In a new and much welcomed innovation from FIDE, the governing body of world chess have – for the first time ever – allowed access for players outside of the elite circle to have a chance to challenge Magnus Carlsen for his world crown, with a coveted candidates spot up for grabs in the Chess.com Grand Swiss tournament that got underway on Thursday at the Comis Hotel near Douglas on the Isle of Man.
There’s a huge $433,000 prize fund at stake, with $70,000 going to the eventual winner of the extremely strong 11-round event, making it arguably the strongest Swiss tournament ever. The 100 highest-rated players from July 2018-June 2019 were invited as well as 17 who qualified through various competitions and 36 wildcards that include leading female players, juniors and local players.
And such is the attraction of the tournament, that Carlsen himself, and his last title challenger, Fabiano Caruana head the 154-player field that also includes former champion Vishy Anand and former title-challenger Sergey Karjakin. As defending champion, Carlsen has no need to play in the candidates, and Caruana is already there by virtue of being the previously defeated challenger – so if either of the world #1 or #2 wins, then there’s still everything to play for in the final round, as the spot will go down the pecking order to the next highest-placed finisher.
We don’t normally see reigning world champions playing in Swiss-style events, but Carlsen is a different breed of world champion! For the record, Boris Spassky was the first world champion to play in any Swiss-System open, a type of tournament that was frowned upon in the old Soviet Union. It was in Vancouver in 1971 and the Canadian Open that Spassky took his novel adventure, and he shared first place with Hans Ree of the Netherlands. And after Spassky, the Norwegian was the next world champion to take part in a Swiss open, as he won both the 2015 Qatar Masters and the 2017 edition of the Isle of Man – and now he’s going for a hat trick of victories in what’s seen as being the biggest and grandest Swiss’s of them all!
Yet things didn’t get off to a confidant start for Carlsen. In the opening round, his Ukrainian opponent, Yuriy Kuzubov – rated just 2636, and whom Carlsen last played when they were both pre-teens! – came very close to creating what would have been the biggest upset of the year, as he missed a clear winning shot against a shocked Carlsen…and then the unfortunate Kuzubov went on to tragically lose on time in a position he should easily have held if he had more time on his clock.
But one player’s tragedy could well be another’s potential record run. After being held to a tough draw in round two to another unknown mid 2600 grandmaster, 19-year-old Russian Alexey Sarana, Carlsen may well have ‘lost’ three rating points in the process, but he keeps his unbeaten streak alive at 92 games now and counting, and he’s on course to break Ding Liren’s elite-level 100 game record from last year, which now could be eclipsed by the end of the Isle of Man tournament.
Two fortunate escapes in the opening rounds nevertheless by the world champion, but not so lucky was the man he took the title from, as Anand was brilliantly downed by Russian Evgeniy Najer in the opening round – and that major upset could well see the Indian five-time ex-world champion now missing out on the candidates.
Photo: Magnus Carlsen rode his luck somewhat against Yuriy Kuzubov | © Maria Emelianova / Chess.com FIDE Grand Swiss
GM Magnus Carlsen – GM Yuriy Kuzubov
FIDE/Chess.com Grand Swiss, (1)
Queen’s Gambit, Exchange variation
