Magnus Carlsen confessed to nerves after holding on for a high-wire draw with on Thursday in the marathon 10th game of their world championship showdown, which left the best-of-12-games match in a 5-all deadlock with two contests remaining.
The 27-year-old champion from Norway, playing with the black pieces, weathered Caruana’s novel deviation from the Sveshnikov Sicilian (12. b4) and responded with a bold attacking surprise (21. … b5!) to go for broke on the kingside and briefly take advantages in position and time over the American challenger.
But one false step (44. ... Kd4) while trying to squeeze victory from a seemingly drawish position left the champion on the back foot, where he admitted he was “fortunate” to salvage a half-point after five hours and 19 minutes.
“I felt that it was very close to mate,” Carlsen, the world No 1, said of his kingside attack. “The problem is if I don’t mate I’m losing. So I was trying to find some middle ground and my time was running out. I don’t know. I was just so nervous, I couldn’t make it happen. It ended up just being nothing.”
Caruana and Carlsen played into another Sicilian, same as Game 8, and the parallel lines extended for their first 11 moves (6. Ndb5 d6 7. Nd5 Nxd5 8. exd5 Nb8 9. a4 Be7 10. Be2 O-O 11. O-O Nd7). It was the American who broke first with a novelty (12. b4) that sent Carlsen into the first long think of the day.
“It was a new move,” Carlsen said. “I thought I’d checked everything there after from previous games but apparently not. But I was not so unhappy to see it since I felt I that would just get a complicated game. And then at some point I was very happy with my position and I probably overestimated it and then I decided to just go crazy.”
The 26-year-old Caruana, moving quickly and still apparently in his home prep, established a space advantage on the queenside and the potential for counterplay with 15. ... Ra8 16. Be3 f5 17. a5 f4 as Carlsen labored in response to each move. But the champion began to plot a kingside initiative (19. ... Qg6 20. Bc7 e4 21. Kh1) before striking with the audacious 21. … b5, a pawn sacrifice that nullified the rook which had been confounding black’s attacking ideas.
Carlsen had the clear upper hand after equal trades of pawns and bishops (27. Bf1 Bxf1 28. Qxf1 Qxd5 29. Rxb4 Qe6) and the players, facing clock pressure, scrambled toward the time control as the game entered the fifth hour.
The position appeared bound for a draw after (41. ... Rc6 42. Ra6 Ke5 43. Kg3 h6 44. h5) but Carlsen was keen on pressing his winning chances. That’s when he overextended himself with 44. ... Kd4, exposing his d-pawn and allowing Caruana to hit back with 45. Rb5. Suddenly the American was pressing and Carlsen would need to sacrifice a pawn and be incredibly accurate in defense to hold a draw.
“I was playing for a win and then immediately after (44. ... Kd4), I saw (45. Rb5) and I realized I was going to have to grovel for a draw,” Carlsen said. “Fortunately, I managed to do that, but I think he could have put a stronger test to me.”
Carlsen cowered back to the center in a flurry of moves (46. Ra4+ Ke5 47. Rab4 Ke6) before accepting a pawn exchange (48. c4 dxc4 49. Rxc4). Shortly after a trade of rooks the players shook hands.
When asked if nerves came into play, Carlsen was forthright: “I’ve been nervous for many days.”
The 10 straight draws represent the longest streak of games to open a match without a decisive result in the recognized 132-year history of world championship matches.
Carlsen will be a warm favorite to retain the title if the next two games end in draws, forcing a tie-breaker on Wednesday consisting of a series of games under tighter time controls. The Norwegian, who in addition to his No 1 ranking is the world’s top rated rapid player and top rated blitz player (compared to Caruana’s respective ratings of No 8 and No 16), is unbeaten in tie-breakers over the last 13 years.
Said Russian grandmaster Alexander Grischuk on Wednesday of the prospect: “Of course Magnus is the favorite. You can beat Magnus, but you can never be a favorite against him.”
For now both players will look forward to Friday’s rest day before the €1m ($1.14m) match resumes on Saturday at with Carlsen playing as white in Game 11.
“It was just a case of too complicated and too much at stake,” said Carlsen, who extended a career-high streak of 15 straight draws stretching back to last month’s European Club Cup in Porto Carras, Greece. “That was the main thing. I could have played better many times. Both of us made many mistakes.”