Photo: Tristan Fewings (Getty)

LONDON — It’s all square in the 2018 World Chess Championship, as reigning champion Magnus Carlsen and challenger Fabiano Caruana shared the chocolates in each of the first four games of their 12-game match in London. It’s been an amazing start, featuring two classic games and two more tense encounters, incredible historic parallels, some great post-game quotes, and an inexplicable intelligence leak which could alter the course of chess history.

Let’s take a walk through the first four games, where we’re using bold text for moves which actually occurred in the games, and italics for hypothetical variations. If you need a primer on the match and our two combatants, check out my preview.

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Game 1

We were treated to an absolute barnburner in Game 1, where Caruana had white pieces and Carlsen black. After Woody Harrelson’s cameo—he also made the first move of Game 1 of the 2016 World Championship—Carlsen made a statement with his first move, electing to respond to Caruana’s 1.e4 with 1…c5, the Sicilian Defense. The Sicilian is a double-edged opening which generally signifies that Black is playing for complicated positions with winning chances, rather than simply aiming for equality out of the opening (such as with the move 1…e5, Carlsen’s more common response to 1.e4)—a clear message to Caruana that the fight would be on right out of the gate.

After navigating the theoretical intricacies of the opening (Caruana played a line with 3.Bb5, the Rossolimo Variation, rather than heading into an Open Sicilian with 3.d4), Carlsen showed his aggressive intentions early by pushing his kingside pawns to h6 and g5 in successive moves:

Images made with HIARCS.

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Boom! Pawn advances are indications of aggression, precisely because they are the least valuable pieces on the board and so when advanced in numbers they can attack and be exchanged for defending pieces, thereby exposing the enemy king. Carlsen pushing his pawns this early and in this position is risky: his own king is still in the center of the board (he clearly plans queenside castling in due course), and most of his pieces are not yet activated, so he’s underdeveloped for any counterattack. And yet, as proved to be the case, in the specifics of this position the attack is sound, and Carlsen seized the opportunity to put his challenger under pressure with some bold chess right from the very first opportunity.

The attack continued, and after some marginally inaccurate play by Caruana (he probably needed to expand on the queenside in some variations to find counterplay before Carlsen’s attack fully got rolling), the situation became critical. In the below position with White (Caruana) to move, the best plan for Caruana was to sacrifice the exchange with rook takes pawn on f4, and after bishop takes rook to get the queens off the board by trading queens on f4. He’d then go into the endgame with two pawns for the exchange, his knight newly revitalized after the removal of the f4 pawn, and a protected passed pawn on e4—enough to make the position more or less equal.

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Instead, after rook to g2(?), Caruana’s evening turned miserable. With Carlsen bringing his h-rook to g8 and then trading rooks on g2, Caruana’s king was exposed. After a sequence in which the time White required to bring his defensive cavalry allowed the Black queen to maneuver to e6, to e8, and then to capture the h5 pawn, White’s king was forced to flee to the queenside and Black’s pawns started rolling.

The time control for the match gives the players 100 minutes for their first 40 moves, 50 extra minutes at move 40, and another 15 at move 60, plus additional 30 seconds for each move. Caruana got himself into severe time trouble right from early on, taking an 18-minute think on move 10, 13 minutes on move 14, and 16 more at move 16. Carlsen, more comfortable in the character of the position, played far quicker and maintained a huge advantage on the clock.

Caruana’s coming chronometrical catastrophe created a calamitous climate. He was down to two minutes for his last 10 moves before move 40, and made at least four of those moves with less than ten seconds left—all while under extreme duress from the World Champion’s attack, which created an air of extreme tension as he scrambled to calculate each move as best he could in the minuscule time he had left. (Personally, in such situations I’m in favor of the crowd either doing a New Year’s Eve-style countdown, or a rowdy foot-stomping buildup like with a tennis replay challenge.) Not long after move 40, I overheard one of the event staff at the venue, presumably itching for the game to be finished so that he could enjoy his night out, exasperatedly remark to a colleague: “Bruv! They got time added to their clocks!”

