Sports

The King of the Computer Age

In an era when the world’s best chess players play like chess engines, Magnus Carlsen proved he still has the game’s best brain.

Magnus Carlsen smiles during a press conference after his victory over Fabiano Caruana.
Magnus Carlsen smiles during a press conference after his victory over challenger Fabiano Caruana in the tie-break matches of the 2018 World Chess Championship in London on Wednesday.
Tolga Akmen/AFP/Getty Images

It wasn’t easy and it wasn’t especially pretty, but world chess champion Magnus Carlsen has successfully defended his crown in what was scheduled to be a 12-game match against world No. 2 Fabiano Caruana. After all 12 of those games were drawn, the victor was decided via a best-of-four series of “rapid chess” contests, in which each player has about 30 minutes to complete all his moves. The Norwegian Carlsen, by far the world’s No. 1 player at rapid chess, predictably dominated Caruana, who entered the match ranked only No. 8 in the format, winning the playoff games 3–0 and retaining his title for another two years.

What kind of match was it? A bit dull, to be honest, at least until Wednesday’s rapid games. Top-level chess isn’t the romantic game it once was, and it’s becoming less and less romantic every year. Speculative piece sacrifices, wild games where the advantage seesaws back and forth repeatedly, devastating mating attacks on the opponent’s hapless king—that’s exciting chess, and it’s mostly a thing of the past in world championship matches.

We’re in the era of chess engines now, mistake-free algorithms that are happy to take your unsoundly sacrificed pieces, that won’t give you back the advantage once it’s been ceded, and that sure aren’t going to let you attack their king just because you happen to be in an attacking mood today. Computer chess is not too lovable, but it gets results. The top players want results, so they’re playing more and more like computers, because you won’t win if you don’t mimic the machines.

Given the age we’re living in, this was probably going to be a match with more probing than punching—but then, happily, the first game started off with a bang. Caruana’s Game 1 nerves, combined with a superclever pawn sacrifice from Carlsen in the early middlegame, brought the American to the brink of disaster. His king was drifting perilously in the center of the board as Carlsen’s pieces menaced its rickety pawn shelter, and the engines showed that Carlsen had close to a winning advantage.

But then the world champion hesitated at a few key moments, underestimating the strength of a queen centralization on several moves in succession, after which Caruana’s position probably would have collapsed. Instead, he played a toothless continuation and the attack petered out, with the queens going off the board and the game evaporating into a draw.

Game 1 turned out to be the closest either player would realistically get to a win, at least before the rapid games. There are exciting draws, and there are boring draws; Game 1 was an exciting one, but Games 2–5 were the dull kind, with queens traded early or earlyish, not very exciting pawn structures, some pushing and shoving but no bold attacks, and neither player gaining a significant advantage at any time. It’s not like they weren’t trying. In Game 5, Caruana tried to mix things up with an oddball gambit called the Gurgenidze variation, but Carlsen knew it and defanged it without much hassle.

Game 6 saw a bit of excitement. Carlsen went oddball himself with an unusual and bizarre-looking retreat 4.Nd3 in the Petroff instead of the usual 4.Nf3. But Caruana knew the line (these guys are tough to surprise, even when you go oddball) and by Move 33, the position was highly drawish: symmetrical pawn structure, queens traded, not many pieces left.

But then, in a not-super-complex ending, Carlsen began to stray, making a series of inaccurate moves that gave Caruana an opening. The champ then decided to “run for the draw” by sacrificing a knight for three pawns; these three pawns of Carlsen’s weren’t a threat to promote into queens, but Caruana’s efforts to round them up would buy Carlsen enough time to build a “fortress” on the other side of the board—that is, a piece structure that Caruana, despite his material superiority, would not be able to break through.

