Crowded at the Top - First Move Chess -First Move Chess


Many of you may have heard of Malcolm Gladwell. He’s the author of a number of New York Times best-sellers such as Blink and The Tipping Point. His most famous title though is Outliers, published in late 2008 that contained an in-depth analysis behind what makes certain people successful – that’s the so-called “10,000 hours rule” theory, where people who excel in certain fields have one thing in common: the amount of time they spend honing their craft.

Chess is a good example of this, and chess fan Gladwell often cities the game in his work. The English-born Canadian pop sociologist has also interviewed Magnus Carlsen for his popular “Revisionist History” podcast – and now with apt timing, he once again dips into the chess world with a cameo appearance this week from Hikaru Nakamura for the season four opening two-parter, where he asks the five-time US champion what he thought his chances would be against Carlsen if both had unlimited time per move, in classical chess, and on to blitz and then bullet chess (1’+0”).

It’s an enjoyable and informative interview, but I won’t give away any spoilers for you – just listen/download Gladwell’s “Revisionist History” podcast season four opening two-parter, Puzzle Rush, by hitting the link.

The Carlsen/Nakamura rivalry is long and storied, with encounters between the two inevitably ending with the world champion winning. Nakamura has become one of Carlsen’s best customers (at classical), and in round 6 of the new Croatia Grand Chess Tour leg, the Norwegian notched up his 14th win against his American foe – and it proved to be a crucial win in more ways than one in what turned out to be a very decisive round in Zagreb, as it blew the tournament wide open.

Not only did Carlsen beat Nakamura, but tournament leader Ian Nepomniachtchi also lost to Ding Liren. And with Wesley So overwhelming the hapless Shakhriyar Mamedyarov, there’s now a three-way tie on 4/6 for first place between Carlsen, So and Nepomniachtchi. Not only that but with Fabiano Caruana and Levon Aronian beating Maxime Vachier-Lagrave and Sergey Karjakin respectively, only half a point now separates the top six, which led Carlsen to comment that it was getting “crowded at the top”.

1-3. M. Carlsen (Norway), I. Nepomniachtchi (Russia), W. So (USA) 4/6; 4-6. F. Caruana (USA), Ding Liren (China), L. Aronian (Armenia) 3½; 7-9. M. Vachier-Lagrave (France), V. Anand (India), S. Karjakin (Russia) 2½; 10-12. A. Giri (Netherlands), S. Mamedyarov (Azerbaijan), H. Nakamura (USA) 2.

Photo: Magnus Carlsen strikes once more against a reliable customer to move into the co-lead | © Lennart Ootes / Grand Chess Tour

