The waiting is finally over, as the 2018 World Chess Championship match between Magnus Carlsen and Fabiano Caruana got underway in London. But it all started with a joke and a sense of déjà vu all over again, with everyone’s favourite barman, Woody Harrelson (he of Cheers fame) reprising his role from the first game of Karjakin-Carlsen, New York 2016, by again making the ceremonial opening move for the first game of the London match.
Harrelson is a big chess fan, and with his previous gig making the ceremonial opening move in New York, you would think he’d be a natural, wouldn’t you? But it didn’t turn out that way. First off, there was an awkward moment when he “accidentally” knocked Caruana’s king over in executing the opening move. And when he did make the opening move, he made the wrong move, playing 1.d4 instead of Caruana’s intended 1.e4.
It transpired that the knocking over of the king was quite deliberate, and seemingly with the agreement with the players to create a bit of mirth and give the spectators and media something to talk about. “I thought it would be funny if I accidentally knocked over the king,” Harrelson explained, “but then it turned out the joke’s on me when I played d4.” The actor explained that he had simply misheard what Caruana had whispered to him. The move was retracted and 1.e4 played – but not before a bit of improvised light relief from Caruana, who quizzically asked the arbiter whether he was now forced to playing 1.d4, and seeing all his opening preparation thrown out the window.
But joking aside, with the formalities over, and as the game officially got underway, Caruana may well have hoped instead that the arbiter had told him to stick with Harrelson’s 1.d4, as it didn’t take long for the game to start swinging wildly in Carlsen’s advantage. At one stage, it looked as if Caruana was heading for what could well have been a psychologically devastating loss. But as Carlsen inexplicably squandered numerous opportunities that would have given him a big morale-boosting opening game win, it all ended in a draw, and instead turned out to be the longest-ever opening day game for a World Championship match.
The game produced the third-most moves of any world championship game in history. It lasted 115 moves and over seven hours of play, some seven moves shy of Carlsen-Anand 2014, Game seven, which came in at 122 moves and also about seven hours of play. Only the epic fifth game from Korchnoi-Karpov, 1978, was longer, lasting 124 moves and still holds the record for the longest game in World Chess Championship history – but that was back in the days of adjournments, and I remember that particular game seemingly went on for days before it finally ended in a stalemate.
But the interesting thing was that those two games at the top of the list came mid-match, and this one came in the opening game of the match, making it the longest-ever opening game of a World Chess Championship match. Although Carlsen had to be disappointed that he failed to convert the win, by prolonging the game for so long with a lot of meaningless probing and prodding in what was effectively a technically drawn rook and pawn ending, this could well have been a signal that the Norwegian may well try to tire Caruana out with a whole series of long games.
“I was outplayed after the opening,” frankly admitted Caruana in the post-game press conference. “It was a complicated position. Magnus started to outplay me. I think I was clearly losing, for a long time I was losing…This was not the most pleasant experience to defend this extremely long game with white. I think I was quite fortunate to end up with a draw.”
“It started very well, I was better on time and had a better position,” a somewhat disappointed Carlsen told Norwegian state broadcaster, NRK. “I couldn’t quite find the knockout before the time trouble. I played a bit too cautiously, I think. Suddenly he got a chance to break loose. Then it was quite drawish.” He then added: “I tried to find a way to exchange in order to play for a win, but I couldn’t find it. Then I just moved around hoping to force a blunder, but I didn’t succeed.”
Photo: Woody Harrelson gets things started with a joke – but the joke was on him! | © Official site
GM Fabiano Caruana – GM Magnus Carlsen
World Chess Championship, (1)
Sicilian Defence, Rossolimo Variation
