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Endgame

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At 6.20 p.m. yesterday, Magnus Carlsen queened a pawn and delivered the perfect answer to those who had criticised his decision on Monday to force the World Chess Championship to tiebreaks. His 3-0 trouncing of Fabiano Caruana in a four-game Rapid match confirmed his status as the best human chess player, despite the three-year dip in his tournament results. Afterwards he suggested that the faster forms of the game should have a higher status.

Carlsen’s a football fan: he was once spotted in a Swansea City shirt, and turned up for Game 9 last week with a black eye, having collided with an opponent from the extensive Norwegian press contingent during a five-a-side game the previous day. He knows about ‘playing for penalties’; the three games we saw yesterday were a long way from that unreliable means of settling tied contests, and refuted those who claimed he would get his comeuppance for Monday’s negative play. (‘Tiebreaks require tremendous nerves,’ Kasparov had said, ‘and he seems to be losing his.’) Carlsen is much the stronger player in quicker games, and he trusted himself to demonstrate his superiority when it mattered. Caruana ‘calculates very, very well and deep’, Carlsen said in a pre-match interview, ‘but in Rapid you don’t have time to calculate.’

Each player was allocated 25 minutes at the start of a game, with ten seconds added after every completed move. If you consider that both players had thought for twenty minutes or more over a single move in every one of the 12 Classical contests, you can see why Carlsen felt that he had forced his opponent to play to a finish on altered terrain. The 12 earlier games had lasted from three to six hours each. Yesterday, the longest game took just over an hour.

In the first, Carlsen, playing White, sacrificed a pawn in the opening for positional pressure. Caruana managed to steer him into a complex ending, in which each side had a only rook to accompany their kings and pawns. At move 35, both had less than 90 seconds remaining on the clock. Caruana missed several chances to draw before stumbling to a loss after omitting a crucial check with his rook during a series of pawn captures. Carlsen spotted the only winning move. 1-0.

The follow-up saw a repeat of the opening of the 12th match game, until Carlsen, playing Black, made a surprise variation on move 11. With less time to make decisions, it was difficult for Caruana to settle on a plan. But it seems to have been a strategic mistake to have repeated a line of the Sicilian Defence already seen three times in the match. Carlsen had shown himself far more comfortable in the resulting positions. Caruana had to play for a win and attacked prematurely on move 21. With the uncastled White king still in the centre, Carlsen sacrificed a bishop before deftly sidestepping a wild haymaker from Caruana, who resigned on move 29 unable to prevent heavy material loss. 2-0.

Caruana’s situation looked hopeless. Playing Black again, he copied Carlsen’s Sicilian Defence. Carlsen, needing only to draw, played the Maróczy Bind: White clamps down on Black’s position and sets up a situation in which any attempt to break out entails the exchange of the very pieces Black has to have on the board to generate real winning chances. To his credit, Caruana found a way to create something in an ending, where, alongside an equal number of pawns, Carlsen had only a queen and bishop against Caruana’s queen and knight. But the lack of time told again and Caruana was unable to co-ordinate his remaining units. Carlsen pushed his queenside pawns forward and soon managed to promote one. Caruana looked for a way to salvage a consolation draw but it was not to be. 3-0. The match was done.

Carlsen was magnanimous at the press conference and closing ceremony, averring that Caruana had shown strong, versatile play and should rightly be considered his equal at classical time limits. But yesterday evening belonged to him; his controversial match strategy – including Monday’s ‘sporting decision’ – was vindicated.

Anyone complaining that the need for tiebreaks points towards the death of chess should take Carlsen’s suggestions seriously: perhaps what chess really needs is more games at faster time limits. Especially if your concern is to decide who the best player is.

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