Everything seemed to be going well for Magnus Carlsen, in Stavanger. On his home turf, the World Champion looked to be back to his brilliant best at the 6th Altibox Norway Chess tournament, playing confidently as he beat his world-title challenger, once again reaching performance rating-highs as he moved a point ahead of the elite field. But stranger things can – and often do – happen, and at the very end, Carlsen unwittingly found himself being upstaged by none other than world #2 Fabiano Caruana, who managed to pull off a dramatic, last-gasp tournament victory.
I don’t ever recall Carlsen losing a tournament where he had such a commanding lead. But truth told, he never really fully recovered from his psychological loss to Wesley So in round six – and with it, going into the final round, the Norwegian shared the joint-lead with Caruana, Nakamura and So, and everyone expecting a Carlsen vs. ‘Team USA’ speed playoff showdown for the title and €70,000 ($82,500) first prize.
That certainly looked to be the direction of travel, especially with Carlsen quickly drawing in 17-moves with Maxime Vachier-Lagrave, and then Nakamura drawing with Levon Aronian – but also five-time ex-champion Vishy Anand again defied the age-gap and his critics constantly harping on about his ‘imminent retirement’, as the Indian veteran outwitted Sergey Karjakin in a complex position to also join the playoff jamboree stakes.
All eyes were now firmly fixed on the last game to finish, So vs Caruana, a topsy-turvy game that looked to be going the way of the title-challenger, then after a time-scramble inaccuracy, heading for a draw and that five-player playoff scenario on +1 for all the marbles. But then again, as I said before, stranger things can – and often do – happen, and in the critical position shown in today’s diagram, and with one move to make before the time-control, So correctly found the stunning, sacrificial game-saver with 40…Rxh3+! 41.gxh3 but followed-up badly with 41…Rd3?? and lost after 42.Qg2, as now there’s no perpetual check.
Instead, the correct way to achieve the perpetual check was 41…Rd2!! forcing 42.hxg4 hxg4 43.Qg2 Qh8+ 44.Kg1 Rxg2+ 45.Kxg2 Qh3+ 46.Kf2 Qf3+ and the king can’t escape from the perpetual. Overjoyed, Caruana’s immediate reaction was: “It’s a bit of a lucky chance for me. The only reason he [So] made this mistake, is because he lost hope and he thought he was losing.” And with that huge slice of good fortune, especially after losing in the opening round to Carlsen, this is the ultimate shrug from Caruana, who turned in two big clutch wins over Anand and So to pile up the elite-tournament victories over the once seemingly all-conquering world champion.
Crucially now, ahead of their London title match in November, this unexpected victory will come as another major confidence boost for the in-form ‘Teflon’ American title-challenger: Can Caruana now go on to beat the Norwegian to become world champion? Carlsen better beware, because stranger things can – and often do – happen.
1. F. Caruana (USA) 5/8; 2-4. M. Carlsen (Norway), H. Nakamura (USA), V. Anand (India) 4.5; 5-6. W. So (USA), L. Aronian (Armenia); 7. S. Mamedyarov (Azerbaijan) 3.5; 8-9. M. Vachier-Lagrave (France), S. Karjakin (Russia) 3. (Ding Liren had to withdraw after three rounds)
Photo: The last game to finish…and it turned out to be a last-gasp victory for Fabiano Caruana! | © Lennart Ootes (Altibox Norway Chess)
GM Viswanathan Anand – GM Fabiano Caruana
6th Altibox Norway Chess, (8)
Exchange French (By transposition)
