John Henderson
By John Henderson

There’s just no separating Magnus Carlsen and Fabiano Caruana, with a ninth consecutive draw in their €1m ($1.14m), best-of-12-game World Chess Championship Match in Holborn, London, leaves the series still deadlocked and the prospects now looming ever-large for the title-combatants heading for what could be a nerve-jangling tiebreak playoff to decide the ultimate prize in chess, with a heritage line that stretches back to Wilhelm Steinitz in 1886.

Sporting a black eye, but showing no after-effects following a rest-day sporting collision with a fellow Norwegian journalist, Carlsen looked pugnacious and up for a fight, and indeed the world champion had the better of the opening tussle that should have led to one of his legendary trademark grinds. But Carlsen blinked by rushing his advantage, only to see his American challenger showing his own fighting spirit as he hit back to keep the position competitive.

“I felt like I had a comfortable advantage and then I just blew it,” a clearly crestfallen Carlsen admitted in the post-game press conference. “I was poor.” Remarkably, with the draw, Carlsen has extended his own career-high drawing streak to 14 straight games, that also includes last month’s European Club Cup in Porto Carras, Greece – and with it, set a new world championship record.

In the 132-year history of the World Chess Championship, this is the first match to start with nine successive draws, beating the previous record of eight set in 1995 in New York between Garry Kasparov and Vishwanathan Anand – a match that came to life after the Indian challenger won game nine, only to see the Russian hit back by winning four of the next five games to retain his title.

While a tiebreak playoff looms large for Carlsen and Caruana with just three games left to play now in London, in an amazing parallel, the Women’s World Championship in Khanty-Mansiysk, Russia, is already set for a nerve-wracking tiebreak to decide the title after a dramatic final game upset. Russia’s Kateryna Lagno looked poised for an upset victory, laying dormie 1 going into the final game against hot favourite and reigning champion, Ju Wenjun of China.

But at the crucial moment, her nerves simply failed her, as she collapsed under the pressure of the final game to allow Ju to tie the match, that will now be decided tomorrow in a tiebreak playoff.

Match score: Carlsen 4½-4½ Caruana
Photo: Carlsen was looking mean, but he lacked the killer-punch! | © Maria Emelianova/Chess.com

