The Croatia Grand Chess Tour leg in Zagreb is over now, and like all the other major tournaments of 2019 thus far, Magnus Carlsen ended it on a personal high, as the World Champion literally pushed Maxime Vachier-Lagrave off the board in the final round for a quite remarkable, +5 unbeaten winning-scoreline of 8/11 – and a 2943 tournament rating performance – to capture his eighth successive elite-level event.
“For me it’s huge,” a clearly elated Carlsen said at his final Zagreb GCT presser interview. “It’s the first time basically that I’ve played an event like this —12 players, all absolute elite. I really didn’t know what to expect; I’ve been playing a lot recently and I felt a bit spent towards the end of Norway Chess. But it has been a dream, especially the second half [of the tournament in Zagreb] has gone so well.”
The red-hot Norwegian took his second successive GCT leg by a clear point ahead of his nearest rival, Wesley So (15 tour points and $60,000 prize money), who was in sole second place with Levon Aronian and Fabiano Caruana (11 tour points and $35,000) sharing third place. Carlsen also took the spoils of a maximum 20 tour points and $90,000 first prize, and now looks set to be a shoo-in for the four-player GCT Final held during the London Chess Classic in December.
There are no more superlatives left to describe Magnus Carlsen’s year so far. He went into the new year by winning the World Blitz title and then proceeded to dominate a series of successive tournaments at TATA Steel Chess, Grenke Chess, Shamkir Chess, Abidjan GCT, Lindores Abbey, Norway Chess and now Croatia GCT. So unquestionably 2019 has become Magnus’ annus mirabilis – and we’re still only in the second week of July!
Carlsen is also back on a course to become the first player to break the 2900-barrier. He gained 9.7 Elo-rating points to take his unofficial live rating to 2881.7 – that will be rounded up to 2882 with the publication of the official Fide list on 1 August. This matches his previous highest official rating of 2882 – and although it’s a daunting task, with the ratings math firmly stacked against him, a similar Zagreb winning-performance next month at the Sinquefield Cup GCT leg in St Louis would see Carlsen on the brink of breaking 2900.
All a far cry from the faltering and stuttering run-up to his World Championship Match in London last year against Caruana. Asked then by the media who his favourite player of all-time was, Carlsen quipped “the Carlsen of 3 or 4 years ago.” Now, in the aftermath of his phenomenal winning-performance in Zagreb, the Norwegian journalist and US GM Jon Tisdall podered on Twitter whether he’d still stick to that, or if he’d now answer “the 2019 version of Magnus”?
1. M. Carlsen (Norway) 8/11; 2. W. So (USA) 7; 3-4. F. Caruana (USA), L. Aronian (Armenia) 6; 5-7. Ding Liren (China), A. Giri (Netherlands), I. Nepomniachtchi (Russia) 5½; 8. S. Karjakin (Russia) 5; 9-11. M. Vachier-Lagrave (France), S. Mamedyarov (Azerbaijan) V. Anand (India) 4½; 12. H. Nakamura (USA) 4.
Photo: The World is not enough for Magnus Carlsen, as the Croatia GCT victor is interviewed by Maurice Ashley | © Lennart Ootes / Grand Chess Tour
GM Magnus Carlsen – GM Maxime Vachier-Lagrave
Croatia Grand Chess Tour, (11)
Grünfeld Defence, Modern Exchange Variation
1.d4 Nf6 2.c4 g6 3.Nc3 d5 4.Nf3 Bg7 5.cxd5 Nxd5 6.e4 Nxc3 7.bxc3 c5 8.Be3 The Modern Exchange Variation – avoiding Bc4 that was so favoured in the past by the likes of Boris Spassky, while developing with Be3 and Nf3 – really only came to the fore during the late 1970s. Back then, this was a problem line for Black to combat, and for a time, many speculated that the Grünfeld could go out of business – but new ways to counterattack against White’s solid centre was soon found. 8…Qa5 9.Qd2 Nc6 In a previous 2014 game against the Italian GM Sabino Brunello, MVL punted 9…0-0 10.Rc1 Nd7 and safely managed to navigate an easy draw against his much lower-rated opponent. Also, another clear divergence here is 9…cxd4 10.cxd4 Qxd2+ 11.Kxd2 and heading straight to the endgame, where Black follows up with a quick …f5 for counter-play with his active pieces. 