Magnus Carlsen and Fabiano Caruana during the rapid chess tiebreak at the World Chess Championship 2018 in London (Pic: Twitter, FIDE).
Some likened it to the Ali vs Frazier tussle — the match considered the epitome of sporting rivalries — used since as the yardstick for greatness in competition. Magnus Carlsen’s Chess World Championship victory over Fabiano Caruana via tiebreak, after an epic tussle which ended in a draw after 12 rounds, would rank next to it in intensity, though the visible signs — sweat, blood and gore — were not there to reiterate the magnitude.
Make no mistake though, the tussle, just like the one in the boxing ring, is sure to have left lasting scars on the psyche of the two Grandmasters. Carlson, who sealed his fourth title on November 28, admitted after the victory that he would have stayed away from another title match if he had not managed a win against his American rival.
“If I had lost, it could very well have been my last world championship match,” he said, a telling confession that sheds light on the toll the long and tense battle of the mind would have taken on the two players.
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“I wouldn’t have retired from chess but I might not have played another world championship match,” the 27-year-old Norwegian told The Guardian. “But now we’ll see. I have a lot of time over the next two years to improve my game.”
With 12 games of the title clash ending in 12 draws, the World Championship, staged in London, entered the rapid tiebreak format which the Norwegian Grandmaster sealed in three straight games, exposing the one weakness his American challenger had.
Caruana, who matched Carlsen toe-to-toe in the classical format, is just three Elo points behind the Norwegian in it (Carlson has 2,835 Elo points). The American, however, has always been weak in rapid and his ratings reflect it as well. There was a 91 points difference between the two rivals in the rapid live ratings, and post the World Championship, the gap has widened to 136 (Carlson now has 2902 points).
As things got tight in the classic rounds, Carlson, perhaps, knew it that his best chance would come in the Rapid tiebreak matches. He, after all, offered the draw in the 12th game that took the match to the shootout, which ended in a whitewash for the first time in World Championship history.
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Carlson’s move to give up and offer a draw in the 12th round was criticised by many in the chess world, including legends such as Garry Kasparov and Vladimir Kramnik. But the World Champion knew better, and he was quite explicit in putting his detractors on the backfoot, asking them to keep their “stupid” opinions at bay.
“I think I made the right decision, and not solely based on the result,” he said. “As for the opinions of Garry and Vlad they are invited to their stupid opinions.”
Caruana reflected on how the day (of the tiebreak) began badly for him and then it went downhill as he went all out for victory after losing the first game. “It wasn't a good day for me. Magnus played very well. I had a very bad start, unfortunately — especially, the second game," Caruana, the World No. 2, said.
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“I am mainly disappointed. I mean, it's still so fresh. But I hope that I can look back at the match and learn a lot from it. It's a great privilege to play with Magnus, and it's a great learning experience. I hope that I can draw the right conclusions from it," he added.
It remains clear that with the victory, Carlson is not taking a step back from the game. And with Caruana “learning” from this defeat, and the gap between the two rivals almost being non existent, it is exciting times ahead of the world of chess. After all, if this is chess’ Ali vs Frazier, then two three more episodes of the drama are bound to be played out, enriching the sport as the great Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier did in boxing.
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