The omens for 2020 are beginning to look good for Fabiano Caruana ahead of the upcoming Candidates Tournament this title-defence year, as the American world #2 continues his amazing winning streak in the first major of the year at the Tata Steel Masters in Wijk aan Zee, to further extend his lead at the top over World Champion Magnus Carlsen as we head into the final two rounds of play over the weekend.
Title rivals Carlsen and Caruana had gone on a tear with a to ominously move ahead of the pack going down the home stretch – but while Carlsen was held to a draw in Round 11 by the very enterprising young Pole Jan-Krzysztof Duda, Caruana made hay by crushing what must be a now demoralised Belarus tailender Vladislav Kovalev.
Going into Saturday’s penultimate round, Caruana leads Carlsen by a full point at the top with his impressive +5 score of 8/11, with American #2, Wesley So, in third place on 6½ (and Carlsen and So meeting in Round 13). With the lead Caruana now has, it is going to be a tough ask for Carlsen to add an eighth Wijk title to his already record haul of seven. However, there’s lots to play for, and Carlsen still has a live unbeaten elite-level record now standing at 118-games.
If Caruana does carry on this performance to win the tournament, the result will come as a timely confidence-booster ahead of the Candidates Tournament in Yekaterinburg, Russia this coming March, as the American hopes for another tilt at Carlsen’s world crown after he narrowly lost out to the Norwegian on tiebreaks during a close match in London in 2018.
Spare a thought though for world title wannabe Alireza Firouzja. Playing in his first super-tournament, the young 16-year-old Iranian exile was making all the news with a big breakthrough performance-in-the-making that saw him briefly lead the tournament and enter the unofficial top 20 for the first time. But the last three rounds has seen the promising teenager have a reality check by facing three world title rivals in Carlsen, Caruana, and now Vishy Anand…and he’s lost to all three!
1. F. Caruana (USA) 8/11; 2. M. Carlsen (Norway) 7; 3. W. So (USA) 6½; 4-5. J. Van Foreest (Netherlands), J-K. Duda (Poland) 6; 6-10. V. Anand (India) D. Dubov (Russia), A. Firouzja (FIDE), A. Giri (Netherlands), V. Artemiev (Russia) 5½; 11. J. Xiong (China) 5; 12-13. N. Vitiugov (Russia), Yu Yangyi (China) 4; 14. V. Kovalev (Belarus) 3.
Video opposite: Another big win for Fabiano Caruana, and the American world #2 edges further ahead of Magnus Carlsen.
GM Vladislav Kovalev – GM Fabiano Caruana
Tata Steel Masters, (11)
Ruy Lopez, Archangel variation
1.e4 e5 2.Nf3 Nc6 3.Bb5 a6 4.Ba4 Nf6 5.0-0 b5 6.Bb3 Bc5 A somewhat surprising choice for Caruana. The Archangel was developed in the early Sixties by players from the north Russian port town of Archangelsk. Back then, in the days of yore BC (before computers), the proper way to play it with 6…Bb7 that was fun and led to fascinating positions – but computers beat them to a pulp. And this popular new Archangels off-shot only makes sense for Caruana in that he is looking to lure the tournament tail-ender out of his comfort zone of what he might have prepared for his Petroff. 7.c3 d6 8.a4 Rb8 9.d4 Bb6 10.axb5 axb5 11.Na3 0-0 12.Nxb5 Bg4 So far, so theory – this was all seen in Game 9 of the 2016 Karjakin-Carlsen World Championship Match in New York. 13.Re1 Not the best move. In the aforementioned title match, play went 13.Bc2 exd4 14.Nbxd4 Nxd4 15.cxd4 Bxf3 16.gxf3 Nh5 and we had a balanced game that ended in a lengthy draw (74). 13…Bxf3 14.gxf3 Nh5! A nuisance move to have to deal with for White, as Black – thanks to the shattered kingside pawns – sets his sights on the weak f3 pawn with …Qf6 (or even …Qh4) and …Nf4. 15.f4?! Panic more than anything else. Kovalev obviously doesn’t want to allow Caruana to get a grip on the position with his ready attack on the f3 and f4 squares, so he unwisely decides he’d be better pressing the ‘gamble button’ now rather than being tied down to passive defence. Sure, it is going to be a tough defence, but White can try 15.Be3 Qf6 16.Kh1! with the idea of following up with Rg1 and Bg5; and, if needed, Rg1-g2 to defend the king. 15…Nxf4 16.Bxf4 exf4 17.Kh1 This move will have to be played eventually, so Kovalev opts to get it over and done with right away. 17…Ne7 The knight is heading to g6 to shore up the defence of the vital …f4 pawn. 18.Bc2 Ng6 19.b4 c6 20.Na3 c5! The opening of lines only helps Caruana, and leaves White’s central pawns as a sitting target. 21.bxc5? This just plays into Black’s hands – Kovalev really needed to keep the tension in the position with 21.Nb5. 21…dxc5 22.Nc4 cxd4! 23.Nxb6 Rxb6 24.cxd4 Rd6 25.Ra4 In an ideal world you’d like to play 25.d5 – but that just gifts Black a wonderful outpost for his knight to orchestrate the kingside attack with …Ne5 followed by …Qh4, …Rh6 and perhaps even …g5-g4. 25…Ne5 26.f3 Nc6! Kovalev is caught between a rock and a hard place now – he either has to play d5 and no way to stop the easy attack with …Ne5, …Qh4 and …Rh6 etc, or lose the d-pawn. He ops for the latter, but he still goes down quickly. 27.e5 Rxd4 28.Rxd4 Nxd4 29.Be4 Qh4! Conveniently, the hanging rook on e1 clears the path for a speedy Black victory. 30.Rg1 Rd8 31.Qf1 g6 Black’s knight dominates the bishop – and equally Black’s queen and rook dominates its counterparts. 32.Rg4 Qe7 33.Rxf4? Clearly frustrated, Kovalev collapses – but it was hard to see how could hang on anyway here with all his pieces lacking any co-ordination. 33…Qxe5 34.Rh4 Ne6! [see diagram] Heading to f4 where there will be an unstoppable mating threat with the rook and queen either on the back-rank or on h2. And with it, that knight has has made a nice little winning pirouette around the board of…Nb8-c6-e7-g6-e5-c6xd4-e6-f4! 35.Rh3 Nf4 36.Rg3 Rd2 0-1 Kovalev has had enough and throws the towel in, as there’s no answer to the double threats of …Qb2 and …Qh5 that doesn’t involve a heavy material loss.