Hailed by one enthusiastic chess fan to have been the best thing so far about the global pandemic lockdown, Magnus Carlsen triumphed in his own signature event by beating old foe Hikaru Nakamura in an enthralling finale to the Magnus Carlsen Invitational hosted on Chess24, as the World Champion won the record $70,000 first prize in the richest and strongest online chess tournament ever.
In the first semi-final on Friday, the all-American clash between Nakamura and Fabiano Caruana gripped the online chess community as both US rivals produced a thriller of a contest that went the distance and more into the blitz overtime, with Nakamura eventually prevail 4-2 to reach the final.
In Saturday’s second semi-final, Carlsen looked to be cruising to the final also with a classy opening game win over Ding Liren – but the World Champion suffered what potentially could have been a major psychological set-back. First, he blundered into a mate to allow his opponent back into the match, and then he looked set for potential elimination in game 3, before Ding returned the compliment with his own howler that allowed Carlsen to go on to win 2.5-1.5.
The final between old foes Carlsen and Nakamura produced arguably some of the best chess of the novel pandemic lockdown-inspired tournament. In game 1 (see below), it was vintage Carlsen as the Norwegian relentlessly ground down Nakamura into making a costly error. And although Nakamura struck back in game 2, this was now a much more confident Carlsen, and he went on to win game 3 and tough out a draw in the deciding game 4 against the American speed maven to win 2.5-1.5 to take the title.
“It was tough but happy to have pulled through,” said Carlsen following his victory over Nakamura on Sunday. “It’s a big deal. Obviously would’ve been a disappointment if I hadn’t, I’m not going to lie. But I am really, really happy both to beat Hikaru [Nakamura] today but especially to have gotten through against Ding [Liren]. I never felt like I got into full gear this tournament and I am just so happy to have pulled through. I don’t know how it ranks. It’s certainly one of a kind so far.”
Viewers overall were enthralled during the two week period of the event when the world went into lockdown, with them having live action and feeds of both players during matches, as well as live commentary from some of the best commentators in the business. Another added bonus the format provided was all eight elite players doing punditry stints on their rest days while others were playing.
Carlsen believes that the tournament format – though good in most parts I felt for the timescale it was organised in, but it needs tweaks in others – was successful and could be a viable substitute in the age of coronavirus while players are not able to compete face to face.
Video opposite: Carlsen’s post-victory interview with the Chess24 commentary team of Jan Gustafsson, Lawrence Trent and Peter Svidler.
GM Magnus Carlsen – GM Hikaru Nakamura
Magnus Carlsen Invitational | Final, (1)
English Opening, Bremen System
1.c4 e5 German master Carl Carls’ (1888-1958) system – named after his German hometown of Bremen – that basically leads to a Reversed Sicilian, invariably the Dragon, as White fianchettoes his bishop. 2.Nc3 Nf6 3.Nf3 Nc6 4.g3 d5 5.cxd5 Nxd5 6.Bg2 The crucial difference with the Sicilian Dragon is that, with the colours reversed, White has the extra move, so there’s no need to fear the sharpest lines in the Yugoslav Attack – and indeed, being a move behind, Black has to avoid the complications of those sharp lines. 6…Nb6 7.0-0 Be7 8.d3 0-0 9.Be3 The all-important square for White is the c5-square. If White can cement a piece here, often it will pose Black problems. 9…Be6 10.Rc1 Left to his own devices, White would like to get in Nc3-e4-c5 for total control of the c5-square. 10…Nd5 11.Nxd5 Bxd5 12.a3 Re8 13.Qc2 Undermining the c7-pawn. 13…Bf6 14.Nd2 Nd4! Nakamura picks the right moment to seek trades that should give him equality – but Carlsen has a reputation for being able to squeeze blood from a stone, and he sets about trying to make the most out of what should be a “dead drawn” position. 15.Bxd4 Bxg2 16.Kxg2 exd4 17.Qxc7 The alternative is 17.Ne4 c6 18.Qb3 Rb8 which is also fine for Black. 17…Rxe2 18.Qxd8+ Rxd8 19.Nc4 The knight is just slightly better than the bishop right now – but there is nothing in the game, though Carlsen relentlessly grinds away. 19…Rde8 20.Kf3 If 20.Nd6 Rb8 and White will now have to worry about his queenside pawns. 