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The 128-player starting field for the FIDE World Cup in Tbilisi, Georgia, has now been whittled down to the last two standing, as favourite Levon Aronian, of Armenia, takes on Chinese underdog Ding Liren in the best-of-four-game final for the title and $120,000 first prize. Not unsurprisingly, tough customer Ding Liren is proving to be a very resilient opponent, as he holds Aronian to three draws – saving at least one loss – as the tense match now goes into the fourth and final game of the contest.

If the fourth game is also a draw and the match tied, then the players will go into a series of potentially nerve-wracking speed tiebreak games to decide the title and the lion’s share of the prize fund. But regardless of the result, both finalists have now clinched their tickets for next year’s Candidates’ tournament in Berlin, Germany.

Surprisingly, more than half of the elite field was knocked out early in the World Cup, including World champion Magnus Carlsen and former champions Vladimir Kramnik and Vishy Anand. Most of the players left in the final stages in Tbilisi – including Wesley So and Maxime Vachier-Lagrave – opted to concentrate all their efforts going further in the World Cup for one of the two coveted Candidates’ spots on offer, so opted to withdraw early from the very strong Chess.com Isle of Man Masters that also got underway on Saturday.

But what the Isle of Man International lost in playing-strength with the absence of So and MVL, they quickly gained and then some with the dramatic announcement from Carlsen that he would play as a late entry. And after his sore exit in Tbilisi, the world champion was obviously looking to get back into the winning groove, after now suffering the longest barren spell of his career in classical tournaments.

The Isle of Man does things differently than what most elite players usually expect in their cocooned environment of largely all-play-all tournaments — and this time it was ‘random pairings’ in the opening round, that threw up an intriguing big first-round clash between Kramnik and Fabiano Caruana. Things tend to even out in the end, but there was a lot riding on this early pairing, as both are involved – alongside US champion So – in a very close, three-horse race for the two Candidates’ rating spots, with events running out fast now before the 1 December cut-off date.

Caruana won in a tough tussle, and that pushed Kramnik firmly into the third spot behind So. But worse was to come for Kramnik, because in today’s round 3, blast-from-the-past 65-year-old James Tarjan was on hand to do his “patriotic duty”, as the veteran US Olympiad gold medalist sensationally beat the Russian ex-champion, who in the process now falls so far behind Caruana and So, that the top two Americans look to have an unassailable lead and set to join Sergey Karjakin, Aronian and Ding Liren in the Berlin Candidates’.

Another intriguing pairing today also witnessed two reigning world champions clashing, as Carlsen took on American prodigy and current World Junior champion, Jeffrey Xiong. It was too much to ask for the Texan teenager to beat Carlsen, but there were moments – marred by bad clock-handling – he could have thwarted the ambitions of the “real” world champion.

But with the win, Carlsen now moves to 3/3 and a four-way tie at the top alongside Rustam Kasimdzhanov (Uzbekistan), Aleksandr Lenderman (USA) and Pavel Eljanov (Ukraine), as the Norwegian world #1 looks to end his drought of five classical tournaments this year without a victory.

(Photo) Me Tarjan…James Tarjan! | © Maria Emelianova (Chess.com)

