The World Champion, Magnus Carlsen, paid his own little personal tribute to the Scottish whisky distiller sponsors of the second leg of his signature $1m ‘Magnus Carlsen Chess Tour’, as the Norwegian reached for the uisge beatha – or ‘the water of life’, the Gaelic name given to the fiery amber nectar we now lovingly call Scotch whisky – to surprise Hikaru Nakamura with his opening choice in the first game of their Lindores Abbey Rapid Challenge semifinal clash.
Carlsen choice of playing the Scotch Game for the first time in over a decade not only inflicted a brilliant defeat on his longtime US champion rival, but it also set the tone for the rest of the four-game mini-match, with a dominant – almost error-free – performance, as he went on to sweep Nakamura 3-0 to take the early lead in the match.
But Nakamura hit back hard on Friday by taking full advantage of a Carlsen slip to win the second set 2½-1½ to tie the match at 1-1, and now the two long-time rivals will play a third and deciding final set on Saturday (and possibly a nerve-wracking ‘Armageddon’ tiebreaker) to see who will go forward to play ‘dynamic’ Daniil Dubov in the final, after the young Russian sensationally crushed seeding favourite Ding Liren, the Chinese world #3, by 2-0.
That Scotch Game forms a big part of chess’ rich heritage with a long and storied background to it – and an opening that was sensationally brought back to life by Garry Kasparov, during one of his legendary world title matches with old foe and ex-champion, Anatoly Karpov.
In 1824, the newly founded Edinburgh Chess Club challenged the famous London Chess Club to a three-game correspondence match. The prize to the winning team was a silver cup. Moves were to be posted by horse and carriage, an expensive proposition at the time. After four years, the upstart Edinburgh club won the match with two wins to one loss.
This was the first time the Scotch opening was played, and to the victors goes the spoils, and this is where it got its nomenclature from. The match also became the most famous correspondence matches of all-time, and the full history of that fabled 1824-1828 encounter that gave birth to the Scotch can still be found in the display cabinets at the venerable Edinburgh Chess Club in Scotland’s capital city, where pride of place you’ll see online is “The Scots Gambit Cup” and the original pre-“Penny Post” correspondence between the two clubs.
But after laying dormant for the best part of a century at the top level, the Scotch was dramatically back in elite favour after it was very suddenly rehabilitated by Kasparov, who scored 1½/2 with it against his arch-rival, Karpov, during their 1990 World Championship Match.
Kasparov went on to mentor the then 18-year-old Carlsen for a brief period during the Norwegian’s meteoric rise to the top – and it was during this collaboration that Carlsen last reached for the Scotch, a brilliant win against Peter Leko, en route to his career-defining runaway victory at the 2009 Nanjing Pearl Spring Tournament in China, that helped to propel the new teenage sensation to the world #1 spot.
GM Magnus Carlsen – GM Hikaru Nakamura
Lindores Abbey Rapid Challenge S/F, (1)
1.e4 e5 2.Nf3 Nc6 3.d4 exd4 4.Nxd4 Bc5 The Mieses Variation with 4…Nf6 5.Nxc6 bxc6 6.e5 Qe7 7.Qe2 Nd5 8.c4 was the big battleground for when Garry Kasparov took to the Scotch. 5.Nxc6 Qf6 6.Qf3 dxc6 7.Nc3 Be6 8.Be3 Bb4 9.0-0-0 Carlsen wasn’t even looking at the board when Nakamura played 8…Bb4, but when he did look up and saw it being played, his reply by castling queenside was instantaneous – and that can only mean one thing: it had all been deeply researched by the World Champion and his team. 9…Qxf3N The critical line had to be 9…Bxc3 10.bxc3 Qxc3 11.Bd4 Qxf3 12.gxf3 f6 and figure out what Carlsen has in mind for his pawn sacrifice, and it looks like 13.f4!? Ne7 14.Rg1 and White has the more dangerously placed pieces – the best for Black looks 14…Rg8 (Certainly not 14…0-0? 