1.e4 e5 2.Nf3 Nf6 3.Nxe5 d6 4.Nf3 Nxe4 5.d3 Nf6 6.d4 d5 Caruana has started off with his favoured Petroff’s Defence, but has now transposed into the Exchange French. 7.Bd3 Bd6 8.0-0 0-0 9.Bg5 h6 10.Bh4 Nc6 11.c3 g5 Black has to be aggressive here, as passivity will only play into White’s hands. 12.Bg3 Ne4 13.Bxd6 cxd6 The rationale capture has to be 13…Qxd6 – but by recapturing with the pawn, Caruana ‘mixes ‘ things up, and with it, Anand has to reassess his thinking on the position now. “At least ,” mused Caruana in his post-game interview, “I put pressure on him this way.” 14.Nfd2 The critical move surely has to be 14.Qb3 hitting d5 and targeting b7? The game will probably now run something like 14…Ne7 15.Nfd2 Bf5 16.Qc2 and White has the better prospects. I’m sure this was probably considered by Anand, but it would be interesting to know why he rejected this, as now Caruana has comfortable play. 14…f5 15.Na3 Be6 16.Nc2 Nxd2 17.Qxd2 f4! By now, Caruana was beginning to like his position more and more, commenting during his post-game press conference that: “Already after 17…f4 I thought I am definitely not risking anything and I have the more pleasant position. I might not be objectively better but it’s definitely easier for me to play.” And it does seem that this aggressive switch seems to upset Anand’s rhythm. 18.Rae1 Qf6 19.f3 Rf7 20.Re2 Raf8 21.Ne1 Anand assesses that his knight needs a better square to work from, rather being stuck on c2. After the obvious 21.Rfe1 Caruana said he intended 21…Bd7 with ideas of carrying on the attack with …h5 and …g4. 21…Ne7 22.Bc2 a5 23.Bb3 Rg7 24.Qd3 There’s nothing wrong with Anand’s position, it’s just that he fails to find a concrete plan and begins to lose the thread of the game – and this hesitation allows Caruana to play in a more adventurous fashion. 24…Bd7 25.a4 Kh8 26.Qd2 h5 Regardless, here comes the attack, as Caruana now begins to seize the chances offered to him on the kingside. 27.Nd3 Caruana’s folly of doubling his d-pawns is now paying dividends, as Anand’s pieces are locked out from the central squares. 27…Nf5!? Caruana thought taking the exchange was being a bit greedy, but it does look the right way to play here, as it is not so obvious how Black can make more useful moves to better benefit his kingside attack. 28.Bxd5 Ne3 29.Rxe3 fxe3 30.Qxe3 Bxa4 31.Ra1 The most obvious move. Denying Black the e-file first with 31.Re1 only allows 31…Bc6 32.Bxc6 bxc6 33.Re2 h4! 34.h3 Rb8 and Black has excellent winning chances. 31…Re7 32.Qd2 Bb5! If it wasn’t for this move, White would probably be safe. But now, Caruana’s queen and rook(s) swiftly mobilise to hit Anand’s king. 33.Rxa5 Bxd3 34.Qxd3 Re1+ 35.Kf2 Rfe8 36.Ra8 In the post-game analysis, Anand thought this to be wrong, and that 36.g3 was just a draw – but he didn’t realise that Caruana was hoping for this, as he intended the stunning queen sacrifice offer of 36…Qf5!! 37.Be4 (Forced, as 37.Qxf5 R8e2#) 37…Qxa5 38.Kxe1 d5 easily winning. 36…Qf4 37.Rxe8+ Rxe8 38.Qd1 Anand has to abandon his h-pawn, as that’s the lesser of two evils, with 38.g3 Qc1 allowing the queen and rook to combine to either mate the king or win more material. 38…Qxh2 39.Qd2 Qh4+ Close to the time-control, Caruana has the comfort of a couple of easy repeating queen checks before moving in for the kill. 40.Kf1 Qh1+ 41.Kf2 Qh4+ 42.Kf1 Ra8 More clinical was 42…Qf4!, as now White can’t prevent the queens being traded with 43.Qxf4 gxf4 and an easy endgame win as there’s no way to stop Black’s rook using the a-file to pick-off all the queenside pawns. But seeing Anand’s king having to attempt a run to safety, you can’t blame Caruana for opting for this way to win. 43.Ke2 Ra1 44.Kd3 If only Anand’s king can find a safe haven, it wouldn’t be easy for Caruana to win, as his own king is not so safe from a potential White queen incursion for what could well be a game-saving perpetual check. And if his king can safely flee to the queenside, there’s a chance of that happening – but Caruana cuts him off at the pass by denying him the c4 escape route. 44…b5! 45.c4?! The best try was 45.Bc6, but even here, trading queens with 45…Qe1! will see the Black rook picking-off the g2 pawn and running his h-pawn up the board. 45…bxc4+ 46.Kxc4 Qf4! Again, trading queens easily wins for Black. 47.Qe2 Qc1+ 48.Kb5 Qc8! 49.Kb6 The king is snared in the trap. If 49.Kb4 Qb8+ 50.Kc3 Rc1+ 51.Kd3 Qb5+ either picks up the loose bishop on d5 or the queen after 52.Kd2 Qxb2+ 53.Ke3 Rc3+ 54.Kf2 Rc2 etc. 49…Qb8+ 50.Kc6 Rc1+ 0-1 Anand resigns, faced with 51.Kd7 Rc7+ 52.Kxd6 Rc2+ losing his queen.