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It Was Finally Fabiano Caruana’s Turn To Survive At The World Chess Championship

Magnus Carlsen got a black eye before Game 9 of the World Chess Championship. But it didn’t hinder his vision of the board as Wednesday’s play began.

For the first time in nearly two weeks of play, Carlsen, the defending champion, was able to successfully command the white pieces to an attacking advantage. Throughout much of Game 9, Carlsen outdueled his challenger, Fabiano Caruana. Caruana, the world No. 2, appeared to reel at points, and his allocated time melted off his clock as he pondered his defense.

But Carlsen’s advantage melted, too. The game was drawn after 56 moves over 3.5 hours of play. It was the ninth consecutive draw and the best-of-12 match sits level at 4.5-4.5.

Before the game Wednesday, the list of colorful stories orbiting the match ballooned to two. First came the infamous deleted YouTube video appearing to show elements of Caruana’s pre-match strategic preparation. Now we had the black eye.

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The match is heating up

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NRK, the Norwegian broadcaster, reported that Carlsen collided — excuse me, “kolliderte” — with one of its own journalists while playing soccer on Tuesday, a rest day from the chess. Questions were raised about Carlsen’s mental soundness — a grandmaster should do nothing but grandmastering, apparently. Per Google’s translation of NRK, he was reportedly “dumbfounded” after the crash. “If he has to use pain relief, there may be a potential problem,” NRK wrote.

But those neurological questions seemed quickly answered at the board and Carlsen said he felt no pain while playing.

The first eight moves on Wednesday exactly matched the first eight from Game 4 — their name sounds like something out of Tolkien, an English opening that became a Reverse Dragon. But the game took a radical and aggressive turn on move 9, when Carlsen scrambled his bishop to the g5 square, into enemy territory and with its mitre directly pointed at Caruana’s queen.

This specific position has only ever materialized on a tournament chessboard once before, according to the ChessBase database, in an otherwise uncelebrated game in 2008 between two Croatian non-grandmasters. (Though black won that one.) The attack was on, and Caruana contributed with a misstep on his 17th move, capturing a knight in Carlsen’s territory that he oughtn’t have. That capture sparked a series of moves that eventually allowed Carlsen’s bishop to escape, flying across the board to capture the black pawn on b7.

As deep into the game as the 18th move, Carlsen hadn’t spent more than a minute on any one move and quickly opened up a 40-minute advantage on the clock. One knock against the champ in this match has been his apparently lackadaisical preparation. But he was solidly prepared for his aggressive line on Wednesday, sailing through his moves. Caruana, meanwhile, took 9 minutes to make his 12th move, 21 minutes on his 13th, 8 on his 14th and 13 on his 17th.

The fruits of the Norwegian’s preparation appeared to be a comfortable position: Either he would win or he would draw. Before Carlsen’s 24th move, the position looked like this.

“I think there are some long-term dangers here for black,” said Hikaru Nakamura, a top American grandmaster commentating for Chess.com. Carlsen’s white bishop, for example, was far more active than Caruana’s. “If Caruana doesn’t find the right moves, he will lose.”

It appeared to all the world that the Norwegian chess superstar would finally make real progress in the match, and indeed that a victory in the moves to come would effectively decide the match — and the world title — itself. “There are certain types of positions where Magnus is stronger than a computer,” said Anish Giri, the world No. 5, on a chess24 broadcast.

It’s an evocative claim, but it was not true on Wednesday. Carlsen may have rushed his attack on move 25, shortly after the position above. He pushed his pawn up the flank on the edge of the board, to h4 and toward Caruana’s king. He then pushed it again, to h5. It may have been a square too far, or at least too soon. (The computer engine Stockfish preferred involving that active white bishop instead.)

“He’s just not playing his best chess,” added Peter Svidler, the world No. 19, on that very same broadcast. The position simplified dramatically and the two shook hands — which they must be getting very good at — after 56 moves.

Ah, chess is cruel. Here’s a chart to quantify that cruelty — and we’ll keep it updated throughout the rest of the match. There are three regular games left, and speedier tiebreaker games will follow on Nov. 27, if necessary.

This match has been different for Carlsen than his 2016 World Chess Championship encounter against Russian challenger Sergey Karjakin, which began with seven consecutive draws. Many of those found Karjakin on the backfoot, escaping like Houdini from the shackles of the world champion. Caruana, however, has rarely been in real trouble until Wednesday, and this year Carlsen has been forced to play the part of escape artist.

Carlsen would, however, be an enormous favorite should the tiebreakers become necessary.

“I’m really not thinking about the tiebreak now,” Caruana said after the game. “I really don’t agree with most people about my chances in the tiebreak.”

Game 10 begins Thursday at 3 p.m. Greenwich Mean Time — that’s 10 a.m. Eastern. But that’s also Thanksgiving. As a result, our next dispatch will come on Friday. Chess waits for no turkey, but FiveThirtyEight does. I’ll be covering the rest of the match here and on Twitter.

Oliver Roeder is a senior writer for FiveThirtyEight.

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