The story of the first half of the Croatia Grand Chess Tour leg in Zagreb was all Ian Nepomniachtchi, as he got off to a blistering perfect start with a three-game winning streak. Even Magnus Carlsen had to admit he now had a fight on his hands, stating “it’s clearly game on!”. But now the second-half story is all Carlsen, as the World Champion hit back with a dramatic tour de force to replace the Russian as the sole leader with his own three-game winning streak. Not only that, but he’s now also settled a couple of personal scores!
After beating Hikaru Nakamura in round 6, a clearly re-energised Carlsen set his own high standards for the tournament by following up with a brace of back-to-back wins over the world numbers 3 and 4 respectively, Ding Liren and early leader Nepomniachtchi – big standout wins, as these were the last men standing in the top ten that Carlsen hadn’t scored classical wins against!
All eyes were on the big clash of the leaders in round 7, as Carlsen played Nepomniachtchi, the player most of all regarded as his bête noire with the Russian enjoying a very healthy 4-0 career scoreline. But facing an upbeat and confident Carlsen, a clearly edgy Nepomniachtchi looked more like the proverbial rabbit caught in the coming headlights, by first failing to find a cohesive, constructive plan, then at the critical moment in the game, making a simply horrific blunder by walking right into a minefield of his own making.
Next up was arguably the toughest player of all to beat in the elite game today – save for Carlsen himself, of course! – China’s Ding Liren, who late last year saw a 100-game unbeaten streak coming to an end. Both had met seven times previously, with all seven games ending in draws. At one stage, it looked to be heading in that directions, but then Carlsen secured a little advantage and ruthlessly built on it going into the endgame, where he turned in a typical trademark grind to finally wear Ding down.
Carlsen’s trifecta of wins and very healthy +4 score of 6/8 not only gives the Norwegian the sole lead but it also now inexorably moves him ever-closer to what could be another big milestone moment. Not only does Carlsen now have career wins over Nepomniachtchi and Ding, he’s also now gone 76 games without losing, and his unofficial live rating has spiked to 2881.3, easily within striking distance now of beating his own official FIDE world record of 2882 – and when that goes, the best chance he’ll ever have of being the first player to break the 2900 barrier!
But despite Carlsen’s amazing second-half performance in Zagreb, he’s still not assured of his eighth straight tournament victory quite yet. Wesley So has also been on a tear with wins over the misfiring ‘cellar-dwellers’ of Shakhriyar Mamedyarov and Nakamura, and is only a half a point behind the leader. This is So’s best performance since his 2017 US title victory in St Louis, and the two front-runners are set for what potentially could be a big penultimate round clash.
1. M. Carlsen (Norway) 6/8; 2. W. So (USA) 5½; 3-5. F. Caruana (USA), I. Nepomniachtchi (Russia), L. Aronian (Armenia) 4½; 6. Ding Liren (China) 4; 7-10. M. Vachier-Lagrave (France), A. Giri (Netherlands), V. Anand (India), S. Karjakin (Russia) 3½; 11-12. S. Mamedyarov (Azerbaijan), H. Nakamura (USA) 2½.
Photo: Magnus Carlsen moves ever-closer to yet another milestone moment | © Lennart Ootes / Grand Chess Tour
GM Ian Nepomniachtchi – GM Magnus Carlsen
Croatia Grand Chess Tour, (7)
1.e4 c5 2.Nf3 Nc6 3.Nc3 e5 4.Bc4 Nepo plays into a simple sideline to avoid Carlsen’s Sveshnikov/Kalashnikov. 4…g6 Carlsen repeats the provocative risky system he tried against MVL at last year’s Sinquefield Cup in St Louis. 5.d3 h6 6.h4 d6 7.h5 g5 8.Nh2 It looks funny to play this so early in the opening, but the hole on d5 is the big weakness in the Black camp, and Nepo’s knight tour of Nf3-h3-g4-e3 not only doubles down on the control of the d5 square, but it also looks to put the ‘big clamp’ on by playing g4 for full control of the f5 square. 8…Bg7 Against MVL last year, Carlsen played …Nf6 followed by …Bg4 and we ended up with a blocked position and a 37-move draw. 9.Ng4 Nge7 10.Ne3 0-0 11.Bd2 Kh8 12.g4 Rb8 13.a4 Nd4 14.Ncd5 Nxd5 15.Nxd5 Ne6 The f4 square is a more tempting outpost for Carlsen’s knight than d4! 16.f3 Nf4 17.Qb1 Be6 18.Qa2 Qd7 Black has equalised now. 19.Rg1 b6 20.Bc3 Bxd5 21.Bxd5 a6 22.Bd2 Qe7! It looks like a ‘nothing move’, seemingly not doing or achieving anything – but underneath lurks a dangerous Carlsen plan. 23.Rf1 b5 24.axb5 axb5 25.Kf2 c4! Kudos to Carlsen for pushing the envelope with another provocative plan! The idea is to open the game up now, but where Carlsen has a deep plan that causes chaos in his opponent’s position. 26.Bxf4?! Over an hour behind on the clock by this stage and Nepo starts to crack under the pressure. The point behind Carlsen breaking the position open was that Nepo should have been forced now into the murky continuation 26.dxc4 bxc4 27.Bxc4 d5!? 28.Bxd5 Qc5+ 29.Kg3 Qxc2 30.b4 Qxa2 31.Rxa2 (If 31.Bxa2 Rfd8 32.Rf2 Rd7 and with …Bf8 coming, Black stands no worse.) 31…Nxd5 32.exd5 Rfd8 33.Ra5 Bf8 and Black stands no worse here. After 34.Bc3 he’ll consolidate with 34…f6 followed by …Rb7 to pick off either the b4- or d5-pawn. White is not winning, but then again, he’s not losing either! A crucial difference between what could have been for Nepo and the hallucination he now falls into. 26…exf4 27.Rad1 f5! With Nepo not able to find a coherent plan, and having eaten well into his clock (he was over an hour behind Carlsen at this stage), Carlsen decides to up the ante with a very complicated and tricky move – and amazingly, his ploy works almost immediately! 28.gxf5?? I can only imagine that panic set in for Nepo, and he had to be seeing nothing but ‘ghosts’ here – a common predicament for most players when they come up against Magnus Carlsen. With almost 30 minutes left on his clock, the Russian really had no excuses to not see that he simply had no choice other than to play into 28.exf5 Qe3+ 29.Kg2 Qe2+ 30.Kh1 (No better was 30.Kh3 cxd3 31.cxd3 Rbc8 which amounts to much the same.) 30…cxd3 31.cxd3 Rbc8 32.Rde1 Qd2 33.Rd1 Qe2 34.Rde1 Qd2 35.Rd1 Qe2 (Black has to accept the draw, as it was too risky to try 35…Qb4?! 36.Rf2 and White is escaping from the bind with winning chances.) 36.Rde1 Qd2 and a repetition. But alas, rather than this, Nepo commits what can only be best described in polite conversation as a ‘brain freeze’. 28…g4! [see diagram] From game on it has now become game over! Now we can see the deep reason behind Carlsen’s cunning 22…Qe7! – he had the foresight such a possibility could come for him in the game, as his pawn sacrifices bulldoze a clear path through to h4 for his queen to snare Nepo’s king. 29.d4 There’s nothing Nepo can do – the Grim reaper was knocking heavily on the door when he missed 28…g4! 29…Qh4+ 30.Ke2 Qh2+ 31.Rf2 gxf3+ 0-1 Nepo resigns. If 32.Ke1 Qg1+ 33.Rf1 Qe3# and if 32.Kxf3 Qxh5+ picks up the hanging rook on d1.