Game ten of the FIDE World Chess Championship 2018, was played on Thursday 23rd November. After nine draws, the match was tied at 4.5 points each and speculation had already started a few rounds ago as to the inevitability of tie-breaks.
It seems so incredible to the knowing chess World, that neither reigning World Champion, Magnus Carlsen, nor his Challenger Fabiano Caruana, have been able to make an impact upon this match yet and score more than half points.
Then again, perhaps it is not such a surprise, considering the fact that we have the top two players in the World facing off against each other?
But there seems to be so little fight in these draws, and that has been the surprising factor. The World Champion does not seem to want to push the boat out in order to safeguard his title, but his challenger also seems reluctant to do anything substantial to wrestle it from him.
Hence the almost resigned feeling with regard to tie-breaks.
21…b5(!) The Champion Comes Ready To Fight!
Typically, as soon as we feel that we have a good feeling for the event, the players tend to slap us on the forehead (proverbially speaking, though I am sure they wish to actually do it with a few of us) and show us just how little we know.
And that is what happened in this game, as it turned out to be the most exciting, tense, knife-edged battle so far. It was a game in which Magnus Carlsen took a deep breath and staked his claim to the World Title.
The game was a Sveshnikov, with Fabiano Caruana as White. Actor Tom Hollander (above — currently starring as the Manager of Queen in Bohemian Rhapsody) made the first move on the Challenger’s behalf. It was not very long after that Fabiano unleashed the novelty of 12.b4.
Carlsen handled this novelty well and when Caruana opted for 19.Ra3 instead of 19.Bh5, the World Champion was able to play 19…Qg6 and the game was finely balanced. And upon the World Champion’s 21…b5, the cat was really among the pigeons. White was all but owning the Queenside and Black was going all out on the Kingside. It was a case of, ‘mate me or you’ll lose’, from the Challenger versus the Champion’s ‘have the Queenside, because I am going to mate you.’.
After 21…b5, Caruana has to be very careful. For example, upon 22.axb6, Carlsen has 22…Rxa3 up his sleeve, followed by …f4-f3 and White is under some pressure to put it mildly. Fabiano said in the press conference that he had not even entertained this move, his instinct telling him that it was insane. Prudently, he opted for 22.Nb6, which seems best.
Even so, Black obtained very good play, focussing all his attention towards the White King, while the white forces made their presence known on the Queenside. Black was the stronger in these endeavours and soon it became clear that the Champion had extremely good chances. His 23…Qg5 was a bit of a mystery, however, and seemed inconsistent with his earlier play. 23…b4, …Bd7 or …Rf5 were more direct. Inn saying that, though, Caruana’s 24.g3 was also a tad slow and allowed Carlsen to play …b4 on his next move.
Unfortunately, the moment was perhaps passed and Magnus did not obtain huge play from things, even though he was clearly better. After, 25.Rb3 Bh3 26.Rg1 f3 27.Bf1 Bxf1 28.Qxf1 Qxd5 29.Rxb4, things were neither here nor there really. Not being able to see any way to make his edge work, the World Champion resorted to tricks a little later, with 35…Qe2. This set up a lovely little trap should Fabiano be feeling greedy and want to try 36.Qb3+ Kh8 37.c4 seemingly trapping Black’s Queen. However, it would be a huge, astronimic, embarrassing blunder and after 37…Rxb6, he would be able to resign!
Of course, Fabiano did not fall for this, going to the endgame with 36.Re1 Qxe3 37.Rxe3. And after this, though White was certainly playing for a draw, any chances for Black had largely fizzled.
And here we see how Magnus Carlsen can be a danger to himself. I firmly believe that he wanted this game, his 21…b5 was the first clue. Carlsen is very accustomed to getting the better of knife-edge positions. He gives his opponents rope in finely balanced positions and they make mistakes to open the door for him. It is one of his finest abilities. In this match, he has been up against an opponent who has played extremely accurately and has just not made those mistakes. This has clearly frustrated the Champion and in this game we saw that frustration boil over with 44…Kd4(?).
The question mark to this move was given almost immediately by British Grandmaster Jon Speelman, who declared, “oh, if Rb5, he [Carlsen] very well could be losing.”. It was a while before the engines actually caught on to the human’s evaluation, but minus turned to plus and it soon became clear that the situation in the game had switched. It was now Black who was playing for a draw. Carlsen’s body language at the board started to change, there were rolls of the eyes, grimaces, shakes of the head. He who is so used to benefiting from such errors, was now suffering after making one.
And so, he set about how to save the game and this he managed to do by the skin of his teeth. He brought about an ending in which he was a pawn down, but the pawn would be a wing pawn and nigh impossible for Caruana to convert. Therefore, the American agreed to split the point.
As I said above, we saw in this game, just what a threat Magnus Carlsen can be to himself. Clearly feeling that he should have had a point from this game, (and he is probably correct in that), he pushed for more in an equal position and took a risk. This landed him in very hot water and could have seen him surrendering a point.
The Spanish journalist, Leontxo Garcia, said in an article for El Pais, that Carlsen is playing like a shadow of himself at the moment. He also said that he is suffering from a lack of confidence. I think we have to give Leontxo 10/10 on this, Magnus is certainly out of sorts and his play lacks the fluidity and clarity, the potency, that we are used to seeing from him.
This is now clearly frustrating him and he seems to be putting great pressure on himself to produce. That is dangerous territory for him, I feel. I also do not think that Magnus wants this match to go to tie-breaks. I know that there is a consensus that he will be the favourite in the quicker time controls, but I do not agree. And as I have said before, I don’t think that Magnus is so naive to agree either.
Simply put, I think that if he and his team have managed to cook something up against Caruana, then we are likely to see it in game eleven!
As for Fabiano Caruana, I think he will be largely satisfied with how things are going. Ok, there was great pressure on him in this game, but he survived the crisis. And so far in the match, he has not had to pull anything huge out of the bag to keep Carlsen at bay. I think if he can survive game eleven, then he may well feel that he has destiny in his hands for game twelve.