World Chess Championship Game 1: Caruana Struggles But Holds Draw Against Carlsen
Fabiano Caruana's world championship debut was not great, but not a disaster either. | Photo: Mike Klein/Chess.com.

World Chess Championship Game 1: Caruana Struggles But Holds Draw Against Carlsen

Luckily, London is a major city and you can still get dinner delivered at any hour. Today the world's top two grandmasters played right through dinner.

It wasn't his longest world championship game ever, but to Magnus Carlsen, it felt like it "since there was much more fight in it" than his 122-mover in Sochi, 2014. After 115 moves in the opening round of his fourth title match, he couldn't break through against challenger Fabiano Caruana. The two drew their opening game at the 2018 world chess championship, but this is one case where the result masks the tension of the battle.

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In some ways, their nearly seven-hour clash resembled their recent encounters from earlier this year. Just like in August at the Sinquefield Cup, Carlsen built up a sizable edge, but couldn't convert (there was no finger-to-lips moment shushing time around). The champ agreed with the comparison to that game when asked by Chess.com, but likened it even more to their 2018 game at the Grenke Chess Classic since it was also a rook-and-pawn ending, like today.

"It's a bit early to draw conclusions," Carlsen said about the single game and if it represented a return to form after lackluster play in the European Team Championship. "My head was working well but obviously the conclusion of the games shows that I still have things to work on. Overall, it's encouraging. Better than I've played recently."

The 115 moves were 10 short of breaking the record for longest in title history (1978 Karpov-Korchnoi, game five, still stands). But it did set a record for their personal series. In nearly three dozen head-to-head classical battles, they had never before played a 100-move game.

Carlsen Caruana

Fabiano Caruana and Magnus Carlsen: Who made the bigger statement in round one? | Photo: Mike Klein/Chess.com.

It's hard to say who won the psychological battle. On one hand, Carlsen had no trouble equalizing as Black in the Sicilian, and was the aggressor shortly after the theoretical stage, for the final 100 moves or so. On the other hand, Caruana got right into the match and weathered the typical relentlessness of Carlsen, who might have felt like Karjakin-redux came to challenge him.

Much of the Norwegian press, which feasts on every move and soundbite from its national hero, kept ducking into and out of the press room. First the journalists seemed assured he'd win and wanted to decamp early for the press conference (the latter part filmed by Chessbase on YouTube). Then it returned, only to disperse once again thinking Carlsen may agree to peace much earlier. During the world championship, the press seems to watch the evaluation bar like a seismologist watching a seismogram.

Fabiano Caruana

West meets East? Caruana's defense today resembled Karjakin's stubbornness in the 2016 title match. | Photo: Mike Klein/Chess.com.

Before play even began, some fun occurred. A crush of photojournalists descended upon the first moves of the match—surely something Carlsen is more used to than Caruana (who even remarked about it after the game). As the press jockeyed for position, Caruana already didn't like his! 

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FIDE press officer GM Danny King (far left) learned that handling a hungry press corps in round one might be more tricky than any chess opening, but he kept calm and maintained a mostly hands-off approach. | Photo: Mike Klein/Chess.com.

How is it possible to not be happy with the first move? When the first move is not your own! The Emmy-award winning actor and chess superfan Woody Harrelson made the ceremonial opening thrust, but not before fumbling and tipping Caruana's king, mishearing Caruana's whisper, and playing 1. d4 instead of 1. e4. Surely Caruana's seconds were in horror, but their charge sat there calmly for a few beats before asking officials: Would it be OK if he chose a different move?

"I'm sorry, I thought you said 1. d4!" Harrelson said to him. With Caruana directing, these "Hunger Games" would start with the king's pawn as the tribute.

Woody Harrelson Fabiano Caruana

Fabiano Caruana looks on patiently as Woody Harrelson denies his request for 1. e4. Sorry Woody, white pawns can't jump. | Photo: Mike Klein/Chess.com.

The two very closely mirrored an obscure game that was less than a week old. In the opening round of the 2018 women's world championship, IM Anastasia Bodnaruk and WGM Sabrina Vega Gutierrez played nearly the exact same opening in a rapid tiebreak game, with the inclusion of the pawn moves a4 and a5. As GM Ian Rogers explained to Chess.com, the absence of these moves meant that Carlsen could feel safer castling queenside, which he did, and duly got the better of the attack.

