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John Henderson
By John Henderson

We are now down to the “business end” of the year-long Grand Chess Tour, as the final leg of the regular season sees the much-welcomed new edition to the Tour of the Tata Steel Chess India Rapid & Blitz now underway at the National Library in Kolkata (formerly Calcutta), India. And with Magnus Carlsen already qualified into the four-player final, the race is on to see who will now be joining the world champion at the marquee event at London Chess Classic in early December.

Carlsen has an unassailable lead in the GCT standings, with his closest rival – well off the pace of the world champion – being Ding Liren, who is also virtually assured of a London Chess Classic berth even if he finishes last in India. But the race for the final two spots was blown open earlier this month with Levon Aronian clinching the Superbet Bucharest Rapid & Blitz title after a tiebreak win over Sergey Karjakin.

And just to make the new Indian contest a little more “interesting” – with Maxime Vachier-Lagrave and Karjakin having now played their allocated four tournaments and mising from the line-up – local hero Vishy Anand, who finished a strong third in Bucharest, also now has an outside chance in his homeland to qualify with a strong finish. The top six in the Tour standings are: 1. Carlsen, 54,5; 2. Ding Liren, 37.8; 3. Vachier-Lagrave, 36.8; 4-5. Aronian & Karjakin, both 36.5; 6. Anand, 32.

But the opening day of the Tata Steel Chess India Rapid & Blitz proved to be something of a mini-disaster for Aronian. After drawing with Hikaru Nakamura and Anish Giri respectively, Aronian lost a crucial game that he should really have won (or even drawn!) against Carlsen, who now takes the sole lead with the Armenian in last place and having it still all to do to qualify.

Day 1 standings:
1. Magnus Carlsen, 5/6; 2. Hikaru Nakamura, 4; 3-7. Anish Giri, Vishy Anand, Ding Liren, Pentala Harikrishna, Vidit Gujrathi, 3; 8-10. Ian Nepomniachtchi, Wesley So, Levon Aronian, 2. (In the rapid, a win counts for two points and a draw 1 point).

Photo: The Tour leader leads at the end of day one | © Lennart Ootes/Grand Chess Tour.

