Simutowe reflects on 2018 World Championship… format

When I was at the Olympiad in Batumi, Georgia, GM Amon Simutowe was part of many conversations about the future of African chess, particularly Zambia. While the country seeks to raise another GM, the comparisons with the Zambian Grandmaster are unavoidable. He is indeed an iconic figure on the landscape of Pan-African chess and history will be generous in that regard.

Amon Simutowe and Daaim Shabazz at 2016 World Chess Championship in New York.
Amon Simutowe and Daaim Shabazz
at 2016 World Chess Championship in New York.

Simutowe is based in New York and has been occasionally spotted around New York chess scenes. Last month, he followed the World Chess Championship between Magnus Carlsen and Fabiano Caruana encounter and annotated games for The Chess Drum. (click on games in table below)

While the match ended a month ago, the memories are still fresh. One of the burning issues that is still raging in the match format to diminish the incidence of draws. There were 12 straight draws in the match despite both sides having a chance to score.

2018 World Chess Championship
Holborn, London, England (November 9th-28th)
USANorwayUSANorwayUSANorway

Magnus Carlsen (Norway) vs. Fabiano Caruana (USA)
 
pts.
Carlsen
6
Caruana
6

Tiebreaks
 
1
2
3
4
pts.
Carlsen
1
1
1
3
Caruana
0
0
0
0
Official Site: https://worldchess.com/

Reflections on CARUANA vs. CARLSEN

GM Amon Simutowe (Zambia)

The global chess community was treated to the highly-anticipated Carlsen–Caruana championship match. I have summarized my thoughts about the match setup and what I think went right and wrong for both players as well as my opinion about the tiebreaks. It’s quite impossible to capture all the elements as so many unobservable factors were also in play, but I believe I have captured the significant issues.


GM Amon Simutowe
Photo by Fred Lucas

Match Set up

As I stated at the beginning of the match, I think the matches should be 14 or 16 games. My preference is 14 games as I fear a 16-game match may take a toll on the players physically. After the match, Caruana indicated that he could have played as many as 16 games. His comment may suggest his preference for a longer match.

On average, I think the length of the match would not change the deserved result. But a 14-16 game match would incentivize more risk-taking and likely entertain the chess fans more. For instance, in a 14-16 game match, a player can lose a game 6 and still have several opportunities in the remaining 8-10 games to equalize. In a 12-game match, there is little incentive to take big risks beyond game 6 if the match is tied. Thus, the question is whether FIDE could consider increasing world championship matches by at least two games.

What went right for Carlsen

It’s hard to pinpoint everything which helped Carlsen win the match but a few below shed some light:

  • His main interest was to win and he decided not to worry much about choosing a method that may be more entertaining to average chess fans.
  • He stuck to his strategy of being cautious during the match. Perhaps this was justified since Caruana seemed very comfortable in very sharp variations.
  • He applied basic statistics. According to their Elo ratings, the difference in ability in classical chess between Carlsen and Caruana was insignificant. The difference in rapid chess was noticeable, so Carlsen banked his chances on winning in the rapid match and he demonstrated that.


Magnus Carlsen
Photo by David Llada

What went wrong for Carlsen

Nothing really went wrong for Carlsen since he won but a few issues still come to mind.

  • He did not win game 1 even though he should have won based on his talent level.
  • After game 3, he disappointed some chess fans as it became increasingly clear that he would play more cautious than they expected.
  • He should have played on in game 12 because he had a slight advantage. This could arguably be also what went right. Several chess experts criticized his decision to offer a draw. This was based on the assumption that Carlsen could only draw or win after he got an advantage. But he is human and it’s also possible that he could blunder. Another possibility is that he was not psychologically ready to keep fighting in that position – which should be another logical reason not to play on. Thus, if it was a robot with Carlsen’s strength, the best decision was to play on – but as a human with varying emotional states and effectiveness, Carlsen was likely right.

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

~Magnus Carlsen


What went right for Caruana

In terms of strategy, Caruana was on track. The mentioned factors is what I think would have pushed him above the line if he had won the match.

  • He did not lose the first game even though his position was in that situation. He settled well after he went unbeaten the first 5 games. I think it’s easier to withstand any psychological challenges if a player loses after he or she has settled into the match. He could have been in trouble if Carlsen pressed in game 12. But to be fair, Caruana also had advantages in at least 2 games and this should cancel out his escapes.
  • He was well prepared as he showed in the depth and breadth of his opening preparation especially with white pieces.
  • He became more of a threat to win the match as it progressed. I think that if it was a 16 game match and Carlsen kept repeating the Sicilian, Caruana would break through.
  • His games were quite impressive – he really played to win especially with white pieces and chess fans were very happy with him.


