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The latest edition of the Altibox Norway Chess Tournament – the sixth, for those out there counting – in Stavanger, Norway, got underway on Sunday with the preliminary blitz tournament that determines the pairings for the players in the main event. This novel and exciting way to get things underway is a more recent idea, first used in the Mikhail Tal Memorial tournament in 2012 – and now almost universally accepted as the norm for most major elite tournaments.

Previously, the pairings had been determined by drawing of lots, often or not in quite ornate ways, but mainly boring affairs with players picking objects up to reveal their pairing number for in the tournament. Although you must, of course, play everybody in an all-play-all, the pairings are of considerable importance; for in a normal tournament with an even number of players, half the field (in Stavanger, numbers 1-5) get an extra White, while the other half have an extra Black. So finishing high in the blitz is important.

In the end, America’s Wesley So won the blitz with a score of 6/9, a half point ahead of notorious speed mavens Hikaru Nakamura and Vishy Anand, with Magnus Carlsen – after a couple of costly mishaps along the way – trailing in fourth place with 5-points. However, among the mishaps, there was a simply sublime masterclass by the World Champion in the manner in which he beat upcoming title-challenger Fabiano Caruana (see the game by clicking here).

Not only that, but Carlsen, by finishing in fourth place, also inadvertently made sure the tournament would start with a bang with also an opening round match-up between the two title combatants. And quite remarkably, this is also the fourth tournament in-a-row Carlsen and Caruana have both met in the opening round: London, Wijk aan Zee, Baden-Baden and now Stavanger!

All of which added a further little bit of drama to the Carlsen and Caruana backstory because, save for the possibility of a Baku Olympiad match-up between the USA and Norway – or even more unlikely, a Grand Chess Tour wildcard spot for Carlsen – this would also be the last meeting of the two title-combatants before their upcoming World Championship Match in November.

And for once, all the omens worked in Carlsen’s favour. The World Champion took full advantage of an unexpected blunder by Caruana in a critical position, not only winning the game but also taking the early lead in the tournament – and with it, more importantly, a big psychological boost for Carlsen ahead of their title match. Not only that, but there’s also now the nagging statistical fact for Caruana that, since he last beat Carlsen, back at the Norway Chess of 2015, the World Champion has gone on to notch up an impressive score of +3 =8 -0.

Despite being pleased with beating Caruana, Carlsen certainly wasn’t taking anything for granted. He’s wary of just how tough his title challenger will be, explaining in the post-game presser that “[Caruana] does to some extent seem to be a different player in these championship events from otherwise, so I know that I cannot expect to win like this every game, but for sure, to beat such a strong player is a confidence builder for me”

And a further confidence booster for notoriously slow-starter Carlsen could be going on to win the tournament.  By scoring the only win of the round, and with all the other games drawn, ominously for the rest of the field Carlsen has taken the early outright lead – and I can’t remember the last time the World Champion won in the opening round, let alone taking the outright lead by the end of the opening round!

Photo: © Lennart Ootes (Altibox Norway Chess)