1.e4 c5 2.Nf3 Nc6 3.Bb5 Popularised by Aaron Nimzowitsch, the Rossolimo Variation took off by being almost the exclusive weapon of the one-man Olympiad, GM Nicolas Rossolimo, the US-French-Greek-Russian, who started his Olympiad career playing for France in 1950, then played for the US until 1966, before reverting again to the French tricolour for his final Olympiad in 1972. 3…g6 4.Bxc6 dxc6 5.d3 Bg7 6.h3 A prophylactic move that just denies the black pieces from the g4-square. 6…Nf6 7.Nc3 Nd7 This is not uncharted territory for both players, as they had this position at the 2015 Tata Steel Masters in Wijk aan Zee – and herein lies a tale. In that game, Carlsen continued 7…b6 8.Be3 and then, without even thinking about it, quickly bashed out 8…e5?! But Carlsen played it so quickly and so confidently, that Caruana had a long think about it, and then opted to cautiously castled kingside, and Carlsen went on to brilliantly beat his American challenger-to-be (Caruana,F-Carlsen,M, Tata Steel Masters 2015). But the critical line has to be accepting the challenge with 9.Nxe5 Nxe4 10.Qf3! f5 11.Bf4 Nxc3 12.Qxc6+ Bd7 13.Nxd7 The complications seem to favour White, but Caruana might well have feared he’d missed something amidst the complications – either that, or he started to see ‘ghosts’ in the position with seeing something that simply wasn’t there. 8.Be3 e5 9.0-0 b6 10.Nh2!? This move looks a little strange to the unobserved eye, but Caruana is following an idea from a similar game he had against Nakamura in 2015. That game ended in a draw even though Caruana pushed hard to win. 10…Nf8 11.f4 Apart from the 10.Nh2 accommodating this move, from h2 it can also come to g4 to join in the attack when the f-file opens. 11…exf4 12.Rxf4 Be6 13.Rf2 h6 14.Qd2 g5 15.Raf1 Qd6 16.Ng4 0-0-0 17.Nf6 Nd7 18.Nh5 Be5 19.g4 f6 20.b3 Bf7 21.Nd1 Nf8!? A very speculative move from Carlsen that ups the ante on the psychological stakes, as the game takes on a new twist – and with it, Caruana has to spend invaluable time on his on his already depleted clock having to deal with the new situation on the board. Caruana’s mindset might well have been tuned into thinking that the game might well have been heading towards 21…Qe6 with the idea of after 22.Ng7 Qe7 23.Nf5 Qf8! followed by the …h5 attacking plan. But now, he has to start thinking afresh, as the game is heading in an alternative direction. 22.Nxf6 Ne6 23.Nh5 There was also the bemusing alternative of 23.Nd7!? Bf4 24.Nf6 Bg3 25.Rf3 Be5 and White has no alternative other than to head again to h5 with the knight, as now there’s no offer of repeating the position with 26.Nd7 Bf4 27.Nf6 as very strong is 27…Nd4! 28.R3f2 Bg3 leaving white worried his game might well collapse here. Rather than that, Caruana took the pragmatic approach by going directly for Nh5. 23…Bxh5 24.gxh5 Nf4 25.Bxf4 gxf4 26.Rg2 The radical solution was to be found in 26.Rxf4!? Bxf4 27.Qxf4 Rhf8 (Not so accurate is 27…Rhg8+ 28.Kh2 Qxf4+ 29.Rxf4 Rdf8 30.Rg4! and White will soon be playing Kg2 and Ne3 with an ending that’s somewhat difficult for Black due to the weakness on h6. And also, if 27…Qd4+ 28.Ne3 White can be no worse here with the looming threat of the knight heading to g4 or f5.) 28.Qxd6 Rxf1+ 29.Kxf1 Rxd6 30.Ne3 and, again, White looks to be doing OK due to the threat of Nf6 hitting the h6-pawn. And on reflection, I dare say Caruana may have been kicking himself for turning down this radical option, as he now he heads into the torture chamber. 26…Rhg8 27.Qe2 It all now begins to go “awkward” for Caruana, as now there’s a major threat of …f3 should he play 27.Nf2 f3! 28.Rxg8 Rxg8+ 29.Ng4 Qf6! and there’s no way to prevent …Bd4+ followed by …Qh4 and White’s position must surely collapse. 27…Rxg2+ 28.Qxg2 Qe6! The joy in this wonderful move from Carlsen is not in the easily-defendable threat of …Rg8, but the follow-up. 29.Nf2 Rg8 30.Ng4 Qe8! Now the h5-pawn falls, and with it, Caruana should have fallen with it. 31.Qf3 Qxh5 32.Kf2 Welcome to Awkwardsville, Mr Caruana! 32…Bc7 33.Ke2 The other awkward back-rank shuffle with 33.Rg1 Qh4+ 34.Kf1 looks to make a better fist of defending this. 33…Qg5 34.Nh2 [see diagram] 34…h5?! With Caruana on the ropes, and the flag on his digital clock metaphorically hanging high, somehow Carlsen loses his ruthless streak by failing to find the killer blow. One big move here was 34…Qe5! with the omnipresent queen infiltration with …Qc3 or even …Qb2, leaving White clinging on for dear life. Just how is White going to defend here? If 35.Qf2 (There’s no way to stop Black crashing through. If 35.Kd2 Qb2! and there’s no good way to stop the easy threat of Bc7-e5-c3+ easily winning.) 