John Henderson
By John Henderson

After Friday’s epic opening game clash of the €1m (about $1.1m), best-of 12-game World Chess Championship Match in London, that saw a domineering Magnus Carlsen coming close to all but pummelling Fabiano Caruana, only to let him escape with a draw, many thought that this could well be the tempo for the match. But it takes two to make a World Chess Championship Match, and game 2 was all about how the American challenger made an immediate rebound that had the world champion suffering for a prolonged period at the board.

In game 1, for a long period, Caruana had to hold a rook and pawn ending a pawn down, which he easily did. In game 2, after totally flummoxing Carlsen with a rare early move in one of the world champion’s favourite openings, it turned out to be a role reversal with Carlsen being the one who had to endure the pain of having to defend a rook and pawn endgame a pawn down – but from a tougher position to defend.

Not an easy task, but grittily defend the world champion did, frankly admitting in the post-game press conference “I had to go into full grovel mode” thereafter to secure the draw. And now, with two eventful draws that’s more than gone the endurance distance by amassing 174 moves(!), the match remains evenly balanced at 1-1 and everything still to play for. Thankful for the two title combatants, Sunday is a rest day, and game 3 of this intriguing battle of wills and endurance will be on Monday.

Many were impressed by Caruana’s rebound, having made Carlsen visibly suffer at the board after being hit by an early surprise response – and with it, now we can see why the American is such a worthy challenger, as his diligent home preparation netted him an all too easy draw with the black pieces.

And if he can continue to gnaw away at Carlsen like this, then the tension is only bound to rise as the match goes on.