GM Levon Aronian – GM Magnus Carlsen
Tata Steel Rapid & Blitz, (3)
Sicilian Najdorf
1.e4 c5 2.Nf3 d6 3.d4 cxd4 4.Nxd4 Nf6 5.Nc3 a6 6.f3 Not the most common of moves against the Najdorf, but this is often played because White wants to get into an English Attack (6.Be3) set-up without having to worry about the complexities of 6…Ng4 7.Bg5 h6 8.Bh4 g5 9.Bg3 Bg7 etc. 6…e5 7.Nb3 Be6 8.Be3 Nbd7 9.g4 Now we are back into the familiar English Attack territory. 9…Be7 10.Qd2 0-0 11.0-0-0 b5 12.g5 Nh5 13.Kb1 Nb6 14.Na5 A solid option was 14.Nd5 – but with 14.Na5, Aronian wants to keep his option open by stopping …Nc4, whist at the same preventing Black expanding on the queenside with …b4, …a5 and …a4 etc. 14…Rc8 15.a3 g6 Keeping in the Najdorf style with 15…Qc7 and going for a …Nc4 occupation was also a good option. 16.h4 Ng3 17.Rg1 Nxf1 Carlsen may well have the bishop-pair after this move, but there lurks many dangers now looming down the h-file. 18.Rgxf1 Na4 19.Nxa4 bxa4 20.h5 Qd7?! Correct was 20…Qc7! that keeps the White knight under attack and hits c2 – all of which should be enough to stop White going for glory down the h-file. 21.Rh1! The h-file is going to be a big worry for Carlsen – and his body language on the live coverage certainly indicated this. 21…Rfe8 22.Qh2 Bf8 23.Bd2! Not so much over-protecting the errant Na5, but a swift re-routing of the bishop to the more dangerous b4 to hit d6. 23…Rc7 24.Bb4 Rb8 25.Rd3 If Carlsen is not careful, then Aronian will quickly switch his forces for a rapid attack on d6 with Rhd1 and Qd2. 25…Qb5 26.Rc3 The missed moment for Aronian. “I thought after the opening I was probably lost!” commented Carlsen after the game – and he was spot on, as Aronian missed an open goal with 26.c4! Qb6 (The (full) point is that Black can’t capture on c4 as his position collapses almost immediately. For example: 26…Bxc4? 27.Nxc4 Qxc4 28.Rc3 Qxc3 29.Bxc3 and he can’t play 29…Rxc3 due to 30.hxg6 mating down the vulnerable h-file.) 27.f4! exf4 28.Bc3! and Black is doomed with too many open lines being ripped open on his kingside, and 28…Bg7 29.Bxg7 Kxg7 30.hxg6 will only lead to a fatal blow down the h-file. 26…Rbc8 The extra reinforcement on the c-file saves Carlsen. 27.Rxc7 Rxc7 The trade of rooks has only helped to relieve the pressure on Carlsen’s position which, in the space of a couple of moves, has gone from almost stone-cold dead to equality now. 28.Rd1 Rd7 29.Rd3 Be7 30.hxg6 fxg6 31.Qd2 Qb6 32.Qc1 Bd8 33.c4 It’s too late now – Carlsen now has a promising position with the bishop-pair and the more active queen, while Aronian’s pieces are all uncoordinated. 33…Qf2! 34.Nc6? Under the mounting pressure and the looming time-trouble, Aronian must have been relieved just to get his knight back in the game – but he’s overlooked a big tactic. He simply had to play 34.Rc3. 34…Bxg5! 35.Qxg5 Qf1+ 36.Kc2 Bxc4 37.Qe3 It is hard to be critical, as I can just imagine what must have been going through Aronian’s mind here, with the alternative looking even more dangerous as the White king is unceremoniously dragged up the board – but the best chance to save the game is with the very unlikely 37.Nxe5!? Bb3+ 38.Kc3 Rc7+ 39.Kd4 Qf2+ 40.Re3 (No better is 40.Qe3 Qxb2+ 41.Rc3 dxe5+ 42.Kxe5 Rd7 which leads to much the same thing.) 40…dxe5+ 41.Kxe5 Qxb2+ It all looks scary, but White has the saving resource of 42.Rc3! Rd7 (Unfortunately for Black, capturing the rook with 42…Rxc3?? doesn’t allow a repetition, it wanders into a mate after 43.Qd8+ Kg7 44.Qf8#!) 43.Qh6! Rf7 44.Qe3 and despite the White king wandering around dazed, there is no clear way for Black to win. 37…Bxd3+ 38.Qxd3 Qxd3+ 39.Kxd3 h5! The h-pawn is the danger, as it is difficult for Aronian to reorganise his pieces to stop the pawn. 40.Ke3 Kf7 41.Bc3 Ke6 42.Nb4 g5 43.Kf2 Rf7 44.Kg2 g4 45.fxg4 Rg7 A nice touch, as Carlsen keeps the distant passed h-pawn to be used as a cunning decoy. 46.Nd5 Rxg4+ 47.Kf3 Rg1 48.Kf2 Rg7? Too hasty, as Carlsen’s rook had to go one square further back with 48…Rg8! to win – the difference makes all the difference between winning and drawing. 49.Kf3? Perhaps not so easy to see in the heat of battle, but the reason for rook needing to go further back is that now 49.Nf4+! and the pin on the rook would have saved the game for Aronian, as 49…Ke7 50.Nxh5 and the problem pawn is removed – and after missing this saving resource, the h-pawn just comes back to haunt the Armenian. 49…h4 50.Be1 h3 51.Bg3 Rb7! The running h-pawn is the perfect foil for winning the b- and a-pawns, and now faced with this dilemma Aronian is forced into what he plays. 52.Nb4 a5 53.Nd3 Rb3! 54.Ke2 Kf6 Now the king crosses over to protect the h-pawn and infiltrate deep into the White camp. 55.Bh2 The trouble for Aronian, is that 55.Kd2 allows Black to win with 55…Kg5 56.Kc2 Kg4! 57.Bh2 Kf3! 58.Ne1+ Ke2 and White is set to lose material. 55…Kg5 Carlsen’s king eases its way into the White camp. 56.Bg3 Kg4 57.Bh2 Rxd3! [see diagram] The crucial breakthrough, as the rook sacrifice forces the win of the e-pawn and Carlsen now also having the central passed pawns marching down the board. 58.Kxd3 Kf3 59.Kd2! The only saving chance – but Carlsen has spotted the final trick. 59…Kxe4! It would have been so, so easy to have fallen into the trap of 59…Kg2? 60.Ke2! which dramatically saves the game after 60…Kxh2 61.Kf2 Kh1 62.Kf1 Kh2 63.Kf2 Kh1 64.Kf1 Kh2 65.Kf2 etc and a repetition. 60.Ke2 d5 61.Bg3 d4 62.Bh2 Kd5 63.Kd2 e4 Aronian is paralysed with the central pawns racing down the board. 64.Ke2 Kc4 65.Be5 Kb3 Carlsen has no intentions of capturing the b-pawn – he wants to play …Kc2 to support his central pawns queening. 66.Kd2 d3 67.Kd1 e3 68.Kc1 Kc4 0-1 Aronian throws in the towel, faced with the Black king creeping in n ow via the kingside with 69.Bf4 Kd4 70.Kd1 Ke4 71.Bh2 Kf3 72.Ke1 (If 72.Bg1 it is just a variation on a theme after 72…d2 73.Bh2 Kf2 with …e2+ and …e1Q+ coming.) 72…d2+ 73.Kd1 Kf2 and there’s no way to stop …e2+ and …e1Q+.

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