Carlsen vs Caruana: psychology and history
Caruana and Carlsen at play at Grenke Chess tournament (Baden-Baden, 2015) © Wikimedia Commons

Carlsen vs Caruana: psychology and history

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The World Championship match between Magnus Carlsen and Fabiano Caruana is less than three weeks away, so it is a great time for predictions and analysis. I believe that the outcome of this match will be mostly decided by psychological factors.

Specifically, there are two key questions that the match should answer:

  1. Does Caruana believe, deep down inside, that he can win this match?
  2. Are we going to see the supremely confident, or the somewhat insecure version of Carlsen?

I am going to illustrate the importance of these questions by looking at Carlsen and Caruana careers so far, and by comparing them to the great Champions and Challengers of the past.

At the time of writing, Carlsen and Caruana occupy #1 and #2 spots in live ratings, separated by less than two rating points. Their names were linked to each other for a long time. Starting from 2012 there was probably a good dozen tournaments, in which Caruana finished 2nd to Carlsen. [UPDATE: Judit Polgar's article in "New in Chess" (#7/2018) gives an exact answer - Carlsen won 11 of the classical tournaments in which both of them played, Caruana won 3]

However, there were also tournaments in which Caruana finished ahead of Carlsen. No one can forget Caruana's brilliant victory in 2014 Sinquefield Cup, when he started the tournament 7/7 in a double round robin tournament that included six of top 10 players at the time, including Carlsen. Caruana's rating performance of 3000+ is one of the best-ever tournament performances. It also officially catapulted him to #2 in the world rankings.

The competition at the top is brutal, and eventually Caruana was pushed back by other players. He never dropped out of Top 10, but went through a few slumps, sometimes for as long as a year.

Most importantly, Caruana could not make it through the arduous and cumbersome qualification process for the World Championship match. He did not even qualify to the Candidates Tournaments in 2013 or 2014, despite already being the Top 5 player by then. In 2016 Caruana played in his first Candidates and got very close to winning it but lost a crucial game in the final round to Karjakin. Only in 2018 Caruana was finally able to win the Candidates and advance to the World Championship match.

Caruana's chess career so far reminds me of the great champions of the past, Vasily Smyslov and Boris Spassky.

Smyslov grew up in the shadow of Botvinnik, who dominated the Soviet and World chess throughout 1940s. Smyslov finished 2nd to Botvinnik in Moscow & USSR Championships, 1948 World Championship match tournament and many other competitions. When FIDE introduced the regular qualification system, Smyslov only finished 3rd in the 1950 Candidates tournament. In 1953 he finally won the Candidates, but his first match with Botvinnik ended in 12:12 tie. And only in 1957, already in his fourth World Championship cycle, Smyslov finally managed to defeat the Patriarch.

The story of Spassky is perhaps even more fitting. Spassky was the original prodigy – when he qualified to Candidates tournament in 1955, he became the youngest Grandmaster at the time, shaving full 5 years off the previous record in the process. However, in the next two cycles Spassky did not even make it to the Interzonals. The USSR Championships at that time were the most difficult tournaments in the world, and both times Spassky missed the qualification by losing a last-round game to direct competitors (in 1958 he lost a famous game to Tal and in 1961 to Stein). Only in 1964-66 cycle did Spassky finally manage to get through all the stages and qualified for his first World Championship match with Petrosian. Spassky lost, but in 1969 he was back and became a World Champion by winning his second match with Petrosian.

The parallels between Smyslov, Spassky and Caruana are clear. Caruana is exactly at the same stage as Smyslov or Spassky were prior to their first World Championship matches. If the history is of any guide, Caruana might not yet be ready to win it all. He does not have any match experience, much less the experience of World Championship matches. His performance over the last few years is not nearly as consistent as Carlsen's. And yet, the trend has recently been in his favor, his rating is almost the same as Carlsen's, and finally Caruana is almost two years younger than Carlsen, so time is on his side. It is not exactly 10 years of age that separated Smyslov from Botvinnik, or even 8 years that Spassky had on Petrosian, but then the chess has accelerated a great deal since then. Even if Caruana loses this match, it would still be a positive for him. And who knows, maybe he can win it all already!

Whatever the outcome of the match might be, Caruana has done enough to get the World Champion out of his usual relaxed state. For the first time in many years Carlsen might feel that his status as the undisputed leader of the chess world is threatened.

