So Good, So Strong - First Move Chess -First Move Chess

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As everyone more or less expected after his tragic bicycle accident and surgery for a broken hip, Ding Liren was forced to withdraw from the 6th Altibox Norway Chess tournament in Stavanger, and the world #4 will return home to China on Tuesday, were he’s expected to be out of action for the next month or so. Already, Ding has cancelled his upcoming match in the Czech Republic against David Navara, and also a planned event in China.

As per the FIDE Rulebook, because Ding had played less than 50% of his Stavanger games, his three draws (though still counting for FIDE rating-purposes) won’t count anymore in the tournament standings. This means the cross-table is looking slightly skewed for now, with three players losing half a point, and each round an extra rest-day included in the schedule for those who would have played Ding.

One player to ‘lose’ a half point is the world title-challenger, Fabiano Caruana, but the US #1 was quick to make up the lost ground with a very timely and stylish win over Sergey Karjakin to move back to 50% in the tournament – not only that, but he also did World Champion Magnus Carlsen a favour, as his challenger’s win increased the Norwegian’s own lead at the top to a full point again, following his round five ‘uneventful’ draw with Hikaru Nakamura.

But in round six, Carlsen – who got off to a brilliant start – was brought back down to earth by another American, namely Wesley So, who was on the top of his game to outwit and beat the world champion for the first time in a classical game in his career. The day before, when asked about his upcoming game with So, Carlsen tempted fate by stating that: “To be honest, usually nothing happens in these games. I can’t remember him ever being close to beat me [sic]. If I want a draw, I will often get it easily.”

So no-one really expected a decisive result when So and Carlsen played the Exchange Slav (1.d4 d5 2.c4 c6 3.cxd5) – notorious for normally petering out to a harmless draw – a fact that apparently even surprised both the players! So was surprised by the fact that Carlsen played the Slav in the first place, so, on move three, after thinking for eight minutes and suspecting he might be walking into Carlsen preparation for what he normally plays, he opted instead for the Exchange variation, as he’d recently been researching this with a fellow grandmaster.

Now it was Carlsen’s turn to be surprised by So’s switch. And as the game unfolded, it looked as if both players were about to go down a notorious liquidation line that leads to a sterile position and a lot of pieces coming off the board…but rather than that, Carlsen unwisely picked the wrong time to ‘press the gamble button’ by playing into a very risky line, and he soon regretted this by having to defend a simply horrible position.

And with the win, So sensationally blew the tournament wide open again. Nominally, he’s half a point behind early runaway leader Carlsen; but he holds the big advantage going down the home stretch of playing not two but three games – and it will be Carlsen’s turn to have the ‘extra’ rest-day on Tuesday.

Standings:
1. M. Carlsen (Norway) 3.5/6; 2. W. So (USA) 3/5; 3. L. Aronian (Armenia) 3/6; 4-7. V. Anand (India), H. Nakamura (USA), S. Karjakin (Russia), F. Caruana (USA) 2.5/5; 8. S. Mamedyarov (Azerbaijan) 2.5/6; 9. M. Vachier-Lagrave (France) 2/5.

Photo: Magnus Carlsen’s position was so bad, he simply couldn’t bring himself to look at the board! | © Lennart Ootes (Altibox Norway Chess)

