Over the past few years, watching chess “live” over the internet has developed from a wondrous novelty into almost becoming a way of life – especially for a chess hack! – and there is fantastic action going on at the moment, with Magnus Carlsen and Fabiano Caruana et al heading an extremely strong and competitive field in the Chess.com FIDE Grand Swiss taking place at the swish Comis Hotel and Golf Resort in Douglas on the Isle of Man.
The added attraction here is that the top-finishing qualifier will get a spot in next year’s eight-player Candidates’ Tournament in Ekaterinburg, Russia, that will ultimately decide who will be Carlsen’s next title challenger. The world champion obviously has no need to qualify, and neither does Caruana – already in the candidates’, as the previous title challenger – so if either win the tournament, then the spot will go down the pecking order to the next highest-placed finisher.
Ironically, both could now become spoilers by having a big say in just who does or doesn’t get to go to Ekaterinburg in 2020. Carlsen was quizzed recently about ruining the chances of a candidates contender, and asked: “Do you feel you shouldn’t be allowed in tournaments where you can qualify for playing yourself?” His reply? “Yeah, I think it’s pretty obvious that I shouldn’t, but I don’t have any morals, so it’s OK!” Caruana, on the other hand, was more direct about it, saying: “Well, someone has to ruin them!”
But the world’s top two players haven’t exactly been having it all their own way in what’s become a very competitive tournament. So far, Carlsen has been dodging more bullets than Clint Eastwood in a western with some truly remarkable escapes from very bad positions against lesser players – but his tournament finally came together in round five, with a typical Carlsen-like crush over India’s Surya Ganguly.
Caruana’s play, though, has been the more reassured of the two former title combatants, and the US #1 moved into the joint lead with China’s Wang Hao, with both being the only player’s left in the tournament on a perfect score of 3/3 – and when the leaders met in round 4, they shared the point following a long struggle . But as Caruana was soon to discover, there’s just no easy opponent in the Grand Swiss – even when you come up against an amateur!
Back in the early 1990s, England’s Luke McShane – much like Carlsen – was seen as a prodigy, winning the World Under-10 Championship at the age of eight, and then going on to become the UK’s youngest-ever grandmaster at 16. But he was always fairly level-headed about all the media attention and any expectations anyone might have had about him becoming a full-time chess professional, as he he opted out of the chess circus for ‘normality’ and further perusing his education.
After reading philosophy and mathematics at Oxford, McShane then opted to concentrate on a career in the City, and chess became more a part-time activity. If he had opted instead to become a chess professional, then there’s no denying he was talented enough to have been up there among one of the world’s top players – but now, aged 35, McShane revels in the widely-acclaimed accolade of being described as “the world’s strongest amateur”.
And in what soon became an engrossing battle with Caruana, the English amateur came so close to a major upset that would have given him the outright lead at the halfway point of the tournament. But unluckily for McShane, at critical deciding points in the encounter, he was in dire time trouble and missed several clear winning chances – but Caruana somehow managed to cling on by his fingertips, dodged his own bullet, and after an epic and captivating seven hour tussle, the game ended in a draw.
1-7. Wang Hao (China), F. Caruana (USA), L. McShane (England), V. Fedoseev (Russia), A. Grischuk (Russia), A. Shirov (Spain), P. Maghsoodloo (Iran) 4/5; 8-21. B. Adhiban (India), M. Bluebaum (Germany), N. Abdusattorov (Uzbekistan), D. Anton (Spain), M. Carlsen (Norway), K. Alekseeenko (Russia), N. Vitiugov (Russia), S. Karjakin (Russia), L. Aronian (Armenia), B. Gelfand (Israel), V. Akopian (Armenia), Y. Kryvoruchko (Ukraine), A. Dreev (Russia), A Lenderman (USA) 3.5.
