November 2013. Magnus Carlsen had emerged as a challenger to Viswanathan Anand for the World Championship title. The south-eastern coastal city of Chennai — Anand’s home turf — was declared to be the battleground.
Carlsen had been ranked the best player in the world by rating since a while by this point, but the highest title had always escaped his clasp. Though higher rated, he was less experienced and exactly half Anand’s age — Anand was 44; Carlsen, just 22. But Carlsen played like a true champion. Not losing a single game, he drew first blood in Game Five before winning Games Six and Nine to etch his name on the title, three rounds before the scheduled close of the match.
Anand returned as a challenger in the November of the following year, as did Sergey Karjakin in 2016, but Carlsen successfully defended his title every time.
November is back again this year. And this time, it has brought Carlsen his toughest challenger thus far — Fabiano Luigi Caruana. The Italian-American Grandmaster is the closest to the Norwegian chess superstar in terms of rating; also, Caruana is about two years younger. Having played three games of their World Championship so far, the duo will play nine more games at The College in Holborn in Central London till 28 November.
What is also great news for the spectators — and perhaps not such great news for Carlsen — is that Caruana has been in top form throughout the year. In April this year, he won the Grenke Chess Classic ahead of the reigning world champion; at the Sinquefield Cup, he was tied for first alongside Carlsen; and at several points throughout the last few months, Caruana was a mere heartbeat away from overtaking Carlsen in terms of ELO rating.
Thus far, Caruana had merely been prowling around. But now that the World Championship has kicked off, he will be looking for the right moment to take the plunge and not only overtake Carlsen by rating, but also snatch his World Championship title away.
Usually, the initial games of a World Championship match are cagey affairs, with players trying to get a feel of each other, agreeing to tepid draws. Enthusiasts, hence, do well, generally snoozing through the first few games. And if one were to merely see the results of the first three games, they might even give half a yawn before actually going through the moves and stifling the enthusiasm down.
Three games down, the World Championship match has remained deadlocked with three straight draws. But the games were neither short nor insipid — the players opted for a full-blooded fight from the word ‘go’ this time.
Carlsen, in the very first game, pressed for so long that he was only seven moves shy of the 122-move mark he had reached in Game 7 of his 2014 World Championship Match (the second longest World Championship game) against Anand. Caruana had decided not to test Carlsen’s opening preparation after the world champion essayed the Sicilian Defence. Instead of going for the open variation, which is far more popular, Caruana opted for the relatively modest Rossolimo System.
While he managed to elude trouble in the opening, Caruana’s position began to deteriorate dangerously in the middle game. Saving the game soon seemed to have become a gargantuan task as time trouble added to Caruana’s precarious position. Starting from move 33, Caruana essentially played on the 30-second increment as the computers wrote off his position to be dead lost.
While the action reached its apex, Garry Kasparov, who had joined the commentators at the Chess Club and Scholastic Center of St Louis, remarked that no matter what the machine said, “It’s still not the end of the story. You still have to win the game.”
Kasparov’s words proved to be right. Carlsen failed to find the best continuation in the time scramble. Soon after the first time control was reached, Caruana exchanged queens and had got his king out of danger. Caruana was still a pawn down in the endgame that ensued. Carlsen tried his trademark ‘squeeze’ as the game went on until the 115th move but this time he did not manage to draw water out of stone.
Although Carlsen was the one pressing throughout the first game, having dodged this thick a bullet must definitely have boosted Caruana’s confidence too. This became much apparent in the second game where the challenger hit right back at the champion. In a Queen’s Gambit declined, the world champion was clearly caught off guard. After Caruana’s 10th move, Carlsen spent well over 15 minutes to come up with a response. After the game, he confessed that he was shocked. Understandably, he did not want to enter a position where his opponent was well-prepared.
Caruana almost breezed through his moves as play progressed. Carlsen on the other hand was lagging an hour behind on the clock. A critical moment came on the 17th turn when Carlsen could have sacrificed a knight on the f7 square. But again, the world champion rejected the idea in favour of something more ‘safe’.
Eventually, Caruana did get the better position but like Caruana did in the last game, Carlsen managed to come out of the woods alive. Unlike Carlsen, however, Caruana chose not to torment Carlsen in the endgame and agreed to a draw after 49 moves.
After the game Carlsen remarked that he was not happy about the way the game went, but felt it was better than losing. “I was surprised in the opening... I miscalculated something. Then I had to beg for a draw, but that went without problems,” Carlsen said.
Compared to the first two games — and the thunderstorm that had moved through Central London on Monday — Game 3 was a rather quiet affair and resembled the more traditional opening games of a Chess World Championship. Caruana repeated his King’s Pawn Opening once again and Carlsen also did not see any reason to deviate from his previous choice of the Sicilian. Once again, the Rossolimo System was on the board, but this time, Caruana was better prepared. He side-stepped from the line he had chosen in the previous game on his 6th turn.
Carlsen also revealed the little prep he had up his sleeve by going for a side-line rarely seen in Grandmaster play. Caruana could have tried to keep a slight pull in the position by taking control of the rook file, but instead chose to keep things calm. By the 24th move, an equal endgame was reached. Both sides had a bishop, a knight and six pawns apiece. The game went on for another 25 moves after this, but the evaluation of the position never really changed. No draw was offered, but the players simply shook hands after the 49th move and called it a day.
Three rounds in, both players seem well prepared and have closely matched one another. Carlsen has had one less white thus far. Will he make something of it in the next round is something that only time can tell. What can be assured is a fascinating match of minds.
Aditya Pai is an editor at ChessBase India
Updated Date: Nov 13, 2018 16:48 PM