Fabiano Caruana Missed His Chance To Take Control Of The World Chess Championship

LONDON — The tension continues to mount as Magnus Carlsen and Fabiano Caruana remain deadlocked after eight games of their 12-game World Chess Championship match in London. The middle portion of the match saw the continuation and evolution of the players’ fascinating psychological duel, a supercomputer-generated forced win which eluded human identification, and some bold attacks by both players. Caruana had two winning chances in Games 5-8 as his superior preparation threatened to prove decisive, but the reigning champion held on to set us up for a thrilling finish.

Let’s take a tour of Games 5-8, using bold text for moves which actually occurred in the games, and italics for hypothetical variations which did not. If you need to get yourself up to speed, make sure to check out our match preview and recap of Games 1-4.

Game 5

Fabiano Caruana, playing with the white pieces, once again opened up with 1.e4, which, as in Games 1 and 3 was met by Magnus Carlsen with 1…c5, the Sicilian Defense. For the third time in as many games, the players gave us a Rossolimo, with Caruana sidestepping the more complicated and sharp variations that follow in Open Sicilians (with 3.d4), before sending down a knuckleball with pawn to b4!

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Wing Gambit, baby! That’s a straight-up pawn sacrifice, offering the b-pawn in an aggressive effort to open up the center of the board before Black can complete development of his pieces. Although rare, the move wasn’t a novelty—Magnus himself had faced the same move in a game in 2005—but Caruana presumably thought that there was a chance he would be better prepared in it than his opponent and that any potential downside was limited.

After Carlsen gobbled up the gambit pawn with his knight, the players traded a pair of minor pieces on the b-file, a pair of rooks on the a-file, and eventually swapped queens on c7. At some point it looked as if it may have been Carlsen fighting for an advantage through the superior position of his pieces, but then Caruana was able to solve all his problems by sending Carlsen’s king on a mainly-forced but still-tricky kingwalk through enemy territory, starting with bishop e3, check:

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As the black king followed the path indicated above, White followed up with knight c3, check, finally getting his complete idiot of a knight into the game but sacrificing both the b4 pawn, and, after knight d5, check, also the e4 pawn with bishop takes knight, pawn takes bishop, and rook takes pawn. White’s rook then came across to give a check on b1, skewering and capturing Black’s b7 pawn, and the black king kept running, eventually collecting the d3 pawn in exchange for White pocketing the f7 pawn along with a trade of knights on that square.

Despite this tightrope walk, there was no way to embarrass the king in the center of the board, and after a lively-but-short 34 moves a draw was agreed in the following equal position:

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Magnus Carlsen has been in terrific form at the post-game press conferences. I’ve never previously thought to describe him as an overly charismatic person, but he is absolutely one of the most honest superstars in world sport, routinely comes up with incredible insights that cut right to the heart of a matter, and has been cracking a few funnies in this match. In response to a question about favorite players, Carlsen responded:

I’m not really the person to have idols, I admire what people can do, not necessarily the people themselves. And, I would say, keeping that in mind, I would say my favorite player from the past is probably… myself, like three, four years ago.

Game 6

Magnus Carlsen would have the white pieces back-to-back in Games 6 and 7 as the players reversed colors at the halfway point. After Carlsen had played 1.d4 and 1.c4 in his first two White games, we finally got the opening showdown we had hoped for, with Carlsen playing 1.e4 and taking on Fabiano Caruana’s Petroff Defense after 1…e5 2.Nf3 Nc6. This was the big opening intrigue heading into the match—would Carlsen take on the opening that Caruana has turned into his signature weapon in 2018? And if so, could Carlsen refute it?

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It was a marvelous knight for a moondance, as we got an insane opening variation with 15 of the first 20 moves (i.e., 10 by each side) being made by knights, including one sequence of ten in a row:

The Petroff has the reputation of being a somewhat boring, drawish opening, but that surely by now needs to change—in making it the foundation of his incredible run of results in 2018, Fabiano Caruana has seen it produce some of the most entertaining games of the year, including his bonkers victory over Vladimir Kramnik in the Candidates Tournament through which Fabi qualified for London. This game can now be added to that collection, because after the above dressage portion of the opening and an early queen exchange, a symmetrical and somewhat innocuous-looking position gave us an absolute roof-raiser.

