U.S. great hope Fabiano Caruana preps for clash with Magnus Carlsen
We’ve been tracking his progress in this space since he was a 14-year-old IM phenom from Brooklyn, winning D.C.’s own Eastern Open more than a decade ago.
Now GM Fabiano Caruana has a chance to match another phenom out of Brooklyn, Bobby Fischer, as he prepares to take on world champion Magnus Carlsen of Norway in a 12-game title match in London. Game 1 takes place Nov. 9, and we’ll have all the action here and at WashingtonTimes.com.
Should the mild-mannered, tough-willed Caruana, now 26, prevail, he will be the first American world champion since Fischer relinquished the title in 1975 and likely will provide yet another boost for the surging American chess scene.
The relentless Norwegian holds a 10-5-18 edge over his challenger in games at classical time controls, but the two have been more evenly matched in recent years, with Caruana just a few ratings points below his 27-year-old rival. If I were a betting man, I’d put this one at too close to call.
Carlsen is a grinder who can wear down an opponent. Caruana’s style is harder to characterize: strong in all phases of the game and comfortable in both simple and complex positions. One quality he definitely displays might be called “alertness” a remarkable ability to spot a critical idea, exploit a key mistake or find a game-saving defense just when the possibility surfaces. He may be the hardest grandmaster to surprise at the chessboard.
See, for example, his win over strong Dutch star GM Anish Giri at the 2012 Tata Steel Tournament. In a Slav QGD, just when things seemed to be settling down for a long positional slog, the American spots an idea that changes the dynamic of the game in his favor: 14. Qe1 Ne4 15. Nxe4 dxe4 16. Be2 f6 (now 17. Nxd7 Bxd7 18. Qb1 f5 doesn’t promise much, but White goes in an unexpected direction) 17. Bxa5!? Rxa5 18. Nxc6 Ra8 (Qxc6 hangs the rook on a5) 19. Bxb5, and now White collects three pawns for the piece and threatens to get his queenside majority rolling.
As Giri deals with the pawns, Caruana methodically hogties the rest of his pieces: 23. Rac1 Kf8 (0-0 24. d6 exd6 25. cxd6 Qb6 26. Ne7+ Kg7 27. Bxd7) 24. b4 (White space advantage is growing apace) Qc8 25. d6 exd6 26. cxd6 Qe8 27. Ne7, and the advanced knight proves highly annoying for Black.
After 27...Be6 (Bxe7 28. dxe7+ Kxe7 29. Rfd1, Black is hurting in lines like 29...Be6 30. Qd6+ Kd8 31. Bxd7 Bxd7 32. Qf6+ Qe7 33. Qxh8+ and wins) 28. Rc7 (threatening 29. Nd5 Kg7 30. Nxf6 Kxf6 31. Qd4+ Kf7 32. a5 and Black can hardly breathe) Rh7 29. Nd5 Bd8 30. Rb7 Rc8 3.1 a5 Kg7 32. a6, White cases in on the sacrifice back on Move 17.
The heady Caruana also proves a good closer: 35. Qf2! (unexpectedly shifting the fight to the kingside) Rf7 36. Qxh4+ Kg7 37. Qg5 Bd5 38. Qxg6+ Kh8 39. Qh5+ Kg7 40. Nxf5+ Kg8 41. Ne7+, and White now has six pawns for the “sacrificed” bishop. Giri concedes as on 41...Bxe7 42. dxe7 Rxe7 43. Rxb6, White is winning easily.
Caruana is a world-class tactician when he needs to be. One of his most famous combinations came against Swedish GM Emanuel Berg in the 2008 Olympiad in Dresden, Germany. (Caruana was at the time representing Italy, before making the switch back to the U.S. in 2015.)
Not even many veterans would spot the remarkable tactical opportunity lurking in today’s diagram, where Black has just played 19...Nf6-d7. What followed must has landed like a thunderbolt for Berg.
Thus: 20. Nxf7! Kxf7 (Bxg3 21. fxg3 Rf8 22. Nxh6+! gxh6 23. Qg4+ Kh8 2.4 Rxe6, winning) 21. Rxe6!! (the truly inspired idea, luring the king into the open) Nc5 (Kxe6 22. Bxc4+ Bd5 [Kxf5 2.3 Qh5+ g5 24. Qf7+ Nf6 25. Be6+ Ke4 26. Qg6+ Kd4 27. Qd3+ Kc5 28. Qc4 mate] 23. Qe4+ Kf6 24. Bxd5 Re8 25. Qd4+ Ke7 26. Bxd6+ Qxd6 27. Qxg7+ Kd8 28. Bxa8 and wins) 22. Rxd6!, and Black can no longer refrain from taking the rampaging rook.
The finale: 22...Rxd6 23. Qf4+ Ke7 (Kg8 24. Bxc4+ Kh7 25. Qxd6 Qxd6 26. Bxd6) 24. Re1+ Kd7 (losing quickly, but bleak in the long run was 24...Ne6 25. Bc4 Qc6 26. Qxd6+ Qxd6 27. Bxd6+ Kxd6 28. Rxe6+ Kc5 29. Bd3 Bd5 30. Re7 g5 31. a3) 25. Bb5+ Bc6 (Kc8 26. Re8+ Qd8 27. Qxd6 is crushing) 26. Qf5+ Ne6 27. Bxd6 Qxd6 28. Rxe6!, and Black resigns, since 28...Qxe6 (Qd1+ would be an instant back-rank mate for Black had not White seen that 29. Re1 is also a discovered check!) 29. Bxc6+ Kd6 30. Qxe6+ Kxe6 31. Bxa8 and wins.
Caruana-Giri, Tata Steel Tournament, Wijk aan Zee, Netherlands, January 2012
1. d4 d5 2. c4 c6 3. Nf3 Nf6 4. e3 a6 5. Nc3 b5 6. c5 g6 7. Ne5 Bg7 8. f4 a5 9. Be2 Qc7 10. O-O h5 11. h3 Bf5 12. Bd2 Nbd7 13. Bf3 h4 14. Qe1 Ne4 15. Nxe4 dxe4 16. Be2 f6 17. Bxa5 Rxa5 18. Nxc6 Ra8 19. Bxb5 Be6 20. a4 f5 21. Qd2 Bf6 22. d5 Bf7 23. Rac1 Kf8 24. b4 Qc8 25. d6 exd6 26. cxd6 Qe8 27. Ne7 Be6 28. Rc7 Rh7 29. Nd5 Bd8 30. Rb7 Rc8 31. a5 Kg7 32. a6 Kh6 33. a7 Qf8 34. Ne7 Nb6 35. Qf2 Rf7 36. Qxh4+ Kg7 37. Qg5 Bd5 38. Qxg6+ Kh8 39. Qh5+ Kg7 40. Nxf5+ Kg8 41. Ne7+ Black resigns.
David R. Sands can be reached at 202/636-3178 or by email email@example.com.