The sixth game of the World Championship Match in London between Magnus Carlsen and Fabiano Caruana officially marked the midpoint of what’s turning into a fascinating battle between these two evenly-matched title-combatants. And after another epic near seven hours of play and 80 hard-fought moves, the tension continues to build, as they still remain deadlocked at 3-3 – but not before the world champion came back from the brink from a missed moment that “Sesse-ationally” would have given his American challenger the lead.
Carlsen seemed to lose his concentration and let his position wander somewhat at the critical moment, and with it, for the first time in the match, Caruana managed to seize the initiative and attempted to out-Carlsen Carlsen by ruthlessly trying to grind down the world champion in a complex minor-piece ending. But Carlsen simply refused to crack, and he fought back valiantly by finding arguably the only practical chance to stave off defeat, that involved a very complicated knight sacrifice for three pawns. “It’s not the type of thing you go for if you have decent alternatives,” Carlsen explained during the post-game press conference. “I don’t know what else I could have done anyway. I didn’t feel great about it.”
And, as Caruana attempted to press for the win, and Carlsen valiantly thwarted his efforts, both players seemed very bemused during the press conference when they were told that they had “missed” a win that was quickly spotted by the Norwegian super-computer “Sesse”, who proudly announced a mate in 36 after the remarkable concept of 68…Bh4!! – a winning move that surely no human would ever have played in the heat of battle.
The truth is, at this juncture of the game, we departed from the psychological human battle ensuing over the board and transcended into the realms of it being study-like. The sort of position that only Dr John Nunn would revel in, with it more resembling a purely composed “x-amount of moves to win”, where, only through a process of elimination, you would eventually work out what was indeed a genuinely remarkable concept.
Fittingly, the midpoint sees both players tied at 3-3 in the best-of-12-game match for the ultimate prize in chess, with a heritage line that stretches back to Wilhelm Steinitz in 1886. Both players have had their “moments” now in this all-too-human, psychological drama – Carlsen, with black, should have won game 1, and Caruana, also with black, his chance to win game 6.
Match score: Carlsen 3-3 Caruana
Photo: It’s a sticky, study-like scenario for Carlsen! | © Mike Klein / Chess.com
GM Magnus Carlsen – GM Fabiano Caruana
World Championship, (6)
1.e4 e5 2.Nf3 Nf6 For the first time in the match, Carlsen allows Caruana to play his Petrov, the defence to 1.e4 that served the American challenger well in the Candidates Tournament earlier this year in Berlin. 3.Nxe5 d6 4.Nd3 This is rare move and a new fashion in search for something different against the über-solid Petrov. Just a couple month ago, Fabiano faced this against Wesley So. 4…Nxe4 5.Qe2 Qe7 6.Nf4 Nc6!? This move resolves any problems Black may have in this line. 7.Nd5 Nd4 8.Nxe7 The position is not without its pitfalls for White, as witness 8.Qc4?? Nc3+!! 9.Nxe7 Nxc2# which would have been very embarrassing, to say the least! 8…Nxe2 The knights lined up down the e-file makes for an aesthetically pleasing position! 9.Nd5 Nd4 10.Na3 Ne6 11.f3 N4c5 12.d4 Nd7 13.c3 c6 14.Nf4 Nb6 15.Bd3 d5 16.Nc2 Bd6 17.Nxe6 Bxe6 18.Kf2 h5 19.h4 Nc8 20.Ne3 Ne7 What a time to be alive and watching a world championship game: no fewer than fifteen of the first 20 moves have involved the knights! Surely setting an opening record – at world championship level, at least – for combined, consecutive knight moves? 21.g3 I think Carlsen had already given up all hope of trying to squeeze something out of this equal position and was by now beginning to get bored – and with it, he lets his position stray a little, allowing Caruana to seize the initiative. 21…c5! 22.Bc2 0-0 23.Rd1 Rfd8 24.Ng2 cxd4 25.cxd4 Rac8 26.Bb3 Nc6 27.Bf4 Na5 28.Rdc1 It is not so easy attempting to bail out now with 28.Bxd6 Nxb3 29.axb3 as there’s the all-important zwischenzug 29…Rc2+! that leaves White struggling after 30.Kg1 Rxd6 31.Rxa7 Rb6! 32.Rd3 Rxb2 and Black’s very active rooks look close to winning. 28…Bb4 29.Bd1 Awkwardly retreating pieces is a tell-tale sign that you have wandered into a bad position – and sure enough, Caruana emerges now with the best chances he’s had in the match to beat the world champion. 