The World Championship match between the reigning champion Magnus Carlsen and the first US challenger since Bobby Fischer, Fabiano Caruana. What makes this match especially interesting is the fact that these two players are the numbers 1 and 2 on the latest Elo list with only 3 points between them. So, is the match going to be a simple coin flip? No, according to our analysis, Carlsen is a big favourite!
The Elo rating system is the traditional rating system developed by Arpad Elo and adopted by FIDE, the international chess federation in 1970. It is still a decent way to classify the players, but far from perfect. We much prefer Universal Rating System, whose calculations are much more sophisticated, as explained at their web site www.universalrating.com. We find their ratings to be much closer to our own power ratings and thus more reliable. While the expected score for any individual game between Carlsen and Caruana given by Elo is only 0.51 to Carlsen, it is 0.59 according to URS. A common mistake is to forget that in a match this expectation is applied to each game individually and needs to be multiplied in order to get a probability for a win in the match.
The reason to include the rapid ratings in the chart is that if the match is tied after 12 games, there will be a tie-break of 4 rapid games. In tie-break Carlsen is an even bigger favourite, with Elo expected score for Carlsen being 0.63 for each game.
An often-heard claim is that in a match you cannot trust the ratings blindly, and while the match psychology does bring some uncertainty, it is not clear that the advantage goes directly to the challenger, who may be hungrier, as some factors (such as experience) can be thought to favour the incumbent.
Historical score between the players
There are some notorious cases of nemeses in chess, perhaps the best known being the rivalry between Tal and Korchnoi, the results favouring the latter heavily. From my own experience I know that after some difficult games against a certain opponent, it becomes more difficult to suppress your emotions and play calmly. So, this can be a real thing between certain players. However, not between Carlsen and Caruana – their score (26.5-16.5 or 62% to Carlsen) correlates quite closely to their ratings. Their 10 last games with classical time controls, played in 2017 and 2018 have gone to Carlsen with a score of 6-4, so no surprises there either.
Grandmaster opinions on the match
Many a grandmaster has expressed his opinion on the match, for example, Giri has said that “Fabiano is not an underdog”. Caruana himself estimated the chances as 50-50 and Magnus said during the Berlin candidates that he hoped for Caruana to win, because he is the strongest player in the tournament. However, I think all the opinions need to be taken with a pinch of salt, as they do not have any experience in calculating probabilities and in some cases their personal relations with the players may affect their utterings. As for the players themselves, giving an impression of a tight match brings the match more media attention – and more money.
Carlsen has been ranked number one in the world since July 2011 and has the all-time record of 2889, while Caruana’s highest ever rating is 2851, so both of them are of course fantastic chess players. However, their respective styles are quite different, and they do have some strengths and weaknesses. Let’s have a closer look.
Carlsen’s style is considered by some as very technical and dry, but this is not completely fair. His technical wins do stand out, because he is the greatest ever technical player and is relentless fighter who does not agree to a draw unless all the possibilities in the position are exhausted. Apart from his technical superiority over his opponents, Carlsen is very strong when the position is not well defined positionally. He is also good at sensing which direction is the most unpleasant one for his opponent. He is sometimes considered as relatively weak in openings, but this is not true: his goal is to get a position where his winning chances are highest, and this often means getting his opponents to uncharted waters, where they cannot use computer analysis to level the field. Carlsen’s relative weakness is the play in very tactical and unclear positions and also defending against a strong attack.
Caruana is an extremely well-educated player with a huge amount of training hours behind him. This shows especially in standard position types and especially in openings where he is immensely strong. He calculates tactics well, although less so in games with faster time controls. He knows theoretical endings well, but in positional ones Carlsen is clearly superior to him. Still greater is the world champion’s advantage in positionally random play. The only area where Caruana is a bit stronger is probably the openings, but this advantage is relative especially in a match for which Carlsen has had many months to prepare. Carlsen traditionally has a much broader opening repertoire, which is also an advantage in a match. So, Carlsen is the stronger player and the situation favours him as well. Caruana’s main problem is that Carlsen will have more tools available to him than Fabiano in that he has larger repertoire of positions where he is stronger and practically no where he is clearly weaker. I personally think that Carlsen’s most likely successor is not Fabiano Caruana, but a star rising from the orient called 丁立人.
