Carlsen vs Caruana: personalities and styles
Caruana and Carlsen at play at Grenke Chess tournament (Karslruhe, 2018) © Wikimedia Commons

Carlsen vs Caruana: personalities and styles

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Today's super grandmasters can do everything in chess, but they still have their unique preferences, their own strengths and weaknesses. In this article we will look at Carlsen and Caruana from the point of view of their personalities and playing styles.

The ultimate player

There is a rare type of players that have an intuitive playing style. Among the World Champions of the past Capablanca, Smyslov and Karpov had the innate positional feeling, which helped them to find the best (or at least, very good) moves in any position. Smyslov was often quoted as saying "I will make 40 good moves, and if you do the same, the game will be a draw". This level of skill, which is unattainable for mere mortals, breeds a special kind of confidence and leads to a special playing style, which simply aims to outplay the opponent in a long protracted battle. There is a German word characterizing this personality type, spieler (=player), which has made its way into other languages as well.

Magnus Carlsen is the ultimate "spieler". For example, he rarely goes for the most principled lines in the opening. He is quite content with obtaining middlegame positions that might be equal but still have certain tension in them. If that does not work out, Carlsen is prepared to play even a dead drawn position – and he is famous for squeezing out a win in good many of them!

For example, almost all of his victories in 2018 Tata Steel tournament came as a result of this strategy. Just check the diagrams below:

Carlsen was better in some of these games, the other games were close to equal. What matters is that he won all of them!

For a true spieler, the opening is a nuisance, because in this stage of the game the opponents can hide behind memorized theoretical lines. Why compete in this phase, if you have better chances in the middlegame or in the endgame? This is not to say that Carlsen does not work on the openings – of course he works a lot. Carlsen also employs a big team of seconds, like all other top players today, and like Karpov did 40 years ago, cementing his dominance from the first moves of the games.

However, the players such as Capablanca or Smyslov viewed the openings as a part of chess game that cannot be avoided, but one that does not generate special enthusiasm.

What sets Carlsen apart from the past champions is his eagerness to play absolutely insane openings against the lower-rated players, especially in blitz or rapid. Every now and then Carlsen does it even against the top competitions in the official tournaments, as in the following game that started 1.e4 g6 2.d4 Nf6?! 3.e5 Nh5 4.Be2 d6!?

Why does Carlsen play like this? Does he find it boring to play the normal stuff again and again, or does he want to train himself in defense of difficult positions? Is he taunting his opponents, or is it a conscious strategy to get them out of the comfort zone by forcing them to play with handicap?

In any case, even when Carlsen is fooling around, very few opponents succeed in punishing the World Champion for his transgressions.

Carlsen's games from last season's PRO League serve as a perfect case in point:

  • Carlsen – Holm (2436): 1.a3?! g6 2.h4!? Most amazingly, Carlsen somehow made these two moves on the different sides of the board work together. The game continued 2...h5 3.e4 c5 4.Bc4 Bg7 5.Nc3 and White obtained a good version of Grand Prix attack in the Sicilian. The inclusion of h2-h4 and h7-h5 probably favors White, since he got a wonderful outpost on g5 for his knight, and even a2-a3 makes sense, as it creates an escape hatch on a2 for the bishop. Carlsen won with a direct attack on Black king.
  • Carlsen – Yanchenko (2436) started with 1.h3?!, as if Carlsen wanted to show that he does not discriminate one rook pawn over the other.
  • Carlsen – Dreev: 1. Nh3?! The Russian GM picked up the gauntlet and replied symmetrically: 1...Nh6?!! The game continued 2.f4 d5 3.Nf2 Ng4 4.e3 Nxf2 5.Kxf2. White must be worse already. Later on Carlsen sacrificed a pawn and then a full piece (both time, shall we say, speculatively) but he still won in the end!
  • By now the reader can already guess how Carlsen's next White game started: 1.Na3?!: Carlsen – Grover (2484)
  • Miroschnichenko (2606) – Carlsen: 1.Nf3 b5 2.e4 a6 3.d4 Bb7, essentially transposing to 1.e4 a6 2.d4 b5 opening. This opening is arguably not as outrageous as the previous ones, but the result definitely was – Carlsen won in 19 moves.
  • However, nothing can beat the opening of Carlsen – Lalith (2542). Please remove children from the monitor as you are checking the first moves of this game: 1.f3?? This must be the worst of all possible opening moves for White! The game continued 1...e5 2.Nh3 d5 3.Nf2. Thankfully, Carlsen did lose this game!

