It was a case of “clutch in, clutch out” for World Champion Magnus Carlsen in the Saint Louis Chess Club’s pandemic lockdown initiative of the $265,000 online ‘Clutch Chess International‘. Carlsen, after a big clutch loss, went into day 2 holding a narrow lead over Jeffery Xiong in their quarterfinal match-up, lost the first game of the day when the match resumed, but he rallied by going out with his own clutch win to finally overcome the rising young Texan teenager.
Nevertheless, despite the loss, it was a spirited challenge from 19-year-old Xiong, who went into the final day of his match with Carlsen trailing by just a point. And all hopes of Xiong pulling off what would have been a stunning victory over the Norwegian world champion quickly rose when he won the first game of the day to tie the match – a result that Carlsen himself readily admitted afterwards could have seen the match go either way.
But Carlsen hit back in the rollercoaster matchup with three wins in the last four games; though only assured of what on paper looked like a lopsided victory, 11½-6½, with his own clutch win (triple points and a $8,000 bonus cash prize) to now advance to the semi-finals.
The “clutch” format certainly worked in part in Xiong’s favour, and he did receive much praise – even from Carlsen himself – for keeping the match competitive right to the very end. “I gotta say, today could have gone either way,” said a relieved Carlsen at the end. “In the first two and a half games, I was suffering quite a bit. It was definitely not easy at all.”
Also joining Carlsen in the semi-finals in the opposite side of the brackets is US #2 Wesley So, who surprisingly dominated from start to finish the French world #4, Maxime Vachier-Lagrave, running up a resounding 13-5 margin of victory.
Magnus Carlsen 11½-6½ Jeffery Xiong
Maxime Vachier-Lagrave 5-13 Wesley So
Still to finish:
Alexander Grischuk 3-5 Levon Aronian
Leinier Dominguez 2½-5½ Fabiano Caruana
The rounds will be streamed live daily on uschesschamps.com at 13:00 local time (11:00 PST | 20:00 CET) from June 6-14 with expert commentary featuring GM’s Yasser Seirawan and Maurice Ashley and WGM Jennifer Shahade.
GM Magnus Carlsen – GM Jeffery Xiong
Clutch Chess International, (6.4)
1.e4 c5 2.Nf3 e6 This at least has the merit of avoiding Carlsen’s known pet-lines of the Rossolimo/Moscow variations with 3.Bb5(+) after 2…Nc6 or 2…d6. 3.c3 And after Carlsen was “pricked” by Xiong’s Sicilian Hedgehog in the previous clutch game, this time the World Champion opts for something simpler with the Alapin Variation, the legacy left to the game by the Russian master Semyon Alapin (1856-1923). The Alapin – usually reached via 2.c3 – is not an opening you would normally see in top grandmaster praxis, but at club and tournament level, this is still a very popular and methodical way to meet the Sicilian. 3…Nf6 4.e5 Nd5 5.Bc4 Nb6 6.Bb3 d6 7.d4 cxd4 8.cxd4 dxe5 9.Nxe5 Nc6 10.Nxc6 bxc6 It’s all standard fare in the Sicilian Alapin: White has more space for his pieces to attack but the handicap of the isolated d-pawn, while Black has the strong d5-outpost for his knight, but split queenside pawns to defend. 11.0-0 Be7 12.Nc3 0-0 13.Qf3!? Ba6 Better and simpler would have been 13…Qxd4!? 14.Rd1 Qh4 15.Qxc6 Ba6 with equality, and the prospects of the rooks being traded down the d-file – but behind in the match, Xiong had to make a calculated gamble in the final clutch game to keep the game as complicated as he can in an all-out effort to bag the triple points to stunningly tie the match and take it to a tiebreak-decider. But it all backfires. 14.Rd1 Nd5 On the positive side, Xiong has a rock-solid game with his d5 outpost. 15.Ne4! Carlsen hones in on the big weakness in the Black position: the weak c5-square. If he can quickly get in Rac1 and Nc5, Xiong will have long-tern difficulties, especially how to defend the weak c6-pawn. 15…Qb6 16.Qg3 Qb8 17.Bg5 f6?! This just creates a further pawn weakness on e6 down the road. Carlsen has successfully snubbed out Xiong trying to create a little “clutch chaos”, and the Texan teen really had to go for the series of trades with 17…Qxg3! 18.hxg3 Bxg5 19.Nxg5 Bb5 20.Rac1 h6 21.Ne4 a5 22.a4 Be2 23.Rd2 Rfb8! and both sides have weak pawns, and this should lead to an easy draw, but loss the match. 18.Bd2 Qxg3 19.hxg3 Bd3 20.Nc3 Rfc8 21.Rac1 Kf7 22.Na4! The c5 square is just too tempting and an easy target – control that square, and Black will be suffering. 22…Bb5 23.Nc5 Bxc5 24.Rxc5 Nb6 25.Re1! Suddenly Xiong’s misstep with 17…f6 comes back to haunt him. 25…Re8 26.Ra1! Now Carlsen, laser-like, hones in on another structural problem for Black: How is he going to stop a4? 26…Red8?! The game is visibly swinging away from Xiong. His only try to stay competitive was with 26…Na4!? 27.Bxa4 Bxa4 28.b3 Bb5 29.Ba5 and although White is slightly better with well-placed rooks, bishop and the obvious attack on c6, it is hard to see the game being anything other than a draw due to the opposite bishops and mutual pawn weaknesses. 27.a4 Bc4? A brave try….if it wasn’t for Carlsen’s coming counter-tactic! 28.Bxc4 Rxd4 29.a5!! [see diagram] Carlsen just sees that little bit deeper through the tactics! 29…Rxc4 If 29…Nxc4 30.Bc3 Re4 31.f3 and Black is set for a heavy loss of material. 30.axb6 1-0 Xiong resigns, the (full!) point being that 30…Rxc5 31.Rxa7+ Rxa7 32.bxa7 and with the Bd2 covering the rook getting to a5, the a-pawn queens.