Interviews Nov 25, 2014 | 5:04 AMby Colin McGourty

Caruana on Carlsen-Anand and much more

On the day Magnus Carlsen retained the World Championship title his greatest rival, 22-year-old Fabiano Caruana, talked to Vlad Tkachiev. The conversation started with the match in Sochi, about which the world no. 2 has some strong opinions, but it soon moved on to more general topics such as Carlsen’s weaknesses, the problems with the World Championship system in general and whether Fabiano will consider playing for the US.

This interview has been translated with permission from the Russian original at Tkachiev’s new blog, ChEsSay.

Fabiano Caruana: “It’s possible!”

The world no. 2 on the match in Sochi, his triumph in St. Louis,
his plans for the future and much more…

Text: Vlad Tkachiev
Photos: Irina Stepaniuk

Vlad Tkachiev: Fabiano, what happened today in the 11th game?

Fabiano Caruana: Anand tried to get a sharp position, as otherwise he could perfectly well have repeated the line with 9…Ke8, 10…h5 and, perhaps, have held it, as he did in the previous games. The problem is that over the whole course of the match he played worse than his opponent and he was unable to get to grips with the complex situation that arose.

But how would you explain the move 27…Rb4?

Well, that’s probably a move you’d like to make in blitz.

Why not make a draw in that game and take your chances in the final game, with the white pieces?

Vishy probably didn’t believe in the possibility of beating Magnus in the deciding game. In fact the only time he managed to win in the match it occurred due to Carlsen choosing a terrible variation. In the remaining games he didn’t come close and, it seems, he didn’t really believe in his chances of succeeding in the final encounter.

But still, 27…Rb4 is madness!

Yes, it seems that by that point Anand had already lost control of his nerves.

Were you rooting for anyone in this match?

No, I had no personal preferences.

The only difference is that now Anand will play in the Candidates Tournament rather than Carlsen.

Do you really think Vishy will try to qualify for yet another match with Carlsen?

I’m almost sure that’s the way it’s going to be. At the end of the day, that’s the professional approach, and I don’t think Vishy is currently considering the option of quitting chess.

Did you rate Anand’s chances of victory highly before the match?

He had good results this year and in Dubai during the blitz and rapid chess tournaments he looked more inspired than he had in the last couple of years. Nevertheless, Magnus is now clearly stronger. Before the match I’d have called him the clear favourite, although things didn’t go all that smoothly. In the 3rd game he was let down by his preparation, but overall he never got into any serious danger in Sochi.

Do you think the turning point of the match was the 6th game, when Anand failed to find 26…Nxe5?

That was a tough blow for him, of course, but that situation arose absolutely by chance. What was strange was instead Anand choosing an opening variation that involved a transition to a worse ending for Black. Moreover, it was all well-known. And it was also the type of position in which Magnus is particularly strong. It was simply inexplicable. If you fail to spot a one-move win, of course, it’s hard to count on much in such a match.

What was Vishy’s main mistake in this match?

The strange way in which he twice played the Sicilian Defence. Already on the first attempt it didn’t go so well, but he continued it a second time. The whole course of the match in Sochi showed that Carlsen had nothing special prepared against the Berlin and Vishy should have stuck to his guns. The idea of playing the Paulsen was very bad and very strange, in my view.

Did the match surprise you in any way?

No, except for that mutual blunder with 26…Nxe5 in the 6th game it was all more or less normal. But such things happen – just think, for instance, of mate in a few moves being missed in the second game of the Topalov-Kramnik match. It was another matter the way it all ended so abruptly. I expected a draw in the 11th game and a big battle in the 12th.

Do you think you’d be able to withstand the enormous mental stress of a World Championship match?

It’s hard for me to say since I’ve never played at that level. I think I’d manage to remain calm and focussed, but until you find yourself in such a situation it’s impossible to judge.

What do you consider Carlsen’s main weakness?

He’s considered a great endgame specialist, but when he’s forced to defend he’s hardly stronger than other top players. In the past openings were a weak spot and he had problems with principled players who went for main lines – for example, with Kramnik… (by the way, Vishy is also well-known precisely for such an approach to the opening.) Then, however, Magnus paid attention to that aspect and did a lot of work. Overall, you can outplay him in many types of positions if you play strongly. Yes, it’s not easy, but it’s possible.

I recently beat Carlsen first in an endgame, and then in a very complex unclear struggle. He’s still a man. The main thing is not to be too scared of him!

Doesn’t it seem to you that many players – particularly Anand – experience great psychological problems playing against Carlsen?