1.d4 Nf6 2.c4 e6 3.Nf3 d5 4.Nc3 Nbd7 5.cxd5 exd5 6.Bg5 c6 7.Qc2 h6 8.Bh4 g5 This looks dangerous to play against the Exchange variation, but it is a dynamic line that’s become a big favourite of Kuzubov, though coming up against the world champion is another thing! 9.Bg3 Nh5 10.0-0-0 Nxg3 11.hxg3 Nb6 12.e4 Be6 13.Bd3 Qf6 14.e5 Qg7 Not really the sort of move you want to play against the world champion – better was 14…Qe7 where 15.Na4 can be met by 15…Qb4! 16.Nxb6 axb6 and 15.Nh2 with 15…0-0-0 and in both cases, better than what occurred in the game. 15.Nh2 The “queen fianchetto” was unexpected, and looks to have surprised Carlsen, as he misses the stronger option of 15.Na4! with a clear edge to work with. 15…g4 16.Ne2 0-0-0 17.Nf4 Qg5 18.Kb1 h5 19.Nf1 Rh6 Another slightly puzzling move from Kuzubov, but he’s being very resourceful as in certain lines the rook isn’t undefended now. 20.Ne3 Kb8 21.Nf5 Admittedly, visually it does look as if Carlsen is winning – but it is not the case, and Kuzubov, slowly, but surely, manages to ease the strain in his position. 21…Bxf5 22.Bxf5 h4! 23.Ne2 hxg3 24.Rxh6 Bxh6 25.Nxg3 Nc4 26.Bd3 Nd2+! In the space of just a few moves, Kuzubov has now started to take control of the position, as he puts the world champion under enormous pressure. 27.Ka1 Qf4 Kuzubov has made the most of his opportunities, setting up the prospect of an unlikely takedown of the world champion. 28.Nf5 Bg5 29.Nd6 Carlsen’s hand is forced now, as his position begins to crumble with the d- and f-pawns under attack, and also having to worry about that black interloper knight right in the heart of White’s position. And faced with all of this, Carlsen starts to seek complications for a possible bail-out. 29…Qxf2 30.Qc3?! Carlsen has missed something that’s not so obvious. If he had seen it, then he would have surely have reached for the immediate bail-out with 30.Ba6! Ne4 (The bishop is taboo. If 30…bxa6 31.Qxc6 is mating.) 31.Qxf2 Nxf2 32.Rf1 Ne4 33.Nxb7 Rd7 34.Na5 Kc7 with an equal game. 30…Rd7 31.Qb4 a5! [see diagram] Admittedly, this is easy to miss, and now Carlsen is in deep trouble with the queen getting deflected from its original course. 32.Qxa5 What else can Carlsen do now? While 32.Qb6 looks threatening for White, after 32…g3! 33.Ba6 Bd8! 34.Qc5 Ne4! Black is on the verge of winning, and the humbling retreat with 32.Qc3 is strongly met by 32…g3! with the coming …Qxg2 making the g-pawn the game-winner. 32…Qxd4 With d4 falling and e5 next (and g2 looking iffy), Carlsen is in deep, deep trouble here, and will need one of his Houdini escapes to survive. 33.Rxd2 Bxd2? It’s the “the little Swiss missed” moment for Kuzubov who, being in a bit of a time scramble, quickly plays what looks the most obvious move to hand – but in his haste, Kuzebov missed the very strong 33…Qxe5! that would have left the world champion on the morphine drip being two pawns down with the knight hanging and …Qe1+ also threatened. 34.Qxd2 Qxe5 35.Nf5 c5! The only practical shot to win is to start pushing the pawns. 36.Bb1 d4 37.Qd3 Qd5 38.Qg3+ Ka7 39.Qxg4 d3 Marginally better was 39…c4!? and leave for now the option of White’s knight coming to e3 that allows him to cover the vital d1 queening square. 40.Ne3 Qd4 41.Qf3 d2 42.Nd1 Qc4 43.Qe3 Rd4 Sadly, it’s all starting to slip out of Kuzubov’s fingers now. Better was 43…Rd6! where ideas of …Rb6 or …Ra6 keeps Black’s position active and threatening. 44.a3 Qc1 45.Qb3 Rd6 46.Ka2 c4 47.Qf3 It looks as if there has to be a win somewhere here for Kuzubov – but this isn’t the case, as Carlsen’s knight effectively covers all the important squares. But crucially there’s now an added handicap for Kuzubov, as, through all of the complexities of the position, his digital clock has metaphorically ticked down to its final seconds. 47…Rb6 48.Bf5 Rb5 49.Qe3+ Ka6 50.Bg4! Protecting the vital knight that’s holding everything together, leaving Carlsen’s queen free now to roam. 50…Qc2 51.Qc3 Qb3+ Trading queens with 51…Qxc3 52.Nxc3 is slightly worse for Black, as after 52…Re5 53.Kb1! the king will come to c2 and quickly corral the d-pawn. But with 53…Ka5 54.Kc2 b5! 55.Kxd2 b4! 56.axb4+ Kxb4 its difficult to see how White can win this with so few pawns now left on the board. 52.Kb1 Rd5 1-0 Tragically, Kuzubov’s flag falls here and he lost on time. But with a little more clock time, he would have surely seen that 52…Qxc3 53.Nxc3 Re5! and again, with the idea of …Ka5 followed by …b5-b4, and it’s hard to see how Carlsen can win this – but I am sure he would have relentlessly pressed the life out of the position!