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Fabiano Caruana doomed in chess title fight by drawn-out duel, rapid downfall

December 4, 2018

He fought the champ to a draw literally and figuratively in their grueling 12-round, three-week title match, but American challenger Fabiano Caruana literally and figuratively saw his chances rapidly fall apart in extra time in his bid to dethrone Norwegian champion Magnus Carlsen.

As you many have heard by now, the Norwegian narrowly won his third straight title defense last week in London, dismissing the St. Louis-based Caruana 3-0 in one afternoon of rapid playoffs in London after their battle at classical time controls produced a record 12 straight draws.

The scheduled four-game rapid playoff was not the blowout it appeared the American missed a chance to hold a draw in the critical first playoff game, and then spoiled a promising position to suffer a devastating loss in Game 2.

The champ whose match strategy clearly included a bet that he had an edge at faster time controls outplays Caruana in Game 1 from the White side of an English Opening, temporarily surrendering a pawn to bust up Black’s pawn structure and cashing in on 20. Nc5! Rxb2 21. Nxe6 fxe6 22. Bxc4 Nd4 23. Bxd4 exd4 24. Bxe6+ (Rxd4! Kf7 25. Kh1!, setting up Red1 and Rd6 was even stronger) Kf8 25. Rxd4, winning a clear pawn.

But Black still had real drawing chances before faltering with 34...Rc3?! (there’s no reason to let the White king escape the back rank) and 37. Rc7! Kxe4? (Ra2+! 38. Kh3 Kxe4 39. Rxg7 Ra1! is equal) 38. Re7+! (and not 38. Rxg7? Ra2+ 39. Kh3 Ra1, with a draw again) Kxf5 39. Rxg7 Kf6 39. Rg5 and the critical h-pawn falls. With two connected passers on the kingside, the rest is a matter of (high-level) technique for the champ.

Even more distressing for the 26-year-old Caruana must have been the disastrous sequence of moves that effectively ended the match in the very next game. Caruana does much better coming out of this Sveshnikov Sicilian, with good queenside play while Carlsen tries to untangle his kingside.

Then this happened: 20. Qxe2 Qf5 (White now keeps a comfortable edge with 21. 0-0 0-0 22. Nb5 Rfc8 23. Bg5!) 21. c5?! (the plan to push the c-pawn proves disastrous) 0-0 22. c6? (it’s still equal on 22. cxd6 Bxd6 23. 0-0 e4 24. Nb5 Rfd8 25. Bb6 Rd7 26. Rc4 Ne5 27. Rxe4 Nf3+ 28. Kg2 Nd2! 29. Nxd6 Qxd5 30. f3 Qxd6) bxc6 23. dxc6 Rfc8 24. Qc4 (Nd5 Qe4 25. Nxe7+ Nxe7 26. f3 Qg6 is also good for Black) Bd8! (a very unpleasant move for White, as Black’s problem bishop finds a way into the game) 25. Nd5 e4 26. c7? (Bd4 Ne5 27. Bxe5 pretty much had to be played), and White’s game collapses.

There followed: 26...Bxc7! 27. Nxc7 Ne5 (despite being a piece down, Black’s threats are multiplying alarmingly) 28. Nd5? (28. Qd5 Rab8 29. Kf1 Qf3 is still good for Black, but Caruana can play on) Kh7!, sidestepping the fork on e7 and ending the game. White felt no need to see lines such as 29. Qe2 (Ne7 Qf3 30. Qxc8 Rxc8 31. Nxc8 Qxh1+) Nd3+ 30. Kd1 Qxd5, and he must lose material.

Carlsen-Caruana, Rapid Playoff Game 1, World Championship Match, London, November 2018

1. e4 c5 2. Nf3 e6 3. c4 Nc6 4. d4 cxd4 5. Nxd4 Bc5 6. Nc2 Nf6 7. Nc3 O-O 8. Be3 b6 9. Be2 Bb7 10. O-O Qe7 11. Qd2 Rfd8 12. Rfd1 Ne513. Bxc5 bxc5 14. f4 Ng6 15. Qe3 d6 16. Rd2 a6 17. Rad1 Qc7 18. b3 h6 19. g3 Rd7 20. Bf3 Re8 21. Qf2 Ne7 22. h3 Red8 23. Bg2 Nc6 24. g4 Qa5 25. Na4 Qc7 26. e5 dxe5 27. Nxc5 Rxd2 28. Rxd2 Rxd2 29. Qxd2 Ba8 30. fxe5 Qxe5 31. Nd7 Qb2 32. Qd6 Nxd7 33. Qxd7 Qxc2 34. Qe8+ Kh7 35. Qxa8 Qd1+ 36. Kh2 Qd6+ 37. Kh1 Nd4 38. Qe4+ f5 39. gxf5 exf5 40. Qe3 Ne6 41. b4 Ng5 42. c5 Qf6 43. c6 Ne6 44. a4 Nc7 45. Qf4 Ne6 46. Qd6 Qa1+ 47. Kh2 Nd4 48. c7 Qc3 49. Qc5 Qe3 50. c8=Q f4 51. Qg4 Black resigns.

Caruana-Carlsen, Rapid Playoff Game 2, World Championship Match, London, November 2018

1. e4 c5 2. Nf3 Nc6 3. d4 cxd4 4. Nxd4 Nf6 5. Nc3 e5 6. Ndb5 d6 7. Nd5 Nxd5 8. exd5 Ne7 9. c4 Ng6 10. Qa4 Bd7 11. Qb4 Qb8 12. h4 h5 13. Be3 a6 14. Nc3 a5 15. Qb3 a4 16. Qd1 Be7 17. g3 Qc8 18. Be2 Bg4 19. Rc1 Bxe2 20. Qxe2 Qf5 21. c5 O-O 22. c6 bxc6 23. dxc6 Rfc8 24. Qc4 Bd8 25. Nd5 e4 26. c7 Bxc7 27. Nxc7 Ne5 28. Nd5 Kh7 White resigns.

David R. Sands can be reached at 202/636-3178 or by email dsands@washingtontimes.com.

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