Norwegian player Magnus Carlsen convincingly defended his world chess champion title Wednesday by defeating U.S. challenger Fabiano Caruana 3–0 in their tiebreak match.
Yesterday’s three decisive games stand in stark contrast to the prior rounds. The contest had been tied 6–6 after three weeks and 12 grueling games in the classical portion of the match. In a nearly unprecedented occurrence, the two grandmasters had drawn every single bout. Chess grandmasters, passionate amateurs, and casual observers alike bemoaned the apparent dullness of this year’s championship.
In reality, this result emphatically reflects the terrifying accuracy of modern chess players. Gone are the days of ostentatious sacrifices, brash attacks, and dubious strategic flourishes. With the advent and continued progression of powerful chess engines, the world’s top players can now analyze even the most nuanced of subtleties.
Unfortunately, as top players adopt computer-style play, the window for brilliant sacrifices grows smaller. Conventionally “beautiful” chess depends heavily on mistakes. For one player to execute a brilliant move, his opponent must first slip up. Nowadays, such mistakes are few and far between. It is not that chess players are becoming more boring; they are simply becoming more accurate.
Romanticism in chess correlates inversely with precision.
Interestingly, this contemporary, risk-averse style of play even seeped into the match’s psychological aspect. In the 12th classical game, Carlsen offered a draw in an objectively superior position. Commentators derided his decision as cowardly passivity. Former world champion Vladimir Kramnik lamented that Carlsen was missing “a [kind] of winning energy.” Carlsen himself, however, defended his draw offer as a strategic “sporting decision,” predicting that he would have better chances in the faster-paced tiebreak matches.
Hence, after the soporific 12-game stalemate, the match was forced to a rapid tiebreak: best of four games, with significantly decreased time controls. Carlsen, ranked number one in the world for rapid chess, held a sizable advantage over Caruana, who is ranked only 18th. The Norwegian demonstrated this dominance in conspicuous fashion by crippling his opponent in three consecutive rapid rounds, precluding the need for a fourth game.
Under faster time controls, it becomes harder for players to maintain the same level of accuracy. However, one of Carlsen’s strengths is his retained accuracy. “Carlsen’s consistent level of play in rapid chess is phenomenal,” commented former world champion Garry Kasparov. “We all play worse as we play faster and faster, but his ratio may be the smallest ever — perhaps only a 15 percent drop off.”
The prize money for the event was high due to increased media attention. Carlsen won $625,000 as the winner, and Caruana received $511,400 as the runner-up. Recently, the international chess federation known as FIDE has been pushing for more funding and media coverage. As an example of these efforts, Lucy Hawking, the daughter of Stephen Hawking, attended the match to play the ceremonial first move. Stephen Hawking, who passed away this March, was himself a chess enthusiast.
Caruana, the United States’s brightest chess star since Bobby Fischer, ultimately fell short of his world championship quest. He played magnificently, but in the end, Carlsen’s immaculate precision triumphed.
“Throughout the championship, I’ve heard from fans around the world and want to thank them for their support,” he stated graciously after the match. “I feel that we put this beautiful game back on the map in America and hope it will inspire a new generation of players.”