When Lighting Strikes Once: Winning vs. Caruana

Fischer v. Spassky. Kasparov v. Karpov. Caruana v. Finn. Some great rivalries are known to everyone in the chess world. Caruana-Finn is not, of course, one of them. As a 2169 FIDE rated expert, I am not in the same realm as the elite players listed above. One great thing about the small world of chess though, is that even an amateur such as myself can still find himself managing a professional chess team or sitting across the board from the current #3 in the world, fighting and praying for an upset. On March 4th at Ocean County College, I found myself in both of these situations.  My team the Montclair Sopranos had just defeated the Philadelphia Inventors the Wednesday before in the first week of the PRO Chess League playoffs. The following Wednesday we would battle the Montreal Chessbrahs – led by Fabiano Caruana. But first I would play Fabiano in a 35-person simul hosted by OCC and the Tom’s River Chess Club. It can be a bit intimidating sitting across the board from such an elite player. As one friend put it before the game, “you’re basically playing the Lebron James of chess.”  It may not be a perfect analogy but it gets the point across. Promising my PRO Chess team that I would sniff out Fabiano’s weaknesses before our big match, I have to admit that even I thought there was a medium to large sized chance that I would lose. Did my 3:3 lifetime tournament score against Fabiano give me confidence? Yes, but it would have been more reassuring if Fabiano had been older than eight years at the time. Important questions weighed heavily: if Fabiano becomes world champion, how annoying would it be if I lose my 50% record against him first? At what point should I stop bragging about chess wins against an 8 year old beginning his career? There were no easy answers. For whatever reason I decided that my game against a 2800+ rated player was the right time to try out the Tarrasch Defense for the first time over the board. Needless to say, it didn’t go well. Down a pawn with no compensation, I remembered the lecture Fabiano gave right before the simul. Showing his masterful 3rd round victory over World Champion Magnus Carlsen at the 2014 Singquefield Cup, which Fabiano won by a stunning three points, Fabiano reminded us in the audience that chess players make mistakes – even the best chess players.

[Event "Sinquefield Cup 2nd"]
[Site "Saint Louis"]
[Date "2014.08.29"]
[White "Carlsen, Magnus"]
[Black "Caruana, Fabiano"]
[Result "0-1"]
[ECO "C24"]
[WhiteElo "2877"]
[BlackElo "2801"]
[PlyCount "68"]
[EventDate "2014.08.27"]
[EventType "tourn"]
[EventRounds "10"]
[EventCountry "USA"]
[EventCategory "23"]
[Source "ChessBase"]
[SourceDate "2014.09.17"]

1. e4 e5 2. Bc4 Nf6 3. d3 c6 4. Nf3 d5 5. Bb3 Bb4+ 6. c3 Bd6 7. Bg5 dxe4 8.
dxe4 h6 9. Bh4 Qe7 10. Nbd2 Nbd7 11. Bg3 Bc7 12. O-O Nh5 13. h3 Nxg3 14. fxg3
Nc5 15. Bxf7+ Kxf7 16. Nxe5+ Kg8 17. Ng6 Qg5 18. Rf8+ Kh7 19. Nxh8 Bg4 20. Qf1
Nd3 21. Qxd3 Rxf8 22. hxg4 Qxg4 23. Nf3 Qxg3 24. e5+ Kxh8 25. e6 Bb6+ 26. Kh1
Qg4 27. Qd6 Rd8 28. Qe5 Rd5 29. Qb8+ Kh7 30. e7 Qh5+ 31. Nh2 Rd1+ 32. Rxd1
Qxd1+ 33. Nf1 Qxf1+ 34. Kh2 Qg1+ 0-1

On move 37 of our game, Fabiano made one such mistake himself. Luckily for my post-game sanity, I caught the mistake and had the pleasure of responding with a cute tactic. The game was immediately equalized, and I went on to win (despite missing an easier win on move 38) after Fabiano rejected a drawn continuation.  The shock still hasn’t worn off.

[Event "Ocean County College Simul"]
[Site "?"]
[Date "2017.03.04"]
[White "Caruana, Fabiano"]
[Black "Finn, Sean"]
[Result "0-1"]
[ECO "D34"]
[PlyCount "98"]
[EventDate "2017.??.??"]
[SourceDate "2017.03.08"]

1. d4 d5 2. c4 e6 3. Nc3 c5 4. Nf3 Nc6 5. cxd5 exd5 6. g3 Nf6 7. Bg2 Be7 8. O-O
O-O 9. dxc5 Bxc5 10. Bg5 Be6 11. Rc1 Be7 12. Nd4 Qd7 13. Nxc6 bxc6 14. Na4 Bh3
15. Bxh3 Qxh3 16. Bxf6 Bxf6 17. Rxc6 Rab8 18. b3 d4 19. Qd3 Rfe8 20. Rfc1 Re5
21. R1c5 Rbe8 22. Rxe5 Bxe5 23. Nc5 h5 24. Ne4 h4 25. Ng5 Qd7 26. Rc2 g6 27.
Nf3 Bf6 28. Rc4 h3 29. Kf1 Qb7 30. Ke1 Qa6 31. a4 Qa5+ 32. Kd1 Qd5 33. Kc1 Rd8
34. Kb2 a5 35. Ka2 Qd6 36. Ne1 Re8 37. e4 dxe3 38. fxe3 Qxd3 39. Nxd3 Rxe3 40.
Nf4 g5 41. Nxh3 Re2+ 42. Kb1 Rb2+ 43. Kc1 Rxh2 44. b4 axb4 45. Rxb4 Rxh3 46. g4
Rh2 47. Kb1 Rd2 48. a5 Rd4 49. Rb6 Kg7 0-1

