In order to achieve such a result against opposition consisting exclusively of top-10 players a lot of things must fall into place: the openings, the mental set-up (both of the player himself and that of the opponents), the small (and big) decisions during the game.
Breaking it down on a game-to-game basis, Caruana had it look smooth from the very beginning. Topalov, who showed fine form at the Olympiad by winning gold medal on board 1, went too aggressive and Caruana’s solid position soaked up the pressure and busted the Bulgarian on the counterattack. In round 2 “things started to fall into place” as he won the game in his preparation when Vachier missed the best defence in a Caro Kann. Then it was Carlsen’s turn to make it look as if points were falling to Caruana from the sky – his odd opening led him to trouble, but then in the mess that followed Caruana showed that he also fully deserved those points: fantastic calculation and control won him the game. Another strong opening idea against Aronian (15 Na2!) followed by forceful play netted another point. Nakamura didn’t get anything as white in a Slav and Caruana outplayed him thoroughly – another sign that the quality of his moves was way above the others’. Then another strong opening idea against Topalov followed by forceful play – the same scenario as against Aronian. A surprise choice of the QGD against Vachier (instead of his usual Grunfeld) signified that he was happy to play it safe, but that didn’t mean he was ready to draw just yet – Vachier’s weird play at the beginning of the middlegame was duly punished and we got to the historical 7/7.
To generalise, Caruana’s play followed a pattern – excellent opening play (either obtaining advantage – Vachier from round 2, Aronian, Topalov from round 6, or simply a good and solid position – Topalov from round 1, Carlsen, Nakamura, Vachier from round 7) followed by accurate and aggressive play afterwards. A rather sensible game plan, easy to define, almost impossible to execute, the latter part especially. There is no secret behind Caruana’s result, we all know what should be done, it’s just that the doing part is so hard. And doing means playing moves of the highest quality, all the time. Every single move should be of the highest quality. Fantastic preparation plus moves of the highest quality plus, and here lies the difference, the opponent’s failure to keep it up with those moves (mind you, every day a different opponent, all of them incredibly strong players capable of coming up with moves of the highest quality, cracking on the exact day when they played Caruana – this is the ultimate luck in chess) led to this result.
Caruana continued with strong play against Carlsen in round 8 and was close to winning there as well, but his previous game with Vachier showed that he was already happy to slow things down, as if he subconsciously didn’t believe he can win more (he even said something similar in the press conference, that he would have been happy with a draw in that game). The missed elementary win against Nakamura further convinced me of this and he also drew with Aronian in the last round, making a no less historic 8.5/10. Caruana wrote history in this tournament and the expectations of his future results are even higher now.
I noted a difference between Carlsen now and one year ago. Back then he was focused, accurate and very technical, with solid openings and all ready to go at Anand in Chennai. This year, starting with the Olympiad he was choosing strange openings in some games: Scandinavian against Caruana and Bird’s Spanish against Saric with black and Closed Sicilian against Wojtaszek and a peculiar treatment of the Slav against Solak as white. Here his white opening against Caruana from round 3 was pretty bad while with black the Maroczy against the same Caruana and the Steinitz Deferred in the Spanish against Nakamura also raised my eyebrows. I suppose it is an attempt to get some training in different positions. I think that he expects Anand to go for sharper stuff in the match, so he uses these as a way to get more practice in complex positions. He is no stranger to this (remember the Chigorin against Kramnik in London 2010?) but he largely abandoned that practice in the last few years. Another thing I noticed is that he started making mistakes in technical positions – missing a win against Naiditsch at the Olympiad and Aronian in round 9 and allowing Vachier to escape with a draw in round 6. Until these two tournaments this was something unheard of, he was winning more drawn positions than the one he got against Vachier. He did, however, win a good technical game against Aronian with black, so things are not that terrible for him. Alekhine said that technique is nerves, so Carlsen probably needs to do some calming down before his match with Anand.
Of the rest of the field Topalov was a pleasant surprise. After starting with 0/2, with that horrible loss against Aronian in round 2 I expected him to collapse and he was on the verge of it – he was close to losing in round 3 against Nakamura! Luckily for him, Nakamura turned out to be in an even worse shape and Topalov went on to win the game – this obviously gave him a lot of positive energy and confidence and in spite of losing to Caruana again (due to a very strong novelty by the winner) he went on to beat Vachier and Nakamura in fine style. It’s obvious though that he stands no chance in the fight for the title (or for victory in tournaments of this kind), he’s way too unstable and this year’s Candidates clearly showed his weaknesses. He’s also noted this himself in recent interviews, but his play is always exciting and his openings always full with fresh ideas.
Aronian continues his freefall after the Candidates. I thought his +3 at the Olympiad got him out of the hole, but it happened to be just a happy interlude in an otherwise gloomy year. After the lucky win against Topalov in round 2 he lost 3 in a row, something so rare that I wonder if it’s not the first time that has happened to him. Another rare thing is seeing him below the 2800-mark – at the age of 31 (32 in October) Aronian enters a critical phase of his career – the young players (mainly Caruana, but don’t forget the likes of Giri, Rapport, Wei Yi…) are coming and his chances of a successful assault on the throne are diminishing. It has always been psychological with him, I just wonder why he hasn’t managed to resolve that issue by now.
Vachier finished on -2 and it was a mixed experience for him. He had his highs – beating Aronian, but he also had his lows – the white game against Caruana (14 Qa4, 15 g3), the evaluation mistake in the Najdorf against Topalov, the unlucky opening disaster in the black game against Caruana. Overall a useful experience for the Frenchman, one that he will try to build upon if he is to progress further up the ladder.
Nakamura finished on -4 and played badly. His Olympiad wasn’t great either and after the missed win against Topalov in round 2 his tournament went downhill. It’s curious how one game can send the players in totally opposite directions – Topalov went on to play well and finish 3rd, Nakamura went down and lost 3 more games. The worst of them was his black game with Carlsen, when he misplayed the opening and was losing on move 10. He could have lost one more game, if Caruana didn’t miss an easy win in round 9.
From my experience, there are four types of chessplayers:
1. those motivated by their problematic personal lives;
2. those depressed by their problematic personal lives;
3. those motivated by their calm and harmonious personal lives and
4. those whose calm and harmonious personal lives take away their competitive edge and make them mushy.
It’s known that Nakamura found his dolce vita in his private life in Naples, Italy. Judging from his latest results he seems to fall into category 4. And that is a problem.
Next up on the calendar is the European Club Cup in Bilbao, the Grand Prix events and the World Championship match in November. It will be an autumn to remember!