When it came to round seven of the Sinquefield Cup 2018, there is no doubt that the clash of reigning World Champion, Magnus Carlsen and his current challenger, Fabiano Caruana, was the one getting most attention. With their World Championship match in London now just 75-days away, this would be their last game without the World Title on the line.
What was on the line, however, was the title of World #1. A win in this game by Caruana, would see him dislodge Carlsen in the live ratings. That being said, the normal rules applied for these kinds of things, which can be thrillers or depressors — hope for the best, prepare for the worst.
Carlsen opted for 1.e4 and the game turned into a Petrov. This caused much online dissent and instant statements that the game would be a feeble draw. And this is understandable having watched certain strong Grandmasters use it as solid drawing weapons over the years. Probably only the Berlin Defence gets as close to prompting such groans and moans. However, Fabiano has shown that he plays the Petrov his own way and not without intent.
Of course, he may well play it as a solid choice and considering he was leading the tournament and a draw with Black against Carlsen would not be horrible for him, who can blame him? However, he has obviously done a lot of work on this opening and has found some new ideas in its nooks and crannies. Opponents need to know their Petrov and be very careful. Fine demonstration of this, was provided earlier in the year, at the World Championship Candidates Tournament, in Berlin. Fabiano used the Petrov to take points from not only Alexander Grischuk but from fellow Petrov aficionado, Vladimir Kramnik too.
So, when Fabiano Caruana plays the Petrov, all bets are off. Further example of this was to come in this game, only not in the way that he would have wanted. In truth, he got into a heap of shh-ugar against Magnus Carlsen. It should have cost him a point.
The first indication that the game might have a bit of spice to it, was when Magnus deliberately steered the position to seeing the Kings on opposite wings. These types of positions can be extremely sharp and often turn into blatant King hunts. This game seemed to be going in that direction. His 8.Bc4 ‘encouraged’ Fabiano to castle short without delay and this he did with 8…0-0. This then left Magnus free to castle long a couple of moves later.
Barely had the Kings settled and put their feet up, Magnus had his h-pawn moving up the board with 12.h4 and 13.h5. Quieter moves spelled out his truer intent, however, with 14.Be2, shown in the following diagram:
This move, in a way, is a probe when it comes to Caruana’s preparation. It is namely searching out whether he is largely relying on computer work. Computers don’t fully get positions like these and had Caruana played something like 14…Be7 or 14…a5 (fancied by engines) then it would have been very satisfying for Magnus.
This because, what he has planned is the pawn sacrifice of g2-g4. If Black captures, …Bxg4, then White’s Rd1 swings over to g1, taking what is potentially a very nice open line to the Black King. In this position, rooks nicely on the Kingside, bishop and Queen lined up against h6, knight ready to hop to h4 or g5 on a whim, this is very potent for White and Black has to tread carefully. It is the kind of position that Magnus loves to play.
However, Caruana was not oblivious to this and played 14…Bg4, but this is no disaster for Carlsen either. The reason is that after 15.Nh2, Black is best exchanging bishops with 15…Bxe2. And this is what happened, with White recapturing 16.Qxe2. The thing is, though, that Black has exchanged off an active piece for one of White’s less active pieces (as the bishop was on e2) and furthermore, an obstacle to the White Kingside pawns is gone. Notice now how they have a clear march forwards.
Coupled with the prospect of the Rd1 swinging over to g1 and the Be3’s targeting of h6, this is a tense situation for Caruana and an exciting something for Carlsen. Unbelievably, even though Black has nothing even close to the potential that White has and is actually already defending, engines tend to still see it as equal at best for White.
And that is what is so powerful about these situations, making the opponent defend. It carries much initiative, because it is so hard to do both defend and attack with the Kings on opposite wings.
After 16…Ne5 17.Bc1 was another one of those ‘huh?’ looking moves that is actually more of a ‘wow!’. Magnus puts the bishop out of harms way, yet fully functional in supporting f4 and g5 — and of course eyeing h6.
