Category : Tournaments

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.


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?



Carlsen-Caruana, WCh 2018 – Game 4

The shortest game of the match so far and in fact there was only one critical moment in it.

Carlsen opened with 1 c4, adding more options right from the start. Would Caruana try to go for QGD set-ups with 1…e6 or would he go symmetrical with 1…c5 or would he go for a Reversed Sicilian with 1…e5? Caruana chose the latter and they followed his recent game against So, from the Paris Grand Chess Tour blitz.

Carlsen introduced a novelty, the engine’s first choice and naturally Caruana wasn’t surprised even a bit, so he continued to blitz out his moves. Carlsen declined the invitation to force the game immediately with 12 Nd4 and chose the preparatory 12 Rb1.

After this move Caruana stopped to think for a while and I am not sure whether he was trying to remember his preparation and if he succeeded because after 12…Nf3 (12…Bg4 was interesting) 13 Bf3 his move 13…a6 appeared to give White a promising possibility.

That was the critical moment of the game. After a really long think, “to b5 or not to b5” Carlsen chose the latter and the game quickly lost its edge. In the analysis I found it hard to find a straight-forward way for Black towards equality after 15 b5. Probably there is one, but it is quite certain that playing b5 would have put more pressure on Caruana.

After Carlsen’s choice of 15 Re1 Caruana didn’t have any problems whatsoever. In the ensuing endgame he efficiently solved all his problems.

Another White game went to waste for the players. But things are slowly starting to change – in Game 3 Caruana had an advantage after the opening, while today Carlsen had the promising option of 14 b5. The players still do not make the maximum of their chances, but they will.

The match is also approaching a turning point because after Caruana’s next White game in Game 5 it will be Carlsen with two Whites in a row and it is clear that he will do his utmost to score in at least one of them. Interesting times ahead.


Carlsen-Caruana, WCh 2018 – Game 3

A rather unconvincing showing by both players.

Caruana deviated from Game 1 and chose the rare 6 0-0 in the Rossolimo (I’m afraid we won’t be seeing an Open Sicilian any time soon). The omission of h3 introduces many subtleties in the upcoming middlegame as a lot depends on the plan Black chooses.

Carlsen also chose a rare move, 6…Qc7, as the queen is often not placed here in the Rossolimo structures. After some natural moves were made it transpired that White had the more comfortable position. As Grischuk put it, he had a good version of the Anti-Berlin (and I joked on Twitter that everything in modern theory is about the Anti-Berlin, even the Sicilian!).

Caruana decided to keep control and not grab the c5-pawn and on move 10 it seems that Carlsen miscalculated something because after the exchange on f3 and b4 White had the obvious pressure on the queenside. But then it was Caruana’s turn to commit an inaccuracy – he even called his 15th move a blackout.

Even though he still kept chances to maintain some pressure, it seems that Caruana immediately switched to playing for a draw and this premature change of direction shifted the momentum to Carlsen.

Momentum is extremely important in chess, often more important than the objective evaluation of the position. All top players sense the momentum and its changes and I would even go as far as to say that Carlsen, together with Karpov before him, are the best “momentum” players, easily switching to playing for a win after they had felt that they are not in danger anymore.

Carlsen did start to apply pressure, but luckily for Caruana the position was too simple for him to go wrong. Perhaps it was possible for Carlsen to be even more precise in the endgame, but I doubt that would have altered the final result.

A disappointing game for Caruana, who easily misplayed his opening advantage, and for Carlsen, whose opening preparation wasn’t up to the task.

The first and this game got me thinking about whether the choice of the Rossolimo is the best suited one for Caruana. In the maneuvering positions that arise it appears that Carlsen feels more comfortable, at least for the time being. A mistake in the strategy (allowing to end up in positions that are better suited for the opponent) can cost Caruana dearly. As a comparison, I’d remind you of Tal’s choice of the Advance Variation in the Caro-Kann in his return match against Botvinnik. Tal was well-prepared and was obtaining decent positions after the opening, but the character of the positions was more in Botvinnik’s style and he managed to outplay Tal in the ensuing middlegames. Are we going to witness something similar in London?

Here’s Game 3 with detailed analysis.


Carlsen-Caruana, WCh 2018 – Game 2

The players keep surprising me.

In my Preview I argued that Carlsen would play 1 e4 because after it the preparation can successfully be narrowed down. The point is that after 1 d4 Black has more satisfactory defences than after 1 e4 (where basically on this level there is only 1…e5 and 1…c5).

And in spite of that logic Carlsen went 1 d4 today. I have noted that Carlsen is a very theoretical player in World Championship matches and with this choice he showed that he was fully prepared for everything – the Slav, Semi-Slav, Semi-Tarrasch, Ragozin, QGA, Vienna and the opening we got – the QGD.

It was exciting for me to follow the opening phase of the game after having made a complete repertoire for Black based on it for the site Chessable. You can check this repertoire clicking the image on the right, just above my yellow newsletter subscription box. (Alternatively you can check my posts on the QGD on this search page.)

And I wasn’t disappointed. Caruana played the extremely rare 10…Rd8 instead of the very popular 10…Re8 (the move I also recommended in my analysis). This was a huge surprise for Carlsen who immediately started spending a lot of time. Usually people don’t look for alternatives in positions where everything seems to be going well and this makes Caruana’s introduction (and preparation!) even more impressive.

I am convinced that Caruana was in his preparation well after move 20. Stellar preparation, especially if you take into account that Carlsen wasn’t always choosing the most testing moves.

The most exciting moment in the game arose on move 17 when Carlsen could have sacrificed a piece for what looked like a promising attack. The analysis shows that the complications should lead to a draw, but the lines are amazing and quite complex. Perhaps it wasn’t surprising that Carlsen declined the offer and decided to steer the game towards a draw. Even though he was on the worse end of an equal position, he didn’t have trouble holding it.

So what do we have after 2 games? Both players showed their fantastic preparation with Black and in both games White was suffering. Such is the importance of an opening surprise, with the aim to take the opponent into one’s own territory and preferably a line he hasn’t analysed very deeply.

However, with more information becoming available with every game played I expect White to be able to determine the boundaries of the opponent’s Black repertoire for the match and then pose more problems. It won’t be easy though as it is obvious both are superbly prepared with Black. Just remember how Karjakin failed to pose a single problem with White throughout the whole match in 2016.

Contrary to my predictions the players switched the first move – Caruana went 1 e4 and Carlsen went 1 d4. Will it remain so? I am really looking forward to Game 3 to see whether the Sicilian was a one-off surprise by Carlsen or a mainstay defence. Game 4 will also indicate the same for Carlsen’s 1 d4.

Here’s Game 2 with detailed analysis.


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.


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.

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