THERE IS STILL TIME TO START A SPRING PROGRAM!

John Henderson
By John Henderson

The three-letter entry ELO has appeared many times and in many popular newspaper crosswords. Invariably, ELO (Electric Light Orchestra) has been clued to the British 1970s symphonic rock band co-founded in Birmingham by Jeff Lynne, Bev Bevan, Richard Tandy and Roy Wood, whose timeless body of work includes killer hits such as “Turn to Stone”, “Mr Blue Sky”, “Livin’ Thing”, “Telephone Line”, “Wild West Hero” and “Don’t Bring Me Down”.

Recently, though, it was pointed out to me that in a New York Times Crossword set by acclaimed puzzler Alex Eaton-Salners, the clue referred not to the usual suspects of the 2017 Rock Hall of Fame inductees, but rather the non-acronym family name of the U.S. Chess Hall of Famer Arpad Emrick Elo (1903-92), the Hungarian-born former professor of physics at Marquette University in Milwaukee who created the chess rating system.

His innovative system for measuring and calibrating the performance of players was first adopted by the USCF in 1960. And a decade later, in 1970, Elo’s system gained international acceptance by being adopted by the game’s governing body FIDE, to be the universal benchmark for awarding titles, grading tournaments and rating chess players worldwide.

That first Elo International Rating List had only a few hundred or so names on it, but the number has grown exponentially over the last five decades or so. Initially, Elo ratings came out annually, then quarterly, but with the vast increase in computing power in today’s digital age, the processing of data is now done on a monthly basis, and still an eagerly awaited event for tens of thousands of active players, from world champion to tournament novices, none of whom wish to see their ratings being brought down.

Controversially, Elo’s first list provoked the scorn of the Soviet authorities when it showed Bobby Fischer at the top as #1 ahead of the then World Champion Boris Spassky. An accusing Cold War finger was pointed at the American statistician, but nevertheless Elo’s new system predicted with eerie accuracy the final result of the ‘Match of the Century’, as the 1972 Reykjavik duel became known as.

And with each world title defence year thereafter, a keen interest is shown with the publication of any Elo list – and the recent February list proved no different, especially with it coming with renewed interest of another possible tilt at Magnus Carlsen’s world crown from Fabiano Caruana, following the American’s sensational start to 2020 with his +7 runaway victory at the Tata Steel Masters in Wijk aan Zee, as he finished a full two points clear of Carlsen, with the Norwegian dropping 10 points despite his +3 runner-up score.

With that standout performance, the world #2 dramatically reduced the gap at the top over Carlsen to now just 20 points; and with it, also his second-best rating ever at 2842, just a couple of points shy of his highest rating of 2844 (in the October list of 2014), achieved in the aftermath of his sensational 7/7 starting streak to the Sinquefield Cup, as he went on to also take that major title ahead of Carlsen.

And with the Candidates Tournament due in Ekaterinburg, Russia, in March, a now red-hot Caruana has been installed by the commentators and pundits as the clear favourite ahead of China’s Ding Liren to emerge as the winner for what would be a second successive title shot at Carlsen.

FIDE February Top-10
1. Magnus Carlsen, 2862 (-10); 2. Fabiano Caruana, 2842 (+20); 3. Ding Liren, 2805 (=); 4. Alexander Grischuk, 2777 (=); 5. Ian Nepomniachtchi, 2774 (=); 6. Levon Aronian, 2773 (=); 7. Shakhriyar Mamedyarov, 2770 (=); 8. Wesley So, 2770 (+5); 9. Maxime Vachier-Lagrave, 2770 (=); 10. Teimour Radjabov, 2765 (=)

Photo: Fabiano Caruana drastically reduces the gap at the top with numero uno Magnus Carlsen | © Alina l’Almi / Tata Steel Chess

