Did Magnus Carlsen just dodge a bullet against Fabiano Caruana in game 8 of their best-of-12-game World Chess Championship Match in London? It seems very much like it, as the American challenger looked to have picked just the right moment to up the ante in the deadlocked match by switching strategies, by rejecting the super-solid Sicilian Rossolimo to take the Norwegian reigning champion on in the street-fight of an Open Sicilian.
The strategy played on Carlsen’s perceived growing frustration of having such a long drawing streak (the longest of his carer), and also drawing (no pun intended!) parallels with the Norwegian’s World Chess Championship Match against Sergey Karjakin in 2016 in New York where, after a run of seven straight draws, Carlsen over-pressed and lost. If ever there was a time to add an element of psychology to the deadlocked, who-is-going-to-blink-first human drama unfolding in London, then this was it.
And the ploy almost worked for Caruana, who is seeking to become the first American-born player since bobby Fischer to win the title. It looked as if the sudden switch to a big mainline Sicilian would pay off for the challenger, as he easily obtained a superior position and looked to have Carlsen in dire straits, both dangerously down on time and struggling for his very survival on the board.
But at the critical moment, Caruana (with 24.h3??) opted for a moment of timidity rather than bravery by going for the jugular, a decision that he was soon to regret, as Carlsen immediately came right back into the game with the right move to escape with an easy draw, the eighth draw of the €1m ($1.14m) match, as the spectre of a nerve-jangling tie-breaker now looms large for both title-combatants.
“This was a tough game,” said a clearly relieved Carlsen during the post-game press conference. “He was the one who had all the chances. So I am happy to have survived it for sure.” Not so happy though was a somewhat crestfallen Caruana, who may well regret his indecision. “I had some chances, it’s not like it’s always going to work out,” he added. “Just because you put some pressure on Magnus doesn’t mean that he collapses or anything.”
Match score: Carlsen 4-4 Caruana
Photo: Carlsen in dire straits – and not in a good way with Mark Knopfler playing lead guitar! | © Maria Emelianova/Chess.com
GM Fabiano Caruana – GM Magnus Carlsen
World Championship, (8)
1.e4 c5 2.Nf3 Nc6 3.d4 cxd4 4.Nxd4 Nf6 5.Nc3 e5 6.Ndb5 d6 The razor-sharp Sicilian Sveshnikov, but it wasn’t always the case! It started life as the Lasker/Pelikan variation, first named after the former world champion Emanuel Lasker (who first brought it to prominence against Carl Schlechter, during their 1910 title match) and the Czech IM, Jiri Pelikan. But it is rightly eponymously named after the Russian GM, Evgeny Sveshnikov, who did more than anyone to popularise and promote what became his pet-line. 7.Nd5 The big mainline runs 7.Bg5 a6 8.Na3 b5 9.Bxf6 gxf6 10.Nd5 where the whole Sveshnikov lives or dies over the control of the white squares – either White clamps down his control of the white squares, or Black breaks the hold with active piece-play. But Caruana’s chosen battleground is a smart option, because it is a relatively small sideline compared to the mainline that Carlsen and his team must have exhaustively researched for the match. But that said, Carlsen had also already faced 7.Nd5 in the past against Caruana and also his second, Rustam Kasimdzdhanov, so it had to be an educated guess it could well have resurfaced again! 7…Nxd5 8.exd5 Nb8 9.a4 Always crucial in the Sveshnikov, as it helps White to keep control over the white squares and also stops Black expanding on the queenside with …b5. 