Carlsen Wins First World Cup, Caruana Officially Books Candidates Spot

The 2023 FIDE World Cup concluded August 24 in Baku, Azerbaijan as both the title and third-place matches were decided after a pair of rapid tiebreak games. Top-seeded GM Magnus Carlsen defeated 18-year-old Indian GM Praggnanandhaa Rameshbabu ("Pragg") 2½–1½ as GM Fabiano Caruana came back from losing his first classical game to Azerbaijani underdog GM Nijat Abasov to win 3–1.


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Congratulations to Carlsen! (courtesy Stev Bonhage/FIDE)


Generally speaking, "Top Seed Wins Tournament" is not the most newsworthy headline, especially when that top-seeded player is GM Magnus Carlsen. But due to the unique (read: chaotic) single-elimination short-match format of the World Cup (think: March Madness, but with 206 players instead of 68 teams), nothing is guaranteed.

Indeed, in his two previous World Cups, Carlsen finished third in 2021 (losing to eventual champion GM Jan-Krzysztof Duda in the semifinals) and being eliminated in the third round by GM Bu Xiangzhi in the round-of-32 back in 2017.

The top three finishers earned invitations to the 2024 Candidates Tournament held in April in Toronto, with Abasov on deck to earn an invitation if Carlsen indeed declines his invitation. As he has stated throughout the tournament, Carlsen has no intention of playing for a World Championship under the current classical-only format. Indeed, he expressed boredom and disinterest during the classical portions of several of his matches in this event, even opting for a quick draw in his second classical game against Pragg. 


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Pragg is in good company on the podium (courtesy Stev Bonhage/FIDE)


That said, Caruana presumably wanted to be in control of his own destiny rather than leave things up to chance (er...Magnus), making his third-place match a more high-stakes affair than it might have appeared on paper. 

In the first game, disaster struck for Caruana as Abasov unveiled a nice opening novelty in the Catalan. Caruana was unable to sense the criticality of his position, going for Abasov's weak d4-pawn before closing down his kingside with a well-timed ... f7-f5, and had to resign shortly thereafter.



In the second game, Caruana at least had the white pieces for his must-win game. Abasov interestingly chose to assist Caruana, playing a sharp Sicilian (apologies for the redundancy) despite only needing a draw. While Abasov made it to move 19 without using any of his time in game one, he started to think as early as move seven here, despite the position still being highly theoretical.


third place
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courtesy Stev Bonhage/FIDE


Now, it was Caruana's turn to show off his deep knowledge and prep, navigating the highly imbalanced opening with precision into a position where he was never in any danger. In the resulting Exchange-up position, Abasov would have needed perfect accuracy to hold a draw, but Caruana eventually wore him down. 



The playoff took a very different direction with each player seemingly trying to escape theoretical chess as quickly as possible, reaching a novel position in a sideline of the Trompowsky (again, this sounds redundant!) by move four. Caruana took the opportunity to shine as Black, dominating the game and showing how he has become a force in rapid chess over the past few years.



Abasov then had his own must-win game, but Caruana was able to control matters from the start in his favored Rossolimo Variation of the Sicilian, achieving a won position before Black could develop a piece!



The 3–1 come-from-behind victory was a nice exclamation mark on a strong performance from Caruana, guaranteeing his spot in the next Candidates. Presumably, Abasov and his impressive preparation will be there as well, unless Carlsen has a change of heart about playing classical chess.


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Congrats as well to Caruana on an impressive come-from-behind victory to clinch third place (courtesy Stev Bonhage/FIDE)


Speaking of classical chess, Carlsen's own match was primarily decided in the rapid portion. Admittedly, Carlsen said he was recovering from a bout of food poisoning, explaining in particular why his second game (as White) was clearly trying to force a tiebreak.


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courtesy Maria Emelianova/


But, in round one, Pragg had some interesting ideas in the English Opening, showing that he could certainly keep up with the highest rated player in the world.



In the first rapid game, Pragg switched to his preferred 1. e4, with Magnus choosing to enter into Pragg's Italian rather than test his Sicilian preparation. Pragg was prepared in an interesting sideline with 7. Be3, and the game became tense shortly thereafter. Carlsen baited Pragg into pushing a little too hard on the kingside, showing the power of experience in rapid chess, and had a slight advantage for most of the queenless middlegame. But Pragg managed to hold on nicely for quite some time, until impatience got the best of him.



After drawing the next game rather quickly, Carlsen was finally able to add a World Cup trophy to his collection. Pragg should, of course, be thrilled with a second-place finish and an invitation to the Candidates. Additionally, match experience against Carlsen should prove invaluable. 

Carlsen won $110,000 USD for his match, with Pragg banking a cool $80,000 for second. Caruana won $60,000 for third and Abasov $50,000 for fourth. The total prize fund was $1,834,000.