It was 55 degrees and lightly raining in London, just as I imagine it always is, as the grandmasters Magnus Carlsen of Norway and Fabiano Caruana of the United States sat down to begin playing for the 2018 World Chess Championship. The gray meteorology belied the volcanic and lengthy chess on Day 1 of the World Chess Championship. Over seven hours and 115 moves, the players fought a fiery and oscillating battle to open the match, which will likely stretch to the end of the month. The American was lucky to emerge, largely unscathed, with a draw.
The players’ venue is in central London, in a place called The College, about a 15-minute walk north of the Thames. Carlsen, 27, and Caruana, 26, are ranked No. 1 and No. 2 in the world, respectively. Carlsen is the three-time defending world champion. Caruana is vying for the first American title since Bobby Fischer beat Boris Spassky in 1972.
Following a drawing of lots, Carlsen chose to begin the best-of-12-game match on defense with the black pieces. Wins here are worth 1 point, draws a half-point for each, and losses zero points. If the 12th game ends with each player having 6 points, a series of tiebreaker games will ensue. And that’s exactly what happened at the last world championship, in 2016, when Carlsen edged out Sergey Karjakin of Russia. There may still be a lot of chess left.
But there was a lot of chess Friday, too. Carlsen began with the combative Sicilian Defence, and the two entered into something called its Rossolimo Variation. Carlsen was likely pleased — he had beaten Caruana in this very variation in an attacking game in 2015.
After move 9, Caruana went into what the official match broadcast called the first “deep think” of the match, and the game ground to a near-halt as the position ventured into uncharted territory. By Caruana’s 11th move, a board like this had never been seen before at the game’s high levels, according to ChessBase’s database.
Carlsen donned a puffy jacket. Caruana removed his blazer.
Time soon became an issue. The players each get 100 minutes for their first 40 moves, with 30 bonus seconds after each move. After that, they get 50 minutes for the next 20 moves and 15 minutes for any moves after that. Nevertheless, while contemplating his 22nd move, Caruana’s clock ticked down to less than 10 minutes. Carlsen, across the board, moved quickly. With his 25th move, Caruana’s clock had dropped to six minutes. On his 32nd move, less than two minutes. On his 34th move, 6 seconds. If his clock had hit zero, he would have forfeited the game instantly.
Forestalling the end, Caruana fought for his life in the lower right corner of the board. The time pressure — and the pressure from the powerful pieces controlled by the best player in the world — were obviously too much to handle. It was over, and the players would surely head to an early dinner. The computer engines and the chess cognoscenti assessed Carlsen’s position as “surely winning” and Caruana’s as “sad.”
Carlsen’s troops were standing over Caruana’s king, ready to kill and take a devastating early lead in the championship.
But black slipped. The Norwegian champ captured a juicy-looking pawn he oughtn’t have, giving the American a chance to scurry to safety with seconds to spare. You can see what happened below. Carlsen, playing black, captured the pawn on c3 with his bishop. The better move, according to a chess engine whirring on my laptop, would have been to venture deep into the American’s territory, moving the black queen to g1. Carlsen’s advantage, according to the computer, dropped from roughly three pawns to roughly nothing.
By the 43rd move, the two grandmasters had traded queens, clearing the board significantly, and they entered an intricate endgame that stretched on — for hours.
The rooks and kings traveled around for what seemed like an eternity. But the lava that had flowed over the game earlier in the day had finally cooled — and finally (finally!) hardened into a draw. Here’s the whole dang thing, compressed into less than a minute:
Despite the draw, Robert Hess, an American grandmaster, called it a “dominant start for Magnus.”
The championship is level at a half-point each in this race to 6.5. We’ll keep the chart below updated throughout the match.
Game 2 begins tomorrow at 3 p.m. Greenwich Mean Time — that’s 10 a.m. Eastern. I’ll be covering it here and on Twitter.