Magnus Carlsen is a player who sets himself very high standards. And although pleased with his stellar performances throughout most of 2019, he will end the year somewhat disappointed after an admission of ‘sluggish’ performances creeping into his play over the last four months: losing to Ding Liren in a playoff for the Sinquefield Cup, a crushing loss to Wesley So in the first official Fischer Random World Championship, and then losing to Maxime Vachier-Lagrave in their semifinal clash of the Grand Chess Tour Final, the marquee event of the London Chess Classic.
The keeper of all-stats Carlsen, Norwegian journalist Tarjei J. Svensen, gives us his check list of the World Champion’s classical performance throughout 2019 (+30 =47 -0): ✓ First time unbeaten in a calendar year. ✓ Highest-ever rating performance: 2893. ✓ Highest score percentage-wise: 69.48%. ✓ Most active year since 2008: 77 games.
Despite missing out on a Grand Chess Tour Final showdown with the “other player of 2019”, Ding Liren – the evental Tour champion and now emerging as a very serious title challenger possibility for the Norwegian’s global crown – there was some redemption for Carlsen with his third-place place victory over Levon Aronian at the London Chess Classic, where after getting off to a positive start with a typical trademark grind in the opening classical game, he miraculously came back from the dead in game 2 that so nearly saw his unbeaten streak coming to an end. But Carlsen somehow survived with a draw, and now his unbeaten streak extends to 107 classical games – if we included his two Norwegian league games against amateurs; which Carlsen himself doesn’t want to – with his last defeat coming on July 31 2018.
We now head into the new year with a new record attempt. The first major of 2020, the Tata Steel Chess Masters in wintery Wijk aan Zee in the Netherlands (10 – 26 January), will see Carlsen attempt to break the all-time record and go for 111-games undefeated, being just three-games short now of equalling Russian-Dutch grandmaster Sergey Tiviakov’s run of 110-games – against somewhat weaker opponents and many short draws, admittedly – undefeated that stretched over 11-months through 2004-2005.
Fittingly in London, one of Carlsen’s key wins in his third-place playoff victory over Aronian, that kept his unbeaten classical streak live, came with an opening that is intrinsically linked in chess history with the capital city. The moves ‘d4-Nf3-Bf4’ constitutes the ‘London System’, a universally popular opening equally at club-level, grandmaster and now – thanks to Carlsen adding it to his arsenal – even at elite-level, with it being a reliable and easy-to-learn set-up that can be adopted against virtually any Black defence.
The first player of note to play it regularly was the Irish master James Mason, one of the best chess players of the 1880s; with the first ever tournament game recorded at master-level being between Mason and Joseph Henry Blackburne in London, 1883 – and the leading English master of the day must have thought that the opening carried merit, because after his Mason encounter, he similarly became a devotee of the London System.
In those early years, the London System was known as the ‘Mason Variation’. The catalyst for the name-change proved to be the 1922 British Chess Federation Congress, a 16-player invitational held in London.
This was won by reigning World Champion José Raúl Capablanca (ahead of title aspirants Alekhine, Rubinstein, Bogoljubov and Reti) with an undefeated 13/15 – but many players adopted d4-Nf3-Bf4 set-ups, and this new-found popularity directly led to its rebranding to the London System.