Obviously, we would not see anything like that in the World Championship match, but it is still a curious indication of Carlsen's mentality. He does send a message to the world: Quod licet Iovi, non licet bovi, or in our intentionally loose translation from Latin: "Don’t try this at home".

The last graduate of the Soviet school

This kind of mischief would probably never occur to Fabiano Caruana, who is as serious as it gets. However, his seriousness is not the only reason why Caruana strikes me as a perfect product of the Soviet school of chess.

Of course, Caruana was born long after the Soviet Union ceased to be, and he never attended chess lessons in a "Houses of Pioneers", but he studied chess almost exclusively with the coaches hailing from the Soviet Union – GM Miron Sher, IM Boris Zlotnik, GM Alexander Chernin, and GM Vladimir Chuchelov. These coaches helped Caruana to develop his natural talent and groomed him into the methodical and thoroughly prepare player that he is today. As a result, Caruana's style reminds of Mikhail Botvinnik. Heck, Caruana even looks like a young Botvinnik! 😊


Partially, this is due to Caruana's own personality, which is calm and organized. The other part should be attributed to his chess education, which emphasized the logic and scientific approach to chess.

Caruana's best games are characterized by the ruthless execution of the plan. A good illustration to this point is the following victory over Karjakin, in which Caruana did not hesitate to sacrifice two exchanges to obtain complete domination on the board:

This playing style cannot function without a strong foundation in the openings and typical middlegame positions. Caruana plays many different openings, but sticks to classics that stood the test of time – Ruy Lopez, Petroff, Sicilian, Nimzo, Queen's Gambit... In these openings Caruana can outprepare anyone. I mean, how many players can claim a plus score in Petroff with Black?!

Interestingly, Caruana also played in PRO Chess League, where Carlsen was goofying around with the openings. However, Caruana played the same mainstream stuff that he could have played in any regular tournaments, such as Ruy Lopez, Nimzo or Grünfeld with Black. His most venturesome attempt to surprise the opponents was 3...g6 system in Ruy Lopez, which recently seemed to be gaining in popularity anyway.

We can trace Caruana's work on the openings all the way back to his teenager years. For example, here is his own commentary to 14th move of a game that he played in 2007 Italian championship, the year that he became a Grandmaster:

I had prepared this variation before the tournament, specifically for Godena. I don't believe White has any advantage here, although with almost no practical tests it is hard to give a definitive verdict now. <...>

After some deliberation Godena went for a quiet 15.exd5, which was probably a smart decision, as Caruana quotes half a page of complex tactical variations to what he considered the most critical line, 15.f4!? Then Caruana compares the pluses and minuses of different moves that were previously played by Movsesian and Tiviakov. A bit later Caruana criticizes the opponent's move and gives a higher-level evaluation of the ensuing struggle:

This is actually not helpful for White's cause at all. I would probably not want to play ...b4 anyway, as it increases the scope of White's light-squared bishop. It is interesting that Godena makes a series of small errors, which don't hurt his position tremendously but make it increasingly difficult to defend; eventually when he must play very accurately to hold the position and with limited time, he quite naturally collapses and gets a losing position.

All in all, It does not feel like Caruana belongs to the "computer generation" in chess. This is somewhat paradoxical, as Caruana is two years younger than Carlsen, but there is a world of difference in terms of how they developed as chess players. Caruana improved his positional understanding "the old way", by learning from the coaches, studying the typical positions and then testing his knowledge in practice.

Growing up in Norway, Carlsen did not have that luxury, but given his immense talent for positional play it is not even clear if he needed it. He perfected his craft with the help of computers and online blitz, but that method would not necessarily work for anyone else. Carlsen is an outlier.

The logical style of play makes Caruana tough to beat in the openings and in the middlegame, but it might also make him vulnerable when things go wrong. Karjakin said something to this effect recently, and indeed Caruana might not be best in defending passively without a constructive plan (although in a recent interview Carlsen suggested that Caruana's resiliency on defense should improve in the World Championship match). 

This also means that Caruana is not likely to go for the trench warfare. Unlike Karjakin, Caruana will strive to win the match.

Which of the styles will come out victorious in this match? Are we going to witness a triumph of a spieler, or will the method prevail in the end?

Only a few weeks left until we find out the answer!

Read the other articles in my World Championship match preview series: