What If Caruana Beat Carlsen In 2018?
Magnus Carlsen in 2019. Photo: Maria Emelianova/Chess.com

What If Caruana Beat Carlsen In 2018?‎

70 | Chess Players

IM Cyrus Lakdawala contributed to this article.

In 2018, the reigning world champion Magnus Carlsen, played world number-two Fabiano Caruana for the world championship. Carlsen defeated Caruana in the rapid tiebreak, and successfully defended his crown.

Some may read the headline of this article and think: "Preposterous! Carlsen defeated Caruana in 2018, and it couldn't be any other way!" Well, you are correct. Carlsen did defeat Caruana in 2018...but what if he hadn't?

What if Caruana had defeated Carlsen in 2018? 

Magnus Carlsen

Magnus Carlsen 2018 world chess champion
Magnus Carlsen with the 2018 world chess championship trophy. Photo: Maria Emelianova/Chess.com.

Magnus Carlsen is one of the strongest players of all time–many consider him to be the strongest of all time. He is the reigning world champion and has defended the title three times since defeating Vishy Anand in 2013. Carlsen has been the number-one-ranked player since 2011, and he has won the world rapid championship twice and the world blitz championship four times.

In May 2014, he achieved the highest classical rating of all time (2882). These feats alone would be more than enough accomplishments for a chess legend's entire life–but Carlsen recently turned 29 years old and shows no signs of stopping his dominant play.

Fabiano Caruana

Fabiano Caruana 2018
Fabiano Caruana in 2018. Photo: Maria Emelianova/Chess.com.

Fabiano Caruana is the number-two-ranked player in the world and the top American player. His peak rating to date was 2851—the third-highest rating of all time. Caruana's best tournament result was in the 2014 Sinquefield Cup, where he had an astounding performance rating of 3080, and posted a score of 8.5/10. During this tournament he won seven games in a row against the world's best players. He defeated Maxime Vachier-Lagrave (twice), Veselin Topalov (twice), Hikaru Nakamura, Levon Aronian and Carlsen.

What Actually Happened

One of the most anticipated world championship matches in recent memory occurred in 2018. The match featured the top two players in the world, Magnus Carlsen and Fabiano Caruana, going head-to-head. Carlsen was rated just three points higher than Caruana when they met, yet Carlsen was considered a heavy favorite.

After the 12 classical games all ended in draws, the score was tied at 6-6 and the match went to tiebreaks. Carlsen won the match in the rapid tiebreaks and kept the title.

Magnus plays Caruana
Carlsen (left) plays Caruana (right) in game seven of the 2018 world chess championship. Photo: Peter Doggers/Chess.com.

It is amazing the difference one game can make, and this match was no exception. Magnus had some winning chances in game one with the Black pieces, but game six was Fabiano's chance to push. Here is game six with wonderful annotations by IM Cyrus Lakdawala:

So what if this game had gone differently? What if Caruana had won this game and held Carlsen to draws in the remaining four games and won the championship?

Differing Opinions

I asked some writing colleagues, other coaches, chess friends and students about their opinions on this hypothetical.

Two chess players, a student and a Chess.com staffer, both suggested the possibility that Carlsen would have quit chess! The idea sounds pretty silly, but there is more than one precedent: Two other strong candidates for "greatest player of all time," Garry Kasparov and Bobby Fischer, both left the game while on top. If we look back even further, there was Paul Morphy, who left the game as the strongest player of his time. 

Just because there is a precedent doesn't mean it will happen again! Fischer had mental-health issues, Morphy may have as well (not to mention the outbreak of the U.S. civil war) and Kasparov had decided to focus on politics. These three legendary players strike me as exceptions to the rule, though.

Carlsen doesn't seem to have any interests greater than chess, for the time being. There is no reason to believe that Carlsen would have quit chess because of losing a single match. I believe that Carlsen would have become stronger than ever (more on that later). 

Magnus smirks
Magnus Carlsen in 2019. Photo: Maria Emelianova/Chess.com.