35…Rg3 36.Nf3 Qb2 and White’s now at tipping point. 35.Rf2 Qg1 Again, as above, the simple 35…Qe5! was strong and winning. But now, after rejecting this strong possibility in successive moves, Carlsen begins to let the golden opportunity of an opening game win slip right through his fingers. 36.Nf1 Yes, it does look all awkward for Caruana – but in this particular awkwardness, he’s at least thwarting Carlsen from finding a way to make a breakthrough. 36…h4 37.Kd2 In his time trouble that was by now looming large, Caruana misses a possible shot that looks to let him off the hook with 37.e5!? Re8 38.Rg2 Qd4 39.Qxc6 Qxe5+ 40.Kf2 Kb8 41.Kg1! and, as remarkable as it may seem, White looks to have weathered the storm, as there’s no clear-cut win here for Black. 37…Kb7 I think it is safe to say that, with this move, Carlsen had realised that White’s e5 was a realistic plan to save the game. 38.c3 One way for Black to try and win this was with the retreating gem of …Qg7! (any sort of queen retreating move like this is the most difficult to spot in chess) followed by …Be5, …Bb2 and …Qc3 looking to crash in on White’s precarious king. It looks like Caruana thought it was a strong plan, and tried to find a way to stop this – but he failed to spot the consequences of his move. 38…Be5?! For the third time in the last half dozen moves or so, Carlsen fails to spot the killer blow – and this time, it really was a killing blow with 38…Rg3!! 39.Nxg3 (There’s no more retreating shuffle of the pieces now with 39.Qe2 f3!! 40.Rxf3 (If 40.Qe1 Rg2 is a simple win.) 40…Rg2 easily winning.) 39…hxg3 40.Rg2 Qa1 and White is left defending a terrible wreck of a position. 39.Kc2 Qg7 40.Nh2 Caruana makes the time control with three seconds to spare – for the past half dozen moves or so, he was surviving on the fumes of the 30-second time increment. But at the last move of the time control, he makes an interesting choice with the knight, as better looked 40.Nd2! with the plan of Nc4 and e5 ganging up on the f4-pawn that’s been cramping White’s game. Now the only slim chance Black has is with the further strategic queen retreat of 40…Qh8! 41.Nc4 Rg3 42.Qe2 b5 43.Nxe5 Qxe5 44.a4 Black still holds the upper-hand, but White is hanging in there with Qf1, or even Qg4 if the rook captures on h3. 40…Bxc3?! The last realistic chance for Carlsen to play for a win was with 40…Qg1! 41.Nf1 b5 42.a3 a5 and Black will soon be looking for a timely …Rg3 again, that’s going to leave White struggling to hold on. 41.Qxf4 Bd4 42.Qf7+ Now that the queens are coming off, White should be able to find a way to defend the forced rook and pawn ending we are heading into. 42…Ka6 43.Qxg7 Rxg7 44.Re2 Rg3 45.Ng4 Rxh3 46.e5 Rf3 47.e6 Rf8 48.e7 Re8 49.Nh6 h3 50.Nf5 Bf6 51.a3 b5 52.b4! The more pawns that are traded now, the easier it will be for Caruana to save the game. 52…cxb4 53.axb4 Bxe7 54.Nxe7 h2 55.Rxh2 Rxe7 56.Rh6 Kb6 57.Kc3 Luckily for Caruana, all the pawns are on the same wing of the board, and his king is also ideally placed on that same wing, so there’s no chances of it being cut-off from the action. 57…Rd7 58.Rg6 Kc7 59.Rh6 Rd6 60.Rh8 Rg6 61.Ra8 Kb7 62.Rh8 Rg5 63.Rh7+ Kb6 64.Rh6 Rg1 65.Kc2 Rf1 66.Rg6 Rh1 Carlsen may well have realised the game was drawn here – but there’s still a great deal of psychology at play with it being the opening game of a World Championship match, as he continues to poke and prod to make Caruana defend accurately right to the bitter end. 67.Rf6 Rh8 68.Kc3 Ra8 69.d4 Rd8 70.Rh6 Rd7 71.Rg6 Kc7 72.Rg5 Rd6 73.Rg8 Rh6 74.Ra8 Rh3+ 75.Kc2 Ra3 76.Kb2 Ra4 77.Kc3! Caruana is up to the task of defending accurately with the right king move. If 77.Kb3? Kb7 78.Rd8 a5 79.bxa5 Kc7! 80.Re8 Rxd4 and with the two connected passed pawns, Black has excellent chances to convert this to a win. 77…a6 78.Rh8 Ra3+ 79.Kb2 Rg3 80.Kc2 Rg5 81.Rh6 Rd5 82.Kc3 Rd6 83.Rh8 Rg6 84.Kc2 Kb7 This is just a technical draw – but Carlsen relentlessly continues to poke and prod. 85.Kc3 Rg3+ 86.Kc2 Rg1 87.Rh5 Rg2+ 88.Kc3 Rg3+ 89.Kc2 Rg4 90.Kc3 Kb6 91.Rh6 Rg5 92.Rf6 Rh5 93.Rg6 Rh3+ 94.Kc2 Rh5 95.Kc3 Rd5 96.Rh6 Kc7 97.Rh7+ Rd7 98.Rh5 Rd6 99.Rh8 Rg6 100.Rf8 Rg3+ 101.Kc2 Ra3 102.Rf7+ Kd6 103.Ra7 Kd5 104.Kb2 Rd3 105.Rxa6 Rxd4 106.Kb3 Re4 We’re still in the realm of this just being a technical draw – but at least by capturing a pawn, Carlsen has reset the ’50 move rule draw’ and can drag the game out a little longer. 107.Kc3 Rc4+ 108.Kb3 Kd4 109.Rb6 Kd3 110.Ra6 Rc2 111.Rb6 Rc3+ 112.Kb2 Rc4 113.Kb3 Kd4 114.Ra6 Kd5 115.Ra8 ½-½