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.