GM Magnus Carlsen – GM Jeffrey Xiong
Chess.com Isle of Man Masters, (3)
Torre Attack
1.Nf3 c5 2.c3 Nf6 3.d4 e6 4.Bg5 No, not Carlsen’s usual London System but the Torre Attack, named after the Mexican enigma that was Carlos Torre – who, in the mid-1920s, burst onto the chess scene like a shooting star, only for his career to end tragically a couple of years later following a nervous breakdown – is extremely popular at club level. 4…d5 5.e3 h6 6.Bh4 Nc6 7.Nbd2 a6 8.Bd3 But the London System and the Torre Attack are very similar, with White’s set-up being almost identical, the only difference being that the bishop goes to g5 rather than f4. 8…Be7 9.0-0 Nd7 10.Bxe7 Nxe7 11.Ne5 cxd4 12.exd4 Nxe5 Xiong tries to simplify the position with exchanges – the big drawback is that White emerges with a lot of space on the kingside, making it difficult for Black to quickly castle for fear of an easy White kingside assault. 13.dxe5 Bd7 14.Re1 The rook not only supports e5 but, in certain circumstances, the manoeuvre Re1-e3-g3 (or h3) and a vicious kingside assault can come rapidly. 14…Rc8 15.Nf3 b5 16.h4! Xiong is caught in a fix, as he struggles to find a way to safely castle and connect his rook. Realising this, Carlsen gives him something further to worry about by grabbing more space on the kingside to support his attack. 16…a5 17.a3 Stopping the queenside breakthrough with …b5. The trouble for Xiong here is that he will eventually run out of useful moves to make and will have to castle into the ready-made storm on the kingside. 17…Qb6 18.Qd2 b4 19.cxb4 axb4 20.a4 The fear of castling has forced Xiong into sacrificing his b-pawn in the hopes that he can exchange queens with 20.Qxb4 Qxb4 21.axb4 Nc6 22.Rec1 Ke7 and perhaps try to hold this ending – but wise or unwise, Carlsen simply avoids this and keeps the queens on the board to make his young opponent waste time on his clock by having to think more. 20…Ra8 21.b3 0-0 Xiong has been gripped with fear over the move he’s forced into now – but Black’s position is not as bad as he thinks, but he seems to be caught in awe of playing the world champion. 22.Rac1 Rfc8 23.h5 Kf8? Already Xiong is fearful of Carlsen crashing through on the kingside (or perhaps a fatal Bh7+, if he has a piece on d4), and just as soon as he’d castled, he’s marching his king back to where it came from! But in his fear, Xiong missed his best chance to stay competitive with his more illustrious opponent by playing 23…Rc3! 24.Nd4 (Best, as 24.Rxc3? bxc3 25.Qxc3 Rc8 and White is going to lose the b-pawn.) 24…Rac8 and Black is over the worst of it now with rooks set to come off down the c-file – although it is far from safe, as White holds the edge with the more space, better pieces and a potentially awkward passed a-pawn. 24.g4 Carlsen is still playing on his inexperienced opponent’s fear of being crushed by the world champion and intends the simple plan of g4-g5 to break open the kingside. A reasonable plan in the circumstances, but much stronger was the very clinical 24.Bb5! Bxb5 25.Qxb4! tactically taking full advantage of the double pin on the king and queen. 24…Rc3 25.g5 hxg5 Now was the time to be brave and play 25…Nf5!? 26.Rxc3 (Not 26.Bxf5? Rxf3! winning.) 26…bxc3 27.Qd1 (Again, if 27.Qxc3 Rc8 White can’t defend the b-pawn.) 27…Nd4! and with no Bh7+ hanging in the air to win the queen, Black stands well here, as White’s king is now exposed with the kingside pawns being hastily thrown up the board. 26.Rxc3 bxc3 27.Qxg5 Nf5 The alternative 27…Ng8 only delays the inevitable, as after the nice “time-out” defending move with 28.Bc2!, it’s hard to see how Black stops the looming attack with Re3, Nh4 and Rg3 etc. 28.Bxf5 exf5 29.e6! (see diagram) The complications come at the wrong moment,  just as Xiong’s was struggling to make the time-control, with just a few minutes now left on his clock, having used up much of his time in the opening and then trying to fathom out how he was going to safely castle. 29…Bxe6 The only option, as 29…fxe6? 30.h6! gxh6 31.Qf6+ either wins the rook on a8 or mates. 30.h6 gxh6 31.Qf6 Kg8?? Brutal…when the clock is down and the heart-rate is up, common sense simply goes right out the window. In the panic to make the time-control, Xiong has most likely been spoked by seeing a “phantom attack”. He faced an awkward defence but simply had to play 31…Ra6! 32.Qxc3 where, despite being a pawn down, White is much better here, as all of Black’s pawns are weak and vulnerable – his bishop is going to be stuck on e6 (forever defending d5, f5 & f7), and long-term, those two passed pawns on the queenside will win the day. 32.Qxh6 Qb4 33.Kh1! 1-0 Xiong resigns, as there’s no answer to 34.Rg1+ either mating or winning the queen.

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