With my win behind me, one question remained: was this a harbinger for things to come on Wednesday, or did I just incentivize the vengeance Fabiano promised as he was whisked away by the event organizer Steve Doyle? I knew that my team was counting on me for inside information, so I helped them prepare by suggesting that they misplay the Tarrasch and blunder a pawn.  Perhaps anticipating this obvious advice though, Fabiano shrewdly sidestepped such complications by playing 1. e4 in his game against GM Robert Hess, going on to win an aggressive attack in the Najdorf, and fending off a near miss against GM Pascal Charbonneau as black.

[Event "PRO League KO Stage 2017"]
[Site "chess.com INT"]
[Date "2017.03.08"]
[White "Caruana, Fabiano"]
[Black "Hess, Robert L"]
[Result "1-0"]
[ECO "B90"]
[WhiteElo "2817"]
[BlackElo "2571"]
[PlyCount "93"]
[EventDate "2017.03.01"]
[WhiteTeam "Montreal ChessBrahs"]
[BlackTeam "Montclair Sopranos"]

1. e4 c5 2. Nf3 d6 3. d4 cxd4 4. Nxd4 Nf6 5. Nc3 a6 6. f3 e5 7. Nb3 Nc6 8. Be3
Be6 9. Nd5 Bxd5 10. exd5 Nb4 11. c4 a5 12. Qd2 b6 13. Nc1 Be7 14. Ne2 O-O 15.
Nc3 Nd7 16. Be2 h6 17. O-O Nc5 18. Nb5 Bg5 19. Bxg5 hxg5 20. Bd1 Nba6 21. Bc2
Qf6 22. a3 Rfc8 23. b4 Nb7 24. Bd3 Qf4 25. Qe1 axb4 26. g3 Qf6 27. axb4 Qe7 28.
Qd2 Nc7 29. Nxc7 Qxc7 30. Qxg5 b5 31. Rxa8 Rxa8 32. Rc1 bxc4 33. Rxc4 Qb6+ 34.
Kg2 Ra2+ 35. Kh3 g6 36. Bxg6 Rxh2+ 37. Kg4 fxg6 38. Qxg6+ Kf8 39. Qf6+ Ke8 40.
Qe6+ Kf8 41. f4 Rh7 42. Qf6+ Ke8 43. fxe5 Rf7 44. Qg6 Kf8 45. e6 Rg7 46. e7+
Rxe7 47. Rf4+ 1-0


[Event "PRO League KO Stage 2017"]
[Site "chess.com INT"]
[Date "2017.03.08"]
[White "Charbonneau, Pascal"]
[Black "Caruana, Fabiano"]
[Result "0-1"]
[ECO "A21"]
[WhiteElo "2505"]
[BlackElo "2817"]
[PlyCount "110"]
[EventDate "2017.03.01"]
[WhiteTeam "Montclair Sopranos"]
[BlackTeam "Montreal ChessBrahs"]

1. c4 e5 2. Nc3 Bb4 3. Qc2 Nc6 4. e3 Nf6 5. a3 Bxc3 6. Qxc3 d5 7. cxd5 Qxd5 8.
b4 Be6 9. b5 Nd4 10. Bb2 O-O-O 11. Rc1 Rd7 12. exd4 exd4 13. Qc5 Qe4+ 14. Ne2
b6 15. Qb4 Re8 16. f3 Qh4+ 17. g3 Qh5 18. Kf2 Bd5 19. Bg2 Bb7 20. Nf4 Qh6 21.
Rhe1 Rxe1 22. Rxe1 g5 23. Bh3 gxf4 24. Bxd7+ Kxd7 25. Qxd4+ Nd5 26. Kg2 f6 27.
Qd3 fxg3 28. hxg3 Qg5 29. Qe4 Kd6 30. d4 Bc8 31. Bc1 Qg8 32. Bf4+ Kd7 33. Rh1
Kd8 34. Kf2 Nc3 35. Qc2 Nxb5 36. Rxh7 Bd7 37. Rh6 c6 38. d5 Qxd5 39. Kg2 Kc8
40. Rxf6 Nd4 41. Rf8+ Kb7 42. Qd3 c5 43. Rb8+ Kc6 44. Rf8 Bf5 45. Rf6+ Kb7 46.
Qe3 Qa2+ 47. Qf2 Bh3+ 48. Kg1 Qb1+ 49. Kh2 Be6 50. Rh6 Bd5 51. g4 Nxf3+ 52. Kg3
Nd4 53. Be5 Qd3+ 54. Kh4 Nf3+ 55. Kh5 Bf7+ 0-1

Those two wins were enough for the Chessbrahs to knock us out of the playoffs.  Although it was of course disappointing to lose, it was an exciting finish and we will definitely be back for the next PRO Chess League season. For the moment I am grateful to compete in a game where even someone like me can play and occasionally beat Lebron James. Follow the remaining PRO Chess League battles on Wednesday March 15 and the weekend of March 25-26 on https://www.chess.com/tv

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