"If I come well prepared, and I assume he will come well prepared as well, then it's going to be very close."
Interviewed by Chess.com the day after winning the FIDE Candidates' Tournament, Fabiano Caruana rated his chances in the world championship match against Magnus Carlsen as 50-50.
Chess.com sat down with Caruana the day after his victory at the Candidates' Tournament in Berlin. We met on the third floor of the Scandic Hotel at Potsdamer Platz, where the players had stayed during the event. Casually dressed, wearing a hoodie with the logo of the Saint Louis Chess Club, he was in the middle of a full day of interviews. These are days which he might encounter more often, so hopefully he will get used to them.
Here you can watch full, 20-minute video interview.
What was your first thought when you woke up this morning, the day after the tournament was over?
"The first thing I did was check my tablet. I saw a stream of messages, emails, Facebook and Instagram, so I had to start replying to people [smiles]. But yeah, it still hasn't quite hit me yet. It still feels so fresh. It was only yesterday that I still was completely unsure what would happen and now... it's still so fresh in my mind."
Caruana at the closing ceremony. | Photo: Maria Emelianova/Chess.com.
Let's start before the tournament. Tell us a little bit about how you prepared for this?
"Basically I had a training camp in Miami. I invited several grandmasters: My coach Rustam Kasimdzhanov was there, Christian Chirila was there, Leinier Dominguez was there, and for a few days near the end Alejandro Ramirez joined. We basically worked on chess, openings... not just openings, all kinds of chess. We played training games and also a lot of physical stuff. We just enjoyed the weather, or into the house... it was very nice. That was basically all my prep for the tournament. It was close to 20 days; I was hoping for a bit more time than that but in the end, with playing Wijk aan Zee, there was only time for one training camp. But still, it put me in a great mood anyway, I still look back on the camp with fondness."
Cuban GM Leinier Dominguez, who now lives in the U.S., was one of Caruana's seconds. | Photo: Peter Doggers/Chess.com.
Since openings are so dominating these days, can you give an example of a non-opening activity you did?
The other guys worked on openings most of the time but while they were doing it, I solved a lot of studies. I also did some stuff which I really hate doing, which is, I went through some [Mark] Dvoretsky stuff, which I really don't like doing, because it's hard! Also, a lot of training games, a lot of blitz games. We even played some bughouse, which is not really chess training, but still, it's fun. I would say most of the opening work I did was not opening work."
"I also did some stuff which I really hate doing, which is, I went through some Dvoretsky stuff, which I really don't like doing, because it's hard!"
Anish Giri about Fabiano Caruana in New in Chess.
Anish Giri, who was a second here for Vladimir [Kramnik], wrote profiles on all participants for "New in Chess" and on yours he wrote that your weakness is actually opening preparation. Do you agree with his assessment, maybe looking at the last couple of years, and how do you think it went in this tournament?
"I wouldn't say that it's a weakness, but also think that it's been greatly exaggerated that this is a strength of mine. People always say I'm well prepared, which I think is not completely untrue, but I don't think it's my main strength or anything. Anish probably has a point in that he always manages to outprepare me in the opening; sometimes he ends up four pawns up after the opening, and usually the game ends in a draw [laughs]. But I still don't think it's entirely true. I think it was also some way of his poking fun of me."
You ended up playing five times 1.d4, two times 1.e4 and one time 1.c4, and also in Wijk aan Zee I think you played 1.d4 twice. Besides that, there hasn't been much in recent years. OK, maybe you tested things out a bit of not playing 1.e4 during the Pro Chess League. How important was it for you to broaden your repertoire for the last couple of months?
"The thing is, at some point I was playing 1.d4 and the Catalan exclusively; there was a period in my career when I was mainly a 1.d4 player. Then I started to do serious work on 1.e4. It wasn't a stylistic thing, I just started to do serious work mainly on 1.e4, and it became my main move. And then, once you put all this effort into this move, you start to feel less confident playing 1.d4 or 1.c4. But before this tournament I thought, instead of playing millions of Marshalls, Anti-Marshalls, Berlins, Anti-Berlins, I'll just get something which is unexplored. So I prepared the Catalan, and especially this Qb3 idea, which is not much of anything for White [smiles]. But still, it gave me a game twice, against Sergey it didn't give me anything but twice I got a game. Also, I won a game like that in the first round. It's also nice to get a position which is fresh and where you know it well, and this was the main point."
