This time last year, even after just successfully defending his world crown against Fabiano Caruana, there was a chasing pack beginning to close in on numero uno Magnus Carlsen in the world rankings, and many pundits and commentators believed the Norwegian could well be just human after all. But the World Champion has turned it all around again with his almost perfect year, as he rises dramatically once again in the world rankings, and with it, still on a remarkable 100+ unbeaten streak in classical games.
The only real (classical) setback for Carlsen in 2019 was missing out on the Sinquefield Cup title after he lost a dramatic speed playoff to Ding Liren in the Grand Chess Tour leg in Saint Louis. Losing a major title to a potential title-challenger will always be a blow, but Carlsen had his own form of revenge recently over the Chinese world #3.
Previously, the elite-level unbeaten record was held by Ding Liren at 100-games – and while Carlsen may have had some personal satisfaction in passing that milestone, he still has work to do to pass Russian-Dutch GM Sergei Tiviakov’s all-comers 110-game unbeaten run achieved in 2004/05. Admittedly, a number of Tiviakov’s opponents were sub-2200-level, and it also included many short draws against 2500s and 2600s.
But a record is a record despite the strength of the opposition and the short GM draws – and all records are there to be broken! Carlsen’s goal is 111-games undefeated, but he announced in mid-November that he would be handicapping himself by not counting two games played for his new club Offerspill SK in the Norwegian league, as those were against lower rated amateurs.
Carlsen is going for a 2700+ elite-level unbeaten record. And with the Grand Chess Tour Finals getting underway today, the marquee event of the London Chess Classic, a draw – with “crazy complications,” as Carlsen describes it – against Maxime Vachier-Lagrave in their semifinal match-up, now takes the streak to 102-games. The other semifinal between Ding Liren and Levon Aronian also ended in a draw, but not nearly as exciting!
Photo: Maurice Ashley and Magnus Carlsen play through the “crazy complications” for spectators | © Lennart Ootes/GCT
GM Magnus Carlsen – GM Maxime Vachier-Lagrave
Grand Chess Tour Finals, (1)
1.e4 c5 2.Nf3 d6 3.d4 cxd4 4.Nxd4 Nf6 5.Nc3 a6 6.Bg5 e6 7.f3 These two moves together is a rarity in the Najdorf, being neither one thing nor another. By that I mean Bg5 is generally followed by f4 and a typical all-out Najdorf battle, or a more positional battle with an English Attack-like set-up with Be3 and f3. 7…h6 8.Be3 b5 9.a3 Nbd7 10.Qd2 Bb7 11.0-0-0 h5 Faced with seeing Carlsen’s obscure set-up for perhaps the first time, MVL opts for …h5, a standard sort of response to the English Attack, as it stops an early g4 kingside attack. With time to look more carefully at his options, perhaps next time MVL will try 11…Rc8!? with the plan of going for …Be7 and then cutting straight to the chase with a …d5!? counter-attack? At least this way, if White tries to “go for it” with h4 (to follow with g4), then now Black can hold things up with …h5. 12.Kb1 Be7 13.Qe1 Rc8 14.Rg1 If you think Carlsen is preparing the ground to suddenly go for an all-out kingside attack, then think again – his Rg1 is just a subtle way of getting to double his rooks on the d-file, while at the same time keeping his options open on that kingside attack. Either way, MVL now has to think carefully about what he does now. 14…Qc7 A solid, traditional Najdorf move – but also an interesting option was the immediate counter-attack with 14…d5!? 15.g3 Ne5 16.Rg2 It looks strange, but it defends c2 and can also get ready for the ‘lift’ over to d2 with perhaps threats down the d-file. 16…0-0 17.h3 As someone asked during the live online coverage: “What’s the point of Carlsen playing g3 and h3?” The point is indeed a subtle one, as coming to g2, the rook defends c2 and can come to d2 to double on the d-file – but with h3 in the mix, now there’s a way to kick that strong …Ne5 outpost with f4. 17…d5 18.f4 Nc4 19.e5! MVL’s knight outposts do look somewhat menacing, but Carlsen is just going to swap them off. 19…Nxe3 20.Qxe3 Ne4 After the alternative of 20…Nd7, then now 21.g4! and White has the makings of a promising kingside attack. 21.Nxe4 dxe4 22.Re2 It’s not so easy now for White to bash on with 22.g4 as 22…h4 and …Bd5 gives Black a promising attack on the queenside. 22…Bd5 23.Bg2 Qc4 24.Nb3 Bc5?! MVL must be so confidant that he has a more-or-less forced a draw with this move – however, I felt that safer was the more natural-looking try with 24…b4!? 25.axb4 Qxb4 26.Bxe4 Bxb3 27.Qxb3 Qxb3 28.cxb3 Rfd8 and I can’t see this being anything other than a draw due to the opposite-coloured bishops and White’s doubled b-pawns. 25.Nxc5 Qa2+ 26.Kc1 Rfd8 Admittedly, it does all look somewhat dangerous for White – but has MVL missed something? 27.c4! [see diagram] The only move – but it is a very good one! 27…bxc4 The (full) point is that 27…Bxc4 28.Rxd8+ Rxd8 29.Rd2! and as the dust clears, White has all the bases covered and will emerge with an extra piece. And if 27…Qxc4+ White simply plays 28.Rc2 Qa2 29.Rd4! and suddenly the White king escapes to safety via d2 and will be shielded by a wall of pieces. 28.Red2?! Could this have been Magnus’ missed moment? It’s never easy to want to voluntarily put your knight on the rim, but with 28.Na4!? this could be Carlsen’s last realistic chance to go for more than a draw. It all looks very dangerous though, but the playing engines concur that after 28…Bc6 29.Rxd8+ Rxd8 30.Nc3 Qa1+ 31.Nb1 Rd3 32.Qg1 (If 32.Qc5 Bd5 and the threat of …c3 is never far away.) 32…c3 (The alternative 32…Rb3 looked more menacing, but is less convincing after 33.Qd4! c3 34.Bxe4 Bxe4 35.Qxe4 Rxb2 36.Rxb2 Qxb2+ 37.Kd1 h4 38.gxh4 Qb3+ 39.Qc2 Qb5 40.Ke1 and White looks to be winning.) 33.Qe1 Bd5 34.bxc3 Ba2 35.Rxa2 Qxa2 36.Bxe4 Rd8 White has a material advantage, but, crucially, his king is far from safe from ideas like …Rb8 and …Qc4 and it is just going to be really difficult – without Black helping in some way or other – for White to think of playing to win with any certain confidence. But hey, White at least has the material advantage here, so who knows? 28…Qa1+ 29.Kc2 Qa2 30.Kc1 White has to repeat moves, otherwise ..b3 followed by …Bb3+ will be good for Black. 30…Qa1+ 31.Kc2 Qa2 32.Kc1 ½-½ The players shook hands here. And honourable result as there’s no way to avoid the repetition, as 32.Rc1 backfire after 32…c3! 33.Qxc3 Bb3+ 34.Nxb3 Rxc3+ 35.Kxc3 Rc8+ 36.Kd4 Rxc1 37.Nxc1 Qd5+ 38.Ke3 Qc5+ 39.Kxe4 Qxc1 and White is on the brink of disaster having his king walking around in no man’s land.