There followed 17…Qc6 18.f4 and here, 18…Nd7 was probably the most testing, (when White would probably play 19.Qf1), but Fabiano went for 18…Nc4. It is possible that he sensed danger and felt that he had to try to do something active. In the end, after 19.Qd3 Qe4 20.g4(!) Fabiano had done nothing to impact Magnus’s plan and White had actually obtained a position that he would be rather happy with.
And he was about to get a lot happier. The Queens came off, which was fine for White. Usually the attacker would want to keep the Queens on, but it was again getting an active Black piece off of the board so Magnus will not have been devastated. Plus, there was actually no great place for his own Queen, it was a bit in the way and not essential to his setup. And the cherry on top was that it un-doubled his pawns.
Again, Caruana had not really hampered Carlsen, who continued with his pressure. And then came two loose moves by Fabiano, the first being 23…Re6. The problem for Black is that defensive moves are no longer good enough, White’s attack is coming slowly but surely. Active defence is the only chance now and for better or worse, he had to try 23…Re2. Even then, White still proceeds with g4-g5 and this is bread and butter to Magnus Carlsen. There followed 24.g5 and then the clanging 24…Ne7(?) and this is all due to a miscalculation.
The diagram, above, shows the events. Fabiano thought that upon 25.gxh6 Rxh6 26.f5 (discover from the Bc1 on his rook), he can take on h5. However, that would lose alarmingly to Ng4. Taking the rook on h1 is of course mate in 2, and the knight is threatening to hop to f6 or h6 for check. All kinds of nasty combinations come from this.
Of course, Magnus pounced with 25.gxh6 and after 25…Rxh6 26.f5 Fabiano now opted for 26…Rh7. And here, Magnus slipped up with 27.Ng4. This allowed Fabiano to wriggle free and demonstrate his defensive abilities. The point is, that after 27.Ng4, Black has time to play 27…Kh8 and now, after 28.f6, the knight can go to g8 and be his saviour. And this is how it went and after this, Black holds … just.
And from there, it was Carlsen in trouble as his time started to tick down. He had spent so long looking for the win, that he was in serious time pressure. He actually barely made it and thanks to a couple of repetitions. And that was how the game ended, with the point split on move 41. It really should have been Carlsen’s 10 moves or so earlier.
What can we say about this game? Well, it is a cause of concern for both players when it comes to their match, coming up in November. For Caruana, it will be a big thing to have such a scare in one of his darling openings. And even worse, it came about rather simply. He has work to do if he is planning on using the Petrov in the match, that is for sure. On the positive, he showed Carlsen that when he gets chances, he must be accurate or he wont get the point.
When it comes to Carlsen, he will be feeling very encouraged to have had Caruana suffering in the Petrov. If this was in any way cooked up then it will be very satisfying. However, he should have won this game and he normally would. Why didn’t he?
Mark Crowther of The Week in Chess, speculated on Twitter as to whether Magnus has become less accurate. Personally, I think not but it is very unlike him to let people escape like this. I don’t believe that his analysis capability cost him half a point.
So what did? Well, he admitted to being nervous, “…a lot was at stake today,” he said afterwards. But this strikes me as a deflection — he is, after all, no stranger to big events.
I think it is more a case of him not wanting to admit to having lost concentration and focus and given in to distraction. And rightly so, it would be a big admission and one that Camp Caruana would try to exploit. During the game, he had visited the confessional booth, (something that he rarely does), in order to deliver a message …
— US Chess (@USChess) August 25, 2018
Of this, Carlsen said that he felt that the position was winning and just wanted to have fun. Perhaps that is all there was to it, but perhaps not. This already lengthy blog piece is not the place to speculate in detail, but I do have some more to say on this interesting psychological point from Carlsen’s perspective. Watch this space!
The other games were also drawn, which meant that the standings remained unchanged, with Caruana retaining his lead. Two rounds remain!
Standings after Round 7:
Caruana — 4.5
Carlsen, Mamedyarov, Grischuk, Aronian — 4.0
Vachier-Lagrave, Anand — 3.5
So — 3.0
Nakamura — 2.5
Karjakin — 2.0
Round Eight (Sunday 26th August, 13:00 local time): Vachier-Lagrave vs Aronian, Nakamura vs Karjakin, Mamedyarov vs Carlsen, Caruana vs Anand, Grischuk vs So.