Fabiano Caruana On Playing A World Championship, On Carlsen-Nepomniachtchi, And More
Fabiano Caruana. Photo: Maria Emelianova/

Fabiano Caruana On Playing A World Championship, On Carlsen-Nepomniachtchi, And More

| 43 | Chess Players

GM Fabiano Caruana will be's star commentator during the Carlsen-Nepomniachtchi world championship match alongside GM Robert Hess and IM Danny Rensch. Nobody can provide better insights than the world's number-two player, who was Carlsen's opponent in the previous title match in 2018.

How does Caruana look back at that match? What did he learn from it? What happened with the video that leaked some of his preparation? And what are his predictions for the 2021 world title match? All these questions, and more, were discussed in a Zoom call between Caruana and yours truly, and then he kindly provided an additional comment after the Norway Chess tournament had been played.

What is it like to win the Candidates, wake up the next morning, and think: I will play a world championship match?

The Candidates really starts months before the actual games begin. There’s a lot of qualifications which is extremely difficult, and I don’t think anyone is exempt from the difficulty. Everyone has struggled to qualify. There’s also a great deal of preparation that comes in after you qualify. It’s not quite up to the level of the world championship match, but it’s almost there in terms of the level of preparation, the level of tension, the match at stake. It’s pretty much the only thing that can almost be compared to a world championship match.

Agon's Ilya Merenzon, Fabiano Caruana, and FIDE's D.V. Sundar. | Photo: Maria Emelianova/
Agon's Ilya Merenzon, Fabiano Caruana with the Candidates winner's trophy, and FIDE's D.V. Sundar. Photo: Maria Emelianova/

There’s this intense period of months and months, and of course, during the tournament, it’s even more intense. It’s about three weeks that you play and even on the rest days, you’re still filled with the tension of what’s going to happen for the next game, what am I going to prepare, what am I going to do. So once it’s over, the immediate thing is just, I guess, some sort of release of stress, and not much thought immediately, at least for me, is given to the match. Of course, that comes later, and there’s a huge amount of work and preparation that goes into the match. But the morning after, or let’s say a few days after, I wasn’t really thinking about the match, especially because I also had a tournament that I played I think two days later after the Candidates finished, the Grenke tournament.

And you won that one as well.

Yes, that was a good year for me. I carried over with, I guess, the euphoria or the momentum that I had from the Candidates, that I did very well there. But yes, then, of course, you start to think, I am playing a world championship match. But it only really hit me maybe like a week before. We were preparing, maybe 10 days to a week before, that this is actually happening. I am going to get to London, and it’s the end of the preparation. We had all this. It felt like an abundance of time to think about the approach, and the openings, and Magnus, and the entirety of the match. Then a week before, you realize that even with all the time, you didn’t do as much as you wanted to do.

Only a week or 10 days before, you really realized you are actually going to be part of a match, it’s actually happening?

Let’s say the emotional realization. The feeling of it. I think I felt it also when I was playing the Olympiad or at our last training session before the match, and I think I did feel it there. I was very on edge during that tournament. I felt stressed out, so I think it was already starting to hit me about 10 days before. It was during our final training session before we went to London, and that was when kind of emotionally it started to impact me. With the first game, it gets more real until you actually sit down at the board.

And unlike any other tournament, there are 30 photographers clicking away. That must be the moment when you realize how big this is.

It was the moment I realized how stressful it was and would be. Yes, I think that puts it pretty well. That was an indescribable moment for me because when I sat down, we were pretty much in a glass box where we couldn’t really see outside and the number of spectators watching us, and there were maybe 20 or 30 photographers crowded around the board. That is, I think, when the stress really first hit me and of course, it doesn’t really leave for the entirety of the match. But you get more used to it.

It was the moment I realized how stressful it was and would be.

I think it was lucky for me that I survived the first game because I was dead-lost. I was pretty much in the worst possible position. I was in an unfamiliar situation, and I was outplayed early on by Magnus, out-prepared certainly, and I got a losing position with almost no time on the clock. Somehow I survived that, and then that gave me some push for, let’s say, some more of an internal belief that this was a match that I could win. While if I had lost the first game, it might have been a really, really difficult situation.

Carlsen Caruana 2018
A crowd of photographers at the Carlsen-Caruana match. Photo: Maria Emelianova/

Can you describe what the months of preparation for the match looked like? How do you plan? How do you approach this?

We had a team formed for the Candidates. That was Rustam [Kasimdzhanov], Christian [Chirila], Leinier [Dominguez] and Alejandro [Ramirez]. He [Ramirez] wasn’t really part of the training camp for the Candidates, but he came and worked for a few days and came onboard for the world championship match. So that was the team. It was already set in place which is nice; there wasn’t much thought that had to be given to that. We just had to figure out the time periods.

