John Henderson
By John Henderson

After twenty-one days, twelve games, forty-eight hours across the board from each other, and 635 moves, it proved to be one for the annals as Magnus Carlsen and Fabiano Caruana were deadlocked at 6-6 in London with all the games drawn for the first time in the 132-year history of World Championship Chess. But everyone wants to see blood being spilt – and spilt it was when they resumed battle in the tiebreak playoff that ultimately would decide who would follow in a heritage line that stretched back to Wilhelm Steinitz in 1886.

This was a match between two evenly-matched players, with nothing much to separate the world No.1 and 2, and where all the pundits predicted it would be very close, most likely ending 6-6 – but when it came to the tiebreak playoff odds, Carlsen, who has never lost a tiebreak playoff in his professional career, was the one heavily-tipped to retain his title.

Despite the criticism from all quarters for not playing on Game 12, when he arguably stood better, and taking his chances with the tiebreak, it proved to be a correct call for Carlsen as he finally overpowered Caruana to retain his title with an emphatic 3-0 victory over his American challenger, who was looking to follow in the footsteps of Bobby Fischer.

It didn’t take much for the old Carlsen swagger to return after what’s been an indifferent year form-wise – an opening game win in a tricky ending was all it took, and after that, the Norwegian ace was back to his brilliant best with two über-smooth wins to seal the deal to claim a fourth title win and the winner’s purse of €550,000 ($625,000). With Caruana returning home to St. Louis with the €450,000 ($511,400) runners-up prize.

“I am very happy,” a clearly relieved and overjoyed Carlsen admitted afterwards. “I felt like I had a really good day at work. Everything went perfectly.” Not so happy though was his American challenger, who at least was magnanimous after what must have been a sore loss. “It wasn’t a good day for me and Magnus played very well,” added Caruana. “I had a very bad start, unfortunately, especially the second game.”

Carlsen further revealed that he had already made up his mind before game 12 to take the match into a tiebreak scenario, explaining: “If I had a slightly favourable position…then I was indeed going to offer a draw. I understand that’s not the mindset that everybody wants but I felt that’s what gave me the best chance to win the match.”

Tiebreak Match score: Carlsen 3-0 Caruana
Photo: A jubilant Magnus Carlsen retains his title with a fourth World Championship victory | © Maria Emelianova/Chess.com

