Magnus Carlsen dramatically rediscovering his mojo to bounce back to his brilliant best was highlighted by his trifecta finish to the 6th Gashimov Memorial in Shamkir, as the World Champion crushed three elite-level rivals with a dazzling display of attacking chess going down the home stretch that not only won him the tournament, but it did so in a style that instantly rehabilitated his hero-like status amongst the chess fans and pundits alike.
The margin and manner of Carlsen’s victory – especially in the way in which he dispatched Anish Giri, Sergey Karjakin and Alexander Grischuk in the final rounds – immediately brought comparisons to Bobby Fischer and Garry Kasparov in their pomp, with his dominant +5 performance also almost being on a par with Fabiano Caruana’s epic Sinquefield Cup conquest at St Louis in 2014, when the American started with seven wins.
What stood out most of all, though, was that those wins over Giri, Karjakin and Grischuk didn’t come with his trademark grind, but instead from dynamic play – the standout game being against Karjakin – almost as if he was channelling Alpha Zero. And even Carlsen himself admitted this freestyle approach “was a lot of fun” and had “been a great ride.”
And after winning the first two majors of the year – the Tata Steel Masters, and now the Gashimov Memorial – and especially in this sort of form, we don’t have to wait long before we see Carlsen back in action again, as the Norwegian heads the field for the Grenke Chess Classic in Germany that starts on 20 April, where also in the line-up is an old foe in Caruana, his recently defeated title-challenger and world #2 rating rival!
Carlsen’s live rating is now up to 2861. Another Gashimov Memorial-like performance at the Grenke Classic could see him closing in on his all-time high from June 2015, when he reached a nose-bleeding 2889 – and already there’s fevered speculation this year of even surpassing his own record, with an attempt at breaking 2900!
Photo: Carlsen ends on a high with a trifecta of wins – and now onto a possible trifecta of tournament victories! | © Shamkir Chess
GM Magnus Carlsen – GM Alexander Grischuk
Gashimov Memorial, (9)
Ruy Lopez, Anti-Berlin
1.e4 e5 2.Nf3 Nc6 3.Bb5 Nf6 4.d3 Lately, this has become the more popular, though the somewhat reserved way of avoiding the notorious “Berlin Wall” endgame with 4.0-0 Nxe4 5.d4 Nd6 6.Bxc6 dxc6 7.dxe5 Nf5 8.Qxd8+ Kxd8 that Vladimir Kramnik so famously rehabilitated during his successful 2000 World Championship challenge in London against Garry Kasparov. In general, we often transpose into a slower Ruy Lopez with d3, or, as in this game, the Giuoco Piano. 4…Bc5 5.c3 0-0 6.0-0 d6 7.Ba4 Ne7 8.Bc2 Defending the e-pawn and threatening the central push with d4. 8…Ng6 9.d4 Bb6 10.a4 c6 11.dxe5 Nxe5 12.Nxe5 dxe5 13.Qxd8 Rxd8 14.a5 Bc5 15.Nd2 Originally, Carlsen explained in his post-game live interview, that he intended to play 15.b4 Be7 to get his ideal set-up with 16.f3 (to stop …Ng4) 16…Be6 17.Be3 only to realise there was a flaw in is that plan, as Black has 17…c5! 18.b5 Bc4 with a big advantage. So it was back to the drawing board with his alternative plan. 15…Be6 16.Re1 b5!?! All the engines are nonplussed by this move, but Grischuk agonised over it, admitting in the post-game presser that this was his only mistake in a game that saw “amazing” play by Carlsen. I think he’s being a bit harsh on himself – but his assessment of Carlsen’s play from here to the end is spot on. His dilemma, though, is influenced by the fact that he fears Carlsen getting in an annoying a6 at some stage, fixing his a7-pawn, so he tries to circumvent this possibility. On reflection, perhaps now he would have preferred instead something like 17…Nd7? 17.Nb3 Bxb3 18.Bxb3 Ng4 To be honest, watching this game unfold live, I firmly believed that Grischuk had nothing to fear here, despite the fact that Carlsen now has the bishop-pair – but Carlsen’s understanding of the position is just that little bit deeper than others can see or perhaps apprehend. 