It worked, and the game was indeed drawn. The engines, though, showed something fascinating: On Move 68, Caruana had missed a counterintuitive, bizarre-looking knight maneuver that would have breached the fortress. The sequence was so hidden that it might as well not have existed; asked if he himself would have found this winning idea, the greatest player of all time tweeted:

Games 7–11 were likewise mostly uneventful, more high-level grappling. Game 10 had the potential to be a barnburner but eventually fizzled out into a drawn rook ending. Again, it’s not like the players weren’t trying; Carlsen attempted to make something happen by softening up Caruana’s kingside with his h-pawn in Game 9, but these guys are both so good at shutting things down when events turn potentially scary. Caruana defended vigorously and accurately and even got counterattacking chances of his own, which convinced Carlsen to slam the brakes on his own attack, leaving the combatants to agree to a draw.

With the match tied 5.5–5.5—each player gets a half-point for a draw and a full point for a win—the players sat down for Game 12, with Caruana having the white pieces. You can imagine Caruana’s thoughts: You work your whole life for this moment, this one game that could make you the world champion. And here it is. No pressure.

Things didn’t start out too well for the American. The combative Pelikan variation of the Sicilian defense appeared on the board (as it had in Games 8 and 10) , which gave both players chances for a win. Slowly things seemed to be turning Carlsen’s way; the kings were castled on opposite sides of the board, which often means each player will be racing to attack the other’s king. But the pawns on the kingside (where Carlsen’s king was) were all knotted up, making it difficult to get an attack going, while the pawns on the queenside, where Caruana’s king was, were more fluid, giving Carlsen more attacking chances, and therefore an edge. Everything was set up for a great battle, with attacks raging and very possibly a world championship match decided … and then, suddenly, on Move 31, something curious happened: Carlsen offered a draw, which Caruana was happy to accept.

Commentators at first thought this must be a mistake. Draw offers are common in chess, but why would Carlsen offer one here, in a position where he stood better, had more time on the clock, and stood little chance of losing?

The answer: Because the game was in Carlsen’s favor but still had a long way to go, and he knew he’d hold the advantage in the rapid games to follow. Rather than risk a championship-deciding blunder, he chose to move on to the tiebreaker, a decision that—despite Garry Kasparov’s condemnation—ultimately proved wise.

In the first rapid game, Carlsen emerged from the middlegame with a rook and five pawns against Caruana’s rook and four pawns. The ending was probably drawn with best play, but it was also complex enough to allow for maneuvering, and in severe time pressure Caruana made one false step and suddenly the game was over.

A demoralized Caruana lasted only 28 moves in Game 2. It was a lively, balanced Sicilian defense on Move 24, and it looked like an exciting middlegame was in store. But four moves later, Caruana had to resign after miscalculating a tactical skirmish in the center of the board. Down 2–0, the American now had to defeat Carlsen twice in a row to send the game to tiebreaks at even faster time controls, but it was not to be.

As he had in a similar position (white pieces, only needed a draw) in his 2016 world championship match, Carlsen adopted the Maróczy Bind formation, which is not superaggressive but is hard for black to make any headway against and is relatively easy for white to play. Caruana tried but couldn’t make any progress; after a mass liquidation of pieces, Caruana’s position fell apart as he desperately searched for counterplay. Carlsen made sure it didn’t materialize and Caruana resigned on Move 51.

Caruana put up a great fight against one of the best players of all time, and held him to an even score at classical time controls. Carlsen retained his title, which was the goal of the match for him. Both players can say they were successful.

But the match itself, while full of nuances and played at an extremely high level, was not really full of exciting chess. The highlight reel of this match, compared with, say, Fischer-Spassky in 1972 or Kasparov-Karpov in 1985, is wanting. Those were longer matches, however, best-of-24 games rather than best-of-12; in a relatively short match like this one, the players are a bit more reluctant to play speculatively, knowing that one poor decision could cost them the championship. But while Carlsen-Caruana wasn’t thrilling, it was decisive. Magnus Carlsen is indeed the No. 1 player in the world and Fabiano Caruana is indeed No. 2, and not far behind at all. Rematch in 2020? Don’t bet against it.