Located in the middle of the Irish Sea, almost equidistant between England, Scotland, Wales and Ireland, the Isle of Man is a unique self-governing kingdom – what is termed as a ‘Crown dependency’ that belongs to neither the UK nor the European Union. The 37.73-mile long island has become world-famous for hosting one of the most historic and iconic motorcycle races, the Isle of Man Tourist Trophy (TT) Races, which has been running annually since 1907.
Needless to say, if you want a slice of silence, avoid May/June during the two-week leather-clad, high-rev bike fest that’s universally regarded as the ultimate ‘must see it’ – not to mention also the ‘most dangerous racing’ – event for motorsport fans across the globe. That said, there’s another reason for a new breed of fan to visit and watch online coverage of another major event staged in the Isle of Man, where the attraction is not so much the petrol-heads but the chess-heads.
Between 1990 and 2007, retired lighthouse keeper Dennis Hemsley turned what was originally a little-known tournament on the island into the annual Monarch Assurance International Open, in the process making it one of the world’s strongest opens. After a hiatus of a few years, the tournament has returned even bigger and better than ever with new sponsors, and the latest edition of the Chess.com Isle of Man International – won last year by Magnus Carlsen who, alongside Boris Spassky (Canadian Open in Vancouver, 1971), forms an exclusive club of the only two reigning world champions to play in, and win, Swiss-System opens – is billed as the strongest global open.
There’s no fewer than six of the world’s current top ten among a very strong field battling for the lucrative £50,000 ($65,000) first prize on offer – and, for added star attraction, also features three ex-world champions, four defeated world championship challengers and eight candidates! That’s quite a roll of honour – but there’s no obvious runaway-leader in what’s increasingly looking likely to be a very nervous and tension-fuelled final weekend, with seven players tied for the lead on 5.5/7 that includes top seed Maxime Vachier-Lagrave and the American duo of Hikaru Nakamura and rising star Jeffrey Xiong (who drew with each other today).
And just to make it more ‘interesting’, just a half point behind that leading group lurks an even equally more formidable twelve-strong chasing pack that includes ex-world champions Vishy Anand and Vladimir Kramnik, not to mention Sergey Karjakin, Anish Giri and Levon Aronian – and the race going down the home stretch may well be just as competitive as that for the chequered flag at the TT races!
1-7. Wang Hao (China), A. Naiditsch (Azerbaijan), J. Xiong (USA), M. Vachier-Lagrave (France), R. Wojtaszek (Poland), H. Nakamura (USA), M. Adams (England) 5.5/7; 8-19. S. Karjakin (Russia), M. Parligras (Romania), R. Rapport (Hungary), L. Aronian (Armenia), V. Artemiev (Russia), A. Grischuk (Russia), V. Anand (India), S.P. Sethuraman (India), G. Jones (England), A.Giri (Netherlands), V. Kramnik (Russia), A. Shirov (Spain) 5.
