America’s top player faces reigning champ in World Chess Championship
With his last chance to command the white pieces in a regulation game in the World Chess Championship, defending champion Magnus Carlsen was unable to drum up any attacking chances. Game 11 — like the 10 that preceded it — ended in a draw. Carlsen’s challenger, Fabiano Caruana, defended admirably and the two are tied 5.5-5.5 with one regulation game to go.
Saturday’s game began with the Petroff Defense, Caruana’s favorite opening with the black pieces. Not surprisingly, this was familiar mental territory for the No. 1 and No. 2 players in the world. Within 90 seconds, they’d blitzed out their first 10 moves, arriving at the position below.
This specific choice of opening was interesting for two reasons. One, Sergey Karjakin, the 2016 championship challenger, won a game with the white pieces from this exact position in 2016, against the elite Indian grandmaster Pentala Harikrishna. Two, the infamous deleted video that appeared to show secret aspects of Caruana’s pre-match preparation once again reared its head. That video showed a laptop screen with a variation of the Petroff that included the move “9…Nf6.” And indeed, on his ninth move, Caruana moved his knight to the f6 square.
But little else was interesting on Saturday. That “leaked” variation led to nothing sharp from either player and the secretive preparation unleashed no interesting secrets.
Karjakin happened to be in attendance at the venue in London on Saturday, and he provided some early commentary for the viewers that has also become the mantric chant of this match: “It looks very drawish,” he said. He was right. The queens came off the board by the 14th move. Only a pair of bishops and some pawns remained by the 26th. Thirty fruitless moves later, Carlsen and Caruana shook hands.
This is what an uneventful world championship draw looks like at high speeds. Come for the Petroff, stay for the bishop dance.
“Not much really happened today,” Caruana said after the game, to a bit of uncomfortable laughter from the crowd.
While Caruana may have very briefly felt some unpleasantness in the middlegame, “he may suffer successfully,” said Sam Shankland, the U.S. national champion, on a Chess.com broadcast. (To suffer successfully — what a lovely idea.) And indeed Caruana did. Indeed we all have over these past two weeks. Here’s exactly how, according to the computer’s unblinking eye:
“Chess in its present form will die the death of the draw,” wrote Emanuel Lasker, a former world champion, nearly 100 years ago. Yet here we are! Draws “are ingrained in the fabric of the game, a part of chess theory and culture,” another former national champ, Joel Benjamin, wrote in 2006. “Grandmasters play the opening better and make fewer mistakes. Willpower alone cannot ensure a decisive result.”
There is an austere beauty in the equilibrium of draws that this match has reached: Two goliaths, pushing each other with all their might, yet moving nowhere. At any moment, though, the ground can shift.
The mounting draws bring both good and bad news for the American challenger. On one hand, Caruana has proved beyond a doubt his ability to hang with and even outplay Carlsen, perhaps the best player of all time, in lengthy games under the sport’s brightest lights. On the other, should the match remain tied after the final game, the two will move on to speedier tie-breaking games. I wrote about what those look like in 2016. Carlsen is rated No. 1 in the world in both speedy chess formats that will be used, and he is almost universally thought to be a heavy favorite in the tiebreaker.
The match rests tomorrow. Game 12 — the final game of regulation and in which Caruana will have the white pieces — begins Monday at 10 a.m. Eastern. The tie-breaking games, if necessary, will happen on Wednesday. I’ll be covering it all here and on Twitter.
CORRECTION (Nov. 26, 2018, 9:51 a.m.): A previous version of this article incorrectly listed when potential tie-breaking games would occur. They would happen on Wednesday, not Tuesday as listed on the match organizer’s website.