I followed the three games live on chess24.es (for live commentary from GMs) and chess.com (for actual real time computer analysis).

As per my understanding:

  • Game 13 was mostly balanced until 19... Nb5? (GMs were expecting Nb7 if anything), and then after 34... Rc3? it was definitely over.
  • Game 14, Caruana was in a better position until 21. c5? which brought it back to balance, followed "shortly" after by 26. c7? which was definitely a losing move (live commentators went nuts here).
  • Game 15, there were no "obvious" errors (not that the GMs noticed on-air, at least), Caruana was even leading, but in the last half of the game the computer was marking several of Caruana's moves in red.

As far as I can tell, Carlsen didn't make any winning!! or distinctly good moves. Yes, he played great and made very few errors, but my feeling is that Caruana lost the game, more than Carlsen won it.

So, why is everybody praising Carlsen for his play? What moves or strategies did he apply in the tie-breakers that show how good he is?

  • First time posting, so feel free to edit tags or the question itself to make it more apt to the stack's style, thanks. – walen Nov 29 '18 at 15:04
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    If not for what every answer has already mentioned, being consistent and not making errors is also worth praising. Certainly not an easy accomplishment for us humans. – Isac Nov 29 '18 at 20:02
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    Don't players that lose usually make game-losing moves? – John Coleman Nov 30 '18 at 11:34
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    @JohnColeman Unless it's Magnus making them in the World Championship... – corsiKa Nov 30 '18 at 19:17
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    @Michael It hasn't been shown that perfect play leads to a draw. I suspect we are orders of magnitude of computing power away from such a feat. Zermelo's theorem still holds, though. – corsiKa Nov 30 '18 at 22:28

Game 1 of the tiebreak: http://www.chessgames.com/perl/chessgame?gid=1937923

37 Rc7 is a brilliant endgame move under time control, that induces the opponent to make the mistake 37...Kxe4. There were few other options for Carlsen, v.i.z., 37. Kh3 or 37. Rb4. You can see the evaluation jumps couple of points from +0.3 to +2.1 even though materially Caruana pulls back to equal pawns. There are two aspects to playing good chess:

  • First is finding amazing moves
  • Second and equally important is provoking the opponent into making incorrect moves.

If you look at Carlsen's previous WC games, in most of them he has ground the opponent down and forced them to make incorrect moves. You may not like his style but that doesn't mean he doesn't deserve praise.

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Carlsen crushed it, made almost no mistakes whatsoever in rapid. It is as if he was playing at classical time controls.

Chess is about not making mistakes. If your opponent doesn't make mistakes then you're only going to get a draw even if you play like an engine.

He did play good moves as well. Example on move 37 the position is a draw but he gave himself winning chances with 37. Rc7!. Caruana now blunders with Kxe4 instead of playing Ra2+. Now Carlsen plays the accurate Re7+! instead of Rxg7? and obtains a winning position.

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    Chess is about not making mistakes and forcing your opponent to make mistakes, and Carlsen did that quite well. – Akavall Nov 30 '18 at 1:18
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    As Grischuk once said in the Candidates Tournament 2018 post-game press, "a perfect game is when all mistakes are made by your opponent". – user17931 Nov 30 '18 at 4:13

my feeling is that Caruana lost the game, more than Carlsen won it.

Whenever two players play a game without making any errors the result is a draw. Most games have lots of errors and it is usually the player who makes the last error who loses.

As far as I can tell, Carlsen didn't make any winning!! or distinctly good moves

Not true. Carlsen made many very good moves. So too did Caruana but unfortunately for Caruana he made more bad moves than Carlsen.

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  • “Whenever two players play a game without making any errors the result is a draw.” This is often said but it really is not known whether perfect play can ensure a draw or one player (almost certainly white) has a winning strategy. – leftaroundabout Dec 2 '18 at 18:56

Carlsen didn't make any winning!! or distinctly good moves.

I doubt. Carlsen's play was almost accurate. He could exploit almost all of Caruana's mistakes in the rapid games.

