Fabiano Caruana could well be halfway to paradise and the realistic prospect of challenging Magnus Carlsen for the Norwegian’s world title in London this coming November, as he adds to Levon Aronian’s storied candidates’ woes by beating the Armenian in round seven of the Berlin Candidates tournament. And with it, the U.S. #3 now moves into the sole lead, half a point ahead of his nearest rival, Shakhriyar Mamedyarov of Azerbaijan, as the tournament reaches its midpoint stage.
In yet another spirited, adventure-filled candidates’ game, Aronian adopted the ‘kitchen sink’ attack by going for broke against Caruana, in an all-out effort to win and improve his standing in the tournament. But in this roller-coaster encounter, Aronian’s strategy backfired when, in a highly complicated position, he made a fatal error on move 32, allowing Caruana to ruthlessly finish off his opponent in a game that should really have ended in a deserved draw.
And now, Caruana could be set to become the first American-born player to go forward to challenge for the world title since Bobby Fischer back in 1972. Not only that, but all the candidates’ omens are also looking good for him! Since 1959, the player leading at the halfway stage of every candidates’ tournament has gone on to win and earn a crack at the world title.
Caruana came close to winning the previous Moscow Candidates in 2016, losing out to Sergey Karjakin by the narrowest of margins in the final round. And ever since Caruana won the 2014 Sinquefield Cup with an unbelievable winning streak 7-0 start – that dramatically saw him rising to #2 in the world – it seemed it would only be a matter of time before he would fulfill his early destiny to challenge for the world title.
Photo: Could this be Fabiano Caruana’s time? | © World Chess
1. Fabiano Caruana (USA) 5/7; 2. Shakh Mamedyarov (Azerbaijan) 4.5; 3-5. Vladimir Kramnik (Russia), Ding Liren (China), Alexander Grischuk (Russia) 3.5; 6. Sergey Karjakin (Russia) 3; 7-8. Wesley So (USA), Levon Aronian (Armenia) 2.5.
GM Levon Aronian – GM Fabiano Caruana
FIDE Berlin Candidates, (7)
Queen’s Gambit Accepted, Vienna Variation
1.d4 Nf6 2.c4 e6 3.Nf3 d5 4.Nc3 dxc4 At the most straightforward level, in the Queen’s Gambit Accepted, Black concedes an extra central pawn to White – but in doing so, Black will rely on rapid queenside expansion as a means of counterplay. 5.e4 Bb4 6.Bg5 h6 7.Bxf6 Qxf6 8.Bxc4 c5 The dynamics dictate that Black must hit at White’s center as quickly as he can. If not, White will simply consolidate his center, making Black’s life difficult. 9.0-0 cxd4 10.e5 Qd8 11.Ne4 White has some tricky piece-play for now for the pawn – but Black has a solid position, and should easily negate any trouble with White’s active pieces. 11…0-0 12.Qe2 There’s no rush to regain the d4-pawn, which can’t be defended anyway – so with that in mind, Aronian tries to activate his pieces further; possibly lining up a dangerous battery down the long b1-h7 diagonal with his queen and bishop. 12…Be7 13.Rad1 Qc7 14.Bd3 White could try to exploit his lead in development and space with another pawn sacrifice with 14.Nd6 Bxd6 15.exd6 Qxd6 16.Rxd4 Qe7 17.Rfd1 Nc6 18.Rd6 but after 18…Rd8! 19.Rxd8+ Nxd8 20.Ne5 Nc6 21.Bd3 Nxe5 22.Qxe5 White doesn’t have much for the pawn and Black will soon unravel his bishop and rook. 14…Nd7 The correct square for the knight, as it attacks e5 and may well be needed on f8 (or even f6) later to defend h7. But the vexed question for now is: just how will Aronian defend e5? 15.Rc1 Qa5 16.g4!? This is a high-risk strategy from Aronian – and a move that came as a complete surprise not only to Caruana but also to the fans and pundits alike. But you have to see his rationale for ‘going for it’, as defending e5 with 16.Ned2 allows 16…Qxa2 17.Qe4 f5! and the forcing sequence 18.exf6 Nxf6 19.Qg6 Qd5! 20.Ne4 Bd7 21.Rc7 Bd8! 22.Ne5 which all looks dangerous – but, in fact, Black has excellent resources here to defend with 22…Qxe5 23.Nxf6+ Rxf6 24.Qh7+ Kf7 25.Rxd7+ Be7 26.Rxb7 a6 and Black retains the extra pawn, and there’s no direct way to get to the king. 16…Nxe5 17.Nxe5 Qxe5 18.f4 A lesser player could well succumb here to such a speculative attack on Black’s king – but a player of Caruana’s caliber should be able to safely defend against the caveman attack. 