Last year following a series of indifferent performances, it looked as if the World Champion Magnus Carlsen was just first among equals – but his hat-trick of outstanding super-tournament performances this year at the Tata Steel Masters, Gashimov Memorial, and last month’s Grenke Chess Classic has once again put the Norwegian in a league of his own: his rating has dramatically spiked to 2875, and now there’s talk once again of a possible attempt at becoming the first player to break the 2900 barrier.
While all eyes are on the Elo rating gold standard of classical chess, now there is also official FIDE rating lists for rapid and blitz – and with a third successive powerhouse performance at the Grand Chess Tour season-opener of the Côte d’Ivoire Rapid & Blitz in Abidjan, the breaking news is that Carlsen has just become the first player to break the 2900-barrier in rapid.
As in the first two days of the opening leg of the 2019 GCT, Carlsen proved to be both formidable and unstoppable as he crushed all before him with a third successive unbeaten score of 5/6 (2.5/3 in real money), making his overall rapid tally being 15/18 – and with it, the big advantage of a 3-point margin over defending GCT champion Hikaru Nakamura going into the deciding double-round blitz session on Saturday and Sunday.
Gaining 34 rating points, Carlsen has now become the first player to break 2900 in rapid, standing now at 2903.4 on the unofficial 2700chess live list. Next up is two days and 18 games of blitz – and the possibility of further barriers being broken. To become the first player to reach 3000 in blitz, the Norwegian – currently at 2954 – will need to score 16/18 – a phenomenal feat that would be on a par with Bobby Fischer’s epic score of 19/22 that his American predecessor achieved at the Herceg Novi Blitz in 1970.
However, that might well be a tough ask for Carlsen. His first priority will be to do well in the blitz and safeguard the maximum number of GCT points he can; with anything further than that being an added bonus. Breaking 3000 in blitz might just have to wait to another event – but with an on-fire Magnus Carlsen riding high in this form, anything can happen!
Rapid Final Standings:
1. M. Carlsen (Norway) 15/18; 2. H. Nakamura (USA) 12; 3-4. M. Vachier-Lagrave (France), W. So (USA) 11; 5. Ding Liren (China) 10; 6. Wei Yi (China) 9; 7-8. S. Karjakin (Russia), V. Topalov (Bulgaria) 6; 9-10. I. Nepomniachtchi (Russia), B. Amin (Egypt) 5. (In the rapid a win scores 2 points, a draw 1 point)
Photo: Magnus Carlsen…breaking news, breaking barriers | © Justin Kellar / Grand Chess Tour
GM Sergey Karjakin – GM Magnus Carlsen
Côte d’Ivoire Rapid & Blitz, (4)
1.e4 c5 2.Nf3 Nc6 3.Nc3 After a number of impressive wins with Black, a “fear factor” has now emerged with Carlsen’s opponents, as some now don’t wish to take head on his Sveshnikov/Kalashnikov Sicilian, instead preferring some obscure Sicilian sideline. And after going down in flames last month at the Gashimov Memorial to Carlsen’s well-prepared Sveshnikov, and seeing fellow Russian Ian Nepomniachtchi being shot down a few rounds early by the world champion’s Kalashnikov, Karjakin follows the safe, but ultimately tame, home-brew Sicilian set-up that another Russian, Peter Svidler tried at the Grenke Chess Classic with no success against Carlsen. 3…e5 4.Bc4 Be7 5.d3 d6 6.Nd2 Nf6 With simple, developing moves Carlsen easily achieves equality from the opening – his only worry is going to be the fight over control of the d5 square, as Karjakin plans Nf3-d2-f1-e3-d5. 7.Nf1 Nd7 8.a3 You can try the immediate 8.Nd5 – but last month against Svidler, Carlsen had a crushing win after 8…Nb6 9.Nxb6 axb6 10.c3 0-0 11.Ne3 Bg5 12.0-0 Kh8! with the plan of …f5 and a rapid kingside attack that proved difficult to counter. With the knowledge of how Svidler’s position collapsed, Karjakin tries a more “nuanced” approach – but regardless, Black does have an easy attack, as Carlsen demonstrates. 8…Nb6 9.Ba2 0-0 10.Ne3 Be6 11.Ncd5 Bg5 The Carlsen counter-play is somewhat similar to his game last month against Svidler – though this time, Karjakin has a firmer grip of the d5 square. 