It’s a phenomenal time to be a chess fan. We can follow live action from thousands of games all around the world on our phones, from elite super-tournaments to the smallest club competitions. Freely available learning and training resources by far supersede anything the famed Soviet system could ever have offered. The world champion streams his one-minute online games while drinking beers and talking trash with his mates.
And now, we can watch an American compete for the undisputed World Chess Championship for the first time since 1972. If you’re an American sports fan and you’re not following Fabiano Caruana’s quest to take Magnus Carlsen’s crown as king of the chess world over the next two and a half weeks, you’re out of your damn mind. Here’s everything you need to know to get ready for the big match, which starts this Friday.
(If you need a general refresher on the sport, now might be a good time to revisit my complete guide to understanding chess.)
Magnus Carlsen is the LeBron James of chess. He’s a dominant force, unquestionably the best in the world, and has been number one for a sustained period of time. He’s chasing GOAT status, and his presence is so imposing that opponents often beat themselves before he needs to.
When Carlsen won the World Championship from five-time champ Vishy Anand just before his 23rd birthday in 2013, he had already been world No. 1 for the best part of three years. It was a crushing victory that indisputably announced the new king of world chess had arrived. A year later, Carlsen eased to victory in their rematch. In 2016, Carlsen didn’t take challenger Sergey Karjakin seriously, and nearly lost his title as a result. When he went down 1-0 in Game 8, Carlsen said that even worse than the prospect of losing the title was the feeling that Karjakin—then the world No. 9 and objectively a class below Carlsen as a chess player—might be the one to gain it.
To put it another way: when facing defeat in 2016, Carlsen feared losing to someone who was worse. If he faces defeat in 2018, Carlsen may experience an even worse fear: losing to someone who is better.
Fabiano Caruana is coming for the crown. He truly announced his arrival in the world’s elite at the 2014 Sinquefield Cup, a tournament featuring the highest-rated field ever assembled. Caruana won his first seven games including one over Carlsen, still the greatest individual tournament performance in chess history. In 2018 Caruana has established himself as clearly the biggest threat to Carlsen’s dominance, winning the Candidates Tournament by a full point to qualify for the World Championship match, winning two tournaments ahead of Carlsen and sharing with him a third, and generally operating at a level of sustained brilliance that makes him a serious threat for the title.
Carlsen-Caruana is the matchup that the chess world was hoping for. It’s world No. 1 versus world No. 2—the first World Championship match between the top two since Garry Kasparov and Anatoly Karpov went at it for the fifth and final time in 1990. Caruana only sits three Elo rating points behind Carlsen at 2832 to 2835, both the highest combined rating and the smallest ratings difference in World Championship history. If Caruana wins the match within the 12 classical games, he’ll not only take the title but also the world No. 1 spot that Carlsen has held continuously since July 2011—about which Magnus has said, “I would like to give you some boring, politically correct answer, but the truth is, yeah, it does bother me!”
The match will consist of 12 classical games, following a gameday-gameday-rest day pattern throughout. There will be a day of shorter-format tiebreaks if required, as there was in 2016. The World Championship returns to London for the first time since 2000, with the games being played at The College in Holborn, midway between the West End and the City. The match logo is still awful.
What Can We Expect?
These guys will go for it. We should expect some aggressive, bold chess—the complete opposite of the 2016 snoozefest in which Sergey Karjakin’s strategy to lure Carlsen into the dullest and driest possible battles nearly won him the title. Carlsen has indicated that he will try to force Caruana on the defensive, while Caruana won’t be afraid to take him on.
Carlsen’s style of play is best described as positional and strategic rather than attacking or tactical. He prefers to slowly build up pressure through the maneuvering of his pieces, and is happy to exchange the queens off the board in order to have his minor pieces and pawns prove their superiority. Perhaps no player in history has had such superior chess intuition, moving by feel rather than aiming to calculate every variation, playing accurately with very few mistakes. A quintessential Carlsen game is one where he squeezes his opponent in the middlegame, creating weakness after weakness in the enemy position before ruthlessly converting in the endgame, with the defeated opponent confiding to the post-game interviewer that they couldn’t quite identify where they made a mistake along the way.