20…Bg5! The right call, forcing White to move his rook off the c-file. 21.Rb1 R2e6 22.a4 Objectively the game is even – the only difference is that Carlsen makes his queenside work while Nakamura drifts a little trying to find a way to make his rooks and bishop work for him. 22…h5 23.b4 g6 24.b5 Kg7 Also a plan was 24…R8e7 with the idea of following up with …f5-f4 to try to make some play on the kingside. 25.Rb2 Be7 26.Rc1 Again, there’s really nothing in the position – the difference is that Carlsen finds a little ‘something’ to bite on in the queenside, and strategically his Nc4 is a well-placed piece. But even given all this, Nakamura should be able to hold this position. 26…g5 27.Kg2 g4 28.Rcc2 Prophylactically stopping any potential …Re2 in the future from Black. 28…Bg5?! The better alternative of 28…Bd8 would have at least stopped the possibility of Carlsen’s next move. 29.b6! Carlsen finds a way to give himself something to work with. 29…axb6 30.Rb5! The problem for Nakamura is that, by leaving the possibility for Carlsen to play b6, suddenly his pawns are now shattered and vulnerable. 30…Kg6 31.f4 Another clear plan was 31.Rcb2 Bd8 32.Nxb6 Bxb6 33.Rxb6 but Carlsen may well have judged that after 33…Ra8! 34.R2b4 Rxb6 35.Rxb6+ Kg5 it is going to be very difficult to win such a R+P ending. So with that in mind, he tries to find a way to get his king active. 31…gxf3+ 32.Kxf3 Bd8 33.Rd5 Bf6 34.Rb2 Ra8 No better is 34…Rc8 as after 35.Rd7 (If 35.Rxb6? Rxc4! wins.) 35…h4 36.Rxb7 hxg3 37.hxg3 Ra8 38.Rb4 White’s pieces are ideally placed and Black faces a very difficult defence. 35.Rxb6 This is just a little puzzling, as I thought the only way forward was with 35.Nxb6 Re3+ 36.Kf2 Ra6! 37.Rb3 Re7 and White is little better due to his more active pieces, though I don’t see how any progress can be made as the a4-pawn is under a lot of pressure, and any thoughts of Rb4 is going to be well met by …Re3. 35…Rxa4 36.Rxe6 fxe6 The position is just equal again, with the multiple trades just making Black’s life all that easier. But cannily, the pressure Carlsen built up after the queens came off the board has given him a few extra minutes on the clock that proves vital in the next phase of the game. 37.Rb5 Ra1 38.Rxb7 Rf1+ 39.Ke2 Rh1 40.h4 Rg1 The position should just be a dead draw now – but as Dr John Nunn cautiously points out in his 2001 book Understanding Chess Move by Move about “dead drawn” positions, it only takes a few errors for such positions to be “dead” rather than “drawn”. 41.Kf2 Rd1 42.Rb3 Ra1 43.Nd6 Be5 44.Ne4 Ra5 45.Kf3 Kf5 46.Nd2 Bf6 47.Nc4 Ra1 48.Nd6+ Kg6 49.Ne4 Re1 With Carlsen continuing to press on as only Carlsen can, Nakamura’s time on his clock starts to draw down and, inevitably, there comes a costly slip. 50.Kf2 Re3 51.Nd2 Re5 52.Ne4 Rf5+ 53.Ke2 Ra5 54.Rb6 Kf5 55.Kf3 Be5 56.Rb3 Ra1 57.Rb5 Re1 58.Nd6+ Kg6 59.Nc4 Bf6 60.Rb6 Kf5 61.Kf2 Rd1 62.Nd6+ Kg4 63.Ne4 Be5?! So near yet so far! The error gives Carlsen something to allow him to grind on with renewed hope – instead, Nakamura should have played 63…Kf5! 64.Rb5+ e5 65.Ke2 Ra1 66.Rb6 Bd8 67.Rc6 Kg4! and I can’t see how White can ever make any progress now. 64.Rxe6 Kf5 65.Ke2 Rg1 66.Rh6 Bxg3 67.Rxh5+ Kf4? This added error seals Nakamura’s fate now – he had to play 67…Kg4! 68.Rh8 Re1+ 69.Kd2 Rg1 70.Nxg3 (The difference between …Kg4 and …Kf4 is critical, based on 70.h5 Bf4+! 71.Ke2 Rg2+ 72.Nf2+ Kh4 73.Kf3 Be5! and Black saves the game. But for Nakamura, with the flag on his digital clock now metaphorically hanging, all of this is not so easy to see through.) 70…Rxg3 71.Kc2 Kf3 72.Rf8+ Kg4 73.Rd8 Kxh4 74.Rxd4+ Kg5 75.Re4 Kf5 and we are just heading for a theoretically drawn Philidor position, one of the two famous R+P endings – the other being the winning Lucena position – that every chess player must know by heart. 68.Rh8 Re1+ 69.Kd2 Re3 70.h5! [see diagram] The running h-pawn can’t be stopped without a heavy loss of material. 70…Be1+ 71.Kc2 Rh3 72.h6 Kf5 73.h7 Kg6 74.Rg8+! The (full) point will soon become clear. 74…Kxh7 75.Nf6+ Kh6 76.Rh8+ Kg6 77.Rxh3 Kxf6 78.Kb3 The game is effectively over here and now – but Nakamura plays it out to close to flag-fall time. 78…Ke5 79.Kc4 Bf2 80.Rf3 Be3 81.Rf8 Ke6 82.Kc5 Bg1 83.Kc6 Be3 84.Re8+ 1-0 Nakamura resigns. Although the bishop defends the pawn, the point is that after 84…Kf6 85.Kd5 Kg7 86.Re7+ Kh6 87.Re4! Kg6 88.Rxd4! and the K+P ending is won as White’s king will have the “opposition” in the elementary K+P ending.