Signature Performance - First Move Chess -First Move Chess

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As the world went into a global pandemic lockdown, Magnus Carlsen responded with his online signature super-tournament, the $250,000 ‘Magnus Carlsen Invitational’, hosted on Chess24. Carlsen commented to the media on the launch of his innovative event: “With the lack of sports entertainment, online chess can really make a difference. And I do think it is a natural progression for chess to grow.”

And after getting off to a sluggish start to his own tournament, with what turned out to be a mutual error-prone opening day victory over old foe Hikaru Nakamura (3-2) – that went the distance of the Armageddon decider and a 2:1 split of the match-points – this has been the only point Carlsen has ceded so far in the tournament, as he’s been the one providing all the entertainment for the lockdown fans.

Since that miss-firing start, Carlsen has turned in a series of impressive signature performances: first up was a revenge-is-sweet beating of his wannabe teenage rival, Alireza Firouzja (2.5-1.5), followed by an emphatic crush of his former title rival, Fabiano Caruana (3-1), and now today, a more than comfortable win over the French world #4, Maxime Vachier-Lagrave (2.5-1.5), that further extends the world champion’s lead in his own signature event.

Carlsen has a commanding lead at the top on 11/12 and now looks a virtual shoo-in to qualify for the ‘business end’ of the ‘Final Four’ of the tournament. And after defeating Firouzja today – in what is rapidly turning out to be a nightmare tournament for the young exiled Iranian – Caruana has slipped into second place, but perhaps not for long, as Nakamura and Ding Liren could well overtake the US world #2 with a brace of matches in hand still to play on Saturday over Ian Nepomniachtchi and Anish Giri respectively.

Preliminary standings (Rd.4, Day 1):
1. M. Carlsen (Norway), 11/12; 2. F. Caruana (USA), 8; 3. H. Nakamura* (USA), 7; 4. Ding Liren* (China), 6; 5-6. M. Vachier-Lagrave (France), I. Nepomniachtchi* (Russia), 5; 7-8. A. Giri* (Netherlands), A. Firouzja (FIDE), 0. (* indicates players still to play Rd.4 matches)