Photo: A London in London for Magnus! | © Lennart Ootes / GCT
GM Magnus Carlsen – GM Levon Aronian
Grand Chess Tour Finals, (1)
1.d4 Nf6 2.Nf3 d5 3.Bf4 c5 4.e3 Nc6 5.Nbd2 This is a little subtlety from Carlsen. Ideally in the London System, White will play 5.c3 followed by Nbd2 and h3 to hide the bishop on h2 – but by playing 5.Nbd2 first, Carlsen retains the option in certain positions of playing c4 rather than c3 for a sort of QGD position. 5…cxd4 6.exd4 Qb6 Hitting the b-pawn and forcing White to defend it. We end up with a simple position, but Carlsen is the sort of player who thrives in being able to make much out of little. Alternatively, there’s the standard sort of set-up that goes 6…Bf5 7.c3 e6 8.Be2 Bd6 9.Bxd6 Qxd6 10.0-0 with equality. 7.Nb3 Bg4 8.a4 a6N A novelty from Aronian, the intention being to stop the a-pawn advancing any further to gain real estate on the queenside – and avoid a potentially dangerous pawn sacrifice seen after 8…e6 9.a5!? Bb4+ 10.c3 Bxa5 11.Ra3! with the threat of Qa1 winning the bishop that leads to a double-edged game, as seen in Van Foreest,J,Igonin,T Moscow 2016. But when facing Carlsen, I think I would rather defend the complexities of a double-edged position rather than allow him to gain more space to squeeze the very life out of his opponent! 9.a5 Qa7 Not a bad move per se, but this just doesn’t look right – the more natural try was 9…Qd8 10.c3 e6 11.Be2 Nh5 12.Be3 Bd6 and a better version of what comes in the game. 10.c3 e6 11.Be2 Nh5 12.Be3 Qb8 13.h3 Bxf3 14.Bxf3 Nf6 15.Be2 Bd6 The big drawback for Aronian is that, with his …Qa7-b8, his rook is out of the game on a8, and he will lose a tempo to get it back into the game – and you just can’t afford to be Carlsen’s ‘Secret Santa’ by gifting him a free tempo in a simple position! 16.Bd3 0-0 17.0-0 Qc7 18.Re1 Kh8!? Prophylaxis pure and simple – Aronian realises that Be3-g5 will be awkward to meet, and he tries to take the sting out of Carlsen’s attacking options on the kingside by creating a retreat square for the knight. Another try was 18…Bh2+ 19.Kh1 Bf4 trading the dark-squared bishops, but after 20.Bxf4 Qxf4 21.Qd2! Qxd2 22.Nxd2 the endgame with the queenside effectively on lock-down, is going to be tough for Black. 19.Qf3 Rae8 20.Bg5 Ng8 This is the reason from Aronian’s 18…Kh8!? – its just too dangerous to try 20…Nd7? as 21.Qh5 g6 (Definitely not 21…h6?? 22.Bxh6 gxh6 23.Qxh6+ Kg8 24.Qh7#) 22.Qh6 the weaknesses created by White on the kingside makes for a very difficult defence for Black. 21.Re2! The difference is that now 21.Qh5 is answered by 21…g6, and with no h6 available for the queen, now 22.Qf3 f6! and Black has a solid and coordinated position. And faced with that, Carlsen just switches plans for a more positional squeeze of his opponent, but for that plan, it is required to defend b2 in the event of the b-file being opened. Also, with the rook on e2, any …f6 possibilities will just weaken the e6-pawn with White ready to double rooks on the e-file. 21…Nge7 22.Qh5 Now with the knight moving away, we’re back to the weakening process on the kingside. 22…Ng6 23.Bc2 Carlsen is the supreme master of making “little moves” – these are moves that look innocuous at first, but long-term they serve a purpose. And here, it is just to defend the Nb3 in the event of Black opening the b-file. 23…Kg8 Some may wonder what the point of this move was, but in the grander scale of things, Aronian wants to trade off Carlsen’s irksome dark-squared bishop, but right now there’s a tactical mishap if he does with 23…Bf4? 24.Bxf4 Qxf4 25.Nc5 Qc7 26.Nxe6! winning a pawn and the position, as 26…Rxe6 27.Rxe6 fxe6 28.Bxg6 h6 29.Bd3 also leaves Black’s king vulnerable on the long white diagonal. 24.Bd2 Another of one of those “little moves” that Carlsen is the acclaimed master of. It doesn’t seem so obvious at first, but Carlsen realises that Aronian’s hopes of breaking the stranglehold is to play …b6, and he’s already preparing to counter that. 24…Nb4 25.Bb1 Nc6 26.Bd3 Rb8 I get the feeling that Aronian is trying too hard to finesse the position; he could have tried cutting straight to the chase with 26…b6!? 