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John Henderson
By John Henderson

World champion Magnus Carlsen went through all 11 rounds undefeated at the recently-concluded FIDE/Chess.com Grand Swiss, and despite the disappointment of this not being enough for the title, he did however set a record of sorts with 101 consecutive classical games without a loss against all-elite opposition. Many would have been happy with that, but Carlsen was more concerned about his form on the Isle of Man, and when interviewed by Fiona Steil-Antoni, he noted that: “The streak was nice, but the performance was mediocre at best.”

Just like most sports, the chess world also likes to revel in a good streak. The first of real note came from the Cuban world champion José Raúl Capablanca, who in 1916 began an eight-year, 63 game run without losing; and when he eventually did, to Richard Reti, at the fabled New York International of 1924, his defeat even made it onto the front page of The New York Times sports pages.

Arguably the most memorable streak came from the legendary Mikhail Tal. Despite his often risky and adventurous play, in the early 1970s – during a period where “the streak” was seen as, er, something different, a then-popular craze that came with a novelty hit from Ray Stevens – the ex-world champion proved almost invincible with not one but two remarkable unbeaten streaks, one of 86 and one of 95 games. But more recently, all the attention has been on the elite-level streak set by Ding Liren with his 15 months, 100 game streak before losing to Maxime Vachier-Lagrave last November.

Now with 101 games without a loss, Carlsen has bested Ding’s elite-level record, but the Norwegian doesn’t hold the overall record…yet! There are no official custodians tracking such records (please take note, FIDE!), and there is a claimant to a longer, 110 game unbeaten streak that lasted eleven months, through 2004-2005, and was set by the Russian-Dutch GM Sergei Tiviakov. The trouble is that Tiviakov’s record comes with a dreaded asterisk attached to it, because while he was playing in many top elite-level tournaments – that included Aronian, Radjabov, Ivanchuk, and even a younger Carlsen himself – he also competed in many weaker opens where he faced lots of untitled amateurs, rated 2000 or less.

But regardless of the criteria, records are there only to be broken, and with 101 games undefeated under his belt, Carlsen will now be targeting Tiviakov’s 110 game streak to become the undisputed official record-holder.

Photo: Yes, they call him the streak…no, not Ray Stevens but Magnus Carlsen! | © Maria Emelianova/Chess.com

