LONDON — There’s been drama worthy of a Shakespearean tragedy at the World Chess Championship, as Magnus Carlsen and Fabiano Caruana have fought to a draw in each of their 12 head-to-head games, sending the match to overtime with a day of tiebreaks to decide the winner. Games 9-12 featured a black eye, one-and-a-half all-time classic games, and perhaps the most shocking over-the-board moment in chess history.
Let’s take a look at Games 9-12, where we’ll go with bold text for moves which actually occurred in the games, and italics for hypothetical variations which did not. In case you missed them, make sure to wrap your lookin’ gear around our match preview, recap of Games 1-4, and recap of Games 5-8.
Magnus Carlsen turned up to Game 9 of the World Chess Championship with a black eye, having taken a clash of heads with Norwegian TV reporter Emil Gukild during a friendly game of football on the rest day.
Carlsen, playing with the white pieces, decided to go with the English Opening 1.c4, as he had done in Game 4. As in that game, Fabiano Caruana responded with 1…e5, the Reverse Sicilian (so-called, naturally, because it is the role-reversal of the Sicilian Defense, where White pushes its e-pawn two squares and Black does likewise with its c-pawn), and the players followed their Game 4 opening until Carlsen deviated on move 9 with bishop g5.
That’s a rare move in this position, but Caruana was prepared, immediately countering by trading knights on c3 and then kicking the white bishop with pawn to f6. What was Carlsen’s point? After bishop back to c1 (a counter-intuitive move since it returns the bishop back to its starting point and momentarily cuts off communication between White’s rooks) the champion’s intentions were clear: he was going to fianchetto his bishop on b2 and try to attack the center of the board with a d3-d4 pawn break. That forced Caruana to retreat his dark-squared bishop to b6, where it couldn’t contribute to the action, and all of a sudden a long day looked ahead for the challenger.
As the middlegame threatened to swing in favor of the world champion, after a 13-minute think Caruana took the practical decision to simplify with bishop takes knight?!:
That was a bold decision, because bishops are, in a vacuum, more valuable than knights, and Caruana’s bishop was contributing more than the white knight it captured. The computers did not approve of the trade, but it was probably a decent human decision, because it allowed Black to pick up White’s d-pawn (the f3 knight is no longer there to defend it from the multiple black attackers), and it simplified the position into something where Caruana was slightly worse but could put up a concrete resistance.
And so, Magnus Carlsen had forged a somewhat-better endgame which he would try to convert into the first victory of the match. Carlsen’s king was safer, he had a kingside pawn majority (more valuable than Caruana’s queenside pawn majority because of the pressure it threatened to put on Caruana’s king), and the more active of the opposite-colored bishops.
Carlsen threatened to turn the screws on the challenger, but misstepped in the following position with pawn to h5?:
Carlsen feared that Caruana himself would play pawn to h5, and was hoping after a trade of rooks to get his pawn to h6 where it would prove to be extremely annoying. Instead, Caruana simply captured on h5, and it turned out that Carlsen had missed that after queen c4 black has the continuation pawn to f5!, and suddenly Black’s h-pawn can’t be stopped from coming to h4 and the White king is feeling the heat.
Caruana masterfully took advantage of this counterplay to equalize, trading off both pairs of rooks and eventually the queens to liquidate into a drawn 2-versus-2 pawns and bishops endgame. A draw was eventually agreed after 56 moves.
We had definitely reached the “Magnus is sick of answering questions” phase of the match, with the World Champion giving several one-word answers at the post-game press conference. Carlsen could take some positives from this game—it was the first time he had out-prepared Caruana with the white pieces—but the challenger was now in the driver’s seat with two whites in the last three games.
Fabiano Caruana, playing with the white pieces, again opened up with 1.e4, and Magnus Carlsen responded for the fifth time in five games with the Sicilian Defense, 1…c5. We were treated to another Open Sicilian with 3.d4, and, as in Game 8, a Sveshnikov Variation with the uncommon 7.Nd5.
