Monthly Archives: Nov 2018

Carlsen-Caruana, WCh 2018 – Tie-Break

It was one-sided, even though it shouldn’t have been.

Hindsight is a wonderful thing. It seems like a stroke of genius now, that draw offer in Game 12. It is all justified looking backwards, there is no argument against success.

And that success was achieved today in a clean sweep. It seemed effortless and dominant, yet things were not like that before the games began.

I am convinced that Caruana did his best (and probably more than that) to improve his skills at rapid chess. He even started to show them in Game 1 as he managed to escape from a lost position. But then disaster stroke.

Carlsen’s opening in Game 1 was very shrewd. He was doing quite well in the Rossolimo in the match so what he basically did was play the same Rossolimo with White! It was amazing how quickly this brought him a winning position.

This game was the one that decided everything. Caruana pulled a miraculous escape, but unfortunately faltered at the end, when all the hard work was done and one more precise move was required. As I write in the comments, had he managed it would have broken the whole narrative of him being the hopeless underdog. It would have proven that he is at least equal in rapids and the match would have been open. All his hard preparatory hard work would have been rewarded. But it wasn’t meant to be. He erred and Carlsen won.

As he admitted in the press conferece, this first win was crucial as it gave him the necessary confidence. In spite of what everybody is saying, Carlsen still needs a win to reaffirm that confidence. And he got it when he needed it most.

In the second game Caruana at one point decided to go all in. As if he lacked the patience for a long struggle, he wanted a quick revenge. Alas, his lunge was premature and he was severely punished.

A brutal game after which the match was practically over. It rubbed in even further the whole narrative of the hopelessness of playing rapid with Carlsen, made Carlsen almost certain to win the match and killed Caruana’s spirits. But still, it was a very fine line between success and failure. Caruana’s attempt was a very ambitious one and he tried his luck, just that he was playing already-confident Carlsen who managed to refute his idea.

The third game was a wonderfully controlled game by Carlsen. Needing a draw he played in exactly the same manner as in the final rapid game of his tie-break with Karjakin in 2016. No main line Sicilians, a sideline giving him a space advantage and then carefully making sure nothing bad happens. This is how must-draw games should be played. And for the other player, when faced with this type of controlled play, the win-at-all costs attitude usually ends in a loss as he tries to avoid a draw at the expense of worsening his position.

Caruana could have easily drawn this game, but that wouldn’t have changed anything. What was important in this game was that Carlsen always kept things under control and never allowed Caruana to even come close to creating chances for a win. An exemplary game.

So after a 100% drawn classical part of the match we had 100% decisive rapid tie-break. The “small” things worked in Carlsen’s favour in the latter and he will remain a World Champion for the next two years. This was by far the most evenly contested World Championship match in recent history and it was also one with a very high level of play throughout. The opportunities were few and far between and even when they arose they were extremely complicated to capitalise upon.

At the end I am curious about two questions. Carlsen himself admits that in the last few years he has been stagnating and not playing his best. Will this triumph spur him to solve that problem or will he rest on his laurels?

Caruana showed that he is at least equal to the World Champion in classical chess. He is automatically seeded in the 2020 Candidates tournament. Will this defeat spur him to improve even further and try again to dethrone Carlsen?

Two years is a long time, but they will pass in no time.


Carlsen-Caruana, WCh 2018 – Game 12

This was definitely not the end of the match I expected.

Staying loyal to their principles and preparation the last game saw another Sveshnikov. The last time a Sicilian was played in a World Championship final game that was decisive for the outcome was the famous 24th game of the 1985 match between Karpov and Kasparov. Back then it was the Najdorf/Scheveningen, this time a Sveshnikov.

The opening went Carlsen’s way. He varied from the theoretically more sound 8…Nb8 from Games 10 and 8 and chose 8…Ne7. I remember that this was considered dubious since the match Yudasin-Kramnik, but theory doesn’t stand still and Carlsen’s choice means that the move is quite reliable – otherwise he wouldn’t have chosen it in such a responsible moment.

Carlsen’s choice was also a shrewd one. The line offers White the possibility to repeat the position and make a draw immediately. From the time spent in this moment it was clear that Caruana was seriously considering it. He was somewhat surprised by Carlsen’s choice and the temptation to end it there and then must have been great.

Yet after spending more than 20 minutes Caruana displayed character and decided to play on. This is worthy of praise. In the most important game of his career so far he was faced with a World Champion’s preparation and he still decided to try his luck and attempt to outplay him. Quite the contrary to what Carlsen did in his 12th game against Karjakin.