9…Be7 10.Be2 0-0 11.0-0 Nd7 12.Bd2!? While it may look somewhat reserved developing the bishop here, it comes with a most potent threat of following up with f4 and Bc3 to exploit the long diagonal, as we soon see in the game. And the move also took Carlsen by surprise, as he now went into the tank for a big think, only to almost immediately follow up with the wrong set-up to counter this. 12…f5 Given the time back again, I think Carlsen will almost certainly have played now 12…a6 to first push the knight back with 13.Na3 and then play 13…a5!? stopping White playing a5, as happens in the game, as it binds Black’s position in, something that Magnus seems to have overlooked. 13.a5 a6 Although the knight looks menacing on b5, it really wants to be relocated anyway to the better square of c4 – but by allowing White to get in a5 first, Carlsen has given Caruana even greater control over the queenside with that big sinkhole opening up now on b6. 14.Na3 e4 15.Nc4 Ne5 16.Nb6 Rb8 17.f4! In the Sveshnikov, you just can’t allow Black to roll the pawns up the board with …f4. 17…exf3 18.Bxf3 g5? At this stage, Carlsen had gone into the tank by taking long thinks – and with it, I have a feeling he might well have confused himself. He simply had to consolidate first with 18…Bf6 before following-up with …g5 and …f4. 19.c4! The plan is simple and a well-known motif in the Sveshnikov: put the bishop on c3 and then undermine the long c3-h8 diagonal by pushing on with c5. 19…f4 Again, consolidating first with 19…Bf6 was best. 20.Bc3! The armchair grandmasters watching online were proclaiming that Caruana was on the verge of winning here, based on the fact that the Norwegian super-computer, Sesse, was nudging the assessment closer to +2 for White – but that is far too optimistic. Carlsen has troubles, yes, but there are enough resources in the position to battle back. 20…Bf5! By now, Carlsen had realised that he was in a street fight and simply had to get down and bloody with Caruana. White is obviously better, but Black is not quite dead yet. 21.c5! Nxf3+ The only real option now, as 21…Nd3? 22.Bg4! Bxg4 23.Qxg4 Nxc5 24.b4 Nd3 25.Nd7 and the Black position is on the verge of collapsing. 22.Qxf3 dxc5 23.Rad1 Despite being a pawn down, Caruana has a big advantage – it just takes good nerves and a couple of accurate moves and Black will be in real trouble here. 23…Bd6 Otherwise pushing on with d6 and Qd5+ was easily winning. 24.h3?? The two question marks are not for this move being a massive blunder that is losing – it is because you have the world champion fighting for his very life in a critical position, and you come up with a timid, somewhat wimpy move rather than swiftly moving in for the kill. Caruana would have had Carlsen at his mercy after 24.Qh5! Rf7 (The alternative 24…Bg6 runs into 25.Qh3! Bf5 26.g4! Bc2 27.Rde1 and the White attack will soon be crashing through.) 25.Nc4! Bg6 26.Qh3 Bf5 27.Qh6! Bf8 28.Qh5 and something will have to give, as Black has far too many weak points to defend, while White’s plan is simply to play Rfe1 and Ne5 threatening to push the d-pawn further down the board. And there are no easy answers to all of this. 24…Qe8! It only takes one timid move and one very accurate reply to it, and Carlsen has successfully dodged a bullet! Black has consolidated by stopping plans of Qh5, and in heading to g6, it will also defend his d6 bishop. 25.Nc4 To his credit, Caruana still has his wits about him and perhaps realises that his “moment” has come and gone. In such scenarios, it would be quite easy for White players to think they still had a winning shot and gone for 25.Rfe1 Qg6 26.Nc4 when 26…g4!? throws the cat amongst the pigeons with Black also now having the makings of a dangerous attack. 25…Qg6 26.Nxd6 Qxd6 Pieces being traded and opposite coloured bishops on the board is a sure recipe for the game soon fizzling out now to a more than likely draw. 27.h4 gxh4! [see diagram] The simplest solution, as it guarantees that next the queens are traded. 28.Qxf4 Qxf4 29.Rxf4 h5! A nice little follow-up by Magnus, as 30.Rxh4 Bg4 31.Rd2 Rbd8, and the rook for now locked out of the game will give Black easy countrer-play for the pawn. 30.Re1 Bg4 31.Rf6 Rxf6 32.Bxf6 Kf7 33.Bxh4 Re8 34.Rf1+ Kg8 35.Rf6 Re2 36.Rg6+ Kf8 37.d6 Rd2 38.Rg5 ½-½