John Henderson
By John Henderson

With twelve games and twelve draws, it can come as no surprise that a certain high-level pundit jokingly declared that Magnus Carlsen and Fabiano Caruana would be a shoo-in for joint-winners of the next Nobel Peace Prize. But what the critics fail to take into account about the World Championship Match in London, is that it was heavily-tipped it would be a very tight contest between the world #1 and 2 respectively, with barely three points separating them at the top of the world rankings.

The tension clearly got to the players in such a high-drama match with everything at stake, as witness Carlsen in the final game, where many thought he might have a better position and relentlessly grind on for a trademark win. But it wasn’t to be, and, on move 31, just when everyone thought it was getting “interesting”, he offered a draw and the match ended bloodlessly at 6-6, and now it will go to Wednesday’s extra-time of the speed tiebreak decider.

“I wasn’t necessarily going for the maximum,” said Carlsen at the press conference, as he all but admitted he was looking to steer the match into the tiebreak-decider after move 20. “I just wanted a position that was completely safe, [but] where I could put some pressure. If a draw hadn’t been a satisfactory result, obviously I would have approached it differently.” And a clearly relieved Caruana added: “I was a bit surprised by the draw offer. I can never be better [than move 31]. And I don’t really have any active ideas. If anything, black is better. At least I thought I was over the worst of it. I thought it was much more dangerous a few moves ago.”

Both players also shook off criticism that they were devaluing the game’s popularity with the match having no decisive games. “We work with the match that we have,” Caruana explained. “If the powers that be want to change it, then we’ll work with something else.”

This wasn’t the first match to end deadlocked. The most famous “tied” World Championship Match was the first world title match organised under the aegises of FIDE, namely the epic 1951 Soviet showdown in Moscow between Mikhail Botvinnik and David Bronstein. That politically controversial match – with six wins apiece – ended 12-12, but back then, the defending champion had the big advantage of draw odds and retained the title.

Likewise, Vladimir Kramnik retained his title with the draw odds after being tied 7-7 with Peter Leko, in Brassigo 2004. But since the unfair draw odds for the defending champion was removed, and tiebreaks introduced, several matches have ended tied and gone to extra-time: Carlsen-Karjakin, New York 2016; Anand-Gelfand, Moscow 2012; and Kramnik-Topalov, Elista 2006.

But what makes Carlsen-Caruana 2018 unique, is that it now enters the annals with the dubious accolade of having no decisive games – the first in the 132-year history of World Championship matches. Disappointing for the fans and the media, perhaps, who were looking for a veritable slugfest between the two top-rated players in the world – but this is the reality now for title matches between two evenly-matched and well-prepared players in the computer age.

Match score: Carlsen 6-6 Caruana
Photo: The match is over – now the players can look forward to the real contest! | © Maria Emelianova/Chess.com

GM Fabiano Caruana – GM Magnus Carlsen
World Championship, (12)
Sicilian Sveshnikov
1.e4 c5 2.Nf3 Nc6 3.d4 cxd4 4.Nxd4 Nf6 5.Nc3 e5 6.Ndb5 d6 7.Nd5 Nxd5 8.exd5 Ne7!? In Games 8 and 10, Carlsen played 8…Nb8 – but this knight retreat is the sharpest and most testing move here, and perhaps the one that Caruana had to be wary of. 9.c4 Ng6 10.Qa4 Bd7 11.Qb4 Bf5 12.h4 h5!?N This is what Carlsen had up his sleeve for Caruana, and had saved this for the final game of the match: a new novelty of sorts, at least for humans! This new idea was seen earlier this year in the all-engine TCEC game between Houdini and Stockfish. Surprisingly, it seems Caruana may well have not been aware of this possibility, as he started burning up a lot of time to fathom out what was going on in the position now. 13.Qa4 Bd7 14.Qb4 Bf5 15.Be3! The “!” is for bravery, as it would have been so, so tempting to believe that Carlsen had this all well-honed in his training camp, and Caruana could have killed the position stone dead with an early repetition after 15…Bd7 16.Qb4 Bf5 15.Qa4 etc. However, the critical move was 15.Bg5, but I have no doubt Carlsen would have been well-prepared for this and bashed out 15…Qb8!? The point being, that after 16.Be2 a6 17.Nc3 Nf4 18.Bf1 Be7 19.Bxe7 Kxe7 20.g3 Ng6 ended in a draw in 59 in the aforementioned Houdini-Stockfish game. 15…a6 16.Nc3 Qc7 17.g3 Be7 18.f3 Nf8 19.Ne4 Nd7 20.Bd3 0-0 21.Rh2?! following this live on Chess24.com, Alexander Grischuk got somewhat over-excited, proclaiming this to be the “deepest move of the match.” His reasoning was that Caruana intended castling queenside and answering any …b5 attacks with the subtle Rc2! with a good game for White. But Carlsen doesn’t fall for this, and Caruana’s play becomes a little cramped and confused now. 21…Rac8 22.0-0-0 Bg6! This simple retreat is more in the spirit of the Sveshnikov, as Black threatens …f5 to take a firm grip of the centre. 23.Rc2 f5 24.Nf2 Nc5 Carlsen now has the advantage. His prospects look good, and he could emerge with a very active bishop-pair to possibly rip the position open. 25.f4 a5?! [see diagram] The tension seems to be getting to Carlsen, who makes a misstep with this move, as he totally underestimated the strength of Caruana’s later 30.Qb4. And with it, Caruana could well have dodged a bullet, as the general consensus was that Carlsen was clearly better after the breakout with 25…b5!?, or even the Sesse-preferred alternative option of 25…exf4 26.Bxf4 b5!?, which does all look dangerous for White. I’m sure Carlsen’s “favourite historical player” of himself several years ago, wouldn’t have hesitated in pressing on with a thematic …b5 attacks! 26.Qd2 e4 27.Be2 Be8 28.Kb1 Bf6 The last chance for Black to press on with his attack was with 28…Ba4!? 29.b3 Be8 with a little something extra to nibble away at on the queenside. 29.Re1 a4 30.Qb4! g6 Carlsen had clearly underestimated Caruana’s 30.Qb4. The point being that 30…Na6 31.Qb6! Qxb6 32.Bxb6 a3 33.b3 and the trade of queens has only helped to restore balance into the position. 31.Rd1 Ra8 ½-½

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