GM Magnus Carlsen – GM Fabiano Caruana
6th Altibox Norway Chess, (1)
Bishop’s Opening
1.e4 e5 Carlsen avoids Caruana’s Petroff Defence by adopting the Bishop’s Opening, one of the oldest openings in chess – and also popularised by another Nordic legend! After laying dormant at the top-level for the best part of a century, Denmark’s Bent Larsen revived this venerable old line in the 1960s and 70s. Although it can have a separate agenda as we see in the game, more often than not it is used as a conduit into the Giuoco Piano 2.Bc4 Nf6 3.d3 c6 4.Nf3 d5 5.Bb3 Bb4+ 6.Bd2 Bxd2+ 7.Nbxd2 a5 8.c3 Nbd7 9.exd5 cxd5 10.0-0 0-0 11.Re1 Re8 12.Nf1 b5 Caruana is playing a very committal game here, throwing his pawns up the board. He may have – momentarily – gained a little space in doing so, but they could become targets later in the game. As for Carlsen, I expect he would have been the more happier camper here, as he has the solid pawn position, having yet to commit his. 13.a4 b4 14.cxb4 axb4 15.Ne3 Bb7 Watching the game live, I really thought Caruana now simply had to play 15…Nc5 before Carlsen got in d4; the idea not really being to exchange off White’s Bb3, but rather when d4 does come, to trade off pawns first and then play …Nfe4, where the centralised knights on c5 and e4 will at least offer combative play. 16.d4! This guarantees White something to bite on, as exchanging now on d4 becomes problematic for Black. 16…e4 If 16…exd4 17.Qxd4! and suddenly the b- and d-pawns look weak and vulnerable. Black will have to try 17…Qa5 (Unfortunately, if 17…Re4 18.Qd2 Nc5 19.Bc2 Black might have to sacrifice the exchange by leaving the rook on e4, as 19…Re8 20.Qxb4 and White has won a pawn and has the better position.) 17.Ne5!? An energetic and thematic pawn sacrifice from Magnus, who by blockading the d4-square, will either pick off the d5-pawn or (more likely) the b4-pawn. 17…Nxe5 Carlsen said he more expected the interesting possibility of 17… Rxe5!? 18. dxe5 Nxe5 19. Qd4 Nc6 20. Qd2 d4 and he “wasn’t sure about it at all”, as 21. Nf5 Ra5 gives Black clear compensation. 18.dxe5 Rxe5 19.Qd4 This is Carlsen’s big idea. The b4-pawn is an easy target – but if he can also arrange his pieces to keep the pressure on d5, Caruana is going to be left struggling with an awkward position to defend; even more so if White can get his a- and b-pawns mobile and moving up the board. 19…Re7 Black has to be careful here. If 19…Qe7 White may have 20.a5!? Ra6 21.Rec1 and the immediate threat Black has to worry about is 22.Bd1!, with the simple idea of Be2, and suddenly White’s a-pawn is turning into a game-winner. 20.Rac1 Although still a pawn down, this is the sort of grinding position that Carlsen thrives on. He’ll follow up now with Red1 and Rc5, and Black will have to be careful he doesn’t lose both the b- and d-pawns. 20…Rd7 21.Red1 h6 A safety-first move, and probably best in the circumstances. 22.Rc5 Ra5 23.Rxa5 Qxa5 24.h3 Ditto from Carlsen – and a timely reminder that it doesn’t matter whether you are title contestants, club players or beginners, it’s always best to make sure there’s no possibilities of falling for a tactic that takes advantage of a back-rank mate. 24…Kh7 25.Rc1 Rc7? A blunder in a critical position that changes the whole game. Even Carlsen thought this to be insane from Caruana, commenting “His position is unpleasant but I am really not sure if I can make serious progress.” It would have been much easier for Caruana had he kept his rook on the board (to threaten to push the d-pawn, should the White queen move from d4), and just play a holding move like 25…Ba8!? as now after 26.Rc8 Qa6 as White has no better than retreating with 27.Rc1 (It gets dangerous for White after 27.Rb8 Bb7! And suddenly Black is threatening …Qd6 winning the rook! White would then have to go for 28.Qxb4 Qc6! and now Black has a lot of play, threatening …Qc1+, …d4 or even …Qc7, all of which look difficult for White to defend against.) 27…Qa5 28.Rc8 Bb7 29.Rc1 and a likely draw by repetition, as neither can really make any progress without compromising their position. 26.Rxc7 Qxc7 27.Qxb4 Carlsen clearly has the upper-hand now, as Caruana no longer has the threat of pushing forward with …d4. It was hard to know exactly what Caruana thought he might have here, as it’s clear for all to see that the a- and the b-pawns now become a big endgame winner for Carlsen, doubly so as he can easily blockade Black’s central pawns. 27…Qc1+ 28.Bd1 Ba6 29.Qd4! [see diagram] What’s not to like here? From d4, the queen provides a vital service by blockading Black’s d-pawn, defends his own b2-pawn, defends his Bd1, and clears a path for his b-pawn to start running up the board. You can’t ask for more than that in one move! 29…Be2 30.Kh2 Bxd1 31.Nxd1 Qc7+ 32.Kg1 Qc1 33.b4 e3 Caruana had to come up with something fast, otherwise the a- and b-pawns would have marched right up the board. At least with this pawn sacrifice, he can mix things up a little by getting his knight into the game – but Carlsen more than easily has all the possible tricks defended. 34.fxe3 Ne4 35.Qxd5 Nd2 36.Qf5+ Kh8 37.Qg4 f5 38.Qe2 Ne4 39.Qe1 Stopping the immediate threat of …Nc3. 39…Qa1 40.a5 Nd6 41.Qd2 Nc4 42.Qd4 Qc1 43.Kf1 Better was 43.Kf2 Qc2+ 44.Ke1 Qb3 45.Qc3 Qa2 46.Kf1 – but as all roads are leading to Rome anyway, Carlsen at least forces the exchange of the knights and less tricks available for Caruana to try to save this hopelessly lost position. 43…Nxe3+ 44.Qxe3 Qxd1+ 45.Kf2 Qc2+ 46.Kg3 g5 47.Qe5+ Kh7 48.Kh2 f4 Offering hopes, however slim they may be, of a possible saving perpetual with …Qg3+ and …Qe1+. Not that Carlsen allows Caruana to get anywhere close to this scenario. 49.Qd5 Qa4 If 49…Qf2 aiming for …Qg3+, there’s 50.Qd3+ Kg8 51.b5 and the perpetual is defended against, and the pawns are moving ever-closer up the board. 50.Qf7+ Kh8 51.Qg6 Qxb4 52.Qxh6+ Kg8 53.Qxg5+ Truth told, I fully expected Caruana to resign here. But he opted to slow-roll his resignation by about an hour by playing on to the very bitter end – perhaps it was a coded message to the World Champion that he will fight on regardless in every game of their upcoming title-match? 53…Kh7 54.Qh5+ Kg7 55.Qg5+ Kh7 56.h4 Qd6 57.Qh5+ Kg7 58.Qg5+ Kh7 59.h5 f3+ 60.g3 f2 61.Qg6+! The game is effectively over here, with White having the decisive advantage of three pawns to none in the queen ending. The rest now needs no further comment. 61…Kh8 62.Qxd6 f1Q 63.Qh6+ Kg8 64.Qe6+ Kh8 65.Qe3 Qb5 66.Qc3+ Kh7 67.g4 Qd5 68.Qc7+ Kg8 69.Kg3 Qe6 70.Qd8+ Kh7 71.Qd3+ Kh8 72.a6 Qe5+ 73.Kh3 Qa1 74.Qd8+ Kh7 75.Qe7+ Kh6 76.Qe3+ Kh7 77.a7 1-0

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