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Let’s get ready to rumble!

By Torbjørn Ringdal Hansen

There are now just a few hours left until the 2018 World Chess Championship officially begins, and I’m sure both players are ready for a real fight.

I don’t know about you, but I can name all the World Champions since 1886. Compared to other sports, at least the ones I can think of, I feel the title of 'World Chess Champion' has higher value.

Who is in the best shape?

Right before the tournament, the two contestants need to warm up. What’s intriguing in this match is that Magnus Carlsen has lately done very well against Fabiano Caruana, but the American has much better results in tournaments. The way he played in the Olympiad was impressive. However, I have a feeling that Magnus is a bit relaxed; he knows how to do this.

Caruana, on the other, has the chance of a lifetime, and what can be more motivating than that? However, the most crucial question is whether both players are mentally ready for this challenge. One thing is preparing, but performing is something else entirely.

Preparing for a match

The opening preparation for a World Championship match was more important a couple of decades ago. With hard work, you could hope to find a killing novelty that could lead to an advantage, but discovering such ideas has become much harder. I think it’s more about finding positions with potential, as Black has so many sound openings to choose between.

During the last few World Championship matches, I hoped to see amazing preparation being played out on the board in the first few games. What strikes me is that it was the player with the black pieces who came up with fresh ideas, which was enough to equalize the game comfortably. Now I hope they invent something powerful for White as well.

In the first few games of the match, we will start to see the results of the preparation. It all starts months before the games are played. The two players have a small army of people trying to break the other. Of course, I wonder who they are, how they work, and what they find. From a pure chess perspective I am very interested in seeing the opening choices in the first few games, but in these games, it’s also likely you can feel the tension.

The first win

Initially, I was pretty sure the first player to score a full point would typically win the match, but then I started thinking. Is it so? In 1972, Fischer was down two points against Spassky and still won. 12 years later, Kasparov was down many points against Karpov and managed to turn it around, and I’m sure you remember two years ago in New York; Karjakin was the first to win a game, but Magnus struck back and won the match.

Who do you think will win the first game? And will the other player manage to equalize the score or even turn it around?

We will look at a couple of games shortly, but first I want to tell you about something that happened to me many years ago.

G4

In 2006 I was in Dublin. Sightseeing for five whole days sounds like a nightmare to me, and I realized I had to find something meaningful to do. One hour of intense research led me me discover that Grandmaster Alexander Baburin lived not far away. One email and a few days later I sat like a little schoolboy in Baburin’s living room.

Twelve years later, there is only one thing I remember from this lesson, but what I learned has helped me a lot. He asked me why I played g4 all the time. He said that g3 is okay; even h4 is often okay, but not g4. Not when I have castled short.

I looked at my games. It was true; in many games, I castled short and optimistically played g4 a few moves later. And, of course, in most games, I lost. I try not to play g4 anymore, and when I do, it's probably because in the heat of the moment I forgot about Baburin’s lesson.

So what does this have to do with Caruana and Carlsen? My point is that they seem to play g4 all the time. Sometimes it’s a good move, but quite often it’s wrong. One thing is for sure; it’s a committal move, even at the highest level!

Diagram-1--1-

The problem with playing g4 is that all of these squares are severely compromised. Here you can see that a white pawn can no longer protect these squares. What often happens is that enemy pieces end up on these weak spots. You can read more about this in the Magnus Trainer.

Fabiano Caruana - Magnus Carlsen
Isle of Man Masters, 2017

Diagram-2-1

Caruana is an aggressive player, and he is not afraid of pushing pawns. In this game, he tried an ambitious idea in the opening, which involved playing g2-g4. The problem with this move is that even if it looks good, the downsides become clear many moves later. Magnus played 35...Bf4! and Caruana resigned as 36.Qxf4 is met with by the fork 36...Nxh3+ 0-1

Magnus' last tournament before the World Championship was the European Club Cup in Greece. He started well with a win against Vladimir Potkin but continued with five draws. In one of the games, he was in big trouble against Ding Liren.

Magnus Carlsen - Ding Liren
European Club Cup Greece 2018

Diagram-3-1

Black has a strange-looking rook on h4, and Magnus decided to shut it out of the game by playing 23.g4? After 24…d4 25.Rf3. At this point, the Chinese had more than one way to get a big advantage.

Diagram-4-1

Ding Liren picked up a pawn with 24…Nxg4. Magnus can’t take it because Black will recapture with the bishop and create a decisive skewer. With a pawn extra, Black is probably objectively winning, but Magnus managed to defend successfully, and the game was eventually drawn.

These guys like playing g2-g4. It’s almost like they don’t see the potential dangers.

Magnus Carlsen - Fabiano Caruana
Altibox Norway Blitz 2017

Diagram-5-1

Only four moves have been played. What do you think Magnus played? 5.g4 Of course! When playing such moves the games tend to be very chaotic, and this was no exception. Magnus won.

With the queens on the board, pushing g4 is risky as you might end up being mated. If you first manage to swap them off, it usually's safer to do so. That’s precisely what Fabiano did two years earlier.

Fabiano Caruana - Magnus Carlsen
Norway Chess 2015

Diagram-6-1

White has an extra pawn on the kingside. Caruana played 18.g4 to set the majority in motion and was rewarded for his ambition. Not only did he want to create a passed pawn on this side of the board, but he also gained control over the f5-square.

I’m sure we will see g2-g4 being played in the match. Who will be the first?

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Photo by Lennart Ootes