Delighted Londoners revelled over the weekend in the largest snowfall to hit the capital for nearly five years, despite widespread disruption across the city. And while outside London took on a somewhat scenic pre-Christmas winter wonderland backdrop, for World Champion Magnus Carlsen, inside the cozy confines of the 9th London Chess Classic playing hall at the Kensington Olympia, the backdrop was becoming instead like a ‘winter blunderland’!
Carlsen’s last three games were arguably the most puzzling of his whole career. In round six, he miraculously survived against all the odds and the sizeable one-sided engine evaluations to salvage an unlikely draw with US #3, Hikaru Nakamura; in round seven, from a much worse position, somehow Carlsen managed to outplay and beat the home-crowd favorite and the English #1, Michael Adams.
So not bad going, somehow scoring 1.5/2 from two completely lost games to stay in the hunt for the London Chess Classic title, and staying ahead of Maxime Vachier-Lagrave in the Grand Chess Tour overall standings. But things took a strange karmic twist in the penultimate round, when, in a clear winning position against Ian Nepomniachtchi, Carlsen’s promising position dramatically collapsed with a series of bewildering blunders for an unlikely win for his Russian opponent.
And with that reversal of fortunes, Nepomnichtchi stormed into the sole lead – and up the ratings – with three successive wins, and he now holds a half point lead over frontrunner Fabiano Caruana going into the final round. But what a collapse from Carlsen, who is now set to end the year without an elite round-robin tournament victory to his name! And if he doesn’t beat Levon Aronian in the final round, 2017 will be his worst year (rating performance-wise) since 2008.
Not only that, but by losing to Nepo, the world champion also finds himself now marginally behind in an extremely close race with MVL for the overall GCT title. So no pressure in the final round then, eh?
1. I. Nepomniachtchi (Russia) 5.5/8; 2. F Caruana (USA) 5; 3. M. Vachier-Lagrave (France) 4.5; 4-7. M. Carlsen (Norway), H. Nakamura (USA), L. Aronian (Armenia), W. So (USA) 4; 8-10. S. Karjakin (Russia), V. Anand (India), M. Adams (England) 3.
Photo – Carlsen despair in a winter blunderland | © Lennart Ootes (GCT)
GM Magnus Carlsen – GM Ian Nepomniachtchi
9th London Chess Classic, (8)
Slav Exchange (Transposition)
1.Nf3 c5 2.c3 d5 3.d4 cxd4 4.cxd4 Nc6 5.Nc3 Nf6 6.Bf4 Nh5 7.Bd2 Nf6 8.e3 e6 9.Bd3 Bd6 10.e4 dxe4 11.Nxe4 Be7 12.0-0 0-0 13.Qc2 h6 14.Rad1 Bd7 15.a3 Stopping Black getting in …Nb4-d5 that would free his game. 15…Rc8 16.Nc3 a6 17.Qc1 A bit over-ambitious, hoping for a miscue from Nepo allowing a Bxh6 kingside storm. 17…Re8 18.Rfe1 White may well have a little space right now , but he has the isolated d4-pawn to contend with – and if Black unravels by getting his Nc6-d5, he’ll have a solid position. 18…Bf8 19.Bf4 b5 20.Qd2 b4! Nepo is successfully unravelling here. 21.axb4 Nxb4 22.Ne5 Nxd3 Black may well get the two bishops – but White has a ready-made kingside attack. For this reason, a very serious option here was 22…Bb5!? 23.Nxb5 Nxd3 24.Qxd3 axb5 25.Qxb5 Qd5! 