Despite winning the Grand Chess Tour title, the Isle of Man Open and the World Blitz title in 2017, by Magnus Carlsen’s very own high standards it was a bad year for the world champion, for the simple reason that – for the first time since he became the youngest-ever world No.1 back in 2010 – he didn’t have a classical round-robin super-tournament victory to his name. Much was expected then of his performance in the first major of the year, the 80th Tata Steel Chess Tournament in Wijk aan Zee, on the notoriously windswept Dutch north coast.
If anything, Carlsen is a player who thrives on being motivated to win, and things weren’t going as planned with a somewhat lacklustre start – but what seems to have spurred the world champion into the right frame of mind was his remarkable ‘back-from-the-dead’ recovery against Gawain Jones in round 8, where he somehow willed himself to win after he dramatically hung a piece in the opening to the British champion.
Since then, we’ve seen more flashes of the old Magnus back in action at the 80th Tata Steel Masters – none more so than when the tournament moved to Groningen University as part of their ‘Chess On Tour’ initiative for round 10, as the world champion put in a very workman-like shift to beat the US No.2, Wesley So, who was systematically ground down by some very determined play from the Norwegian ace who was hungry for the win.
And that win could well prove to be a turning point in the misfiring fortunes of the world champion last year. He’s now caught up with local hero Anish Giri, as also has early front-runner Shakiryar Mamedarov, as the in-form Azeri benefitted big-time from a very bad blunder in the opening from Peter Svidler, the newly-crowned eight-time Russian champion. And the tension is now palpable going into the weekend’s final rounds, with Giri, Carlsen, and Mamedyarov in three-way tie at the top on a remarkable +4 unbeaten score of 7/10.
1-3. A. Giri (Netherlands), M. Carlsen (Norway), S. Mamedyarov (Azerbaijan) 7/10; 4. V. Kramnik (Russia) 6.5; 5. V. Anand (India) 6; 6-7. W. So (USA), S. Karjakin (Russia) 5.5; 8. P. Svidler (Russia) 4.5; 9-12. Wei Yi (China), G. Jones (England), M. Matlakov (Russia), F. Caruana (USA) 4; 13. B. Adhiban (India) 3; 14. Hou Yifan (China) 2.
Photo: Magnus Carlsen sitting pretty after beating Wesley So | © Alina l’Ami (Tata Steel Chess)
GM Magnus Carlsen – GM Wesley So
80th Tata Steel Masters, (10)
Queen’s Pawn/London System
1.Nf3 d5 2.d4 Nf6 3.Bf4 Bf5 4.e3 e6 5.c4 Bxb1 6.Qxb1 Bb4+ Curiously, when Magnus allowed this discomforting check in his Chess.com Speed Chess Championship match with Wesley, everyone just assumed, as it was blitz match, this was just a slip – but now it seems it was all homework and he’d carefully assessed all the ramifications of his king being stuck in the middle of the board. 7.Kd1 Bd6 8.Bg5 h6 9.Bxf6 Qxf6 10.cxd5 exd5 11.e4 Usually in such scenario’s with the White king stranded in the middle of the board, the first reaction is to keep your pawn formation solid, not allowing the position to be opened – but here it is Magnus himself who allows the position to be busted open! 11…Be7 12.Bb5+ c6 13.e5 Qf4 14.Bd3 c5 15.dxc5 Nc6 16.Qc1 Qb4 17.a3 Qxc5 18.Ke2!? Nd4+ [Magnus thought Wesley was giving ground with this move, and instead he should have played 18…Qb6 followed by Bc5 to try to take full advantage of his wandering king. 19.Nxd4 Qxd4 20.f4 0-0 21.Qd2 Qb6 Avoiding the cheap trick of Bh7+ winning Black’s queen. 22.Rhe1 f6 This looks the right way ahead, as after 23.exf6 Bxf6 Black will stand well with his active pieces and the somewhat precarious state of White’s king wandering in no-man’s land – but Magnus has a very dramatic solution to his problems. 23.e6! The unexpected pawn sacrifice now guarantees that White is the one with the active pieces – what a turnaround! 23…Qxe6+ 24.Kf3 Magnus’ king is perfectly safe here, and if he can force the exchange of queens, then White’s active pieces will dominate. 24…Qd7 25.Rad1 What’s not to like here for a pawn? White has tremendous central pressure down the e- and d-files, and Black will also have to be careful of his king coming under attack with a queen and bishop joining forces for battery down the long b1-h7 diagonal. 