Unfortunately, Caruana didn’t follow up his courage with good play and he drifted into a very unpleasant position. His problems started when he envisioned the plan or Rh2-c2. It did seem as it should ensure against queenside problems, but he misevaluated the position.

And then we saw the real attitude Carlsen brought to the game. Instead of using any of the several very promising opportunities to open the game and play for a win, he consistently chose options that were limiting in their character and were aimed at keeping his position as safe as possible.

Carlsen was afraid of taking a risk in the decisive game. He got a fantastic position which was risk-free and he still refused to play for a win. Before the game he decided that draw was what he wanted and even when something more was possible he didn’t want to go for it.

Quite a surprising trait on display, but people show their true colours when under pressure. And Carlsen showed he was human, he was scared of losing. He was afraid of staking everything on a single game.

Chess usually finds a way to punish for the missed chances. The worst of those are the ones that were not taken deliberately. Carlsen feels more comfortable now, having 4 (and not 1) games to decide the match, but will the price he paid for this comfort be too high? What if the score after the 3 rapids is 1.5-1.5? It will again depend on a single game, does he think he can do better then?

In the battle of characters Caruana won today. Unfortunately, that doesn’t mean anything for the tie-break on Wednesday. Or perhaps it does?


Carlsen-Caruana, WCh 2018 – Game 11

Carlsen really decided to shut it down for his last White game.

It started very promising. Carlsen’s 1 e4 was met with the Petroff and this time he went for one of the most critical lines, the modern 5 Nc3. Caruana deviated slightly from his usual repertoire, instead of 9…c6, as he played against Robson at the last US Championship and against Aronian at the Olympiad, he went for the less common 9…Nf6.

This must have been expected by Carlsen and I find his statement that he was surprised in the opening hard to believe. Carlsen went for mass simplifications soon enough with 12 Kb1. This meant two things: 1. Black is OK in the sharper lines after 12 Bg5 and 2. Carlsen wanted to keep it as safe as possible and draw the game, not dissimilar to the 12th game in the match with Karjakin.

In fact this game was the most devoid of content compared to all the previous ones. It really reminds me so much of the 12th game of Carlsen’s match with Karjakin. Just that in London there is one more game to go and I doubt Caruana thinks along the same lines as Carlsen, eargerly awaiting a tie-break.

Usually cynically playing for a draw is punished in chess. I remember only one match (but I may be wrong) where one player was cynically playing for a draw with White and got away with it. Drawing the games in 11, 17 and 25 moves with White was Kramnik and the match was the Candidates match Kramnik-Yudasin in 1994. Kramnik won with Black in Game 1 and didn’t feel the need to try for anything with White. Yudasin was in awful form in that match and instead of levelling the score he lost another one with White, so Kramnik won the match with two Black wins and the score of 4.5-2.5. (Coincidentally, Yudasin also played the move 7 Nd5 against the Sveshnikov in that match).

Obviously things are different here, I was only sharing the analogy this game brought. Still, letting Caruana off the hook so easily doesn’t seem like the right thing.

From the matches where the score was level before the last game – Botvinnik-Bronstein (1951), Botvinnik-Smyslov (1954), Karpov-Korchnoi (1978), Kramnik-Topalov (2006), Anand-Topalov (2010) and Carlsen-Karjakin (2016) only Karpov (with White) and Anand (with Black) managed to win that crucial last game.

There is a free day before the last game and I am pretty sure Caruana will take advantage of it to become the third player on the above list. Whether he will succeed is another question.


Carlsen-Caruana, WCh 2018 – Game 10

Another game I watched live at the venue.

It is incredible how the impression of seeing the game without (or sparse) engine input affects the whole experience. As you will see in the comments below, the humans observing often liked one or the other only to learn that it was all “just equal.”

Caruana went for the same line in the Sveshnikov and in spite of his opening success in the previous game it was him who introduced the novelty. I think that Carlsen knew what he was doing and again we saw a very unbalanced position where Carlsen was aiming to attack the king while Caruana was trying to control it and win on the queenside.

The game seemed to be full of ups and downs while computer analysis suggests that the players played on an exceptionally high level with very little deviations from the optimal line. This was an amazing discovery that just confirmed to me how strong these two are. Under such tension and for so high stakes they still manage to produce moves of the highest quality.

I was in fact surprised that Carlsen repeated the Sicilian. I thought that with the match nearing its end he would opt for something safer. But on second thought I realised that this would have been an admission of fear and lack of confidence, which is an awful sign to send to the other side.

