Abasov Beats Caruana As Carlsen Holds Off Praggnanandhaa
A peaceful result in the final. Photo: Maria Emelianova/

Abasov Beats Caruana As Carlsen Holds Off Praggnanandhaa

| 74 | Chess Event Coverage

Neither player made progress toward their first World Cup victory as GM Magnus Carlsen held GM Praggnanandhaa Rameshbabu to a draw in the first game of the 2023 FIDE World Cup final.  A well-prepared Praggnanandhaa posed some problems to the world number-one, but Carlsen masterfully navigated his way to equality with the black pieces and the players agreed to a draw after 35 moves.

In the third-place match, GM Fabiano Caruana experienced his first classical loss of the event at the hands of GM Nijat Abasov. Innovative opening play led to a pleasant position for the Azerbaijani local, and just as he seemed to be letting Caruana into the game, the third seed made a fatal misstep. With the win, Abasov needs just a draw to secure third place and a guaranteed spot in the FIDE Candidates Chess Tournament 2024.

The second games of the final and third-place matches begin on Wednesday, August 23, at 7 a.m. ET / 13:00 CEST / 4:30 p.m IST.

   How to watch the 2023 FIDE World Cup
You can watch the 2023 FIDE World Cup broadcast on Twitch and YouTube. You can also find all the details for the Open and Women's sections on our live events platform.
The broadcast was hosted by GM Daniel Naroditsky and GM Peter Leko

After the conclusion of the Women's event where GM Aleksandra Goryachkina triumphed over rising women's star IM Nurgyul Salimova, just four players sat down to play the final round of the marathon event.

The two remaining players in the main event, Carlsen and Praggnanandhaa, are first-time finalists and former teammates who are more than comfortable putting any comradery aside to fight tooth and nail at the board. And while the third-place playoff is unlikely to deny a player his place in the Candidates (as Carlsen stated he will not play), neither Caruana nor Abasov will want to lose and leave their fate to Carlsen possibly changing his mind.

Carlsen sitting at the board
If (or when?) Carlsen declines his spot in the Candidates, fourth place will replace him. Photo: Maria Emelianova/

Abasov-Caruana: Long Thinks, Abrupt End

As the 69th seed, Abasov is the only remaining player not to have had a bye in round one, and he admitted that it's been a tiring tournament for him. However, he speculated that Caruana was the more tired of the two, going as far as to say he thought the world number-three wasn't yet physically ready to play after his tough, six-game tiebreak match against Praggnanandhaa.

Having not had tiebreaks of his own to play, the hometown hero was better able to rest and prepare for the final match of his dream tournament run, and his preparation did not disappoint. He opted for the Catalan, hoping to surprise his opponent, and 18 moves into the game, it was clear he had been successful: it's hard to ask for more than the g-file, the center, and a time advantage against one of the world's top players.

Caruana remained calm as White doubled rooks on the g-file, and it even looked as though Abasov might have started losing the thread when he played 22.Qe3 after a 24-minute think—possibly to side-step the pin on his d-pawn, which was in reality only an issue if he pushed his f-pawn.

Stockfish began to welcome Caruana back into the game, and the super-GM went into his own lengthy think before disaster struck:

Asked about 23...Qb4, the 2017 Azerbaijani Champion could not explain what his opponent had missed, citing his own ideas as "pretty straightforward" and saying that he felt any moves other than 23...f5 or 23...g6 were "suspicious." Indeed, there was no way to parry Abasov's mating attack, and the game lasted just three moves more before the challenger of the 2018 World Chess Championship conceded defeat. 

Caruana and Abasov sitting at the board between two flags
Both players erred with the moves they spent the most time on, but only one player's mistake led to an abrupt and unpleasant ending. Photo: Stev Bonhage/FIDE.

Commentator Leko wondered if psychology had played a role, whereby Caruana had assumed that White was setting up a battery along the b1-h7 diagonal and would never trade his strong bishop for Black's passive knight. In reality, Abasov accurately deemed the h7-knight an important defender, and felt that ...g7-g6 was needed to stop the trade.

GM Rafael Leitao has annotated the game below.

No one wants to be in a must-win situation at the end of a long tournament, but a small consolation for Caruana is that he has the white pieces in the second game. Additionally, the shorter round one game means he'll have some extra time to rest, prepare, and try to put the loss behind him, and we can expect that he won't go down without a fight. 

Caruana with his face in his hands
Can Caruana recover both physically and mentally to take his match to tiebreaks? Photo: Stev Bonhage/FIDE.

