Chess-wise, these have been momentous times for the USA. In September 2016, the USA team – spearheaded by Fabiano Caruana, Wesley So and Hikaru Nakamura – captured gold at the Baku Olympiad in Azerbaijan; In March of this year, Caruana dominated the Berlin Candidates’ to become the first American title-challenger since Bobby Fischer; and let’s not forget about the remarkable zero to hero rise of Sam Shankland, who over the space of a few weeks recently, sensationally captured both the US Championship and Capablanca Memorial in Havana.
So save for World Champion Magnus Carlsen, the chess news has been dominated by the USA. It’s fitting then therefore that there’s the real possibility now that the 6th Altibox Norway Chess tournament in Stavanger could be set for the prospect of what would be a very intriguing Carlsen vs. USA play-off for the title! And that’s because the penultimate round saw impressive and timely big wins for Nakamura and Caruana, who both turned on the style to beat Sergey Karjakin and Vishy Anand respectively, to now join their ‘Three Amigos’ compatriot, Wesley So, and also hometown hero Carlsen, with the quartette on a lowly +1 score and a four-way tie at the top on 4/7.
It’s all going to come down to who will have the mettle to play for a win in the final round to take the title. The betting though is that it will be a nervy finish, and at the of the final round, all four still tied at the top and a playoff. And asked during his post-game press conference whether the three Americans will tag-team Carlsen if all four reach a playoff, Caruana replied: “I don’t think we will. It would be strange if +1 tied for first – maybe someone will win tomorrow. If I get a chance against Wesley [So] I will take it but it won’t be easy.”
If the joint-leaders do all draw tomorrow, I still wouldn’t rule out five-time ex-champion Anand making it to the playoff mix! Closing in on his ‘half-century’ now, the 48-year-old elder statesman of the game is continually pressed by the media whether he has what it takes to play at this level – and each time, Anand continues to defy the age-gap and his critics by winning titles and games you would think he shouldn’t against a much younger generation, such as his win below against MVL in round 8.
And away from Stavanger, the good news for US Chess continues over in Montevideo, Uruguay. Somewhat overshadowed by Carlsen, Caruana, So & Nakamura et al., Sam Shankland could be on course for a remarkable third successive tournament victory in less than two months! Unbeaten on 5.5/6, Sam has taken the sole lead in the American Continental Championship and now moved up three spots to world #27 – and if this streak continues, he could break into the world top 20!
Round 8 Standings:
1-4. M. Carlsen (Norway), W. So (USA), H. Nakamura (USA), F. Caruana (USA) 4/7; 5. S. Mamedyarov (Azerbaijan) 3.5/8; 6-7. L. Aronian (Armenia), V. Anand (India) 3.5/7; 8. S. Karjakin (Russia) 3/7; 9. M. Vachier-Lagrave (France) 2.5/7. (Ding Liren had to withdraw due to an injury)
Round 9, Thu. 7th June: MVL-Carlsen, Caruana-So, Karjakin-Anand, Aronian-Nakamura; S. Mamedyarov has the ‘free day’.
Photo: Don’t rule out Vishy Anand yet! | © Lennart Ootes (Altibox Norway Chess)
GM Maxime Vachier-Lagrave – GM Viswanathan Anand
6th Altibox Norway Chess (8)
Ruy Lopez, Open Variation
1.e4 e5 2.Nf3 Nc6 3.Bb5 a6 4.Ba4 Nf6 5.0-0 Nxe4 It was the late, great Danish legend Bent Larsen who suggested that the Open Variation was the only ‘correct way’ for Black to play against the Ruy Lopez. And indeed, Larsen was the one to rehabilitate the Open Lopez at elite-level by writing many articles supporting it, and famously using it to beat Bobby Fischer during the Second Piatigorsky Cup in Santa Monica, 1966. On occasion, Anand has used the Open Lopez throughout his career, most famously going down in flames in a well-prepared line to Garry Kasparov in their 1995 world title match in New York – but here, after not using it for some time now, and with the Open Lopez again out of vogue at the top-level, this must have come as something of a surprise for MVL. 6.d4 b5 7.Bb3 d5 8.dxe5 Be6 9.c3 Be7 10.Nbd2 0-0 11.Re1 Nc5 12.Nd4 Nxd4 13.cxd4 Nd3 The start of a strong knight tour from Anand, which is heading to e6 via f4 to bolster Black’s position – and much better than 13…Nxb3, as for now MVL’s light-squared bishop is biting into granite. 