GM Magnus Carlsen – GM Hikaru Nakamura
Croatia Grand Chess Tour, (6)
Queen’s Gambit Declined, Harrwitz Attack
1.d4 Nf6 2.c4 e6 3.Nf3 d5 4.Nc3 Be7 5.Bf4 More common in the Queen’s Gambit Declined is 5.Bg5, but this flexible move is not as innocent as it first looks. It comes with a big English pedigree, first played in 1887 by Joseph Henry Blackburne, the leading English master of his era, and its key ideas being traced back to the great Hastings tournament of 1895 – and indeed, called in some quarters the ‘Harrwitz Attack’ or ‘Hastings variation’. It lay dormant for decades at elite-level, but the player who did much to rehabilitate it was Hungary’s Lajos Portisch, who in the late 1970s and through the 1980s, won many wonderful endgames using this system. The cudgels were then taken up by Alexei Shirov, Vladimir Kramnik and Veselin Topalov – and on through Vishy Anand, Levon Aronian to now Magnus Carlsen. 5…0-0 6.e3 c5 7.dxc5 Bxc5 Another important key divergence is 7…Nc6 8.Qc2 Bxc5 9.a3 Qa5 where Gregory Kaidanov’s dynamic idea of 10.0-0-0!? once again rejuvenated the system in the late 1980s. 8.a3 Nc6 9.Qc2 Re8 10.Bg5 Be7 The plan of …Re8 and …Be7 is regarded as “safe and flexible” – and even adopted by Carlsen himself to tame this system when Anand successfully deployed it against him twice during their 2014 World Championship Match. 11.Rd1 Qa5 12.Bd3 We’re still following one of the games from Anand-Carlsen 2014. Here, in game 8, which ended in a draw, Carlsen opted for 12…h6 and found no problems in equalising – but Nakamura, wisely or unwisely diverges, preferring a more radical plan. 12…dxc4 13.Bxc4 h6 14.Bf4 Bd7 15.0-0 Rac8 16.e4 e5 17.Be3 Nd4 Carlsen has the better bishop-pair and control of the d-file – and while this move initiates great complications, at the time it probably ‘felt right’ for Nakamura, as in typical fashion for the American, it simultaneously addresses the issue of the d-file and White’s bishop-pair. 18.Bxd4 Rxc4 19.Bxe5 Ba4 Also possible was 19…Bg4!? 20.Qe2 (It’s much the same after 20.Qd3 Bxf3 21.gxf3 Qxe5 etc.) 20…Qxe5!? 21.Qxc4 Bxf3 22.gxf3 Bd6 23.Rxd6 Qxd6 24.Rd1 Qf4 where White emerges with the extra pawn and the better prospects, but the crippled pawn structure on the kingside, coupled with the exposed White king, means it will be a difficult task attempting to convert White’s advantage. 20.b3 Nxe4 Nakamura usually revels in chaos – but Carlsen is the sort of player who will calmly play his way through a storm. 21.Rd3 The engines suggested the most critical continuation was 21.Qe2! leading to 21…Rxc3 22.bxa4 Rc5 23.Bxg7! Qxa4 24.Bd4 Nc3 25.Bxc3 Rxc3 26.Qe5! Rxa3 27.Rfe1 Rd8! This is the only way out of the pin on the e-file. 28.Rb1 Bf8 29.Rxb7 where, yes, White does have the advantage due to the better pawn structure – but with the material now reduced to three pawns each, this is not as bad as it looks for Black, and indeed, after 29…Rd1 30.Rb8! Rxe1+ 31.Nxe1 Rb3 32.Re8 Qd7 it’s looking more and more as if it will now simply peter out to a draw. Either way, Carlsen, who used up a lot of time here, may well have assessed too much material was going to be traded, so opted for a less critical line that at least keeps the pieces on the board – and he’s soon rewarded for his choice. 21…Rec8? Almost immediately, Nakamura blunders. He had to find 21…Bf6! 22.Nd2 (It’s not as simple as it looks. After 22.Bxf6?! gxf6! suddenly the pin on the c-file guarantees Black equality, for example, 23.bxa4 Rxc3 24.Rxc3 Nxc3! and the a4-pawn falls.) 22…Nxd2 23.Qxd2 Bg5 24.Qb2 Rg4! and Black is more than okay here, and certainly, his pieces are more active. But with Nakamura’s almost immediate blunder in the critical position, Carlsen probably couldn’t believe his luck! 22.Qb2! [see diagram] Not only removing the queen from the pin but also now adding into the mix the real threat of Bxg7. 22…Nc5 It will come as no crumb of comfort for Nakamura, but he could have avoided the hit on g7 – however, even then, after 22…Rxc3 23.Bxc3 Nxc3 24.bxa4 b6 25.Rd7 Nxa4 26.Qe5! Bxa3 27.Qf4 Rf8 28.Ne5 White has a commanding position with f7 on the verge of falling. 23.Re3 Bxb3 24.Bxg7! Nakamura’s position has now imploded. 24…Rg4 25.Bxh6 Bf6 26.Ne5 Bxe5 27.Rxe5 Qb6 28.Qd2! The problem is the precarious state of Nakamura’s king – and by defending it, his position is compromised. 28…Rg6 29.Be3 It’s amazing how quickly, and just how ruthlessly Carlsen redeploys his pieces to dominate the board. 29…Qc6 30.Nd5 Bxd5 31.Qxd5 b6 There’s no relief in trading the queens here, as after 31…Qxd5 32.Rxd5 Rgc6 33.Rfd1! b6 34.h4! Black is sitting in the Waiting Room for Death, as White will pick his moment to trade further pieces for an elementary endgame win. But the die is cast anyway, as there’s no way Nakamura can avoid Carlsen trading pieces here. 32.g3 Nd7 33.Qxc6 Rgxc6 34.Rd5 Nf8 Nakamura is just hanging around waiting for Carlsen to secure his winning plan. 35.Rfd1 Ne6 36.a4 Rc4 37.a5 Rb4 38.Rd7 bxa5 39.Rxa7 a4 40.Rdd7 Nd8 It’s total humiliation no – Nakamura can’t do anything because of Carlsen’s dominating rooks. 41.Rd5 Now the a4-pawn is doomed. 41…Ne6 42.Rda5 Rcc4 43.Kg2 1-0 Nakamura has seen enough. Black is paralysed and can only watch on as White easily wins by pushing the h-pawn up the board with 43…Kg7 44.h4 Kg6 45.h5+ Kg7 and Black will eventually run out of useful moves.


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