We managed to schedule about three months of training which with a lot of people, it’s a lot of time to do significant work and meaningful work. But chess is also such a vast game that you can go on and on forever without feeling that you checked everything that you wanted to, especially because it’s not only important to work but also to assimilate it. Everyone can do work, but that task is for me alone. I have to make sure that I understand the positions and I’m comfortable with them. I’m the only one who is going to be playing them.

Is everyone getting a certain task? Does it mean that one grandmaster is going to look at a certain range of openings and another is looking at other openings or is it completely different?

That’s usually the case. Of course, it’s very flexible, but we would usually give certain positions or certain openings to different people so that would be their area, and I would, let’s say, play training games against them or check their analysis every now and then to see if it suited me. Of course, things change a lot. Not always everything is organized, and sometimes there is some switching around, or people move from one opening to another. Sometimes our plans change entirely because you check an opening and you’re excited about it. It looks good, but then you’ll find a problem, and you might have to scrap the work.

Christian Chirila
One of Caruana's seconds, Christian Chirila, was present in London during the match. Photo: Mike Klein/

At what stage do you make big decisions? For example, in this match, you decided that if Carlsen goes for the Sveshnikov, I’ll first try to punch him a few times with the Rossolimo, and at some point, I will switch to the actual Sveshnikov. At what stage of the preparation are you actually making those kinds of choices?

I think we made the biggest decisions in the first camp, somewhere in the summer. That was the decision to play 1.e4 mostly, not to focus on 1.d4 because Magnus has a very wide repertoire, so I would have to pretty much have a complete 1.d4 repertoire to challenge him there. It felt like it would be too much work. The other decision was about playing black in terms of what to play against 1.e4. The Petroff (and sticking with it) was decided, and the Queen’s Gambit Declined.

Overall, I felt like we both did very well with black. Somehow our black preparation worked out very well, and our white preparation did not so much. That was my feeling. We did still challenge each other sometimes, but that was my general impression.

Overall, I felt like we both did very well with black. Somehow our black preparation worked out very well and our white preparation did not so much.

To what extent are you actually looking at everything? I mean, of course, you focus on the main openings that Magnus always plays. There’s always an option that he will play something that he has never played before. It could even be the Alekhine. To what extent are you checking your lines in all the other openings?

That was something, I assumed, that he could very easily jump. At the time he was playing the Marshall mainly, so a lot of the effort was put into the Marshall, but I think there was this general assumption that it’s at least a 50-percent chance that he would be playing another opening. Let’s say the big ones are the Marshall, the Berlin. Let’s say these are the safety nets. This is where someone can prepare and feel very comfortable with the preparation. And the Najdorf. The Sveshnikov was not quite as much on our radar as other openings, so that’s why the Rossolimo was our main choice. We didn’t actually get to work on this 7.Nd5 Sveshnikov until during the match. That was all on the spot.

The Rossolimo was where I felt most comfortable, and I thought that’s where I’ll challenge him in case he goes there, but the preparation just wasn’t good. We hadn’t put enough time into it or enough care. It didn’t work out too well. The Sveshnikov with 7.Nd5 worked out far better. There I was posing significant problems for him. But that was all of the work of the team. I wasn’t even mostly involved with what my team was doing during the match. I was checking and desperately trying to remember and figure out the positions.

As you were saying, it’s simply not possible to prepare for everything even in three months. But still, looking back, is there anything you would’ve done differently now that you have played the match and know what happened?

In terms of approach, I think we did things pretty well actually, considering it was my first time preparing for this level of an event. Rustam had experience. He had prepared world championship matches with Vishy [Anand]; he had worked for years and years with Vishy so he knew the terrain well. But for the rest of us, this was completely new terrain. I think that our approach was pretty good. There were, of course, mistakes, analytical mistakes, mistakes of where we put our emphasis in openings.

But besides the opening work which was, of course, a big part of it, I think, I was in very good chess shape that year. Also during the match, the level of us was generally high. It was of high quality for the classical portion until we got to rapid. My play throughout that year was quite good, and I think this was also in part because I was working on chess diligently and practicing a lot, not only openings but also general chess skills and tools. We put as much time in as we could. I was working more than I had in any period in my chess career.

Fabiano Caruana Grenke 2018.
Caruana had an excellent chess year in 2018. Photo: Maria Emelianova/

There was not really a moment during the match that you were like: oh my gosh, why didn’t we look at this? How could we forget?

Specific openings, for sure. But I think that only comes with hindsight. Of course, I can say we should have checked the Sveshnikov-Rossolimo complex more. We should have put more emphasis there. We also had, for example, in the Petroff a glaring error that was dead-lost. My main line was losing by force. [Smiles.]

We also had, for example, in the Petroff a glaring error that was dead-lost. My main line was losing by force.

When did you notice that?

