It was one of the most anticipated board games of the year, but when Magnus Carlsen reclaimed the World Chess Championship title, it was business as usual for the Norwegian who had to make sure his opponent from last year, Fabiano Caruana, took it all in stride.
Caruana sat straight-faced and almost impassive as he watched the end game unfold on a giant big screen. As Carlsen completed his move, his vanquished opponent stepped off the stage to shake Carlsen’s hand.
Caruana may have beaten Carlsen in a three-game series in October last year, but Carlsen has never played a final game at the World Chess Championship. The pressure was on Caruana, who is still officially the world champion, to regain the title in Stockholm.
Carlsen’s ability to fend off the early pressure will be noted by fans around the world who watch his play, but the immediate reaction was disappointment. As he again played down the whole affair, he said: “I couldn’t be more excited. It’s amazing.” Caruana could only smile, and even stoically remarked: “I try to control my emotions.”
In a sign of how rare this championship is, one of the commentators exclaimed: “Magnus was so calm!” In fact, Carlsen was intensely reserved throughout the game, deliberately being absolutely brief, and tactically reacting to his opponents wily plays, particularly if they were made by variation. “I think he decided that any changes he made to take the game up to 5 hours would make it not interesting anymore,” said Marc Richter, who has just stepped down from hosting the world championship game. “He played his strongest game, he was entirely quiet, and he didn’t look in danger at all.
Carlsen finished with a 6.5-point win and a 5.5-point draw, beating Caruana 7.5-3.5. “It’s pretty amazing,” Carlsen said. “It was very tactical. In general, this is my best game against him.”
In the end, his play stood him in good stead, particularly in the final move, when he attacked the various openings that the Italian favored in the game. Caruana jumped at the chance to counterpunch, but could not answer.
Carlsen now takes a 1-1 lead in the best-of-12-games match that started on Wednesday. As a consolation, he also won the tournament’s championship points, and would have won in the first game if he had played even half as well as he did in the final game. He will be the first Norwegian champion since Arvid King in 1971 to not win the title twice.
Caruana had told reporters that he did not expect a three-game series against Carlsen this year, or indeed, at all. “I hope not,” he said. “I think that after losing last year it is hard to get back into the run of games.” He admitted, in fact, that he felt a bit reluctant to show himself so rigidly and inflexibly as he had for most of the game.
Carlsen said he was fully aware that his game had been highly analyzed and carefully chronicled by viewers at home, and that his nerves were clearly showing. “Of course, it was a hard-fought battle, especially the last game,” he said. “But I think that maybe some people thought that the way I would play in the fifth game would change after last year’s game. And I did.
“But in the end, I think it has been very solid. I have been very calm — the game, for me, was really important that I play an extraordinary game.
“So far, I think so,” he said with a smile. “But the nerves were good. So if they get too bad, I will change something.”