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After both pairs of rooks were traded during the middlegame, Caruana (with black pieces) built up pressure on White’s position, and better coordination of his attacking army led Caruana to pick up one central pawn in exchange for a kingside pawn. As the stress grew, the superiority of Black’s minor pieces forced Carlsen to give up a piece for three pawns, in an extremely fun combination starting with bishop takes pawn on d5:

After bishop takes knight on e3, bishop takes bishop on c6, bishop takes bishop on f4, and then White’s bishop takes Black’s pawns on b7 and a6, Carlsen had picked up three pawns for his knight—by chess’s universal rule of thumb an equal trade. However, after two more moves in the sequence, it became apparent that from afar Carlsen had missed the beautiful sting in the tail: bishop to a3!

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This locked White’s a2 pawn in place, with the Black knight coming via c3 to eat it up, and all of a sudden White had only gained two extra pawns for the piece, not three. Carlsen actually managed to finagle it so that he gave up his b-pawn rather than his a-pawn—the latter being a superior troop given that it is one square further away from the black king and would promote on a8, a light square supported by White’s bishop, rather than on b8, a dark square controlled by Black’s.

This extra pawn grab offered Caruana winning chances, but the exercise was not trivial: while a knight and bishop can deliver checkmate in combination if there are no pieces other than the kings left on the board, with the white bishop still hanging around this would be impossible. Therefore, Black’s only path to victory was in promoting one of his pawns—usually a very achievable proposition when one side has a material advantage, but here Black only had two pawns remaining, and in the position on the board it’s difficult to avoid trading them off, with White having a kingside pawn majority and a dangerous passed pawn on the other flank.

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The fight was on—this could be the endgame that could bring us a new World Chess Champion. Two years ago, when Magnus Carlsen repeatedly failed to penetrate the Manuel Neuer-esque endgame blockades of challenger Sergey Karjakin (whose exploits and Kremlin ties earned him the nickname “the Minister of Defense”), he famously commented that he was “not a very big believer in fortresses in chess,” because of his success in breaking them down. Well, he would have to build one in this game—could Caruana penetrate it?

In the incredibly complex battle that followed, White was the first to get his king close to the h8 corner (Black’s king was initially tied up defending the f7-pawn from the white bishop), where it could support White’s h-pawn’s threatened march to promotion and keep within striking distance of Black’s pawns. It was a tour-de-force of balletic defense by the World Champion, who looked like he had pulled off the escape, before, out of nowhere, one allegedly inaccurate move caused the supercomputers to declare that Caruana now had access to a 36-move sequence that would win him the game:

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The reason why bishop h4!, followed by knight e2-g1! here wins can only be understood with the assistance of our silicon friends, as eight-time Russian champion Prof. Peter Svidler masterfully explains here. There are two aspects to the precise winning plan, both incredibly difficult to spot. First, Black must create successive situations of zugzwang (whereby zero of White’s legal moves are beneficial and each is losing) by artificially “passing” the move—from a given position, its bishop makes a one-two-three-four-five shuffle ending back where it started the sequence, while in between the white king has nothing better than two back-and-forth steps, resulting in the same original position but now with White to move. To do this, the black knight first must voluntarily strand itself for the time being on g1, where it will be completely dominated by the white bishop which has moved to g4. Only after the zugzwangs have forced white’s h-pawn to burn all of its available forward moves is the white bishop eventually forced to move, allowing the black knight to return with a vengeance via h3 to f4 with check, dislodging the white king from his defensive post, and now Black can eat the two white pawns and march its own little guy to victory. Phew!

The chess world was unanimous in its verdict that this win was impossible to find by a human, with Garry Kasparov notably stating that he would not have found it at his peak. It will remain simply as a historic curiosity rather than being considered a genuine missed win, for in the above position Caruana continued with knight f3 and could not break down Carlsen’s defenses, with the handshake coming 12 moves later on move 80 after six-and-a-half hours.

“It’s a good thing they exist, right?” said the now-believer in fortresses at the post-game press conference, with Carlsen adding the next day that he felt he had “got away with murder.” This was Carlsen’s first big scare, and at the halfway mark of a truly extraordinary match—incredibly, Black had been better in all six of the games so far—the World Championship was well and truly up for grabs.

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Game 7

Sometimes in chess, gaining a true appreciation of what’s happening on the board is difficult, bordering on impossible, unless you’re one of the very strongest Grandmasters on Earth—such as with the forced mate shown in the previous last game. Sometimes, however, the narratives are simple and clear. The big question heading into Game 7 (after the players had finished being drug tested following the conclusion of Game 6!) was around Magnus Carlsen’s choice of first move with the white pieces. Would he stick to 1.e4? Was he spooked by Fabiano Caruana’s apparent success in playing the Petroff Defense in Game 6, a game that the challenger nearly won? Maybe Carlsen’s team would judge that his greatest chances of winning lie in 1.d4 lines, but would there be a part of the Champion not wanting to appear to surrender 1.e4 as a weapon after just one game?

