Category : Tournaments

Carlsen-Caruana, WCh 2018 – Game 11

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.


Carlsen-Caruana, WCh 2018 – Game 10

Another game I watched live at the venue.

It is incredible how the impression of seeing the game without (or sparse) engine input affects the whole experience. As you will see in the comments below, the humans observing often liked one or the other only to learn that it was all “just equal.”

Caruana went for the same line in the Sveshnikov and in spite of his opening success in the previous game it was him who introduced the novelty. I think that Carlsen knew what he was doing and again we saw a very unbalanced position where Carlsen was aiming to attack the king while Caruana was trying to control it and win on the queenside.

The game seemed to be full of ups and downs while computer analysis suggests that the players played on an exceptionally high level with very little deviations from the optimal line. This was an amazing discovery that just confirmed to me how strong these two are. Under such tension and for so high stakes they still manage to produce moves of the highest quality.

I was in fact surprised that Carlsen repeated the Sicilian. I thought that with the match nearing its end he would opt for something safer. But on second thought I realised that this would have been an admission of fear and lack of confidence, which is an awful sign to send to the other side.

And the Sicilian didn’t disappoint. Caruana was also principled and allowed an attack with the hope to be able to control it and win with his passed a-pawn. The way both players managed to both further their own play and limit their opponent’s is worthy of high praise. This meant that neither Carlsen got his attack going as much as he wanted, nor Caruana got to push his a-pawn very far.

This fine fencing on the whole board led to an equal endgame that didn’t look equal. With his central pawn mass it looked better for Black. But Caruana knew better, or he knew just as good as the engine, that entering there he would have no problems.

In fact it was Carlsen who made a careless slip (quite uncharacteristic) and allowed some unpleasantries, but it was all manageable.

Another draw, 5-5, with two games to go. Each has one White left and I am not sure whether we will see a turn towards safety or they will try to use their last chance to win before the overtime. Somehow this is more relevant for Caruana, who will have White in the last game, because the games when he is White are much sharper and more volatile. Will he want to have such a game in Game 12?

Carlsen’s White games were more controlled, so I expect the same sort of sustained attempted pressure in Game 11, as long as he manages to find an idea similar to the last one. If he gets something similar, then it will very uncomfortable for Caruana to suffer like that in his last Black game.

With a free day coming up, both will work hard on their last attempts. It only remains to be seen how serious these attempts will be.


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.

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