Conclusion and odds
Carlsen is a big favourite to win the match. I would estimate his chances of retaining his title as approximately 74%. Mr. Green offers 1.43 for Carlsen’s win, making it a profitable investment!
Make your profitable chess bet for Magnus Carlsen now here!
For those who want to dig in deeper in the chess aspect of the match, I give here my analysis of some typical games between the two players.
Carlsen,Magnus (2843) – Caruana,Fabiano (2822) [C24]
6th Norway Chess 2018 Stavanger NOR (1), 28.05.2018
1.e4 e5 2.Bc4 [The Bishop’s Opening would not surprise me in the match either, since Caruana’s main weapon of late against 1.e4 has been the Petroff and he is rather consistent in his opening choices.] 2…Nf6 3.d3 c6 [3…Nc6 4.Nf3 takes the game into Giuoco Piano, where White has been able to pose some small problems for Black during the past few years. I have a feeling that we will soon see a decline in the amount of the Italian Games at the top, but the Berlin remains a tough nut to crack.] 4.Nf3 d5 5.Bb3 Bb4+ 6.Bd2 [The main move. The idea of Black’s previous move is to provoke 6.c3 and after 6…Bd6 White no longer has the c3–square available for his knight. This is, of course, still playable, the most notable example being Carlsen-Caruana, Saint Louis 2014, which continued 7.Bg5 dxe4 8.dxe4 h6 9.Bh4 Qe7 10.Nbd2 Nbd7 . Now the normal moves do not seem to lead to any chances for White, so Carlsen found a dubious idea, probably out of frustration: 11.Bg3?! Bc7! 12.0–0 Nh5 13.h3?! Nxg3 14.fxg3 Nc5 15.Bxf7+ Kxf7 16.Nxe5+ . Nevertheless, the complications turned out to favour Black. Caruana won the game and the tournament with the fantastic result 8,5/10.] 6…Bxd2+ 7.Nbxd2 [7.Qxd2!?] 7…a5! [Black gains space on the queenside. The threat is 8…a4, trapping the bishop.] 8.c3 [Stops the a-pawn. 8.a3 , keeping the pressure on d5, was an alternative. Carlsen chooses to put pressure on the other black central pawn.] 8…Nbd7 9.exd5 [White complicates the play by voluntarily surrendering his central point e4. 9.0–0 could easily have led to a sterile position with no winning chances, once Black takes on e4. After the text, the balance is not disrupted but play becomes more difficult – for both.] 9…cxd5 10.0–0 0–0 11.Re1 Re8 12.Nf1 b5 [Black prevents White’s a4 ideas and claims space on the queenside.] 13.a4 [Black’s previous move had some drawbacks as well: the advanced b-pawn gives White a target.] 13…b4 14.cxb4 axb4 15.Ne3 Bb7
16.d4! [This reminds me of the famous game Réti-Yates and I think Carlsen knows this game too! In chess it makes no sense to invent the wheel for the second time and therefore the study of the classics is of utmost importance for a developing chess player. The present position also has some important differences with the Réti game and the consequences are less clear, but still knowing the previous example helps especially in the process of finding candidate moves. Probably Caruana knows the Réti game as well, but I think he still would not have chosen the game continuation.]
