Friday, November 9, 2018

Carlsen Misses a Crushing Shot and Caruana Secures a Draw in Game One of the 2018 World Chess Championship

Game one of the 2018 World Chess Championship match between champion Magnus Carlsen and challenger Fabiano Caruana provided drama, inspiration and a blunder that can only evoke knowing nods from any club player. Anyone who has played tournament chess for even a brief period of time is well-acquainted with the classic lament, "I was winning but..." followed by a painfully detailed description of chessboard self-immolation. Several years ago, National Master Will Aramil became so exasperated from hearing these tales of woe that he said he was going to design t-shirts for chess players on which the front reads "I was winning but..." and the back reads "Shut up, you lost!"

Some world chess championship games fail to live up to the hype, as the players steer the game into safe waters and are content with a draw. Game one was, thankfully, not like that at all. It featured imaginative play that can inspire club players, and even Carlsen's blunder is inspirational in a way: it serves as a reminder that this game is difficult even for the best players and that it is possible to achieve great success without being perfect.

I was fortunate that the dramatic time scramble--including Carlsen's fateful blunder--took place during my lunch break, so I was able to watch that portion of the game live and enjoy the commentary of Grandmaster Robert Hess and International Master Daniel Rensch.

Carlsen did not lose game one but tonight he is surely beset by thoughts of "I was winning but..." High level, detailed analysis of each match game is available at a variety of websites, so since I am a chess Expert--and not a Grandmaster or a chess computer--I will mainly confine my commentary to the psychological and sporting aspects of the match. Carlsen has enjoyed decent success against Caruana with black and Carlsen played the Sicilian Defense in game one, which provided an indication that Carlsen was ready to fight and not merely try to "hold serve" with black. The opening moves were nothing special and one wonders what Caruana had in mind, as he used up a lot of time without gaining any kind of advantage; in fact, before move 20 it was already clear that if anyone would be pushing for an advantage it would be Carlsen, not Caruana.

Soon, Caruana faced pressure not only on the board as his position deteriorated but also on the clock, as Caruana had less than six minutes (plus the 30 second increment added after each move) to make 15 moves to reach the time control at move 40. The game looked like it had all the makings of a classic Carlsen python-like death squeeze--but Caruana has shown before that he can resist Carlsen's attacks (or at least defend stoutly enough that Carlsen loses his edge and lets the advantage slip away) and on move 34, with Caruana barely surviving on the increment and his position about to collapse, Carlsen missed a forced win. The winning sequence would not necessarily be obvious to a club player but it was well within the capabilities of a player of Carlsen's caliber.

After Carlsen missed his chance, Caruana steered the game out of the danger zone and to a pawn down endgame that is a technical draw with correct play. Carlsen did not readily concede the draw and the game lasted 115 moves, the longest game that these two competitors have played against each other--but he did not succeed in putting any further dents in Caruana's armor.

Objectively, this was a good result for Carlsen in many ways. The strategy for professional players is typically to draw with black and seek opportunities to win with white, so a draw in game one puts pressure on Caruana to not only draw game two with black but also to win one of his five remaining games with white. Also, if the match ends in a 6-6 tie then the tiebreaking games will be played at a much faster time control and Carlsen is demonstrably better at faster time controls than Caruana is.

However, the objective reality does not take into account the psychological dimension. Carlsen used to enjoy a large rating advantage over every other player in the world but now Caruana has all but caught up to Carlsen in that department. Carlsen used to be known for relentlessly pursuing the smallest edge until he obtained victory but in recent years his technique has not been so reliable, and Carlsen has publicly stated that he does not think he is as strong a player as he was a few years ago. Carlsen is a more experienced match player than Caruana is. For all of these reasons, Caruana's ability to draw a lost game against Carlsen should provide a psychological boost to Caruana and could have a negative effect on Carlsen.

Of course, at this point it is pure speculation to speak of how one game will affect the thought processes of the two competitors. Carlsen has proven to be a tough-minded person and he could very well reframe game one's events such that he has increased confidence because of how easily he obtained a winning position against the second ranked player in the world. Unless Caruana has better opening preparation for his next game with white, all of the confidence in the world will not matter much--and Carlsen is unlikely to let such a large advantage slip away for a second time.

All that we know for sure from game one is that, all factors considered, these players are evenly matched and it would be surprising if the final margin of victory is not close. Carlsen has flirted with disaster in previous world championship matches and, as noted above, he is close to losing his perch atop the ratings list, so this match with Caruana will either lift Carlsen to new heights or else push him off of the top of the heap.

I think that Carlsen will retain his title and number one ranking this time but if he does not sharpen his game I would not be surprised if his next challenger (which of course could very well be Caruana again) dethrones him.


Eric L said...


Long-time reader of your 20SecondTimeout blog!

I happen to click on your this blog's link and was so glad to find out that you are an avid chess player and fan! I myself am nowhere near the expert level as you are. I have recently fallen in love with chess the past year and would evaluate myself as an average club player (1400s). I play most of my games on

Today's Game 2 was nowhere near the brutality of Game 1's "second-half" portion since they agreed to a draw around move 49. Caruana's 10...Rd8 seemed to really give Magnus a ton of deep-think. I wonder if Magnus will play 1.e4 next time he has white and we see Fabiano's patented Petroff as black.

I think Fabiano is slowly gaining confidence from yesterday's mishap and nerves (since it was his first ever World Championship game). Magnus needs to focus more and not underestimate Caruana as I think Fabiano is going to be his toughest challenger yet. We can all agree that Fabiano must gain an advantage in the classical format since the tie-breaker time formats will heavily favor Magnus.

I'm looking forward to your analysis of Game 2!

P.S. If you have an account on, I would love to play you for some live or correspondence games. My username is ericjlee

David Friedman said...

Eric L:

Thank you for your kind words.

I probably will not make a post about each game but I definitely will be following the match closely and making posts throughout.

I am Doc319 at but I have limited time to play online chess.