GM Magnus Carlsen – GM Maxim Matlakov
FIDE/Chess.com Grand Swiss, (10)
Semi-Slav Defence, Anti-Moscow Gambit
1.d4 Nf6 2.c4 e6 3.Nf3 d5 4.Nc3 c6 5.Bg5 h6 6.Bh4 dxc4 7.e4 g5 8.Bg3 b5 Many thought Matlakov showed great courage to be playing this super-sharp line against the world champion – but this is his known territory, as he always plays these sharp lines in the Semi-Slav. And with that in mind, we can expect that Carlsen had something planned for the young Russian. 9.h4 g4 10.Ne5 Nbd7 11.Be2 Bb7 12.Nxd7 The alternative is 12.Nxg4 that Matlakov successfully defended earlier this year. 12…Qxd7 13.Be5 Qe7 14.b3 Rg8 15.Qc2 b4 16.Na4 c3 17.a3 Nd7 18.Bg3 Bg7 19.Rd1 a5 20.0-0 Bf6 21.Nc5!?N And here comes Carlsen’s new idea, with his novelty that opens the d-file for a direct attack on his opponent’s king. Previously seen here was 21.Bc7 that led to a very spectacular draw in a recent ICCF email game with 21…Bxh4 22.e5 Qg5 23.g3 Bxg3 24.fxg3 Qe3+ 25.Kg2 c5+ 26.d5 exd5 27.e6!! fxe6 28.Bf4 d4+ 29.Kh2 Qe4 30.Qxe4 Bxe4 31.Bb5 Ke7 32.Bxd7 Rg5!! 33.Bxg5+ hxg5 34.Kg1 Rh8 35.Bb5 Kd6 36.axb4 axb4 37.Nb6 Kc7 38.Nc4 Rh1+ 39.Kf2 Rh2+ 40.Ke1 d3 41.Rf7+ Kb8 42.Rf8+ ½-½ Yalov,S (2426)-Hatzl,J (2507) ICCF email 2016. With that in mind, and Matalakov being a Semi-Slav maven, Carlsen wanted to find a way to avoid such saving resources for Black, while at the same time retain his own attacking chances – and it works! 21…Nxc5 22.dxc5 e5 It’s a double-edged position, and Black has to tread carefully, and now is not the time to go pinching pawns with 22…Bxh4?! as after 23.Bd6 Qf6 24.e5 Qg6 25.Bd3 Qh5 and while the unbeating heart of the silicon beast will tell you that all is safe with its evaluation of “0.00”, your gut reaction will tell you that this position is going to be extremely difficult for Black. 23.Rd6! The rook lift, right into the very heart of Black’s position, looks ominous for Matlakov, who now has to tread very carefully. 23…Bxh4 24.Bc4 Bg5?! Alarm bells had to be ringing here for Matlakov, and with the benefit of hindsight, and given the position again, I have no doubt he would trade off the troublesome rook with 24…Rg6!? 25.Qd3 Rxd6 26.cxd6 where now 26…Qf6 27.Bxh4 Qxh4 28.d7+ Kd8 29.Qe3 Kc7 does leave us still with a dynamically double-edged position – one slip and Black is toast, and if White doesn’t play energetically, he runs the risk of Black consolidating the position to take advantage of his extra material going into the endgame. 25.Qd3 Rg6 One move too late now, as Carlsen now gets his all-out, all guns blazing, attack rolling. 26.f4! exf4 27.Bxf4? There’s golden rule of thumb that it’s never a good idea to get up from the board when you hit a critical position, and here, Carlsen pays the penalty for doing so! The crowds online were all shouting out the very computer-esque win for Carlsen with 27.e5!! Rg7 (Capturing the bishop is not an option, as 27…fxg3? 28.Rxf7 and Black can consider resignation as an option now.; And with 27.e5!! added into the mix, now 27…c2 is not so effective as the Rd6 is doubly-protected, with 28.Qxc2 Rxd6 29.exd6 Qe3+ 30.Bf2 Qc3 31.Qh7! and the Black position is on the verge of collapsing.) 28.Bxf4 Bxf4 29.Rxf4 and with the Black king caught in the middle of the board, there’s no way to stop White pushing on with e6 prising the position open and winning. So Carlsen simply “missed this”, then? Well…no! Interviewed after the game, Carlsen rather sheepishly remarked that he had in fact calculated it, but his mistake was that he broke his concentration and train of thought by going to the toilet, and on coming back to the board, saw that Matlakov had capture on f4, so without even thinking about it, he automatically recaptured the pawn within a couple of seconds. And following this misstep, Carlsen admitted he couldn’t calm down again, which at least goes a long way to explain his now spluttering route to victory. 27…Bxf4 28.Rxf4 c2! Forcing a critical deflection of the queen that helps to save the Black position. 29.Qxc2 Rxd6 30.cxd6 Qxd6 The recapture was the natural reaction here, but also an interesting – and extremely brave – option was centralising the queen with 30…Qe5!? more or less forcing 31.d7+ Kd8 32.Rxf7 c5! and it is far from clear if White has enough here to win, as now 33.Qd2 Qd4+ 34.Qxd4 cxd4 35.axb4 axb4 36.e5 d3! 37.Bxd3 Bd5! 38.Rf6 g3 39.Kf1 Ke7 and Black may well have enough resources to hold the game. 31.e5 Qc5+ 32.Kh1 Qe3? Far too risky – Matlakov would have been wiser to consolidate with 32…Qe7 and, with careful play, Black should be able to hold the position. 