It was discovered a little after the match. I was preparing for a game, checked the line, and it was like: oh, by the way, there is this move here. And I’m not exaggerating when I say it was lost. The position was actually a forced mate, more or less.

It is possible you could have lost a game in the match like that?

It was possible. It’s a very narrow point; he would have to stumble on it. It was kind of comparable to Kramnik’s mistake in preparation against Leko in Brissago 2004, the Marshall. These things happen.

The thing is like, there was one point where we just needed to be a bit more diligent with the computer. And something I can only say with hindsight, the evolution of chess engines.... I mean, the computers have also gotten stronger, but the whole evolution that started with AlphaZero and with neural nets. The level of chess engines improved so much more than in any other time that I’ve been working on chess, so now that mistake would never happen, three years later. That analytical mistake, computers would just spot it instantly.

Does this have anything to do with cloud engines?

We used cloud engines. We were actually working with a company that was providing us with very powerful hardware, but the computers were different. Nobody was really using Leela then, so we started using Leela. I assume Magnus was also using Leela at the time, but it was still a very rare thing. Leela was extremely weak then compared to now. It would very often blunder mate or not be able to win endgames a rook up, things like that. It had some weird glitches, but it was also helpful in preparation. But now everything has improved astronomically. The rate of improvement is amazing.

Carlen- Caruana game 7 2018
Carlsen-Caruana, game seven. Photo: Peter Doggers/

This also means that the level of preparation will be extremely high and in many opening variations, as is the case for top-level chess these days I guess, you might have quite a similar analysis. It will all add up to an enormous amount of information. How on earth are you going to remember all that? How do you memorize all those lines?

The memorization thing is a big question. Let’s say there are players with better memories and worse memories, but even Magnus, who has probably the best memory among top chess players, still struggles. I think that also changed the approach because you don’t want to be cramming lines to your head before every game. It’s exhausting. It might work for a single game, but overall it’s an exhausting thing, although it is an approach that some players take. But that’s why people now look for small directions which might not lead to an advantage, very likely won’t, but they are hoping that their opponent might not be so familiar with it. And if it has a safety net and if it’s considered to be a very decent idea, something where you can test your opponent a bit, hopefully, you get a game. I think most players are adopting this, especially in the age of online rapid chess or rapid chess in general where if you have to try something that will put pressure on your opponent and exclude the possibility of your losing, you might win one every three games, and this is already a great success. So it’s a much more practical approach now.

But for a world championship match, I guess players are still trying to go for some kind of complete preparation where they try to have everything figured out, with Black at least. They try not to experience any surprises with Black and with White try to put pressure here and there. You don’t have to win all the games. You just have to win one; that’s enough to put you in the lead. The idea isn’t to wipe your opponent off the board; the idea is to maximize your equity.

The idea isn’t to wipe your opponent off the board; the idea is to maximize your equity.

From a practical point of view, is there a certain method you use to actually study lines? These days there’s a lot of talk about repetition language learning, for instance, and there are all kinds of memory tricks. Is there something that you know other top grandmasters are doing?

I know for me, and I think this is similar for other players, positions that you see over the board and that you’ve played with and not just scrolled through lines on the computer, those stick in your head for the best for a longer period of time. If you just want to cram before a game and just go through all the moves on a computer, it will probably suffice—also from my experience, exit your memory very quickly: three days later you might not remember a thing of what you’ve seen. A lot of players have repertoires where they constantly revisit openings and lines and see the same positions, let’s say, 10 times during a tournament. They’ve seen the same positions hundreds of times and, of course, that really sticks into your memory at some point. If you see a player like, well, let’s say Maxime [Vachier-Lagrave] is a good example who plays his lines almost religiously—he sticks to his guns. He’s seen the same positions so many times that they will stick in his memory. But still you make mistakes; memory isn’t perfect. It can fade, and we’re only human so there’s always bound to be some mistakes.

I think players who are not so familiar with preparing for games, or have not seen the routines the players go through before games, think that it’s all memorization but very often at the board, it’s a lot of trying to calculate lines to kind of jog your memory, trying to work through all the details. A lot of times I see a position at the board, and I know that I’ve seen it before, but I don’t remember the details or I’m calculating them, trying to work through everything to regain that familiarity. It comes back when you start thinking and calculating. It is not just players repeating moves that they have analyzed beforehand without any thought. It’s very often thinking about why are we making these moves, what happens at this, what happens at that.

One of the things is that you can’t analyze everything. It’s too much of a jungle. You might come across a move which is sensible—it looks sensible—but you know that it wasn’t something that was in the notes or the computer showed, and then you try to figure out, based on your knowledge, that this move might not be so good. You try to figure out why. So there’s a lot of things like that.

Caruana Carlsen
"You can't analyze everything." Photo: Maria Emelianova/

What for you is the most challenging part of playing a world championship match?