And, here’s something fun: the World Chess Champion also moonlights as the best online bullet player in the world. Carlsen has proved his superiority in the one-minute-each format (although Daniel Naroditsky has Carlsen’s measure in their head-to-head matchups) by winning six of the eight Lichess.org Titled Arenas, missing on one other because he played half of it from his phone. Carlsen playing online bullet is the best thing on the internet, period—go and watch this mind-boggling stream where he crushes all comers while sinking a few beers and listening to music with his mates, or watch ChessNetwork’s fantastic voiceover commentary of Carlsen’s games. This is like if LeBron liked to blow off steam by dominating one-on-one pickup games in gyms around the country.
Caruana, by contrast, is a more tactical player, with his calculation ability perhaps his biggest strength. When Carlsen was asked a few years ago to sum up Caruana in one word, he instantly said “computer.” Caruana places a high premium on control of the center, with Carlsen noting that Caruana often sacrifices pawns, gives his opponents passed pawns, and accepts attacks towards his king in order to achieve control of the middle of the board.
Both Carlsen and Caruana are physically fit, a necessity in modern chess when players are performing calculations of mind-bending complexity in tense games lasting up to seven hours. This will be Carlsen’s fourth World Championship match, so he can obviously last the distance—doing so with the help of a mid-game lie down on the couch during Game 4 in 2016. Caruana has never played a 12-game head-to-head match before, though many big tournaments last just as long, such as the 14-round Candidates Tournament through which Fabi booked his ticket to London.
Both players will try to identify their opponent’s vulnerabilities to exploit. Caruana is a time-trouble addict—not quite on the level of Alexander Grischuk or Wei Yi, but too often finding himself in a scramble which can lead to sub-optimal decisions. Plus, he’s comparatively weaker in the shorter versions of the game, perhaps due to the emphasis he places on calculation in the classical format, which will put him at a disadvantage if the match goes to tiebreaks. As for Carlsen—he’s not a full-on opening theory nerd, famously preferring to simply achieve playable positions in the opening so that he can impose his will in the middlegame. A well-prepared Fabi may be able to bring some home cooking to eke out an opening advantage. Of course, these alleged “weaknesses” are only observable when tested against some of the strongest chess players ever to have lived. These guys are good at everything!
Most of the players’ pre-match preparation will relate to the opening phase of each game. Because each chess game branches outward from a fixed starting position, a hugely dense body of theory has developed with respect to optimal and not-so-optimal initial move orders. A World Championship match can be won and lost in the players’ preparation: most famously, Vladimir Kramnik played the Berlin Defense with black pieces four times for four draws in his match against Garry Kasparov in 2000—the famous “Berlin Wall” became the foundation of his victory.
Many chess games stem from one of two initial moves, which give birth to completely different action: where white either plays 1.e4 by moving their king’s pawn two squares toward the center, or 1.d4 by double-hopping their queen’s pawn. The first move sets the tone so that the games take on a vastly different shape—1.e4 generally leads to open positions, while 1.d4 leads to closed positions; one is like batting to a right-handed pitcher, the other like facing a lefty. From the moves that follow, the two types of game have different structures, different characteristics, different feels: 1.e4 is like playing guitar; 1.d4 is like playing piano.