And the Sicilian didn’t disappoint. Caruana was also principled and allowed an attack with the hope to be able to control it and win with his passed a-pawn. The way both players managed to both further their own play and limit their opponent’s is worthy of high praise. This meant that neither Carlsen got his attack going as much as he wanted, nor Caruana got to push his a-pawn very far.

This fine fencing on the whole board led to an equal endgame that didn’t look equal. With his central pawn mass it looked better for Black. But Caruana knew better, or he knew just as good as the engine, that entering there he would have no problems.

In fact it was Carlsen who made a careless slip (quite uncharacteristic) and allowed some unpleasantries, but it was all manageable.

Another draw, 5-5, with two games to go. Each has one White left and I am not sure whether we will see a turn towards safety or they will try to use their last chance to win before the overtime. Somehow this is more relevant for Caruana, who will have White in the last game, because the games when he is White are much sharper and more volatile. Will he want to have such a game in Game 12?

Carlsen’s White games were more controlled, so I expect the same sort of sustained attempted pressure in Game 11, as long as he manages to find an idea similar to the last one. If he gets something similar, then it will very uncomfortable for Caruana to suffer like that in his last Black game.

With a free day coming up, both will work hard on their last attempts. It only remains to be seen how serious these attempts will be.


Carlsen-Caruana, WCh 2018 – Game 9

What a day. I spent the whole day in (and out) of the playing hall in Holborn College.

I went to all the possible places: the scene where they play, the media centre, the VIP room, the live commentary room. I can tell you that the World Championship atmosphere “from the inside” is something quite different.

The busiest place is of course the media room. All the chess journalists you have ever heard of are there. They are all working on their laptops preparing the review you (and I) are reading after every game.

The social aspect is what makes visiting the match such an occasion for me. Talking to all the people I know, making plans, discussing various ideas, staying in touch – personal contact is what makes the chess world go round and what a better place for it than the World Championship match! To give you an idea how important is to be here, the new FIDE President is expected to come to the game tomorrow for Game 10.

However, as a chess professional, there is one drawback to being in the buzz of things – it is not possible to concentrate on following the game itself. From time to time I would patch a few minutes when I could concentrate on the screen and then try to think a bit about the position, but it was not enough to follow the whole game through. Even the random exchange of lines with Nigel Short in the VIP room is just that, random. Quite different from following the game from home with full concentration.

So after the long day and coming back to my friend’s place in London I had a better look at the game. And from what I saw it seems to be a game in line with all the previous ones where one of the players had a chance for more – one moment, one chance, but also one that is so difficult to take and was missed.

Carlsen returned to the English Opening. I argue that he was hoping for a repeat of Game 4 when he could show a fresh idea. Caruana obliged, a risky decision, but one that shows infinite belief in his preparation. This allowed Carlsen to show his idea and soon enough Caruana was feeling uncomfortable enough. He was also some 50 minutes down on the clock and this led him to look for simplifications that led to a position where Carlsen thrives.

And yet, in spite of the static advantages White had at his disposal, he felt the urge to act quickly. Carlsen wanted to prevent Black’s defensive set-up of putting the pawns on light squares, but this prevention turned out to be worse than the disease. It allowed Caruana to force further simplifications and draw the game.

Usually lack of patience in statically advantageous positions is a bad sign. It shows lack of nerves, which are required to carefully build up the pressure. But I also understand Carlsen’s haste, probably he felt it would be impossible to break through if he allowed Black’s set-up. Still, allowing Black to escape easily from what seemed like a position ideal for an hours-long torture feels like a missed chance.

With three games remaining and two Whites for the Challenger, plus this escape from an unpleasant position, things look slightly brighter for Caruana. The match has been so much about tiny advantages and miniscule advances and with single-opportunity chances from time to time, all it takes to resolve it can be one bad move.

Still, I won’t hold my breath waiting for it.


The London System: Essential Theory

What is the barest minimum a club player needs to know in order to play an opening?

Chessable’s course The London System: Essential Theory by IM John Bartholomew and FM Daniel Barrish aims to answer that question. Taking one of the most popular opening systems for White they attempted to create a repertoire that doesn’t require much memorisation and follows the “keep it simple” principle.

The London System as an opening has the major upside of White playing more or less the same moves against pretty much everything. It has however the downside of allowing Black to react in pretty much any way he likes.

The authors grouped the material based on Black’s set-ups. There are seven theoretical chapters, one chapter with model games and one chapter with tactics. The theoretical chapters are: …d5 without …c5, …d5 with …c5, Queen’s Indian Defence Setups (this basically means when Black fianchettoes the c8 bishop, as plans with and without …d5 are included here), King’s Indian Fianchetto Setups, Benoni Setups, the Dutch and Odds and Ends.

