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?