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On Chess: World Chess Championship decided in playoff

Grandmaster Magnus Carlsen of Norway claimed victory at the 2018 World Chess Championship in London on Nov. 28.
Eric Rosen | St. Louis Chess Club
Grandmaster Magnus Carlsen of Norway claimed victory at the 2018 World Chess Championship in London.

The American grandmaster, St. Louisan Fabiano Caruana, 26, had a splendid year. He started with winning the London Chess Classic in early December of 2017, and continued his great form into 2018.

In January, he won the “Wimbledon of Chess,” the Tata Steel event, which featured none other than the reigning world champion, grandmaster Magnus Carlsen, 28. After these back-to-back tournament victories in December and January it was clear that game of chess found a worthy challenger for the championship title.

Even in March, Caruana didn’t slow down, and won the most important event of the year, the Candidates Tournament, held in Berlin. He won in front of former world champion Vladimir Kramnik and rival Shakriyar Mamedyarov, qualifying for the World Chess Championship with Norway’s Magnus Carlsen.

Carlsen vs. Caruana

This year was not Carlsen’s year; in fact it was dominated by Caruana. Carlsen placed second behind Caruana at the Tata Steel event at Grenke, and only managed to share first at the Sinquefield cup, where there was a three-way tie between Carlsen, Caruana and Armenian Levon Aronian. 

Fabiano Caruana of St. Louis did not leave the match empty-handed. As runner-up he won $495,000 in prize money at the 2018 World Chess Championship.
Credit Eric Rosen
Fabiano Caruana of St. Louis did not leave the match empty-handed. As runner-up he won $495,000 in prize money.

The highly anticipated World Chess Championship match started Nov. 9 and ended Wednesday. Carlsen played a very inspired first game, and had real winning chances, but in the heat of the battle, Carlsen failed to capitalize on his advantage and the game ended in a draw.

The first game was followed by a series of draws, but in game six, Carlsen misplayed a colorful Petroff, where both players showed creative preparation; after move five they both played 10 straight knight moves in succession.

In the end, Caruana got the advantage, had winning chances, but one slip was enough, and the tenacious defense of Magnus Carlsen saved him half a point.

Turning the tables

After game six, the tide shifted and Caruana started pressing Carlsen, while it was the other way around in the first half of the match. Caruana usually comfortably held the balance with the black pieces, while Carlsen was facing more and more challenges.

Game six was a turning point, but Caruana got an even bigger chance in game eight. The challenger facing Carlsen’s trusted Sveshnikov Sicilian, played the interesting, but rare idea, of 7. Nd5, which came as a surprise for the reigning champion.

Carlsen was pushed back and had to resort to risky ideas, such as a 18…g5 pawn push. It was a matter of time till his position got critical. Fabiano took the early challenges well, played the important break 21.c5! and was very close to an overwhelming advantage. However, one little waiting move 24. h3 was all that Carlsen needed, and using that last chance, he survived an attack that looked very dangerous for the current number one.

Game nines through 11 were fairly balanced, apart from the last one, when Carlsen made a controversial decision. Caruana, having his last white game in the classical portion, chose to play aggressively, while continuously avoiding the draw offers that Carlsen was trying to give with move repetitions.


In the end, Caruana’s plan turned out to be too ambitious, but Carlsen did not feel like challenging Caruana in game 12; instead, Calrsen settled to offer a draw, which meant that the World Championship was headed into a playoff.

Caruana tied with  Carlsen in the classical time control, and, with that, they set a record. There had never before been 12 straight draws in a World Championship, which truly showed how equal the two powerhouses were. The Carlsen-Caruana match was the highest rated World Championship, and most hotly contested one, with the players only a few rating points shy of each other.

Carlsen claimed the World Championship title in the playoffs, but Caruana’s tie in the classical segment shows, as Carlsen put it at the news conference, "(Caruana) has just as much a right as mine to call himself the best in the world.”

American chess has been steadily growing and improving, and it is just a matter of time, befiore America will have a world champion. In a post-match tweet, Caruana congratulated Carlsen and revealed his hope to make another bid for the title:

Are we ready for a Carlsen-Caruana rematch in 2020?

Denes Boros is a St. Louis-based grandmaster and chess coach.