For the first time since Bobby Fischer defeated Boris Spassky in 1972 an American is vying for the FIDE World Chess Championship. 26-year old Fabiano Caruana won the Candidate’s Tournament handily and is now deadlocked with 3-time reigning FIDE World Champion Magnus Carlsen of Norway with Game 6 underway as we go to press.
Caruana is actually the fourth American to ever play for the title. William Steinitz was World Champion from 1889-1894 before losing the title to Germany’s Emanuel Lasker, who held the title until 1921. Lasker defeated the only other American to challenge for the title, the great Frank Marshall, in 1907.
The players will alternate the white and black pieces over the course of 12 games, switching the order after today’s Game 6, meaning that Carlsen, who won the pre-tournament draw and elected to start as black, will play Games 6 and 7 as White. With a win worth one point and a draw worth 1/2, the first player to 6.5 wins. If they are tied after 12 games, they will play four speed games. Carlsen won such a playoff in defending his title in 2016 against Russia’s Sergei Karjakin. Players have two hours to complete 40 moves, and then get an additional 50 minutes for the next 30 moves. After that, they get an extra 30 seconds for every move they make. If a player runs out of time, they lose.
Chess enthusiasts have been non-plussed, even bored by the lack of fireworks in the play through the first five games. Game 1 was a 7-1/4 hour 115-move behemoth typical of Carlsen’s grinding style (to illustrate, he’s been over 36 minutes thinking his latest move while we write this article). Most experts agree he outplayed Caruana and had a good chance to become the first defending champion to win Game 1 as Black in 37 years, but couldn’t find a mating combination or otherwise breakthrough Caruana’s defense.
Perhaps the most interesting events have taken place away from the chess board. Carlsen is a strong soccer player and not only took in an English Premier League game, but schooled some locals in a pickup at the College in Holburn, the London venue hosting the games.
Meanwhile Caruana, who looks horrifyingly like “Pajama Boy” from those ghastly ObamaCare propaganda ads, saw his home base camp, the famous St. Louis Chess Club, inadvertently post a video to YouTube of not only his preparation, but the identities of his “seconds” the Grandmasters with whom he is preparing.
Shocker: chess nerds can’t figure out social media.
The gaffe seems genuine and not some crafty bit of disinformation. The seconds are all experts at the openings Caruana is using – particularly the “Rossalini Variation” of the Sicilian Defense, which has been used three times already. Moreover today’s game seemed to follow the opening lines seen in the video.
Still, Caruana is doing particularly well. He survived a constrained position in Game 1 as white, then another potential gaffe in Game 5 when Carlson missed an opportunity mid-game to squeeze him.
As an aside, Carlsen demonstrated a remarkable sense of historical echo, opting to open “c4” – the English Opening in London – in Game 4. This was the same move Bobby Fischer used to befuddle Spassky in their pivotal Game 6 in 1972. Spassky lost 24 minutes thinking it over, since no one could ever recall Fischer opening a game that way before. But where Spassky chose his favorite defense (e6 leading to the Queen’s Gambit Declined Tartakower), Caruana instead replied e5, resulting in a reverse Sicilian position – a King’s pawn game instead of Queen’s pawn.
Caruana is doing well in another way – his record against Carlsen is 5-10 with a number of draws as well. Right now he’s dead even, so he’s ahead of his lifetime record’s trend, and at the best possible time.
The best place to follow the matches is the Guardian. They have the games and commentary almost up to the minute.
NEWS, NOTES, AND QUOTES
Interviewer: Who is your favorite player?
Caruana: Bobby Fischer
Carlsen: Oh, me, from about four years ago…