Speaking earlier this week to the Norwegian state broadcaster, NRK, ahead of next month’s World Championship clash with his American challenger Fabiano Caruana, defending champion Magnus Carlsen claimed his status as world No.1 mattered just as much – if not more – to him than being world champion, and what he really feared most of all going into the match was the prospect of losing both titles at the same time.
Carlsen first became world No.1 in the Elo rating list of January 2010, holding the top spot for a brief spell. And since July 2011, when he reclaimed the No.1 spot in the world rankings, the Norwegian has reigned supreme in the top spot, being virtually unchallenged for the past seven years. But in the run-up to their match, the gap between the two title combatants has slipped to single figures – and at the 34th European Club Cup today, Carlsen almost gifted Caruana the big psychological boost of being numero uno before a move had been made in London.
With his Norwegian team of Valerenga Sjakklubb playing top seeds and favourites Alkaloid, all the media attention was firmly focused on the big top-board clash between Carlsen and China’s world No.4, Ding Liren, the current “Iron Man” of chess, who has now gone an amazing 92-games* (*official now) without losing, and closing in fast now on Mikhail Tal’s famous run of 95-games in the late 1970s, though still some distance from Sergey Tiviakov’s standing record of 110-games unbeaten through 2004/05.
There was a lot on the line for both players: one slip for Carlsen, and he would drop to world No.2; one slip for Ding and his unbeaten streak would end. And not only that, but to add to the heady mix of tension for both players, there was the further twist of whoever won the match stood a good chance of winning the title. So no pressure, then!
But bizarrely, in what seemed like an innocuous position, and the game heading for a likely draw, there was a dramatic “Oh. My. God.” moment that reverberated around the playing hall and those watching online, as Carlsen walked right into a tactical trap of his own making and then having to fight for his very survival. Ding missed a couple of clear chances to convert what would have been a truly epic, not to mention epoch-making win. But, in the end, Carlsen’s legendary survival instincts kicked in just at the right time to save the game, and leave him still standing as the world No.1. And for Ding, his 14-month unbeaten streak now stretches to 93-games.
Despite the near heart-stopping moment for Carlsen, it wasn’t all bad news. Saving the draw against the odds made all the difference to his Valerenga team being able to snatch a thrilling, narrow win against the heavily-favoured Macedonian team. Now they have the sole lead going into the final round and set to play Peter Svidler’s Mednyi Vsadnik St.Petersburg, in what could well turn out to be the title-decider.
1. Valerenga Sjakklubb 11/12; 2-5. Molodezhka, Mednyi Vsadnik St.Petersburg, AVE Novy Bar, Obiettivo Risarcimento Padova 10; 6-9. Odlar Yurdu, Alkaloid, Beer Sheva Chess Club, Eynatten 9; 10-14. Itaka, BSG, Wood Green, Nordstrand Sjakklubb, CC Gambit Asseco SEE 8.
Photo: Pressure? What pressure? The big tension-fuelled clash between Magnus Carlsen and Ding Liren | © Niki Riga / official site
GM Magnus Carlsen – GM Ding Liren
34th European Club Cup, (6)
Four Knights Scotch
1.e4 e5 2.Nf3 Nc6 3.Nc3 Nf6 4.d4 Though considered equal by theory, the Scotch Four Knights is quite interesting and can be safely played for advantage, especially at the amateur level. 4…exd4 5.Nxd4 Bb4 This line has a reputation as being super-solid for Black. 6.Nxc6 bxc6 The split pawns on the queenside is Black’s only weakness and White’s obvious target – and makes this a great line for positionally minded players who like to exploit endgame advantages, so, therefore, plays into Magnus’ strengths. 