Who knows what conversations went on behind closed doors, but at the board Carlsen elected to go with 1.d4, avoiding the Petroff after the Game 6 scare. It’s a reasonable prediction that having tried 1.e4 and then gone back, Carlsen now won’t return to it for the rest of this match. That will have significance just beyond the ultimate result between these two players: elite chess follows trends just like any other sport does, and with the World Champion consciously avoiding the Petroff on the biggest stage of them all, it must surely now threaten to overtake the Berlin as Black’s primary response to 1.e4.

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This game followed the same line as played in Game 2 all the way up until the 10th move. As discussed in our Games 1-4 report, in that game Caruana’s 10…Rd8 threw Magnus, who sank into a 17-minute think after being surprised by that scary-looking novelty which he was unable to refute. In this game, after Carlsen deviated with 10.Nd2, Caruana blitzed out 10…Qd8:

This move had apparently also escaped Magnus’s preparation, and after a nine-minute think led to knight b3, the very natural response bishop b6 caused Magnus to take another 13 minutes over bishop e2. It’s baffling that having prepared so far down this line Carlsen appeared to not have checked these very natural continuations, and this must go down as another game in which Team Caruana out-prepared Team Carlsen.

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The game then took a boooooo-ring turn, as neither player managed to squeeze out any advantage in the middlegame, so let’s take a moment to discuss the scene of the match in London.

The setup of the actual playing area makes it look like Carlsen and Caruana are doing battle in the world’s most comfortable police interrogation room. They sit in a brightly-lit chamber, separated from the darkened viewing gallery by a glass panel which allows us to see in but not them to see out—both so the players cannot be distracted by any yahoos in the audience and so there is no chance of unlawful communication of information. Credentialed photographers are allowed in the room for the first five minutes, and thereafter only two official arbiters are permitted in the room with the players. The players have access to a bathroom and a break area with refreshments, and often get up to stretch their legs or maybe just to leave their opponent isolated at the board. (Sometimes they’re both up at the same time, giving us an amusing archvillain-esque Chair-versus-Chair battle).

Carlsen looks good. He’s anyway a naturally handsome guy, and in this tournament his hair would make Elvis jealous and his grey suit would make Sinatra do a double-take. Caruana also looks sharp in his formalwear, and with the composure and aura that both exude in spades, if the two of them weren’t busy playing chess they could probably team up in the field of international espionage.

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During play, the players’ sitting positions differ, both from each other and at different times in a game. In the opening, when the players are still in their preparation, they are physically relaxed and sit upright. For most of the rest of the game they sit on the edge of their chairs, leaning forward so that their heads are above their edge of the board. I presume that this common practice is as much for visual purposes as anything—sitting back and lower down would mean that the pieces obscure each other and diagonals are indiscernible. Caruana’s body language is the more conservative of the two, usually adopting a dignified upright position with elbows on the table, his thumb under the hinge of his jaw, and his index finger at his temple. Carlsen often leans forward on both elbows, and occasionally when deep in thought—Magnus blinks a lot when he’s concentrating—leans all the way over to one side with a triceps on the table and his head in that hand. He regularly fidgets with one of the captured pieces in his hands, and will occasionally lean back in his chair with one leg crossed in an endgame position he’s comfortable in.

Both players—though Magnus more so—occasionally reach their hand out to move a piece and then change their mind, a delightfully amateurish tendency that makes the rest of us feel absolved for doing the same. It seems like an odd practice for the world’s best to display, given that they make moves only after serious consideration, but it’s actually not all that uncommon amongst the chess elite (Hikaru Nakamura comes to mind as another habitual reacher). I think it is usually just that the player has spotted a final variation at the tail end of their calculations that needs a moment’s consideration, although it’s possible that the committal act of reaching for the piece might jolt the player’s instinct that the move entails a danger as yet unforeseen.

In classical chess, players must write down their moves on a scoresheet which both must sign at the end of the game. The scoresheets in this match only have room for sixty moves, and so Carlsen and Caruana need a second sheet if the game goes that long, which is duly provided by the arbiter. Inexplicably, they apparently need to fill in their identifying information at the top of that new sheet as well, instead of labelling it “2/2” or something. It’s like needing extra sheets of paper to finish an essay in high school!

