With a slow start to the 5th Vugar Gashimov Memorial, in Shamkir, Azerbaijan, the fans were becoming just a little impatient with the lack of action at the boards, especially as the first six rounds witnessed nearly 90% of the games ending in relatively tame draws. But the players – and especially Magnus Carlsen – have been saving the best for last, as the tournament now looks set to end with a bang.
But now in the true spirit of Gashimov, the last couple of rounds have seen a series of hugely entertaining and decisive games – none more so than today’s penultimate round, where you would have been hard-pressed finding a game that wasn’t gone to end with a victory. In the end, there was four bloodthirsty decisive games and only one tame draw. And leading the way was Carlsen.
Up to now, Carlsen has had problems trying to break down some very resilient opponents, content with putting the shutters up just to frustrate the world champion – but in the last two rounds, Carlsen managed to complicate matters in his favour, with entertaining wins against two normally difficult opponents: Tournament leader Veselin Topalov, and his bête noire, Anish Giri.
In round six, against tournament leader Topalov, the Bulgarian ex-world champion voluntarily walked into a tricky ending against Carlsen of queen against rook and minor piece – but he badly misplayed the ending that looked to be roughly equal, by allowing Carlsen’s queen to dominate and thus avoid any fortresses, as the Norwegian went on to win his first game, and with it take the sole lead in the tournament.
And pumped-up with that psychological confidence-booster, in the penultimate round, Carlsen was once again at his dynamic best to beat long-time rival Giri, who struggled for survival after going astray in a very difficult position. And with it, after 7 years and 20 classical games, Carlsen can now finally claim the bragging rights of a plus score against his longtime Dutch rival.
Now the fate of the tournament rests firmly in Carlsen’s own hands. With his +3 undefeated score, Carlsen has a half point lead and the big odds-on favorite for a third Gashimov Memorial title, especially with his final round opponent being his nearest rival Ding Liren, as the Chinese No.1 moved into outright second-place with a brace of back-to-back wins over tail-enders David Navara and Rauf Mamedov respectively.
Meanwhile in the American Midwest at the rivaling event of the US Championship being held at the Saint Louis Chess Club, Carlsen’s title challenger, Fabiano Caruana, isn’t having it all his own way as the world champion has in Shamkir – and we could be set for a surprise winner of the 2018 title, as GM Sam Shankland continues to rip up the field and holds on to the sole lead going into Saturday’s penultimate round.
Playing the tournament of his life, Shankland outplayed and easily beat GM Yaroslav Zherebukh for the only decisive win of round 9. Now the popular Bay-area grandmaster is tantalizingly within touching distance of a first US title, as he leads at the top by half a point over nearest rival Caruana, who somehow managed to survive with a draw from a lost position against Hikaru Nakamura, the four-time past champion.
Gashimov Memorial standings:
1. M. Carlsen (Norway) 5.5/8; 2. Ding Liren (China) 5; 3-8. V. Topalov (Bulgaria), S. Mamedyarov (Azerbaijan), R. Wojtaszek (Poland), A. Giri (Netherlands), S. Karjakin (Russia) 4; 9. R. Mamedov (Azerbaijan) 3.5; 10. D. Navara (Czech Rep.) 2.
US Championship standings:
1. S. Shankland 6.5/9; 2. F. Caruana 6; 3. W. So 5.5; 4. A. Lenderman 5; 5. Z. Izoria 4.5; 6-10. Y. Zherebukh, R. Robson, H. Nakamura, J. Xiong, V. Akobian 4; 11. A. Liang 3.5; 12. A. Onischuk 3.