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With Carlsen’s pressing his initiative and Caruana’s knight struggling to contribute to the fight, Carlsen’s position progressed from better to winning. Sadly for him, he missed the opportunity for a knockout blow in a few different positions in the middlegame. The crushing rook to g3! below would have blown the game open:

White would have no choice but to accept the exchange with knight takes rook, and then after pawn from h4 captures knight and White’s rook moves to e2 to avoid being captured by that pawn, the Black queen swings across to begin picking off White’s pawns on the queenside (with checks). Black’s bishop will enter the attack, and White has no genuine counterplay since its passed pawn can be kept under control and Black’s king is safe. Carlsen would have no trouble converting the win in such a position.

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Instead, after Black’s bishop came immediately to e5 and eventually captured on c3 (now protected by the Black queen, which had moved to g7), White was able to respond by capturing Black’s f4 pawn, and Caruana was keeping his head above water.

Caruana was able to force a trade of queens (by delivering a check on f7), and then gained some counterplay by pushing his e-pawn toward promotion (which in some variations he perhaps should have attempted several moves earlier), tying down Black’s rook to a defensive role on e8. The great escape was on! A more-or-less forced sequence saw the last minor pieces and some more pawns traded off, before the players reached this endgame:

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Rook endgames are both simple and complicated: theoretically even positions (like this one) can be held by generally sticking to principled play, but each locus usually requires careful calculation to make sure there are no position-specific traps. Here, Black has an extra pawn and is the only side that can realistically play for a win, but the rooks are so comparatively dominant that the advantage is minimized and with high-quality play the game should result in a draw.

And so it went—with virtually no chance of losing the position, Carlsen toyed with his opponent, shuffling the pieces around in order to wear Caruana down and provoke a fatal mistake. It’s never a fun time to be on the arse-end of a worse endgame against Magnus Carlsen, but doing so in your first World Championship game after fighting so doggedly to avoid losing in the middlegame would make anybody yearn for a stiff drink.

Carlsen tortured his challenger for a further 60 moves, but, displaying the composure of Phileas Fogg, Caruana calmly held the position until a draw was agreed after seven hours on move 115. The headline “seven-hour draw” doesn’t scream excitement, but this was a genuine classic—a thrilling duel with entertaining play on the board and enthralling psychology off it. Both players were exhausted at the post-game press conference—with Magnus nothing that he wasn’t converting as accurately as he can, but that “overall, it’s encouraging.”

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Each player has conflicting takeaways from Game 1. Carlsen will be pleased that he so seemingly effortlessly obtained a better position with the black pieces, but disappointed that he missed the win that was available to him in multiple ways. The ghost of the 2016 match must surely loom: Carlsen had winning chances in several games against challenger Sergey Karjakin, none of which he converted before Karjakin shocked the chess world by winning Game 8 to take a lead he nearly permanently kept. Caruana will be pleased with defending so well and escaping with a draw, but sobered by the knowledge that the champ had him so easily on the ropes.

They say that chess is a form of art, a metaphor of war, and a reflection of human emotion. In this battle of an American versus a Norwegian, during Game 1 each player echoed the protagonist in the most famous painting from their opponent’s country: Caruana suffered like the tortured figure in The Scream, but Carlsen walked away with the expression of the farmer in American Gothic.

Game 2

As Game 2 kicked off, punters who had paid £70 per ticket for entry to the Saturday game found that they were only entitled to 30 minutes viewing time—apoplectic fans were shuffled out of the viewing area by event staff when the time on their ticket had passed, and told they could come back later in the evening. It was a shameful deception by the organizers: while the fine print permits such shenanigans in the case of necessity, World Chess CEO Ilya Merenzon’s explanation rang hollow, claiming that the building capacity forced the issue—rather than admitting they had simply sold as many tickets as humanly possible without disclosing the fact that they were over-selling and would have to ration the fans’ viewing time.