7.Bd3 d5 8.exd5 0-0 9.0-0 cxd5 10.Bg5 c6 11.Qf3 Bd6 12.h3 h6 13.Bf4 The alternative is 13.Bxf6 Qxf6 14.Qxf6 gxf6 and, although Black’s pawns are split now on both sides of the board, he does have good compensation with open lines and the bishop-pair. 13…Rb8 This move and the next is what makes this line perfectly playable for Black. 14.b3 Rb4! Black’s pieces have activity, which compensates for the split queenside pawns. 15.Bxd6 Qxd6 16.Rfe1 a5 17.Rad1 Bd7 18.Qe3 Not just controlling the e-file, but also eying up the possibility of Qa7 to harass the vulnerable a-pawn. 18…Rc8 19.Qa7 Rh4! The sudden switch to the kingside indirectly defends the weak a-pawn. 20.Re3! Carlsen is more than alert to the dangers here with this excellent strategic rook move, as capturing the a-pawn came with dire consequences: 20.Qxa5? Bxh3! 21.gxh3 Rxh3 22.Kf1 Rh1+ 23.Ke2 Re8+ and White will soon be forced to resign. 20…Qc7 With Carlsen now covering any danger to his king, Ding has to be careful he doesn’t now fall into a lost endgame by perhaps losing the a-pawn – and the simple and best way to do this is to force the trade of queens. 21.Qxc7 Rxc7 22.Na4 c5 23.g4?? Carlsen has, what can only be best described in polite conversation, to be a “brain freeze”. He totally overlooks a very clever tactical shot that should really have lost him the game. The way to go was with 23.Nb6 Be6 and …Rc6 to follow, kicking the knight back to a4, and basically, we have an equal position. 23…d4 24.Rf3 Nxg4 The more clinical tactic was 24…Rxh3! 25.Rxh3 Bxg4 26.Rxh6 Bxd1 27.Rh3 and a somewhat ‘cleaner’ version of an ending to press for the win. One possible scenario could well involve trying to cut off the rook with 27…Nh5 28.Rh4 Bf3 29.Be4 g5!? 30.Bxf3 gxh4 31.Bxh5 c4! 32.Bd1 Re7! which looks lost for White, as his minor pieces are all awkwardly placed, and he won’t be able to defend the threats of either …Re1 and …h3. 25.Re1 Carlsen can’t capture the piece, hoping to get two pieces for the rook and a couple of pawns, as after 25.hxg4? there’s now the added twist of 25…Bc6! 26.Be2 Re7 27.Kf1 h5! 28.gxh5 Rh1+ 29.Kg2 Rxh5 30.Kf1 Rh1+ 31.Kg2 Rh6 32.Kf1 g5! 33.Nxc5 Rh1+ 34.Kg2 Rxd1 35.Bxd1 g4 which should be easily winning. 25…Nf6 26.Nb6 Bc6 27.Rg3 g5 Ding was most likely getting ahead of himself now, seeing outlines of endgame scenarios, so looked to get his kingside pawns moving. But the more cautious approach with 27…g6!? looks to be much better. 28.Re5 Nh5 29.Bf5 Rf4 30.Rg4 Bf3 31.Rxf4 Nxf4 32.Nd7 c4! This allows Ding’s rook to come into the game, now linking up to create mating threats with his bishop and knight. 33.bxc4 Rxc4 34.Rxa5 Rb4 Carlsen has to be careful here, as he could walk into a mating net. 35.Kh2 Rb1 36.Ne5 Rh1+ 37.Kg3 Bd5! The threat is …Rg1+ and …Rg2+ with a winning discovered check. 38.f3 The only move that offers chances of survival – Magnus is still losing, but he’s not dead and buried yet. 38…Re1 39.Nd3 Rg1+ 40.Kf2 Rg2+ 41.Ke1 Re2+ 42.Kf1 Bc4! 43.Kg1 Rg2+ 44.Kh1 Bxd3? Strange that Ding, who found the hard moves of Bd5 and Bc4, failed to follow it up with the fairly easy winning continuation. Surely he must have considered Rxc2, did he just miss something in his calculations? It looks to be the case, as after 44…Rxc2! 45.Nxf4 Rc1+ 46.Kg2 gxf4 White is in trouble here, as the Black d-pawn is far down the board, there is the easy centralising the king with Kg7-f6, and it is quite possible also that White could well lose another pawn into the bargain. 45.Bxd3 Rg3 46.h4! [see diagram] Magnus has that rare gift of a sixth sense for finding ways to stay alive in lost positions – and he finds the only move that just about guarantees his survival, as Ding’s rook is forced out of the game momentarily, allowing the a-pawn to come to White’s rescue. 46…Rh3+ 47.Kg1 Rxh4 48.Bf1 Kg7 49.a4! The a-pawn comes to Magnus’ rescue. 49…Ng6 50.Rc5 d3 51.a5! And the correct follow-up. 51…dxc2 There’s nothing in 51…d2? 52.Rd5 Ra4 53.a6 and White easily survives. 52.Rxc2 Ra4 53.a6 h5 54.Rc5 Kf6 55.Rc6+ Kg7 Black’s king daren’t come up the board to avoid the repetition. If 55…Ke5 56.Rc5+ Kf4? 57.Rc4+! and White is winning. 56.Rc5 Kf6 57.Rc6+ Kg7 ½-½