It wasn’t a question of if, but when the record would fall. And for World Champion Magnus Carlsen, that date with destiny was set to come in Round 4 of the Tata Steel Masters in Wijk aan Zee in The Netherlands, as he drew with Jorden van Foreest, the rapidly improving 2016 Dutch champion, as the Norwegian ace added yet another accolade to his epic record-breaking career at the chessboard.
And with that hard-fought draw against a difficult young opponent, Carlsen has now gone 111-games without losing in Classical Chess, and he now edges past the record for the longest unbeaten streak in chess history, eclipsing the previous record of 110-games set by the Dutch/Russian GM Sergei Tiviakov in 2005.
Carlsen’s new record, though, was achieved against mainly elite-level opposition compared to Tiviakov’s, with an average Fide rating of 2700+ to 2476 by the previous holder, who during his streak had to play in many mixed international events. Speaking on Norwegian TV 2, Tiviakov magnanimous the loss of the record, commenting that: “Of course it’s sad. But Magnus is about to become the greatest chess player ever. I am not losing the record to an ordinary player, but one that really deserves it. I am still proud my record stood for 15 years.”
Curiously, Carlsen had previously suggested that he might consider the streak only truly broken after another two games without loss, as he didn’t really want to count two wins against amateurs in the Norwegian league – but Carlsen doesn’t get to pick and chose which stats are used for a record run! Interviewed immediately after drawing with van Foreest, pragmatically Carlsen says his streak against top players is 109, and against good players it’s 111. “Both are records,” he claimed, “and I am pleased about that.”
The Carlsen unbeaten run saga has almost – but not quite! – made a sideshow of the main event. In Round 4 there was a big clash of the leader and a leading member of the chasing pack, as the 16-year-old sensation Alireza Firouzja, formerly of Iran, but now ‘stateless’ (playing under the FIDE flag), took on Wesley So, with the US #2 squeezing out a somewhat unlikely win against his opponent to move into the outright lead, as the tournament takes its first rest day.
1. W. So (USA) 3/4; 2-6. J. Xiong (USA), A. Firouzja (FIDE), F. Caruana (USA), J. Van Foreest (Netherlands), V. Artemiev (Russia) 2½; 7-10. M. Carlsen (Norway), A. Giri (Netherlands), J-K. Duda (Poland), D. Dubov (Russia) 2; 11-12. N. Vitiugov (Russia), V. Anand (India) 1½; 13. Yu Yangyi (China) 1; 14. V. Kovalev (Belorussia) ½.
Video opposite: Magnus Carlsen interviewed on his record-breaking 111-game unbeaten streak.
GM Wesley So – GM Alireza Firouzja
Tata Steel Masters, (4)
Queen’s Gambit Accepted
1.d4 d5 2.c4 dxc4 3.Nf3 Nf6 4.e3 e6 5.Bxc4 c5 6.0-0 a6 7.b3 Not the most testing against the Queen’s Gambit Accepted, but So generally likes quiet build-ups. 7…cxd4 8.Nxd4 Be7 9.Bb2 0-0 10.Be2 Bd7 11.Nd2 Nc6 12.Rc1 Rc8 13.N4f3 Given half a chance, So would like to have his knight dominate from the e5 outpost. 13…b5 Expanding on the queenside and stopping Nd2-c4-e5. 14.a3 Qb6 15.Rc2 e5 16.Bd3 Rfd8 17.Qe2 Bg4 18.Rfc1 Na7!? The timely trades down the c-file just uncomplicates Black’s game. 19.Rxc8 There was also the option of 19.Bxe5 Bxa3 20.Rxc8 Rxc8 21.Rxc8+ Nxc8 22.Bb1 where White’s bishops have more attacking scope – but, long-term, he will have to deal with Black’s queenside majority. 