Carlsen wins 3-0 in tiebreaks over Caruana… retains title!

2018 World Chess Championship
Holborn, London, England (November 9th-28th)
Magnus Carlsen (Norway) vs. Fabiano Caruana (USA)
Match Score: 9-6 (6-6, 3-0)
Magnus Carlsen, World Champion

2018 World Chess Championship: TIEBREAKS
Wednesday, 28 November 2018

Magnus Carlsen retains world title!

Chess fans and commentators were still buzzing from the 12th game of the World Chess Championship. Social media was tossing around thousands of comments on whether Magnus Carlsen, the reigning champion, had “punked out” and went for the rapid instead of pressing for a win. With critics asserting that such a win would cheapen the victory, Carlsen later stated that he felt it was the best strategic decision to make. He was right.

“Based on the information I had at that point,
I think I made a very good decision.”

~Magnus Carlsen

Coming into the tiebreaks, Carlsen was a definite favorite. It was not just the rating difference is rapid, but he at least deserved that status as the reigning champion. However, he looked vulnerable during the 12 classic games and he was out-prepared in a number of games and at least two of them he was completely losing. One required a computeresque finesse which neither spotted.

Speaking of computers, ran an experiment on the final position of game 12 and it turns out that Caruana could hold the position together with alert play. The controversial finale lead to the four-game rapid.

Game 1

Carlsen trotted out the English Opening again and faced the interesting 3…Bb4!? instead of the Reversed Sicilian Dragon he got in games 4 and 9. This has been a Sicilian theme tournament that prominently featured the Rossolimo, Sveshnikov and Taimanov. This game ended up like a Reversed Rossolimo! However, Caruana never quite equalized.

The engines gave white a slight edge, but Caruana started to slip with 18…Nd6 and on 19.Rcd1 white initiated a series of tactics to gain an edge. A middlegame melee broke out and after 20.Nc5 Rxb2 21.Nxe6 fxe6 22.Bxc4 Nd4 23.Bxd4 exd4 white played 24.Bxe6+?! (diagram left below)

On 24.Bxe6?! Carlsen let his advantage slip after 24…Kf8 25.Rxd4 Ke7 26.Rxd7+. Caruana eventually misplayed the rook ending and went down in defeat. However, Carlsen should play 24.Rxd4! After 24…Kf7 he had the stunning 25.Kh1!! (diagram #2) This avoids the trap of 25.Red1? where black saves the game with 25…Ne5! If 26.Rxd8 then 26…Nxf3+ 27.Kf1 (27.Kh1?? Rh2 mate!) 27…Nxh2+ 28.Kg1 Nf3+ etc.

After 24.Bxe6+ Caruana’s active rook and passed c-pawn were poised to be the saving grace, but he allowed the white king off the back rank after 34…Rc3? Even then, the game was still salvageable! On 37.Rc7! black should play 37…Ra2+ and continue to harass the king. However, on 37…Kxe4? white plays the intermezzo 38.Re7+! preventing the black king from getting to f3-square. Carlsen mopped up the remaining black pawns and we’d see our first win of the match!

After this, the Norwegian gave a victorious fist pump.

Game 2

Another Sveshnikov following game 12 up to the more common 11…Qb8. In that aforementioned game, Carlsen went for 11…Bf5 and got a strong position, but certainly Caruana had done some homework. It appeared that Caruana had got the more preferable position.

Commentators were convinced white had found a path to success, but after 21.c5? white had become overzealous and threw away the advantage. Instead of tucking the king away, white had to save the c-pawn, but black’s raging pieces soon caught the white king in a dangerous crossfire. Caruana had to resign on move 28. Crushing defeat!

Game 3

Down two games, Caruana would have to win two in a row to save the match. This would be an insurmountable task since he had been unable to win a game despite getting promising positions. In the last game, Carlsen played 1.e4 continuing to keep Caruana off balance. This time it was a Sicilian Taimanov and Caruana opted for the speculative 5.Bc5!? White assumed a solid Maroczy Bind position while black opted for a modified hedgehog with the pawn on c5 instead of b6.

With the pawn on c5, the b5 thrust is not possible. So white felt emboldened to play 24.g4 and got a huge advantage. Caruana was in trouble with his position crumbling, he tried to find ways to swindle. It was not to be. In fact, white’s steamrolling pawns stopped any black counterplay and Carlsen closed out the 3rd game in impressive fashion.

The celebration had begun in Norway!

Magnus Carlsen hoisting aloft the champion’s trophy
Photo by World Chess

This match made several statements, but two of the most important are first, the gap has closed between Carlsen and the rest of the elite. The champion is still stronger, but he is not wielding the same dominance as he did four years ago. He was unable to win a classical game against Caruana and only one against Karjakin in the 2016 match. However, unless the format changes, other challengers will have to deal with Carlsen’s supremacy in the faster time controls where he is simply brutal.

As far as the marketability of chess, this match suffered because of the 12 draws. To those who either don’t follow chess or players who are unable to appreciate the nuance of elite-level play, it may not be exciting. This does matter. However, it is not a given that championship matches should sacrifice high-quality drawn games for exciting, error-filled decisive games. Where is the happy median? More games? An inclusion of disciplines (classical, rapid, blitz and 960)?

Chess certainly did not take a step backwards with Carlsen’s win, but something will have to be considered to ensure that classical matches maintain their prestige. Chess is not dead. We simply have to find a formula to enliven it. In fact, this match showed the tension, the thrill of victory and the agony of defeat. Chess is alive!

Photo by Maria Emelianova/; other media content courtesy of World Chess (

Closing Ceremonies

Video by World Chess


  1. Magnus is too strong in Rapid…

    although he is an amazing classical player, i would venture to say he is the greatest speed chess player of all time

    would you agree Daaim?

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