Photo: Unlucky Luke came close to a major upset that would have given him the sole lead | © Maria Emelianova / Chess.com
GM Luke McShane – GM Fabiano Caruana
Chess.com FIDE Grand Swiss, (5)
Spanish Four Knight
1.e4 e5 2.Nf3 Nc6 3.Nc3 Nf6 4.Bb5 The Spanish Four Knights is not something you expect to see in praxis these days – but it has a big English tradition, and coming from McShane makes sense. it was first popular in the period 1890 to the the 1920s, and associated with Lasker, Capablanca, Rubinstein and Spielmann. But it had a revival when Nigel Short adopted it in match-play in the 1990s and his unsuccessful title bid and that inspired a number of other English players to play it, notably John Nunn, Mickey Adams and Joe Gallagher – followed later by McShane himself. It tends to lead to balanced play with lots of draws, so not necessarily a bad thing when you are up against the world #2! 4…Bd6 This looks a bit funny at first sight, but the bishop being developed here defends e5, and the strategic idea is to follow-up with …0-0, …Re8 and …Bf8. 5.d3 0-0 6.0-0 h6 7.Kh1 Re8 8.Bxc6 bxc6 9.Ng1 Bf8 10.f4 exf4 11.Bxf4 d5 12.e5 Bg4 13.Qd2 Nh5 14.Rae1 Rb8! This is a nice move, hoping to entice White into b3, where now Black’s dark-squared bishop comes back into the game with purpose with the …Bb4 nasty pin. 15.h3 Nxf4 16.Qxf4 Bh5 17.Nd1 With Caruana having the bishop-pair vs McShane’s knight-pair (and the Englishman’s knights being on his own back-rank at that!) many would have thought White stood worse here. But it is not as simple as that, as McShane has no structural problems, more space, its a closed game (that often favours the knights), and there’s the potential for an attacking knight outpost on f5. 17…Rb4 18.Qf2 c5 19.b3 Rb6 For now, Caruana’s rook is better-placed on the third-rank, as it can attack on the queenside with …Ra6 and also swing over to e6 to put pressure on McShane’s e5-pawn. 20.Nf3 Rbe6 21.Ne3 Qd7? From this moment, life gets difficult for Caruana as position begins to drift. He really had to force the matter now with 21…f6! to undermine e5 and stop Ng2-f4. Now if 22.g4 Bg6 23.Nh4 (Bad is 23.exf6?! Rxf6 and Black stands well as the position begins to open for his bishops and rooks.) 23…Bh7 24.exf6 Rxf6 25.Nef5 c6 Black stands slightly better. 22.g4 Bg6 23.Ng2! Now you can’t play …f6 to breakdown the e5 grip because of the threat of Nf4 winning material. 23…c4! This is a good try from Caruana. He realises he was in a little fix, and his position would only get worse if he didn’t open the game up for his pieces, especially his bishops – if he can get them active, then he’ll have good compensation for any potential material loss. 24.Nf4 cxd3 25.cxd3 Bb4 26.Rd1 R6e7?! A tough call. Watching this epic encounter unfold live online, many masters thought Caruana would have tried 26…Ra6!? to defend a7, and inviting the complications of 27.e6!? threatening the strong Ne5, where now 27…Raxe6! 28.Nxe6 Rxe6 where Black has good compensation for the material with his bishop-pair and White’s weakened kingside. 27.Qxa7 It’s a free pawn, and McShane’s knights still look the more menacing. 27…Bh7 28.Qd4! Now the d5-pawn is doomed, and Caruana finds himself in dire straits – and not in a good way with Mark Knopfler on lead guitar! 28…c5 29.Qxd5 Qa7 30.Qc4 McShane wants to keep Caruana’s light-squared bishop out of the game, even if he has to return the pawn – but the engines couldn’t give a damn, and moves in swiftly with the brave 30.d4!? cxd4 31.Rxd4 and tells us Black is still in trouble – but with not a lot of time left on McShane’s clock, I can understand him not wanting to open the game up for the bishops. 30…Qxa2 31.g5 hxg5 32.Nxg5 Qa8+ 33.Kg1 Qc6? Just at the critical moment, and with the flag on McShane’s digital clock metaphorically hanging, Caruana gets it all wrong. Correct was 33…Qb8! 34.Nd5 Qxe5! 35.Nxe7+ Rxe7 36.Qf4 Qxf4 37.Rxf4 Bg6 38.Ra1 Re8 39.Ne4 f5! 40.Nd6 Rf8 and it is far from clear if White can make anything of his material advantage here. 34.d4! By this stage, Caruana had to be a tad worried that he could hear the fat lady gargling in the wings! 