Earlier this month, in an interview during Chess Olympiad, he acknowledged that being number one is a part of his identity and that he is concerned about Caruana potentially overtaking him in the world rankings:

I would like to give you some boring, politically correct answer, but the truth is, yeah, it does bother me! I’ve been the number one in the rankings every single day for about seven years and it is unpleasant to have him and, I suppose, Shakhriyar [Mamedyarov] as well, breathing down my neck. So well, I’m hoping he’s not going to catch me, that’s for sure! It doesn’t look like he’s going to win today, but who knows.

Now that both Carlsen and Caruana have played their final games before the World Championship match, Carlsen must be relieved that it did not happen, but the gap between the Champion and the Challenger has shrunk to negligible numbers. They will start the match as complete equals and should Caruana win the match in the classical games part, he would indeed overtake Carlsen as the new Number One.

Of course, Carlsen is fully justified in considering himself a notch above everyone else. Carlsen became the youngest player ever to reach 2800 rating (at the age of 18) and the youngest ever to become number one in (shortly afterwards, barely turning 19). From 2011 onwards, he was always at the top of rating lists, breaking a world record for the highest rating ever in the process (2882, which Carlsen reached in 2014). Carlsen led the chess world since his teenager years, and it surely played a large part in forming his ego and his view of the world.

In another recent interview Carlsen noted the symbolic significance of two highest-rated players playing for the World Championship:  

...everybody agrees now that [Carlsen and Caruana] are the two strongest players. There’s nobody that really questions that, which makes it all the more exciting really, and makes it kind of easier for me as well, because I know it’s 100% legitimate, whereas the previous matches you could always ask ‘what if this guy had qualified’ — like last time ‘what if Caruana had won the last round’, wouldn’t that have been tougher? This time it’s the real deal.

Carlsen's somewhat condescending reference to the previous match with Karjakin is especially curious and shows that he did not feel challenged prior to 2016 match. If anything, that time Carlsen was too relaxed. He almost paid a dear price for his over-confidence when he lost the Game 8 after seven draws in a row. Carlsen managed to equalize and won the match on tie-break, but it seems that he still refuses to accept the idea that he could have lost that match.

In that regard Carlsen is similar to Robert James Fischer and Garry Kasparov (but not in the style of play, which is a topic for another article). All of these champions dominated the chess field for an extended period of time and were practically invincible in their prime. They were head and shoulders above their opponents – not just in terms of pure chess ability, but also in terms of confidence. They simply knew that they were going to win! Many an opponent melted under Kasparov's piercing stare, or Fischer's intensity at the board. This mental edge alone was probably worth 100 extra points in rating!

Carlsen is also gifted with that psychological edge. He is famous for squeezing victories out of absolutely drawn positions. No one can explain how he does it, but it certainly has to do with his confidence and stamina. It is in the fifth or sixth hour of the game, when other players start to fall apart, that Carlsen is at his best.

However, that winning mental state of the great champions is also prone to breakdowns. We saw it in 2000 with Kasparov, when he was powerless against the Kramnik's Berlin Wall. We saw it in 2013 Candidates Tournament, when Carlsen lost control in a crucial last-round game vs Svidler and could not hide his emotions. Something similar happened in Carlsen's 2016 match against the "Minister of Defense" Karjakin, when Carlsen was visibly frustrated after his loss in Game 8. (We are not going to discuss the reason that led Fischer to decline the match with Karpov in 1975, although one might argue that it also falls into the same category.)

What unites all these cases is the champion's sudden realization of his own mortality. Once it happens, the finely tuned mechanism of a player starts to falter, the doubts are creeping in, and the psychological initiative changes hands, which is especially dangerous in a match.

Whether this is going to happen in 2018 World Championship match largely depends on the result of the first six games. The championship matches are twice shorter now than they used to be in XX century and the opening preparation seems to kill half of the games before the players start to play on their own. In these circumstances a single mistake can change the dynamics of the match completely.

I still think that Carlsen's chances of winning this match are better. And yet...

If Caruana truly believes he can win this match...

If Caruana's opening preparation is strong enough to hold with Black and pose a few surprises with White...

If Carlsen starts to doubt himself...

...then we might have a very interesting match on our hands!

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