Carlsen-Caruana, WCh 2018 – Game 1

What a start of the match!

I never expected Carlsen to be that aggressive from the get-go. In fact, I never imagined he could play something other than 1…e5. It was quite a shock for me to see the Sicilian! Is this a match strategy to be more aggressive with Black? The next games will give the answer.

I immediately wondered what Sicilian he had prepared, but Caruana was quick to play the Rossolimo. My guess would be the Sveshnikov, a variation he regularly played almost 10 years ago. It has a good theoretical reputation and even Anand (who had Peter Heine Nielsen as his second back then!) couldn’t do anything against it when Gelfand chose it as his mainstay defence in their match in 2012.

Another thing about the opening is whether this is a one-off thing or we will see the Sicilian on a more regular basis? I’ve written more than once that Carlsen has the habit of playing one-off openings in his World Championship matches – against Anand in 2013 it was the Caro-Kann and against Karjakin in 2016 it was the Trompowsky. I am very curious to find and I am rooting for the latter option! It’s been quite a while since we’ve seen open Sicilians in a World Championship match (we have to go back to Kasparov-Anand for that! The odd outing of the Kan in the second Carlsen-Anand match does not really count.)

Carlsen’s choice of the sub-line in the Rossolimo was also very deeply thought through. He went for a line with long-term prospects for Black – he had the bishop pair and the perspective to push the pawns on the kingside. The drawback was that White had a quick development, but he was taking into account the surprise factor and as a result of it the inability of Caruana to play in the most precise way. This small “gamble” paid off handsomely and Carlsen immediately got a wonderful position on the board and a huge time advantage on the clock. In a way, this choice was similar to his choice in their game from 2015, when he also went for the long-term prospect of a kingside attack (even though there it was more risky as he completely abandoned the queenside).

He then proceeded in a forceful manner and even though he may have been hasty on move 21 his energetical play brought him a winning position. And then something happened and he became hesitant. He started missing wins and as it usually happens eventually he let it slip completely. Of course, credit also goes to Caruana for his tenacious defence, but this time it was all in Carlsen’s hands. The best Carlsen could do was to liquidate to a drawn endgame that he played for 3 hours, without creating anything substantial.

A curious start of the match and an unnerving reminder for Carlsen of his missed chances against Karjakin. If you don’t score your chances, you concede. For Caruana this was an opening catastrophe – to end up worse and with a huge time deficit after 15 moves is definitely not how you want to start the match.

So neither would be happy, but I suppose the happier will be Caruana – after all he did save a lost game. And he was suffering from start to finish but he didn’t succumb. Resilience will definitely be a key factor in this match.

Tomorrow is the second game and I am very curious to see both players’ strategies with colours reversed.

Here’s the game with detailed analysis.

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