It’s been interesting to track both players’ opening strategy through the match in games where Caruana has the white pieces: Fabi insisting on 1.e4 in each game; Magnus sticking to the double-eged Sicilian; Caruana transitioning from closed to open systems; Carlsen holding strong with 2…Nc6 instead of the more musical 2…d6; the challenger finding different ideas in each game such as the wing gambit in Game 5 and the oddball 7.Nd5 variation in Games 8 and 10. Chess is a zero-sum game, so it’s interesting that in this what’s-good-for-you-is-by-definition-bad-for-me ecosystem both players were happy to keep playing Sicilians, which follow broadly the same move orders, with Caruana satisfied that he had enough ideas up his sleeve to not necessitate a switch to, say, 1.d4, and Carlsen pleased enough with his results that he wasn’t tempted to respond with 1…e5 or something else.
After opening statements from opposing counsel, Caruana declared his intentions for a fight with the queenside attack pawn to b4!:
I wrote in my preview to this match that chess games opening with 1.e4 feel like they are played on a guitar, in contrast to the piano sounds of 1.d4 games. To continue that thought, the sharpest and most complicated Sicilians feel like the sexiest electric guitar, and game proved to be an absolute scorcher like “Love Spreads” or “Voodoo Child.”
We soon had a trade of pawns on the a-file and White’s minor pieces were invading the position to harass the black queen. Things got real when, after a 17-minute think, Fabiano Caruana played the incredible Rook to a3?!:
Magnus later said that he missed this idea—Caruana threatens to swing his attack over to the kingside and deliver mate on the h-file. The fight was now well and truly on, for after queen to g6! Carlsen was threatening a mating attack of his own. In fact, in the above position, perhaps White playing bishop to h5 would have been worth considering: the black queen had no squares, so pawn to g6 was strictly the only response, which (at the cost of a tempo to White) would have weakened the black king, prevented the black queen from coming to that square, and stopped the f8 rook from swinging via f6 to h6 in some variations.
It was well and truly time to call the London Fire Brigade when, after a quarter-hour think, Carlsen went for it with pawn b5!:
There were tactical and attacking possibilities all over the board, and it looked like a full-on race to see who could deliver the knockout blow first. Carlsen gave us another great line about this move in the post-game press conference:
I thought for so long and I wasn’t sure about it, but I thought I’d just go for it and up the stakes even more. Either you win the game or you get mated.
After a trade of knights on b6, Carlsen played queen to g5! and Caruana had to find a way to refute Black’s threat of swinging the rook to g6 and, aided by the deadly e- and f-pawns, delivering mate on g2. Fabiano thought for 18 minutes over the ugly pawn to g3? (turns out he probably could have simply captured the b5 pawn with his bishop, but he said he didn’t think it was the time to be greedy) and was eventually able to swing his rook to g1 (so that the opening of the g-file would expose the black queen to attack), and invite a trade of light-square bishops on f1 (the c8-h3-f1 pathway now being opened for the black bishop).
The scramble continued, and while it looked like Caruana had staved off the mating threats for the time being, complications and winning chances for both sides abounded all over the board. The players got themselves into mutual time trouble in the lead-up to getting their additional 50 minutes at move 40, when Carlsen laid a devilish trap with queen e2!!:
Judit Polgár spotted the trick immediately in the official commentary: after White goes for queen b3, check and forces the black king to move, it looks like pawn to c4 checkmates the black queen—she’s under attack from the b2 rook with no safe squares to retreat to. However, the sensational rook takes pawn on b6! wins the game for Black, because after rook takes queen on e2, black’s f-pawn captures rook and is one square away from promotion, forcing the white queen to c2, where after the beautiful rook to b2 Black will emerge with an extra rook and it’s all over. This game was played on Thanksgiving, but Fabiano is no turkey—even in severe time trouble he saw the trap and continued with rook to e1, gobble-gobbling up Carlsen’s queen in exchange for his own.
So, after that insane middlegame, both players had knocked each other to the canvas, but each had managed to get up. Surely this game couldn’t also end in a draw? The players reached a double-rook endgame which, while complicated, was equal enough to make a split point yet again somehow the most likely outcome.
Carlsen had the better of the two sides and set about trying to produce a win from his slight advantage. After Caruana had perhaps unwisely stationed his rook on a7 in defense of his b-pawn instead of on the b-file, Carlsen flew too close to the sun with king to d4?:
Carlsen was threatening king c3, forcing the b2 rook to abandon its defense of one of the two pawns it is guarding. He missed the refutation rook b5, and after the bail-out rook d6, White wrested back the initiative with rook a4, check, and eventually blew the structure open with pawn c4 and forced advantageous trades of pawns and one pair of rooks. Caruana ended up with an extra pawn and could have forgiven for himself playing on in search of a win without much risk, but the players ultimately shook hands on move 54 to end one of the craziest and best games in World Championship history.
