World number four GM Fabiano Caruana won the Chess.com Death Match 15 Sunday afternoon by a score of 16-9 over GM Valeriy Aveskulov, but the score did not reflect the proximity of most of the match.
Although qualifying based on his bullet rating, Aveskulov showed surprising prowess in both the five-minute and three-minute segments, remaining equal in the former and only being edged at the end of the latter. He went into the 1+1 segment only down two games, but after Caruana rattled off the first four convincingly, Aveskulov simply could not make up the difference.
Prior to the faceoff, Caruana revealed he had only watched one previous Death Match - the 12th edition, which happened to go into overtime. "I was glued to my seat for a few hours," Caruana said, and he would be reattached yesterday to fight off the underdog. He said he played a few bullet games in the morning to prepare and "I did not have very good results." Commentator IM Danny Rensch demurred at the humility. "When intuition takes over in the bullet, the guys at the highest level are better than they'll ever tell you," Rensch said, and he was proven right.
At the outset of the match, games one through four were split, with white winning every one. Caruana took games one and three with closed, positional struggles, while Aveskulov won both even-numbered games with strong pins on the a2-g8 diagonal.
The opening of the match featured a recurring thematic argument in the French that eventually created strange diamond-shaped placements of pieces on the queenside, both for white and black. With everything getting deadlocked, Caruana got the first win by breaking through on the kingside.
The end of the game score is not analysis - Aveskulov played all the way until checkmate in most of his five-minute and three-minute losses. Given this tactic and the fact that most games were decided with both players under one minute, this reduced the total number of games played to 25, the lowest Death Match total ever (three previous matches had gone to 26 games). Aveskulov was clearly trying to limit the longer time control games to get to his supposed asset, bullet chess.
Before that happened, he kept the match within striking distance, answering every punch with a counterblow. In game four, he essentially decided his light-squared bishop was worth more than Caruana's queen or rook, waiting many moves to capture either before heading into a winning endgame.
After white won those opening four games, players of the black pieces then went on an incredible run. Black overran white the next two games, then took all six decisive games of the three-minute segment. Aveskulov's ubiquitous Rossolimo continued to get shot down, but his French Defense kept scoring, and black took all the points until the final hour.
In the entire 25 games, only two games were drawn! One of the draws was perhaps the least likely to end in peace, with both players engaging in electric attacks without fear for their own kings. Caruana's bishop looked to be have more scope, but Aveskulov played more than 40 moves on increment and muddled the ramifications too much for anything more than high-level guesswork. Neither player had time to calculate whose king was getting mated first, and although Caruana missed a mating net with 81. Qc7+, driving black's king to the open file, players cannot really be faulted for missing the optimal 81st move in a three-minute game. In the end, perhaps a perpetual was the fairest result.
Caruana had more time for most of the first two time controls, but Aveskulov kept holding on with less time, several times saving horrible positions. Game nine (the only other draw in the match) was a particularly horrific position saved by Aveskulov.
The two mostly traded wins as white struggled, but Aveskulov's blunder of the exchange in the final three-minute game doubled the deficit to two. While still not bad given his over-the-board rating disadvantage, he now had to win the bullet by several games to win the match.
Aveskulov never contended after that. In a run of impressive victories by the favorite, the fourth one in a row was a pleasing crush, with the knight totally dominating the bishop. In a rarity of this Death Match, Aveskulov could not even make things interesting with any counterthreats.
Aveskulov did not have enough time remaining in the match to recover. He only once won back-to-back games, and that was way back in games four and five. He lost the bullet 8-3 and said he got very tired. If he had to train for another Death Match, he would begin a regimen of running one month before the duel. "I am exhausted," he said. He looked deflated more by the effort than the result (although he was the biggest underdog in history, he did not lose by the biggest margin). "It's a pity that I could not cope with the time pressure in the bullet," Aveskulov lamented.
Caruana said he was not as tired as he was dizzy from looking at the computer screen for more than three hours. He deflected any overarching reason why he dominated the bullet. "These things are sometimes a bit random," Caruana said. His pre-match prediction that openings are of little importance in blitz and bullet games portended his afternoon, in which many if not most games swung several times in the middlegame and endgame. He also said he had an improvement for his next Death Match. "I had only one problem," he said, referring to game 11 when he was about to promote a pawn, but needed a knight to give check and avoid an immediate skewer. "I wasn't sure I had autoqueen on and I couldn't find the settings. I decided to take a 50-50 chance." He pushed the pawn, a queen immediately appeared, and he resigned next move. Rensch, always tweaking the features of the site, promised to have the engineers research a quick-click fix for future underpromotions.
Don't forget the next Death Match 16 - Saturday July 13 at 1:00 p.m. Eastern, 10 a.m. Pacific between GM Robert Hungaski and GM Krikor Sevag Mekhitarian.