"Before this tournament I thought, instead of playing millions of Marshalls, Anti-Marshalls, Berlins, Anti-Berlins, I'll just get something which is unexplored."
How was the decision made that the Petroff would be your main weapon against 1.e4?
"I already for pretty much a year it's been my main weapon. I can still play other openings; against Karjakin in London I played the Taimanov and occasionally I will play the French or the Caro-Kann or the Berlin but OK, the Petroff is my most well-prepared opening. Before this event we really spent a lot of time, trying to make sure that I understand it well and that I will know it better than my opponents. I did lose a game, but I also won two. So you know, the Petroff with all its drawish tendencies actually had three decisive games in my tournament!"
The Petroff was also the opening in Caruana's winning game vs Grischuk. | Photo: Peter Doggers/Chess.com.
OK, so then the tournament starts. You start with a good win, and then a draw I believe. Maybe not only this huge game with Kramnik, but also the game before with Shakh was slightly shaky. Round three and four, was this a slightly more difficult phase in the tournament for you?
"Yeah, these three games, from round two to four, they were very tough. Against Ding Liren I was in serious trouble and it was also a very tough game where you have to calculate a lot. The game against Shakhriyar was enormously difficult. The entire game you're calculating, the entire game you're in time pressure, and at some point you're fighting against three connected passed pawns. It's a different sort of calculation, because you understand the price of one mistake is an immediate loss. You can't make a single mistake in your calculations. And then, in the next game—I never had this—I had to fight against four connected passed pawns, two of which were on my seventh rank. I never had this before and it was also very stressful, especially in time trouble. So yeah, the length of the games, the amount of calculation I had to do and the amount of time trouble I faced made these three games very difficult."
"It's a different sort of calculation, because you understand the price of one mistake is an immediate loss. You can't make a single mistake in your calculations."
Do you think, in hindsight, that winning this game against Kramnik where you could easily have lost, was a crucial moment in the whole tournament?
"Yeah, of course. I mean, basically every game was crucial but especially this one because after that I started to pick up some steam, gain some confidence... A few rounds later I went to plus three and meanwhile Vladimir, who could have been on plus three after four rounds, start to also get tilted, I think it's the only way to describe how he was playing after that game against Wesley, against Shakhriyar, all these games kind of showed that something wasn't quite right with his psychological approach."
The crucial game Kramnik vs Caruana from round four. | Photo: Maria Emelianova/Chess.com.
Then you beat Levon, and you were the sole leader at half-time. Is this kind of a psychological thing, that you're halfway through the tournament and you're leading by that point, is that sort of giving you extra confidence?
"I think sometimes it's the opposite because, once you start to have a lead for a few rounds, I think it happens with everyone, in matches also, you start to play a bit too defensively. You're trying to hold on to your lead, which is not the right approach. You should just proceed as if things were as they were before. And that's what happened to me, I was trying to hold on to my lead and it puts extra pressure on you. When you kind of feel that you're already in command of the tournament, and you almost start to feel like the tournament is yours to win, then you start to play defensively, try to tighten up your play, and this led to a few awkward games, and ended up with my loss against Karjakin. I think my play in that game could be described as: I couldn't take a decision."
"When you kind of feel that you're already in command of the tournament, and you almost start to feel like the tournament is yours to win, then you start to play defensively."
But first, the one against Ding Liren. You had a huge chance to take a full-point lead in that round. Was that already tough to deal with and maybe it influenced your game with Karjakin?
"Yeah, it was a bit tough to deal with. I thought I was pressing the whole game but then at some point I thought he defended very well. All this ...Ne7, everything was a beautiful defense, and I felt like we were close to a draw. And then he quickly and carelessly allows me to advance my passed pawn. And I realize I'm winning. But somehow this happened just all too fast. I went from thinking it's gonna be a draw to thinking I'm completely winning..."