27.axb6 (It’s bad to snatch the a6-pawn with 27.Bxa6?! as now Black does emerge on top after 27…Rb8! 28.Bb5 bxa5 29.Ba4 Rb7 and Black has the advantage with the pressure mounting on the b-file.) 27…Qxb6 28.Bc2 Rc8 29.Be3 Qb5 30.Ra2 a5 and White has slightly the better of it with the more long-term prospects of targeting the a-pawn, but Black here has a more co-ordinated position as he gets in the game. 27.Be3 Rfe8 Only now does it become obvious why Carlsen played his “mysterious” 21.Re2 – if Aronian plays 27…b6 then 28.axb6 Rxb6 29.Nc5! and suddenly that a-pawn is looking more vulnerable as White already has b2 defended. 28.g3 Nf8 Aronian has finally got his pieces organised for the coming counterattack. 29.Bc2 b6 30.axb6 Rxb6 At long last, Aronian has managed to break free – his only worry now is going to be the vulnerable a-pawn. 31.Bc1 Making ready to play the awkward Nc5. 31…Reb8 The pressure on the b-file does look promising for Aronian, but how about 31…Rb5!? just stopping Carlsen getting in his awkward Nc5 that he wants to play? The reason my well be more complex, as now 32.Nc5 Bxc5 33.dxc5 Rxc5 Aronian may have been fearful that Carlsen might not take the a-pawn immediately, but instead go for the Ding-like rook lift with 34.Ra4! and suddenly the kingside is back on the agenda, with Rh4 being a major threat. And if 34…Rc4 35.Rxc4 dxc4 36.Qc5! White will win back the c-pawn, have rendered the a-pawn vulnerable, and has the added advantage of the bishop-pair vs knights for the attack. 32.Nc5 e5 This is risky though understandable, as Aronian goes all-in with his counterattacking chances. The risk, though, is that he’ll be left with too many pawn weaknesses going into the endgame. That said, the engines will tell you that Black is doing OK after 32…a5 33.Bd3 with the position being equal – but this is one scenario you don’t want to have with Magnus Carlsen across the board from, as he’ll somewhat sadistically enjoy grinding you down and honing in on that vulnerable a-pawn. 33.Nxa6 There is an element of risk snatching the pawn, but Carlsen has everything all under control. 33…Qa7 34.dxe5 g6 35.Qg4 Nxe5 36.Qa4! Just in the nick of time, Carlsen’s queen switches to the queenside to protect the knight. 36…Rc8 There’s no time for the obvious 36…Ra8? as 37.Nc5 simplifies everything after 37…Qxa4 38.Nxa4 for a material and positional advantage. 37.Be3 d4 38.Bxd4 The simple solution. Also working was 38.Nc5!? Qb8 39.cxd4 Rb4 40.Qa7 Nf3+ 41.Kg2 Nxd4 42.Bxd4 Rxd4 43.Ne4! with the advantage and the extra passed b-pawn. 38…Nf3+ Even better first was 38…Rc4!? 39.b4 when now 39…Nf3+ 40.Kg2 Nxd4 41.cxd4 Rxd4 and Black’s pieces are more active than in the game. 39.Kg2 Nxd4 40.Qxd4 Ne6 41.Rxe6! (see diagram) Carlsen’s exchange sacrifice takes full advantage of the pin on the rook and queen. 41…fxe6 42.Be4 Rf8! The only sensible move with all the other pieces tied down; and also avoiding the pitfalls of 42…Rxa6? 43.Qxa7 Rxa7 44.Rxa7 with a winning advantage. 43.Ra2 Rb7 44.Qxa7 Rxa7 45.b4 Supported by his pieces, Carlsen’s passed pawns now rapidly move up the board. 45…Rb8?! The only try, as correctly pointed out by the engines, was to stop the pawns rolling in unison with 45…Rc8! 46.c4 With the pawns rolling, Aronian stands no chance. 46…Rb6 47.b5 Kf7 48.Rc2 Rbxa6 Forced, as Aronian can’t allow Carlsen to consolidate his passed pawns with Bd3 and threatening c5. 49.bxa6 Rxa6 50.c5 Be5 Aronian’s only hope is somehow to engineer the trade of rooks and the notoriously drawn bishops of opposite colour ending – but Carlsen sidesteps this. 51.c6 Ra7 52.h4 Kf6 53.Rd2 Bc3 54.Rd3 The rest is just a matter of technique, as Carlsen easily converts the win. 54…Bb4 55.Kh3 The idea is Kh3-g4 and playing h5 to add a further pawn weakness on the kingside. 55…Be7 56.f3 e5 57.Rc3 Bd6 58.Rc1 h6 59.Rd1 Be7 60.Kg4 Kf7 If 60…h5+ then 61.Kh3 and White will soon be following up with g4. 61.Rb1 Bd6 62.h5 gxh5+ 63.Kxh5 Resignation can’t be far off for Aronian, as Carlsen now hones in on the h-pawn. 63…Kg7 64.Rd1 Bb4 65.Rd5 Re7 66.Bf5 1-0 With no easy answers to Bd7, Aronian resigns, not wanting to play-out 66…Rc7 67.Bd7 Bc3 68.Rd6 winning the h-pawn.