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On the board, Magnus Carlsen had white pieces and opened with 1.d4, avoiding (at least for the time being) Fabiano Caruana’s main weapon against 1.e4, the Petroff Defense. Caruana—his jacket wet from the London rain–responded with the so-called hypermodern 1…knight to f6. The players transposed into a line of the Queen’s Gambit Declined, following known theory until Fabiano sprang an innocuous-looking move which changed the entire character of the game: the novelty rook to d8 on move 10:

We’ll stop to discuss what happened here in a bit of depth, because it offers a fascinating insight into the psychological duel at the board. Up until this move, the game had followed an explored theoretical line, in that top players are aware of and have studied the move sequences that can bring about this position. (It boggles the mind that their knowledge extends to variations this far down the decision tree—indeed, theory extends to 25 or more moves in some lines). Caruana had not yet paused to think about any of his moves, banging them out in a manner which indicated he was still within his preparation. With rook to d8, Fabiano departed from the standard continuation bishop e7 (after which White could respond with knight to d2 or bishop e2, amongst other tries). This threw Carlsen—his team had obviously missed the move as a viable option in their pre-match analysis. It’s not just the fact that it’s a good move—it’s that Carlsen had been lured, blindfolded, into territory which must be favorable to his opponent.

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Live at the game, Magnus’s reaction was one of genuine surprise. The jacket came off, and he settled in for a deep think, including staring Fabiano the hell down:

Former World Champion Mikhail Tal was known for staring down his opponents at the board, though that was purportedly more of a method of intimidation; by contrast, Carlsen’s stare seems like one from the Larry David school of attempted mind-reading—what you got for me, Fabi?

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At the post-game press conference, Magnus was asked what he thought when he saw Caruana’s move on the board. His response: “‘Oh shit,’ mainly!” He then gave what must surely go down as one of the great quotes in sporting history, one certainly worth reproducing in full:

Basically there are two main moves for Black, rook e8 and bishop e7, so it’s kind of unpleasant to face a move that’s clearly based on some very, very complicated variations, and to be unprepared. I think there’s a very clear parallel to one of the games between [Viktor] Korchnoi and [Anatoly] Karpov from the World Championship in 1978, where instead of rook d8, rook e8 was the new move that Karpov invented. And then Korchnoi actually thought for a long time and almost refuted the move over the board. Improvements have still been found for Black, but he actually managed to find a solution there. The difference now is I’m facing not only the analytical team of Fabiano himself and his helpers, but also his computer help, and that makes the situation quite a bit different.

There’s so much great stuff in there. We get an insight into the preparation of a World Champion—he and his team had analyzed this line, and concluded (wrongly, it turned out) that only two candidate moves were worth considering. We have an insight into his instinctual reaction—uh oh, you clearly know what you’re doing here, and now all of a sudden I don’t—and then his reasoned analysis as to what the consequences of that realization must be. We get some chess history, with Carlsen recognizing that the same position had occurred in a game 40 damn years ago, and the accompanying story to boot. And finally, Carlsen’s last line must surely go down in history as most succinctly and accurately summarizing elite chess in the modern era. Bravo, sir.

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Back to the game—after a 17-minute think, Carlsen chose the safe continuation bishop to e2, avoiding the more intuitive knight d2, saying post-game that he wanted to avoid what he thought would have been the computer’s suggestion to avoid falling deeper into Caruana’s web of preparation. That’s another fascinating dimension: that a player’s preparation can have the secondary benefit of convincing their opponent to choose a move they think is not the best option available. The uncertainty in his position caused him to take three more double-digit thinks in the next six moves, later stating that he was in “full grovel mode” (playing for a draw, rather than a win).

A little later, at move 17, Carlsen had a chance to set the board on fire with knight takes pawn on f7!