GM Magnus Carlsen – GM Fabiano Caruana
World Championship Tiebreak Rapid, (1)
English Opening
1.c4 e5 2.Nc3 Nf6 3.g3 Carlsen diverges from 3.Nf3 he had played during the previous 12-games – and with it, Caruana should have expected that it involved a cunning plan from the Norwegian! 3…Bb4 4.e4!? On Chess24.com, Anish Giri and Peter Svidler said they were surprised that Carlsen played 4.e4 so quickly. However, you can clearly see from the live footage that Carlsen had a wry smile on his face when Caruana played 3.Bb4, as this was his cunning plan, to play 4.e4!?, and more or less transpose into a Reversed Sicilian Rossolimo with an extra move! 4…0-0 It’s too dangerous to take on e4. After 4…Bxc3 5.dxc3 Nxe4 6.Qg4 Nf6 7.Qxg7 Rg8 8.Qh6 White, with the bishop-pair and lots of open lines, stands much better. 5.Nge2 c6 6.Bg2 a6 7.0-0 b5 8.d4 d6 Caruana’s play is beginning to look a little superficial – and for the first time in the match, he looks to have been totally outfoxed in the opening. 9.a3 Bxc3 10.Nxc3 bxc4 11.dxe5 dxe5 12.Na4! Carlsen may well be a pawn down for now: but any form of ending with his bishop-pair and those horribly split Black queenside pawns will be to White’s advantage. 12…Be6 13.Qxd8 Rxd8 14.Be3 Nbd7 15.f3 Carlsen is going to recoup his pawn with the easy plan of Rac1, Rfe1 and Bf1 – and there’s nothing Caruana can do about this. 15…Rab8 16.Rac1 Rb3 17.Rfe1 Ne8 The engines will tell you that there’s nothing in the position, but on a human level, alarm bells are ringing, as Caruana’s pieces are just so awkwardly placed, and he’s now like a fish out of water playing Carlsen, who by now his body language was exuding confidence. 18.Bf1 Nd6 19.Rcd1 Nb5 20.Nc5 Rxb2 21.Nxe6 fxe6 22.Bxc4 Caruana is not without tactical tricks himself with the knight-pair. If White gets greedy and goes for 22.Bg5? expecting to win a piece, Black turns the tables with 22…Nd4!! the (full) point being that 23.Bxd8?? Nxf3+ 24.Kh1 Rxh2#! 22…Nd4 23.Bxd4 exd4 24.Bxe6+ Piling on the pressure with 24.Rxd4! doubling the rooks on the d-file looks stronger – but it involves first having to find a very deep and subtle move after 24…Kf7 with the remarkable 25.Kh1! (as the immediate 25.Red1? is well-met by the ‘Hail Mary Save’ of 25…Ne5!! 26.Rxd8 Nxf3+ 27.Kf1 Nxh2+ 28.Ke1 Nf3+ 29.Kf1 Nh2+ 30.Kg1 Nf3+ and a repetition) Now the game will continue 25…Ke7 26.Red1 Rc2 27.Bxa6 Rc3 28.Rd6 Rxf3 (If 28…Rxa3 29.Bc4 is even better for White.) 29.Bc4! e5 30.Re6+ Kf8 31.a4 Ra3 32.Rxc6 Rxa4 33.Rc7 and Black is just doomed to losing due to the eternal pin on the d-file and all of White’s pieces being very active. But 25.Kh1! is not the sort of human move you make at the board, so Carlsen instead heads for a rook and pawn ending. 24…Kf8 25.Rxd4 Ke7 26.Rxd7+ Rxd7 27.Bxd7 Kxd7 28.Rd1+ Ke6 Forget what near +2 assessment Sesse and the other engines give here – on a human level, any rook and pawn ending comes what a fair degree of drawing caveats. And here, despite Carlsen having the extra pawn, it is not so easy to covert with Caruana having such a strongly-placed rook on the seventh that’s cutting White’s king off from coming into the game. 29.f4 c5 30.Rd5 I think here I might have been more tempted to first try 30.Rc1 Kd6 31.e5+ Kd5 32.Rd1+ but Magnus was probably worried that after 32…Ke6!? (There’s a trap after 32…Ke4?! 33.Re1+ Kf3 34.e6! Rb8 35.Rc1 and White is clearly on track to win.) 33.Rd6+ Kf5 34.Rc6 (If 34.e6 c4! 35.Rxa6 Kg4! and again Black’s strong rook, king and c-pawn looks like saving the game.) 34…Rc2 35.Rxa6 c4 36.Rb6 g5! wasn’t so clear with the kingside pawns now about to be split, Black’s king and rook active, and the c-pawn pushing further down the board. 30…Rc2 31.h4 c4 32.f5+ Kf6 33.Rc5 h5 34.Kf1 Rc3 35.Kg2 Rxa3 36.Rxc4 Ke5 37.Rc7 Kxe4?? [see diagram] The tension of the occasion, the position on the board and the clock now plays a big part in deciding the game and ultimately the world title, as Caruana blunders big-time. His best hope of saving the game was with 37…Ra2+! 38.Kh3 and only now 38…Kxe4 39.Rxg7 Ra1! 40.Rb7 (White can’t push with 40.f6 as 40…Kf3! 41.Kh2 Ra2+ 42.Kh3 Ra1 43.Kh2 Ra2+ forces a draw.) 40…Rf1 41.Rb6 Rxf5 42.Rxa6 Rd5 and a technical draw. We’ll soon see what the difference is. 38.Re7+! Kxf5 39.Rxg7 The difference here is that Carlsen now easily wins the h-pawn and will start pushing his connected passed pawns up the board. 39…Kf6 40.Rg5 a5 41.Rxh5 a4 42.Ra5 In rook and pawn endings, the best place to put your rook is behind your opponent’s passed pawn. 42…Ra1 43.Kf3 a3 44.Ra6+ Kg7 45.Kg2 It’s all academic now, and Carlsen just takes the scenic route to waste a little more time on Caruana’s metaphorically ticking down digital clock. 45…Ra2+ 46.Kh3 Ra1 47.h5 Kh7 48.g4 Kg7 49.Kh4 a2 50.Kg5 Kf7 51.h6 Game over – Caruana’s rook is doomed to protecting his a-pawn while Carlsen’s king is shielded from checks as he relentlessly pushes his pawns further up the board. 51…Rb1 52.Ra7+ Kg8 53.Rxa2 Rb5+ 54.Kg6 Rb6+ 55.Kh5 1-0

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