A chess friend of mine suggested that Carlsen may have started his own chess organization. This crazy idea also has a precedent, as Kasparov broke away from FIDE in the 1990s and created the Professional Chess Association (PCA). The PCA lasted for roughly three years (1993-1996), but it still happened. Kasparov did work with Carlsen as his trainer 10 years ago, and Carlsen has publicly voiced his disagreements with FIDE in the past (Carlsen refused to play in the 2011 Candidates' Tournament despite being the top player in the world), but the similarities end there. These two factors are not enough evidence to support this idea.

A fellow chess coach and friend, IM Alberto Chueca, suggested that a 2018 Caruana victory "would be the difference between being one of the best players in the world and a legend." I agree with this idea. 

IM Chueca said "it is sad that (history) doesn't remember the challengers as well as the champions."

He is right: Johannes Zukertort, Mikhail Chigorin, Isidor Gunsberg, Frank Marshall, Siegbert Tarrasch, Carl Schlechter, David Janowsky and Efim Bogoljubov all fought for the world championship, but most would not consider all of them famous chess players. Of course, all of these players are known in chess circles, but losing the world championship is not the same as winning it.

If Caruana had defeated Carlsen in 2018 he would have become world champion and an instant legend. 

Fabiano Caruana, Chess Legend
Fabiano Caruana in 2019. Photo: Maria Emelianova/Chess.com.

NM Sam Copeland, Chess.com's director of social media and international content, concurs with IM Chueca, saying: "A Caruana victory in 2018 would have cemented Caruana's place in the chess firmament, elevating him to the historic status of world champion."

Copeland continued: "Likely this would have led to a chess boom in the United States, but I doubt it would have been anything like the Fischer boom. Beyond that, I doubt 2019 would have been much different. Carlsen would still have had one of his best years ever, unpacking all of his pent-up energy and prep for the championship. A Caruana victory would not, in itself, have questioned Carlsen's status as the number-one player in view of his starlit 2019".

I can't argue with any of Copeland's statements—they are logical and reasonable.


If Caruana had defeated Carlsen in 2018, I believe several things are likely to have happened.

Caruana's win would have sparked more interest in chess in the United States. I agree with Copeland that U.S. public interest in chess would not have reached the feverish peak that it did after Fischer won in 1972—but a spark is a spark. The world has often seen chess become popular in countries when a new champion is crowned, and I don't think the United States would be an exception.

I believe Caruana's win would have inspired the next generation of U.S. talent, as well as pushed the current top American world-class players even further. I agree with Chueca's thought that Caruana would have transitioned from world-class player to chess legend, and that Caruana would be a great and humble ambassador as world chess champion.

Carlsen in 2019. Photo: Maria Emelianova/Chess.com.

Regarding Carlsen, Copeland suggests that losing the match wouldn't have necessarily questioned his status as the number-one player. I will take it one step further: I believe that Carlsen would have turned into the scariest being that the chess world has ever seen.

I'm not suggesting that Carlsen doesn't give 100 percent every time he sits down at a chessboard, nor am I suggesting the he isn't one of the hardest-working world champions of all time. But I do think the most terrifying notion the chess world can possibly conceive (aside from a Carlsen/AlphaZero cyborg) would have occurred—a vengeful Carlsen with newfound motivation.

Carlsen's start to 2019 was already more than noteworthy (winning his first four tournaments), and the rest of 2019 has been exceptional. I believe Carlsen's performance in 2019 would have been even greater, and we would have already seen some borderline unthinkable feats. I think we would have seen Carlsen break through the 2900 classical rating barrier and set new performance rating records–I'm talking 3100-3200+ tournament performances and Fischer-esque domination (think back to the 1971 candidates matches).

My favorite aspect about this particular hypothetical situation? We may see a 2020 Carlsen-Caruana rematch! 

Do you think these two juggernauts will meet again in 2020? What do you think would have happened if Caruana had defeated Carlsen in 2018?

Let us know in the comments below.

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