail out. The World Champion said afterwards:

I thought my position was dangerous, obviously, and the time situation wasn’t great either, but I couldn’t see a good way to deviate. That was the main issue, so I just had to go for the sharp line and hope for the best, basically.   

Play continued 19…f4 20.Bc3! Bf5 (20…Qc7!? seemed to be the computer’s defence of choice, though it may just delay the c-pawn advance):

Magnus spent 21 minutes over this move, and had already resigned himself to the obvious follow-up. Alexander Grischuk had given a complicated formula in the previous game for how likely a bold move was to be made based on how long a player thought, but when asked how likely 21.c5! was from Caruana here he commented:

Here I think it’s less than 5 minutes - c5, 5-20 minutes - c5, more than 20 minutes - c5. A little bit of a different position!

Fabiano himself confirmed that afterwards, since despite eventually thinking for 34 minutes he explained:

I actually didn’t consider another move besides c5, but I still thought I should think about it before playing it.

That was obviously questionable time management, but Fabiano had taken occasional 30-minute thinks in a few games in the match without adverse effects, and he got some backup from Peter Svidler. The 8-time Russian Champion noted that it was potentially more challenging for Magnus if Fabi thought here rather than stopping to think a couple of moves later, when the position (and calculation) would be simplified for the World Champion. 

Caruana has remained icily calm in London, but so far hasn't quite managed to land a killer blow | photo: Niki Riga

In any case, it meant the excitement around the match reached fever pitch, since while computers at an average depth were showing that White was slightly better, more powerful silicon considered c5 almost game over:

In the end, of course, it came:

The first fork in the road was after 21…Nxf3+ 22.Qxf3 dxc5:

Fabi quickly played 23.Rad1, and since it was also the move Magnus said he considered the main line it was hard to criticise. Objectively, however, it turns out that 23.Rae1 was “sort of mathematically winning”, as Svidler pointed out in his recap, based on the brilliant point that after 23…Bf6 White should play 24.h4!!, and 24…h6 can be met by 25.g4!.

Svidler couldn’t justify all the decisions Fabi took, though, adding, “I think the next move you can and should criticize”. The critical moment of the whole game, and for all we know a turning point in chess history, came after Magnus responded 23…Bd6. Fabiano’s 23.h3?!, stopping 23…g4, is a completely understandable move (after 23.Nc4! Magnus felt 23…g4 “should be working”, although computers suggest it isn’t really), but it looks like a timid choice in a dynamic position – not the stuff World Champions are made of.

That’s perhaps unfair, since the move could have been strong if not for a concrete refutation – 24…Qe8!. That should have been possible to find, however, and Magnus played it in under two minutes.

The big move in the position was 24.Qh5!, and it’s White pressing in all lines. The players talked about it afterwards:

Carlsen: I was quite concerned about 24.Qh5. I would probably have to go 24…Bg6 25.Qh6 Rf7 26.Nc4 Bf8 and 27.Qh3 and I dunno. It was very hard for me to evaluate, but it felt like White is having all the fun.

Caruana: Maybe I should go for 24.Qh5 Bg6 25.Qh6, and probably that was a better option. I couldn’t quite make it work, and I underestimated 24…Qe8.

Carlsen: Clearly 24.h3 was a relief for me, since then I knew 24…Qe8 was going to be good and very, very likely save me the game quite comfortably.

An 8th draw

It was remarkable after that missed opportunity how quickly the game fizzled out into nothing, with our soon-to-be resident expert giving his verdict after 25.Nc4 Qg6! 26.Nxd6 Qxd6 27.h4:

Sure enough, it was soon clear nothing would come of the position, with 29…h5! impressing our commentary team:

The bishop is given a solid outpost on g4 and nothing bad could happen to Black any more, with the game ending after 38.Rg5:

So we didn’t have a repeat of New York, where the challenger opened the scoring in Game 8:

Instead we’re left with four games to go, with two Whites and two Blacks apiece. It’s hard to know who has the edge at this point. Fabiano has fashioned two big chances in the last three games, but Magnus has had the pleasure of escaping. 

Facing the press after another draw | photo: Niki Riga

After the game he commented on his emotions:

A bit of relief, obviously, since this was a tough game and he was the one who had all the chances. I’m happy to have survived it, for sure.

Fabiano was asked if it had been like missing a penalty:

I don’t think the position was ever quite like that. Of course I had some chances, but it’s not like it’s always going to work out, and just because you put some pressure on Magnus it doesn’t mean he’s going to collapse.

When he gets the chance to look at the game more deeply afterwards, however, the suspicion is he’ll rue the fact that he didn’t at least make Magnus fight for a half point.

Tiebreaks are of course looming large by now, and Carlsen should be a big favourite there, but Peter Svidler couldn’t believe the World Champion might actively try to play for them:

I think Magnus takes so much pride in being better than everybody else that he is not even subconsciously aiming for 6:6. He knows it's ok for him, but I don't think that was the plan going into the match, nor is it the plan now.

For Game 9 on Wednesday we’ll have world no. 5 Anish Giri alongside Peter Svidler in our Hamburg studio, with world no. 9 Alexander Grischuk calling in again from Moscow!

Before that though, the “weak link”  Peter Svidler will be playing Banter Blitz on the rest day, starting at 16:00 CET, the same time the games in London start. Don’t miss the chance to play him in what will likely be another 2+ hour show!

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