World Championship challenger Fabiano Caruana achieved a big advantage against Magnus Carlsen in today’s Game 8 of the World Championship, both on the board and the clock. However, in a position that needed active precision in order to keep the initiative Caruana faltered, playing a quiet move at the wrong moment and giving Carlsen a key tempo to consolidate his position. After that the game steadily petered out into an equal endgame and the game was agreed drawn; the match remains tied at 4-4 with four games to go.
The start of game 8, with AlphaZero creator Demis Hassabis in attendance. (Photo: Eric Rosen)
To the pleasure of everyone watching, Caruana finally deviated from the Rossolimo Variation (1.e4 c5 2.Nf3 Nc6 3.Bb5) in favor of the sharper Open Sicilian with 3.d4, finally forcing Magnus to show his hand. As expected by most analysts, Carlsen went with the Sveshnikov Sicilian, which has retained a solid reputation after being used with success by Boris Gelfand in the 2012 World Championship match against Viswanathan Anand.
Norwegian Grandmaster Johan Salomon broke down why he felt the Sveshnikov Sicilian was the most likely choice from Team Magnus in case of 3.d4:
He will almost certainly go for for the sveshnikov. If his plan was to play the classical siclian, why not play 2. d6 and taimanov 2. e6 to avoid the rossolimo.
Caruana chose a trendy sideline and was able to reach a dynamic middlegame with play on opposite sides of the board to the delight of fans, commentators, and the media. It’s unclear where Magnus left his preparation in the line, but the first key moment happened on Black’s 18th move:
Here Magnus spent some time and eventually banged out 18…g5!?, after which a collective gasp was felt in the spectator room (I know, I was there!). Blood was now likely to be spilled. Fabi did not seem surprised by the move and continued along his plan with 19.c4, followed by 19…f4 20.Bc3. Then after 20…Bf5, Caruana spent 33 minutes thinking about his next move in the following position:
While Fabiano was thinking on his 21st move, the commentators and fans were all clued in – 21.c5! was a crusher—thematic from a human’s point of view, and given a fat evaluation upwards of ‘+2’ by Norweigian super-computer Sesse, which deeply analyzes all of Magnus’s games live. The main idea is that Black’s stronghold on d6 is torn apart, opening up lines for White’s pieces to eventually target Black’s weakened king.
While spectators and the press debated about whether Caruana would ‘find’ c5, Anish Giri speculated on what could have gone wrong for Carlsen in the middlegame to reach this position:
Probably Team Carlsen file says something like 18…f4 19.Ra4 g5. 18…g5 is a red one. That's modern chess for you. #CarlsenCaruana
Eventually Fabi did play 21.c5, and while the chess world started getting ready to crown a new champion, he slipped up a few moves later, gifting a tempo that gave Carlsen the chance to equalize. Magnus took that slip and never looked back, drawing the game after 38 moves of play.
Well, check out the full details in my annotations here:
After the game, Caruana was open about his thoughts: “Some minor disappointment because I thought at some point I had a very promising position, but I didn’t quite see at exactly which moment I had something very good. I mean I assumed there were more dangerous options along the way.”
A somewhat-shaken Magnus agreed with Caruana’s assessment, and said “A bit of relief obviously since this was a tough game and he was the one who had all the chances. Yeah I’m happy to have survived it for sure.”
The World Champion was fully concious of the bullet he dodged today. (Photo: Eric Rosen)
To Fabiano’s credit, he did not seemed too fazed about spoiling the opportunity, explaining that holding a big advantage doesn’t always work out and is rarely simple to convert.
Not yet aware of how big his winning chances were, Fabiano kept his cool in the press conference. (Photo: Eric Rosen)
GM Judit Polgar in the official commentary with IM Anna Rudolf summed it up nicely: “If you want to win a game, you have to play much sharper than this.”
Tomorrow, Tuesday, November 20 will be a rest day—the match resumes with Game 9 on Wednesday, November 21st. Whatever happens, it will surely lead to a thrilling finale. Four games to go!