15.f5! Bc8 (If 15…Bxa2 16.Kb2 Bf7 17.Bxf6 and Black’s dead.) 16.Bc5 Re8 17.Bxe7 Rxe7 18.Rd8+ Kf7 19.Bc4+ and Black can resign.) 15.a4 0-0-0 16.f5 Bf7 17.f4 and it is very awkward for Black to co-ordinate his pieces to bring them into the game. So with all this swirling around Nakamura’s head, he tries to find a simpler solution by trading off some pieces. 10.gxf3 Ne7 11.h4! A typical Carlsen expansion move, looking to restrict the options for his opponent’s knight. 11…Bxc3 12.bxc3 Rd8 13.Rxd8+ Kxd8 14.h5 An intriguing struggle lays ahead: Nakamura certainly has the better pawn structure, but Carlsen has the space advantage, the bishop-pair and the g-file to bring his rook into the game. 14…f5 15.c4 Rf8 16.Rg1 Rf7 17.a4 Carlsen has certainly taken control of the game by now. And as the pressure mounts for Nakamura, the US champion rightly looks to trade more pieces – but he overlooks an unexpected “happening”. 17…a6 18.a5 g6 The ever-enterprising engine comes up with an ingenious solution to Black problems, with the pawn sacrifice 18…c5!? the point being that 19.Bxc5 Nc6! and Black’s knight now comes into the game with the prospects of landing on the strategically good outpost on e5. And with it, despite Black being a pawn down, the engine assess it to be a great big “0.00”. 19.Rg5 The rook lift keeps the pressure on Nakamura – he has to find a constructive plan, but what? 19…Rf6 20.hxg6 Rxg6 Marginally better was 20…hxg6 and trying to hunker down – but that’s easier said than done, as Carlsen likes nothing better than a grinding position to relentlessly squeeze his opponents. So rather than that, Nakamura again looks to simplify with more trades. You honestly can’t blame Nakamura’s thinking here, but Carlsen just sees a bit more into the position than most other players would do. 21.c5 Ke8 22.Bd3 Rxg5 23.Bxg5 h5 24.Kd2 Kf8 Of course, with the benefit of hindsight, the last try was again sacrificing a pawn to bring the knight into the game with 24…Ng6!? 25.exf5 Ne5 26.Be4 Bd5 and it is going to be a tough job trying to win with the crippled pawn structure – but then again, White has an extra pawn and the bishop-pair. 25.Ke3 Kf7 26.Bxe7 Kxe7 By now, Nakamura must have felt he had good practical chances to hold for a draw – but Carlsen does not concur! 27.e5 h4 28.f4 Kd7 29.f3 b6 In normal circumstances, this would be the right call, just trying to trade off some pawns to further simplify the position…but unbeknownst to Nakamura, there lurked a cunning Carlsen plan. 30.axb6 cxb6 31.Bxa6!! [see diagram] Watching Nakamura’s numerous double takes on the live video feed made for amazing entertainment for the online fans, as he was totally stunned and bemused that Carlsen could play this, as it traps his own bishop – but this was no blunder from the World Champion, but rather a brilliant endgame-winning sacrifice. 31…b5 32.Kf2 It’s turning into a very instructive endgame masterclass from Carlsen, as the point to his bishop sacrifice is that his king waltzes over to the h-file, captures Nakamura’s h-pawn, and then Kh4-g5-f6 winning the f5-pawn and two central passed pawns ominously marching down the board. 32…Kc7 33.Kg2 Kb8 34.Kh3 Ka7 35.Kxh4 Kxa6 36.Kg5 Kb7 37.Kf6 Bd5 38.c3 Just stopping any …b4 awkwardness. 38…Kc7 39.Kxf5 Kd7 40.Kf6 Bxf3 41.e6+ Ke8 42.Ke5 Next comes f4-f5-f6 and Nakamura can start to think about resigning. 42…Bg4 43.f5 Bh3 44.f6 Bg4 45.Kd6 Bh3 46.e7 Kf7 The alternative is 46…Bg2 47.f7+! Kxf7 48.Kd7 and the e-pawn queens. 47.Kxc6 1-0 Nakamura resigns, the reason being that the quick win is not taking the b5 pawn, but rather 47…Bg4 48.Kc7! Ke8 [If 48…Bh3 49.Kd8!] 49.c6 Bf3 50.Kb6 Bg4 51.c7 Bc8 52.Ka7! Kd7 53.Ka8! Ba6 54.Kb8 Bc8 55.e8Q+ Kxe8 56.Kxc8 and now the c-pawn queens. A sublimely brilliant endgame concept from Carlsen.