18…Qa5! Much stronger than 18…Qd5 that both players agreed offered White better chances to attack further, especially with dangerous lines like 19.g5 Bd7 20.gxh6 gxh6 21.Rc5! that comes like a hammer blow, as now 21…Bxc5 22.Nf6+ forks the king and queen with a winning position. 19.g5 Qd8! All the playing engines were calling for 19…g6 – but it is not so simple as the silicon beasts would have us believe, as after 20.h4 h5 21.Ng3! Forever hanging in the air will be the omnipresent threat of Nxh5 that makes life difficult for Black. 20.h4 After the game, Aronian immediately regretted that he didn’t go for the rook lift with 20.Rf3!? Bd7 21.Rg3 Bc6 22.gxh6 g6 where at least he has more direct attacking option with Ng5, or possibly a timely Qh5. But now the damage has been done, with the wasted move of 20.h4 only delaying the attack. 20…Bd7 21.gxh6 g6 Aronian had underestimated this timely resource from Caruana. He had analyzed and more expected 21…f5 when after 22.Ng5 Bxg5 23.hxg7 both 23…Kxg7 (or even 23…Bh6 24.gxf8Q+ Kxf8 25.Rf3) 24.hxg5 Qb8 25.Bb5 leads to a murky, unclear game. 22.h5 Aronian is now going ‘all-in’ with his attack. But deserving of attention was 22.Ng5!? where Caruana intended the prophylactic approach with 22…Kh8 and after 23.Qg4 Bc6 it is still very much unclear what’s happening – certainly one of those positions where all three results is a possibility! 22…Kh8 As in the last note, a good prophylactic move. 23.Kh2!?! Understandably, Aronian wants to clear a path to get his rook(s) onto the g-file – but this is too slow and involves more risks. Instead, he perhaps should have tried another method of getting a rook to the g-file, and one such creative way is 23.hxg6! fxg6 24.Nc5!? Bxc5 25.Rxc5 where, apart from the sudden switch available with Rg5, if Black tries 25…Qf6 (to defend against 26.Rg5 with 26…Rg8) then there’s also 26.Rc7 when even after 26…Bc6 27.Qe5 Qxe5 28.fxe5 Rxf1+ 29.Kxf1 the endgame will favor White, despite Black having the extra pawn. 23…Bc6 24.Rf3? This becomes a risk too far, as Caruana’s bishops now come to life with a series of threatening pins. Instead, Caruana said he expected here 24.hxg6 fxg6 25.Qg4 Qd5 26.Rc5! (Unfortunately, there’s a flaw in the ‘brilliancy’ after 26.Rxc6 bxc6 27.Qxg6 Rg8 28.Qf7 Raf8 29.Ng5 with the stunning riposte 29…Qg2+!! turning the tables, as now 30.Kxg2 Rxf7 and the knight is pinned to the king.) 26…Bxc5 27.Qxg6 Qd7 28.Nxc5 Qe7 29.Qg7+! Qxg7 30.hxg7+ Kxg7 31.Nxe6+ and a very entertaining and deserved draw. 24…Bd6 25.Qf2 Bc7 26.Kh3 To get out of the pin(s), Aronian’s king has to take a risky walk into no man’s land. 26…Qe7 27.Ng5 Finally the knight gets to g5 – but it has been all far too painfully slow. 27…e5! Caruana’s instincts are spot on, as he extends his central control while safe in the knowledge that if 28.fxe5, then the game will only open up for his bishops to target the wandering White king. 28.Rxc6! The only way for Aronian to counter the bishop-pair and stay in the game. And with White’s attack gathering momentum, it is all gone very random again. 28…bxc6 29.Nxf7+ Rxf7 30.hxg6 Rf6 In time-trouble, Caruana somewhat surprisingly opts not to play the obvious 30…Rxf4 – but it is not so clear this is winning anyway. After 31.Rxf4 exf4 32.Qxd4+ Qe5 33.g7+ Kg8 34.Bc4+ Kh7 35.Qd3+ Kxh6 36.g8Q Rxg8 (Also drawish is 36…Qh5+ 37.Kg2 Rxg8+ 38.Bxg8 Qg4+ 39.Kf1 Qxg8 40.Qh3+ Kg6 41.Qg4+ Kf7 42.Qd7+ Kf6 43.Qxc6+ Qe6 44.Qxc7=) 37.Bxg8 Qg7 38.Bc4 Qxb2 39.Qe4 and White may well be sans a couple of pawns, but his king will have no cover, and another thing going for the draw is the opposite color bishops. 31.g7+ Kg8 32.Bc4+?? [see diagram] Tragedy for Aronian! After holding out for so long in a double-edged position, he fails to spot that after 32.Qh4! e4 33.h7+ Kxg7 34.Rg3+ Kh8 35.Rg8+ Rxg8 36.hxg8Q+ Kxg8 37.Bc4+ Kg7 38.Qg5+ it’s a perpetual check and the game would have ended in a deserved draw. 32…Kh7 Now White’s h-pawn only shields the Black king from the perpetual! 33.Qh4 e4 34.Rg3 Bxf4 35.g8Q+ Rxg8 36.Bxg8+ Kh8 37.Rg7 Qf8! 0-1 Aronian resigns, as Caruana had avoided the last trick with 37…Qd6? 38.Rh7+ Kxg8 39.Qg4+ Rg6 40.Rg7+! mating.