GM Wesley So – GM Magnus Carlsen
6th Altibox Norway Chess, (6)
Exchange Slav
1.d4 d5 2.c4 c6 3.cxd5 cxd5 4.Bf4 Nf6 5.Nc3 Nc6 6.Nf3 a6 Now herein lies a tale. Apparently Carlsen didn’t expect So would play the Exchange Slav, and So didn’t expect Carlsen to play the Slav, so he wisely diverged from what he normally plays! And this is why we ended up in arguably one of the most drawing and ‘boring’ lines in chess, the Exchange Slav that, with accurate play, offers nothing to both sides. 7.Rc1 Bf5 8.e3 Rc8 9.Be2 e6 10.0-0 Nd7!? This is the only ‘adventurous’ way for Black to try and unbalance things a little, as all the other alternatives, such as 10…Bd6 and 10…Be7 leaves White with a niggling little lasting advantage. 11.Na4 Be7 12.h3 White has to keep his wits about him here, as after 12.a3 there comes the sudden 12…g5! 13.Bg3 h5! and Black has a storm brewing on the kingside. 12…0-0 Now 12…g5?! doesn’t work, as after 13.Bh2 h5 14.Nd2 g4 15.hxg4 hxg4 16.Bxg4 Bxg4 17.Qxg4 Nb4 18.Nc3 Nd3 19.Rb1 White is a pawn up, has a safe position, and ultimately Black’s king is the one who has to worry about his long-term security. 13.a3 Na5 In the Exchange Slav, Black has to tread cautiously about throwing his queenside pawns forward, as now 13…b5 14.Nc5 Nxc5 15.dxc5 Bf6 16.Nd4 and, long-term, with his queenside pawns, White has the better prospects for the ending. 14.Nc5 Nc4N A risky novelty from Carlsen, looking to mix things up a little, and based on a continuation that, arguably, he soon lived to regret going into. More usual is liquidating the position now with 14…Nxc5 15.dxc5 Nc4 16.Bxc4 dxc4 17.Rxc4 Rxc5 18.Rd4 Rd5 and a sterile position and a high probability of a draw. In hindsight, this would have been better for Carlsen – but instead, he’s opted to press the ‘gamble button’. 15.b4 Nxc5 16.dxc5 Nxa3?! This may temporarily win a pawn, but it comes with a great risk attached to it – but Carlsen probably felt forced into this now, as the alternative, 16…b5 17.cxb6 Qxb6 18.Ne5 Nxe5 19.Bxe5 Rxc1 20.Qxc1 leaves White with the upper hand with the better bishop-pair and the a6 pawn vulnerable. But in view of what Carlsen now falls into, defending this would have been a far easier task for the World Champion to endure. 17.Nd4 Be4 Much better than 17…Bg6 18.Qb3 Nb5 19.Nxb5 axb5 20.Bxb5 where White’s queenside majority looks difficult to contend with. 18.f3 Bg6 19.Qb3 Nc4 20.Bxc4 dxc4 21.Qxc4 White is marginally better, with no obvious things to worry about here – but Black is also not without resources here. Carlsen was slightly cramped by So’s more mobile queenside pawns, but nothing I didn’t think he couldn’t handle. 21…Qe8?! This doesn’t just look wrong, it is wrong – and with this unnatural looking move in a difficult position, Carlsen’s game began to come apart. The obvious try for Black to try to stay competitive was with the obvious 21…Bg5!? 22.Bxg5 Qxg5 (trying to make good of the weakness inflicted by 17…Be4) 23.e4 Rfd8 24.Nb3 – and this was also Carlsen’s first suggestion to So during their live post-game press conference. All the engines suggest White is to be preferred, but there’s not much in it – however the human instincts here will be sounding an alarm, as the knight totally dominates the bishop, which is locked out of the game by the White pawns. This is what was probably eating away at Carlsen, who tried to complicate matters with his awkward queen move. 22.Bg3 e5 23.Nb3 Bd8?! It’s a case of one awkward move too many for Carlsen now, who has clearly miscalculated the position. Again, the only try was 23…Bg5!? 24.f4 Bh6 and Black is not without saving resources with the bishop-pair. 24.Qd5 Can it be that simple against the World Champion, winning a pawn with a simple double attack? 24…Qb5 Yes, it can be so simple! 25.Bxe5 Be7 There’s no time to capture the b-pawn, as 25…Qxb4 26.Bd6 Re8 27.c6! practically wins on the spot. 26.Qd2 Rfd8 27.Bd6 Carlsen is clearly in a jam, and he used up now practically most of his time on the clock trying to salvage something – anything – from the wreck of his position. 27…Bf6 28.e4 h6 There’s no time for 28…Be5 as 29.Rfd1! Bxd6 30.cxd6 Rxc1 31.Qxc1 Qxb4 32.Qc7! Rf8 33.d7 Qxb3 34.d8Q forces home the win. 29.Nd4 Bxd4+ 30.Qxd4 The trouble for Carlsen, is that he’s not just lost a pawn, his bishop is effectively locked out of the game. 30…Re8 31.Rfe1 Kh7 32.g4 f6 33.f4 Qc6 34.f5 Bf7 35.h4! The coming g5 thrust all but sounds the death knell for Carlsen. 35…Ra8 36.Rc2 Looking to spring Rh2 that prevents Carlsen playing …hxg5 after the inevitable g5 push. 36…a5 37.g5 Bh5 38.g6+ Both players were in time-trouble here, and So misses the clinical breakthrough of 38.gxf6! Rg8 39.bxa5 gxf6+ 40.Kh2 Rae8 (If 40…Rg4 41.Qxf6!) 41.Qxf6 Rxe4 42.Rxe4 Qxe4 43.Rb2 and White has everything covered, and there’s no way to stop Qe&+ easily winning. 38…Kh8 39.b5 Again, tick-tock.  With a little more time, So might have calculated that he could have crashed through immediately with 39.e5! Rad8 40.Rf2 Rxe5 41.Rxe5 fxe5 42.Qe3! (this key-move is not easy to spot in time-trouble) 42…axb4 43.f6 Rxd6 (Forced, as 43…Bxg6 44.fxg7+ Kxg7 45.Qxe5+ will quickly mate.) 44.cxd6 Qxd6 45.f7 Qxg6+ 46.Kh2 Qxf7 47.Rxf7 and White has a big winning material advantage. 39…Qxb5 40.Rb2 Qc6?? [see diagram] With just under a minute to make his final move, Carlsen’s legendary survival instincts fail him, as this gives So a very valuable tempo to now easily convert for the win. The only slim chance Carlsen had for survival was 40…Qd7! where now, after 41.Rb6 Black has 41…Bg4!? threatening …Bxf5; so now, after 42.Re3 a4 43.Ra3 Ra7 White is still better – though, crucially, Black isn’t quite dead and buried yet, and White will have to be very wary of the possible sacrificial shot of …Bxf5 exploiting White’s very exposed king. 41.Rb6! Qc8 42.Qd5 a4 Now, if 42…Bg4 43.Rxb7 Bxf5 44.Rxg7!! will soon force mate. 43.Rxb7 Rg8 As explained, the threat of Rxg7 had to be defended against – not that this makes any difference to the assessment of the outcome of the game now. 44.c6 1-0 And Carlsen resigns, as after 44…Bxg6 45.fxg6 Qg4+ 46.Kf2 Qxh4+ 47.Bg3 White has all the checks covered around his king.

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