25…Rad8 26.Qe3 Wesley can’t defend with …Rfe8 as Bg6! wins a piece – and with Magnus now set to regain his pawn, he has to be careful not to allow the world champion a trademark grinding advantage. 26…Bd6 27.Bg6 Magnus stops Wesley challenging his dominance of the e-file by preventing …Rfe8. He also could have played 27.Bb1 Qf7 28.Qe6! with one possible continuation being 28…Bc7 29.Ba2 Rfe8 30.Bxd5! Qxe6 31.Bxe6+ Kf8 32.Rxd8 Rxd8 33.Rc1 Bb6 34.f5 and Black has problems with his big light-square weaknesses. 27…f5 28.Qe6+ Qxe6 29.Rxe6 Bc5 30.Re5 Magnus is not only set to recapture his pawn, he’s also set to win another, as both f5 and d5 can’t be defended – but will it be enough for him to win? 30…Rf6 31.Bxf5 Bd6 32.Rdxd5 Kf7 33.Re4 g6 34.Bg4 h5 “Magnus has blundered!”, some of the punters watching the live online coverage proclaimed. There, the resident engine shows three lines, none of which was what some of the masses were screaming out for, namely 34…Bxf4 the point being that, if 35.Rxd8 Bc7+ picks up a pawn and recaptures the rook. But there was a good reason why the engine didn’t even mention 34…Bxf4 – there’s a very clever intermezzo from White that wins, namely 35.Be6+! and now White is protecting the d5 rook and Black will suffer a heavy material loss. 35.Bh3 Re8 Allowing Magnus to keep his pieces on the board looks like a flawed plan to my mind from Wesley. His objective here should be to trade the rooks with the aim of achieving the notoriously drawn bishops of opposite-color ending – and for that reason, better was 35…Bc7 that looks to guarantee the exchange of one set of rooks. But Wesley believes he has a better plan – only for Magnus to take him down a rabbit hole. 36.Red4 Be5 This and the follow-up 37…g5 was what Wesley was banking on – but Magnus has seen a little further. 37.Rb4 g5 38.g3 b6 39.Rd7+ Kf8 40.Rh7!? [see diagram] Magnus is well aware that any ending with the bishops of opposite color will likely offer good drawing chances – and rather than this, he now picks his moment to imbalance the game with a timely piece sacrifice. Objectively, it’s a smart move, as Wesley faces huge difficulties stopping the pawns storming down the board – and bravely Magnus goes for it. 40…g4+ 41.Bxg4 hxg4+ 42.Kxg4 The three connected passed pawns isn’t Wesley’s only problem here, as he could be reduced to long-time passivity trying to defend his queenside pawns from Magnus’ marauding rooks. 42…Bd6 The alternative was 42…Bb8 but after 43.Rd4 and Rdd7 to come, White’s rooks doubled on the seventh will be difficult to defend against. 43.Rc4 a5 44.Rc6 Now Magnus is set to win a fourth pawn – and with it, the pendulum swings heavily in his favor to win. 44…Kg8 45.Rb7 Be5 46.Rcxb6 Rxb6 47.Rxb6 Bd4 48.Rb5 Re2 49.b3 Rxh2 A critical moment in the game – and probably Wesley’s last chance of trying to save the game was with 49…a4!? but after 50.h4! the pawns are rolling and it is difficult to stop them, one line showing this being 50…Re3 51.bxa4 Rxa3 52.Kh5! Rxa4 (There’s no other option, as after 52…Rxg3 53.Rg5+ Rxg5+ 54.hxg5 and passed pawns of both wings will win against the lone bishop.) 53.g4 Bf2 54.f5 and the pawns running up the board supported by the king and rook will win. This is just one line and Black may well have better – but certainly, his only chance was with 48…a4!?, as it looks like taking the h-pawn just loses by force. 50.Rxa5 Re2 51.Rd5 Bb2 52.a4 Bc3 53.Kf5 Re8 54.g4 Rf8+ 55.Ke4 Rb8 56.Rb5 Magnus takes full advantage of the fact that Wesley’s only hope is by keeping his rook on the board. 56…Re8+ 57.Kd3 Be1 58.a5 Bf2 59.b4 Step by step, Magnus is making progress by pushing his pawns further and further up the board. 59…Re3+ 60.Kc4 Re4+ 61.Kb3 Kf7 No, not a mistake – Wesley can’t take the pawn with 61…Rxf4 as Magnus returns to the theme of 62.Rf5! forcing the exchange of rooks and the passed pawns on opposite wings yet again will trump the lone bishop. 62.Re5 Rd4 63.b5 It’s simply a technical win now, as the pawns are too far up the board for Wesley to do anything about it – and all that Magnus need do is be careful about how he pushes them. 63…Rd3+ 64.Kc2 Rg3 65.g5 Bd4 66.Rd5 Be3 67.Rd3 Rg2+ 68.Kb3 Bc1 69.b6 Ke6 70.Rd4 Rb2+ 71.Ka4 Kf5 72.Rb4 Ra2+ 73.Kb5 Bxf4 74.Rxf4+ There’ many ways to win here, but this is the simplest way to go about it. 74…Kxf4 75.b7 1-0 Wesley resigns, as there’s no way to stop a6 and Kb6 and one of the queenside pawns queening.