34…Bf5 35.Nd5 Rd7 36.Ne3 Tick tock! A bit more time on his clock, and McShane may well have found 36.Rxf5 Qxd5 37.Qc2! and Black is all but bust due to the x-ray mating attack on h7. 36…Bg6 37.d5 Qc7 38.Ng4 Qd8 39.e6?! In the mad dash to reach the time control at move 40, McShane missed 39.h4! that would have kept the tension in his winning attack until after the time control. 39…fxe6 40.Nxe6 Qb8 There’s always hope of finding saving chances due to McShane’s exposed king. 41.d6! [see diagram] But not before McShane has his own shot at Caruana’s king first, as sacrificing the pawn opens the way for a big discovered check – and with the time control safely made, the game should really be done and dusted now for the Englishman. 41…Rxd6 42.Nc7+ Rde6 43.Rd7! McShane isn’t interested in the mere baubles of winning an exchange – he wants to move in for the kill! 43…Kh8 44.Qf4? McShane missed the chance to escort the fat lady up to the mic with the clinical kill of 44.Nf6!! and Black is dead in the water, as 44…Rxf6 45.Rxf6 Re1+ 46.Kh2 gxf6 47.Qh4+ Kg8 48.Qh6 Bf7 49.Rxf7!! Re2+ 50.Kg1 Kxf7 51.Qh7+ Kf8 52.Qh8+ would have won the queen, the game, and everyones hearts, and with immortality to follow in the game collection annals. 44…Qb6 45.Nxe6 Qxe6 46.Rd6 Qe4 47.Qg5 Kh7 48.Qh4+ Kg8 49.Qg3! Kh7 50.Nf2 Qc2 51.Nd3?! Not easy to see when the adrenalin is pumping furiously now, and you know you have the world #2 close to the edge of resignation, but the engines remain as cool as a cucumber and finds the forced win with 51.Qh4+ Kg8 52.Qg5! Bh7 53.Rd8 Bg6 54.Ng4 Qe4 55.Rxe8+ Qxe8 56.Rd1! Ba5 57.b4! and Black can resign with c5 falling. 51…Be4? Black’s only hope of a Hail Mary save was with 51…Bxd3 52.Rxd3 Bd2! and the bishop tracking back to h6 means White will need to work very hard to convert a win here. 52.Qg5 Another winning “moment” eludes McShane, as after 52.Qg4! there’s no stopping the major threat of Qh5+, and 52…Kg8 is well met by 53.Re6 Bc6 54.Ne5 Qxb3 55.Ng6!! and Black’s king is caught in the crossfire. 52…Qe2? The only try was 52…Kg8. 53.Nxb4?! It’s hard to be critical here, and I can’t really fault McShane for playing what looks like a natural move, a very human move – but the silicon beast will soon tell you that you missed an open goal with the “simple” 53.Nc1! and the Black queen gets deflected from the vital defence of the critical h5 square, the surrender of which loses the Re8 to a check. 53…cxb4 54.Rd2 Qa6 55.Qh5+ Qh6 56.Qxh6+ If McShane thought the ending would have been a trivial win with his material advantage, then he has to think again – elite players of the caliber of Carlsen and Caruana will find the most obstinate, obstructionist way to fend off defeat. 56…Kxh6 57.Re1 Re5 58.Kh2 The only way to try to win was with 58.Rd4! Rg5+ 59.Kf2 Rg2+ 60.Kf1 Ba8 61.Re6+ g6 62.Ra6 Bf3 63.Rh4+ Kg5 64.Rxb4 and Black can’t go for the h-pawn, as 64…Rh2 65.Ra5+ Kh6 66.Rh4+ Bh5 67.b4 Rb2 68.Rc5! and White has his rooks active and there’s no stopping the b-pawn. 58…Rd5 59.Rxd5 Bxd5 We’re no in the realms now of any win here being of a highly-technical affair – but kudos to Caruana, as he finds all the right techniques to save what should have been a sure-fire loss. 60.Re3 g5 61.Kg3 Kg6 62.Kf2 This is no trivial endgame win – the best way to demonstrate this is with the obvious try of 62.Kg4 Bg8 63.Re5 Bxb3 64.Rxg5+ and the Nalimov tablebases now kick-in, telling us that 64…Kh6 is just a draw. 62…Kf5 63.Rg3 Be6 64.Ke2 Bd5 65.Kd2 Be6 66.Rf3+ Ke5 McShane had to have realised by now that, with b3 and h3 under attack, he could never win this – but he plays on anyway, forcing Caruana to show him the draw. 67.Re3+ Kf6 68.Kc2 Bf5+ 69.Kc1 Be6 70.Kd2 Bd5 71.Kc2 Be6 72.Kb2 Bf5 73.Rg3 Be6 74.Rd3 Ke5 75.Re3+ Kf6 76.Re4 We were in a loop, and the only way out of it is to take the protection off the h3-pawn. 76…Bxh3 77.Rxb4 And once again, the Nalimov tablebases spring to life, confirming that it is now a draw. 77…g4 78.Re4 g3 79.Kc3 Kf5 80.Re1 Kf4 81.b4 Kf3 82.b5 Kf2 83.Kd2 g2 84.b6 Bc8 85.Re2+ ½-½