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Ahead of their eagerly-awaited World Championship match in London early next month, American title challenger Fabiano Caruana made hay at the recent Batumi Olympiad by gaining rating points to dramatically close the gap at the top in the world rankings on World champion Magnus Carlsen. That was because the Norwegian opted to sit out the biennial team event, instead preferring to put the final touches to his preparations for what he freely and frankly admits will be a very tough title defence.

With Carlsen at 2839, and Caruana now 2832.3, and only some 7-points separating the two title-combatants, Carlsen still risks going into the match with a self-inflicted wound of being replaced as numero uno for the first time in seven years. In his final warm-up event before London, Carlsen has instead opted to play for the Norwegian team, Vålerenga, in the European Club Cup competition that got underway today in Halkidiki, northern Greece.

Explaining his reasons for opting for the ECC rather than the Olympiad, Carlsen – who, admittedly, historically never scores well at an Olympiad – said he thought “There would be less pressure and it’s a smaller event and easier to navigate. It fits into my general plans better.” But playing does come with a big risk, not to mention added pressure, as losing one single game could see him sensationally drop to No. 2 – and even drawing a couple of games comes with a risk.

Carlsen starts the ECC from round two on Saturday (facing Russian outfit “Molodezhka”, with Vladimir Potkin on top board), and likely only to play the remaining six games in the competition. He needs to score 4-4.5 points to stay at the top of the world rankings, a coveted position he’s held since July 2011. But a point less than that expected score, and he will gift Caruana a big psychological boost going into their title match by being the new world No.1.

Another event Carlsen skipped that got in the way of his title preparations, was the defence of his Chess.com Speed Championship title. Last year, he easily beat old foe Hikaru Nakamura in the final – but with Carlsen not playing this year, the odds now favour speed maven Nakamura, who took a giant step towards the main prize by beating French ace Maxime Vachier-Lagrave on Thursday.

In what originally started off as a very competitive and evenly-balanced quarterfinal match-up between the two (after the opening 5min + 1sec blitz session ended 6.5-5.5 in Nakamura’s favour), the match dramatically swung heavily in the American’s favour after a streak of four straight wins near the end of the closing stages of the second session (3min + 1sec). After that, there was no looking back for Nakamura, who went on to win all the sessions for an emphatic 21.5-13.5 victory, and he now plays Levon Aronian in the semifinal.

Along with Peter Svidler, MVL is recognised as one of the game’s leading authorities on the Grünfeld Defence, a notoriously tough nut to crack at elite-level – and even for a blitz showdown, it was obvious that Nakamura had done his homework and come into the match with a well-worked sideline of the Exchange Variation that added a further intriguing psychological twist to their battle, so much so that the Frenchman had to abandon his trusted Grünfeld going into the final bullet session.

GM Hikaru Nakamura – Maxime Vachier-Lagrave
Chess.com Speed Championship, (Blitz 5+1)
Grünfeld Defence, Exchange variation
1.d4 Nf6 2.c4 g6 3.Nc3 d5 4.cxd5 Nxd5 5.e4 Nxc3 6.bxc3 Bg7 7.Bg5!? One of the rarer sidelines for White in the Grünfeld Exchange. More common is the well-trodden paths of 7.Bc4 and 8.Ne2 and also 7.Nf3, but the whole idea behind 7.Bg5 is to prevent Black from moving his e-pawn, either with …e6 later to undermine a possible d5 from White, or – as happens here – to support the Black knight getting to d4. 7…c5 8.Rc1 cxd4 9.cxd4 Nc6 Dangerous for Black is 9…Qa5+?! 10.Bd2! Qd8 11.Nf3 and White has a nice advantage by being ‘gifted’ the free move of Bd2. 10.d5 Nd4 11.Ne2!?N More usual is in this obscure sideline is 11.Qd2 Bd7 with at typical Grünfeld grind ahead. But this is an interesting novelty from Nakamura, and one that he’d obviously prepared for this match – and 11.Ne2 looks the best ‘challenging’ move here, especially when the engines suggest Black’s best now is the somewhat awkward looking 11…Nb5. White looks to be comfortable here, and it’s a pity that Nakamura didn’t repeat his 11.Ne2 again in the match – but we did have one very amusing game later, where Nakamura took too many liberties with 11.Be3 e5 12.Ne2 0-0 13.Nxd4? (For obvious reasons that soon become clear, best was 13.Qd2 avoiding a …Qa5+.) 13…exd4 14.Bxd4 Qa5+ 15.Ke2 Re8 16.Kf3 A radical approach that is quickly shot down by MVL, who soon finds the downfall for this audacious move with 16… Bg4+!! 17.Kxg4 Rxe4+ 18.Kh3 Rxd4 and MVL won easily. 11…Bg4 12.Qd2 A simple solution to the pin and also the problems of a possible …Qa5+ – and one that leaves White with a somewhat easy game. 12…Bxe2 13.Bxe2 Nxe2 14.Qxe2 Qa5+ 15.Bd2! Qa4 There’s no other option, as 15…Qxa2 16.Qb5+ leaves Black struggling to survive. 16.0-0 0-0 17.Bg5! Qd7 MVL finds himself in a tough situation, and this being his only real option. If 17…Rfe8 18.Rc7! Bf6 19.Bh6 b6 20.e5 Bg7 21.Bxg7 Kxg7 22.e6 with a crushing position. 18.Rc2 e6 19.Rd1 White just has a positional edge and a space advantage due to his centralised rooks, better bishop and his pawn centre. It’s tough, but perfectly defendable – however, MVL walks right into a cunning trick. 19…Rac8? This makes that tough defence all the tougher – but more of a problem is that MVL has failed to spot that there lurks a well-known trick in such middlegame positions where a pawn has rapidly advanced up the board. MVL’s only way to survive was with 19…exd5! 20.exd5 Rfe8 21.Qd3 Be5 with the prospects of a long-term survival plan of blockading the d-pawn – but if he hunkers down to this onerous task, then he should be able to hold. 20.d6! [see diagram] 20…Rxc2 21.Qxc2 Rc8?? You can see MVL’s rationale here: If he can get in …Rc6, then it is survivable – but he’s oblivious to what’s coming next, because if he had, then he would surely have bailed out instead with 21…f6 22.Be3 b6 23.f4 and try to survive this position. 22.Qxc8+! 1-0 Oops! MVL resigns, as after 22…Qxc8 23.d7 its hopelessly lost.

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