We are all becoming an eyewitness to history as a pandemic suffuses the globe with a horrifying virus that’s brought the world to a standstill. In an era of lockdown, there’s no sport or cultural events. But in what’s been described by many as “the new normal” we have to adhere to with social distancing, Chess is still finding ways to thrive, especially with it being an almost perfect virtual online game for both the superstars to play in, and indeed the fans to follow all the action live.
On Sunday, Magnus Carlsen triumphed in his own signature tournament hosted on Chess24, ‘the Magnus Carlsen Invitational’, the first chess event of the lockdown era that featured seven of the World Champion’s rivals doing battle for a record $250,000 online prize fund. Not to be outdone, rival online platform Chess.com quickly joined forces with the game’s governing body, FIDE (whom they partnered with for the 2019 Isle of Man world championship qualifier), for their own novel lockdown tournament.
They launched the Online Nations Cup, that runs May 5-10, with six teams of China, United States, Europe, Russia, India and the Rest of the World doing battle for the $180,000 prize fund. Although there’s no Carlsen, the Nations Cup features many of the top stars, and there’s also the added twist of the women’s board counting for match-points in the four-board competition.
This automatically makes reigning Olympiad champions China the big the favourites, with their top four of Ding Liren, Wang Hao, Wei Yi and Yu Yangyi joining forces two of the world’s top female stars in Hou Yifan and Ju Wenjun. The second seeds are Europe – with Garry Kasparov acting as non-playing captain – led by Maxime Vachier-Lagrave (France), Levon Aronian (Armenia), Anish Giri (Netherlands) and Jan-Krzysztof Duda (Poland) paired with Anna Muzychuk (Ukraine) and Nana Dzagnidze (Georgia).
The US team – with the always steady-hand of IM John Donaldson as the veteran non-playing captain – also look a formidable force, especially with the their top four of Fabiano Caruana, Hikaru Nakamura, Wesley So and Leinier Dominguez joined by multi-time US Women’s Championship winners’ and long-time rivals, Irina Krush and Anna Zatonskih.
The first stage, the preliminaries, is a double round-robin (G/25 plus 10 seconds per move) with the top two teams then going on to contest the ‘business end’ of the “Superfinal” on Sunday, May 10, for the title. Play gets underway each day at 15:00 CEST (6 A.M. PDT) with full live commentary coverage at chess.com/tv.
China took the early lead with two rather ominously convincing 3-1 victories over ROW and Europe. Team USA also got off to a promising start with a 2-2 draw against India and then beating third seeds Russia 3-1. The early top performer is Caruana, who has got off to a perfect 2/2 start with a brace of impressive wins over Santosh Vidit and Vladislav Artemiev.
GM Fabiano Caruana – GM Vladislav Artemiev
Online Nations Cup Prelim, (2)
1.c4 e5 2.g3 More usual in the English Opening is 2.Nc3 followed by g3 and Bg2 but this was the recommended set-up endorsed by Tony Kosten – mainly to avoid the rather annoying 2…Bb4 – in his wonderful 1999 opening book, The Dynamic English. And this is a book that comes highly recommended if you are thinking of taking up the English Opening. 2…Nc6 3.Bg2 g6 4.Nc3 Bg7 5.Nf3 Now we diverge from the Kosten treatment – the English GM recommends here playing 5.e4 and a pure English Botvinnik System with Nge2, d3, 0-0, h3, Be3 etc and playing for f4 or a timely d4. But one of the great things about the English, is that you have plenty of transpositional opportunities into different systems and set-ups at your disposal. 5…Nf6 6.d4 exd4 If 6…e4 7.Ng5 and the e4-pawn will soon fall. 7.Nxd4 0-0 8.0-0 Re8 A typical strategic knight retreat motif in the English. With the …Re8, the main danger now was Black playing …Nxd4 followed by …Ne4, so the reason for the knight retreat is to allow for b3 with the Ra1 covered (if, say, …Ne4) and/or later Ne3 to dominate the vital d5 square. 9.Nc2 d6 10.Qd2 Defending the Nc3 to enable b3 and Ne3. 10…a5 11.b3 Bf5 12.Ne3 Be4 13.Bb2 Bxg2 14.Nxg2 Nd7 15.Nd5! There’s really not that much in the position, but Caruana just has a niggling little edge with his dominant Nd5 that he exploits. 