As of 2018-11-24, 11 games have been drawn at the World Chess Championship (WCC) 2018. A lot of commentators (in particular Alexander Grischuk) have attacked Carlsen for poor preparation.

But ... 11 games have been drawn. It's not like Carlsen is losing. If it's true that he is not well-prepared, what does that say about Caruana's inability to take advantage of that and win? Should he not be criticized for not being able to win against a supposedly ill-prepared player?

In fact, if Carlsen can manage to win this WCC without preparing too much, that's a ... success, isn't it?

  • Goes to show that you can study openings all day and night and not know chess. But thanks for the novelties, Caruana! – Jossie Calderon Nov 27 '18 at 15:55

Carlsen is being criticized for his preparation with white, particularly e4. He knows that Caruana is going to play the Petrof yet nevertheless Caruana equalizes effortlessly. Carlsen appears to have no new ideas in this opening. Since there is no more important competition he could be saving novelties for it tells us he has no novelties. No novelties = poor preparation. If he doesn't have an answer to this he shouldn't play 1. e4

Note that we have seen novelties from Caruana, not necessarily good ones. As black in one game he played Rd8 in a Queen's Gambit looking to provoke the reply Nd2 from Carlsen. That looked like it would be a strong response from Carlsen but he chickened out and played a much more drawish move suggesting that he believed Caruana had some big improvement planned.

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    Perhaps people expected a little more effort in trying to get an advantage from the opening when playing the White pieces from Carlsen. Just to mention one game, I found the Nd3 Petroff with the early exchange of Queens a bit disappointing... But the matches between Kasparov and Karpov, when every game with White was the opportunity to play the big novelties, are long gone. It think that the way top level chess is played currently is very different than 30 years or so ago. – A. N. Other Nov 25 '18 at 14:47
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    Novelties or not, Karpov and Kasparov still managed to draw 17 times in a row in 1984! A total of 40 draws out of 48 rounds. – itub Nov 25 '18 at 15:28

Carlsen is criticized because he's in a defense position (he's defending his title, and doesn't need to win all games), and people want to see crazy games with new things, as simple as that.

While I must admit that this kind of games are pretty boring, we cannot "hate" on him for having poor preparation. He's not there to entertain people.

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    Ultimately, he is there to entertain people. Professional sport exists only because people are entertained by it and are prepared to pay for that entertainment (and, in the context of chess, because sponsors are prepared to pay to have their name written beside that entertainment). Of course, in the short term, all professionals have little choice but to focus on "getting the job done." However, in the long term, if people don't find that job entertaining enough, it will cease to exist. (I'm not proposing that this is in any danger of happening soon.) – David Richerby Nov 25 '18 at 12:40
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    @DavidRicherby - If Carlsen and Caruana are both there to entertain and winning is secondary, then the prize money should be split equally because it's not really about winning or losing. Since the prize money is not split evenly, winning does matter and Carlsen needs to do whatever he feels necessary to win, not entertain. – Randy Minder Nov 25 '18 at 13:56
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    @RandyMinder You seem to have completely missed my point. "Doing whatever he feels necessary to win" is exactly the short-term focus on "getting the job done" that I mentioned. Question for you: what is the point of professional chess? Why are we prepared to pay people large sums of money to shuffle little pieces of wood around on a bigger piece of wood? I'm pretty sure it's not because we think they'll find a cure for cancer, for example. – David Richerby Nov 25 '18 at 17:00
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    From a marketing standpoint, then yes I agree on your point. But I'm sure players are not playing thinking about doing their best just to keep the sponsors happy. They are just playing to win and have fun – CSPP Nov 25 '18 at 18:32
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    @PeterMortensen Yes, he can: if it goes to Armageddon and he gets Black. – fkraiem Nov 26 '18 at 0:26

The question is best answered by World Champions, and I don't think any of them said such a thing, but it may be the confluence of two factors.

First, and obviously, it is much more important for Carlsen to avoid being on the receiving end of ultra-sharp preparation like http://www.chessgames.com/perl/chessgame?gid=1877986. If the price to pay is entering no sharp lines of his own, then he is more than willing to pay it, since he is probably the best at quiet, dull play, or at least he was!

Second, commentators like Grischuk may not have realized how ultra-dull chess can become with the current computers, even compared to the preparation Grischuk was doing 4-8 years ago. In the first game, Magnus was his scary self from Carlsen-Karjakin, with every move computer-approved and slowly shifting the balance in his favor. Even the Nd3 Petrov was an attempt to catch Fabi out, as it only draws if you know the method. Fabi thought for a few minutes probably just to mess with us or even play with his food, and played the equalizer ..Nc6. Fabi tried the Magnus recipe with b4 in the Rossolimo in game 5, and Magnus knew the equalizer.

