The Final Masters came to a conclusion today, and Magnus Carlsen won - deservedly - against Fabiano Caruana in a blitz playoff. Both players finished with +3 scores, each losing only one game in the event - to each other. Caruana went +3 in the first cycle and even in the second, while it was the reverse for Carlsen. So why do I say Carlsen was the deserved winner, when both players had such similar results?
The answer came in today's round, before the blitz games. Both Carlsen and Caruana had Black, against Levon Aronian and Francisco Vallejo, respectively. Carlsen drew with Aronian, but he had to sweat a while, as Aronian enjoyed a definite and nagging edge for a long time in a very old-fashioned Queen's Indian. Nevertheless, once he equalized, even though he had no legitimate chances to win at all, he played on a bit longer when Aronian offered a possible repetition. He took chances early in the game, in the hopes of reaching a position where he could fight for a win, and then even later fought when there was practically nothing left to fight for.
Contrast that with Caruana's game. Caruana is a big specialist in the Neo-Archangelsk variation of the Ruy, but chose instead to play the Zaitsev. Trying to avoid some preparation? Maybe, but he wasn't worried about that earlier in the event, even though he's aware that every professional on the planet knows he plays the line. Anyway, Vallejo shamelessly played the Ng5-f3 repetition, daring Caruana to choose a different system. Not particularly admirable on Vallejo's part, but when you're -4 and just turned what could have been 2.5 points (on classical scoring) the past three rounds into a single half a point, wanting to put an end to the event is pretty natural. But why is Caruana giving him a break? Vallejo isn't a bad player, but he's not doing well and he's the lowest-rated player by a considerable margin. If you're not going to play for a win against the bottom marker by rating and score, who are you going to play for a win against?
Viswanathan Anand and Sergey Karjakin played a lively draw in a sharp line of the Slav, and so the final standings (not counting the tiebreak) looked like this:
1-2. Carlsen, Caruana 17 (on 3-1-0 scoring; their "real" score was 7-3)
3. Aronian 11 (5-5, with one win and one loss)
4. Karjakin 10 (4.5-5.5, with one win and two losses)
5. Anand 9 (4.5-5.5, with one loss)
6. Vallejo 6 (3-7, with four losses)
On to the blitz (4' + 3") playoff. Carlsen had Black in game one and played the Berlin Defense. Carlsen managed to artificially isolate White's e-pawn and win it, and he subsequently converted his material advantage in a rook ending. The second game was a bit of a farce. It's very difficult to win on-demand with Black - especially against Carlsen - so Caruana probably felt the need to play a riskier and somewhat unfamiliar opening. Carlsen played somewhat untheoretically as well, but clearly had a better feel for the opening:
1.e4 c5 2.Nf3 e6 3.g3 b6 4.Bg2 Bb7 5.Qe2 d6 6.d4 cxd4 7.Nxd4 Nf6 8.0-0 Nbd7 9.Rd1
Here White is threatening a standard trick that more often arises from the g3 line against the Taimanov/Paulsen. Caruana either didn't know it, didn't suspect it, or just grossly underestimated it. (Ironically, he made a similar mistake against me in a blitz game a couple of years ago, and was extremely fortunate to draw - I had a winning position and he had no material, but I ran out of time.) Black needed to play something like 9...Qc7/Qc8/Qb8; instead:
and now another big error:
Black is completely lost. If 11...Bb7, 12.Nxe6 finishes the game, but after
was curtains. (If 13...Bf5 14.Nxf5 exf5 15.Qe2+/15.Re1+ followed by 16.fxg7 and 17.f4 wins a piece.) Caruana kicked on for five more moves (12...Qxf6 13.Qxh3 Be7 14.Nc3 Qg6 15.Nc6 Ne5 16.Nxe7 Kxe7 17.Bf4) and called it a day.