The London has the reputation of being a positional opening, but the authors took a different approach, trying to go for aggressive set-ups whenever possible. For example, against the Kingside Fianchetto set-ups for Black they recommend the move 3 Nc3 (after 1 d4 Nf6 2 Bf4 g6) and if Black plays 3…Bg7 they transpose to the Pirc by 4 e4. In this Pirc with a bishop already on f4 they go for the natural Qd2, 0-0-0 plan with kingside attack.

So the London can become a Pirc. It can also become other openings, as the authors do not remain contained in the typical Bf4, c3, e3 frame. In the Odds and Ends they also look at the Philidor Defence (via 1 d4 d6 2 e4 Nf6 3 Nc3 e5), some Benoni setups enter into Benko Gambit territory and so on. The London is so much more than only London.

But if it is so much more, how is the club player supposed to remember all that?

The authors solve this question by keeping the length of the lines up to approximately 10 moves. The longest variation I noticed was 17 moves long and it is the only forcing line in the repertoire. Naturally, keeping the lines short means that many things need to be left out, for example in the Philidor the line is 9 moves long and at that point theory only begins, but that is the point of the whole repertoire – it is supposed to be Essential and not In Depth.

Having learned the lines in this repertoire the club players can be confident when meeting any Black set-up against the London System. They will know how to develop their pieces and what their middlegame plans are. And that is all they need to know in order to obtain a good position before they start enjoying the process of playing.

The London System: Essential Theory is available on Chessable.


Carlsen-Caruana, WCh 2018 – Game 8

The first open Sicilian proved that it was worth waiting for. If only they started playing it from Game 1…

It became obvious to Team Caruana that Carlsen was feeling more comfortable in the maneuvering positions arising from the Rossolimo, something I argued in my comments to Game 3. It was time to change and there was no other option but the open Sicilian.

It wasn’t really a big surprise that Carlsen went for the Sveshnikov, as there aren’t many reliable options in the Sicilian at this level. In fact, after 2…Nc6 it is only the Sveshnikov (and after 2…d6 it’s the Najdorf). The real surprise was Caruana’s choice of 7 Nd5 instead of the main line with 7 Bg5. We again see the desire of the players to spring a surprise as soon as possible.

When it comes to opening theory it always pays to follow what Vladimir Kramnik does. Lately he has started to play 1 e4 more often and at the Olympiad in Batumi he had to face the Sveshnikov against the Serbian GM Roganovic. Guess what Kramnik played on move 7?

Yes, Caruana followed in Kramnik’s footsteps, but Carlsen went for the theoretically best move 8…Nb8 (instead of the Roganovic’s choice of 8…Ne7, which is considered dubious – in fact Kramnik was getting dubious positions after that move in Games 1 and 3 of his Candidates match against Yudasin back in 1994, though he managed to win one and draw the other. In Game 7 of that match he switched to 8…Nb8.)

Caruana was playing fast while Carlsen seemed to struggle to remember his preparation. But things were more or less normal until move 18 when Carlsen played the very risky move 18…g5. I am convinced that he mixed something up as the move opened his king and allowed White to open up the position in the centre with forceful play.

Caruana spent more than half an hour on the strong 21 c5 but three moves later he missed his chance. He had a choice of two very good moves, both promising him big advantage, but he failed to navigate the complications (in spite of his exceptional calculational abilities) and let Carlsen off the hook. After this moment the game quickly simplified and was drawn.

A game with mixed feelings for both players. Caruana finally managed to pin down Carlsen in the opening with a rare idea and put tremendous pressure, but failed to capitalise on it. Carlsen messed up his preparation, but saved half a point.

After the rest day Carlsen is White and this time I expect a much better opening preparation by him. In fact, I expect something similar to what Caruana did in this game, finally putting pressure on the Challenger in the opening, only I cannot say how that will look – a main line in the Petroff or the QGD or something completely unrelated. For this one though, I will be in the playing hall to witness it live!


Carlsen-Caruana, WCh 2018 – Game 7

Perhaps I shouldn’t have taken the World Champion too seriously. After all he is making everybody laugh at the press conferences.

Carlsen said that having two Whites in a row was an advantage and one he was looking forward to. With these two White games behind us, I am not sure what exactly he meant by “advantage.”