Réti-Yates, New York 1924
17.d4! e4 18.Ne5 Bxe5 19.dxe5 Nh7 20.f4 1–0
16…e4 17.Ne5! Nxe5 [Mikhalevski considers this inaccurate and White indeed gets a pleasant position after it – despite the pawn minus. Mikhalevski’s suggested exchange sacrifice 17…Rxe5! 18.dxe5 Nxe5 looks more to the point and would have led to a complicated struggle.] 18.dxe5 Rxe5 19.Qd4 Re7
20.Rac1 [White’s intention was not to return the material balance with 20.Qxb4, since it would allow Black’s centre to become mobile after 20…d4. White’s deep idea is to keep playing peacefully and regain the pawn under favourable circumstances. Black’s problem is that almost all of his pieces are worse than their White counterparts.] 20…Rd7 21.Red1 h6 22.Rc5 Ra5! 23.Rxa5 Qxa5 24.h3! [Again, a peaceful move that slightly improves White’s position, while Black lacks useful moves.] 24…Kh7 25.Rc1 Rc7? [Caruana gets frustrated and enters a bad ending. Mikhalevski gives 25…Qa6, with the idea 26.Rc5 Qe2! , trying to disturb White.] 26.Rxc7 Qxc7 27.Qxb4
This was what Carlsen dreamed of achieving when sacrificing his central pawn. Black’s d-pawn is still blocked, and White’s connected passed pawns are ready to advance. Caruana tries his best, but never gets sufficient counterplay.] 27…Qc1+ 28.Bd1 Ba6 29.Qd4! Be2 30.Kh2 Bxd1 31.Nxd1 Qc7+ 32.Kg1 Qc1 33.b4 e3! 34.fxe3 Ne4 35.Qxd5 Nd2 36.Qf5+ Kh8 37.Qg4 f5 38.Qe2 Ne4 39.Qe1! Qa1 40.a5 Nd6 41.Qd2 Nc4 42.Qd4! Qc1 43.Kf1! Nxe3+ 44.Qxe3 Qxd1+ 45.Kf2 Qc2+ 46.Kg3 g5 47.Qe5+ Kh7 48.Kh2 f4 49.Qd5 Qa4 50.Qf7+ Kh8 51.Qg6 Qxb4 52.Qxh6+ Kg8 53.Qxg5+ Kh7 54.Qh5+ Kg7 55.Qg5+ Kh7 56.h4 Qd6 57.Qh5+ Kg7 58.Qg5+ Kh7 59.h5 f3+ 60.g3 f2 61.Qg6+ Kh8 62.Qxd6 f1Q 63.Qh6+ Kg8 64.Qe6+ Kh8 65.Qe3 Qb5 66.Qc3+ Kh7 67.g4 Qd5 68.Qc7+ Kg8 69.Kg3 Qe6 70.Qd8+ Kh7 71.Qd3+ Kh8 72.a6 Qe5+ 73.Kh3 Qa1 74.Qd8+ Kh7 75.Qe7+ Kh6 76.Qe3+ Kh7 77.a7 [The fact that Black played on for so long may be a sign of deep frustration.] 1–0
Of course, Caruana is extremely strong player as well, and Carlsen needs to beware of losing games such as the following.
Caruana,Fabiano (2805) – Carlsen,Magnus (2876) [C67]
Norway Chess 3rd Stavanger (2), 17.06.2015
1.e4 e5 2.Nf3 Nc6 3.Bb5 Nf6 [I would be surprised if we did not see at least one or two Berlin’s in London, although the world champion has played many other lines against Ruy Lopez as well.] 4.0–0 Nxe4 5.d4 [Caruana is the only top player who really has been able to make dents into the Berlin Wall proper.] 5…Nd6 6.Bxc6 dxc6 7.dxe5 Nf5 8.Qxd8+ Kxd8 9.h3 h6 [For some reason Carlsen always has played this against Caruana – and only against Caruana! Against others he has played the main lines 9…Ke8 and 9…Bd7.] 10.Rd1+ Ke8 11.Nc3 Ne7 [In Shamkir 2014 the game between the same players went 11…Bd7 12.Bf4 Rd8 13.Ne4 Be7 14.g4 Nh4 15.Nxh4 Bxh4 16.Kg2 Be6 17.f3 b6 18.b3 c5?! 19.c4 Rd7 20.Bg3 Be7 21.Rxd7 Bxd7 22.Nc3 Kd8 23.Nd5 Re8 24.Rd1 and again Caruana managed to put pressure on Black’s position and won the game.] 12.b3 [Earlier in 2015, in Baden-Baden, the Car-Car game continued 12.Bf4 Ng6 13.Bh2 Bb4 14.Ne2 Be7 15.Nfd4 Nf8 16.g4 h5 17.Nf5 Ne6 18.Kg2 b6 19.f3 c5 20.Bg3 Bg5 and the balance was not disturbed.] 12…Bf5 [A double-edged move. Black’s bishop is active on this diagonal, but he loses control over the e6–square. 12…Ng6 Looks safer to a layman like me.] 13.Nd4 Bh7 14.Bb2 Rd8 15.Nce2! [The knight is on the way to f4, where it gives more power to the e6–push. Also, the b2–bishop gains in strength. 15.e6 looks dangerous at first sight, but apparently 15…Nd5! keeps Black’s position intact.] 15…Nd5 16.c4 Nb4 17.Nf4 Rg8 18.g4
