Part 3: In case of a playoff

In my first two articles, I discussed both players’ strengths and weaknesses. I suspect it will be a close race, so in this post, I will look at each players' chances in the case that they reach a playoff.

A bit of history

I have no doubt Magnus Carlsen and Fabiano Caruana will do their best to knock each other out. However, no matter how hard they fight there is a chance that the match will end in a tie after twelve games. As a matter of fact, it might even be quite likely - after all, it happened in three of the last seven World Championship matches.

It kind of started in 2004. Peter Leko was leading the World Championship match against Vladimir Kramnik with a 7-6 score. Kramnik had to win to equalize, and amazingly he succeeded in the very last game. This win made the score 7-7, but still, Kramnik was announced the winner. The rules said it was enough for the defending champion to draw the match to keep the title. This was, of course, a disadvantage for the challenger, who had to win one more game than his opponent to win the title.

Today the rules have changed, and in the case of an equal score at the end of the match, it's all decided by a playoff. These games are played with quicker time control, and it can go all the way down to blitz games if they keep on maintaining the equilibrium.

Nothing is more exciting than a thrilling playoff, and it's kind of what I am hoping for in November. I wouldn't mind a repetition of the playoff between Magnus and Karjakin in New York 2016. I was in bed, knocked out by a cold, but nothing could stop me from cheering enthusiastically on the final day. I have a feeling you remember the following moment.


It’s the final game of the playoff where Magnus defeated Karjakin in their match. If you don’t remember the game, you should check out the lesson in Magnus Trainer called The Final Game. White to move and mate in two!

Of course, the old rules would have been beneficial to Magnus, but I am sure he doesn't mind the new ones either. You could even argue that it might not matter that much because his record in playoffs is just incredible. Correct me if I am wrong, but I think we have to go back more than a decade to find the last time Magnus lost a playoff.

What do the numbers say?

Magnus’ Rapid Rating is 2880 while Caruana’s is 2738. If we consider these numbers, Magnus’ expected score in a rapid game between the two is 69%. That leaves Caruana with just a 31% chance of success. The difference in their blitz ratings is even greater: Magnus is rated 2939 while Caruana sits at 2709. In a blitz game, Caruana’s expected score falls to 21%. It’s safe to say that Magnus is a clear favorite if the match goes that far.

The two players’ styles can probably explain Magnus’ dominance with shorter time controls. While Magnus’ decisions are often made intuitively, thanks to his amazing understanding and feeling for the positions, Caruana’s style is heavier. He is calculating a lot while playing, but this takes time. I have a feeling that an intuitive style is better suited for blitz and rapid, as the decisions can be made quicker. Committal moves have to be thought through, and there is always the chance they don’t work.

This sounds like bad news for Caruana, but I think it’s also important to look beyond these numbers. Caruana’s blitz rating dropped 109 points after the Grand Chess Tour in Paris and Your Next Move in Leuven this spring. It seemed to me he was unable to break out of a losing streak, and I believe he is stronger than his rating indicates. Still, my opinion is that Magnus’ superior rating and confidence in playoffs make him a clear favorite in such a scenario.

Caruana is not in the same position as Leko in 2004, but I'll think it's safe to say that I'll be impressed if he enters a playoff with high confidence.

This is how they do it

It's time to look at a couple of games. I'll start with Caruana's victory in the playoffs after London Chess Classics. It's a complicated position, but Caruana knew what he was doing.

Fabiano Caruana - Ian Nepomniachtchi, London Chess Classics Playoff, 2017

We have to look at one of Magnus' games as well. I remember the game I am about to show you pretty well. It was not the most important tournament in the world, but this playoff really got to me as I was standing on the sofa cheering like a maniac. Afterwards, I tried to convince my girlfriend that it was normal behavior for a chess enthusiast. Anyway, here is the game.

Magnus Carlsen - Arkadij Naiditsch, Grenke Chess Classics Playoff, 2015

By Torbjørn Ringdal Hansen
Photo: Georgios Souleidis