After three weeks, 12 straight draws and a day of tiebreakers, Norway’s Magnus Carlsen finally retained the world chess championship in London on Wednesday with a victory against Fabiano Caruana, his American challenger.
Carlsen’s victory came in what amounted to sudden-death chess: a scheduled series of four so-called rapid games in which the players started with 25 minutes to make their moves. The speedier pace of the games, after the far more deliberate matchups of the previous three weeks, meant players were more likely to make blunders. And that increased the chance of a victory by one player.
Carlsen won the first two games, then closed out Caruana in Game 3.
In Game 1, Carlsen, playing white, quickly seized control of the center and, after a flurry of exchanges, wound up with a pawn advantage. For the first time in the match, he was able to turn the edge into a win; Caruana resigned after 55 moves.
Caruana got the white pieces for Game 2 and seized an early advantage of his own. But he seemed to press his advantage a little too hard, commentators said, and Carlsen turned the tables on him for win No. 2.
That left Caruana needing two straight wins to extend the championship to the next round of even speedier matches. But Carlsen needed only a single draw, and when he got his third win — in the face of an increasingly aggressive series of moves by Caruana — the title was his.
Caruana, 26, was bidding to become the first American champion since Bobby Fischer beat Boris Spassky to win the world title in 1972. The famously cantankerous Fischer forfeited his title in 1975 amid a dispute with the world chess federation, and the sport has been dominated by Russians and Eastern Europeans in the decades since then.
The tiebreaker result was not a shock. While Carlsen, 27, and Caruana, 26, are closely matched in longer conventional chess games, known as classical chess, Carlsen had been considered the favorite in the tiebreaker because he has had better rapid chess results than Caruana.
The tiebreaker was a decisive end to a match that promised excitement when it began Nov. 9 but instead fizzled amid an interminable run of draws. Carlsen and Caruana are the two best players in the world, and an eager crowd watched them play from behind one-way glass in London. Millions of others, including a surprisingly large portion of Carlsen’s native Norway, followed the moves and the commentary about them on television and over the internet.
The first 12 games of the championship, played at conventional length, all ended in draws. Some of the games lasted as long as seven hours, while others were relatively quick. In a few of the games, one player or the other seemed to gain a small advantage, only to fail to capitalize on it and close out a win.
It was the first time in the history of the world championship, which dates to the 1800s, that regulation play ended with every game a draw. A player needs 6½ points from those games to win the title, but the series of draws left the match tied, 6-6, after Monday’s 12th game.
Chess fans seemed especially disappointed by Game 12. Carlsen seemed to be ahead on the board and had more time on his clock to ponder his remaining actions, but nonetheless he offered a draw after only 31 moves, a tepid ending to the main part of the match.
The legendary former champion Garry Kasparov suggested the draw offer was a sign that Carlsen was losing his nerve, and on Twitter he proclaimed Caruana the favorite in the tiebreakers. Kasparov did praise Carlsen’s play on Wednesday: “We all play worse as we play faster and faster, but his ratio may be the smallest ever.”
Questioned about the parade of draws, Caruana seemed unperturbed. “We work with the match that we have,” he said. “If the powers that be want to change it, then we’ll work with something else.”
Had the four rapid games ended with the players still tied, they would have moved on to a series of blitz chess games, in which players start with only five minutes each.
Carlsen won the world chess title in 2013 at age 22, then successfully defended it in 2014 and 2016. Carlsen’s 2016 match against Sergey Karjakin of Russia also went to tiebreakers, although each player had posted a victory in the 12 conventional games. Carlsen won with two wins and two draws in the four rapid games.
Caruana, like Fischer, is a Brooklyn-bred grandmaster and is at the vanguard of an improved group of American players who are challenging the dominance of Russia and others.
Caruana moved to Europe at age 12 to find better chess opportunities and returned to the United States three years ago, when he switched his chess nationality to the United States from Italy.
Carlsen’s recent success has led to a chess boom in Norway. Carlsen has become one of the country’s most famous people, and viewers attracted to the game by his victories now play it in clubs, bars and even on trams in Oslo. For the past month, many of those players — new and old — have been glued to televisions to watch his matches. Even the draws.
Those fans were rewarded on Wednesday; Caruana stymied him for weeks, but in the end, Carlsen is still the world champion.