Let’s use one specific opening as a microcosm of the issue of preparation. One of the big questions is whether we’ll see Magnus take on Fabi’s Petroff Defense, Caruana’s go-to weapon against 1.e4 with black for more than a year now, on the back of which he’s built his phenomenal run of results in 2018. Here’s what that defense looks like:
Caruana may elect to play the Petroff whenever given the opportunity. He’s had great success playing it this year, is booked up on a huge number of continuations, and is comfortable playing in the structures that it creates. So, why complicate things by considering abandoning it? Well, Magnus will presumably have sunk significant resources into preparing for the Petroff—is it therefore worth Caruana’s effort to prepare another stock response to 1.e4, hoping to catch Magnus (comparatively) underprepared? One of Caruana’s main strengths is his calculation ability—could Team Fabi have secretly spent the year preparing the Sicilian Defense (1.e4 c5), a completely different Black repertoire which leads to razor-sharp complicated tactical positions? Caruana has rarely played the Sicilian in previous tournaments, but did play it when he was required to win on demand in the final round of the 2016 Candidates. Has Team Magnus prepared for what he will play if Fabi springs it as a surprise?
From Carlsen’s point of view, does he need to worry about inviting Caruana’s Petroff? Three of their head-to-head battles in the past two years have seen this opening, each ending in a draw—not a great overall result for the player with white pieces, but Magnus was in no trouble in any of those games. Which openings offer Carlsen the best chance at victory? He can play every opening under the sun, and has switched between 1.e4, 1.d4, and 1.Nf3 with white in previous World Championship games. Does Carlsen think that he has the best chance of success inviting Caruana’s favorite defense? Will there be a little bit of ego involved? Will the World Champion worry about being called a chicken if he refuses to take on the challenger’s pet opening and sticks solely to, say, 1.d4?
Caruana is among the stronger opening theoreticians in the world, and with more than seven months to prepare for this match I expect he will come locked and loaded. In fact, although Caruana hasn’t had a lot of success obtaining opening advantages against Carlsen in recent years, I wouldn’t be surprised if Caruana’s preparation sees him better out of the opening in more than a few games.
Team Magnus and Team Fabi
Carlsen and Caruana both employ a full-time coach—Peter Heine Nielsen and Rustam Kasimdzhanov respectively—who will spearhead their preparation. In addition, one terrific quirk of chess is that elite players will often engage other elite players on an ad hoc basis as seconds to help them prepare for a big tournament. For example, world No. 6 Maxime Vachier-Lagrave was part of Team Magnus for the 2016 World Championship match—the equivalent of James Harden assisting LeBron James at the NBA Finals. Vladimir Kramnik famously seconded for Garry Kasparov with his successful 1995 World Championship match, and then took the title off him five years later.
Per common practice, Carlsen and Caruana are both keeping their seconds’ identities secret, with the theory being that if the opponent knows that Player X is assisting with preparation, that will give an idea as to what openings have been prepared. Magnus has revealed that Laurent Fressinet is again on the team, plus “a few surprises” including some younger players. I’d bet my house that Jan Gustafsson is seconding for Magnus as he did in 2016, and let’s have some fun by speculating that world No. 13 Yan Nepomniachtchi (one of the few players with a career plus-score against Magnus) will be on board, having previously seconded for Carlsen and being conspicuously absent from the recent Isle of Man Open while Carlsen held his final training camp in Lanzarote in the Canary Islands.
In his previous World Championship campaigns in Chennai, Sochi, and New York, Carlsen has preferred to have his team working remotely—usually from a resort in Kragerø in his native Norway—and corresponds with them by Skype and email, taking advantage of the timezone difference so his team do not have to stay up all night preparing.
It’s rumoured that Vladimir Putin gifted Sergey Karjakin a million-Euro budget for his 2016 World Championship tilt at Carlsen; it’s not out of the question that Rex Sinquefield has similarly attempted to bankroll the best preparation for Caruana. Indeed, Saint Louis Chess Club contributors Christian Chirilia and Alejandro Ramirez this week posted a beach selfie with Caruana’s coach Kasimdzhanov, and before the Candidates Tournament Fabi held a Miami beach training camp with those guys and Leinier Dominguez. It’s well known that USA Chess’s Big 3 don’t fraternize, so I don’t think we’ll see world No. 10 Wesley So or No. 17 Hikaru Nakamura on Team Caruana, but I wouldn’t be surprised if current U.S. Champion Sam Shankland is involved.
