Carlsen-Caruana, WCh 2018: A Preview

This match will probably be called a classic, no matter which way it goes and how it goes.

The previous match was between childhood rivals, but one was afraid of the other, and the fearful tried to dry it out. This match won’t be like that. This time there is no fear.

The challenger is younger than the Champion. Historically speaking, and having in mind the “classical” lineage (where the Champion is the one who beat the previous Champion in a match) Botvinnik drew Smyslov in 1954, Petrosian defeated Spassky in 1966, Kasparov defended his title twice against younger challengers – against Short in 1993 and Anand in 1995 and Anand did the same against Topalov in 2010. Not a very frequent event in chess history, an older champion to emerge victorious against a younger challenger.

An aspect that I see as very important in this match is the possible tie-break. In case of a 6-6 tie, a rapid tie-break will follow. This may have huge influence on the match strategy of both players, if we take into account that Carlsen is clearly superior in rapid and blitz time controls to Caruana. Caruana surely has done some preparation for this scenario, but I’d still see Carlsen as the clear favourite in rapid and blitz.

This means that it may be Carlsen who won’t mind drawing the match. Not necessarily playing for a draw (I sincerely doubt he’d go down that road), but generally playing with the knowledge and confidence that a 6-6 is in his favour. This can put pressure on Caruana not to let the match go to tie-breaks, but only if he’s not confident enough for that phase. But I have the impression he will be.

What distinguishes this match from all the previous Carlsen matches is that Caruana feels confident when playing Carlsen. He has shown he can beat him and will openly play to win. I don’t expect him to change his usual style for the match – mostly because his style is uncomfortable for Carlsen.

Caruana’s approach of concrete opening preparation, aimed at obtaining advantage (as opposed to Carlsen’s “just to get a game” – more on this below), followed by forceful play based on very precise calculation is one that should pose Carlsen problems. It is in a way similar to Kasparov’s approach against Karpov’s. Karjakin also had that kind of opening preparation prior to the match with Carlsen, but in the match he modified it in order to obtain safe positions and draw the games. Caruana will not change like Karjakin and I expect him to go for the most critical lines and also to unveil new theoretical paths.

I also expect Carlsen to continue to do what he usually does, only on a higher level, both theoretically and practically. I have noticed that Carlsen is in fact a very theoretical player in World Championship matches, as opposed to tournaments. He will also introduce his own ideas and I won’t be surprised if they are of a forcing character (remember the 8th game from the match in Sochi or the 6th game from the match in New York, both times drawing effortlessly thanks to his excellent preparation).

In terms of general match strategy and play I expect both players to do what they do best with no changes in style and approach a-la Kramnik against Kasparov. A typical clash of two styles and one that should produce fascinating struggles. Please bear in mind that I expect fascinating struggles, even though this may mean that the majority of the games end in draws – it is the substance that will make the excitement.

Concerning the openings, usually the World Championship matches pick up the latest developments and then build on them. So a quick glance at what the best players have been playing lately should give an idea what openings we will see. This doesn’t mean that there won’t be any surprises, but generally the matches follow the trends.

The major question is what Caruana will opt for on move 1. Only 1 e4, only 1 d4 or a mix of both (with 1 c4 also being an option). This will largely determine the array of openings we will be seeing. Against 1 e4 Carlsen will stick to 1…e5, both the Berlin and Marshall (as in the match with Karjakin) have proven to be 100% reliable. The Giuoco Piano is also a very probable option, with many ideas being discovered in the last several years it is still a fertile ground for further developments.

Against 1 d4 Carlsen has more choice – he prepared the Slav against Karjakin, while he can play pretty much everything (QGD and Nimzo, to name just the most solid ones), including the Grunfeld (against Anand in Sochi). Lately in tournaments he toyed with the King’s Indian, but I doubt we will see it. It is difficult to sense what opening he will prepare for this match.

With Carlsen as White, I expect to see 1 e4 more. I also expect to see Carlsen start the match with something he won’t play afterwards – in Chennai he essayed the Caro-Kann in Game 1, never to return to it in the remainder of the match, and in New York it was the Trompowsky. Against 1 e4 Caruana will also most likely stick to 1…e5 and the question is how much he will depend on the Petroff.

The Petroff served Caruana beyond expectations and Capablanca taught that one should always play the openings that bring good results. So probably the Petroff will feature in London, but how often and what will Carlsen have to show against it?

In their last encounter Carlsen came up with a fresh idea and convincingly outplayed Caruana. Then he hesitated and missed the win. Here’s the game with the comments I published in the September edition of the British Chess Magazine.

Normally people prepare two openings for Black in these matches, one is the main defence and the other one is the back-up. The question is then, if the Petroff stays, what will be Caruana’s back-up?

A relatively recent (starting with Wijk aan Zee this year) development in Carlsen’s opening approach was his increased use of the main lines – he’s played the English Attack against the Taimanov, the Yugoslav Attack against the Dragon, and even the most aggressive 6 Bg5 against the Najdorf. Previously I wrote that I see this development as a way to prepare and pose theoretical problems in the match. Personally I would be delighted to see both players slugging it out in the most topical variations!

To conclude, I am expecting a great match! When two players who are confident in themselves and go out to beat the other guy meet, the result can only be a ferocious fight. And this time I see no favourites.

Alex Colovic
A professional player, coach and blogger. Grandmaster since 2013.
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