And it was time trouble.
"...and it was time trouble, and I also wasn't sure. But then, I was winning after the time control. I was no longer in time trouble but still, I couldn't adjust. I wasn't sure if I was winning anymore, it started to look complicated. I missed one win, with Rd2, which was sort of subtle but still I should have found it, and then I got this completely accidental chance. But at that point I thought I had already screwed it up. I just wasn't ready to look for a win. So I thought the game is over and I made one move without really thinking and I offered a draw. And in fact I had a win, literally with the most obvious move, which I saw, and the second move was also the most obvious move, and then I concluded my variation before even calculating what I can do on the next move. Just h7. I mean, how can you stop your calculation one move before. I think it's only if you already think you've messed the game up."
Caruana: "He defended very well." | Photo: Peter Doggers/Chess.com.
And then the game with Karjakin; you say it's a game where you couldn't make decisions?
"Yeah, I got this exchange up position, which is not bad, and I just have to do something. And then I gave him like 10 moves and his position was winning. And he played great, I mean, he converted without giving me a single chance. But I think there's clearly something wrong when you have a position and you don't do anything for 10 moves."
That was obviously your worst game of the tournament. What do you think was your best game of the tournament? The one you're maybe most proud of?
"Maybe in terms of quality my first game or my last game. Against Wesley, I think it was an excellent game. The last game against Grischuk, I think all things considered, was an excellent game. My first game against Levon, even though I did ruin a winning position at some point, I am still kind of proud to have navigated the complications in time trouble relatively well, not ideally, but still, I played them quite well. All my wins, even the game against Kramnik, not a good game but still, I did do something well in that game, it was a good fight."
It was a lot of fun.
"Yeah, it was also a lot of fun."
A fun game, but not always for everyone!? | Photo: Peter Doggers/Chess.com.
One of the impressive things about your win here is the way you bounced back after your loss. Two straight wins, and you nailed it. It's a psychological strength I guess. Has this always been one of your strengths, to deal with losses, or is it something your worked on and you become well at these days?
"I've always been good at forgetting about losses relatively quickly. I don't dwell over them too much. But sometimes I have tournaments where I lose a game and I just can't recover. But I also remember when I started to come to the top of the chess world, around 2012, I would very often lose my first game. Like in Dortmund, I think I drew my first game from a bad position and I lost my second to Pono[mariov], and I won the tournament with plus three. And this happened more than once, I would start with a loss and then I would very quickly bounce back. That was the year when I was very good at bouncing back. Years after, usually if I start with a loss I'm not gonna win the tournament. But still, I do manage to forget about my losses relatively quickly, which is, I think, more a good thing than a bad thing."
"I've always been good at forgetting about losses relatively quickly. I don't dwell over them too much."
You had a nice dinner after your win with a bunch of people, including your second Rustam Kasimdzhanov. How important has he been? What do you think has been his role in this victory?
"I think he played a huge part in it. I mean, we've been together for a few years, officially working together and going to tournaments since 2015 but before that we were also working. He's a great guy, a great second, and we work well together. This is very important; you need someone who supports you and who you feel comfortable with and for me that's him."
Rustam Kasimdzhanov. | Photo: Maria Emelianova/Chess.com.
As I understand, you didn't have your phone available to you. It was broken during the tournament. Tell us about it. Did it help you to concentrate, stay away from social media, stuff like that? Was it actually good for your tournament?
"Right before the tournament at some point my phone just turned itself off, and then it turned itself on. It goes through the initial starting screen, and then it turns itself off again. And it keeps doing this. I don't know what to do, and it's doing this regardless, I can't even turn it off, it's just turning itself on again. I can't get it started. So I looked online, I found that this is a bug which affects this phone and there's been no official fix. There was, like, a do-it-yourself version which involved things that are just beyond my grasp. Technical things, downloading software, going through command prompts, troubleshooting my phone... things that I just can't do. And so I thought: Why do I need my phone? I'll just... Basically what I meant is that when I go out, I don't have my phone. Which is great, because I don't think having a phone with you all the time is a good thing. So yeah, it was probably a good thing in the end."
