- The Washington Times - Tuesday, April 3, 2018

Both on and off the board, the London organizers of November’s world championship title match have to be happy with the outcome of last week’s FIDE Candidates Tournament, with American GM Fabiano Caruana breaking through to win the right to take on reigning world champion Magnus Carlsen of Norway.

From a marketing standpoint, Caruana may not be able to generate Bobby Fischer-level media attention, but the young, well-spoken Miami native is guaranteed to attract outsized attention from the U.S. mainstream press the way former champ Viswanathan Anand helped to make India one of the most chess-obsessed countries on the planet. Carlsen already has a built-in popular following, with a second career as a male model to supplement his chess income.

With an American squaring off against a Norwegian, we have by my count the first all-Western title match since Alexander Alekhine, representing France, and Holland’s Max Euwe split a pair of title bouts in the mid-1930s.

And Carlsen and Caruana appear evenly matched at the board as well. In games at classical time controls, Carlsen holds a 9-5 edge with 17 draws, but the two have pretty much split their most recent games. Caruana, ranked No. 3 in the world behind Carlsen and Azerbaijan’s Shakhriyar Mamedyarov, has long been seen as a potential world champ, and his performance at the Berlin Candidates tournament, which he won by a full point over a world-class field, has to be a confidence-booster.

The head-to-head games have been appealingly combative, exploring a wide range of openings from classic Ruys and Sicilians to a Scandinavian, a Dutch and a Reti Opening thrown in the mix. Neither player is over-reliant on opening preparation, preferring to steer for playable positions where their skills can shine.



Consider their game from the 2014 Sinquefield Cup in St. Louis, a tournament Caruana won with a historically dominating 81/2-11/2 score, three full points ahead of Carlsen in second place. Caruana got the better of his Norwegian rival in a wild, fighting game that does credit to both combatants.

In a Bishop’s Opening (another rare sight in elite competition), White’s ambitious 14. fxg3 Nc5!? (walking into the coming sacrifice, after which Black faces a blistering attack) 15. Bxf7+ Kxf7 (Qxf7? 16. Nxe5 Qe6 17. Qh5+ Ke7 18. Ng6+ wins) 16. Nxe5+ Kg8 (it’s already treacherous — 16. Ke6?? [Ke8 17. Qh5+ Kd8 128. Nf7+] 17. Qg4+ Kd6 [Kxe5 18. Nc4 mate] 18. Nec4 mate) 17. Ng6 creates complications that are debated to this day. Black (barely) survives the swarming White attack, in a tactical scrum of the highest order in which both sides could have deviated.

Caruana’s doggedness pays off on 30. e7 Qh5+ 31. Nh2? (losing; 31. Qh2 was the only hope, though by now Black will still be better after 31 … Qe8 32. g4 Rd7 33. g5 Rxe7 34. gxh6 gxh6 35. Rf1 Qg6) Rd1+! 32. Rxd1 Qxd1+ 33. Nf1 Qxf1+ 34. Kh2 Qg1+, and Carlsen resigned as 35. Kg3 Qe3+ 36. Kg4 h5+ 37. Kxh5 Qe2+ 38. Kh4 Qxe7+, picking off the advanced White pawn and leaving Black a piece up.

The two rivals found themselves paired again just last week in the first round of the Grenke Chess Classic in the German city of Karlsruhe, with Carlsen this time just missing a win. We pick things up from the diagram, where Caruana as White is fighting for a draw having just played 54. Rc4-c8.

Now a clutch of computers and galaxy of grandmasters were able to determine that the unexpected 54 … Rh7!!, holding up the White pawns and preparing to push the Black a-pawn, was the path to victory; e.g. 55. Rb8+ Ka2 56. Rc8 a5 57. Kxd3 Kb1! 58. Rb8+ Kc1 59. Rc8 Kd1 wins, or 55. Kxd3 Rd7+ 56. Ke4 a5! 57. h6 a4 58. g5 a3 59. g6 Rd8! 60. Rxc2 Kxc2 61. g7 a2 62. h7 a1=Q 63. g8=Q Qa8+ and wins.

Instead after the game’s 54 … a5? 55. h6 Re2+ 56. Kxd3 Rh2 57. g5 Rh3+ 58. Kd2 Rh2+ 59. Kd3, the two players agreed to a hard-fought draw.

The implacable, battle-tested Carlsen rates as a slight favorite in November, but Caruana says he welcomes the challenge, telling Chess.com he rates his odds at “about 50-50.”

“If I come well prepared, and I assume he will come well prepared as well, then it’s going to be very close. … It will really come down to if I can play at my highest level. If I can, then I think that my chances to beat him are fully within reach.”

Carlsen-Caruana, Sinquefield Cup, August 2014

1. e4 e5 2. Bc4 Nf6 3. d3 c6 4. Nf3 d5 5. Bb3 Bb4+ 6. c3 Bd6 7. Bg5 dxe4 8. dxe4 h6 9. Bh4 Qe7 10. Nbd2 Nbd7 11. Bg3 Bc7 12. O-O Nh5 13. h3 Nxg3 14. fxg3 Nc5 15. Bxf7+ Kxf7 16. Nxe5+ Kg8 17. Ng6 Qg5 18. Rf8+ Kh7 19. Nxh8 Bg4 20. Qf1 Nd3 21. Qxd3 Rxf8 22. hxg4 Qxg4 23. Nf3 Qxg3 24. e5+ Kxh8 25. e6 Bb6+ 26. Kh1 Qg4 27. Qd6 Rd8 28. Qe5 Rd5 29. Qb8+ Kh7 30. e7 Qh5+ 31. Nh2 Rd1+ 32. Rxd1 Qxd1+ 33. Nf1 Qxf1+ 34. Kh2 Qg1+ White resigns

David R. Sands can be reached at 202/636-3178 or by email [email protected].

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