It has now become something of a recurring theme: Who else is going to win the tournament other than Magnus Carlsen? And with six titles already under the world champion’s belt, he gave the Norwegians something extra to cheer about, as he made it a seventh straight tournament victory by capturing the Altibox Norway Chess title in Stavanger with a full round to spare, with the 28-year-old sealing the deal with a mini-masterclass endgame win over one of his nearest rival, Yu Yangyi of China.
The world champion has hit a purple patch with a glorious winning-streak across all three forms of the game now: classical, rapid and blitz. It started in December by recapturing the world blitz championship in St Petersburg, and there then followed Wijk aan Zee, Shamkir, Grenke, Abidjan, Lindores Abbey and now Altibox Norway Chess.
In winning with a round to spare, Carlsen put his rejuvenated form of late down to being motivated after playing so badly through 2017/18, and all the hard work he and his team put into defending his title against Fabiano Caruana last year. “In terms of ideas it’s been great,” said Carlsen. “I feel like there are still a lot of ideas from the world championship match and almost in every game I get to use a little piece of it.”
But Carlsen latest conquest on his home turf wasn’t as convincing as his previous six victories – however that could well be down to readjusting his game to adapt to the experimental hybrid-classical Armageddon format used in Stavanger. At one stage, it looked as if Carlsen – who best of all adjusted his game to the new circumstances – was going to go through the tournament by winning all the Armageddon games he played, but that run came to clattering halt with a final-round defeat to his former US title challenger, Caruana, who totally outplayed the Norwegian world No.1.
If it wasn’t for the accumulated Armageddon tiebreak wins, Carlsen’s +2 score would only have proved sufficient to tie with China’s Ding Liren. Indeed, despite winning the tournament, and being unbeaten in the classical games, Carlsen suffered a minor setback in his quest to break 2900 by losing 2.5 rating points. Once your rating hits a plateau as high as Carlsen’s, it is not so easy to gain rating points, but very easy to lose them – a far cry from the 1970s when Anatoly Karpov was in his pomp, where a FIDE rule at the time decreed that you didn’t lose rating points if you won a tournament!
But we don’t have to wait long to see if Carlsen can extend his streak to eight straight victories and, with it, possible another tilt at breaking the 2900-barrier! At the end of the month, Carlsen heads the field in the second stop of the GCT in Croatia, where he’ll be joined by another all-star cast of Caruana, Ding Liren, Giri, Mamedyarov, Nepomniachtchi, Vachier-Lagrave, Anand, So, Aronian and Nakamura for the new classical event on the tour.
1. M.Carlsen (Norway) 13½/25; 2. Yu Yangyi (China) 10½/23; 3. L. Aronian (Armenia) 10½/25; 4. F. Caruana (USA) 10/24; 5. W. So (USA) 10/26; 6. Ding Liren (China) 8½/25; 7-8. Maxime Vachier-Lagrave (France), V. Anand (India) 8/26; 9. S. Mamedyarov (Azerbaijan) 5½/23; 10. A. Grischuk (Russia) 5½/25.