19.Re2 Rd6 A cunning move with a cunning plan – but, as the Blackadder quip goes, Carlsen is just “as cunning as a fox who’s just been appointed Professor of Cunning at Oxford University.” 20.Bg5! It would have been so easy to have fallen right into the danger zone with 20.h3? Nxf2! 21.Rxf2 Rf6 the real reason behind 19…Rd6 and Black easily winning. Another reason for 17…Rd6 was to double rooks on the d-file – but Carlsen cuts through all the dangers with his perfect move of 20.Bg5, and suddenly Grischuk is caught short as the game opens up. 20…Kf8 Tempting looks 20…Rg6 but after the simple retreat 21.Bh4 White has everything covered, and now threatens Bg3 and h3 leaving White with a big advantage as his bishops now control the board. Grischuk realises this, and he also understands that a Bg3 could put a lot of pressure on his e-pawn, so he makes space for a possible …f6 to defend it – but all his 20…Kf8 does is open up an unlikely attack on his king. 21.Rf1 An unlikely attacking plan is hatched by Carlsen: the rook moves to f1 to answer f6 with Bc1, and he’ll follow up with g3, Kg2 and f4 with a remarkable instant attack – and an attack that Grischuk inadvertently made possible with his innocent-looking 20…Kf8. 21…Nf6 22.g3! Suddenly, the danger signs are all there for Grischuk: Carlsen threatens to unleash his attacking plan with Kg2 and f4. The rest of the game now becomes a Carlsen tour de force, as the Norwegian’s bishop-pair become the big game-winner. 22…a6 23.Kg2 Nd7 24.Bc1 Ba7 25.f4 f6 26.h4! Not only grabbing more real estate but also adding into the heady attacking mix the possibility of h5-h6. 26…Re8 27.h5 h6 Fearing the push on with h6, ultimately, this is where Grischuk cracks under the relentless pressure from Carlsen – more resilient was 27…exf4 28.gxf4 Nc5 29.Bc2 Nd3 but after 30.e5! the position is still fraught with danger for Black, as the position threatens to blow open right in the line of the Black king. 28.Ba2 c5 29.Be3!! At the right moment, just as Grischuk is fighting to stay in the game, Carlsen finds a fiendishly brilliant – and unlikely – pawn sacrifice that blows the position open in his favour, as Grischuk’s rooks and king gets caught in the crossfire of pins. 29…exf4 30.gxf4 Rxe4 31.Bb1?! He’s only human after all! Carlsen doesn’t see everything, as more clinical was 31.Rfe1! as the saving riposte of 31…Nb8? now fails to the remarkable retreat of 32.Kf1! just moving out of all the checks, and suddenly there is no answer to the coming threats of Bb1 and Bxc5! But such nuanced moves in a tactically rich position is only spotted by engines, and, in reality, Carlsen’s option is the very human instinctive move. 31…Re7 The looming danger can be seen in the full retreat with 31…Re8?? 32.Rfe1! and there’s a major threat hanging in the air of Bg6 followed by Bxc5 and Re8 mating. 32.Rfe1 f5? Grischuk crumbles now, as Carlsen relentlessly piles on the pressure. Only engines see such moves, but it is not human nature to make a retreating move with a piece back to its original starting square, but the only hope for survival was with 32…Nb8! 33.Kf3 Nc6 and Black is just in the nick of time to stop all the nasty Bxc5 tactics. This leads us to 34.Bf5! and Black only has to deal with an “unpleasant position” where the squeeze is on. That said, its difficult to see what better White has after 34…Rd5 35.Be4 Rd6 36.Bf5 Rd5 other than 37.Be4 repeating the position. 33.Bxf5 Nf6 34.Kf3! Now the threat of Bxc5 is back on again, as the king removes itself from spoiler of a possible …Rxe2+. 34…Nd5 35.Rd2! [see diagram] Just when you think you are getting out of the tactical threats of Bxc5, Carlsen switches his attention to another tactical threat by exploiting the pin on the d-file – and with it, something now has to give for Grischuk. 35…Rd8 What else is there? If 35…Bb8 36.Bxc5! Rxe1 37.Rxd5! is a big pin and win theme. 36.Be4 Red7 37.Red1 Nf6 38.Rxd7 Nxd7 No better is the alternative of 38…Rxd7 39.Rxd7 Nxd7 40.Bb7 Nb8 41.Ke4 Ke7 42.Kf5 Kf7 43.Bd5+ Ke7 44.Kg6 Kf8 45.Bb7! and Black is in zugzwang, as now 45…Kg8 46.b4 easily wins. 39.Rd6 1-0 Grischuk resigns, as once the a-pawn falls on the next move, then his position falls with it.