One of the hallmarks of Magnus Carlsen’s rise from teenage prodigy to one of the best and greatest of all time has been his ability to squeeze wins from dead positions. Time and again Carlsen would build up a slight advantage in a stable structure, and continue to push and push until he finessed his small advantage into a sizable one, or pressured his opponent into a fatal mistake. He can and does win games any old which way, but this specific type of victory has been Carlsen’s calling card. This is the type of position that Magnus loves is the oft-repeated statement by the chess community when he enters an endgame with a small advantage.
Reputations often lag behind reality, and if you want my two cents, folks, I think we need to start speaking about Carlsen’s habit of regularly winning those positions in the past tense. We’ve now seen two consecutive World Championship campaigns, and the two years in between, where Carlsen has failed again and again to win the types of dead endgames which used to be his dessert cart. Carlsen had superior endgames in Games 1, 3, and 4 in 2016 against Sergey Karjakin, and in Games 1, 9 and 10 in this match, and couldn’t convert in any of them, a theme that has been repeated a depressing number of times in the tournaments in between. By my count, he’s only managed two wins of this character in 2018 (versus Maxime Vachier-Lagrave at Biel and Hikaru Nakamura in the Sinquefield Cup), but far more often allows his opponents to escape with a draw, and surely by this point the wins are the exception rather than the norm. I think this is the new normal. It’s time that we updated the scouting report on Magnus Carlsen—squeezing wins from thin air is no longer his forte.
2016 World Championship challenger Sergey Karjakin made the ceremonial first move ahead of Game 11, and (apparently spurred on by former world champion Viswanathan Anand) showed everyone the classic chess player’s sense of humor by making the move 1.b4, instead of the 1.e4 that Magnus Carlsen had requested. A good chuckle was had, I’m sure!
With Magnus returning to the king’s pawn opening for his last White game, his broad opening strategy was now evident—he had cycled through 1.d4, 1.c4, and 1.e4 in his first three games, and then repeated that sequence for his final three. This presumably had the effect of both testing a wide range of Fabiano Caruana’s preparation and of giving his team a week between games of the same first move in which to shore up their preparation.
We got another battle in the Petroff Defense (1.e4 e5 2.Nf3 Nf6), Caruana’s specialty with the black pieces against 1.e4 and which had brought him to the brink of victory in Game 6. You’ll recall that before Game 4 of this match some of Fabiano’s opening preparation was inadvertently leaked by way of an image of an open ChessBase file being captured in a promotional video uploaded to the internet. Well, that infamous file featured reference to a line in the 4.Nf3 Petroff where Black plays 9…Nf6, and we indeed got that variation in this game! A bold move by Caruana—he must have assumed that Team Carlsen would have checked all the lines mentioned in the leaked file, and either thought the line was sound even if the surprise factor had worn off, or perhaps thought Carlsen would have skipped school and not bothered to study up on what his team had found. It looked like the latter may have been the case, because Carlsen admitted after the game that the opening had surprised him. Bravo, Mr. World Champion! Surprised by the contents of a file that had been leaked on the internet. Well done.
As it turned out, Caruana equalized out of the opening effortlessly—giving more credence to the Petroff as a valuable weapon for Black—successfully neutering the position and not leaving Carlsen with any scrap of a winning chance. With the result never in doubt it was simply a booooo-ring slog to the following simple endgame position:
A trained dolphin could hold this opposite-colored bishops endgame: Black has placed all his pawns on light squares where they cannot be attack by White’s light-squared bishop, and White has done the opposite. White’s passed c-pawn can’t make any progress, because the blockading black king can’t be dislodged by any of White’s pieces. The black bishop handily defends the f7 pawn (which defends the g6 pawn) by staying on the a2-g8 diagonal, and if the white king tried to make a run at the a6 pawn the bishop can simply shift to the a6-f1 diagonal. Any push of White’s f- and h-pawns won’t change the equation for the better, and so a draw was agreed in 55 moves, which (I’ve just realized) was somehow one move longer than the all-time classic in Game 10.