Photo: Keeping the Stars and Stripes hopes alive are Nakamura and Xiong | © John Saunders / Official site
GM Hikaru Nakamura – GM Abhijeet Gupta
Chess.com Isle of Man International, (6)
1.c4 Nf6 2.Nc3 e5 3.Nf3 Nc6 4.g3 Bb4 5.Bg2 0-0 6.0-0 d6 7.d3 h6 Usually in this simple line of the English Opening, the crunch line would be 7…Bxc3 8.bxc3 to double White’s c-pawns – but White has more than enough compensation with the bishop-pair. 8.Na4 First introduce into praxis, I believe, by Joel Lautier back in 1992 – the idea now being to avoid the doubling of the c-pawns and try to misplace or favourably trade-off Black’s dark-squared bishop. 8…Bc5 To my eye, the bishop just doesn’t look right on c5; better was 8…Ba5 9.a3 Bb6 with the usual dynamic chances for both sides. 9.Nxe5! Nakamura hits on an idea seen in an obscure email game from 2009, most likely than not crunched by a leading playing engine, but he can claim the bragging rights to the OTB TN. It’s easy to see why it suits Nakamura, as the tactic gains him the bishop-pair. 9…Nxe5 The other option is 9…Bxf2+ 10.Rxf2 dxe5 (Even better for White is 10…Nxe5 11.Nc3 with an obvious advantage.) 11.h3 and White has the edge due to the bishop-pair and, after Nc3, a firm hold of the d5-square. 10.d4 Bxd4 11.Qxd4 Right now, all the playing engines say Black has a minuscule advantage – but it is not as easy as all that, as the potential of White’s bishop-pair soon changes the balance of that assessment. 11…Nc6 In the aforementioned obscure email game (Szczepanski,Z (2523)-Buzas,G (2347) LSS email 2009), Black tried 11…Re8 12.b3 Nc6 13.Qd3 Bg4 14.Re1 Bh5 15.Bb2 but White now has a firm grip of the position with his active bishop-pair coming to the fore. That said, one obvious better try for Black was 11…Bg4!? 12.Re1 (Capturing on b7 backfires: 12.Bxb7? Bxe2 13.f4 (13.Re1? c6! is winning for Black.) 13…Nd3 14.Bd2 c5 15.Qc3 d5! and White is in dire straits.) 12…Re8 13.b3 c5 14.Qd2 Qd7 15.Bb2 Rad8 White is still slightly better, but Black has a solid and active position. 12.Qd2 Bf5 13.b3 There’s nothing much in the position – but, long-term, Nakamura has the better potential with the bishop-pair and the prospects of expanding in the centre with f4 and e4. In view of this, Gupta has to come up with an active plan, otherwise, he just going to be pushed off the board. 13…Re8 14.f3 a6! Gupta is ready to mix it with …b5. 15.Nc3 b5 It’s now or never, as you can’t nuance …b5 with the preparatory 15…Rb8 as 16.e4 Be6 17.Nd5! b5 18.Bb2 Nd7 19.cxb5 Rxb5 20.Qc3! and White’s attack is already set to crash through. 16.cxb5 axb5 17.Nxb5 Qb8 This is the whole rationale for Gupta’s pawn sacrifice – playing for tricks with …Qb6+. But, with correct play, will he have enough compensation for his pawn? 18.Nc3 d5 The cheap shot with 18…Qb6+ is easily dealt with after 19.Rf2 Ne5 20.e4 Bh3 21.Qe3! and Black is left struggling to hold on here. 19.Bb2 Nakamura rightly rejects the offer of a second pawn, as the double capture on d5 is answered by …Qb6+ and …Rad8 with very active play for the pawns. But now, all Nakamura wants to do is get developed and connect his rooks. 19…Qa7+ Also possible was 19…d4!? 20.Na4 Qa7 with the idea of …Rad8, and the d-pawn makes it all a little awkward for White, and not so easy to make something (anything even) of the material advantage. 20.Kh1 Qe3?! It all starts to go pear-shaped for Gupta from this moment, thinking he’s achieving a big lock on the e3 hole – but he’s overlooked something. His last chance was to be found again with 20…d4!? 21.Nb5 Qb6 22.Nxd4 Rad8 23.e3 where Black does have “some” play for the pawns – but two pawns is two pawns, and it would take Nakamura shooting himself in the foot not to covert this to a win. 21.Rfd1 The game is effectively over here: Nakamura is two pawns to the better, has the position under total control, and there are no obvious weaknesses for Gupta to hone in on. And now, it just takes a few very accurate moves from Nakamura to force his opponent’s resignation. 21…Qf2 22.Re1 Nb4 23.Nb5! [see diagram] Game over! The threat is not so much Nxc7 but Bd4 easily liquidating down to a won ending. 23…Nc2 24.Bd4 Ne3 25.Bxe3 Rxe3 If Gupta had the time to double rooks on the e-file, then he may well have had “some” chances of holding this – but Nakamura has an easy tactic that soon clarifies everything. 26.Rf1! Qxe2 27.Qxe2 Rxe2 28.Nd4 1-0 Gupta resigns, as the Nd4 forks both rook and bishop, and no way to defend both pieces.