"I think I showed today that I wasn't necessarily aiming for a draw," Carlsen said. Moves like 14...g5 made that case pretty clear.

Just like the scouting report that Carlsen gave in a recent interview, Caruana did go for center control, with two center pawns to zero by move 12. But Carlsen's flank attack unfolded as more salient.

Magnus Carlsen

Carlsen didn't get the exact result he wanted, but overall didn't feel too disappointed at playing for two results for most of the day's session. | Photo: Mike Klein/Chess.com.

Caruana somehow survived a miserable position and king attack. He said afterward he suspected he was lost for several moves, and indeed, all decent chess machines will back him up on that.

But with both players low on time in the run-up to move 40, Caruana said Carlsen pressed a little too quickly in controlling the a1-h8 diagonal with 39...Qg7. The challenger said his memory was fuzzy since that moment was so long ago, but he thought Black should have instead sat on his position and made small improvements since White was in a straightjacket.

Instead, the Norwegian went pawn-grabbing on the long diagonal. Sure, he became the master of that vast expanse of dark space, but it ended up being a little like controlling the Sahara Desert. Caruana made his 40th move with three seconds remaining, then held the worse ending.

"Maybe I played too direct with 16. Ng4," was Caruana's instant review of his troubles. "After I played this I immediately started to regret this move."

The current U.S. champion, Sam Shankland, has the full details:

Sam Shankland

Want even more analysis? Alex Yermolinsky has you covered, and uncorks even a different idea for Carlsen on move 39. Instead of retreating the queen, or sitting on the position with small improvements like Shankland's analysis, "Uncle Yermo" posits that the fantastic exchange sac 39...Rg3 was the way to proceed!

And if you still need even more analysis, well, maybe Woody will quit his day job:

Woody Harrelson Anna Rudolf

Sure, Anna Rudolf is an IM, but has she ever drawn Garry Kasparov like Woody Harrelson?! | Photo: Mike Klein/Chess.com.

Caruana making it to the second time control with mere seconds to spare may seem like a footnote, but the champion seems determined not to make it the story. Before the round began, Carlsen arrived first and filled out his scoresheet, then began looking around the room, especially in the higher reaches of the playing hall.

Magnus Carlsen

The world champion looks around for a move counter. Press was only allowed in the playing room for five minutes, but this reporter didn't see one. | Photo: Mike Klein/Chess.com.

He eventually summoned assistant arbiter WGM Nana Alexandria and struck up a conversation with her. While this reporter saw the meeting, the exchange was too far away to hear the dialogue. However, fellow journalist John Saunders overheard them discussing the absence of a move counter, which apparently Carlsen had been searching for with no success.

Carlsen famously lost a game once to Veselin Topalov when he didn't know the time control, although that had nothing to do with losing track of the number of moves. This would instead alleviate a situation like what happened to Hikaru Nakamura in 2011, when he thought he'd made his 40th move, and after some miscommunication with the arbiter, ran out of time one move short.

Cristian Chirila

While Caruana is known to have several seconds that assisted him at a recent training camp in Spain, several are now either back in St. Louis or otherwise remaining hidden. Today only GM Cristian Chirila showed up publicly from Team Fabi (not counting Rex and Jeanne Sinquefield, who aren't likely being leaned on for their openings help!) | Photo: Mike Klein/Chess.com.

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Video from the press conference is not yet available; Chess.com will add direct quotes from the players once it is. | Photo: Mike Klein/Chess.com.

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To follow the match, Chess.com has extensive coverage, including daily reports on game days right here on Chess.com/news. You can catch all of the moves live at Chess.com/wcc2018 and watch Chess.com's best-known commentators, IM Danny Rensch and GM Robert Hess, on either Twitch.tv/Chess or Chess.com/TV. Special guests, including GMs Hikaru Nakamura, Maxime Vachier-Lagrave, Wesley So, Sam Shankland and more will be joining the live coverage on different days. 

In addition, GM Alex Yermolinsky will be doing round-by-round wrap-up videos, available immediately after every round on all your favorite social platforms (Twitch, YouTube, Facebook and Chess.com). 

The current U.S. chess champion GM Sam Shankland will provide written, in-depth analysis of each game in our news reports.

GM Yasser Seirawan will share his thoughts on the match standings and inner workings of how the players are approaching each game with videos, exclusive to Chess.com members, on each rest day. 


Previous reports:

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