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The engines show that this move does indeed work, and although Carlsen said he did consider it, he was at this point an hour behind on the clock, and didn’t want to risk navigating the complex (and extremely fun!) complications in time trouble. After king captures knight and White plays bishop to h5, check, the king must go back to g8 and the hunt is on: one possible variation sees White trading bishops on d6 and then pushing pawn to c4—attacking the d5 knight which doesn’t want to move for fear of giving up Black’s undefended rook. The White queen invades on the kingside and tactical opportunities for both sides abound. The position is playable for each color, but Carlsen was probably correct in making the practical decision to forgo the knight sacrifice and simply continue the above position with the unremarkable bishop to f3.

Queens were soon swapped off the board, and for the second game in a row after maneuvring and trading pieces the players reached a rook endgame:

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With proper play by both sides, White can’t hold on to its d6 pawn, and the fact that White’s f-pawns are doubled counter-intuitively works to its advantage, because it forces a trade of one of them for Black’s e-pawn. The resulting 3 pawns-versus-2 endgame is theoretically drawn (where the 4-v-3 position isn’t), and the handshake ultimately came at move 49.

Takeaways from Game 2? Caruana will be extremely satisfied with his preparation and how easily he forced the champ onto the back foot. How many other novelties has Fabi got up his sleeve? By contrast, Carlsen won’t be thrilled with a wasted game with White, and now knows that Caruana is capable of finding an advantage out of the opening. A natural reaction would be for Carlsen to prioritize playing non-standard openings to avoid running into any more of Caruana’s home cooking, instead turning the game into a strategic battle. If Carlsen does adopt that mindset, don’t rule out the risk of him straying too far, insisting on playing a non-theoretical line which turns out to be unsound, allowing Caruana the chance to refute it at the board and win the upper hand. Who knows, perhaps 10…Rd8 will be the winning move after all.

Game 3

Real Madrid fan Magnus Carlsen had spent part of his rest day at Sunday’s Chelsea versus Everton game (another draw!) Event staff swept the playing area for electronic devices before Game 3, thankfully turning up empty-handed.

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Fabiano Caruana, playing with the white pieces, again played 1.e4, and the World Champion again signaled his aggressive intentions with 1…c5, the Sicilian Defense. We got another Rossolimo Variation rather than an Open Sicilian, and the players only deviated from their Game 1 battle on move 6.

The most consequential position of the game came at move 15:

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Here Caruana with white pieces was pressing for a middlegame advantage and played bishop to d2. He was hoping for Carlsen to exchange rooks on a1, at which point Caruana would have better-coordinated pieces and control over the only open file on the board (the a-file). Instead, Caruana overlooked that after his move Carlsen could simply retreat his a5 rook to a8, when any exchange of rooks would leave black as the proprietor of the a-file. Instead of bishop d2 as played in the game, Caruana could have achieved what he wanted by himself immediately exchanging rooks on a5 and only then bringing his bishop to d2, kicking the black queen from the a-file and subsequently assuming control over it himself.

Such are the margins at the highest level: that one inaccuracy cost Caruana his emerging initiative, and Carlsen was able to equalize. Complications abounded at every move, but neither side was able to carve out an advantage through the middlegame into the endgame.

The game made its way to a minor-piece endgame, which Caruana ended in style with knight takes c4!:

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Sacrificing the knight secures the draw, because after king takes knight, White’s e-pawn captures on f5. That pawn won’t survive to the end of the board because Black’s dark-squared bishop controls the promotion square f8. Although the bishop can eliminate white’s h4-pawn (which is on a dark square), it will not be able to support Black’s h-pawn to promotion, because it’s the wrong color—the h-pawn can only promote on h1, which is a light square which the dark-squared bishop is incapable of protecting from the white king. A bishop can’t deliver checkmate with only the aid of its king, so there are no winning chances left for either side, and a draw was agreed.

Game 4

By now, dear reader, you understand the importance of preparation in chess, and also the importance of keeping that preparation confidential. Ideas are far more valuable if they are sprung on an unsuspecting opponent, and the bluff-and-double-bluff espionage tactics of which plausible openings are actually going to be employed are a crucial part of the psychological battle of match chess.