Fabiano Caruana
Photo by IM Eric Rosen

What went wrong for Caruana

I am not sure anything that went wrong in terms of Caruana’s chances to win was within his control. The following points suggest a few issues that likely negatively affected him.

  • In the first 12 games, nothing costly happened but he almost lost game 1. In game 12, he was still at a disadvantage but he could have likely drawn – albeit with a bit of struggle. So in practice, nothing observable was really wrong unless it mattered psychologically.
  • I suspect Caruana thought that Carlsen is better than him in rapid chess. Yes, the records state that but it’s another thing if he actually believes that.
  • I think even though he is very experienced and amazing (at least better than millions of other chess players not named Carlsen) he may have been affected psychologically. His results in the rapid match did not reflect his skill even taking into account that Carlsen was a favorite in the rapid game.

Tiebreak Rapid Match Games

I think there is not much point in analyzing the rapid games since the conditions lead to mistakes but a few comments especially on the key moments of the rapid match are still warranted.

Rapid Game 1

Carlsen prepared 3.g3 and 4.e4! These moves stood out to me. They look ordinary but it may not be easy for Caruana to choose continuations, especially at 2800+ where details really matter. Carlsen was able to create a middle game which made it difficult for Caruana to move. This mattered significantly because time constraints were a factor as well and we can assume that Carlsen was relatively more prepared. Carlsen’s endgame play was much more impressive than it may outwardly appear. Thus Caruana erred mainly because of the conditions he was operating under time constraints in a variation in which he was surprised.


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.

Rapid Game 2

Carlsen had a noticeable psychological advantage since he was now leading the match. I was quite impressed that Carlsen still repeated the Sicilian Sveshnikov. Even taking into account that Carlsen deviated from Game 12 by playing 11…Qb8, I still consider his decision to repeat the Sicilian Sveshnikov quite bold. I must admit I am not a fan of 11…Qb8 even though it is a normal theoretical move.

While 11…Qb8 is not a losing move, I consider it a bit of awkward but this was Carlsen playing it. He is capable of coming up with impressive ideas. The possible awkward aspect of the move may also not matter much in rapid games. Unfortunately, Caruana over-extended himself and lost. Positions arising such as 27…Ne5 are not representative of what should happen to a person of Caruana’s stature. It seems that he considered game 2 a must win situation even though he didn’t to but that’s still a subjective decision.

Rapid Game 3

In game 3, Caruana had added pressure to beat Carlsen with black pieces. With a 2-0 lead and needing only a draw with white pieces, Carlsen had a lot of pressure taken off. I would not blame Caruana’s loss in game 3 on technical aspects but the excess pressure to avoid draws. Caruana had to only find paths leading to wins while Carlsen had to choose moves that would lead to drawn or winning positions. The rapid match was certainly not representative of Caruana’s strength and it was an unfortunate way to finish the world chess championship – which most of the chess fans credibly thought he had a chance of winning after the match went past game 6.

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


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

Conclusion

I am not sure we should dwell on Caruana’s misfortune in the tiebreaks. He would have won the match in the first 12 games if he was relatively better prepared than Carlsen. My main concern was that Caruana might lose a game early in the match and get psychologically unsettled. Thus, I believe the match experience advantage Carlsen has compared to Caruana was somewhat neutralized after the match went to roughly game 5 without a decisive game.


GM Amon Simutowe

I had stated earlier that decisive games would be unlikely if we didn’t see one between game 5 and 9. To the credit of the players, some games after game 9 were still very dynamic. But as was demonstrated in the match, it’s difficult for a 2800-level player to drop a point even in unfavorable positions.

I also think that match was good for chess even though some of the chess experts thought otherwise. Some friends who don’t play chess seemed intrigued when they learned that the match had gone 12 games without a decisive game. I doubt their fascination would have been the same if the match had been decided by then.

It will be interesting if Caruana gets to challenge Carlsen again in 2020. If he doesn’t, I hope the next challenger will be as impressive as Caruana turned out to be.

Daaim Shabazz

Dr. Daaim Shabazz is the creator and webmaster of The Chess Drum. He serves as a tenured faculty member of Global Business & Marketing at Florida A&M University in Tallahassee, Florida, USA. He holds an MBA in Marketing and a doctorate in International Affairs & Development. He has served the journalist community for more than 30 years and still competes in tournaments occasionally.

2 Comments

  1. Indeed. Caruana had a clear “computeresque” win in game 6. One may believe (and Kasparov suggests) that no human can find such a move, but with options so limited, it seems possible. However, it is very difficult to know at what point one may have a clear win.

  2. Excellent overall analysis by GM Simutowe! Amon, hoping to see you in Jamaica next year for the 50th anniversary celebration of the Jamaica Chess Federation.

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