29…Nc4 30.b3 Na3 31.Rxc8 Rxc8 32.Rc1 Trading pieces to attempt to relieve the strain is all Carlsen can do here – but at the end of the day, he only has himself to blame for letting his position stray and allowing Caruana to take control. 32…Nb5 33.Rxc8+ Bxc8 34.Ne3 Nc3 35.Bc2 Ba3! After the game, Carlsen manned up to missing this excellent pawn-fixing move not once but twice! 36.Bb8 a6 37.f4 Bd7 38.f5 Bc6 With d5 now doubly protected, Carlsen is set to lose a pawn. 39.Bd1 Bb2 40.Bxh5 Ne4+ I think 8 out of 10 tournament/club players would have instantly gone for 40…Nxa2!? – but Caruana’s approach to this ending is just a tad more nuanced, as he takes control of the centre with his pieces to support a potentially game-winning passed d-pawn. 41.Kg2 Bxd4 42.Bf4 Bc5 43.Bf3!? [see diagram] Funnily enough, a Blackadder quote instantly came to my mind here as I was watching the game, as Carlsen faces “the stickiest situation since Sticky the Stick Insect got stuck on a sticky bun.” And in realising that Caruana’s pieces are far superior, especially combined with that big central passed pawn poised to trundle down the board, Carlsen sacrifices a piece for three pawns – a very pragmatic, practical shot that at least looks a better attempt to save the game. 43…Nd2! 44.Bxd5 This is the only chance now. If 44.Nf1 Nxf3 45.Kxf3 d4+ 46.Kf2 Be4 47.g4 b5 48.Nd2 Bc2 49.Ke2 a5! White faces a daunting defensive task here – and you can clearly see now why Carlsen chose the sacrificial path he took. 44…Bxe3 45.Bxc6 Bxf4 46.Bxb7 Bd6 47.Bxa6 Ne4 48.g4 Ba3! Carlsen thought he was winning three pawns that would have safely secured a draw – but, remarkably, for the second time in a dozen or so moves, he’d missed this blocking move that means he only wins two pawns, thus making the draw a little harder to achieve. 49.Bc4 Kf8 50.g5 Carlsen’s task is to liquidate the kingside pawns – if he can do that, it’s just a draw. 50…Nc3 51.b4! Caruana wins back a pawn – but Carlsen is more than alert to the fact that his best chance to save the game now comes with retaining the a-pawn to use it as a distant decoy, as that’s the passed pawn that’s the furthest away from the kingside action. 51…Bxb4 52.Kf3 Na4 53.Bb5 Nc5 54.a4 f6 55.Kg4 Carlsen want’s to keep his position “fluid” and doesn’t want to fix his kingside pawns with 55.g6? Bd2 56.Ke2 Bh6 57.Kd1 Ne4! 58.Kc2 Ng3 59.Bd7 Ke7 60.Be6 Be3 61.a5 Kd6 62.Kd3 Ba7 and Black will win the f5-pawn, and with it, the game. 55…Ne4 56.Kh5 Be1 57.Bd3 Nd6 58.a5! Carlsen had to have spotted this resource – coupled with 51.b4 – back when Caruana played 48…Ba3. The key now to saving the game is stopping the Black king crossing to g8 to cover h7 and h8. 58…Bxa5 59.gxf6 gxf6 60.Kg6 Bd8 61.Kh7 Nf7 62.Bc4 Ne5 63.Bd5 Ba5 64.h5 Bd2 65.Ba2 Nf3 66.Bd5 Nd4 67.Kg6? A mistake from Carlsen that leads to a missed moment for Caruana – but you can’t really blame the players in this very human drama that is being played out after six hours plus of play, as it takes a remarkable finesse spotted almost instantly from a Norwegian super-computer to turns what looks like a draw into a win for black. Instead, Carlsen had to play 67.Be4! Bf4 68.Kg6 Bg5 69.Bd5 to hold the draw. 67…Bg5 68.Bc4 Nf3? The “moment” is gone for Caruana after this move – but can you blame him for not spotting the very inhuman-like finesse of 68…Bh4!! that, remarkably, Sesse, the Norwegian super-computer, proudly announces comes with Black mating in 36-moves? The gist of it is that 68…Bh4 is a high-class passing move that forces White into a lost position. I certainly am not going to regurgitate a super-computer analysis dump here, but the key lines that demonstrate the winning plan runs: 69.Bd5 Ne2 70.Bf3 Ng1!! Garry Kasparov is surely right when he tweeted that, if this move had been played, “They would request metal detectors immediately! No human can willingly trap his own knight like that.” 71.Bg4 (If 71.Bd5 Bg5! 72.h6 Nh3 73.h7 Nf4#) 71…Kg8! and now Black’s king controls h7 and h8, and the mating motif of …Bg5 and an eventual …Nh4, …Nf4 or even …Ne5 wins the h-pawn and the game. Of course, all easier said than done – and if this can all flummox an array of elite-level GMs doing online commentary, then what chances did Caruana and Carlsen have of spotting all these nuances in the heat of battle over the board? 69.Kh7 Ne5 70.Bb3 We are back again to the theme of Carlsen preventing Caruana’s king crossing over to g8 – only this time, there’s no more super-computer forced wins. 70…Ng4 71.Bc4 Ne3 72.Bd3 Ng4 73.Bc4 Nh6 74.Kg6 Ke7 This was forced now, as …Ng4 would have allowed Carlsen to claim a threefold repetition. 75.Bb3 Kd6 76.Bc2 Ke5 77.Bd3 Kf4 78.Bc2 Ng4 79.Bb3 Ne3 80.h6 Bxh6 ½-½