GM Fabiano Caruana – GM Alireza Firouzja
82nd Tata Steel Masters, (10)
King’s Indian Defence, Makagonov System
1.d4 Nf6 2.c4 g6 3.Nc3 Bg7 4.e4 d6 5.h3 The Makagonov System was named after the Soviet-era five-time Azerbaijan champion Vladimir Makagonov (1904-93), who was little known outside of his homeland, though he became more regarded as a chess coach working alongside Vasily Smyslov for his 1957 title match with Botvinnik, and, later, one of young Garry Kasparov’s first chess teachers. 5…0-0 6.Be3 This quiet system – which is something of a pet-line for the American #1, much like Yasser Seirawan before him – is as good as any to avoid all the critical mainline mayhem in the King’s Indian Defence. With the early 5.h3, White prevents …Ng4 and can now play Be3 and leisurely prepare Qd2. Another idea is to prevent Black from expanding on the kingside with …f5 by playing g2-g4. 6…Nc6 This is not the usual way to play against this system – normally we see a standard KID set-up with 6…e5 7.d5 a5 8.g4 Na6 9.Nge2 and a balanced game. But here, Firouzja – the top-rated junior on the latest FIDE February Rating List – put’s the cat amongst the pigeons with his provocative move…and Caruana wastes no time in taking him on. 7.d5 Ne5 8.f4 Gaining more space, and with it, consigning Firouzja to a really miserable Alekhine’s Defence/Four Pawns Attack-like struggle ahead – and unlike the aforementioned Four Pawns Attack, there’s no obvious breaks nor weak points in the center for Black to strike back at. 8…Ned7 9.g4 We’ve gone from the Four Pawns Attack to now the Five Pawns Attack! 9…c6 10.Nf3 cxd5 11.cxd5 The engines may well say that White’s advantage here is around a meaningless +0.52, but long-term, Black just has no space nor good squares to complete his development on. Meanwhile, White has the ready-plan of finishing his development, castling queenside and pressing on with the looming kingside pawn storm. 11…b6 Even more puzzling, this just leaves a big gapping hole on c6, and Caruana wastes no time in looking to take full advantage of that. 12.Nd4 Nc5 13.Qf3 Bb7 14.g5 Nfxe4!?! Clearly frustrated of how bad his position has become and how quickly, Firouzja seeks to further complicate the game with a speculative sacrifice you’d be more likely to see in a blitz or online tussle. On the positive side, it at least offers him some badly needed free piece-play. 15.Nxe4 Bxd5 16.Nf6+ exf6 17.Qxd5 Re8 18.Nc2 It looks as if Firouzja might have ‘something’ after his speculative sacrifice – but once Caruana safely castles queenside, it is clear to see that Black’s game will become a wreck. 18…fxg5 19.0-0-0! gxf4 20.Bd4! Of course, 20.Bxf4? would have walked right into the trap of 20…Qf6 21.Qd4 Qf5 22.Qd2 Na4! and Black is winning. But with the simple trade of Black’s menacing dark-squared bishop, his game soon collapses. 20…Bxd4 21.Qxd4 Ne6 22.Qd2 Qf6 23.Kb1 Prophylaxis pure and simple, as Caruana wisely nudges his king out of the firing zone down the c-file. 23…Rac8 24.Bb5 Red8 25.Nb4 d5 Forced, as Black had to stop White playing Nd5. 26.Rhf1 Also good was the immediate 26.h4 preventing Black from getting any momentum with his pawns with …g5 – but Caruana put’s his faith in the fact that he has more pieces left on the board! 26…Rc5 27.a4 d4 28.Nd3 The knight becomes the fulcrum for both the blockade and the counter-attack. 28…Rf5 29.Rf3 g5 30.Rg1 One of Caruana’s strongpoints is his ability to mobilise his pieces on their most optimum squares. 30…Kf8 31.h4! h6 32.hxg5 hxg5 33.Rh3! This may allow the f-pawn to run, but at the cost of the safety to Black’s king. 33…f3 34.Bc4 Ke7 35.Bxe6 Kxe6 36.Qh2! Another excellent move form Caruana, who now moves in for the quick and clean kill. 36…f2 The pawn is thrown further up the board as a sacrificial decoy in an attempt to save his king, but to no avail. 37.Rf1 Kd7 38.Rh6 Qe7 39.Rxf2 Rxf2 40.Qxf2 Firouzja may well be ‘numerically equal’ with three pawns for the piece, but realistically Caruana mobilises his pieces to stretch his opponent’s position en route to snaring the king king. 40…Kc8 41.a5! [see diagram] There’s no safe haven for Firouzja’s king, with Caruana systematically opening all lines of attack. 41…bxa5 42.Qc2+ Kb8 43.Nc5 Rd6 There’s no other way to stop the rook swinging over to a6 for the kill. If 43…f6 44.Rh7! is just as bad – and again look at the co-ordination of Caruana’s pieces, with the Qc2 ideally placed to orchestrate the attack against any possible defence. 44.Rh8+ Rd8 45.Qb3+ Kc7 46.Qb7+ Kd6 47.Rh6+ f6 48.Ne4+ 1-0 Firouzja throws in the towel now rather than prolonging the agony with 48…Ke6 49.Nxg5+ Kd6 50.Nf7+ Ke6 51.Nxd8+ Qxd8 52.Qe4+ easily winning.

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