There’s a widely-held perception in the chess world that the higher echelons of the very elite and world champions live in a bubble by restricting their appearances to playing only in all-play-all super-tournaments and title matches. But nowadays in the age of “super-opens”, such as the ongoing chess.com Isle of Man Masters, on the self-governing Crown dependency in the Irish Sea between the islands of Great Britain and Ireland, they can be found mingling along with the jobbing grandmasters and the serious amateurs.
Boris Spassky was the first world champion to play in any Swiss-System open, a type of tournament that was frowned upon and untried in the old Soviet Union. It was perhaps a compliment to Canada that the champion chose Vancouver 1971 for his novel adventure, as he shared first place in the Canadian Open of that year with Holland’s Hans Ree. And after Spassky, the next reigning world champion found “slumming it” by playing in an open was Magnus Carlsen, who won the 2016 Qatar Masters Open – and now Carlsen leads a cadre of elite stars all playing in the Isle of Man for various reasons.
For the Norwegian, after sensationally crashing out of the World Cup, and not having a classical victory to his name this year, it’s to reassert his confidence as the world’s top player. For others, like Vladimir Kramnik and Fabiano Caruana, it was to boost their chances in the year-long rating race for the two Candidates’ Elo spots on offer. But anything can – and invariably does – happen in a Swiss open when the elite mingle alongside amateurs and semi-pros.
And sure enough, Kramnik was sensationally defeated by veteran James Tarjan, who was winning Olympiad gold for the US before the Russian former world champion was born, and then was held to a draw by English IM Lawrence Trent, all of which put a final nail in his ratings coffin that virtually assures now that Caruana and Wesley So will be flying the Stars and Stripes at next year’s Berlin Candidates that will determine Carlsen’s next title challenger.
Meanwhile, Carlsen’s gamble of a late entry seems to be paying dividends, as the world champion looks to be back in vintage form after a series of faltering performances this year in classical super-tournaments, as he inflicted his sixth straight win over overnight co-leader Pavel Eljanov to storm into the clear lead – and in doing so, he also rehabilitated a vintage old opening with very English roots attached to it.
Back in the days when Queen Victoria was on the throne, the quintessential English theologian, Reverend John Owen (1827-91), introduced the Queen’s Fianchetto with 1. e4 b6 into serious play. Then in the 1970s and into the 1980s, in a period that was coined “The English Chess Explosion”, Ray Keene, Tony Miles, Michael Stean and Nigel Short re-adapted it with 1.d4 e6 2.c4 b6 to such good effect that it was soon christened the “English Defence.”
While this hypermodern defense certainly has a rich pedigree among leading English players, others outside of the UK have also been attracted by its dynamism. The latest trend-setter is now Carlsen, who totally surprised Eljanov – and no doubt ruined all his preparation for the game! – by taking full advantage of his opening choice of 1.Nf3 to show that the Rev. Owen’s original concept to be a sound one.
(Photo) A happy Carlsen refinds his mojo! | © John Saunders (official site)
1. Magnus Carlsen (Norway) 6/7; 2-5. Hikaru Nakamura (USA), SG Vidit (India), Fabiano Caruana (USA), Emil Sutovsky (Israel) 5½.
GM Pavel Eljanov – GM Magnus Carlsen
Chess.com IoM Masters, (6)
1.Nf3 b6!? Against 1.Nf3, then Owen’s titular defence is a better choice than against 1.e4. The reason for this is that the best line for White goes 1.e4 b6 2.d4 Bb7 3.Bd3, where White avoids the pin on his queenside knight, and can swiftly develop his pieces with Nf3, Qe2 and c3 for a lasting initiative that’s not very easy to counter. 2.e4 Bb7 3.Nc3 e6 4.d4 Bb4 5.Bd3 Nf6 6.Qe2 d5 7.exd5 Black would only be too happy to see 7.e5 as after 7…Ne4! 8.Bd2 Bxc3 9.bxc3 c5! Black is going to emerge with a good French defence set-up. 7…Qxd5 8.0-0 Bxc3 9.bxc3 Nbd7 10.c4 Qh5 11.Bf4 Rc8!?N More usually seen here is 11…c5 – but with this novelty, Carlsen want’s to keep the tension in the position a little longer, just to see if he can exploit White weakened pawn structure on the queenside. 12.a4 a5 “A very ambitious move,” commented Carlsen in his post-game comments. “I am hoping that the a4 pawn will become a weakness.” 13.Rab1 Not so much threatening c5 and an X-Ray attack on the Bb7, but more to hassle Black’s queen from b5. But according to Carlsen, his opponent should have played 13.Nd2 Qxe2 14.Bxe2 “…and White is slightly better, but nothing special.” 13…0-0 14.Rb5 c5 15.dxc5 According to the world champion, the critical line was certainly 15.Bd6 Bc6!? 16.Bxf8 where he wasn’t sure whether to play 16…Bxb5, or even perhaps 16…Kxf8 sacrificing the exchange with good compensation was the better way to go. 15…Rxc5 16.Bd6 Rxb5 17.cxb5?! This is ugly, and according to Carlsen, “I think [Eljanov] horribly misjudged the arising position – his bishop on d3 is quite bad and there are weaknesses on a4 and c2.” And indeed, more preferable was 17.axb5 and then if 17…Rc8 18.Ne5 Qxe2 19.Bxe2 Nxe5 20.Bxe5 Nd7 21.Bd6 White’s pawns are more stable as in the game, and long-term his bishop-pair could become a problem for Black. 17…Rc8 18.c4 Nc5 19.Bc2 Nce4! (see diagram) Carlsen now has a firm grip on the position with the c4-pawn singled out for attack – and with it, Eljanov cracks under the pressure. 20.Bf4?! The c-pawn is doomed, but Eljanov could have made Carlsen work for the win with the better 20.Be5 Ng5 21.Nd4 Qxe2 22.Nxe2 Rxc4 and Black is a solid pawn up, but with White having the bishop-pair and perhaps a pawn weakness on b6 to hone in on, converting the win is not so easy as it looks – certainly much harder than now happens in the game. 20…Nc3 21.Qd3 If 21.Qe3 Carlsen said he was going to take the tactical option with 21…Qg4 22.Qxc3 Nd5! 23.h3 Nxc3 24.hxg4 Ne2+ 25.Kh2 Nxf4 where, long-term, White’s queenside pawns are vulnerable, and Black can even play …Bxf3 and have a good knight vs bad bishop ending. 21…Qg4 22.Be5 If 22.Qxc3 Qxf4 23.Ne5 (or even 23.Nd2 Qg5 24.f3) 23…Ng4 24.Nxg4 Qxg4 leaves Black standing well with the c-pawn becoming a big liability to defend. 22…Qxc4 23.Qxc4 Rxc4 Carlsen has won the pawn and now very clinically converts his advantage. 24.Bd3 Rc8 25.Ra1 Unfortunately 25.Rc1 loses on the spot to 25…Ne2+. 25…Nfd5 26.Nd2 f6 27.Bd6 Nb4 28.Bc4 Bd5 29.Bf1 Nba2 0-1
You can also view Carlsen’s 12min video post-mortem of his win by clicking this link – and you can also follow Carlsen’s progress in the final two rounds with live commentary over the weekend at the official site, where it is likely the world champion will face either – or perhaps even both! – Caruana and Hikaru Nakamura, the two US elite stars in the chasing pack.