Everything is challenging. [Smiles.] One of the things is that it’s, and this is to some extent true in most tournaments, that it’s nonstop chess, that you go from thinking about the game to playing the game to thinking about the next game. But in a world championship, it’s far more tense. You can’t really afford to make a mistake, let your guard down, so that builds up the pressure. At some point, it takes its toll. It’s not only a mental toll but also a physical toll.

So, in general, the pressure and the stress of the match is the most difficult part. The fact that you’re playing a player like Magnus, one of the greatest players in the history of chess, and you know that he won’t make a single moment in any game easy for you, so you’ll always have to work for everything. If you’re trying to win a game or if you are defending a worse position, you know that every moment will be difficult. So it’s overall a very challenging thing.

Is that kind of unique for Magnus? Is he the only player that makes every single moment in the game difficult?

He is the player who is overall the strongest, the most accurate, and the most consistent. He also puts pressure on you.... Some players sometimes let up on the pressure, while Magnus doesn’t usually ever let up. He almost always keeps it up, whether it’s in terms of defense because sometimes he’ll get a bad position, but he’s a very good defender.… There’s a moment in games where it feels like it’s heading to a draw and a lot of players sort of coast. Once you’ve played a lot with Magnus, you’ll understand that he never coasts so if you make a slight inaccuracy, it can turn into a slightly unpleasant position, and sometimes that can snowball into turning a game that feels like it’s about to be a draw into a game that you might lose.

He is the player who is overall the strongest, the most accurate, and the most consistent.

That was actually one of the things I was proud of in the match—that in those, let’s say, "sixth-hour moments" in the game I was actually, I think, playing better than him in those long endgames we played, and we played quite a number of them. That was actually one of my strengths during the match. It was still only a minor strength because we did end up drawing all the games, but it was something I was looking out for, not to relax at any moment.

But if you take any top player or most top players, they always put pressure on you. They always make life difficult for you. Whenever I’m playing, for example, Shakhriyar [Mamedyarov] or Levon [Aronian], I know that this is going to be a difficult game and I’m going to have to solve a lot of problems, but I also know that they can make extremely serious mistakes at any moment. Magnus can make those mistakes, but he is a bit less likely to. That’s sort of the feeling I get.

Caruana Carlsen 2018
"Magnus can make those mistakes, but he is a bit less likely to." Photo: Maria Emelianova/

One of those long endgames was game one, where you survived a lost position. What did that do to you and, in general, how big is the role that psychology plays in the world championship match? Is it bigger than in other tournaments?

I don’t know if it’s bigger than in other tournaments. The only thing is that in other tournaments if you don’t get first place, you don’t beat yourself up over it, so it’s really that the stakes are higher. But if we started to analyze why every player didn’t win Norway Chess or the Sinquefield Cup or Tata Steel, then we’d understand that a lot of it is definitely psychology. A lot of players just lose interest in a tournament when it’s not going their way or not defending tenaciously enough when they’re getting bad positions. For sure, these things factor into every chess game, into every tournament probably at almost every level, not just at the top level. It’s just that when it’s a world championship match, we’re analyzing both players in terms of their psychological approach and their preparation approach and every aspect of how they are going into the game, but we don’t give the same spotlight to the 10 players that are playing, let’s say, the Sinquefield Cup. But I think the psychology is very similar in most ways.

Of course, emotions creep in. You have games where you survive lost positions, you have your games where you missed your chances. To what extent are you telling yourself not to dwell on it but focus on the next game? Or do you actually look at games deeply during the match to deal with them, to get them behind you? How do you go from one game to the next?

I had two moments that were disappointing during the match. One was the endgame where I was objectively winning…

Game six. Sesse gave a winning line that even grandmasters couldn’t understand. I was actually curious if you understood that winning line and how much you looked at it.

At first, I thought this isn’t very logical; I don’t really understand why this is winning. Then, when I thought about it more in terms of White’s options, it became clear that if I made this move, even if I just made it randomly.... Because at that point, I had been putting pressure on him for most of the endgame but at some point, I just thought it’s going to be a draw. I didn’t see a way forward. And then we started moving around, moving around, and then he made this move which allowed me to win. But during the game, it just felt like the last 15 moves or the next 10 moves, it didn’t feel like he made a mistake because nobody told me, "You’re winning at exactly this moment," so I didn’t really pay much attention to it during the game. After the game, there was a press conference. Then I started to think, I started playing through it in my head, and I realized that White’s options are very limited after this move, and once you make it, it’s actually a pretty straightforward win.

Carlsen Caruana 2018 game 6
Carlsen and Caruana analyzing game six at the press conference with GM Danny King. Photo: Mike Klein/

And you didn’t analyze it more deeply in your hotel room?