19…Rxc8 20.Rxc8+ Nxc8 21.h3 Bxf3 22.Qxf3 Qd8 23.Qe2 Qd5 24.Bc2 Nd6 25.Qd3 Qxd3 26.Bxd3 Nd7 27.g4 For Wesley So the Lord is moving in mysterious, though quite positional, ways! Grabbing a little more space on the kingside, So, with his bishop-pair, gains a little positional advantage – but is it going to be enough to force a win? 27…g6 28.Ne4 Nxe4 29.Bxe4 Nc5 30.Bc2 We now reach what becomes the critical phase of the game, and one where Firouzja cracks under the pressure by badly misplaying the ending. The sort of thing that, as a rapidly improving 16-year-old, you just have to chalk down to experience; a hard-lesson learned. 30…e4? A very puzzling move from Firouzja, who all but gifts So the doomed e4-pawn. The position was tough, with So having the advantage of the bishop-pair, but after 30…f6 31.Kg2 Kf7 32.b4 Na4!? 33.Bb3+ Ke8 34.Ba1 Nb6 White still has a lot of work to do to claim that he has a winning advantage. 31.b4 Nd3 I think the crux of the position is that Firouzja has simply miscalculated, believing So has to play 32.Bxd3 exd3 33.Bc3 Bf6! 34.Bd2 Bb2 and a draw. This is the only thing I can think of, as 31…Na4 then the problem is that, with the e-pawn now on e4, White has 32.Bd4 and suddenly the …Na4 is trapped on the rim; and if 32…f5 to defend e4, now comes 33.gxf5 gxf5 34.Bb3+ Kf8 35.Be6 and White is going to win both the f- and e-pawns. 32.Bc3! White can simply play around the …Nd3, with Kf1-e2 winning a pawn. 32…Kf8 It’s just difficult now for Black. If 32…f5 33.Kf1! Bh4 34.gxf5 gxf5 35.f3 and either way, Black is facing a hopelessly lost position, as generally there’s no salvation with bishops of the same colour endings, as we’re heading into here. 33.Kf1 With the knight ‘marooned’ on d3, White will win a pawn – thankfully it will not be the notoriously drawing bishops of opposite colours, but will the extra pawn be enough here to win? 33…f5 34.Ke2 Bd8 35.Bxd3 exd3+ 36.Kxd3 Kf7 37.e4 fxg4? Objectively, the game is lost with this move. The best try for Black is 37…Ke6! where now 38.f4 Bb6 attempts to stop the White king crossing. It’s not so clear how White wins – there’s nothing concrete I see that forces a win, one example being 39.Bd2 Ba7 40.exf5+ (Alternatively, 40.e5 Kd5 41.Be3 Bb8 42.g5 (If 42.gxf5 gxf5 43.Bc5 Bc7 44.Ke3 Bd8 the bishop stops the king getting to h4.) 42…Bc7 43.Bd4 Bb8 44.Bb6 Kc6 45.Bd4 Kd5 46.Bc5 Bc7 and, unless I’m missing something – which I wouldn’t rule out! – then there doesn’t look to be a way through for White to win.) 40…gxf5 41.Bc3 Bb8 42.Ke3 Bc7 43.Kf3 there could well be a win in here somewhere, but I see no way for White to make progress. For example, if 43…Bb6 44.g5 Kf7 the Black king comes to g6 stopping White playing Kf2-g3-h4-h5 – and if the White king now runs back over to the queenside, then Black has Kf7-g6-h5! and White’s kingside pawns are in danger of falling. Perhaps there’s a way to finesse a win, but there’s just no clear-cut way I see to do so. 38.hxg4 [see diagram] There’s no way to prevent the endgame loss now 38…g5 If 38…Bg5 39.e5! h5 40.gxh5 gxh5 41.Bd2 Be7! 42.f4 h4 43.Be1 h3 44.Bg3 Bh4 45.Bh2 and there’s no stopping Ke4 and f5 to start pushing home the passed pawns. 39.Kd4 Bb6+ There’s nothing left now. If 39…Bf6+ 40.e5 Be7 41.Kd5 and the White king will get to c6 and then capture the queenside pawns. 40.Kd5 Bxf2 41.Kc6 Once again, there’s no stopping White picking off the queenside pawns. 41…Ke6 42.Kb7 Kd7 43.Kxa6 Kc6 44.e5 Be3 45.e6 Bc1 46.a4 bxa4 47.Be5! 1-0 A beautiful winning endgame finesse from So that forces Firouzja’s resignation, as now the b- or e-pawn can’t be stopped from queening.