“Uneasy lies the head that wears the crown,” is a famous quote from William Shakespeare’s King Henry the IV, Part II. And with 2020 being a title-defence year, this quote could equally apply to the pressures being heaped right now on World Champion Magnus Carlsen, who after a long run of draws, will be relieved to finally get off the mark with his first win at the Tata Steel Masters in Wijk aan Zee, as he seeks out an eighth title.
Carlsen finally ended his streak of seven draws by defeating Nikita Vitiugov in Round 8 – but it proved to be a surprising win, to say the least, as his Russian opponent seemed dumbstruck facing the world champion by offering up a somewhat premature resignation in a difficult position. “I think he was just fed up,” Carlsen explained in the video below. The win though keeps Carlsen’s unbeaten streak active, now at 115-games – his last loss being at the hands of Shakhriyar Mamedyarov at the Biel Masters on 31 July, 2018 – but, more importantly, it puts him back in the hunt for an eighth Tata title, being in the chasing pack a full point behind the leaders, and with his next game coming up on Tuesday being against one of the leaders!
As the first major of the year now enters into its final week, the co-leaders are the young 16-year-old Iranian exile Alireza Firouzja, the new generational threat to Carlsen’s crown, and Fabiano Caruana, the American former title challenger who still has designs on Carlsen’s crown. Caruana joined Firouzja at the top on 5½/8 by virtue of former five-time ex-world champion Vishy Anand somehow managing to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory. Carlsen has already played Caruana and drawn – but now comes what could well be the most intriguing game of all at Wijk, as the Norwegian faces rising star Firouzja for the first time in a super-tournament.
The script really can’t get any better than this. A win for Carlsen and the tournament is blown wide open once again; lose, and many will claim there’s now a genuine ‘young pretender’ to his world championship crown. So far, Firouzja has won all of his games with white – and his next white is against Carlsen! And if he does beat Carlsen, not only would he have ended his long unbeaten streak, but it would instal the teenager as favourite to win the first major of the year, in what would be a memorable first super-tournament victory.
The highest published rating ever by a 16-year-old is Wei Yi’s 2737; and now many are wondering whether Firouzja – currently standing at 2737.6 on the unofficial live ratings, with a gain of nearly 15-points, and rising seven places to break into the World Top 20 for the first time – can maintain his performance in the final week to smash that record? And with time firmly on his side – a year and a half, to be precise – another more relevant and interesting question for 2020 is whether he can smash Carlsen’s U-18 record of 2786? Also, when Carlsen won the first of his seven Wijk titles over a decade ago in 2008 (equal first with Levon Aronian), the then-young Norwegian was half a year or so older than Firouzja, and with nearly a year’s worth of super-tournament experience behind him.
The big Firouzja vs. Carlsen clash on Tuesday could prove to be a match-up that not only to decide the tournament, but also equally define the future of chess!
1-2. F. Caruana (USA), A. Firouzja (FIDE) 5½/8; 3-4. W. So (USA), J. Van Foreest (Netherlands) 5; 5-6. J-K. Duda (Poland), M. Carlsen (Norway) 4½; 7-9. D. Dubov (Russia), A. Giri (Netherlands), V. Artemiev (Russia) 4; 10. V. Anand (India) 3½; 11. J. Xiong (USA) 3; 13-14. N. Vitiugov (Russia), V. Kovalev (Belorussia) 2½.
Video opposite: A relieved Magnus Carlsen wins his first game – now comes the big generational clash as the world champion meets Firouzja!
GM Magnus Carlsen – GM Nikita Vitiugov
Tata Steel Masters, (8)
Ruy Lopez, Martinez Variation
1.e4 e5 2.Nf3 Nc6 3.Bb5 a6 4.Ba4 Nf6 5.0-0 Be7 6.d3 The modest but solid ‘Martinez Variation’ has the advantage of cutting off most of the opening theory associated with the Lopez – so no need to worry about the Marshall Attack, Chigorin, Zaitsev or the Breyer. 6…b5 7.Bb3 d6 8.Bd2 0-0 9.h3 h6 10.Re1 Re8 11.a3 Bf8 12.Nc3 Rb8 13.Ba2 Ne7 14.Nh4 Both sides begin the process of probing for knight outpost – for White, the critical squares are f5 and g4, for Black its f4. 14…g5 15.Nf3 Ng6 16.Nh2 c6 17.Ne2 d5 18.Ng3 dxe4 19.dxe4 Rb7 20.Qf3 Nf4 21.Rad1 Rd7 22.Be3 Rxd1 23.Rxd1 Qe7 24.Ng4 Nxg4 25.hxg4 Rd8 26.Re1 c5 27.Nf5 Qc7 Not an easy position to find yourself defending against the World Champion. Immediately trading the strong knight had consequences, with 27…Bxf5 28.exf5 Qf6 29.g3 Ng6 30.Qb7! and suddenly Black’s position looks very vulnerable. 28.g3 As we will soon see, this is a move not just designed to kick the knight from its outpost. 28…Ne6? Vitiugov missed a vital move that would have kept him longer in the game – and how he now pays for it. After 28…Be6! 29.Bb1 (If 29.gxf4 exf4! 30.Bxe6 fxe6 31.Bc1 exf5 32.exf5 Qd7! Black has equality.) 29…Ng6 30.Qh1 Bxf5 31.exf5 Ne7 32.c4! Qc6 33.Be4 Qd6 White is clearly better, but Black is far from dead here. 29.Qh1! [see diagram] It is said in chess that one of the most difficult winning moves to spot is a retreating move – and more so here, as its the queen and a retreat all the way right back to h1! But it comes with major threats now to h6 that can’t be easily answered. 29…f6 Welcome to Awkwardsville: Population Nikita Vitiugov! Carlsen is probing many weaknesses now. If Black tries 29…Nd4 30.Nxh6+ Bxh6 31.Bxd4! he’s forced into the compromising position of having to follow up with 31…Kg7 32.Be3 Bxg4 33.f3 Bc8 34.Bd5 Rd6 35.Qh5 Rg6 36.Kf2 with g4 followed by Rd1 or Rh1 with a big bind on the position. The second point is that 29…Kh7 30.Bxe6 fxe6 31.Nxh6!! is crashing through to win. 30.Bd5 1-0 The resignation is arguably premature for sure – but White has a big advantage now, though Black can try and hang on a bit longer with 30…Qh7, but after the second retreating move of 31.Bd2! suddenly the threat of Ba5 puts the Black rook in a quandary about where to go. If 31…Bd7 32.Ba5 Rb8 33.b4 and now Black is beginning to run out of sensible moves to make, hence Vitiugov throwing in the towel.