It’s Official! American Challenger for World Championship

by admin on March 27, 2018

Congratulations to Fabiano Caruana, who won his game against Alexander Grischuk today and became the first U.S.-born challenger for the World Championship since Bobby Fischer in 1972. (*)

For any readers who don’t know, Caruana was born in Miami and lived in the U.S. for his pre-teen years, but when it became clear that he was becoming a world-class player his parents decided to move to Europe, where they believed he would have more opportunities to play and train with the very best chess players. As a dual citizen of the U.S. and Italy, he played for a while under the Italian flag. However, a few years ago he became convinced that the opportunities were now better in the U.S., and he moved back here. (Some say that Rex Sinquefield’s money helped do the convincing; if so, there’s nothing wrong with that.)

Caruana came heartbreakingly close to qualifying to play a World Championship match in 2016. As I described in my last post, he went into the last round of the Candidates tournament tied with Sergey Karjakin, but for tiebreak reasons he had to push hard for a win, and instead he lost.

In the meantime, Caruana has remained consistently in the top 5 of the world ratings, although he has not distanced himself from the rest of the pack, the way that Magnus Carlsen has (and the way that Fischer did in his day). He went into this tournament seeded #5 out of eight, behind Shakhriyar Mamedyarov, Vladimir Kramnik, Wesley So (also American, though not U.S.-born) and Levon Aronian. An early victory over Kramnik propelled Caruana into the lead, and he remained there throughout the tournament until a loss to Karjakin in round 12 threw everything into jeopardy.

So it was in the last two rounds that Caruana really earned his shot at the World Championship. In round 13, he beat Levon Aronian, finishing off the game with a nice rook sacrifice. Going into the last round, he was a half-point ahead of Mamedyarov or Karjakin, but both of them had better tiebreaks than him (familiar story). He had two possible strategies: play it safe, draw with Alexander Grischuk and hope that neither Mamedyarov or Karjakin could win; or play for a win.

Suffice to say, Caruana decided he wanted to be in control of his own destiny. His last-round game against Grischuk was a model of controlled aggression — not playing the most risky moves, but keeping an advantage and maintaining the pressure on Grischuk. Meanwhile, on the other boards, Karjakin got in trouble against Liren Ding and was lucky to escape with a draw. Mamedyarov got a slightly better endgame against Vladimir Kramnik (two pawns for an exchange), but Kramnik did not get rattled and hung on for a draw.

At that point, Caruana could have agreed to a draw too, because he would finish first with either a draw or a win. It’s a credit to him and his fighting spirit that he kept on playing and finished his tournament with another win. That is what Fischer would have done (and Magnus Carlsen too, I believe). World champions don’t want to just squeak by; they want to place their stamp on the tournament and the chess world.

Thus, in the end, Caruana finished with 9 points out of 14, a full point ahead of Mamedyarov and Karjakin. He has fully exorcised the demons of his last-round failure in 2016, and he can now look forward (and the chess world can look forward) to the World Championship match between Carlsen and Caruana. Of course, Carlsen will be the favorite, but let’s not dwell on that; today is Fabi’s day!

(*) Ordinarily I would not make any distinction between “U.S. citizen” and “U.S.-born.” However, some such qualifier is necessary because Gata Kamsky (U.S. citizen but not U.S. born) played a world championship match against Anatoly Karpov in 1994. That took place during the regrettable era when there was a split between World Champion Garry Kasparov and FIDE, which led to FIDE declaring Karpov to be the official world champion. I think that most players in the West do not regard Karpov as a legitimate world champion in the 1990s because he had been defeated by Kasparov, and therefore they do not regard Kamsky-Karpov 1994 as a legitimate championship match. But it’s also disrespectful to Kamsky to pretend it never happened. As Peter Svidler said in the broadcast today on chess24.com, “Are we going to completely discount Kamsky? Not counting that would be … upsetting.”

Fortunately, that particular era of bad chess politics has passed, and we can be glad that there are no controversies any more over who is the world champion and who has earned the right to challenge him.

(Note added several hours later) In mainstream media coverage, I particularly like how fivethirtyeight.com tiptoed around this issue. Their lead was:

For the first time since Bobby Fischer captivated the country, a U.S. grandmaster has a shot at becoming the undisputed world chess champion.1

With a footnote explaining about Kamsky. The point is, of course, that Kamsky had a shot at being the disputed world champion.

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Larry Smith March 28, 2018 at 6:27 am

Congrats to Caruana! It is nice to see him win the tournament in a style that befits a possible world champion.

Note that ChessBase made no bones about Fabi being the first American since Fischer to play for the title: their article headline reads “Candidates: First American challenger since Fischer”. Nothing ambiguous about that position.

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