GM Magnus Carlsen – GM Fabiano Caruana
World Championship, (9)
English Opening
1.c4 e5 2.Nc3 Nf6 3.Nf3 Nc6 4.g3 d5 5.cxd5 Nxd5 6.Bg2 Bc5 We have a repeat of the same line of the English Opening as in game 4, as Caruana again adopts the trendy new move attributed to Alexander Grischuk after the Muscovite inadvertently left his playing engine running after 6.Bg2, where previously 6…Nb6 was the almost universal move played. 7.0-0 0-0 8.d3 Re8 9.Bg5 This time, Magnus adopts the more active plan of 9.Bg5 – certainly a big improvement over 9.Bd2 that got him nowhere fast in game 4. 9…Nxc3 The point behind 9.Bg5 is that Black has to tread carefully, as 9…f6?! 10.Qb3! and suddenly it all gets a little tricky for Black with the pin on the knight and king. 10.bxc3 f6 11.Bc1 In game 4, Magnus played recaptured with Bxc3 and got nothing – but now he has the idea of relocating the bishop to b2 and planning to expand in the centre with d4. 11…Be6 12.Bb2 Bb6 13.d4 Bd5 There was also nothing wrong with the option of 13…exd4 14.Nxd4 Nxd4 15.cxd4 c6 with Black having a solid position. But, long-term, there would be the nagging fear in the back of your mind of White successfully finding a way to push his pawns up the board with e4 and d5. 14.Qc2 exd4 15.cxd4 Be4 16.Qb3+ Bd5 17.Qd1 Objectively, Magnus doesn’t want to repeat the position with 17.Qc2 Be4 18.Qb3+ Bd5 19.Qc2 etc – but I am sure he wouldn’t have believed for one moment what Caruana’s response to this was going to be. 17…Bxf3?! This is a strategical mistake and one that must have come like manna from heaven for Magnus, who, for the first time in the match with white, finally achieves a very comfortable edge that he should have been able to relentlessly grind away at. Instead, best for Black was 17…Qd7 threatening to gang-up on the d-pawn with …Rad8. This more or less forces White into playing 18.e3 and now 18…Na5!? with the Gruenfeld-like idea of coming into c4 will leave Black no worse; in fact, probably standing slightly better. But Caruana’s rationale for this is also enlightening. The American had eaten up a lot of time on his clock, and explained during the post-game press conference, that he knew White would stand better here, but by simplifying the position and getting the opposite-coloured bishops was, to him, the easy way to safety and a draw. 18.Qb3+ Kh8 19.Bxf3 Nxd4 20.Bxd4 Qxd4 21.e3 Qe5 22.Bxb7 Rad8 23.Rad1 Qe7 24.h4 g6 25.h5?! Patience is a virtue, and this move was roundly condemned by all the top GM pundits who felt this to be very premature. In the past, patience was one of Carlsen’s biggest strength, where he had the ability to just sit tight on a simple position, and then pick the right moment to strike. This is far too early – he should have first sat on the position with 25.Bc6 Rf8 26.Kg2 and then look for the best time to strike with h5. 25…gxh5!? And here we have another interesting psychological facet to the match, with Caruana being brave enough to simply capture here, despite what it may or may not do to his kingside defences. In the past, many would have feared playing into this sort of position against Carlsen – but Caruana shows he doesn’t fear the man, only the position on the board; and the position is telling him that Carlsen has no deadly attack. 26.Qc4 f5 It’s brutally simple: Caruana is going to defend by attacking himself with …h4 to open lines towards Carlsen’s king. He’s also seen that it more or less forces the trade of rooks and, with it, the ending with the notoriously drawn opposite-coloured bishops. 27.Bf3 h4 28.Rxd8 Rxd8 29.gxh4 Worse was trading the queens with 29.Qxh4 Qxh4 30.gxh4 Rd2! 31.a4 f4! and suddenly, if anything, Black will be slightly better as all the White pawns are weak and vulnerable. 29…Rg8+ 30.Kh1 Qf6 31.Qf4 The only way to stop Caruana pushing on with …f4. 31…Bc5! [see diagram] The re-routing of the bishop to d6 guarantees Caruana more than equality, as Carlsen is now forced into the trade of another set of rooks down the g-file for the sake of his own king safety. 32.Rg1 Rxg1+ 33.Kxg1 Bd6 34.Qa4 f4! Simply trading off one of his weak, isolated pawns, and thus nearer to achieving the draw. The only thing Caruana has to be careful of is walking into a silly trap or trick here. 35.Qxa7 fxe3 Caruana could have been more efficient here with 35…c5!? blocking the retreating path of the queen, and also pushing the c-pawn up the board. The likely scenario now would have been 36.Qa8+ Kg7 37.exf4 Qxh4 38.Qb7+ Kh6 39.Kf1 Qxf4 and no way for White to avoid a repetition, with the many and easy queen checks at his disposal. 36.Qxe3 With the slight inaccuracy from Caruana, Carlsen still has a little skin left in the game – not much, but enough to force Caruana to still be a little on the defensive to safeguard the draw. 36…Qxh4 37.a4 Qf6 It was safe to take the pawn – but with the time control looming, Caruana just continues to play it safe. Of course, all the engines will tell you to grab on a4 right away, leading to: 37…Qxa4 38.Qc3+ Kg8 39.Bd5+ Kf8 40.Qf6+ Ke8 and while it does look dangerous, there’s just no mating attack there, as witness 41.Bf7+ Kd7 42.Qe6+ Kd8! where, luckily, the …Qa4 protects against the Qe8 mate! 38.Bd1 Qe5 Instead, Caruana puts his faith in the notoriously drawn opposite-coloured bishop ending. 39.Qxe5+ Bxe5 40.a5 Kg7 41.a6 Bd4 42.Kg2 Kf6 43.f4 Bb6 44.Kf3 h6 All roads lead to a draw, but White wants to entice the push of the h-pawn with 44…h5 as 45.Kg3! Kg6 46.Ba4 c5 47.Bb3 Ba7 48.Ba2 Bb6 49.Bb1+ Kh6 50.Bd3 Ba7 51.Kh4 just offers the slim chance that Black might well make a major slip here, turning the draw into an unlikely win. 45.Ke4 Ba7 46.Bg4 Bg1 47.Kd5 Bb6 48.Kc6 Be3 49.Kb7 Bb6 50.Bh3 Of course, if 50.a7 Bxa7 51.Kxa7 h5! Black will easily pick-off the f-pawn for the draw. 50…Be3 51.Kc6 We’ve basically reached an impasse White can’t make anything of the position without f-pawn being compromised. 51…Bb6 52.Kd5 Ba7 53.Ke4 Bb6 54.Bf1 Ke6 55.Bc4+ Kf6 56.Bd3 Ke6 ½-½

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