33.Qf5! Kd8 34.Qxf7 Kc8 35.axb4? Again Carlsen hesitates when he has his opponent on the ropes. All the engines inspired the universal online call-out for 35.Qf8+ Kc7 36.Rf7+ Kb6 37.Qe7! which covers h4 preventing the perpetual check with …Qh4+, forcing Black into 37…Bc8 38.Qc7+ Kc5 39.axb4+ Kxb4 40.Qxc6 This is probably what was the stumbling block for Carlsen, as it is not so easy with the …Qe1+/Qh4+ perpetual threat hanging in the air – but there is a clever way to avoid it. Now 40…Ra7 41.Qa4+ (If 41.Rxa7?? Qe1+ 42.Bf1 Qxf1+ 43.Kh2 Qf4+ and White can’t avoid the perpetual.) 41…Kc3 42.Qa1+ Kc2 43.Rf2+!! and Black can resign. 35…Qxe5 36.Qf8+? There’s a limit to how many forced wins you can squander without letting your opponent back into the game, and here, Carlsen has reached his limit. The all-seeing, all-conquering engines spots what the human can’t quite grasp with 36.b5! that voluntarily opens up the a8-h1 diagonal and brings the Black bishop to life. But this is only illusionary, as 36…cxb5 37.Rxg4! forces 37…Kb8 38.Rg8+ Bc8 (If 38…Ka7 39.Qf2+ forces mate with 39…Ka6 40.Rg6+ Qf6 41.Rxf6+ Bc6 42.Rxc6+ Kb7 43.Qb6#) 39.Be6!! Qe1+ 40.Kh2 Qe5+ 41.g3 Qe2+ 42.Kh3 and Black has run out of meaningful checks and any hopes of survival. 36…Kc7 Over the last 10 moves or so, Carlsen’s position has gone from +6 to +4 and +2 to now a meaningless +0.58, as Matlakov has survived the rollercoaster ride. And with it, a determined Carlsen has to find a way to win the game all over again. 37.Rf7+ Kb6 38.bxa5+ Qxa5 39.Qe7 Qh5+! Carlsen frustratedly admitted that he’d “missed that this check existed. I thought he should resign . After this it should be a draw.” 40.Kg1 Ra1+ To Matlakov’s relief, his pieces are now coming to life! 41.Bf1 Qxf7! A very radical solution for the young Russian – but this is the only practical saving chance he has in the face of 41…Ba6?? going down in flames to 42.Qa7+ Ka5 43.Qxa6+ Kb4 44.Qc4+ Ka3 45.Qa4+ Kb2 46.Rf2+ Kb1 47.Qe4+ Kc1 48.Qe1#. 42.Qxf7 Ba6 43.Qf2+ Kb7 44.Qd4 Rxf1+ 45.Kh2 h5 46.Qc5 Rb1? It is very hard to be critical here, as it is a very tough position to hold. You know you might be close to holding onto a draw with the world champion, but, as Carlsen himself pointed out, this was the wrong plan. Instead he suggested 46…g3+ 47.Kxg3 Rh1 in order to defend the h-pawn – but in the heat of battle, such finds are difficult to see at the board, and certainly what Matlakov opts for looks like a natural move. 47.Qxh5 Kb6 48.Qxg4 Rxb3 49.Qg8 Rd3 50.g4 Rd5 Matlakov is going for a rook and pawn versus queen endgame, hoping for a fortress, but unfortunately it is not quite there as the c-pawn basically needs to be back on c7 to hold the line. 51.g5 Bd3 52.g6 Bxg6 53.Qxg6 This is the difference between elite-level players of the caliber of Carlsen to many other journeyman GMs, as all the hard work you put in to get to the very top comes to the fore, as the world champion just casually tells us in his presser that, if it was knight pawn on the sixth rank, then the fortress can be held – but “This one I knew from school. I knew this was not a fortress, and I knew how to break it.” 53…Kc7 54.Qf7+ Kb8 55.Kg3 Rg5+ 56.Kf4 Rd5 57.Qf8+ Kb7 58.Qb4+ Kc7 59.Ke4 Kc8 60.Qb6 Kd7 61.Qb7+ Kd6 62.Qc8 And Carlsen explains that this is the reason why the pawn closer to the center is a win, as the queen can push the black king in front of his own pawn, and no fortress defensive possibility. 62…Kc5 63.Qb8! [see diagram] This is the key to winning, as the rook no longer can just shuffle between d5 and b5. 63…Rh5 64.Kf4 The next part of the plan is that White king cuts across via the kingside to attack the pawn. We all knew this though, didn’t we? 64…Rd5 65.Kg4 Kc4 66.Qb6 Rd4+ 67.Kf5 c5 68.Qa5 Rd5+ 69.Ke6 The king is closing in now on its scenic route over to the queenside. 69…Rd4 70.Qa4+ Kc3 71.Qa3+ Kc4 72.Qa5 Rd3 73.Qa4+ Slowly, but ever-so-surely, Carlsen is nudging Matlakov’s king over to the d-file to allow his king to cross the border. 73…Kc3 74.Qa3+ Kc4 75.Qc1+ Kb4 76.Qb2+ Kc4 77.Qc2+ Kd4 The Nalimov endgame tablebases have long kicked in by now, and it also tells us that 77…Rc3 is no better, with 78.Qe4+ Kb3 79.Qb1+ Kc4 80.Kd6 Rd3+ 81.Kc6 and the c-pawn will eventually fall. 78.Kd6 c4 79.Qf2+ Re3 Matlakov is caught in the loop, as 79…Kc3+ 80.Kc5 Kb3 81.Qf1 also sees the c-pawn fall. 80.Qd2+ 1-0 Matlakov resigns, as 80…Ke4 81.Qd5+ now wins the c-pawn.

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