After more than 50 hours of play over nearly three weeks, the chess world championship title will be decided by speedy tiebreaker games. A 12-game battle of brains between American challenger Fabiano Caruana and reigning champion Magnus Carlsen of Norway has resulted in 12 straight draws — the first time that has happened in a chess world championship match. That means the match — which is taking place behind soundproof glass on a stage in London — now comes down to a series of rapid games that could even conclude in a sudden-death format known as “Armageddon” if a winner can’t be found.
Caruana, 26, is trying to become the first American since Bobby Fischer to be crowned chess world champion. Still, he remains the underdog against the 27-year-old Carlsen, a former teenage prodigy who has been the world’s top-ranked player since the age of 19 and is considered even more dominant when playing with shorter time controls.
However, Carlsen stunned many commentators when he offered Caruana a draw in the 12th game Monday despite having what experts and computer programs considered to be a better position and a large time advantage on the clocks. That led to suggestions the defending champion may be cracking under the pressure.
“In light of this shocking draw offer from Magnus in a superior position with more time, I reconsider my evaluation of him being the favorite in rapids,” former world champion Garry Kasparov tweeted . “Tiebreaks require tremendous nerves and he seems to be losing his.” Even Caruana acknowledged he was “relieved” to be able to reach the tiebreakers after being on the ropes in the last game.
“When you feel like you’re sort of on the brink of defeat, or at least you have a very dangerous position, then of course it’s quite good,” the American said. Carlsen, though, remained confident in his ability to outplay the challenger in speed chess.
“I think I have very good chances obviously,” the Norwegian said. “But I don’t know what’s going to happen.”
With no decisive games and no political undertones, this match has not created anything resembling the worldwide buzz that Fischer’s 1972 title meeting with Soviet champion Boris Spassky generated during the height of the Cold War. Still, American chess fans are hoping that a win for the Miami-born Caruana could boost the game in the U.S.
Carlsen has created a chess craze in Norway, where his matches are front-page news and often shown live on TV. In 2014, he checkmated Microsoft founder Bill Gates in nine moves on a Norwegian talk show, using just 12 seconds on the clock.
For a global audience, these games have been live-streamed online with several top grandmasters providing play-by-play commentary and analysis, aided by super computers that instantly evaluate each position.
The first game, on Nov. 9, came closest to a decisive result but Carlsen failed to convert a winning advantage and had to settle for a draw after a seven-hour tussle. Carlsen’s previous title fight against Russian Sergey Karjakin also went to tiebreakers in 2016 after they only managed to win one game each. But despite the lack of knockout blows, this year’s championship has still had some drama as both players have missed good chances to win games.
Carlsen even showed up with a black eye for one game after getting injured playing soccer on an off-day. On Wednesday, the two players will first face off in four games with rapid time controls — 25 minutes plus 10 additional seconds per move for each player.
If the match remains deadlocked after that, they will play a series of five-minute games. And if that fails to produce a winner, the match will end in an “Armageddon” game — where the player with the white pieces gets five minutes on the clock while the person playing black only gets four minutes, but a draw counts as a win for black.
The winner will get 550,000 euros (USD 621,000), with the runner-up pocketing 450,000 euros (USD 508,000).