It’s a new day, it’s a new tournament, and it’s a new venue – but despite all of this, it’s same old same old as the Magnus Carlsen demolition derby continues unabated, with the World Champion not only heading the field in the new Croatia Grand Chess Tour leg in Zagreb but also seeing the Norwegian get off to a scintillating start, as he now looks to add an eighth straight tournament victory to his remarkable recent haul.
This year, the GCT has been extended with new tournament venues and seeing an increase in participants to 12, with the Zagreb leg having currently nine players rank in the world top 10 in the unofficial live ratings. The full line up is: Magnus Carlsen (Norway), Fabiano Caruana (USA), Ding Liren (China), Anish Giri (Netherlands), Maxime Vachier-Lagrave (France), Ian Nepomniachtchi (Russia), Shakriyar Mamedyarov (Azerbaijan), Vishy Anand (India), Hikaru Nakamura (USA), Wesley So (USA), Levon Aronian (Armenia) and Sergey Karjakin (Russia).
Zagreb may well be a new super tournament on the elite circuit, but as a venue, the Croatian city has a long and storied chess history of hosting elite-level tournaments. In its former Yugoslav guise, Zagreb became synonymous with Candidate Tournaments, with Vasily Smyslov winning there in 1955, and also it was the middle leg of the shared cities (Bled/Zagreb/Belgrade) candidates won in 1959 by Mikhail Tal. In 1970, Zagreb – with the first half shared with Rovinj – proved to be a defining moment in the meteoric rise of Bobby Fischer, as the American obliterated the strong field in the “Tournament of Peace” to claim a two-point margin of victory.
Fischer’s standout performance – following hard on the heels of two additional back-to-back standout performances in Yugoslavia, his plus score in the USSR vs Rest of the World match in Belgrade, and the Unofficial World Blitz Championship in Herceg Novi – not only started a remarkable run but also served as a clear signal of intent to the Soviets and the World that he was more than ready now to capture the world crown. The rest, as they say, is history.
Garry Kasparov was the inspiration behind the new Croatia GCT event in Zagreb, and the former world champion, interviewed by Maurice Ashley, made reference to his own dominance and Fischer’s remarkable winning run to Carlsen’s current tournament winning streak, believing it puts the Norwegian up near the very top of the pantheon of chess legends. “Carlsen definitely belongs to the greatest of the greats,” he enthused. “The way he dominates chess reminds us of the three years of Bobby Fischer (1970-72), it reminds of my best years and I think that’s enough already to recognise his great contribution to the game of chess.”
The opening round got off to a blazing start with four decisive games, with two standouts coming from the best two players in the world in recent title-rivals Carlsen and Caruana, over Giri and Nakamura respectively.
Giri 0-1 Carlsen
Caruana 1-0 Nakamura
So 1-0 Ding Liren
Vachier-Lagrave ½-½ Aronian
Anand 0-1 Nepomniachtchi
Mamedyarov ½-½ Karjakin
Photo: Magnus Carlsen continues to make the opposition look like a ‘Candy Crush’ challenge | © Lennart Ootes / Grand Chess Tour
GM Anish Giri – GM Magnus Carlsen
Croatia Grand Chess Tour, (1)
Sicilian Defence, Rossolimo Attack
1.e4 c5 2.Nf3 Nc6 3.Bb5 It’s a simple Rossolimo Attack – and with it, the online punters already were predicting that this would be the first draw of the day. I mean, at this level, just how wrong can you go with White to lose this in a miniature, in under 25 moves? We’ll soon see! 3…e6 4.Bxc6 bxc6 5.d3 Ne7 6.h4 h5 7.e5 d6! This is the most challenging way to fight against White in this line. Black’s queenside pawn structure is damaged beyond repair, but he has the compensation of the bishop-pair, so finds ways to open the game for them. 8.exd6 Ng6 9.Nfd2 Bxd6 10.Nc4 Be7 11.Nc3 Ba6 Snatching the pawn is bad. After 11…Nxh4! 12.g3 Ng6 13.Rxh5 Rxh5 14.Qxh5 Ba6 15.Bd2 followed by 0-0-0 and White will have a big endgame advantage with lots of play against the crippled queenside pawns. 12.Qf3 Bxc4 13.Qxc6+ Kf8 14.dxc4 Nxh4 15.0-0 Nf5 16.Ne2 Rc8 17.Qa4? They say that a bad plan is better than no plan – but I am not so sure here. It is hard to fathom what was going through Giri’s head here, but I am sure he didn’t envision himself being forced into resigning by move 23! But all the danger signs were there when you take into consideration that the only active White piece on the board is the queen, which now he’s left offside on the queenside and out of play. And even if Giri wants to go for the a-pawn, then the most logical way of doing so was with 17.Qb7!, where at least the queen can track back to f3, if needed, to shore up White’s defences. Now, after 17…h4 18.Bf4 White’s position doesn’t look all that bad, and indeed, in many cases, with Rad1 threatened, he’s more than still in the game. 17…Rc7 Carlsen has a cunning plan in mind – but it involves Giri not following up correctly, as the Dutchman duly obliges! 18.Bf4 Rd7 For now, Carlsen has the d-file – but that’s only his back-up plan! 19.c3 Perhaps not unnaturally, Giri looks to deal with the issue over who controls the d-file. Hindsight is always 20/20, but if the Dutchman realised just how difficult his position was, he would have opted instead for 19.Be5! which is not only much better but also prevents what comes next. 19…g5! Too late now! The point of playing 19.Be5 first was that 19…f6 is well met by the zwischenzug(s) of 20.Nf4! Kf7 21.Qc6! and White is on top. 20.Rad1? Giri has gone into full panic mode now. Although Nf4 is prevented, Giri nevertheless should have gone for 20.Be5 at least forcing 20…f6 as the concession of the weakness on e6 may well save the day. Now, after 21.Bh2 h4 22.Qc6! Kf7 23.Rfe1 h3 its not all carnage from Black, as he has to be wary of his own weakness on e6. But even here, Black is in a strong position – but not nearly as strong as in the game. 20…Rxd1 21.Rxd1 Qa8! [see diagram] The hallmark of a hot player who is “in the zone”, as Carlsen, very laser-like, hones in on the big weakness with Giri’s king, as, remarkably, there’s just no stopping the big threat of …h4-h3 punching a huge hole right through White’s defences. 22.Bc7 h4 23.f3 The attack is brutal and swift, leaving no time for 23.Bb6 Qe4! 24.Kf1 h3 25.gxh3 Rxh3 and the Black attack is crashing through. 23…h3 0-1 Giri resigns in view of the fact that even his best option of running his king with 24.Kf2 gets hit with 24…g4 25.Qb5 Bh4+ 26.Ng3 hxg2 27.Qb8+ Qxb8 28.Bxb8 gxf3 and an easy win.