So, after another rest day, Fabiano Caruana would play the final classical game of the World Chess Championship with the white pieces, where a win would make him the World No. 1 and the World Champion.
Heading into the final round of the 2016 World Championship with the scores level, Magnus Carlsen apparently told his team to not even bother preparing anything, because he intended to play for a draw with the white pieces at all costs and take on challenger Sergey Karjakin in tiebreaks. That game ended in 30 moves in just as many minutes—only lasting so long because draws by agreement are not permitted any earlier on chess’s biggest stage. Crucially, in 2018, Carlsen would have the black pieces in the final frame. How would the World Champion approach this game?
For the sixth time in six games, Fabiano Caruana played 1.e4 with the white pieces, and Carlsen completed the half-dozen set of Sicilians with 1…c5. We again got a 7.Nd5 Sveshnikov, and an interesting position with chances for both sides. Caruana humorously had an early option of taking a draw, because in the below position after queen a4 and bishop d7, the queen returned to b4 and the bishop went back to f5. A player with the move can claim a draw if an identical position appears on the board three times (fun fact: a draw is only automatic in the case of a five-fold repetition), and the potential draw-by-repetition was on, at move 14! Would the challenger take it?
No! Of course he didn’t! Who would do that? What kind of chess player would claim a draw in such an important game in such a pleasant position without even putting up a fight? Hmm?
So the game continued, and the storm clouds of Sicilian tactical complications looked to be gathering as the two armies fired warning shots on each flank and threatened to do full-blooded battle in the center. It looked like we were in for another all-time classic when Fabiano played rook h2?!:
Black’s attack had developed faster than White’s, so the Caruana was preparing to castle queenside—games featuring opposite-sides castling invariably result in attacking fireworks—and to support his position with this weird move by bringing his rook across to c2. He was hoping that the funky rook setup would prove effective in the short term and fruitful in the long-term. After Carlsen brought his rook from a8 to c8 and Caruana castled queenside, Carlsen played the gorgeously simple bishop to g6!, clearing room for the f7-f5 pawn push which would dislodge White’s knight and cause havoc in the center.
Caruana was holding on, but the position was tenuous. He was bleeding the clock on every move, and it looked like the World Champion would start to turn the screws. Some more beautiful positional improvements followed, and Magnus Carlsen had nurtured his emerging advantage into a full-blown winning opportunity. With his opponent forced to make decisions in such a complicated position in time trouble, the forces of the chess universe seemed to be pointing toward a heroic attacking victory for the Champion in Game 12. What a famous victory it would be! Who needs tiebreaks? What a way to finish! What an opportunity to create another chapter of chess history!
With his attack on the enemy king brewing, his opponent severely down on the clock, and his position unquestionably significantly better, Magnus Carlsen played the lovely rook to a8 on move 31…
…and offered a draw.
The World Champion had decided that he wanted to take his ball and go home, not even bothering to pretend that he was playing for a win in the final game of the World Championship, bailing his opponent out in a winning position with a huge advantage on the clock, in the belief that he would win the title in short-format tiebreaks.
Can you believe it? Can you honestly believe it? Deadspin readers, as you sit there shouting out loud, “I frankly cannot believe this!” while waving your arms about in disbelief like a maniac, just know that you’re not alone—the entire chess world can’t believe it either!
Maurice Ashley nearly fell down in shock. Former World Champion Vladimir Kramnik said that a draw offer like this is “simply not allowed” by a world champ, and that if he had ever done something similar he wouldn’t sleep for a month. Former Carlsen second Jon Ludvig Hammer reportedly called the draw offer “extremely cowardly.” Garry Kasparov called the offer “shocking” and thinks that Carlsen has lost his nerve. Dozens of other prominent chess people shared the sentiment with varying levels of diplomacy; many, many chess fans voiced their thoughts with no diplomacy at all.
Sports fans love to create their own rules for how they think sportspeople are “supposed to” play—“Former champion X would have never done that!”—usually decreeing that a true winner would at all times play in the manner of a big tough macho caveman who has no need for nuance and no time for thought. It’s an idiotic trope because champions are champions no matter how they decide to go about it, but jeeeeez, there has to be some base level of fighting instinct we should expect from the world chess champion. Throwing in the towel in a winning position where it’s entirely possible that your opponent will blunder in time trouble before reaching move 40 is just… I mean, come on.
