The natural order of things looks as if it has now been restored once again at the Chess.com FIDE Grand Swiss at the Comis Hotel and Golf Resort in Douglas on the Isle of Man. After dodging bullets lately, top seeds and title rivals Magnus Carlsen and Fabiano Caruana are now ominously all fired-up again after a brace of impressive wins, as the tournament now reaches its midpoint with Wednesday’s one and only rest day.
After coming back from the dead against “world’s strongest amateur” Luke McShane, US world #2 Caruana was back in business with a very convincing win over Russia’s Vladimir Fedoseev – and Caruana is now tied on 5/6 at the top with China’s Wang Hao, who perhaps benefitted most all from that epic marathon of the previous round, as he proved too strong for the clearly fatigued Englishman.
In round 5, after getting back to winning ways by beating Surya Ganguly, Carlsen commented that it was “not too late to catch fire” in the tournament – and somewhat prophetically, the world champion got his wish in more ways than one as he found himself up against, and beating, former elite star Alexei “Fire on Board” Shirov! Their encounter turned on Shirov inexplicably lashing out with 17…g5!?!, with the best comment of the day coming from Anish Giri on social media, who joked that this was a case of “when you play the Petroff but then remember you’re Alexei Shirov”!
In his pomp, Latvian-born Shirov was – much-like his iconic former teacher and mentor, Mikhail Tal – widely regarded as being one of the most imaginative attacking players of his generation; someone who had a penchant for playing wild attacking games that contained a cornucopia of breath-taking sacrifices. Such was his fertile imagination at the board that English GM Jon Speelman, writing the forward to Shirov’s aptly-named best-selling book, Fire on Board, claimed that the Latvian “regularly alchemises positions, the like of which the rest of us only get to enjoy under the bluest of moons.”
But now at veteran status at the age of 47 – and once again playing under the Spanish flag – the flame has long been extinguished, and he’s no longer in the elite circle – but he can still show occasional flashes of his former glory days, and younger players from the newer generation still have to tread carefully when playing Shirov, and that also applies to Carlsen, who not only turned in a smooth performance, but he did so by making sure he stifled any active play from his dangerous opponent.
And with that win, Carlsen stays in the now whittled-down, but formidable chasing pack, half a point behind the co-leaders. He also continues his seemingly inexorable unbeaten streak, surpassing Tal’s 95-game streak achieved in 1973-74. Now currently at 96 games and 443 days without a loss, Carlsen is closing in now on Ding Liren’s 15-month, 100-game elite-level streak that ended in May 2018.
1-2. Wang Hao (China), F. Caruana (USA) 5/6; 3-9. D. Anton (Spain), P. Maghsoodloo (Iran), M. Carlsen (Norway), A. Grischuk (Russia), N. Vitiugov (Russia), K. Alekseenko (Russia), L. Aronian (Armenia) 4½.
GM Magnus Carlsen – GM Alexei Shirov
Chess.com FIDE Grand Swiss, (6)
1.e4 e5 2.Nf3 Nf6 When Shirov was in his pomp in the mid/late 1990s, the solid Petrov was the Berlin Defence of its day by being a notoriously tough nut to crack. 3.d4 Carlsen has a preference for playing sidelines against the Petroff, rather than getting sucked into the mainline with 3.Nxe5 d6 4.Nf3 Nxe4 5.d4 d5 which seems to do reasonably well for Black. 3…Nxe4 4.Bd3 d5 5.Nxe5 Nd7 6.Nc3 Nxe5 7.dxe5 Nxc3 8.bxc3 Be7 9.0-0 0-0 10.f4 f5 Black has to stop White pushing on with f5 that will only gain more space, behind which the pieces will build-up for an easy attack. 11.Be3 c5 12.Be2 Be6 13.Bf3 Qd7 14.a4 Rad8 15.Qe2 Qc7 16.Rfb1 b6 17.Rd1!? This came as a surprise, as watching the game live, everyone was sure Carlsen was aiming for something like 17.a5 Rb8 (Obviously not 17…bxa5? 18.Qa6! Qc8 19.Rxa5 and White has a big advantage as a7 will fall, and hanging pawns on d5 and c5 also look vulnerable.) 