Praggnanandhaa-Carlsen: Calm Carlsen Curbs Complications

It's odd to have a 32-year old as the older party in a "clash between generations," but such is the case in the World Cup final match. Carlsen achieved his grandmaster title in 2004, and made his World Cup debut in 2005—the same year Praggnanandhaa was born!

The Indian star, who turned 18 during the event, has smashed records and garnered many additional fans en route to the final. Not only is he the youngest and lowest-seeded World Cup finalist in history, but he has had the most difficult journey to the final, having to overcome both second-seed GM Hikaru Nakamura and third-seed Caruana before his final clash with the event's top seed.

Praggnanandhaa in the post-game interview
Praggnanandhaa's calmness has been striking in both his play and his interviews. Photo: Maria Emelianova/

After his young opponent didn't retract the ceremonial move of 1.c4, the five-time World Champion took a full two minutes to respond. In this time he filled in his notation sheet info, adjusted his pieces, and held his head in his hands while over 60,000 viewers around the world wondered if he was caught by surprise, or simply playing psychological games.

A move later, he disappeared from the board for another few minutes, before returning to make his third move. His body language was difficult to read, but it soon became clear that he was not the better-prepared player. In his post-game interview, a subdued Carlsen shared that a bout of food poisoning had left him unable to rest adequately or eat the past few days, and that he hadn't prepared for 1.c4. The only advantage he had was that he felt really calm at the board because he had no energy to feel nervous.

Six of the Norwegian's first nine moves were knight moves, in what he described as an approach of "playing common sense moves." They may have been common sense (to grandmasters), but they still left Black with some uncomfortable problems to solve. Most notable of these problems was the issue of how to develop his queenside pieces in the face of White's b5-pawn and light-squared bishop.

Leko predicted that if Carlsen could safely eliminate the b5-pawn, he'd have a safe position, but it was not an easy task to accomplish in a strategical position with many underlying tactics—a testament to Praggnanandhaa's impressive preparation, since putting the world number-one under such pressure in the early game is no easy feat.

Big decisions faced Carlsen on his 13th move, where he burned an uncharacteristically long 27 minutes before opting for 13...Rb8, avoiding the mess of complications that could arise from the bishop moves that were favored by the engine. This proved to be a wise time investment, as Praggnanandhaa said in his post-game interview that he vaguely remembered the 13...Bh3 line.

Although the 31st seed felt he should have had something after 13...Rb8, he was unable to find a way to keep his slight edge, and Carlsen was allowed to eliminate the b5-pawn a few moves later for the safe position that Leko had envisioned. The endgame aficionado felt he was perhaps "very slightly better" in the endgame, but didn't mind the draw, while Praggnanandhaa felt he was never in trouble as he calmly used his time to avoid any endgame tricks his more experienced opponent might have had.

Praggnanandhaa and Carlsen discuss moves after their game
No hard feelings as the players stayed at the board to discuss their game. Photo: Maria Emelianova/

GM Leitao analyzes the full game below.

It is clear that despite the huge experience gap, Carlsen has a lot of respect for his opponent—little over a week ago, he got up from his own tiebreak game to congratulate Praggnanandhaa on his important win over Nakamura. The players both belong to the Offerspill Chess Club, and were also teammates in the 2023 Tech Mahindra Global Chess League's Alpine Warriors team, but they've shown that they're more than comfortable fighting over the board.

No one in history has been able to beat the top three seeds in the World Cup, but Praggnanandhaa does not seem to be allowing thoughts of records—or seemingly impossible feats—to affect his play. Asked about the second game, he responded that he's expecting a fight, but that he'll try to rest and come to the game fresh, and that's the best he can do.

Carlsen and Pragg at the board with Carlsen looking up at the ceiling
Can Carlsen make a full return to health and win the World Cup for the first time? Photo: Maria Emelianova/

Caruana has bounced back from tough games before and will be looking to do the same in game two. But against an opponent who is currently feeding off the energy and motivation that comes from attracting one thousand in-person spectators backing their local hero, this is no easy feat.

What the above means for chess fans is that we can expect another day of chess that will keep us on the edge of our seats. There are a maximum of two days of chess left in the 2023 FIDE World Cup, but things are far from over.

The 2023 FIDE World Cup and Women's World Cup in Baku, Azerbaijan, are big knockout events that will determine six spots in the 2024 FIDE Candidates Tournaments. The action began July 30 and ends August 24, with a combined $2.5 million prize fund.

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