Let me share with you one anecdote which gives this a little more context. Fabiano Caruana qualified for this World Championship match by winning the Candidates Tournament in March this year. Going into the final round of that tournament, he was leading the pack by half a point (under chess’s scoring system of one point for a win, a half-point for a draw, and zero for a loss). As Caruana built up a superior position in his final-round game against current world No. 9 Alexander Grischuk, each of the other three final-round games finished in draws. Although Caruana could therefore have instantly offered a draw in his game and secured the title, he continued playing on in search of a deserved win for almost an hour before Grischuk resigned, handing Caruana the tournament victory by a full point. It was a potentially dangerous act: as dominating as his position was, you’re only ever one blunder away from disaster. “It would be a shame to not play this position,” he said afterwards—the words of a confident player!
There was initially some confusion as to what the handshake signified: some thought that it must have been a Caruana resignation, which tells you all you need to know about the wisdom of a draw offer in that position. Indeed, Caruana said that he actually thought about the offer for a while before accepting! Carlsen was in no mood to talk about it at the press conference—when told that the engines showed he had a significant advantage, Carlsen simply replied, “I don’t care.”
So, RIP to Magnus Carlsen, we hardly knew ye—the most fearless force chess ever saw is now nothing but a big ol’ ‘fraidy cat.
And so, the classical portion of the 2018 World Chess Championship is over, and with the players all square we will head to a day of tiebreaks on Wednesday. Freeeeeeee chess!
This is the only World Championship to have ever featured all draws—in years gone past, the classical Championship has variously been decided by first-to-X-wins matches, round-robin tournaments, and by a best-of-X-games format (with and without tiebreaks). Many fans are griping about 12 consecutive draws, which is fair enough, everybody wants decisive results, but draws are fine when they are the earned result of interesting and fun battles, as in (especially) Games 1, 6, 8, and 10 of this match. Some boring draws are inevitable amongst such closely-matched players, and in this match the filler (Games 4, 7, 11, and 12 in particular) has definitely been outweighed by the classics, and that’s without even considering all the off-board drama.
And, here’s something fun, folks: it’s theoretically possible for the match to ultimately be decided without a single win by either player! The tiebreaks start with four rapid games, where each player gets 25 minutes, plus 10 additional seconds per move. If it’s still all tied, they proceed to blitz, initially playing two 5-minute plus-3-second games, and then up to four more mini-matches as required. If it’s still all locked up after all that, the players proceed to a single game of Armageddon, where the parameters are set to so far as possible give each side a 50-percent chance of winning—White gets 5 minutes, Black gets 4 minutes, and a draw will make Black the World Champion. Could we see 27 consecutive draws? Don’t count it out!
Carlsen is rightfully the favorite heading into the short-format tiebreaks, given that he is ranked No. 1 in all three formats (classical, rapid, and blitz). Caruana is ranked 10th and 18th in rapid and blitz respectively, so while he will deservedly go in as the underdog, don’t make the mistake of counting him out. Much of the pre-match analysis dealt with the possibility of tiebreaks with the wave of a hand, assuming that Magnus will win it in his sleep. Carlsen has certainly earned his favoritism, but the ranking difference seems to have obscured the fact that Caruana is a truly great short-format player (people forget he was rapid world No. 1 before Carlsen was, in 2014-15), and he will have no doubt prepared extensively for this eventuality in the lead-up to the match. Plus, tiebreaks in such a high-stakes situation are as much a test of mettle as of chess ability, and Carlsen’s total loss of composure has led Garry Kasparov to declare that he no longer considers Carlsen to be the favorite: “Tiebreaks require tremendous nerves and he seems to be losing his.”
So, it’s come to this! Make sure to follow along on Wednesday as Magnus Carlsen and Fabiano Caruana go head-to-head for the World Championship title. The shorter-format games will be far more entertaining and accessible to the average fan, so follow along this historic day anywhere you can. After the absolutely insane drama of the first 12 games we are definitely due a big finish. I can’t wait.
Ben is a Deadspin reader who likes chess.