26.Qe2 (Even the queens coming off and an extra pawn for White works to Black’s advantage, as all his pieces spring to life: 26.Qxd5 Nxd5 27.Be3 Rc2 28.Rb1 Rb8 29.Nd3 Rb3 30.Red1 Be7 leaves White all tied-up forever defending b2, whilst Black will simply play …Bf6 and then bring his king to the center with …Kf8-e7-d6 etc.) 26…Bb4 27.Bd2 Bd6 28.Bc3 Qb7! and, with …Nd5 coming, White’s pawn weaknesses on b2 and d4 give excellent compensation for the pawn. 23.Qxd3 a5?! Black has the bishop-pair, but in getting this position, Nepo has allowed Carlsen an almost unhindered kingside attack – and he may well have been better simply jettison his a-pawn with 23…Bb5 24.Nxb5 axb5 25.Qxb5 Qd5! which transposes again into the above note, with Black’s very active pieces simultaneously both blockading and attacking White’s d- and b-pawns. As it is, both players didn’t quite understand just how dangerous the position was for Black. 24.Qf3! Bb4? 25.Re3?! Carlsen underestimates the position, not realizing he could seize his moment now with the stunning sacrifice 25.Bxh6! Bxc3 26.bxc3 gxh6 27.Qg3+ Kh7 (Trying to protect f7 is just too dangerous, as Black’s king is caught in the fire of the heavy artillery from the rooks and queen, as 27…Kf8?! 28.Rd3! Bc6 29.Qf4 Bd5 30.Qxh6+ Ke7 31.Qg7 and an easy winning attack as Black can’t defend with. 31…Rf8 due to 32.Ng6+ and a big material advantage.) 28.Nxf7 Qe7 29.Qd3+ Kg8 30.Qg6+ Kf8 31.Nd6! Qg7 32.Qd3 and White is heading for a winning endgame advantage, having queen, two rooks and 5 pawns vs queen, rook, two minor pieces, 3 loose pawns and an unsafe king. 25…Bxc3 26.bxc3 Ba4 27.Ra1 Gaining a tempo by hitting the bishop (and also keeping tabs on Black’s passed a-pawn) looks good, but what Nepo’s looking to do is to get his bishop over to support the kingside via c2. Instead, Carlsen could have cut across this with the very simple 27.Rc1! that at the very least preserves White’s advantage – and, more seriously, it threatens also to quickly throw the c-pawn up the board after the supporting Rd3. 27…Bc2 28.h3 Bf5 29.g4 It looks menacing, but throwing the g-pawn up the board comes with its own risks, as it does leave weaknesses in its wake around White’s king. 29…Bh7 30.c4 Nd7 Carlsen was perhaps expecting here 30…Qxd4 31.Rd1 Qa7 32.Bxh6 Bc2 33.Rd2 Be4 34.Rxe4 Nxe4 35.Qxe4 gxh6 and a very murky position. 31.Nc6? Uncharacteristically, Carlsen misses the clear winning shot with 31.c5! Nf6 32.g5 hxg5 33.Bxg5 Bf5 (There’s no time for 33…Qxd4? 34.Rd1 Qxc5 35.Bxf6 gxf6 36.Qg2+! forces 36…Bg6 37.Nxg6 fxg6 38.Qxg6+ quickly mating.) 34.Ra4! and it is difficult to stop White playing Rea3 to win the a-pawn, as after 34…Bc2 35.Ng4! Bf5 (If 35…Bxa4 36.Nxf6+ gxf6 37.Bxf6 is quickly mating.) 36.Re5 with an overwhelming position for White. 31…Qf6 32.Nxa5 Nb6 33.c5?? [see diagram] 33…Rxc5! Speaking immediately after this game, a dejected Carlsen commented, “I missed everything. There’s not much else to say. I think I failed to predict a single one of his moves.” – and here was a classic example, as the world champion only realized his c5-pawn could be taken when Nepo took it! 34.dxc5 Qxa1+ 35.Kh2 Qxa5 36.Qc6?? One blunder begets another from a seriously misfiring world champion, not realizing now that Nepo has a nice little move that covers everything to win a piece. And rather than going a piece down, Carlsen could have played 36.cxb6 Qxb6 going simply a pawn down – its bad, but not outright losing, as with some hard work from Carlsen, this will most likely end in a draw, as all the pawns are on the one wing of the board and we have opposite colored bishops. 36…Qa4! Carlsen may well have seen that this protected Nepo rook on e8 – but what he overlooked was that it also attacked the loose bishop on f4, and with check to boot! 37.Qxa4 Nxa4 This is resignable for White – and arguably the worst game played by Carlsen since becoming world champion. 38.c6 Nb6 39.c7 f6 40.Rb3 Nc8 0-1