We don’t actually look at the games at all, but you do think about the game. It stays in your head. If you miss a clear win, it might keep you up all night—if it’s something like that, which was a bit difficult and a bit of a random chance in a drawn position just because he made a careless move that neither of us realized. It didn’t hit me too hard.

The one which really disappointed me was when I played this move 28.h3 [in game eight - PD]. I had clearly caught him in the opening. He was much lower on time, and I had an objectively much better—to maybe an even winning—position. I was kind of trying to press him on time. I was trying to keep the pressure up, and then I made this positional move which wasted an important tempo. It was a stupid moment because I could have just sat there, been disciplined, and tried to figure out the position better. So those were the two moments where I had chances to win a game.

That second example, was that something that was lingering for more than just a day in your head?

It definitely lingered for more than a day. The question is: Did it linger for more than a year?! [Smiles.] That was disappointing. It’s not like that was the end of the match if I win that game, but he would have been in a very difficult position.

It definitely lingered for more than a day. The question is: Did it linger for more than a year?!

Sometimes you have a win that’s an objective win, like, just mathematically winning, like that endgame, but you don’t feel bad about it because you also feel like it’s something above you. You can’t figure out everything over the board. And there are some things that are not even objectivity winning. It’s not the end of the game if I don’t play 28.h3, but at least I shouldn’t do that. It’s not even a chess mistake really. It’s just impulsiveness and carelessness and all these non-chess things I made with a rush. Of course, you see the different moves and figure them out, so this was not really a chess mistake. The other one was a chess mistake, but one I think I can forgive myself for. That being said, he also missed a far easier and clearer win in the first game, so it’s not like I was the only one who had regrets during the classical segment.

The brings me to another question: What was the biggest lesson you learned from playing Magnus?

I definitely learned a lot about chess and a lot about how to approach chess, a lot about how I play, how I approach the game, and the mistakes I make in the weaknesses I have.

Carlsen Caruana 2018
The start of game 12 in 2018. Photo: Maria Emelianova/

Is that based on a thorough analysis of your games afterward? Was there actually a moment when you went through the games, maybe with your seconds?

No, I never looked at the games again after the match. It is, of course, a painful thing—to feel like you’re close and to miss out on it. So I didn’t think about the games, but I never actually checked them, either on a computer or at the board, after the match.

I never looked at the games again after the match.

It’s supposed to be good for your chess to analyze your games, you know!

I’m not sure if I took the right lessons away from that. Of course, it was a very strange three years that followed it.

It does make me wonder because you said you learned so much, from where you got all those insights. From playing the games, from the memories that you have, from the moves that he plays? How did this work in your case?

It wasn’t so much the moves. It was more how I think about just in general and how I make decisions, and that’s not always just about analyzing a move and figuring out the truth of a position. It’s more about thinking about what’s in my head. One of the things I realized is that Magnus at some point had thought about me in a way that he figured out my strengths and weaknesses. I never really felt that before with another player—that they are actually sitting down and figuring out what I am good and bad at and try to aim for those positions. But I realized that Magnus just did that diligently and understood me probably pretty well as a player. I don’t think that I quite did the same for him or at least as well. I probably wasn’t as diligent in my approach towards the player rather than towards, let’s say, not towards my chess but towards his chess. In a tournament that doesn’t matter—I’m playing nine other people, or in the Candidates seven other people—and I can’t think about that, psychoanalyze every single player. I just need to make sure that my chess is as good as it can be. But when it’s one on one, then that really has a lot of importance. He did that better than me, that’s for sure. I think that’s also probably one of his strengths, the psychological part and being able to understand what to do against specific people.

What I did before the match was probably good, but what I did after the match probably wasn’t. I probably could’ve done better in terms of how I approached chess. It kind of felt like once the match was over, I just needed to release tension, and it led me to not be very serious for a solid year or so. After that, it was pretty much the point when Covid happened and chess got very strange.

At the press conference before the match, you said that you had seen the flaws in Carlsen's play, but that you could not deduce any clear pattern. Do you now have a better idea of what Ian should be focusing on?

It’s actually difficult, with the mistakes he makes, because I look at his games and, of course, I see that he makes mistakes. Everyone does and that’s normal. Nobody is immune from that. But they don’t seem to have a very clear pattern. I don’t know if that’s because of his universality or because I’m just not very good at figuring things out. [Smiles.] But it might be because he is generally good in pretty much all areas, and the mistakes he makes are not as if you can just target him, like, you play this type of position and he’s not gonna play as well as you. So we kind of understand what Magnus’s strengths are; so we consider things that aren’t his strengths as weaknesses, but that’s more like a relative weakness than that he’s not good at that type of position. But with Magnus overall, he is extremely universal. He does figure things out pretty well in most positions he is given.