The guys are prepared! It's just that they are prepared to play as little chess as possible. Perhaps there will be more exciting prep in a longer match, but it is hard to undo the computer damage, unless you are prepared to prepare 10x harder than what was the norm 10 years ago.

  • Strongly disagree with the second comment, since Grischuk is also a super-GM so of course he knows how "ultra-dull chess can become". – Allure Nov 26 '18 at 4:44
  • I had for awhile thought computers were making chess boring , but AlphaZero, LeelaZero, etc. have been making it interesting again. A few years ago I thought was pretty clear that games would be drawn with perfect play, but now I'm not so sure, since there are many situations where a player would seem to be at a disadvantage but can, with perfect play, secure a win. – supercat Nov 26 '18 at 17:05
  • Grischuk has just asked/demanded for the next WC to be in Chess 960 because of too much preparation, contradicting his initial premise. We can safely conclude he is clueless. – fidetrainerNET Nov 26 '18 at 20:09

Let's not forget that Carlsen played the Sicilian in all his black games so far, and had no problems. It's a riskier choice than the 1.e4 e5 of his previous matches and he's making it work.

Also playing all of 1.c4, 1.d4 and 1.e4 is a riskier approach than sticking to one, and more exciting for the audience.

Maybe he did have novelties, just not in the lines Caruana played. Chess is a draw, and Caruana did not choose those lines for nothing.

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    "Chess is a draw" - you don't know that. – orlp Nov 26 '18 at 13:01
  • You mean it's not mathematically proven. Other than that, the chance that it's not is infinitesimal. – RemcoGerlich Nov 26 '18 at 13:03
  • So how did we go from "the chance that it's not is infinitesimal" to claiming that it is? Also, what do you base this on? – orlp Nov 26 '18 at 13:04
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    I base it on the fact that the drawing margin in chess is quite large, that I've never heard a strong grandmaster disagree, that as opening theory develops it only finds more and more ways to get an equal position and hardly any advantage for either side anymore, that as our knowledge of chess grows the drawing percentage at top level also does. There are several statements in my answer that are far more controversial, but you're triggered by this one because it's the only one that could in theory be proven mathematically. – RemcoGerlich Nov 26 '18 at 13:09
  • @RemcoGerlich: In many positions, there will be a move which would certainly doom a player who cannot navigate the resulting situations perfectly, but where it at present impossible to say whether perfect play might yield a winning line. Human players, given a choice between such a move and one which leads much more easily to a draw, will tend to pick the latter, but some games with engines like Leela Zero are revealing that some moves which look like they would turn draws into losses can, with perfect follow-up play, produce wins. – supercat Nov 26 '18 at 16:39

Adding a bit to Brian Towers' answer, which I think is the best one.

In top-level chess, White has a noticeable advantage from the opening position. Therefore, "win with white, draw with black" is a common maxim: you don't have to aim to win your Black games, but you should aim to win the White games. In other words, you should come out of the opening with some advantage.

Carlsen is being criticized because in his White games, he has very often failed to get an opening advantage. This might be explainable if Caruana learned a completely new opening repertoire (Boris Gelfand did this in his match vs. Anand); however Caruana has simply continued to play the openings he usually plays. I'll highlight what happened after a screenshot of Caruana's laptop was leaked. Some people argued it was a ploy, because the screenshot basically showed that Caruana was looking at the QGD and the Petrov's Defense, which Carlsen ought to already have known. Former world champion Anand said as much, calling the "revelation" that Caruana was looking at the Petrov's Defense "completely useless". But if Carlsen had known Caruana was going to play these openings, he ought to have prepared some kind of line that would lead to an opening advantage. So why didn't he manage? For example, game 7 was a QGD that Carlsen already knew that Caruana was likely to play (if he didn't know it beforehand, he definitely knew it after game 2), and yet he still came out of the opening with no advantage.

A fair question is why didn't Caruana's opening preparation come under criticism. First, it's harder to prepare against Carlsen than to prepare against Caruana: Carlsen plays more openings. When you don't know what opening the opponent is going to play, you have more ground to cover, making things hard. After game 1 when Caruana learned that Carlsen was going to play the Sicilian, he did make some progress in game 3, gaining a small opening advantage. He did it again in game 5, where he reached a complicated position from which he could hope that Carlsen would fail to navigate correctly; and then again in game 8, when his position was even winning.

You'll have to come to your own conclusions about whether or not the criticism is fair. I'm simply explaining why it's happening.

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