A Berlin gone wrong does look terrible indeed. Still even here Black’s position is not as bad as it may look like.] 18…Na6? [C5 is a good square for the knight but delaying the development so much is dangerous. Perhaps Carlsen didn’t see a way for White to make real progress, since his only pawn break is e6. 18…Nc2! was better and White’s advantage is small after 19.Nxc2 Rxd1+ 20.Rxd1 Bxc2 21.Rd2 Bb1! .] 19.Nf5 Nc5 20.Rxd8+ Kxd8 21.Rd1+ Kc8 22.Ba3 [White’s intentions are not clear, but the text move sets up a devious trap…
22…Ne6? …into which Carlsen falls! 22…b6!? would still be playable for Black. 23.Nxe6 Bxa3 [Surely this was not Black’s original intention. Probably he wanted to play 23…fxe6 , but missed 24.Be7!+– . One of Carlsen’s weaknesses is that he sometimes relaxes too early and doesn’t take into account all his opponent’s chances.] 24.Nexg7 Bf8 25.e6! Bxf5 26.Nxf5 fxe6 27.Ng3 [Black’s position is practically hopeless, since he can never create a passed pawn because of White’s domination on light squares, while White slowly but surely gets his pawn majority rolling on the kingside.] 27…Be7 28.Kg2 Rf8 29.Rd3! Rf7 30.Nh5 Bd6 31.Rf3 Rh7 [31…Rxf3 32.Kxf3 Kd7 33.Ke4 doesn’t help Black.] 32.Re3 Re7 33.f4 [White is winning. He soon gets a passed pawn and dominates the play on the light squares. Caruana’s realization is flawless.] 33…Ba3 34.Kf3 Bb2 35.Re2 Bc3 36.g5 Kd7 37.Kg4 Re8 38.Ng3 Rh8 39.h4 b6 40.h5 c5 41.g6 Re8 42.f5 exf5+ 43.Kf4 Rh8 44.Nxf5 Bf6 45.Rg2 [A crushing win for Fabi, whose good opening preparation left him with strong pressure, which made Carlsen to commit a big mistake.] 1–0
Caruana,Fabiano (2802) – Carlsen,Magnus (2863) [A90]
1.d4 [A relatively rare move for Caruana. In the match I expect him to play mostly 1.e4, since he knows the arising positions much better.] 1…f5 [A good way to take advantage of your opponent’s opening surprise is to take the game into a position which you understand better, while avoiding your most common sublines. This results often in a situation in which both players play slightly worse than normally, but the surpriser worst! The Stonewall is not Carlsen’s main weapon against 1.d4, but it requires deep understanding of the position, which is not possible to acquire during short preparation, so I like his choice. Against Caruana’s 1.e4 Carlsen has even played 1.e4 d5!?, which, however, is a little too risky a choice to my taste, but he did score 1.5/2 of those games, so maybe he knows what he is doing!] 2.g3 Nf6 3.Bg2 e6 4.c4 c6 [A small finesse, the idea of which is to be able to answer an early Nh3 by …d6.] 5.Nf3 d5 6.0–0 Bd6 7.b3 Qe7 8.Bb2 [8.Ne5 may be slightly more accurate. 8…0–0 (8…b6 does not work so well now that White has 9.cxd5 cxd5?! 10.Nc4!) 9.Nd2 a5 10.Bb2 Nbd7 11.Qc2 a4 12.Ndf3 Ne4 13.e3 a3 14.Bc3 Nxe5 15.Nxe5 Bd7 was seen in the game Anand-Carlsen, Baden-Baden 2015. Here 16.Be1!? followed by f3 might give White a slight pull. Anand played 16.xd7 and lost. This game has a lot in common with the main game: neither of the white players are regular 1.d4 players, Magnus surprised them with the Stonewall and won both games with his better understanding of the position – not by getting an advantage from the opening.] 8…b6 [Black delays castling in order to ensure the fianchetto (see the previous comment).] 