With this tournament there were some issues with the organization. There was only one toilet on walking distance available, it was kind of noisy as I understand, but you seem to be someone who has been dealing well with it. You were concentrated, and I think you even said one day that you didn't really notice the noise. Was this the case? Were you not too bothered by the things that were going on?
"For the most part I wasn't bothered by noise. At the start of my game against Ding Liren I was very bothered because people were taking photos from above and there was a shutter sound. It was constant, it would go one for about 20 minutes and it was very difficult to not notice it. But for the most part I didn't really notice the noise. Just occasionally there would be something that was very annoying. I do know that my opponents at times were also annoyed because of camera flashes, or sound, so yeah, it really wasn't ideal. The toilet situation wasn't ideal but it's also not the worst thing ever. Overall, yeah, they could have done it a lot better. I don't know why they didn't think these things through, I mean, it really doesn't take much effort to include another bathroom and make it a bit more soundproof and to avoid spectators having their phones on. I think a more serious concern is that his actually could allow cheating. I mean, all the players in the tournament have a lot of integrity but if they didn't than this would actually allow them some way to cheat without any control. I think if they're checking the players before the games with a metal detector they might as well check and ban phones for spectators so that there is no possibility that you can receive some help from somebody who is just looking at this phone and is seeing the moves. But overall it wasn't that bad, but obviously it could have been improved a lot."
"I don't know why they didn't think these things through, I mean, it really doesn't take much effort to include another bathroom and make it a bit more soundproof and to avoid spectators having their phones on."
The playing hall was noisy at times. | Photo: Maria Emelianova/Chess.com.
It seems that many players of this tournament, and previous tournaments, don't really like the tiebreaks and would prefer to see an immediate playoff in case of a tie for first place. Do you agree with this?
"Yeah, I think a playoff is fair. It's the only, fully 100-percent fair solution. Most wins, most losses, these don't favor one player of the other, they just favor someone who happens to be in the right place at the right time. And Buchholz is just pure chance. I mean, I beat Aronian twice so my tiebreak was pretty much ruined by that. I think direct encounter is a fairer tiebreak, but still, I think a playoff is perfect. I don't think you'll find any player who play the tournament who will say, 'No, a playoff isn't fair.' This is obviously because it's just a direct encounter and it's clear the best man will win."
It's very far away, like half a year, but of course I do have to ask you: How do you see your chances against Magnus?
"I think it's about 50-50. If I come well prepared, and I assume he will come well prepared as well, then it's going to be very close. I'll need to work very hard to get in form before the tournament because it's clear that against Magnus it's not really usually about openings. You just get a game somehow. With one color or the other, you get a game. So I'll have to be able to play chess at the same level that he's playing chess. I'm not going to crush him in the opening or anything. Of course I'll try to be as well prepared as possible in the opening to get a comfortable position if I can with black and to put pressure on him with white. But it will really come down to if I can play at my highest level. If I can, then I think that my chances to beat him are fully within reach."
"It will really come down to if I can play at my highest level. If I can, then I think that my chances to beat him are fully within reach."
Caruana and Carlsen at the 2017 London Chess Classic. | Photo: Maria Emelianova/Chess.com.
Tomorrow you're already in a train to Karlsruhe. You're going to play in the Grenke Chess Classic. How difficult is it to immediately play chess again, after this grueling tournament?
"I hope that I can just relax a bit. There's no pressure on this tournament obviously, it's just a training tournament and for fun. But it's also very serious; I am playing Magnus, Maxime, Levon, they're all playing there, Vishy is playing there. I mean, it's a really tough tournament and so of course I wanna play well. But still, comparing to this event it feels very secondary."
Postscript: The Grenke Chess Classic starts on Saturday in Karlsruhe, Germany. Fate has it that Caruana faces Carlsen with the white pieces in the first round.