In Game 6 he was happy to save a draw and today he said he played too “soft.” I think that word perfectly describes Carlsen’s state of mind. Even looking at him how he makes the moves, in a nonchalant, lazy way, I have the impression of “softness”, of a player who doesn’t see a need to pull himself together.

He feels comfortable in the match with Black and doesn’t see a need to push hard with White, keeping in the back of his mind that a 6-6 makes him a big favourite in the tie-break. A risky strategy, but it just may work. He may be waiting for Caruana to come after him and then take his chance in the counterattack.

Today Carlsen came back to 1 d4 and in the QGD went for the rare move 10 Nd2 instead of the main line with 10 Rd1 as in Game 2. But Caruana was again prepared and in fact managed to surprise Carlsen with his reply, 10…Qd8. It’s funny that Carlsen said that he knew of the move, but that he wasn’t expecting it. Sounds somewhat unprofessional to me.

As it was, there was again one single moment where White could have attempted for something (though the analysis shows that Black was OK anyway). And Carlsen didn’t take it. On move 15 he could have ventured 15 Nce4, but opted for the lame 15 0-0 instead. After that Caruana had absolutely no problems in making the draw.

I have written before of Caruana’s amazing calculational abilities and he again demonstrated them when he gave the line he intended after 15 Nce4 – the engine’s first choices without fail. This bodes well for the Challenger, showing that his brain is working well.

In the 5 remaining games Caruana will be White in 3 of them. Is another Rossolimo on the cards tomorrow?


Carlsen-Caruana, WCh 2018 – Game 6

A game that shows Caruana’s strategy.

Carlsen chose a sterile line for his first of the two Whites he is getting. He tested Caruana’s preparation and when the latter showed it they entered a symmetrical endgame position. Carlsen probably hoped to slowly outmaneuver his opponent, but then he was met by a resolute reply.

In a position where Karjakin in New York would have sit still and made a draw after suffering for a long time, Caruana pushed forward, not allowing Carlsen to get comfortable with his maneuvers. This to my mind is the clearest sign so far of his strategy – not to allow Carlsen do what he does best.

To make it worse for the Champion, he didn’t manage to switch his thinking mode from strategic to very concrete and started to miss things. Or, to put it another way, he was outplayed by Caruana.

But even an outplayed Champion who misses things is a very strong player and he still managed to find a good enough sequence to liquidate to a drawn endgame (even though he also missed that instead of three he would have only two pawns for the piece). Carlsen’s understanding was correct, he did see a fortress, and the accidental chance he allowed Caruana to win was one neither of them suspected it existed.

I have the impression that Carlsen entered this game in too relaxed a state. He was feeling comfortable in the match, not really feeling pressure by Caruana and this game must have been a shock for him. For the first time he was outplayed, and to make it worse, from a position where he is supposed to excel. For the first time he felt in danger and I think this may change his approach in the following games. Let’s see if his second White will be used differently.

As they have said, there are no easy World Championship matches.


Carlsen-Caruana, WCh 2018 – Game 5

Caruana tried, but failed to impress anybody.

At first sight the move 6 b4 looks exciting and aggressive, but it was in fact a test of Carlsen’s memory. And the World Champion passed it without problems.

It is worth noting that Caruana again switched the sub-variation in the Rossolimo, this time avoiding the capture on c6 on move 4. Of the two main moves in this variation Carlsen chose the one with more central presence, 5…e5 (after 4…Bg7 5 Re1). This reminds me of his comments before the match where he described Caruana’s style as centre-based, so in the match he’s choosing lines where he himself has good central control. This is very deeply thought-out match strategy aimed at limiting the opponent’s strengths.

The game was lively in spite of the early queen exchange. It seems to me that something went wrong on the way for White (on move 17) as instead of choosing a comfortable (if drawn) position Caruana went for an option where he was clearly on the defensive.

The surprise was to discover that neither player thought much of Black’s chances after 20…b5, while the analysis shows that Black could have posed White quite serious problems. When this moment passed the game fizzled out to a draw.

It is notable from the games that there is a very narrow margin, most often of only one moment, to pose problems. In this game it was move 20, in Game 4 it was on move 15 (15 b5 instead of 15 Re1), in Game 3 it was move 15 again (15 Ra5 instead of 15 Bd2). Taking advantage of exactly that single one opportunity requires such a high level of precision that even the best players in the world cannot always show. Once that opportunity is missed, we have seen what happens – the game quickly ends in a draw.

The match is now entering the first critical moment. Carlsen will have two Whites in a row and he will be quite eager to win at least one. So far he has been toothless with White, but I don’t expect that to continue for ever. Will the third (White) be a charm?


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