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And so the morning of Game 4 of the most hotly-contested World Championship match in a generation saw the most valuable intelligence in world chess broadcast to the entire globe:

The offending video was uploaded (and quickly deleted) by the YouTube account of the Saint Louis Chess Club, the strongest institution in American chess with which Caruana is often involved, as a teaser for a full-length look at Caruana’s preparation for this match. In the short snippet above, we can see Caruana and his team hard at work, with Fabi (sporting a bit of a moustache) pondering an endgame puzzle and handing his coach Rustam Kasimdzhanov a book dedicated to Carlsen’s 2016 title defense. We’re then treated to a shot of an open ChessBase file in which several summary lines of Caruana’s notes are visible.

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Here’s what we can see: the bottom 16 lines are simply game logs from the 2016 Carlsen-Karjakin match. Five entries are apparently dedicated to analyses of variations of Caruana’s favorite Petroff Defense (1.e4 e5 2.Nf3 Nf6), exploring from move 6 and onwards. Three entries apparently contain notes related to the Queen’s Gambit Declined (1.d4 d5 2.c4), including an idea taken from world No. 11 Levon Aronian. It’s worthwhile noting that Caruana elected not to go directly for the QGD in Game 2, meeting Carlsen’s 1.d4 with 1…Nf6, but after a transposition of moves the opening did end up in that territory. The final entry relates to the Grünfeld Defense (1. d4 Nf6 2. c4 g6 3. Nc3 d5), and specifically a variation where Black “fianchettos” its kingside bishop by stationing it on g7.

We’ve already seen in this match—particularly in Game 2—the value that can be gained from a player’s preparation. The fact that this slice of Caruana’s preparation has been declassified must be an absolute kick in the pants—depressingly for him, many of the notes entries are excitedly annotated with the word “idea”, whose identities have now been exposed. The description accompanying each entry (such as “Nd7-f6 idea” in a line of the Petroff) is sufficient for Team Carlsen to click around and find whatever it was that Team Fabi had cooked up.

I don’t think there’s any realistic chance that this is an elaborate hoax, designed to lure Carlsen into thinking that Caruana will attack at Pas-de-Calais when in fact his troops are ready to storm the beaches of Normandy. I don’t see the supposed benefit, nor think that Caruana would resort to such tricks anyway. I think it was simply a mistake, right down to the typo in the video’s title.

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The silver linings for the challenger are that the breach only related to what must be a small proportion of his overall preparation, and we have no idea whether Caruana had analyzed those variations as favorable or after close analysis had concluded that they were not worth trying. The disclosure doesn’t by rule render all of those ideas unplayable, but this surely will force Team Caruana to fundamentally reassess their opening strategy for the rest of the match. That’s a shame for all involved—the fans simply want to see these two guys going at it without any asterisks.

After all that, Game 4 itself wasn’t the most exciting one you’ll ever see, it must be said. Carlsen started with 1.c4, the English Opening—a common opening move at the elite level (it often transposes into 1.d4 lines, though it did not do so in this game), but one that Carlsen has only played against Caruana once before and that he has never played in any of his three previous World Championship matches. Caruana responded with 1…e5, a Sicilian with the colors reversed (and indeed we ended up with a reverse of the Sicilian Dragon, with white having an extra tempo).

After a fairly prosaic battle in which neither side was ever better nor in serious trouble, a draw was agreed in the following early-endgame position:

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A draw was agreed because the players will either repeat moves with king d7, rook d1, king back to e6, rook back to c1, and so on, or will go into a completely equal endgame by trading bishops on b4 and then trading rooks on c6. Both players were probably keen to get to the rest day, and shook hands on move 34.


So, what a start we’re off to in the 2018 World Chess Championship! Blood has not yet been spilled through four draws, but there has been some terrific chess and incredible drama on and off the board, and with the scoreline level the tension will only continue to build. If you haven’t been following the games, get yer bloody head checked—and then download one of the zillion available chess apps, watch the games live on Chess24 or with the now-famous Saint Louis Chess Club, or watch one of the many game recaps posted on the internet each night. Chess, baby!

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Ben is a Deadspin reader who likes chess.