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Back to Game 7, and there wasn’t much more to report: Caruana equalized out of the opening, and although in the press conference the players identified some fun tactical complications that they’d spotted from afar, none seemed to work out to a clear advantage. After mass trades a knight-versus-bishop was reached, and a draw by repetition confirmed on move 40. Carlsen’s two games with the white pieces had passed with him barely laying a glove on the challenger.

Game 8

At the 2016 World Championship, after seven frustrating draws against an opponent that he saw as clearly inferior, Magnus Carlsen decided to play for a win at all costs in Game 8. Carlsen never thought he could lose with white pieces to challenger Sergey Karjakin, but after overextending in an equal position, the World Champion suffered an ignominious defeat which sent shockwaves through the chess world. Carlsen won in Game 10—a game in which Karjakin missed a forced draw—and ultimately prevailed in tiebreaks to restore balance to chess’s natural order, but that defeat must loom large on his mind.

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In Game 8 in 2018, Fabiano Caruana, playing with the white pieces, for the fourth time in four went for 1.e4. That was met also for the fourth time with Magnus Carlsen’s 1…c5, the Sicilian Defense, and we were finally treated to an Open Sicilian with 3.d4, a structure in which the opening up of the center leads to razor-sharp complications. Caruana again showed his superior preparation by opting for an uncommon sideline with 7.Nd5!

Caruana’s quick play gained him a huge advantage on the clock, and in fact up until move 18 he actually had more time than he did at the start of the game, due to the extra 30 seconds added to each player’s clock with each move.

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Perhaps hoping to press for a repeat of the attack which saw him winning in Game 1 of this match, Carlsen launched a kingside pawn storm, but it appears that the attack was unsound with so many opportunities for queenside counterplay for White. After pausing for a leisurely 33-minute think (during which he later said he did not analyze any candidate moves other than the one he played), Caruana broke the position open with the perfectly-timed pawn to c5!:

The d-pawn can’t take White’s c-pawn right away because the knight is en prise, so after knight takes bishop, check and queen takes knight, only then pawn takes pawn. Although white is a pawn down and Black has the bishop pair, White has better control over the center and a much safer king, so the engines were blaring that White had a significant advantage. If Caruana could continue the attack before Carlsen had time to consolidate, he would have chances to play for a full point and to head into the final third of this World Championship match in the driver’s seat. The hunt was, yet again, very much on!

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And then, just like that, the hunt was very much off. After rook from a1 to d1 and bishop d6, Caruana squandered his initiative with pawn to h3?:

No, Fabi! It appears that Caruana either needed to play knight c4 or just queen h5 immediately, with the medium-term plan of landing a rook on e6, where the power of White’s position should yield a favorable endgame in which that d-pawn will be too strong. Instead, the move played in the game doesn’t achieve anything—Caruana must have feared pawn to g4 by Black, but that waste of a tempo was all that Carlsen needed. With queen e8! the Champion was back on level pegging, with the Black queen coming to g6 to defend both bishops and prevent White’s queen from coming to h5.

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Such are the tiny margins between these two players, this one slip allowed Carlsen to force a trade of queens and enter an equal endgame, where his extra pawn offset Caruana’s strong d-pawn. Unbelievable though it seems, at this level and in this position, one wasted move handed the World Champion the tempo he needed to stabilize and to reclaim near-equality. Players who squander a middlegame advantage often have trouble psychologically accepting their dissipated advantage and keep pushing for an advantage that is no longer there, but Caruana—playing with the composure of a heart surgeon this whole match—had no such problem. A draw was agreed on move 38.

And so ‘tis thusly that we enter the final trimester of regulation in the 2018 World Chess Championship. Both players have positive and negative takeaways from the first eight games. Fabiano Caruana has unquestionably had the better of the opening battles, but has only managed to generate two winning or pseudo-winning opportunities, both of which he’s been unable to convert. Magnus Carlsen missed a win in Game 1, but has not been significantly better in any game since then. Have the challenger’s chances come and gone? Who will be the first to strike? Will either man crack under pressure and gift his opponent a decisive victory? What twists and turns still lay in store?

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Four more games are to be played at classical time controls, with an additional day of short-format tiebreaks if required. Make sure you’re following along as the tension continues to build.

Ben is a Deadspin reader who likes chess.

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