15…Bxb2 16.Qxb2 Nb4 17.Ngf4 Nxd5 18.cxd5! With pieces being traded, it was obvious that Nxd5 was going to be hit by …c6, so Caruana changes tact by opening the c-file to exploit Black’s pawn weaknesses on c7 and a5. 18…Qf6 19.Qd2 With a5 under attack, Artemiev’s …Ra8 has to stand guard and can’t get into the game, as …b6 will make …c7 and even bigger weakness, and if …a4 White will just play b4 denying Black the c5 square and now pawn targets on a4 and c7. 19…Nc5 20.f3 Qe5 21.e4 The main difference in this materially-equal game is that White has space and targets to hit (a5 & c7) but Black has nothing to bite on. 21…b5 Also possible was the alternative of 21…f5 but after the simple plan of 22.exf5 Qxf5 23.Rae1! the Black position is starting to be stretched. 22.Rac1 Caruana relentlessly piles on the pressures on those pawn weaknesses on a5 and c7 – and with it, something must surely give. 22…f5 23.exf5 Qxf5 24.Rfe1 b4 25.Qd4 I can’t fault Caruana’s determination to ramp up the pressure, but better looked 25.h4! just to keep that annoying knight on f4. Such is White’s command of the position, there’s really no rush to force things, and, with h4, White can leisurely make some necessary moves first, such as Kg2, before looking to crack the position open. 25…Qf7 Nicely timed by Artemiev, who now has a chance to stay in the game by trading rooks down the e-file. 26.Ne6 More or less an admission from Caruana that he had indeed been too hasty with his Qd4 idea, as now he sees that if Black trades rooks on the e-file, he is going to be hard-pushed to show a winning advantage. But thankfully for Caruana, fate plays a hand in deciding the game. 26…Nxe6? As desperate as it might look, the engine will always find a loophole, and here it shows that the only way to stay in the game was 26…Rac8! the (half-) point being that 27.Nxc5 dxc5 and White’s pawn weaknesses on f3 and d5 means Black stays in the game. For example: 28.Rxe8+ Rxe8 29.Qd3 (If 29.Qxc5 Qxf3 30.Qxc7 Qe3+ 31.Kh1 Qe4+ 32.Kg1 Qd4+ 33.Kg2 Qxd5+ and Black now having the better-side of the draw.) 29…Qe7 30.Kf2 Qd6! and it is going to be difficult for White to do anything, as he’ll be tied down to defending the d5-pawn. 27.dxe6 Rxe6 28.Rxe6 Qxe6 29.Rxc7 Qe5 There’s nothing in 29…Qe1+ but perhaps Artemiev simply missed that after 30.Kg2 Qe2+ the White king escapes the checks with 31.Kh3 Qe6+ 32.g4 forcing Black into the worse R+P ending option of 32…Qe5 33.Qxe5 dxe5 34.Re7. We can only speculate here, but it seems that for whatever reason the Russian faltered at the most critical position of the game, missing that he had to play 26…Rac8! The rest of the game, though, now sees Caruana demonstrating some nice technique for an instructive R+P endgame win. 30.Qxe5 dxe5 31.Rc5 a4 The best move and the only try – Black’s only slim chance of survival is to activate his rook. 32.Rxe5 axb3 33.axb3 Ra1+ 34.Kg2 Rb1 35.Re3 [see diagram] Admittedly, it does look difficult to win this ending for White, but Caruana’s rook retreat defends his b3 and f3 pawn, cuts his opponent’s king from crossing over to the queenside, and he has the nice little king march of Kg2-h3-g4-f4-e4 to make the cross over to the queenside to target the b4-pawn. 35…Rb2+ 36.Kh3 h5 The only way to stop the winning plan noted above – but Caruana also has an equally good Plan B for this move. 37.g4! hxg4+ 38.fxg4 g5 39.Kg3 Now he is going to play h3, and with his rook defending h3 and b3, the king crosses over to the queenside with Kg3-f3-e4 etc – a very instructive bit of endgame-winning technique on show from Caruana. 39…Rb1 40.h3 Kf7 41.Kf3 Rf1+ 42.Ke4 Ke6 At least now, Artemiev’s king can use the cover from White’s king to cross over to the queenside – but to no avail, as the damage has already been done. 43.Kd4+ Kd6 44.Kc4 Rf4+ 45.Kb5 Rd4 46.Re8! Another instructive and timely move from Caruana, who activates his rook now that …Rd3 can’t be played because of Rd8+ picking off the rook. And with the very active White king all over the b4-pawn, Caruana easily makes the transition to a winning R+split passed pawns endgame win. 46…Rf4 47.Rg8 Rf3 48.Kxb4 Rxh3 49.Rxg5 The game is effectively over now – the extra pawn makes all the difference, because with just one pawn on the board (either the b- or g-pawn), the game is a draw due to what would have been Black’s strategically well-placed king. 49…Rh1 50.Kb5 Rg1 51.b4 Rb1 52.Rg8 Rb2 53.g5 Black can’t contain pawns on both wings of the board. 53…Ke6 54.g6 Kf6 55.Kc5 Rc2+ 56.Kb6 1-0