Match score: Carlsen 1-1 Caruana

Photo: It was Carlsen turn to suffer in game 2 | © official live transmission

GM Magnus Carlsen – GM Fabiano Caruana
World Chess Championship, (2)
Queen’s Gambit Declined, Hastings Variation
1.d4 Nf6 2.Nf3 d5 3.c4 e6 4.Nc3 Be7 5.Bf4 More common in the QGD is 5.Bg5, but this flexible move is not as innocent as it looks. Although relatively young, theory- and popularity-wise, it does have impeccable English and historic roots, having been first played in 1887 by the leading English master, Joseph Henry Blackburne (1841-1924), and then played at the great Hastings 1895 tournament, regarded as the world’s first super-tournament. But the player who did much to pioneer this line and bring it to prominence was Hungary’s Lajos Portisch, who through the mid-1970s and into the ’80s, won many wonderful endgames using this system. The cudgels were then taken up in the Noughties by Vladimir Kramnik and Veselin Topalov – and then championed by Levon Aronian and Magnus Carlsen. 5…0-0 6.e3 c5 7.dxc5 Bxc5 8.Qc2 Nc6 9.a3 Qa5 10.Rd1 This is standard fare in this line – but there was a phase when GM Gregory Kaidanov’s daring 10.0-0-0!? was popular, even played at the highest echelons, such as the Speelman-Short Candidates Match quarter-final 30 years ago in London – that was used to such devastating effect by Speelman – and subsequently also played by Garry Kasparov. 10…Rd8!? The standard move here is 10…Be7 – but this rarity by Caruana had the amazing visual effect of Carlsen deploying his if-looks-could-kill, “stare of death” response to his challenger, that lasted for a good 10 seconds. The common consensus is that this line is supposedly unplayable – but obviously not if Caruana has the chutzpah to deploy it against Carlsen in such an important event as a World Championship Match! 11.Be2 The critical response had to be the standard move in similar lines here, namely 11.Nd2! that overprotects e4, covers c4 and also threatens Nb3. But perhaps fearing he was falling down a rabbit hole by walking right into a well-rehearsed piece of home analysis by Caruana, Carlsen opts, after a long think, to go for a less critical approach – but one that gives Caruana immediate equality. 11…Ne4! Instant equality! And with it, Caruana heads towards an easy position with no structural weaknesses – and that had to come as a big psychological moral-booster after the near pummelling he experienced in Game 1. 12.0-0 Nxc3 13.bxc3 h6 14.a4 Ne7 Caruana has obviously done his homework here, looking to recapture on d5 with the knight for a solid and safe position. 15.Ne5 Carlsen admitted this move to be a miscalculation, as he’d missed Caruana’s almost instant reply. 15…Bd6 16.cxd5 Nxd5 17.Bf3 If anything, this move only allows Caruana to claim he’s won the bragging rights to the opening battle in this game. But by this stage, after going nearly an hour behind on the clock trying to work out the ramifications of Caruana’s 10…Rd8!?, Carlsen had fallen way behind on time, and perhaps didn’t want to risk going into the tank again trying to fathom out the ‘adventurous’ piece sacrifice option of 17.Nxf7!? Kxf7 18.Bxd6 Rxd6 19.Bh5+ Kg8 (Not 19…Ke7? 20.Qg6! killing.) 20.e4 (Not so clear is the other option of 20.c4 Rc6 21.Qg6 Nf6 22.Qf7+ Kh8 23.Qf8+ Kh7 24.Be2! e5 Stopping the threat of Bd3+ 25.Rd8 e4 and with …Qc5 coming, Black should again be OK – but this line is probably the one that Black could easily stray into making a bad mistake.) 20…Nf4 21.Rxd6 Qxh5 22.Rd8+ Kh7 23.e5+ Ng6 24.f4 b6! and with …Bb7 to unravel coming, Black is OK here. All of this is tricky and very difficult to assess what’s happening when you are in the heat of battle and your digital clock metaphorically ticking away what pressure little time you have left, and I think this best explains why Carlsen opted for the safety of 17.Bf3. 17…Nxf4 18.exf4 Bxe5 19.Rxd8+ Qxd8 20.fxe5 If it weren’t for Carlsen’s split pawns on the queenside, White would easily stand better here. 20…Qc7 21.Rb1 Rb8 22.Qd3 Bd7 The position is not as innocent as it looks, and snatching the pawn with 22…Qxe5 is too dangerous, to say the least, as after 23.Qd8+ Kh7 24.Qe7 Qf4 25.h4! it all becomes difficult for Black to unravel here, and it is easy to see White reclaiming the pawn and emerging with what could be a decisive advantage. 23.a5 Bc6 24.Qd6! Despite the fact that it adds further pawn weaknesses in Carlsen’s position, this makes it easier for the world champion to draw. The reason being was that there was no time for the obvious capture with 24.Bxc6? as it gets hit by the zwischenzug 24…Rd8! 25.Qc4 bxc6 and there’s no way to protect both the a- and e-pawns due to the added threat of …Rd5. Black isn’t winning, per se, but life just became more difficult for him, as he now needs to fight to hold on in this ending. 24…Qxd6 25.exd6 Bxf3 26.gxf3 Kf8 27.c4 As I constantly remind everyone: When you think the game is beginning to take a turn for the worse for you, you should immediately find ways to head to a rook and pawn ending, even if it means you fall a pawn behind – and that’s exactly the escape route that Carlsen instinctively heads for. 27…Ke8 28.a6 b6 29.c5 Carlsen is walking a fine line here – but the rook and pawn ending is more than enough for him to save the game before Caruana’s king can get to the vulnerable d-pawn. 29…Kd7 30.cxb6 axb6 31.a7 Ra8 32.Rxb6 Rxa7 [see diagram] The d-pawn is doomed – but Carlsen has going in his favour an active rook and all the pawns on the same wing of the board. So with careful and active play, this should just be a technical draw. 33.Kg2 e5 34.Rb4 f5 So why didn’t Caruana immediately snatch the pawn after 34…Kxd6? The reason is that after 35.f4! it forces 35…exf4 36.Rxf4 and White will have mitigated the pressure by undoubling his f-pawns and reducing the number of pawns on the board for an even easier technically drawn ending. 35.Rb6 A key factor for salvation for Carlsen is how active his rook is compared to Caruana’s sorry-looking rook hemmed in on a7, which for now needs to stay there to stop the White rook getting to the seventh and coming behind all the kingside pawns to pick them off. 35…Ke6 36.d7+ Kxd7 37.Rb5 With Caruana’s …Ra7 out of action, Carlsen’s active rook saves the day. 37…Ke6 38.Rb6+ Kf7 39.Rb5 Kf6 40.Rb6+ Kg5 41.Rb5 There just no way to avoid making some form of concession that will see White’s active rook saving the day. 41…Kf4 42.Rb4+ e4 43.fxe4 fxe4 44.h3 Ra5 45.Rb7 Rg5+ 46.Kf1 Rg6 47.Rb4 Rg5 48.Rb7 Rg6 49.Rb4 ½-½ There’s no further progress that can be made, so both players agree to the draw. One example being: 49…Rc6 50.Rb7 g6 51.Rf7+ Ke5 52.Kg2 Rf6 53.Rh7 h5 54.Kg3 Rf3+ 55.Kg2 Rf5 56.Re7+ Kf4 57.Re6 g5 58.Rh6 h4 59.Rh8 and we reach a scenario where now Black’s pawns cannot push any further, especially with the White rook firmly established behind the pawns, constantly hassling them now that they are fixed, or simply check the king around.


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