- Fabiano Caruana will be the first American to play for the World Chess Championship since Bobby Fischer in 1972.
- Caruana will face three-time champion Magnus Carlsen of Norway.
- Caruana has been a contender for a while, but this will be his first shot at the title.
It’s been a long, long, long, long wait. Very, very, very long. But for the first time since American Bobby Fischer defeated Boris Spassky of the USSR in 1972, an American is competing for the World Chess Championship.
Miami-born, Brooklyn-raised Fabiano Caruana won the Candidates Tournament earlier this year and will take on three-time world champion Magnus Carlsen of Norway in London. The match commences on Friday, and as was the case for the 2016 WCC – won by Carlsen over Russian challenger Sergey Karjakin in New York – it will run for 12 rounds, with tie-breaks in the event of an equal result after the classical games. (Carlsen will begin with the white pieces in Games 1.)
Champion and challenger are the world Nos. 1 and 2 players, by the FIDE rating system: Carlsen stands at 2835; Caruana at 2832. They’re nearly the same age. But Carlsen, at 27, has ruled the chess world for years. Caruana, 26, has long been considered a likely WCC contender, but despite some spectacular results, his road to London has been uneven. (He also used to be officially affiliated with Italy, and he holds dual US-Italian citizenship.)
When I spoke with him before the Sinquefield Cup, a major tournament in St. Louis, a few months back, he reminded me that his loss at the 2016 Candidates could be attributed to effectively running out of energy. He corrected that in 2018.
Fighting back against the World Champion
Caruana has a solid record against Carlsen (although Carlsen has more victories). Most recently, at the Sinquefield Cup, Caruana pulled out a stunning draw in a flat-lost position with black, dismaying Carlsen who had taken a moment to leave the board and record a short, silent, taunting video in a private “confessional” booth. Ultimately, Caruana shared a three-way tie for first at the event, with Carlsen and Armenia’s Levon Aronian.
Carlsen struggled against Karjakin in 2016, needing the shorter tiebreaks to notch his third title. Against Caruana, he’ll face a trickier foe than he has in the past. Against Vishy Anand for his first two WCCs, he was able to blunt the older man’s all-court power game with resourceful defence and a patented ability to build gradually on small advantages. Karjakin sought to suck all the life out of positions and negate Carlsen’s talent for incremental domination.
Caruana, by contrast, is a calculating machine. While Carlsen might consider just a few options and retain a manageable position, playing for an endgame and relying on his vaunted talent for recalling thousands of patterns, Caruana can emulate a computer analysis engine’s ability to peer deeply into positions an come up with nearly inhuman resources.
A very modern World Chess Championship
Neither player is particularly flamboyant or attacking in style. Carlsen likes to sit at the board for a long time and wear down his opponents, while Caruana aims to throw in extensive opening preparation and out-deep-think the other guy. As usual, the world is hoping for some thrilling games, but with these two, there’s liable to be a lot of draws, especially if they stick to Grandmaster openings, such as the Berlin Defence in the Ruy Lopez or the Queen’s Gambit Declined.
“Magnus is difficult to beat,” Caruana told me. “He makes the most of every chance he has, and he wills things into being. “
But in the three or four conversations I’ve enjoyed with Caruana over the years, in our most recent I sensed a much more confident competitor.
“When I’m on form, I can play better than Magnus,” he said. And I believed him.
After Fischer won the World Championship in 1972, in Iceland at the height of the Cold War, he never defended his title, descending into eccentric behaviour before passing away in 2008. Caruana has in his career turned in some crushing Fisher-like performances, and he’s often been compared to the legendary and infamous American prodigy regarding his play.
But it’s clear he doesn’t want to follow in Fischer’s footsteps entirely.
“I hope to have a longer career than he did,” Caruana said.