9.Ne5 Bb7 [The bishop may appear dumb here, but Black can later play …c5, when it gains full activity on the long diagonal. One of the secrets of the Stonewall is that Black’s ‘bad’ bishop is by no means worse than White’s ‘good’ bishop on g2. The e5–square has been weakened indeed, but this alone is not enough to win the game. Therefore, White often combines the play in the centre and on the queenside, but here Black has a strong grip on the e4–square and on the dark squares on the queenside.] 10.Nd2 0–0 11.Rc1 a5! [Black seeks chances to play on the a-file. Additionally, now developing the knight to a6 looks more harmonious.] 12.e3 Na6
13.Nb1?! [The knight is on its way to a4 to put pressure on b6. However, this looks artificial and slow. Normal would be some neutral developing move such as 13.Qe2.] 13…Bxe5 [Carlsen changes the character of the position. This exchange is often difficult to assess in the Stonewall and Magnus managed this task better than his opponent. White’s intended manoeuvre is cut short and if he plays Nc3, his last remaining knight is exchanged, and it will be difficult for him to find active play for either of his bishops.] 14.dxe5 Ne4 15.Qe2 [After 15.f3 Nec5 Black would still play for …a4.] 15…a4 16.Nc3?! [A second inaccuracy. Caruana probably understood that the opening had not gone his way and heads into an ending, but it is more difficult for him than he thought. Perhaps better was to fish in murky waters with 16.Ba3 c5 17.bxa4!? . White can’t keep his extra pawn, but is probably not worse, for instance: 17…dxc4 18.Qxc4 Nb4 19.Bxb4 cxb4 20.Rfd1 , with the idea 20…Rxa4 21.a3.] 16…axb3 [16…a3!?] 17.axb3 Qb4! [Black’s pressure against b3 forces White to go for exchanges that favour Black.] 18.Nxe4 dxe4 19.Qc2 Nc5 20.Bc3 [Practically forced.] 20…Qxb3 21.Qxb3 Nxb3 22.Rb1 Nc5 23.Rxb6 Na4 24.Rxb7 Nxc3
The position is dangerous for White. The eyesight of his g2–bishop is limited to the black e4–pawn and the c4– and e5–pawns are in danger of dropping. I suspect that Fabiano did understand all this but thought that he could get out of the danger zone by harassing the c3–knight.] 25.Re7 Rfe8 26.Rxe8+ Rxe8 27.Ra1 Rd8 28.Bf1 c5 29.Ra3 Nb1 [The knight finds a good way to participate in the battle: by going to f3.] 30.Ra1? [The first serious mistake. White forces a rook ending, which is probably lost for him. It was still possible to hold a draw with the active 30.Ra5 Rd1 (30…Nd2 31.Rxc5 Ra8 32.Kg2) 31.Ra8+ Kf7 32.Ra7+ Kg6 33.Ra1 .] 30…Nd2 31.Be2?! [31.Kg2 Nf3 32.Ra5 Rc8 33.Ra6 Kf7 34.Ra7+ Kg6 35.Ra6 Re8 36.Rc6 Nxe5 37.Rxc5 Kf6 38.h3 h5! is – slightly surprisingly – clearly better for Black, but this was White’s only chance.] 31…Nf3+ 32.Bxf3 exf3
White’s king can’t participate in the battle and Black’s rook is more active than its colleague. These advantages are enough to win the game for Black. The assessment of this kind of non-standard endings is something Magnus is miles ahead of his opponent.] 33.h3 h5 34.g4 fxg4 35.hxg4 h4! [Keeps the white king boxed in.] 36.Kh2 Rd2 37.Kh3 g5 38.e4 Rd4 39.Ra8+ Kf7 40.Ra3 Rxc4 41.Rxf3+ Ke7 42.Re3 Rd4 43.f3 c4 44.Ra3 Rd3 45.Ra7+ Kd8 46.Kg2 c3 47.Ra4 c2 48.Rc4 Rd2+ 49.Kh3 Kd7 50.Rc5 Rf2 51.f4 Rf3+ 52.Kh2 Rxf4 0–1
Carlsen,Magnus (2881) – Caruana,Fabiano (2791) [C07]
Norway Chess blitz 2nd Flor & Fjaere (6), 02.06.2014
1.d4 e6 2.e4 d5 3.Nd2 c5 4.Ngf3 cxd4 5.Nxd4 Nf6 6.exd5 Qxd5 7.Nb5 Na6 8.Nc3 Qd8 9.a3 Be7 10.Qf3
10…0–0?? 11.Bxa6 [This kind of accidents do not happen to Carlsen, not even in blitz.] 1–0
IM Tapani Sammalvuo