Photo: It’s seventh heaven for Magnus Carlsen, as he wins with a round to spare | © Lennart Ootes/Altibox Norway Chess
GM Magnus Carlsen – GM Yu Yangyi
Altibox Norway Chess, (8)
1.d4 d5 2.c4 c6 3.Nf3 Nf6 4.Nc3 dxc4 5.e4 The Slav Gambit is a more daring than the usual positional Slav channels of 5.a4 Bf5 6.Ne5 followed by either 6…e6 or 6…Nbd7. 5…b5 With White taking the centre with 5.e4, that also stops the natural Slav developing move of …Bf5, Black now has to play in this energetic manner, as simply gifting White Bxc4 would be too much of a concession. 6.Be2 b4 7.e5 Both sides can’t flinch in the Slav Gambit, as to do so can lead to the other side taking a big advantage. 7…bxc3 8.exf6 exf6 9.bxc3 Bd6 Black may well be a pawn up – but White has the upper-hand as the c4-pawn is doomed, and there is an inherent weakness in the Black queenside pawns on c6 and a7. 10.0-0 0-0 11.Nd2 Re8 12.Re1 With c4 doomed, Carlsen is in no hurry to capture the pawn, as he just goes about developing his pieces first. 12…Nd7 13.Nxc4 Bc7 14.Bf3 Carlsen just wants to exchange down to an ending now asap, as the c6-pawn will become a millstone around Yu’s neck. 14…Ba6 15.Ne3 Nb6 16.Ba3 Nc4 17.Qd3 As the engines quickly tell us, better was the tactical solution of 17.Bxc6! Nxa3 18.Qa4 Bb5 19.Bxb5 Bxh2+ 20.Kxh2 Qb8+ 21.Kg1 Nxb5 22.Qb3 – but there’s nothing wrong with Carlsen’s choice; he just wants to keep a tighter grip of the complications. 17…Rxe3 18.Rxe3 Nxe3?! This just gifts Carlsen the added bonus of a better side of the tactical melee – Yu had to keep his nerve and play 18…Qc8! 19.Bc5 Nxe3 20.Qxe3 Bc4! with the plan of coming to d5 and White doesn’t have much to work with now in the double-bishop ending. 19.Qxa6 Nc2 20.Rd1 Nxa3 21.Qxa3 Qd6 22.Qxd6 Bxd6 Yu may well have wrongly calculated he was heading to a simpler endgame, with good chances to hold the draw due to the opposite-coloured bishops – but Carlsen’s resources going into the ending is stronger than at first seems. 23.c4 Rc8 24.c5! [see diagram] The squeeze is on! Carlsen firmly fixing the weakness on c6 – and with it, it only takes a couple of very accurate moves from the world champion, and suddenly Yu is in a world of hurt. 24…Be7 25.Kf1 With Carlsen having tied down his opponent’s rook to defending c6, his plan is simply to play Kf1-e2-d3 protecting d4, freeing up his rook to infiltrate Black’s queenside. 25…f5 26.Ke2 g5 27.h3 Kg7 28.Kd3 Kg6 29.Rb1 h5 The alternative faired no better. After 29…Rc7 30.g4 h6 (forced, otherwise, gxf5 Kxf5 and Be4+ will pick up the h7 pawn) 31.Re1 Bf6 32.Kc4! f4 (If 32…Rd7? 33.gxf5+! wins due to Bg4+) 33.a4 a5 (again forced, otherwise White wins by simply pushing to the pawn to a6 and then engineering Rb1-b7) 34.Rd1 and the threat of pushing d5 will quickly force a breakthrough for the win. 30.Rb7 Bf6 31.Rd7! Not only stopping Yu from playing …Rd8, but also further tying him down to defending c6. 31…g4 Yu has so many pawn weaknesses and no mobility for his pieces – the end is going to come sooner rather than later. 32.Bd1 Kg5 33.Ba4 f4 34.f3! A simple move that stops in its tracks any potential tricks with the Black pawns that far up the board. 34…Re8 35.fxg4 hxg4 36.hxg4 Re6 Carlsen’s position is so overwhelming, that Yu is basically a casualty in the ‘Death Waiting Room’, unable to do anything other than wait for the fatal blow. If 36…Re3+ 37.Kc4 Rg3 38.Bxc6! the bishop protects the all-important g2 pawn, and now if 38…Rxg4 39.Bf3 the Black rook is also cut off. 37.Bd1 Re3+ 38.Kc4 a5 39.Bf3 It’s much the same route to victory as in the above note. 39…Ra3 40.Bxc6 Rxa2 41.Be4! Like a Swiss timepiece, Carlsen is accurate to the end – on e4, the bishop gains a vital tempo by preventing a potentially tricky …Rc2+. 41…a4 42.c6 Ra1 43.c7 a3 44.Kb3 1-0 Yu rightly resigns, as 44…Rc1 is met by 45.Rd5+! Kh4 46.Rc5! and the pawn queens.