Interviews Jun 16, 2022 | 11:29 AMby Colin McGourty

Caruana: "I don’t really buy into what Magnus says"

Fabiano Caruana was the one player who attended the FIDE Candidates Tournament Opening Press Conference on Wednesday, with the 2018 World Championship Challenger talking tournament tactics and tension, giving his verdict on Magnus Carlsen potentially not playing a match against the winner, and discussing the stunning rise of 18-year-old Alireza Firouzja.

You can watch the Opening Press Conference in full below.

We've transcribed Fabiano Caruana's answers:

Caruana on the tension of the Candidates

I think the tension of this tournament is only really one-upped by the World Championship match. For me that was probably the highest tension I’ve ever felt in my life, because of course, although chess is a game, it still feels massively important when you’re in the midst of it. 

And I think the most important thing to understand is that all the players here, from their childhood, they’ve had one dream, which is to become World Champion. 

So everyone here is working as hard as possible not just in the last year since they qualified for the tournament, but in the last twenty years, or in the case of some players in the tournament they haven’t been alive 20 years, but pretty much their entire life has been devoted to chess and to this moment of winning this tournament and qualifying for the match. Even that is not the final step, of course, because even after winning this tournament you still have the last and hardest battle. 

So that explains the massive difficulty of this tournament, and the tension just comes with that, it accumulates, it starts from the first game and it gradually progresses, and that’s why I think the final games of this tournament are usually where the difference is made, where it shows who can handle the stress and tension best, because all the players here are quite similar in strength, or very close, and we usually see it in past Candidates Tournaments that the most important moments, and the way the winner’s decided, is in the last few games, the last few days of this tournament.

Did winning the 2018 Candidates change his life?

Fabiano Caruana at the Candidates Opening Press Conference | photo: Stev Bonhage, FIDE

It made a big change for that year. It was amazing, of course, to have the chance to play a World Championship match and be able to prepare at that level and to devote all my time and resources into it with my team, and it definitely helped my evolution as a chess player. 

But because I wasn’t able to win the World Championship match in 2018, I can’t say that it really changed my life too significantly. 

It was still an amazing opportunity and I hope I’ll be able to get it again, but I don’t feel like my life changed so dramatically. I think it would have if I had won the match, but because I didn’t it more or less went back to a normal chess player’s life for me.

Caruana on how to win the Candidates

Everyone is only fighting for first place, and there’s really no point in anything else besides first, but you can’t will wins into existence. 

You’re not playing against players who will just roll over, so the best approach is probably more or less to be patient and not to panic if you don’t start winning games right off the bat. 

In 2018 Caruana lost to Karjakin 3 rounds before the end, but hit straight back

In 2018, I did I think start winning games right from the start, which was very good, but two games before the end I was not in the lead, Karjakin was in the lead on tiebreaks, and he had lost his first few games. So I think it's more about patience, because you don’t know when your chance in this tournament will come. It’s 14 rounds, you can start badly and still have a good chance, and you can start well and things fall apart.

We’ve seen that also happen to players in the past, that they have tremendous scores and it just doesn’t work out. I think there was one Candidates when Aronian was on +4, the one where Magnus won in 2013, and also where Magnus and Kramnik were on +4 before the last round, and +4, it wasn’t even clear if it would make it. So it’s very unpredictable, it’s not certain that starting well will guarantee victory or that you have to push for wins right from the start. I think we’ve seen that patience and waiting for your chance is usually the strategy that pays off for most of the past winners.

On his performing almost as well with Black as with White

It’s a small sample size and there probably wouldn’t be a huge variance for most players between White and Black, because in modern chess these days the gap between the difference in colour has narrowed a bit. 

I’ve spoken to players of past generations who were saying that in the 80s and 90s they were basically in a panic over what to do against e4 on the first move, they just didn’t have an opening. It was like, what do you play, how do you survive against Kasparov playing e4? 

And now with the advent of computers we know that so many openings are playable and you have a wide choice of how to play with the black pieces, so it doesn’t feel so much like White has the advantage that it used to be. But I haven’t seen the exact statistics of every player, so I don’t know how that pans out in practice.