Photo: Magnus Carlsen is saving the best for last | © Shamkir Chess
GM Anish Giri – GM Magnus Carlsen
5th Gashimov Memorial, (8)
English Four Knights
1.c4 e5 2.Nc3 Nf6 3.Nf3 Nc6 4.g3 d5 5.cxd5 Nxd5 6.Bg2 Nb6 7.0-0 Be7 8.a3 a5 9.d3 0-0 10.Be3 Be6 11.Rc1 Basically, this popular line of the English is just a Sicilian Dragon Reversed. 11…a4 Not only stopping queenside expansion with b4, but it also prevents the awkward Nc3-a4, eyeing up the critical c5-square, and threatens …Bb3. 12.Nd2 With b3 covered, the threat now is the knight-hop Nc3-e4-c5. 12…f5 13.Bxb6 Giri has won a pawn – but it’s dangerous, as it gives Carlsen easy and active piece-play, spearheaded by his bishop-pair. 13…cxb6 14.Nxa4 Bg5 15.Nc3 e4 Taking full advantage of the knight under attack on d2, Carlsen continues to open up the game further for his pieces. 16.Kh1?! An error – and a critical one. Up to here, we’ve been following Nepomniachtchi-Aronian, from the Geneva leg of the 2017 Fide Grand Prix, where Nepo played the bolder 16.Rb1!? and went on to win a very complicated game. I’m sure black has more than enough here for equality – but with this waste of time from Giri with 16.Kh1, Carlsen seizes the initiative now. 16…Qd7 17.Rb1 Rad8 Keeping the pressure on the d-file. Carlsen could easily regain his pawn here, but he rightly opts instead to keep the pressure on Giri by further building on his active play. 18.Nc4 Qf7! Stopping 19.Nxb6 which gets hit by 19…Bb3 20.Qe1 exd3 winning, as white can’t recapture on d3 as 21…Rfe8 will come with a big material gain. 19.b3 exd3 20.exd3 f4! Carlsen big threat is pushing on with …f3 winning the bishop! Giri can prevent this, but in doing so, Carlsen will succeed in directly opening up more lines to his opponent’s king. 21.Ne4 Be7 22.gxf4 This was the only way to prevent the push on with …f3, as 22.f3 allows 22…b5 23.Ncd2 fxg3 24.Nxg3 Rxd3 25.Qe2 Rfd8 leaving white struggling to stay in the game. So Giri is banking on his centralized knights now to stave off a disaster – and he almost pulls it off. 22…Qxf4 23.a4 Nb4 24.Qe2 Qh6 25.Rbd1 Nd5 26.Rg1 Kh8 Carlsen is being über-cautious here. He has a good position, so opts for the safety-first approach by tucking his king away from any checks – but he should have ruthlessly cut to the chase with 26…Rf4! and there’s nothing Giri can do about the multiple looming threats of …Rdf8 and …Rfh4 crashing through to the white king. 27.Bf1 Rf4 28.Ne5 Rdf8 29.f3 Rh4 30.d4 Nf4 Carlsen’s pieces look to be moving in for the kill – but Giri is just hanging on by his fingertips. 31.Qd2 Bxb3 [see diagram] 32.Rb1 Difficult to spot when the world champion has you under the cosh, but more resilient was 32.Rc1! where the threat of maximizing the potential of his pieces with Rc7 keeps white in the game. 32…Bxa4 33.Bb5?! Giri continues to drift in a very difficult position. Better was 33.Bc4! with a threat of Nf7+, forcing 33…Be8 34.Rgc1 and black has to be careful with his kingside attack, as white’s pieces are equally getting active and loitering with intent now. Yes, black is still better, but white should have more than enough here to stay competitive. 33…Bxb5 34.Rxb5 Qe6! Carlsen begins the task of centralizing his queen, first to defend against the threats from Giri’s knights, but also to look towards finding a way to get onto the menacing c6- (or d5-) h1 diagonal. 35.Qb2 Bd8 36.Ng5 Qe8 37.Rb3 Bxg5 It’s enough for Carlsen to go on to win, but the stinging haymaker would have been 37…Rf5! 38.Ne4 Rxh2+!! 39.Qxh2 Rh5 40.Rb2 Rxh2+ 41.Rxh2 Kg8 where – apart from the material advantage of the two extra pawns – the black queen and minor pieces will soon work in unison to attack the white king. 38.Rxg5 Ne6 39.Rg4 Rxg4 40.fxg4 Qd8 41.Rh3?? Giri blunders, but he’s in dire straits anyway. The lesser of the two evils for the Dutchman was 41.Rf3 Rxf3 42.Nxf3 but even here, the simple 42…Qd5 43.Kg2 Ng5 easily wins the king and pawn ending after a mass exchange on f3. 41…Qd5+ 42.Kg1 Qe4 43.Qb4 Rf6 0-1 Giri resigns, as after 44.Ra3 h5 black’s king has an escape from the back-rank threats, and the exposed white king cannot be protected without a further heavy loss of material.