Yes, it’s obvious that in Chennai that’s how it was. I noticed it earlier than that in 2013, I think, when they played in the Tal Memorial and Magnus chose the Nimzowitsch Defence for White with 4.e3 and 5.Nge2. Vishy was very nervous before the game and during it as well. So I think he has a certain psychological vulnerability when it comes to Carlsen.

If the match included not only games at the classical time control but also rapid and blitz would Anand’s chances be greater?

Of course in that case it would all become more unpredictable, although in principle I consider Carlsen even stronger in rapid time controls. Personally it’s more comfortable for me to play Carlsen at “slow chess”.  

Despite the fact you’ve already beaten Magnus in both rapid and blitz?

I consider myself a decent rapid player, but I’m a lot less comfortable in blitz. In the latter case my score against Carlsen isn’t too good, although of course I was bound to beat him at some point.

An Aronian-Nakamura match is taking place in St. Louis just now. Did the American organisers offer you something similar?

No, but it seems to me that Rex Sinquefield is planning to organise a series of matches between top chess players and this is just the first. I’ve got no idea if he’s thinking of doing something with my participation. It’s possible he has long-term chess plans.

Do you think the current World Championship system should be changed? I’ve got in mind the World Championship title and the privileges it brings.

Of course you could improve the system a lot – for instance, with a series of tournaments involving the world’s top chess players to decide who the best is that year. At the moment the World Champion only needs to win the match for the crown and for the rest of the time he can play how he likes.

Yes, Carlsen is now unquestionably the strongest player in the world, but overall the system doesn’t reflect who’s best at the current moment, since the Champion only needs to win one match and wait for the next.

However, to make such changes you need a more effective organisation than FIDE. It’s enough to look at what’s happened to the Grand Prix and the Women’s World Championship. It’s pretty ridiculous, but there are no signs it’s going to improve in future, unfortunately.

And what’s wrong with the Grand Prix?

Let’s start with the fact that of the four planned tournaments one of them was supposed to take place in Tehran, where not all of the players would be able to travel – for instance Gelfand. I had that option, but the tournament was scheduled for the same time as Zurich, in which I’d already agreed to play. Besides, the first two tournaments were organised almost one after the other, although there were plenty of available dates. At about the same time the Petrosian Memorial was taking place. I’d have liked to take part in it but was unable to because three events in a row is too much. Plus, over the course of half a year there was no information from them until suddenly we got an e-mail with a demand to take a decision in one week. Two venues for the stages have already been changed: Moscow and Tehran became Khanty-Mansiysk and Tbilisi – no consistency. The prize fund was reduced, so that now if you take a second with you it’s almost impossible to earn anything. That’s unprofessional and lowers motivation, leaving only the desire to qualify for the Candidates Tournament. Grand Prix means “big prize”, but the overall prizes for the results of all the tournaments were simply abolished. If you recall, last year the first prize for the winner of the series was $120,000. Plus the prizes for each particular tournament have been reduced: it was $25,000 for first prize and now it’s $20,000.

Do your colleagues share your opinion about the World Championship?

Yes, I’ve talked with them on the topic. The current system has existed for 70 years already and is clearly out of date.

And have you talked about it with Carlsen?

No, not with him, but I know he talked about the necessity of getting rid of the Champion’s privileges. However, that was before he won the title. (laughs)

Could the same situation arise in chess as in boxing where you have competing world titles? The latest news from Rex Sinquefield makes me wonder about that…

I don’t know what his precise plans are, but I don’t think they conflict with FIDE’s activity. The possibility of a split existed a couple of months ago when Carlsen failed to sign the match contract for Sochi, but in the end nothing of the sort happened – probably for the best, since in that case we might have got the same total chaos as in the 90s after Kasparov and Short created the PCA. Luckily there was no repeat.

Are you planning to return to the American rating list and play for the US team?

No, I’m not planning that at this moment in time. However, I don’t know what will happen in future. Such an option is always there since I’ve got dual citizenship: American and Italian.

If sometime you become World Champion will you consider yourself the second American Champion or the first Italian?

And why not both at once? I consider myself an American since I was born in the States and grew up there. I’m an Italian since my mother is Italian and my ancestors on my father’s side are also Italian.

Can you explain your streak in St. Louis? Changes in your personal life, or just one of those things that happens?

I arrived there after the Tromsø Olympiad ill and with a broken computer, so I wasn’t expecting anything good. I’m not superstitious, but on the plane to the US the person next to me turned out to be the World Champion in some kind of cowboy sport. When I told him I was heading for a chess tournament he replied: “If you want you’ll win it!” But otherwise… it just seems everything came together: my mood, the playing conditions, my sporting form. Usually something doesn’t work out, you have doubts, but not on this occasion. Of course what took place was a unique occurrence – the probability of seven wins in a row is close to zero. But, as it turned out, it’s possible!

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