The wizard of Petroff
Caruana pondering his move during the last round of 2018 Candidates Tournament © Russian Chess Federation

The wizard of Petroff

FM ddtru

One of Fabiano Caruana's most incredible achievements is that he turned Petroff defense into a fun and dangerous weapon.

Think of it for a second. The symmetric and rock solid Petroff, the opening that makes Berlin defense look exciting in comparison. The choice of Vladimir Kramnik and Anish Giri. The opening in which Black strives to equalize by making a dozen accurate moves in succession. Does it sound like fun?

And yet Fabiano Caruana's record on the Black side of Petroff defense in 2018 dispels the reputation of this opening as boring and drawish:

  • Caruana won more games (6) than he lost (4) - with Black pieces!
  • He had exactly the same number of decisive games as draws (10 each)

It was not all smooth sailing, and Caruana suffered several painful defeats in 2018. The worst of them was a loss to Sergey Karjakin in the 12th round of the Candidates Tournament. It put Caruana's qualification for the World Championship into question, but it did not waver his belief in the opening.

In the last round of the Candidates Tournament Caruana had Black pieces vs Grischuk. In his annotations Caruana explained the enormous importance of this game: 

This was the climax of three weeks of chess, months of preparation and thirteen hard fought previous games. My tournament had its ups and downs, but thanks to a fortunate win the previous day, I entered the final round half a point ahead of my closest rivals, Mamedyarov and Karjakin. My tiebreaks were worse than both of theirs, so I wasn't sure a draw would be enough to win the event, but at the same time I didn't want to burn my bridges playing for a win. I also felt that Alexander would be eager for a fight.

It was only fitting that Caruana's most important victory to that point was scored in Petroff defense:

A month later Caruana was playing in the US Championship, and he certainly made the Russian defense fun again!

Caruana struggled at the beginning of the US Championship. In the 4th round he overpressed and sensationally lost to Zviad Izoria, then in the 5th round he barely held a draw in a game vs the eventual winner, Sam Shankland.

This is why Caruana's choice of the opening for his 6th round game vs Ray Robson was a bit surprising, but as we will see, playing Petroff does not mean playing for a draw. Over the course of this game Caruana intuitively sacrificed two pawns in succession, and won in great style:

Let us finish this article with something light, such as Caruana's victory over Karjakin at Leuven Rapid & Blitz tournament. Of course, it was just a rapid game and the stakes were much lower than in the Candidates, but this little revenge must have been pleasing nonetheless, especially since it was a clear knockout:

Are we going to see the exciting Petroff defense in the World Championship match? Can't wait to find out!