An unprecedented heatwave advanced across continental Europe this week. The World Meteorological Organisation in Geneva warned temperatures would reach or even exceed 40C (104F), and 2019 was on course to be among the world’s hottest ever years. And even on the opening day of the new Croatia Grand Chess Tour leg in Zagreb, several players complained of it being “hot in the playing hall” of the Mimara Museum. But now they have traced the source of all the heat to just one player: Ian Nepomniachtchi!
The Russian has literally become the “Man on Fire” in this tournament with his astonishing perfect start of 3/3. In the opening two rounds, against Vishy Anand and Fabiano Caruana respectively, Nepo was in deep trouble, only to have Lady Luck smile in his direction as a brace of blunders from his opponents gifted him two unlikely wins – but there was no luck needed for his total takedown of Shakh Mamedyarov in today’s only decisive game of round three.
We’ve come to expect Carlsen to achieve such feats, but now with Nepo’s sensational start, the World Champion’s streak of eight straight tournament victories could well be in jeopardy. Nepo is the sole leader with a full point lead over Carlsen and Wesley So, and even Carlsen – realising he now had a serious fight on his hands to win the tournament – was sporting enough to complement the Russian on his perfect start: “There’s not a whole lot you can do about that, but yep, it’s clearly game on! Plus three is a huge score in 9 or even 11 rounds, so to have that already sets the tone for the rest of the tournament.”
On the back of his electric start, Nepo’s unofficial live rating has spiked by +15.5 to 2790.5 – his highest-ever – jumping four places to become the new world #4. The Carlsen and Nepo showdown takes place in round 7 – and indeed, it does look like it will be “game on” now for Carlsen, because not only has the Russian established a big early lead, he’s also the only player in the field who has a plus score against the World Champion!
1. I. Nepomniachtchi (Russia) 3/3; 2-3. M. Carlsen (Norway), W. So (USA) 2; 4-7. F. Caruana (USA), M. Vachier-Lagrave (France), L. Aronian (Armenia) S. Karjakin (Russia) 1½; 8-12. Ding Liren (China), A. Giri (Netherlands), S. Mamedyarov (Azerbaijan), V. Anand (India), H. Nakamura (USA) 1.
Photo: He may well be a “Man on Fire”, but he’s still cool enough to find time to stop for the kids! | © Lennart Ootes / Grand Chess Tour
GM Shakhiryar Mamedyarov – GM Ian Nepomniachtchi
Croatia Grand Chess Tour, (3)
King’s Indian Defence
1.d4 Nf6 2.c4 g6 3.Nf3 Bg7 4.e3 0-0 5.Be2 d6 6.Nc3 Nbd7 7.0-0 e5 8.b3 Re8 9.h3 e4 10.Nd2 h5 11.b4 Nf8 12.Re1 Bf5 In essence, what we have is a Reversed KIA against the French Defence – and Black general does okay in this set-up. However, if anyone studied the games of a young Bobby Fischer, as noted in his timeless classic, My 60 Memorable Games, then the young American genius more or less trail-blazed the coming kingside attack Nepo similarly executes, albeit with colours reversed! 13.Bb2 Qd7 14.Nd5 This is all standard fare in the KIA vs French Defence, the idea being to generate play down the open c-file. Back in the day, when the likes of Fischer was blazing a trail with the KIA v the French set-up, this was indeed a fearsome attack to face. But well worked-out ways were soon found to tame the attack, so I can only imagine that Mamedyarov took his eye off the ball to allow Nepo to channel the young Fischer with his devastating kingside attack. 14…Nxd5 15.cxd5 Qe7 16.Rc1 Nh7 17.Qc2 Qg5 We now enter the critical stage of the game: the Black side is more fun to play, as you are attacking the king – but if the attack implodes, White invariably wins the endgame, as Black’s queenside can easily collapse. 18.Qxc7 Provocative, to say the least, as essentially Mamedyarov is inviting an attack against his king. Some online punters speculated that he simply blundered here. He hasn’t; this is just a ways to a means – it is the errors that come later that does for the big Azeri. 18…Bxh3 19.Bf1 Bf8 20.Qxb7 Nf6 21.Qa6 Bc8 22.Qa4? This is where it all starts to go horribly, horribly wrong, as Mamedyarov’s queen ends up stranded on the queenside and out of play, allowing Nepo to gain momentum for his attack. It is possible that Mamedyarov may have simply missed just how much better 22.Qc6!? was, as now 22…Bd7? and the engine assessments go into overdrive with the tactical rejoinder 23.Nxe4!! and a big advantage to White. 22…Bd7 23.Qd1 Better was 23.Qa6 looking to rush back to e2 with the queen, which at the very least would have avoided Nepo’s next move. 23…Bg4 And equally good was also 23…h4 to continue the attack. 24.f3 exf3 25.Nxf3 Qh6 Nepo is not interested in restoring the material imbalance – he’s opted to go all-in on the kingside! 26.Qb3? This move was just puzzling to me, as once again, Mamedyarov puts his queen to a wrong square – surely he had to try 26.Qd2 just to try and keep in touch with defending his king? I wonder if he was over-worrying about 26…Ne4 – but that’s not so bad now after 27.Qd3 h4 28.Nd2 Bf5 29.Qe2 where Black still has a lot of work to do to show that he has a winning attack. 26…h4 27.Ne5?!? Mamedyarov has gone into full panic mode now. He must have been desperate to play this – and you can see why, when his alternatives were: 27.Nh2 Bf5 28.Bb5 Re4 and 27.Bb5 h3! which both seem to be crashing through. But at least those options weren’t nearly as bad as what Mamedyarov played in the game. 27…h3 Of course, taking the knight and 27…dxe5 28.dxe5 Ne4! was better – but Nepo has decided just to go for the jugular now. 28.Nxg4 Nxg4 29.gxh3 Nxe3 [see diagram] Not only has Nepo stripped the defences from around Mamedyarov’s badly exposed king, but just in case it all backfires, he’s also got a back-up winning plan by rendering just about all of White’s pawns sitting targets. 30.Rc3 Nf5 The clinical kill was 30…Qg5+! 31.Kh1 Nf5 32.Rd1 Qh4 33.Rcd3 Re4! – but all roads now are clearly leading to Rome. 31.Rd1 Qh5 32.Rf3 Bh6! 0-1 A nice winning touch on an interference theme, the threat being …Be3+ and the Rf3 hanging once the smoke clears. And if 33.Bc1 Bxc1 34.Rxc1 take your pick of 34…Qg5+ or 34…Nxd4 winning.