Magnus Carlsen closeup
Magnus Carlsen: "extremely universal." Photo: Maria Emelianova/

Somewhere between game three and game four, a video was published that shows your team preparing for the match and doing some sports in St. Louis. It led to a bit of a scandal because, in one of the shots, a laptop could be seen where some chess analysis was revealed. The video was soon removed from YouTube. Did this whole episode affect your preparation or play in any way?

We were working at the farm; that was our first training session. We call it the farm but it’s basically Rex and Jeanne [Sinquefield]'s summer house. It’s a very large place and it has sports amenities—it was pretty ideal for a training session. The idea was that the production crew would come in a day. They’ll basically film us playing blitz or solving studies or whatever, and then we’ll play some sports, and it will be released at some undisclosed time after the match. That was the idea. And that’s basically what we did. We came; we weren’t even really working on chess that day. It was considered as a day that we all, you know, we'll do some stuff for the camera, not stuff that we would normally work on. And then we went to play basketball and tennis with them, and they filmed some of that too, and that was it. And I didn't really think about it until after the game.

Christian comes to me after the game [game four - PD] and seems concerned about something. At first, I didn't understand what it was, and then he said like, "The analysis was leaked," something like that. What they said was that they had known the entire day, but they didn't want to tell me before the game. So they just waited until after the game, and they told me then so that I wouldn't seem completely oblivious during the press conference whenever it came up. And basically I just said: I won't comment, some stuff like that. I don't even remember clearly what I said. That was pretty much it.

"The analysis was leaked!"

It didn't actually affect my preparation. The decision was made. There was this file that basically said that ...Nd7/…Nf6 in the Petroff, so it's very clear what the file name means, what the line is saying, but it doesn't mean that I am going to play this line. It just means that at some point I checked this, you know, in the past year. It didn't give an enormous amount of information, I felt.

caruana video leaked openings
A screenshot of the now-removed video, as tweeted by John Hartmann.

So the decision was just not to change the prep in any way. I ended up playing this line in the penultimate game, where Magnus didn't really put up much pressure on me, and he went for the endgame, and it was a relatively uneventful draw. I guess people felt like maybe because of that sequence of events that it was almost some sort of bizarre psychological ploy, but it definitely wasn't. I don't try to do things like that. I'm also not sure it would even be a good idea. Maybe it didn't have a negative effect this time, but I'm not sure it would be a good idea overall.

It also felt a bit like the controversy was a bit overblown because I don't really think it affected the games in the match very much. Maybe Magnus didn't expect me to play this line because it was shown on the computer, but this would have just been a happy coincidence if that was the case. And I also don't know how it affected him, in terms of what they did with this information if anything. That's all there was. [Smiles.]

Let's move to the upcoming match. As the world number-two, who do you think is the favorite, and how much?

In Wijk aan Zee, Magnus wasn't too impressive. He has been impressive in online chess overall; he's won a significant amount of events that he's played which is very impressive. But that's very different. I don't think he's a different player or a weaker player, but we haven't really seen much of him in actual over the board. I think that's something to consider, while Ian—he's an enormously talented player, but one of his weaknesses was always that he probably didn't take chess super seriously. He enjoyed other things, and his approach to chess was maybe not as serious as some of his colleagues. I think that definitely changed this year. After you qualify for the match, you want to put all your effort into it, and I think he's probably doing that. From the brief bits I've heard about his preparation, he's taking it very seriously, and now would make perfect sense. The thing is, of course, Magnus is overall a better player—that is undoubtedly true.

[After Norway Chess ended, Caruana added the following:] I think Norway Chess showed that even when Magnus struggles at the beginning of an event, he has that ability to turn on at any moment and start racking up wins. Ian looked great at the start of the event, but his play fell apart at some point. There is still strong evidence that he's been motivated and working hard recently. I feel like it will be a close contest, but Magnus should be considered the favorite.

Is Carlsen also clearly the better player against this opponent because we all know that Nepomniachtchi has a plus score against Carlsen?

I think Ian was 5-0 against him, and then he beat him in one of the Grand Chess Tour events. I think it was in Zagreb maybe. But I don't think that's relevant at all because a lot of those games were even when they were kids or when they were much younger. I think the last time Ian beat him was in London in 2017, where we tied for first in the last Grand Chess Tour event there. He beat Magnus with black, he was under some slight pressure, it was an isolated pawn's position, but then he eventually beat him. And of course, when you're 5-0 against Magnus, which is an extraordinary thing, there's a lot of talk about having a nemesis or having someone who is just stylistically difficult.

Nepomniachtchi beats Carlsen London 2017
Nepomniachtchi defeated Carlsen in London 2017. Photo: Maria Emelianova/

But I think when we're talking about a small sample size, then it's not super relevant. If they've played a thousand games, then I would say, OK, this is statistically very relevant. But if they played like 15 or 20 classical games, then OK, this is relatively small, and there's going to be an element of randomness there. So I don't put much weight into the head-to-head result. That for me is just a wash.

