Caruana: 'I Had A Dream I Would Become World Chess Champion'

GM Fabiano Caruana trails leader GM Ian Nepomniachtchi by half a point at the midway stage of the 2024 Candidates Tournament, just as he did in 2022. Back then he crashed and burned as he fought for first place, only for it turn out that second place was enough. In a new interview Caruana says it was “kind of surreal” to then commentate as GM Ding Liren won the world championship title—something the world number-two says he had a vivid dream about as a 10-year-old.

The interview in St. Louis was filmed in the run-up to the 2024 Candidates, with the three-time U.S. champion talking about his life, from first getting into chess to playing GM Magnus Carlsen in a match for the world championship title. You can watch the 11-minute interview below:

We’ve also transcribed Caruana’s words if you’d prefer to read:

Caruana On How He Got Into Chess

Growing up in New York was great, I do love the city. I had a childhood that was mostly a lot of sports and running around outside and riding bikes with friends and playing sports in the schoolyard. Then, at some point—to my parents’ regret—I got my first video game. So then I wanted to play video games all the time, and that’s when I started playing chess. I started around the age of between five and six because I had some problems with my attention. It was suggested as a way to maybe improve my ability to concentrate and my attention span, and I just started playing with kids in an after-school program, and then got noticed by a chess coach there.

Caruana On A Disastrous First Tournament

I do have a very clear memory of my first tournament, where I lost all my games on time because I forgot to press the clock. Your opponent doesn’t have to tell you to press it, but usually, my opponents were much older and probably felt bad for me.

I lost all my games on time because I forgot to press the clock.

They would remind me, but eventually, I just would lose on time in all the games, so the first outing wasn’t too successful!

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Caruana On Playing Rather Than Studying Chess

I really always enjoyed playing. I love to play, but I didn’t enjoy studying too much. That was never something that grabbed my attention. I didn’t want to study, I didn’t even want to take lessons, although I did, but yeah, the majority of my enjoyment came from playing.

Caruana On Making Childhood Sacrifices For Chess

From my teenage years forward, it was very atypical not having the social connections that you would normally get going to school, or just having friends that you meet in school and then become friends in other aspects of your life. Yeah, all the other things that are associated with high school and applying to college, all those things didn’t really happen for me, but I think you can’t have everything. Of course it would be nice to experience everything, but if you put all of your time and effort into this one area, trying to get as good as you can at it, then you can’t focus so much on other things. It’s just the way it is. If I hadn’t had this life from an early age then I probably wouldn’t be the chess player I am today.

Caruana On The Road To The 2018 World Championship Match

The road to the world championship started with the Candidates in 2018. I had already qualified through a very difficult path to get to the Candidates, because in 2017, already going over a year before the match, I wasn’t sure at all that I would qualify for the Candidates. It was a rating race between Wesley So, Vladimir Kramnik, and myself, and it was very tight. It wasn’t at all clear, and also I got deathly sick during the 2017 World Cup. I got tonsillitis, then I recovered and I beat Kramnik in a really, really important game for the rating race, so after I beat him in that game, my Candidates spot was almost locked in.

Caruana didn’t need to win his final game against Grischuk (although he did) to win the Berlin Candidates by a full point. Photo: Maria Emelianova/Chess.com.

[The 2018 Candidates] was probably the tournament which was most dear to me in terms of competitive pride that I would take in a tournament. That was the biggest one for me, and I qualified for the world championship against Magnus.

Caruana On The Pressure Of Playing A World Championship Match

It was a close match. Of course, mostly looking back on it, it’s like, ‘What could I have done better?’ But it’s always hard to say. I definitely did many things right, and I definitely did some things wrong. It’s not even just a psychological thing, it’s even a physical thing. It’s like when you sit down, you realize that this isn’t a normal event. It’s not like I have people next to me also playing games; it’s just us, and we were in a glass box, with about 40 cameras surrounding the table at the start of the game, which, of course, cleared out as the game progressed, but at the start, it was just like the flash of cameras.

The media attention in London in 2018 was intense. Photo: Maria Emelianova/Chess.com.

It was a very strange feeling, and we had a shared rest area. Of course, normally, both of us wouldn’t be resting at the same time because if I made a move and I’m resting, then it’s his time to play, and he’s not going to be in the rest area. It was a very interesting experience, very intense. For a long time, not just during the match but also going into it, I was really psychologically shaky. I was just very, very nervous going into it.

Caruana On The Match Against Carlsen

I think I handled the psychological part, the nerves, pretty well. My play never dropped massively. There were some bad moments during the match, of course, some big mistakes, but it was never like I completely lost control, which can also happen. You can’t even criticize someone for that, because it’s not possible to say, ‘Be more psychologically stable!’ It’s something that just happens in the moment and you can’t prepare for it, you can’t train for it.

It’s not possible to say, ‘Be more psychologically stable!’ It’s something that just happens in the moment and you can’t prepare for it, you can’t train for it.

In the end, it did come down to a tiebreak, and Magnus was objectively going to be a favorite in this match. I mean, our ratings were close at the time, separated by three points when we started the match, but of course, Magnus—everyone was considering him either a slight or a big favorite coming into the match. Somehow it stayed level, we went to tiebreaks, and the tiebreaks I lost pretty severely. It went wrong from the start, and then it snowballed, and that’s basically the summary of it.

Mixed emotions after the 2018 World Championship match tiebreaks. Photo: Maria Emelianova/Chess.com.

Caruana On Getting More Shots At The Title

I’ve always had this sort of feeling that there will always be another chance, but definitely, there was part of me that was like, ‘Yeah, you just squandered a big chance!’ for sure. So if I look back, I can have some regrets about moves that I could have made, different decisions I could have done, or some things which weren’t in my control that, I feel maybe I got some bad luck… I’m not going to say specifically what I mean by that, but there are always some things that you feel like luck wasn’t on your side.