And, hey–here’s a question: will Garry Kasparov be helping either camp? The GOAT worked closely with his protégé Carlsen during his rise from prodigy to world No. 1, and Kasparov was in touch with Carlsen to pass on advice as needed during previous World Championship matches. Will he be doing so again? Or, since Kasparov is involved with promoting chess in the United States and around the world, and since having an American world champion would help that cause enormously, has he been recruited to Team Fabi?
Pre-Match Trash Talk
There aren’t many true beefs at the very top of world chess—although world No. 5 Anish Giri consistently gets under Carlsen’s skin, which is always funny. Chess isn’t exactly the UFC, but while Carlsen and Caruana have a healthy mutual respect and get along fine, there’s been a little bit of pre-match banter.
After Carlsen defeated Caruana at Norway Chess in May, he tweeted “But can he do it on a cold November night in London?” It was a reference to the same trollish hypothetical that gets asked of Lionel Messi, which I’m not fully convinced makes total sense: is Carlsen is speaking about himself in the third person and… questioning his own ability to win against tougher competition? Or is he saying that Caruana is Messi and he is… Stoke City?
Carlsen has made a little bit of the fact that Caruana has switched national allegiances: the Miami-born Caruana changed to representing Italy after moving to Europe with his family as a 12-year-old, and then transferred back to playing for the U.S. in 2015. Carlsen has previously quoted the Daily Show’s jibe that U.S. Chess was “buying nerds,” and has publicly wondered if Caruana and Philippines transferee Wesley So were “still for sale.” On the eve of this match he reiterated that the USA is doing “a brilliant job buying players.”
And here’s a spectacular instance of trash-talk backfiring: Two months ago, Magnus and Fabi met in a game in which a Caruana victory would have propelled him No. 1 in the world. Carlsen manufactured a dangerous attack on Caruana’s king in the middlegame, and achieved a position which the engines showed was better, but not yet fully winning. As Caruana gloomily pondered his next move, Carlsen paid a visit to the “Confessional Booth”—a made-for-TV sound-proof room which players can enter mid-game to give their thoughts to the fans at home:
That’s great stuff, only spoiled by the fact that… he didn’t end up winning. Caruana found a series of only-moves and an ugly but effective defense, Carlsen fatefully elected for the second-best attacking continuation, and Caruana weathered the storm and forced a draw. “That kind of backfired, huh?” was Carlsen’s sheepish comment in the post-game interview. The gesture was great and would have been badass if Carlsen had won the game, but he didn’t, so we get to goof on him for celebrating too early.
We’re therefore set up for what could be an iconic moment at the conclusion of the match: if Caruana wins the title, his victory salute is there for the taking. The finger raised to his lips would become an instantly immortal image in chess history, and indeed in American history, one of the all-time great bits of sporting trash-talk. Whether Caruana has any interest in making that his defining image, we’ll have to wait and see; if he does, I’m planting my flag here and preemptively giving it the clever name The Shush Heard Round The World.
You can follow the games live in any number of ways—if you’re after commentary which explains what’s happening on the board, for my money Chess24 and the Saint Louis Chess Club have the most informative and entertaining live coverage around, and we can only hope that the immortal Radio Jan will be back with his expert analysis. Searching “chess” will give you dozens of apps and sites if you just want to follow along with the moves as they happen. Each game will start at 9:00 a.m. CST (3:00 p.m. London time), a perfect hour to load the board on your phone or computer while at work and to check in periodically through the day. We’ll have recaps of the games here on Deadspin, complete with diagrams with fancy arrows and annotations to explain what’s happening.
We might be a few short weeks away from having an American World Chess Champion, folks. Get on board!
Ben is a Deadspin reader who likes chess.