If Ian is a difficult opponent for him, it's because he's one of those players who can be a bit unpredictable, or let's say he has a wider sort of level difference in his play compared to other players. He can play at a super-high level, and if he comes to the match at his very best, then maybe he can play better than Magnus. It's possible that he can outperform him, so that's one thing. Of course, it's also possible that Ian might just have a bad match and will not put up much of a fightthat can happen.

Do you think it's possible Nepomniachtchi will show those different levels of play during the match?

I actually expected that during the Candidates. He was playing very well, but I thought that in the second half, he would struggle a bit. But he didn't, not at all. So it felt like he gained some stability to his play, which he had lacked in the past. I remember that very often he would be having a great tournament, and then things would fall apart. This happened in several events in 2019—like in Zagreb, he was plus three and he ended up on 50 percent, and at the Sinquefield Cup as well. And he had some games where he would go from amazing games too, where he loses to Maxime because of a blunder on pretty much move 10 without even spending a single moment on the clock.

I think he solved those issues which were plaguing him, the sort of wild swings. He's probably still a bit of a streaky player, but I don't think that he is going to come and lose a game because he is rushy. That seems to be an issue in the past for him.

He was very impressive in Paris in the rapid and blitz event. It felt like he is just overall confident and full of ideas. That's probably a result also of him working a lot. Usually when someone's working a lot and is sort of into chess, like on a daily level, you feel that in their play. So that's what I felt when he was playing in Paris, which is a very good sign for him, of course.

Usually when someone's working a lot and is sort of into chess, like on a daily level, you feel that in their play.

Ian does play fast. Often he has a lot of time left on the clock when a game ends. Do you think this can play a role during the match, that he will be able to pressure Magnus on the clock?

I don't think so. I don't feel like that's his strength actually. He does have these amazing games sometimes where he beats a top player without spending a single moment on the clock, and this is an amazing achievement. But I don't see that ever happening to Magnus, that he's going to beat him without putting the effort in. I think it's more likely to backfire if he tries something like that.

Ian Nepomniachtchi Paris Rapid Blitz 2021
Nepomniachtchi at the 2021 Paris Rapid & Blitz. Photo: Lennart Ootes/Grand Chess Tour.

During the Candidates, he kept up a good pace. He wasn't really getting in serious time pressure; that's obviously not a problem for him, but he wasn't rushing. He wasn't ending games with a lot of time on his clock. He was playing at a healthy pace, which is a good thing. I think that's probably the approach he is going to take during the match.

Is Ian's good score against Magnus related to his playing style? Do you think Magnus is struggling with the way Ian plays, and can you describe his style and why it is different from other top players?

It's not so different, I would say. The differences between top players are going to be in the details. But let's say Ian has an aggressive-intuitive style. He has a good feeling for chess, especially when he plays with the initiative, and he likes to put pressure on his opponents. And he's an excellent calculator, so that fits in well with that. But I think that's also a typical style that you'll find with other people. Of course, there's always going to be differences in how players approach games and different moves and different types of positions, but that's also how I would describe, for example, how Levon plays in some way—that good positional feeling, especially for the initiative. Or how [Veselin] Topalov plays, that was always one of his strengths. But that doesn't say so much about the player. It's just saying that he's an aggressive, positional player.

He's also a player that I haven't have much experience with as with others, maybe because he only reached the pinnacle of chess in the last few years. I remember we were tied for first in London in 2017 in the tournament where he beat Magnus. He had an excellent tournament and so did I; it was one of my best events. But his rating at the time was only 2730, so he felt like an underdog coming into the event, and then he had a great result. And now, of course, he's not an underdog at all. He is for sure one of the best players in the world. But it's more of a recent thing. I guess it's because he has solved some of the issues he was havingsome of the, let's say, game-breaking issues. He was overall very good, but then he had these moments that were taking away all his hard work during games. So he solved that and then he just shot up to 2800 pretty much. But I haven't played many games against him, which is how I would get a very good feeling for how a player is, by playing them over and over.

Carlsen Nepomniachtchi Norway Chess 2021
Carlsen vs. Nepomniachtchi at Norway Chess 2021. Photo: Lennart Ootes/Norway Chess.

You played Magnus much more, including a match. What if Ian would hire you or ask you for a phone call, and he wanted your advice. What advice would you give Ian to beat Magnus in this match?

I don't know if my advice would be any different than what his coaches would say. I feel like he's probably surrounded by good people who know chess and who know how to approach this well. But I don't have some secret insight into how to beat Magnus.

Maybe the other way around: What should he NOT do?

