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Part 2: Caruana is dangerous with the initiative.

In the first blog post about the forthcoming match between Magnus Carlsen and Fabiano Caruana at the World Championship in November, I mentioned how this will be a clash between two distinctive styles. Today we will have a look at what I believe Caruana should aim for.

Most of Fabiano Caruana’s games are entertaining to watch. Of course, I enjoy Magnus' games as well. But their games remind me of two different movie genres. One of them is slow, logical and comprehensible. You might even foresee what is about to happen a few moves ahead, and you always feel like you’re learning something. The other movie belongs to a genre where it’s a bumpy ride, and you have to keep rewinding to understand what just happened. In the latter style, the games tend to end abruptly, and you are sitting there like a question mark. Was that it? Who won?

Fabiano Caruana excels in positions where he has the initiative and chances to attack. You can almost feel the energy behind every move, even if they were rarely the ones you would have guessed.

Chess has changed over the last decades. Most of Black’s defenses do equalize, and the top players seem to pick a couple of systems and learn them exceptionally well. The idea is that nothing can touch them if they know every little detail. With the white pieces, they usually have a different approach. Instead of sticking to the same weapons, it’s all about finding a position where they can pose their opponent’s problems by finding a new idea or at least reaching a position where they see some potential.

I have always been fond of openings, and I like Caruana’s principal and direct play at the start of the game. Watching his games is like seeing the theory develop, especially with the white pieces. However, today I’ll mainly focus on his black games. Unlike many of his elite colleagues, he tends to seek the initiative even if his opponent made the first move. I’ll give you a brief example.

Look at how Caruana took control of the action with the black pieces against Anand in the recent played Altibox Norway Chess event in Stavanger. If you think about it, there are only a few players in the world who would choose the following path.

Viswanathan Anand - Fabiano Caruana. Altibox Norway Chess

Diagram-1-1

After a quiet line in the Petroff, the players have reached a seemingly innocent position. Caruana started to spice things up with a few aggressive moves. 11...g5 His decisions are based on real variations. He doesn't fear a sacrifice on g5 as it simply doesn't work for White. 12.Bg3 Ne4 13.Bxd6

Diagram-2-1

I suspect most people would have recaptured with the queen, but Caruana is willing to ruin his structure to control the important e5–square. 13...cxd6 14.Nfd2 f5

Diagram-3-1

Look how the position has changed in only four moves! Clearly, it’s Caruana who has been dictating the direction of the game.

The engine says White is slightly better, but Caruana is about to build up a kingside pawn storm. Black has a weak structure and an airy king, so precision is needed, but eventually, his attack succeeded. His practice in such positions has made him a master of slightly chaotic positions, and I think he handles these situations better than most of his rivals. His ambitions get rewarded. 0–1 (50 moves)

The last couple of years, Caruana has changed his opening repertoire into something more solid. He has repeatedly played the Queen’s Gambit Accepted against 1.d4 and the Petroff against 1.e4: two openings that are typically used to equalize safely.

I have difficulty agreeing with myself on whether these opening are the best approach against Magnus. The World Champion is an expert in finding unusual ideas early in the opening, and he can quickly jump from one opening to another. That’s why choosing Queen’s Gambit Accepted and Petroff is clever – there is not much room for Magnus to find tricky and new strategic ideas.

These openings have taken Caruana to a match for the World Championship, so until now it must be a practically smart choice. However, I am not sure this is the way to go in a match against Magnus. These openings don’t allow Caruana to show what a great calculator and a dynamic player he is. Instead, the relatively dry middlegames are probably more to Magnus’ taste.

A natural question is whether Caruana can afford to take risks right out of the opening against a player of Magnus caliber. Such an approach can easily result in problems, but I am not sure if playing a more solid opening really is a safer choice. In my dreams everything is possible, and if I would ever face Magnus in a World Championship match, I would have aimed for positions that are complex enough for Magnus to be punished in case he decides to over-press. To be clear; Caruana is capable of punishing an over-ambitious Carlsen. I am not.

In 2014, Caruana impressed the world by winning seven games against the world elite at the Sinquefield Cup. Even Magnus had to throw in the towel after being outplayed with the white pieces.

In the previous blog post, I showed you how Magnus managed to outplay Fabiano slowly. In 2014, the American had the tournament of his life. He won seven games in a row in the Sinquefield Cup, and this is how he beat Magnus.

Magnus Carlsen - Fabiano Caruana

By Torbjørn Ringdal Hansen

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