14.Re3 Nf4 15.Nf3 Bg4 16.h3 Bh5 17.Rc3N Whether intentional or not, MVL has a new idea in mind with his rook lift Re1-e3-c3, looking to pressure Black down the semi-open c-file to prevent the standard …c5 break – but Anand easily finds a flaw in MVL’s plan. Previously, we’d seen 17.Bc2 Ne6 18.Bf5 c5 19.dxc5 Bxc5 20.Rd3 Qb6 21.Be3 Bxe3 22.Rxe3 d4 23.Re1 (White has to be careful, as the d-pawn is not so easy a target to pick-off: 23.Rd3? Nf4! 24.Rxd4?? Bxf3 25.gxf3 Qxd4! winning) 23…Rad8 and Black has a little advantage with the supported passed d-pawn, as seen in Ye,J-Norri,J, Helsinki 1992. 17…Ne6 18.g4 Bg6 19.Be3 MVL’s last few moves are all aimed at stymieing Anand from playing …c5 – but Anand quickly realises what’s wrong with MVL’s ploy. 19…a5! 20.Bc2 MVL rejects the obvious 20.Rac1, saying he didn’t like his prospects after 20…c5! but, on reflection, this looks better for White than happens in the game, as now 21.dxc5 b4 22.R3c2 Bxc2 23.Bxc2!? (Black retains a small edge after 23.Rxc2 d4 24.Nxd4 Bxc5 25.Bxe6 Bxd4 26.Bxf7+ Rxf7 27.Qxd4 Qxd4 28.Bxd4 but it won’t be easy to do anything with those weak Black pawns on a5 and b4 being on dark-squares, the same colour as the White bishop!) 23…Bxc5 24.Bxc5 Nxc5 25.Bxh7+! Kxh7 26.Rxc5 the d5-pawn is set to fall, offering White full compensation with two pawns for the exchange. 20…Bb4 21.Rb3 f5! There’s no substitute for experience! Assessing that he probably stood better here, Anand continues to find ingenious ways to open the game to his advantage, as there are several weak holes around MVL’s king. 22.exf6 It all gets a bit ‘messy’ and random after 22.Qb1 looking to challenge the long diagonal, because after 22…f4! 23.Bxg6 hxg6 24.Qxg6 Ra6! the mess appears to be working out in Black’s favour. 22…Bxc2 23.Qxc2 Qxf6 24.Ne5 c5! Anand is in his element in such a dynamic position, finding a timely exchange sacrifice that looks to exploit both the pressure down the f-file and the lack of squares for his opponent’s rook on b3. 25.Nd7 Qf7 Also tempting was 25…Qh4!? 26.Nxf8 Rxf8 but after 27.dxc5 Black looks forced into 27…Rf3 28.Qd1! Rg3+ 29.fxg3 Qxg3+ 30.Kh1 Qxh3+ 31.Kg1 Qg3+ 32.Kf1 Qh3+ 33.Kf2 Qh2+ 34.Kf3 Qh3+ 35.Kf2 (There’s no escaping the perpetual by running the king to the other side of the board. If 35.Ke2?? Qg2+ 36.Kd3 Nxc5+!! 37.Bxc5 Qe4#) 35…Qh2+ 36.Kf1 Qh3+ etc., and a perpetual check. 26.Nxf8 Rxf8 27.Qf5?! In such positions, with the pressure down the f-file, your immediate thoughts are to trade queens to lessen the danger to your king. But this was the time to be brave and opt for 27.a3! c4 28.axb4 cxb3 29.Qxb3 and one that MVL readily admitted in the post-game press conference, “In hindsight this is what I should have done: look for equality.” The point is that, after 29…Qf3 30.Qd1! Qxh3 31.bxa5 Nf4 32.Bxf4 Rxf4 33.Ra3! the a-pawn saves the game for White in all the ensuing endings. 27…cxd4 28.Qxf7+ Rxf7 29.Rxb4?? Unbelievably, both players readily admitted that they had simply overlooked that 29.a3! saves the game for White, as after 29…Nc5 30.Rxb4 axb4 31.Bxd4 Nb3 32.Rd1 bxa3 33.bxa3 Nxd4 34.Rxd4 the rook ending is just a technical draw. 29…axb4 [see diagram] It’s not often at the top-level we see such an eccentric, almost study-like pawn formation as Anand has here. 30.Bd2 b3! MVL thought he was fine now, but had overlooked that Anand has this winning move, as the Black rook infiltrates to pick-off the weak pawns. 31.axb3 Rf3 32.b4 Rd3 33.Re1 Kf7! NIcely side-stepping the rook and pawn ending, which admittedly doesn’t look all that easy to win after 33…Rxd2 34.Rxe6 Rxb2 35.Re5 Rxb4 36.Kg2! Kf7 37.Kf3 as we are now in the realms of that age-old rule of thumb that all rook and pawn endings are drawn! 34.Bc1 Rxh3 35.Re5 Rd3 36.Kf1 Rd1+ 37.Re1 Rxe1+ While the rook ending is difficult to convert, the minor-piece ending isn’t! 38.Kxe1 g6 39.f4 Nd8 40.g5 Ke6 0-1 MVL resigns, as the minor-piece ending after 41.Ke2 Kf5 42.Kf3 Ne6 is hopelessly lost, as Black will simply play …d3 and …d4 followed by …Nc7-d5.