12.0-0 Bxe3 13.fxe3 Ne7 14.c4 Admittedly, the engines likes White’s plan of continually bolstering control over the d5 square – but paradoxically, for the human eye there’s the obvious problem here: what is Karjakin going to do about his Ba2, which now finds itself “locked in” behind the c4, d3 and e4 pawns? 14…f5 Just as he did against Svidler, Carlsen opts to launch a kingside attack. 15.Bd2 Bxd5!? The knights are no worse than the bishops in such closed positions – and indeed, with Carlsen’s plan of …Nd7-f6 and …Ne7-g6, Black’s position somewhat resembles a good Nimzo-Indian Hübner Variation. 16.exd5 Nd7 17.b4 b6 18.Bb3 Ng6 19.Ba4 Qe7 20.Bc6 Just like Nepo, who established what looked like a seemingly strong knight on c6, ultimately the piece there only serves to control “empty squares” and vacant threats, as Carlsen just plays around the out-posted piece. 20…Rad8 21.Qa4 Karjakin is on a fishing expedition with his attempt to grab the a-pawn – but the sally over to the queenside only allows Carlsen to build up momentum for a strong kingside attack. That said, what else can Karjakin do, as tepid moves such as 21.Qe2 just concedes that Black is the only one with a serious plan here. 21…Nf6! The engines still think White is marginally better – but in this closed position, the human eye can see the potential for the knights to swing into a looming kingside attack. 22.bxc5 bxc5 23.Rxf5?! Grabbing a hot-pawn pawn against Carlsen is tempting fate – especially when the world champion has two good options to launch his attack with. And with the benefit of hindsight with what now comes, Karjakin may well have fared better with 23.Rae1!? 23…e4!? Even stronger was 23…Ng4! threatening …Nh4 followed by …Qg5 and obvious threats. And if 24.Raf1 Rxf5 25.Rxf5 Nh4 26.Rf1 now 26…e4! looks even more dangerous. Just too many easy ways for Carlsen to strike with his attack. 24.Qc2 Ng4 25.Raf1 You begin to wonder if Karjakin had simply overlooked the obvious here, that after 25.Rxf8+ Rxf8 26.h3 Black more or less wins on the spot with 26…Qe5! with the Ra1 lost. 25…Rxf5 26.Rxf5 Qh4 Again, stronger for Carlsen was 26…Nh4! 27.Rf4 Qg5! and a crushing attack, as 28.Be1 is superbly met by 28…Nf3+! and White can resign, as either he loses his king or his queen. But then again, Carlsen is only human, and his eye would have spotted the easy tactic coming. 27.h3 Nxe3 28.Bxe3 Qe1+ 29.Kh2 Qxe3 30.dxe4 Nf4 It’s a tough position when you are facing a rampant Magnus Carlsen, and you have little to no time left on your clock in a very tricky position. The obvious threat now is …Ne2 followed by …Qg1 mate – but after all the relentless pressure he’s sustained, the Russian “Minister of Defence” simply collapses now, not able to find the only move that would have kept him in the game. 31.Qb2? The only move was 31.Qb1! that holds by covering all the bases and now leaves Black struggling to find a concrete winning plan. After this “only” move, best now is 31…g6 32.Rf6 Qf2 33.Qg1 Qh4 34.Qa1! this was the real point of the back-rank retreat with the queen to b1: not to just protect the king, but also the cut-off rook. Now after 34…Nd3 35.Rf1 Ne5 Black has a fantastic knight on e5, but there’s no way to fully capitalise on it, and meanwhile White has simplified the position. After 36.Bb5 Qxe4 37.Qc1 Black may well have got his pawn back, but with Qf4 coming to force the trade of queens, this will now just peter out to a likely draw. 31…Qxe4 32.Bd7 It’s the stranded rook that’s the big problem for Karjakin in this position, as he now begins to realise to his horror. Better was 32.Rg5, but even here, after 32…Ng6! White can’t stop …Rf8 with a big advantage, as the rook can’t be stopped from coming into the attack. 32…g6 Carlsen is alert to the last trick on the board from Karjakin, as 32…Rxd7?? 33.Qb8+ mates. 33.Rf6 Nd3! [see diagram] Now it is game over! Karjakin has simply too many pieces hanging: if Qa1 or Qc3, now …Rxd7 does win the bishop; if Be6+ Qxe6! wins a piece with the White queen attacked; and if Qb7 Qe5+ picks up the rook hanging on f6. 34.Qc3 Rxd7 35.Re6 Qf4+ 0-1 Karjakin resigns, as after 36.Kh1 Ne5 White has no threats left and is a piece down.