Eventually, the expected happened in an extended battle. In the clash involving the two highest-rated chess players of our times, fighting for the world title, Magnus Carlsen kept his crown by stopping Fabiano Caruana.
In London, they played 12 drawn games in the classical time format before Carlsen proved his superiority by emerging a rampaging 3-0 winner in the best-of-four rapid tiebreak games. In all, the duo played 773 moves spread across 15 games in 20 days. A fourth world title brought Carlsen €550,000. Caruana, the gallant challenger, received €450,000.
For the first time in the 132-year history of world championship chess matches, draws monopolised the proceedings. There were chances of breaking the deadlock, like Carlsen had in the first and 12th games. But it was destined to finish in tiebreak games.
The manner of rapid games deciding the classical world title is much like, in cricket, the World Test Championship title going to a nation that wins the tiebreak T20 match!
The match brought out the extensive preparation of the duo, separated by just three points in their classical ratings. Carlsen, the world champion since dethroning Viswanathan Anand in 2013 and world No. 1 for the last eight years, is rated 2,835 to Caruana’s 2,832!
Not since the epic 1972 clash involving the American genius Bobby Fischer and the Soviet Union’s Boris Spassky had the title match evoked such interest across the world. Online viewership kept growing, social media was abuzz with speculation and overall, in spite of the continued deadlock, the clash kept chess lovers involved.
Carlsen, criticised by former champions Garry Kasparov and Vladimir Kramnik for offering a draw in a promising position in the 12th game to take the match into the faster time format in which the Norwegian is the top-ranked player, was extremely pleased with the hard-earned win.
“I felt like I had a very good day at work. Everything went perfectly,” was how Carlsen described his feelings after the “rapid” destruction of Caruana in the tiebreaker. Talking about the draw offer he made in the 12th game, the smiling champion said: “I think I made the right decision, and not solely based on the result. As for the opinions of Garry and Vlad, they are entitled to their stupid opinions.”
The pace was set following a marathon 115-move draw during which Carlsen appeared to hold a great chance of converting his advantage to an opening victory, but missed the precise continuation.
As five-time world title-holder Anand, also the reigning world rapid champion, observed, “It is very strange that Magnus did not win this position. It was one of the big misses of the match. What was strange is that Magnus’ play until that point had been exemplary. Everyone praised him. Before cashing in, he would have slowly improved his position. I would put a caveat in this situation: It is easy to sit at home and say this is how you should have done. God knows I have spoilt many winning positions as well. It is not my aim to make light of this. But it’s a missed opportunity. There is no way going around this.”
Caruana gave a fine account of himself and his preparation throughout the competition. He matched the champion in all the games and defended well whenever it was needed to. He had half-chances a couple of times, but nothing concrete to suggest that Carlsen was lucky to survive.
Regretting not converting some promising positions, Caruana was gracious in defeat and acknowledged Carlsen as the better man when it mattered. After the loss, he said, “I was hoping to play my best chess today, but I didn’t even come close.”
Unlike Carlsen’s previous triumphs, twice against Anand before stopping Russia’s Sergey Karjakin, this clash kept the champion on tenterhooks. In keeping with the fact that the two best players in the world clashed, the series of drawn games was not entirely surprising. Sparks did fly at times, but overall most games saw theoretical debates in rather dull, positional warfare.
Eventually, when it came to the business end, it was Carlsen who never stopped punching. The next challenger will be decided in 2019 and that means Carlsen’s lease on the world title stands extended at least till late 2020.
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