10.Rb1 cxd4 11.cxd4 0-0 12.Qxa5 Nxa5 It all looks innocent enough with the queens traded – but White has the centre, the influential rook controlling the semi-open b-file and hitting b7, and Black’s knight on the rim on a5 just gives White the better long-term prospects. This has been the battleground for many Grünfeld die-hards in the Modern Exchange, and what’s needed is to speedily breakdown the pawn centre, whilst at the same time find activity for Black’s pieces. if you can do that, then Black can stay competitive. If not, there’s a good chance that a player of the calibre of Magnus Carlsen will simply push you off the board. And for MVL, it turns out to be the latter. 13.Bd3 Bg4 Another route is to go for 13…Rd8 and following up with …b6 and …Bb7 to try to undermine the White centre. 14.0-0 Bxf3 It is the never-ending battle in the Grünfeld: White’s pawn centre versus Black’s queenside majority. And there’s no time to keep on hitting the centre. If 14…Rfd8 15.d5 e6 16.Bg5! f6 17.Bd2 b6 18.Bxa5 bxa5 19.Nd4 exd5 20.exd5 and already White has a big advantage. 15.gxf3 e6N A novelty from MVL, though I am not so sure he should have tried this against Carlsen – especially Carlsen 2.0! Previously, we’d see 15…Rfd8 16.d5 e6 played here. With his novelty, MVL is attempting to prevent d5 – but it all backfires on the Frenchman, and when d5 does come, it is all the more potent a force. 16.Rfd1 Rfd8 17.Bf1 b6 This is a concession that has to be made: protecting the b-pawn at the expense of problematic knight on the rim remaining on a5. In the Grünfeld, many times the Na5 issue can be resolved with a timely …Nc4 – but here, Carlsen stops any such possibility, leaving MVL with a major headache of how to get his knight back into play again. 18.Ba6 The position is just becoming too uncomfortable to handle for Black – and even for MVL, one of the biggest Grünfeld guru’s of the elite-level game today, he now being systematically pushed off the board by Carlsen, who seems to be playing in a different league than the rest of his top ten rivals. 18…Rd6 Given the opportunity, MVL would like to double rooks on the d-file and then play …Nc6 to swing the knight back into the game – but Carlsen isn’t having it! 19.Rbc1 Rad8 20.Bg5 f6 21.Be3 h6 In an ideal world in the Grünfeld, you’d hit back with 21…f5 but here, after 22.Bg5 again those White bishops now completely dominate and threaten to win an exchange. 22.Bb5 Back in the day, you used to have nightmares sitting at the board facing Vladimir Kramnik in positions such as this in the Modern Exchange – now it is Carlsen. 22…f5 23.d5! g5 There’s not even time to sacrifice the exchange for counter-play. After 23…exd5 24.Bf4 d4 25.Bxd6 Rxd6 26.Rc8+ Kh7 27.Rc7 and the knight on the rim is not only still grim, but a number of Black pawns also look set to fall too. 24.Bd2 fxe4 25.fxe4 a6!? MVL is barely hanging on by his fingertips, and kudos to the Frenchman for finding the only unlikely and unhuman-like chance spotted by the computers. 26.Ba4! [see diagram] And Carlsen sees right through it! The (half!) point behind it was that 26.Bxa6 exd5 27.Bb4 (No better was 27.Bxa5 bxa5 28.Rxd5 Rxd5 29.exd5 Bd4! and Black is surviving.) 27…Rc6! and the worst is over for Black, with the now almost forced trade of rooks easing just about all of the pressure. 26…exd5 27.Bb4 Re6 28.Rxd5 Rxd5? MVL finally cracks under the intense pressure. This trade of rooks comes as no relief whatsoever, as with it, there’s the winning threat of a very strong passed d-pawn running quickly down the board. Regardless of how ugly or uncomfortable it looked, MVL simply had to play into 28…Rb8 29.Bxa5 bxa5 30.Rc4! Bf8 31.Bb3! Kg7 32.e5 and try his best to hang in here. It is difficult because once the a5-pawn falls, the a6-pawn will also fall. White also has the better rooks and bishop – but on the bright side for Black, there’s always hope on the board when you have bishops of opposite colour! And also note that the a5-pawn is doomed, as 32…Bb4?? falls into the tactical trap of 33.Rxb4 axb4 34.Rd7+ easily winning. 29.exd5 If ever there was a position that illustrated the old chess adage that ‘a knight on the rim is dim’, then this is it! 29…Re4 30.Rc8+ Kf7 31.a3 Be5 Black can’t even salvage anything here. If 31…Nc4 32.f3 Rh4 33.Be8+ Kf6 34.Rc6+ Kf5 35.Bd7+ Ke5 36.Bc3+ will win a piece. 32.Be8+ Kg7 33.d6 There’s just no stopping the d-pawn marching down the board. 33…Rd4 34.d7 Nb7 The knight finally gets off the rim – but it is all far, far too late now. 35.Be7 Re4 36.Rc6 Bd4 It’s hopeless for Black – and no better was 36…Bxh2+ 37.Kxh2 Rxe7 38.Rxb6 Nd8 39.Rb8 Ne6 40.Ra8 where White will capture the a-pawn and then return to the piece-winning theme of Ra8 to pass the d-pawn. 37.Rc7 1-0