I don’t know if I’ll get another chance. I might, I mean I’ll keep trying, of course. There’s definitely no guarantee. Maybe in 2016, when I was 23 years old at the time of the Candidates, I probably thought, ‘OK, there’s going to be millions of chances,’ and now I realize, of course, there aren’t millions of chances. You might get some, you might get none. It’s not a guarantee, so that’s a bit more of a conscious thought that I have now, that every chance is pretty important because it might not come again.

That’s a bit more of a conscious thought that I have now, that every chance is pretty important, because it might not come again.

Caruana On The 2020-1 Candidates Stopped By COVID

Weird chairs and COVID measures dominated the 2020 Candidates Tournament in Yekaterinburg. Photo: Maria Emelianova/Chess.com.

In the 2020 Candidates, it was very strange because it was split up into two parts because of COVID. We were in Russia, and at some point, they said, ‘we’re postponing the tournament after seven rounds.’ I was playing White against Maxime [Vachier-Lagrave] in the eighth round, and we had no idea what to do against him, and then at that exact moment, while we were preparing—I remember the time, it was 12:23 and we were preparing for Maxime—Rustam [Kasimdzhanov], my coach, gets a phone call that basically says, ‘OK, the tournament is getting postponed now and you’re going home.’ I forget the time the game started, but it was basically an hour and a half before the game, and then, instead, I play him a year later. I beat him, mostly because I prepared a line for months and months, and beat him 90 percent by preparation.

It was basically an hour and a half before the game, and then instead I play him a year later. I beat him, mostly because I prepared a line for months and months, and beat him 90 percent by preparation.

Of course I wasn’t really part of the picture in terms of I was never really close to winning that tournament. It also definitely changed chess history a little bit in terms of Ian playing a world championship match against Magnus. After that he also played another world championship match, he won the 2022 Candidates. This time there was nothing unusual about the tournament, he just dominated.

Caruana On Playing Only To Win The 2022 Candidates

Halfway through, I was plus three after seven rounds, Ian was plus four, and Magnus was talking about potentially not defending his title. I think, basically, Magnus said he would consider not defending his title, and he probably wouldn’t unless Alireza [Firouzja] wins and qualifies for the match, and then he would probably play Alireza. And to me, it sounded a bit not very clear, and when the statement wasn’t clear, I decided it was better to just assume that he’ll play and assume that first place is the only place that matters, which in hindsight was a mistake, but that was my feeling.

Caruana was in a two-horse race with Nepomniachtchi at the halfway mark in 2022, but lost four of his remaining seven games.

It would have also really hurt to shoot for second place and Magnus is like, ‘Well, I really don’t want to give it up and I’ll play on for the world championship,’ and then my second place doesn’t amount to anything. So of course in hindsight it’s very easy to say that I made some very rash decisions during the tournament, it’s easy to speculate, but the way it did happen of course Ding got second and ended up becoming world champion.

In hindsight it’s very easy to say that I made some very rash decisions during the tournament. 

I commentated on the match, which I wasn’t sure that I would do, but I ended up doing the last half of the match between Ding and Ian. I commentated on the final moments of Ding becoming world champion, which were kind of surreal.

Caruana On Dreaming Of Becoming World Champion

I vividly remember this: I had a dream probably around the age of 10 that I would become world champion. It still hasn’t, obviously, materialized, but I would like to achieve that dream at some point. It was a dream dream, I actually dreamed it, and I don’t know if it will look anything like it did in the dream, but it would be interesting to see how it would look.

I had a dream probably around the age of 10 that I would become world champion.

Caruana On The 2024 Candidates

I’m playing the 2024 Candidates again. This one is a bit different, because now the young guys have started to become really strong, so it’s a mix of the old guard and the younger generation, but now even Alireza is considered one of the more experienced guys. We have players like Gukesh, who I’m not even sure if he’s turned 18 yet, and Praggnanandhaa, who I think is 19, and so we have this young generation, and then we have, I wouldn’t consider myself old, but we’re called the old guard, I guess.

One win, over Nijat Abasov, and six draws, have left Caruana just half a point off the lead. Photo: Maria Emelianova/Chess.com.

We’ll see how the newer players and also the older ones can handle the pressure because last year or two years ago, I didn’t handle the pressure very well despite having a lot of experience. Still, I wasn’t able to manage that. It’s not necessarily a case where experience gives you a huge advantage because every time is different, and also you change every time, so I’m not the same player I was two years ago, or certainly not eight years ago, and the reason why I think maybe it doesn’t make such a huge difference is because in my first Candidates, I did have a good performance and I almost won. I think a lot of it is just coming into the event, how good your form is. You can’t always control it. You can do your best, but you don’t always know what circumstances will affect it, what will go right, what will go wrong.

I think it will be a very hard-fought event, and I’m not expecting something like last time where someone dominated, where Ian dominated. If I had to make one prediction it’ll be that it’ll be very closely-contested.

2024 Candidates Tournament Standings After Round 7

It certainly is closely contested, with the top six all within a point of each other, though Nepomniachtchi keeps his record of leading after every single round of the Candidates he’s played.

I think that I can play well, so I don’t have to prove that, it’s just that I’m not going to take for granted that I qualified, because it wasn’t at all guaranteed that I qualified last time or that I’ll qualify next time. I understand fully, I think everyone does, but I understand maybe better because I’ve played so often, just how difficult it is to win a tournament like this. Even when everything was going my way in 2018, there were so many ups and downs that I had to overcome, so I know that even if things go well, it’s a huge road.


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