After more than two weeks of grueling competition between eight of the world’s best players, Caruana emerged victorious by a full point in the 2018 edition of the Candidates tournament, meaning that he will challenge current World Champion Magnus Carlsen in November later this year. The tournament is structured as a 14-round, double round robin, and winning it is no simple feat. In many cases, these players have been preparing for this tournament in lieu of playing in other events in recent months.
This year, Caruana rode to a +4 performance, scoring 9/14 with five wins, one loss, and eight draws. The only loss came in round 12 against Karjakin, which made the race much more interesting as it sprung both Karjakin and Ding into the race; Mamedyarov, the runner-up at the time, lost as well. Still, Caruana was always at least tied with the lead after round 4.
So, how was Caruana able to stay head and shoulders above the rest of the competition in this tournament? We may (unfortunately) not be able to pick his brain directly, but we can look at his games in the tournament and see which ones had the greatest significance.
This game was significant mostly for its embodiment of a “hot start.” Fighting off dangerous counterplay from So in the middlegame, Caruana was able to catch a break after the critical move 23. … Ba6?!, giving him the opportunity to build up pressure on the kingside. Caruana wasted no time in opening lines for his major pieces, and before long, he had a mating attack. This huge turnaround likely had a substantial boost to Caruana’s confidence, setting the tone for him for the rest of the tournament.
This game was significant for its situational implications. Prior to this round, Caruana was trailing Kramnik by half a point in the tournament standings. With Kramnik having White in this game, it was a critical moment for these two players. If Kramnik was to win, it would set Caruana back 1.5 points behind the leader, making the rest of the tournament an uphill battle. Thus, it was important for Caruana to keep pace in this game, and he did more than enough. This game was another instance of the double-edged queen-less middlegame, somewhat of a commonplace in the Petrov. Comically, the critical move was once again on move 23, when Kramnik lunged forward with 23. c5, attempting to undermine the support of the knight on e5. However, when looking at the bigger picture, this endeavor was flawed, as Black was able to capture twice to get a passed pawn on g2 in exchange for a couple queenside pawns. Compounded with back-rank issues, this became a troubling issue for Kramnik to defend. Caruana won a piece, and with sufficient dark square control to prevent the promotion of White’s d7 pawn long enough and mating net ideas on the queenside, he was able to secure the win. Especially with the Black pieces, this win was monumental for Caruana, as it also gave him the lead in the tournament.
After losing the previous round and allowing Karjakin and Ding to gain ground, this game was perhaps the most crucial of them all, as Caruana needed to right the ship once again with two rounds to go. His opponent was Aronian, who, despite is poor performance in the tournament up to this point, was a solid player. After a slow start with much maneuvering, Aronian ventured to sacrifice a piece for White’s three kingside pawns. However, Aronian missed the key move 31. … Nxb4, which would have kept the pressure on White in protecting the kingside. The misstep with 31. … e4 allowed Caruana to build up his pieces on the kingside and get an attack of his own, and he never looked back after that, eventually ending the game with a nice tactic. This win proved crucial as Caruana was able to negate the loss from the previous round and keep at the front of the pack with one game to go.
Caruana fittingly ended the tournament in a Carlsen-like style, pushing and winning a game when he only needed a draw to clinch the tournament victory. Nevertheless, he won the tournament and the right to challenge Carlsen for the World Championship title later this year. Interestingly enough, the tournament comes with a quick turnaround as many of the players will play in the GRENKE Chess Classic in London, and Caruana-Carlsen in round 1 will play out as a preview for the upcoming World Championship match.
As always, thanks for reading, and I’ll see you next time!