18.axb6 Rxb6 19.Rxb6 axb6 (Black has to be careful here, as recapturing with 19…Qxb6?! allows 20.Ra6 Qb1+ 21.Qf1 Qxf1+ 22.Kxf1 Kf7 23.Rc6! and the hanging pawns on d5 and c5 are set to fall.) 20.Qb5! Rb8 White certainly has pressure on the queenside – but with a set of rooks traded, Black looks as if he can hold this position, even when faced with the prospects of a long Carlsen grind. I’m sure Carlsen saw all of this and decided it wasn’t going to be enough to press for the win, so instead, he opted to keep the tension in the position, for now, looking to provoke Shirov into “doing something” – and sure enough, he does! 17…g5!?! It’s the “Fire On Board” moment! Shirov always likes to push the envelope, regardless of who his opponent might be. During his post-mortem interview with Fiona Steil-Antoni, Carlsen explained that “17…g5 is not really a move you want to play. I think it was born out of some sort of desperation. He felt like he was a bit worse and he wanted to break out. Ultimately it doesn’t improve his position at all.”18.h3 Rd7 Puzzling, to say the least. When I saw Shirov lashing out with …g5, I felt so sure that he was going to follow-up in typical Shirov of old fashion with 18…Kh8 followed by …Rg8 looking to mix thing up with …g4. But it is almost as if he now has second thoughts, and instead wants to play tight against Magnus – a good plan, but not after you have played the weakening …g5! 19.Rd2 Rfd8 20.Rad1 The d5 pawn is coming under enormous strain – and if that falls, Black is lost. 20…gxf4 It was possible to play 20…d4 first, but Black risked the dangers of falling down the rabbit hole with something like 21.cxd4 gxf4 22.d5! fxe3 23.Qxe3 and White has excellent play for the piece – and in fact, Black may well be advised to try to return the material asap with 23…Bf8 to try to force 24.dxe6 Rxd2 25.Rxd2 Rxd2 26.Qg5+! Kh8 27.Qxd2 Qxe5 28.Bd5 Be7 29.c4 Qd4+ and a draw with the opposite-coloured bishop ending – but White can maintain the tension with 24.c4!? and a double-edged position. 21.Bxf4 d4 22.Qf2 Taking the pawn only helps Black achieve what he want’s, with all the tension being released after 22.cxd4 Rxd4! 23.Rxd4 cxd4 24.Qf2 Qc4! and Black is doing OK. 22…Kh8 The only move. Capturing the pawn with 22…dxc3? walks right into 23.Qg3+ Kh8 24.Rd6!! and Black is dead in the water. 23.Kh1 Qc8 24.Kh2 Prophylaxis, pure and simple. As Shirov can’t capture on c3 due to the major threat of Rd6!!, his position is in a ‘holding pattern’, allowing Carlsen the luxury of simply playing Kh2, just in case there’s the outside possibility later that Black can get in a …Bxh3 save. 24…Rg8?! You could try 24…Qc7 but White will start to look now to make progress with 25.Be2 Rg8 26.Bb5 Rdd8 27.cxd4 cxd4 28.Qe2 and while it is not lost per se, long-term, Black has lots of holes and weaknesses in his position, and the d4-pawn will also be vulnerable. That said, this was referable to what Shirov goes down in flames with. 25.cxd4 cxd4 26.Rxd4! The exchange sacrifice soon crashes through, as Shirov’s position now has a chronic dark-square weakness. 26…Rxd4 27.Rxd4 Bc5 28.c3 Bxd4 29.cxd4 Qd7 30.Qd2 Bd5 Shirov has to stop Carlsen pushing on with d5 – but if he thought this would do that, and also put pressure on g2 that would save him, then he’s in for a nasty surprise! 31.e6! [see diagram] Carlsen’s lethal blow soon exploits all that dark-squared weakness we mentioned earlier, and now there are no easy answers to Be5+. 31…Qxe6 32.Be5+ Rg7 33.Qc3! Another laser-like, accurate move from Carlsen and Shirov is a dead man walking. 33…Bxf3 There’s no escape. If 33…Kg8 34.Bxd5 Qxd5 35.Qc8+ Kf7 36.Qxf5+ Ke8 37.Qc8+ Kf7 38.Qc7+ Ke8 39.Qxg7 is easily winning. 34.Qxf3 Qe8 The major threat of Qa8+ has to be defended against. 35.Qxf5 Kg8 36.Bxg7 Kxg7 37.Qg5+ It’s not just the fact that Carlsen has an extra pawn in the notoriously tricky Q+P ending, it’s also a problem for Shirov that his king is exposed to lots of checks picking up a loose pawn or two. 37…Kf8 38.Qf4+ Ke7 39.Qe4+ Kf8 40.Qxh7! Carlsen doesn’t walk into the last trick Shirov has up his sleeve, as heading directly to the K+P ending with the extra pawn is not winning! After 40.Qxe8+ Kxe8 41.Kg3 a5! it’s just a draw now, the (half!) point being that 42.Kf4 b5! and the White king is one square short of the zone to stop the a-pawn, and now forcing 43.Ke3 (Not 43.axb5?? a4 44.b6 Kd7! with the tables turned and Black winning.) 43…bxa4 44.Kd3 Kd7 45.Kc3 Kd6 46.g4 a3 47.g5 Kd5 48.h4 a2 49.Kb2 Kxd4 50.h5 a1Q+ 51.Kxa1 Ke5 52.Ka2 Kf5 53.g6 and we’re going to get down to the bare kings. 40…Qxa4 41.Qf5+ Kg7 42.Qe5+ Kf7 43.h4 1-0 Shirov resigns as there’s no way to stop White’s h-pawn pushing menacingly up the board.