Photo: With a touch of élan, Magnus Carlsen crushes Fabiano Caruana | © Chess24

GM Fabiano Caruana- GM Magnus Carlsen
Magnus Carlsen Inv. Prelim, (3.1)
Alekhine’s Defence, Four Pawns Attack
1.e4 Nf6 2.e5 Nd5 3.d4 d6 4.c4 Nb6 5.f4 As a lifetime devotee of the Alekhine’s Defence, I can tell from experience that the worst line White can opt for is the Four Pawns Attack – this is the line Black scores well in. 5…g6 Once thought to be bad, this line has now been rechristened ‘the Sergeev variation’, and named after the young Ukrainian GM, Vladimir Sergeev, the hero of this line, who in the 1990s gave it a new lease of life by revitalising the fianchetto set-up against the Four Pawns Attack. 6.Nc3 Bg7 7.Be3 Be6 Inducing b3 is critical for Black, as we’ll soon explain. 8.Nf3 Black wants to entice White into pushing further forward with 8.d5 as now 8…Bf5 9.Nf3 Bg4! undermines the e5 pawn, and now 10.Bd4 c5! and suddenly White pawn center is falling apart. 8…0-0 Black can’t capture right now on c4 due to the Qa4+ trick, but with the king now safely castled, White has to defend c4. 9.b3 dxe5 More common is 9…c5!? that Sergeev showed was a potent plan that did most to popularise this line, and all based on a wonderful trick that many players – even grandmasters – often walk right into: 10.dxc5 N6d7! 11.cxd6 exd6 12.Qxd6 Nxe5! 13.Qxd8 (Now the reason for inducing 9.b3 becomes clear – unleashing the potential of the fianchettoed bishop on the long h8-a1 diagonal. And that’s why White can’t play 13.fxe5? Qxd6 14.exd6 Bxc3+ winning.) 13…Nxf3+ 14.gxf3 Rxd8 15.Rc1 Nc6 and despite Black being a pawn down, he has more than enough compensation with his active piece-play. This position is not easy for White to play; the databases will show lots of draws, a good few Black wins where White panics, and seldom, if any, White wins – and this line was the reason for the new popularity of the Sergeev variation. The line Carlsen plays is also equally good. 10.dxe5 The natural way would be to recapture towards the center with 10.fxe5, but that now runs into problems after 10…c5! 11.d5 (If 11.dxc5 N6d7 and White’s game begins to fall apart with pawn weaknesses on c5 and especially e5 – and if e5 falls, Black’s pieces will run rampant over the open position.) 11…Bg4! 12.Be2 Bxf3 13.Bxf3 Bxe5 14.Qd2 N8d7 and Black is a pawn up and slightly the better of an open position. 10…Nc6 11.Ne4 A bit too slow. I think better was probably 11.Ng5 Qc8 12.Qc1 Bf5 13.c5 Nd7 14.Bb5! and a dynamic struggle ahead for both players. 11…f6! The whole point of Sergeev’s fianchetto system is to undermine at every opportunity White’s pawn center. The more the game opens up, the better Black’s pieces will be. 12.Nc5 Qc8 13.exf6 Bxf6 Carlsen’s pieces are now buzzing, and Caruana has to fight for his very survival. 14.Be2 Rd8 15.Qc1 Carlsen is not interested in the Ra1 right now, as taking the exchange will only offer Caruana excellent prospects of launching a kingside attack with the weak dark squares around the Black king. 15…Bf5 16.0-0 Nd7! Carlsen simply looks to better his prospects by shunting back Caruana’s best-placed piece. 17.Nd3 Bxa1 Only now does Carlsen take the exchange, as he’s gained vital tempi to swing his knight over to f6 to safeguard his king. 18.Qxa1 Nf6 19.Nde5 Nxe5 20.Nxe5 Qe6 21.Bd4 Nd7 Also good was 21…Be4 followed by …Qf5. 22.h3 This looks too timid. Caruana’s only hope here is to puff up the profile of his pieces with 22.Bf3!? c6 23.Qc3 and he still has good saving chances with his active pieces. 22…Nxe5 23.Bxe5 c6?! This is a semi-serious misstep from Carlsen. The simple plan of doubling quickly on the d-file with 23…Rd7 looked stronger and more accurate. And now, if 24.Qc3 Qc6! Black has the vital c6 flight square for his queen, and threatening …Be4 with an overwhelming position – and note that with the …Rd7, if the worst comes to the worst, Black will also have …e6 to stop a potential Qg7 mate after Bh8. 24.Qc3 h5 Carlsen had to retreat now with 24…Qf7 – but for any chess player, if they think they been pressing hard and winning, such a retreat would be the last thing on their mind. 25.Re1 Kf7? This was the last call for 25…Qf7. Carlsen is beginning to lose the thread of the game now – but thankfully for him, Caruana seems oblivious to the potential his position has, as he gets seduced into a phantom attack. 26.Qg3? The strong move to find that would have made life awkward for Carlsen was 26.c5! and suddenly Black is on the back-foot, the major threat being how to defend against Bc4? If 26…Qd7 27.Bc4+ e6 28.Bf6! Rf8 29.Bg5! Kg8 30.a4 Black is in a bad way, and in the long-term, looks as if he’ll need to return the material for survival chances. 26…Rd2! Now Carlsen begins to get back on top again, as the rash queen dash from Caruana only allows Black to effectively bring his rooks into the game. 27.Bf3 Rd3 28.Qg5 Whether he was aware of it or not at the time, Caruana has gone all-in on a bluff. There’s no mating attack – the White threat might well be Qh6, but Black has the easy-to-find plan of …Rad8 and an escape path for his king via…Kf7-e8-d7-c8. 28…Rad8 29.Kf2 Carlsen threatened …Rxf3 followed by …Rd2 with a winning attack on the White king, hence Caruana’s move – but his position is doomed now anyway. 29…Rd2+ 30.Kg3 R8d3 Relentlessly piling on the pressure…and with it, something now has to give for Caruana. 31.Qh6 Bxh3! [see diagram] It’s yet another telling blow, only this time there’s no hope of survival 32.Kh4 There’s a quick and easy mate after 32.gxh3 Rxf3+! 33.Kxf3 Qxh3+ 34.Ke4 Qd3# 32…Rxg2! 0-1 Caruana resigns, as 33.Bxg2 Qg4#

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