On the €500,000 prize fund and getting €3,500 for a half point

I think many tournaments have adopted systems that encourage more decisive results. We’ve seen the football scoring system adopted in some tournaments, we’ve seen even recently in Norway Chess they had these Armageddon tiebreakers at the end of draws, but in this tournament there’s only one motivation, which is to win and qualify for the match. I don’t actually look at the prize fund in this tournament, and I didn’t know what it was before you mentioned it, because anything which isn’t first place to me would be considered a disappointment, but normally speaking for tournaments, of course, money is a motivator and players will try to fight for more money, so a system which encourages more decisive results makes sense.

On 2nd place being enough if Magnus Carlsen declines to play a match

I don’t really buy into what Magnus says, although he usually speaks his mind and speaks honestly. 

Just to give some context, he said that he’s not certain to play the next World Championship match, depending on his opponent. I don’t really know what that means and I didn’t give it much consideration, and also maybe it’s based on his feelings at the moment, but those feelings could change. 

If I were in his position there’s no way that I would not take up the challenge regardless of who wins the Candidates and who qualifies. 

To me a World Championship match is a unique challenge in itself and I would look forward to it, obviously from my position, but also if I was in his position. I understand it’s a bit different as he's been in that spot more than anyone in modern chess, but to me I look at this tournament as still only a first place will qualify.

How do you play for anything which is not first place? It can be as a happy accident second place could play a match, but you would never play for anything besides first place, so it would maybe only be a lucky break for one player but not something to aim for.

On Alireza Firouzja’s chances

Alireza Firouzja had a look around the venue, but didn't answer questions himself | photo: Stev Bonhage, FIDE

It’s hard to say. Of course he’s not a very experienced player, he’s super-gifted, he’s super-strong, but he hasn’t played in this event before and it is a different event from the ones he’s played in. But the first time I played the Candidates I was also not very experienced, and I got very close to winning it, with some things maybe going my way a bit differently I would have won it on my first try. So I don’t think that it’s impossible for a first-timer to potentially win the tournament, and I think he’s also quite smart in his approach to chess, how he prepares, he has a team, he takes things seriously, so I would say of course he has chances, for sure.

His ascent to this world no. 2 position was also a little bit of momentum. I don’t think it fully conveyed his level compared to the other players in the world. 

I don’t think he was at a higher level than other top players in the world, but momentum also carries you very far, and I’ve experienced myself and I think many, many players have. We’ve seen periods when one player has this push and goes to let’s say 2820 or 2830, and I think many of the players in this tournament, for example Nakamura at some point reached 2820 level, and around that same time also, ok, players who aren’t playing the tournament, but Grischuk and Giri and Wesley, many players had that push to the no. 2 position, to this very high level, and then there was some adjustment. But it shows that every player in this tournament is capable of playing at that level, so if they have it at the right moment, right now, then they can win, and that’s the most important thing, that the player also has that bit of momentum and luck on their side, which is necessary to win this tournament.

On whether he’s representing Spain

I love Spain, but I’m not going to represent Spain. 

My connection to the country is my parents have lived here for about two years, and probably it’s the country I’ve most visited outside of the United States. 

The first time I was here, it was also for a chess tournament, it was already 22 years ago, which makes me sound a bit old, but it was a youth tournament, the World Championship for I think it was U10 through U18, the World Youth Championship. I think now it’s even younger, U6 and stuff like that, but it was in Oropesa del Mar, so I’ve been playing here and also visiting for pleasure for the better part of two decades, and it's a beautiful country. 

I was really happy when I heard the news that we'd be playing in Madrid, because not only do I visit here often and feel comfortable here, but it’s also a great location for the players and also I think for the spectators, because it’s very important to have chess tournaments in major cities, and Madrid is certainly a major city and a beautiful one.

In Round 1 Fabiano will be facing his US rival Hikaru Nakamura, in their 47th classical game!

The FIDE Candidates Tournament kicks off at 15:00 CEST this Friday, June 17, with Judit Polgar and Jan Gustafsson commentating live here on chess24.

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