Cautious Carlsen Sends World Championship Match to Tiebreakers

GM Ian RogersChess

Carlsen and Caruana finish 6-6 after 12 classical games completed

It is not often that the chess world unites to criticise Magnus Carlsen, but on Monday evening in London the World Champion had few supporters after his decision to squander a highly favourable position and offer a draw to his challenger Fabiano Caruana as soon as legally permissible in the final classical game of the world title match in London.

“Cowardly” said Carlsen’s compatriot and former coach Simen Agdestein. “Lazy” was Kramnik’s description of Carlsen’s play leading up to the draw offer. “I think he knows he is not playing the best moves,” the former World Champion added. “Shocking” said Kasparov, declaring that because he seemed to be losing his nerve, Carlsen was no longer his favourite to win the tiebreakers.

When the players arrived for the post-game press conference after their game was drawn in 31 moves, the audience applause was tepid, at best.

The journalists resisted the temptation to ask Carlsen “Why did you agree a draw in such a fantastic position?”, but the tone of many questions was clear. Carlsen’s response was also clear - “I don’t care.”

Carlsen, Danny King and Caruana at the post-game press conference. Photo: Cathy Rogers

Monday’s 12th and final classical game of the title match which has been running for almost three weeks, started promisingly.

VIPs and press were out in force in the hope (or expectation) that the match might be over that day. However it was notable that game 12 was the first non-full house since game one, perhaps because general admission tickets had gone on sale only when a game 12 was certain - or perhaps because London chess fans suspected what might be in store. In any case, the system of half hour slots to watch the players was abandoned for the day as there was plenty of space for those who wanted to watch the players or the commentators.

A couple of chess fans, dressed appropriately. Photo: Cathy Rogers

A frisson of fear ran through the venue when Caruana repeated moves early, raising concern of a 14 move draw but, after a short think, Caruana made the gutsy decision to play on, and everyone breathed a sigh of relief.

Unfortunately for Caruana, he chose a poor plan and was soon pushed back, with Carlsen, far ahead on the clock, having many attractive options; one sharp line that Caruana saw was close to a forced win.

Instead Carlsen played very quickly, one solid move after another, barely bothering to calculate any tactical options. It was as if he wanted to admire his great position, not build on it. He later explained that he did not want to take any risks at all, yet what became clear was that Carlsen was aiming for a draw, and it did not matter much to him how good his position was.

Carlsen and Caruana. Photo: Cathy Rogers

As soon as the players had passed 30 moves – the point at which draws could legally be agreed in this contest - Carlsen offered one to Caruana who resisted accepting immediately and waited a respectable time before extending his hand.

Absolute shock descended over The College; how could Carlsen offer a draw in a position where he stood better and had virtually no losing chances? Wasn’t this the guy who earlier in the match had answered a journalist’s question about playing on in a drawn position with a statement that while he was pressing he should play on until the last hope was gone? Didn’t Carlsen keep game one going for 115 moves and seven hours, just to hope for an error from Caruana?

Sure, Carlsen played for a draw with White in game 11 but this was different; this was Carlsen refusing to try in an advantageous position. This was not the actions of a world number one, let alone the actions of Carlsen’s idol, the Carlsen of four years ago.

Amateur psychologists, of which there appeared to be a couple of hundred at the venue, had a field day, yet their basic theory was unanimous; Carlsen was suffering from a crisis in confidence and was scared of losing. A small minority argued that the draw showed Carlsen’s enormous self-confidence in fast formats. Indeed he can expect to be favourite in the tiebreakers, but Carlsen still passed on a free shot at retaining his world title on Monday.

Carlsen and Caruana. Photo: Cathy Rogers

The shock and disappointment among the extensive Norwegian contingent in London was palpable; their hero, the man who would supposedly fight to the last pawn, had been shown to have feet of clay. Certainly Carlsen had taken a very short draw against Sergey Karjakin to force tiebreakers in 2016 in New York, but at least there Carlsen had the excuse that he had been one down with three to play and to reach the tiebreakers at all was a considerable achievement.

Even the Norwegian television station NRK – which had adopted the Sex Pistols’ hit ‘NRK in the UK’ as their advertising theme, and which would now be assured of a high rating final show – rounded on their man, though stunned non comprehension was the predominant emotion. An hour after the game, the London host of the NRK chess show could be seen wandering around the venue with a blank look on his face.

On Wednesday, the two players will arrive at 3pm to complete a set of four rapid games – 25 minutes plus 10 second increment per move. Should those games be tied 2-2, pairs of lightning games will begin – up to 5 sets if the first four are tied 1-1. Should the tie still not be broken, their 27th game will be an Armageddon encounter; White has five minutes, Black four, but if Black draws he is World Champion.

Carlsen, who has a huge rating advantage over Caruana in rapid and blitz chess, though not a great personal score in rapid, remains favourite. And yet…

Caruana has proved himself a worthy challenger and to the casual observer seems almost nerveless. His rapid chess results have been far from disastrous this year (though one would never back him in a blitz contest against Carlsen).

From the reaction of spectators at The College as well as in social media, Carlsen lost a lot of fans on Monday due to his pragmatism/cynicism. Caruana also gained a few by refusing an early repetition despite knowing he was playing on Carlsen’s chosen opening variation.

But, as Tartakower once said, moral victories don’t count. If Carlsen plays to his capacity in the tiebreakers, he will retain his world title and he will believe that the end justifies the means. The chess world may not be so certain.

The Tie-Breaks begin at 15:00 GMT on Wednesday. You can see all the moves live on the Lichess World Championship relay.

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