Game 1:

Carlsen realizes his opponent is in serious time trouble, in which a move like Rc7! seems the most suitable. Without thinking, a human player would like to collect 2 pawns via 37... Kxe4 38. Rxg7 Kxf5, without realizing that 39. Rg5+ Kf6 Rxh5 wins the crucial h5 pawn, without which the game is a straightforward victory for white.

[FEN "rnbqkbnr/pppppppp/8/8/8/8/PPPPPPPP/RNBQKBNR w KQkq - 0 1"]
[Event "2018 World Chess Championship"]
[Site "London"]
[Date "2018.11.28"]
[Round "?"]
[White "Carlsen, Magnus"]
[Black "Caruana, Fabiano"]
[Result "1-0"]
[ECO "A22"]
[Annotator "Sam Shankland"]
[PlyCount "109"]
[StartPly "72"]
[EventDate "2018.??.??"]
[CurrentPosition "rnbqkbnr/pppppppp/8/8/8/8/PPPPPPPP/RNBQKBNR w KQkq - 0 1"]

1. c4 e5 2. Nc3 Nf6 3. g3 Bb4 4. e4 O-O 5. Nge2 c6 6. Bg2 a6 7. O-O b5 8. d4 d6 9. a3 Bxc3 10. Nxc3 bxc4 11. dxe5 dxe5 12. Na4 Be6 13. Qxd8 Rxd8 14. Be3 Nbd7 15. f3 Rab8 16. Rac1 Rb3 17. Rfe1 Ne8 18. Bf1 Nd6 19. Rcd1 Nb5 20. Nc5 Rxb2 21. Nxe6 fxe6 22. Bxc4 Nd4 23. Bxd4 exd4 24. Bxe6+ Kf8 25. Rxd4 Ke7 26. Rxd7+ Rxd7 27. Bxd7 Kxd7 28. Rd1+ Ke6 29. f4 c5 30. Rd5 Rc2 31. h4 c4 32. f5+ Kf6 33. Rc5 h5 34. Kf1 Rc3 35. Kg2 Rxa3 36. Rxc4 Ke5 37. Rc7! Kxe4 38. Re7+ Kxf5 39. Rxg7 Kf6 40. Rg5 a5 41. Rxh5 a4 42. Ra5 Ra1 43. Kf3 a3 44. Ra6+ Kg7 45. Kg2 Ra2+ 46. Kh3 Ra1 47. h5 Kh7 48. g4 Kg7 49. Kh4 a2 50. Kg5 Kf7 51. h6 Rb1 52. Ra7+ Kg8 53. Rxa2 Rb5+ 54. Kg6 Rb6+ 55. Kh5 1-0

Game 2:

Carlsen finds 24... Bd8!, after which the most clear path for white is to get c7 through after Nd5. However, Magnus finds the best move in the position, 25... e4!, generating enough counterplay in the center such that c7 is easily handled.

[FEN "rnbqkbnr/pppppppp/8/8/8/8/PPPPPPPP/RNBQKBNR w KQkq - 0 1"]
[Event "2018 World Chess Championship"]
[Site "London"]
[Date "2018.11.28"]
[Round "?"]
[White "Caruana, Fabiano"]
[Black "Carlsen, Magnus"]
[Result "0-1"]
[Annotator "Sam Shankland"]
[PlyCount "56"]
[StartPly "50"]
[EventDate "2006.06.28"]

1. e4 c5 2. Nf3 Nc6 3. d4 cxd4 4. Nxd4 Nf6 5. Nc3 e5 6. Ndb5 d6 7. Nd5 Nxd5 8. exd5 Ne7 9. c4 Ng6 10. Qa4 Bd7 11. Qb4 Qb8 12. h4 h5 13. Be3 a6 14. Nc3 a5 15. Qb3 a4 16. Qd1 Be7 17. g3 Qc8 18. Rc1 Bg4 19. Be2 Bxe2 20. Qxe2 Qf5 21. c5 O-O 22. c6 bxc6 23. dxc6 Rfc8 24. Qc4 Bd8 25. Nd5 e4 26. c7? Bxc7 27. Nxc7 Ne5 28. Nd5 Kh7 (29. Qe2 Nd3+) (29. Ne7 Qf3 30. Qxc8 Rxc8 31. Rxc8 Qxh1+) 0-1
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Garry Kasparov put it this way in a tweet:

Carlsen’s consistent level of play in rapid chess is phenomenal. We all play worse as we play faster and faster, but his ratio may be the smallest ever, perhaps only a 15% drop off. Huge advantage in this format.

