John Henderson
By John Henderson

Another day, another game…and it ends in yet another draw in the World Chess Championship Match in London between Magnus Carlsen and Fabiano Caruana, where, if you are keeping count, it has now reached seven straight draws as the tension inexorably mounts with the best-of-12-game series still deadlocked at 3½-3½, as both evenly-matched top two players in the world do battle for the ultimate prize in chess, with a heritage line that stretches back to Wilhelm Steinitz in 1886.

Back then, draws were more of a rarity, as the game was more open and swashbuckling in nature. But through time, with correct defensive techniques emerging, and now even more so with the advent of ever-stronger computers and super-computers, much of the risk-factor has been eliminated in chess, and – with so much title-wise at stake – the players just can’t afford to play anymore in the dashing style of Morphy, Tal or even Fischer.

Yes, this is the modern era where top elite-level grandmasters do not make mistakes. They are aided by powerful chess engines – some even hooked up to a super-computer, such as Norway’s “Sesse” – fuelled with the deep knowledge crunched by multi-million game databases. And armed to the gunnels with this, players today also have nerves of steel, and it is thus beyond the capacity of the normal club players to understand why so many draws, why no blood-letting.

Norwegian journalist and noted Carlsen watcher, Tarjei J. Svensen, also pointed out that the latest result in the match extended Magnus’ drawing streak to 12 games now – his longest ever. And this is a warning sign, as others have also pointed out the parallels with Carlsen’s previous title defence, against Sergey Karjakin, in New York in 2016, where a string of seven draws frustrated the world champion so much that he over-pushed with the white pieces to lose game 8.

Could history be repeating itself? If so, if Carlsen is frustrated to over-push again to lose game 8, it could prove costly this time, as Caruana is more likely to put up the shutters and not let him back into the match again, unlike Karjakin, who froze and lost game 10, and then Carlsen simply dominated in the playoff to remain World Champion.

Match score: Carlsen 3½-3½ Caruana
Photo: Could the drawing-streak curse come back to haunt Carlsen in game 8? | © Word Chess / Official site

GM Magnus Carlsen – GM Fabiano Caruana
World Championship, (7)
Queen’s Gambit Declined, Hastings variation
1.d4 Nf6 2.Nf3 d5 3.c4 e6 4.Nc3 Be7 5.Bf4 Carlsen again reaches for the London-like Harrwitz/Hastings Variation he had in game 2 – but Caruana was never going to repeat his rare 10…Rd8!? he ventured in that game. That would have been a risk too far, as Team Carlsen would have crunched it on Sesse. 5…0-0 6.e3 c5 7.dxc5 Bxc5 8.Qc2 Nc6 9.a3 Qa5 10.Nd2 Carlsen stays true to his earlier preference, not wanting to venture into another world championship battleground with 10.Rd1, played somewhat successfully by Viktor Kortchnoi in his 1978 Baguio City title match with Anatoly Karpov, with his unbeaten score of 2.5-1.5. 10…Qd8!? “I knew the move existed, I just didn’t expect it”, a rueful Carlsen observed during the post-game press conference. And sure enough, Caruana comes up with another rarity that avoids the big main-line of 10…Be7 that Carlsen couldn’t have anticipated. 11.Nb3 There is a case here to “two-fold” by restoring the position with 11.Nf3 Qa5 12.Nd2 Qd8 before deciding on a course of action, the reason being you will have gained an extra couple of moves to reach the time control at move 40. 11…Bb6!? And this had to have come as a surprise, as normally the bishop retreats to e7 to solidify Black’s defences. 12.Be2 The critical test has to be the normally-accepted move in this variation of 12.Rd1 to put pressure down the d-file. Play could continue 12…Qe7 (Not 12…Bd7?! 13.Bg5! h6 14.cxd5 hxg5 15.dxc6 bxc6 16.Ne4 Nxe4 17.Qxe4 and White has a promising attack.) 13.Be2 and something similar to the game – but with 12.Rd1 already on the board, this has to be better than what happens in the game, as Caruana easily unravels. 12…Qe7 13.Bg5 dxc4 14.Nd2 Ne5 15.0-0 In the post-game press conference, Carlsen mentioned he was looking at 15.Nce4 Bd7 16.Qc3 Nxe4 17.Nxe4 f6 18.Qxe5 but unfortunately – as most playing engines quickly point out – Black has the timely series of zwischenzugs with 18…Bc6!! 19.Bxc4 Rae8! 20.0-0 Bc7! with complete equality. 15…Bd7 16.Bf4 If Carlsen wants to “go for it”, then he had to try 16.Kh1!? with the big idea of answering 16…Rac8 with 17.f4 attempting to punch a hole through for the attack. But that said, after 16.Kh1, I dare say the best reply will be 16…Bc6 simply looking to put those bishops on active diagonals. 16…Ng6 17.Bg3 Bc6 Caruana is more than fine now with the light-squared bishop in the game. 18.Nxc4 Bc7 19.Rfd1 Carlsen adopts a very Karpovian approach to this game – the only problem is, unlike when Karpov was in his pomp as world champion from 1975-85, his opponent hasn’t landed himself with an isolated pawn or any other associated open sore weaknesses that “No.12” would relentlessly gnaw on. 19…Rfd8 20.Rxd8+ Rxd8 21.Rd1 Rxd1+ 22.Qxd1 The multiple trade of rooks on the d-file all but assures the draw now. 22…Nd5 23.Qd4 Nxc3 24.Qxc3 Bxg3 25.hxg3 The position is rock-solid equal – it would take one of the players now to make a fundamental error for this game not to be a draw. 25…Qd7 26.Bd3 b6 Caruana could have forced a draw now with the cunning bishop sacrifice 26…Be4!?, more or less forcing White into a repetition with 27.Bxe4 Qd1+ 28.Kh2 Qh5+ 29.Kg1 Qd1+ etc. 27.f3 Looking to restrict the scope of Caruana’s bishop with the follow-up of e4 – but Caruana already has his counterplay in mind by re-routing the bishop to a6. 27…Bb7 28.Bxg6 [see diagram] The only thing Carlsen sees going for himself now is the potential of the knight having a commanding outpost on d6, so he trades the bishop for knight – but Caruana has a nice, easy solution to the Nd6 possibility. 28…hxg6 29.e4 Qc7 30.e5 Qc5+ 31.Kh2 Ba6! Trading queens will help secure Black the draw. 32.Nd6 Qxc3 33.bxc3 f6 34.f4 Kf8 35.Kg1 Ke7 36.Kf2 Kd7 37.Ke3 Bf1! The hit on g2 assures the draw. 38.Kf2 Ba6 39.Ke3 Bf1 40.Kf2 ½-½

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