He's going to have to take this very seriously and realize that once he gets there, he is going to have to endure the enormous pressure and not let up for one second for the entire duration of the match. He can't relax, basically, at all. Even when he's up in the match, he can't ever get the thought "I'm going to win this" until it's actually over. It's definitely going to be an enormously difficult match for both of them, and the pressure won't let up until the last minute.

He can't relax, basically, at all.

And then, of course, a lot of what happens during the match is decided now and over the past few months and over the period until the match. How they get in shape, mental shape, physical shape, chess shape, and how they're able to play as well as they can. Hopefully, he feels comfortable with his team as well. I don't know whom he is working with, but it's very important to have people around you whom you trust and whom you enjoy being with. If he has a good setup, if he's prepared well, then he has a shot. But there's no secret cure or anything. You just have to prepare well and play as well as you can and be ready to endure the pressure and the stress of it.

How likely is it that we're going to see 14 draws this time?

[Smiles.] I don't think we'll see all draws. I also wouldn't have counted on it last time; it just happened. It was 12 draws, but it could have also been the first game decisive, and then who knows what happens, right? I could have lost the first game if Magnus had made one move differently. And then who knows what the match could have beenfour decisive games or—it's really impossible to say. I definitely wouldn't count on all draws this time. I don't think that it's going to be up and down the entire time. It is probably still going to have a high percentage of draws because most world championship matches do. If we go back to like [Sergey] Karjakin against Magnus, they both won a game apiece, and I kind of remember Vishy against Magnus. It was three decisive games in 2014, so it's not like every game is going to be decisive just because they're both fighting players. It could still be a lot of draws.

In whatever way, they might actually reach a 7-7 tie. You already said that in classical, Magnus should be considered at least the slight favorite. But how about the playoff, how do you see things when it's coming down to rapid and blitz?

I would still consider Magnus the favorite, but I think that he would rather wrap the match up in classicalassuming he wraps it up as a win! [Smiles.] It's just a general thing. I mean, he is, I think, stronger than Ian in rapid and blitz but, I think, because it's fewer games and more randomness, I think, and that actually favors the underdog a bit. In rapid and blitz I really wouldn't be comfortable betting on a favorite. I would still say Magnus should be considered the favorite, but it shouldn't be a major edge that he has. But in classical, I think he still should have a pretty good edge.

I would still consider Magnus the favorite, but I think that he would rather wrap the match up in classical assuming he wraps it up as a win!

I want to talk about one more thing, something that happened recently. During the summer of 2021, the cooperation between you and GM Rustam Kasimdzhanov came to an end. "The pandemic year did not do our relationship any good," he said in a Chessbase interview. What's your side of the story?

I don't exactly know when he said that. I think we're still on good terms and remain also after the pandemic. But it's true that the last year and a half wasn't very good for our chess relationship because we didn't have much time to work, and it became very difficult to arrange things with traveling. I think it really also hurt Rustam's sort of enthusiasm for the work that we were doing. It also hurt my enthusiasm for chess. I was definitely not into chess for a period during the last year and a half. It was very difficult for me to get motivated. I think that was also the same for him.

Caruana Kasimdzhanov
Caruana and Kasimdzhanov at the 2017 FIDE World Cup. Photo: Maria Emelianova/

Was it also because there were hardly any OTB tournaments so there was not much to work on?

It was maybe even mostly my fault, but at least partly my fault, that we weren't working enough in between events. We all ran into a huge amount of logistical difficulties which I think is normal now with the state of the world. Unfortunately, it hits chess players pretty hard. It's also difficult to tell someone who has a family to go to Russia for a few days, go back, and then go to Russia for a few days for the same tournament a year later, or to quarantine for two weeks, things like that. So I fully understand why his enthusiasm for our work was not at its highest, and I felt the same about chess overall for a period.

You were simply less motivated to work on chess for a while.

Yeah, for sure. I definitely was. But our work ended amicably, and there are no hard feelings on my side, and I hope not on his as well.

And then the very last question: How are you looking forward to being a commentator for a couple of weeks, change roles, how do you look forward to that?

I like doing new things, and it's definitely a new thing. You know, I've spoken about chess. I've tried to explain my thoughts, but I've never done it however many hours the games will go straight. [Smiles.] It could be four hours; it could be seven hours—so it's going to be fun. I'm also glad that I will be doing it with people whom I am friendly with and whom I like and enjoy their company. So that's going to be nice. The time that I'll have to wake up is not one I am looking forward to! [Smiles.] It's probably, like, two in the morning, but I guess that's part of the job.

But it will be interesting also to be really immersed in the match. In 2016 I sort of immersed myself in the Carlsen-Karjakin match because I went to New York for about half the event. I didn't see the players or, let's say, the spectator area, but I commented on the games, written comments, analyzed the games, and I was there kind of like almost in the midst of it. So it will be nice to immerse myself again in a world championship matchreally analyze the games deeply and try to figure out along with the rest of the world what the players are up to.

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