Not sure where he gets the 15% from, but the general idea must be right: Caruana suffered much more from the lack of thinking time than Carlsen did. That is what is amazing about Carlsen.

Like others said, you can only win if your opponent makes mistakes. Tartakower famously put it this way: "The winner of the game is the player who makes the next-to-last mistake".

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    Is the quote of Tartakower verbatim? Because it is logically incorrect.... – Goodbye SE Nov 30 '18 at 8:39
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    I've always seen it quoted like that (Google it and you'll find it in many places) but admittedly don't know the original source. I think he wanted to be humorous and to emphasize that winners make mistakes too, but if you look at it strictly there are exceptions: the loser might make consecutive mistakes, for example, instead of "taking turns" like the quote would suggest. – itub Nov 30 '18 at 11:58
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    We actually don't know whether "you can only win if your opponent makes mistakes". It's possible that a perfectly played game of chess by both sides results in a win for one color. We don't know. – ktm5124 Nov 30 '18 at 22:38
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    @ktm5124, you are right, it has not been proven. Still, it's a widely accepted conjecture that seems to be consistent with empirical evidence. – itub Dec 2 '18 at 0:44
  • @itub my last information regarding that topic is that white wins in a perfect game. But I do not know if this has a prove or this is conjectured because white has a higher win rate in general. – Goodbye SE Dec 17 '18 at 8:22

You should read GM Sam Shankland's annotations to all three games, which are freely available on Chess.com.

In them he points out many good moves that Carlsen played. Some that come to mind are d4 in game 1, sacrificing a pawn. Castling kingside in game 2 allowing c6. Bd8 in game 2 and then sacrificing this bishop for the c7 pawn. e4 followed by Ne5 in game 2. All the moves in game 1 that won him the endgame. Playing for a solid Maroczy bind in game 3 which is very hard to beat.

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  • Actually, reading that analysis was what prompted me to post this question here, because Shankland's "day after" analysis didn't quite match the live analysis by two other GMs. – walen Dec 3 '18 at 15:16

How do you know Caruana made mistakes? How do you know Carlsen didn't make any "winning" moves?

Oh, right. You used an engine. Or you listened to a commentator who was using an engine.

Get it through your head: Carlsen deserves praise because he's a fantastic HUMAN chess player.

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    This doesn't answer the question. The question specifically asks why people think Carlsen played well, answering "he is a fantastic player" isn't really an answer. – JiK Dec 1 '18 at 22:09
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    And an engine doesn't have a concept of "winning moves", so I doubt OP means solely an engine evaluation that when claiming that Carlsen didn't make such moves, that would mean nothing. – JiK Dec 1 '18 at 22:11
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    Is the sarcasm necessary? – thb Dec 2 '18 at 16:22
  • «Oh, right [...] You listened to a commentator who was using an engine.» I listened to live commentary by David Antón, Pepe Cuenca and David Martínez. That's a combined 7500+ FIDE rating. They don't need a computer to know when a movement is a winning one or a losing one. – walen Dec 2 '18 at 21:44

As far as I can tell, Carlsen didn't make any winning!! or distinctly good moves.

In chess, only results count not the moves... Carlsen is being praised because he won the match. Winner takes all.

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    That's really not true. Very often we for example say about top GM games that someone didn't play well enough to deserve a win, but the opponent played even worse. When someone is praised for their play in a game, it's definitely not only about the result. – JiK Dec 1 '18 at 22:13

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