Magnus Carlsen is the once and future king of chess.
Wednesday, Carlsen, 27, defended the title he first won in 2013 by beating Fabiano Caruana, 26, in a series of rapid games to break a tie in their match in London.
Though Carlsen had struggled during the regulation portion of their match (all 12 games were drawn, which was a record), he manhandled Caruana in the tie-breaker games, winning all three, thereby making the last in the best-of-four series unnecessary.
In Game 1, in which Carlsen had White, he opened with the English and then took advantage of a slightly dubious opening setup by Caruana to break up Caruana’s pawns and tie up his pieces in the middle game.
Caruana was able to survive to a rook-and-pawn ending in which he was down a pawn, but his rook was active. Often that he enough to draw, but Caruana erred, allowing Carlsen to obtain a pair of connected passed pawns. After that, the result was not really in doubt and Caruana eventually resigned.
In Game 2, Caruana, as he has throughout the match started with 1 e4. Carlsen replied with 1 … c5, the Sicilian Defense, as had in every other game in which he had Black. The players followed the same path as in Game 12 in regulation before Carlsen varied with 11 … Qb8.
After 14 … a5, Caruana, who certainly was already feeling the pressure to win, inexplicably began playing passively, retreating his queen to b3 and then to d1.
He reversed strategy by lashing out with 21 … c5, but the idea was not entirely sound. After 25 … e4, Caruana was already in trouble as Carlsen was threatening to play Ne5 and then Nd3, winning material.
Caruana should have played 26 Bd4, instead he obviously miscalculated and played 26 c7. He then compounded his error several moves later with 28 Nd5, a terrible blunder, after which he had to lose at least a rook. He resigned immediately.
Needing only a draw in Game 3, and once again having White, Carlsen chose 1 e4. Caruana, who has had great success with the Petroff, or Russian, Defense this year, instead chose the Sicilian Defense as the Petroff usually leads to drawish positions, and Caruana had to win to stay alive in the match.
Carlsen obtained a Maroczy Bind (a configuration with pawns on c4 and e4 that controls a great deal of space in the center), but Caruana was still able to find room to maneuver. Though Carlsen needed only a draw, he began to take risks and to push his pawns on the kingside. That kept the game interesting, and kept alive Caruana’s slim chances to stay in the match.
The game remained balanced for a long time as the players traded pieces and approached the endgame. Chances were roughly equal, with each player having connected passed pawns – Carlsen on the queenside and Caruana on the kingside.
Caruana began to err, however, neglecting his pawns while Carlsen managed to advance his. Soon, Carlsen had an overwhelming advantage and promoted a pawn to a queen. Caruana resigned in a hopeless position.
The results of the tie-breaker games confirmed the strategy of Carlsen, who was roundly criticized for offering a draw in Game 12 on Monday, when he had a distinct advantage. Though he did not say so explicitly at the time, doubtless part of his calculus was that he is a better rapid player than Caruana. Carlsen is ranked No. 1 in the world at that speed and won the World Rapid Championship in 2014 and 2015. Caruana is currently ranked No. 10.
The match had a prize fund of a million euros (about $1.1 million), with 55 percent going to Carlsen for winning and 45 percent to Caruana.
The match was organized under the auspices of the World Chess Federation, or FIDE, the game’s governing body, and World Chess, the official organizer of the World Championship cycle.
The match’s sponsors included PhosAgro, a giant, Russian-based international fertilizer company; Kaspersky Lab, one of the world’s top information security companies; S.T. Dupont, a leading French luxury goods manufacturer; Prytek, a Russian venture capital company specializing in technology and financial services; and Unibet, an online gambling operator that operates in more than 100 countries.
The venue for the event was in central London at The College in Holborn, an historic, Victorian-style building.
Though Caruana cannot be happy with the result, or with what happened in the tie-breaker rapid games, over all he acquitted himself well. He went toe-to-toe with Carlsen and had him on the ropes in a couple of games. He is 18 months younger than Carlsen and has established himself as, if not Carlsen’s principal rival, at least one who has as good a chance as any to beat him and capture the title.
Caruana will be seeded into the next Candidates match in 2020 to select a challenger for Carlsen, and he has been the player most consistently nipping at Carlsen’s heels in the world rankings in recent years, so he is probably the early favorite to be playing for the World Championship in two years.
Carlsen reaffirmed his place at the top of the chess world and guaranteed that he will be the champion at least through 2020, when the next title match will be held, but he cannot be totally pleased with his performance. He is no longer as dominant as he was a few years ago, something he ruefully acknowledged in one of the press conferences during the match when he was asked who his favorite player from a previous era was and replied that it was himself four years ago. In the current match, flaws that did not exist a few years ago were exposed – something that will hearten all his potential rivals. And they will be coming for him.
As Shakespeare wrote in Henry IV, Part II, “Uneasy lies the head that wears a crown.”