John Henderson
By John Henderson

With two rounds to go, and largely written off after two big setback losses in the opening rounds, Russia’s Sergey Karjakin has made a dramatic comeback and is now surging in the FIDE Berlin Candidates. And his masterful win over Fabiano Caruana in round twelve came not just as a setback for the US leader, but it also blew the tournament wide open going into the penultimate round, as now five players are in with a chance of becoming World Champion Magnus Carlsen’s next title challenger.

And Caruana’s only loss of the tournament so far wasn’t the only crucial factor of the round. Also losing for the first time in the tournament was early leader Shakhriyar Mamedyarov, with his defeat finally ending Ding Liren’s drawing streak of eleven games – but in a positive way, as that sole win now pushes China’s first-ever candidate into contention for a golden ticket to play Carlsen.

Now Karjakin, Caruana, Ding Liren, Mamedyarov and Russia’s Alexander Grischuk are separated by just half a point at the top – but the big advantage going down what’s likely to be a nerve-wracking home stretch belongs to Karjakin, who could be on the cusp of a rematch with his old foe Carlsen. The Russian not only now holds the joint lead with Caruana, but the win gave him a big double tiebreak advantage over the American in the event of a tie for first place, with the first two preferences (individual result and most games won) being in his favor.

Karjakin placed much emphasis on his pre-tournament preparations that involved decamping from Moscow to a luxury Scottish castle before flying on to Berlin. He and his entourage hired out the Tower of Lethendy, an eight-bedroom baronial mansion set in 39 acres of Perthshire countryside, and spent most of February at the sprawling property, following a punishing schedule that included hours of chess strategy, physical workouts and a strict diet.

Photo: Will it be Karjakin-Carlsen II? | © Maria Emelianova/


1-2. Sergey Karjakin (Russia), Fabiano Caruana (USA) 7/12; 3-5. Ding Liren (China), Alexander Grischuk (Russia), Shakhriyar Mamedyarov (Azerbaijan) 6.5; 6. Vladimir Kramnik (Russia) 5.5; 7. Wesley So (USA); 8. Levon Aronian (Armenia) 4.

GM Sergey Karjakin – GM Fabiano Caruana
FIDE Berlin Candidates, (12)
Petroff’s Defence
1.e4 e5 2.Nf3 Nf6 Caruana’s Petroff’s Defence has proved reliable and solid during the Candidates – but in hindsight, approaching the end of the tournament, perhaps it would have been wiser to change up the openings a little to avoid being caught out? 3.Nxe5 d6 4.Nf3 Nxe4 5.Nc3 Nxc3 6.dxc3 Nc6 7.Be3 Be7 8.Qd2 Be6 9.0-0-0 Qd7 10.a3 h6 11.Nd4 Nxd4 12.Bxd4 Rg8 13.Be2 c5 14.Be3 d5 15.f4 0-0-0 16.Bf3 Bg4?! If the end product were simply to trade off the bishops, then this would be an ideal move – but it is foolhardy, as a resource allows Karjakin a very dangerous and lasting initiative. 17.Bxd5! [see diagram] One of the most underrated things in chess is the art of the positional exchange sacrifice. World Champions such as Tigran Petrosian, Mikhail Botvinnik, and Garry Kasparov were among the greatest exponents of them, either to initiate a brilliant attack or to defend difficult positions. And here, Karjakin follows in their footsteps with a very powerful exchange sacrifice, where the Bd5 becomes a true monster, not only commanding the board from its dominant outpost but also severely restricting the mobility of Caruana’s rooks. 17…Bxd1 18.Rxd1 Qc7 19.c4 Rge8 20.Qf2 b6 Forced – and with it, further weakening Black’s white-squares by opening up more attacking possibilities for the monster on d5.  This position is just uncomfortable for Black to defend. 21.g4 Left to his own devices, Karjakin will simply press on with his big space advantage by playing Rd3 (to defend the Be3) and the h4. 21…Bf6 22.Kb1 Rd7 23.Rd3! Not just defending e3, but also, in certain situations, the rook can swing over to b3 to spring an attack on Black’s king. 23…g5?! I can see why Caruana would want to play this, trying to stop Karjakin gaining more ‘real estate’ with h4, but, in the long-term, the weakness on g5 proves to be a critical one. 24.Ka2 Karjakin has restricted Caruana’s play to such an extent, that he has the luxury to simply play Kc1-b1-a2 just to safeguard his king before pushing further on the kingside. 24…Ree7 Now doubling rooks on the e-file is dangerous for Black. If 24…Rde7 25.fxg5 Bxg5 26.Qf5+ Kb8 (Forced; if 26…Qd7?? 27.Bb7+ quickly wins.) 27.Bf2! Bf4 The only way to stop Bg3, falls to 28.Bxc5! and suddenly that hidden threat of the rook swinging to b3 means White’s winning. 25.Qf3 Kd8 26.Bd2 Kc8 Such is the despair in Black’s position with his rooks having no mobility, that Caruana is reduced now to shuffling his king back and forth for the moment, as he can only react to how Karjakin is going to push for the win. 27.Qf1 Rd6 The position is just so uncomfortable and difficult for Black to defend. The alternative was 27…gxf4 but after 28.Bxf4 Be5 29.Bxh6 Bxh2 30.Bg5 Re8 31.Rf3 Rg8 32.Rf5! White will be playing Qf3, and suddenly the pressure on f7 will soon see the pawn falling; and when that happens, the game will fall with it. 28.fxg5 Bxg5 29.Bxg5 hxg5 30.Qf5+ Rdd7 31.Qxg5 Karjakin now has an additional pawn and there’s a simple threat of pushing h2-h4-h5-h6 etc. Not only that, but he still has major threats towards Caruana’s king. And the pressure all becomes too much for Caruana. 31…Qe5 32.Qh6 Kd8 33.g5 Qd6 34.Qh8+ Re8 35.Qh4 Qg6 36.Qg4 Re5 37.h4 Ke7 38.Rd2 More clinical was 38.Rf3! forcing 38…Rdxd5 39.cxd5 Qe4 40.d6+ Kxd6 41.Rf4 Qxc2 42.Rf6+ winning. But by now, Karjakin was like a cat purring as it played with a mouse before the kill. 38…b5 39.Bxf7! The rest is easy – in one of the most important and best games of recent times for Karjakin, he goes on to score what could be a crucial win, as the passed pawns on both sides of the board can’t be stopped now. 39…Qf5 40.Rxd7+ Kxd7 41.Qxf5+ Rxf5 42.g6 Ke7 43.cxb5 Rh5 44.c4 Rxh4 45.a4 Rg4 46.a5 Kd6 47.a6 Kc7 48.Kb3 1-0 Caruana resigns, as there’s no way to stop Karjakin’s king march across the board to f6 to support the push on with g7-g8 etc.


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