The Saint Louis Chess Club’s pandemic lockdown initiative, with their record-breaking $265,000 ‘Clutch Chess International‘ not only produced exciting chess throughout, but also the added attraction of the fan and media-desired top-billing final between the world’s top two players in Magnus Carlsen and Fabiano Caruana – and those two rivals didn’t disappoint in what turned out to be a pure masterpiece theatre of a final!
There’s a lot of recent history between Carlsen and Caruana, such as their epic 12-game 2018 world title match in London that ended tied at 6-6, with Carlsen winning the tiebreak to retain his title. The Clutch Chess International Final turned out to be another dramatic 12-game affair, as the two former title combatants once again went toe-to-toe, with Carlsen again narrowly emerging as the victor, but only at the very end of what proved to be yet another gripping contest.
At the end of Day 1, honours were even after a couple of draws followed by a string of four wins – including the two clutch games, counting double points – for the match to be tied at 4-4. It was all now down to Day 2, and after Carlsen took a narrow 6.5-5.5 lead, and the match looking to be going the Norwegian’s way, the drama intensified with the final two “clutch” games (triple points), as it turned into pure theatre by becoming one of the most thrilling and enthralling online matches witnessed during these strange, dystopian times.
Just when Carlsen thought it was starting to go his way, Caruana staged a remarkable fourth comeback with a stunning win to move into the lead – and with it, Carlsen now needing a big do-or-die win in the final game to take the title. And as if on cue, Carlsen duly won ‘on-demand’, as he outwitted Caruana in the opening for his own equally stunning win (see below) to claim a narrow victory, 9½-8½, to take the $50,000 first prize plus a “clutch” bonus of $25,000, making his total winnings $75,000.
“The tournament winner could have gone either way today,” said a relieved Carlsen at the end. “I won the first games and then the next few games Fabiano did better than I. I knew that if I could put him under pressure then I would have a chance for the win. The way things went in the final game were a dream for me and I was ultimately able to go for the jugular at an early point and win the tournament.” Carlsen also added that he felt Clutch Chess to be “a very interesting idea”, and he thoroughly enjoyed the unique format.
There was also praise from Carlsen for Caruana, who “deserves credit for an excellent overall performance”, and he looks forward to competing with again in the next leg of the Magnus Carlsen Tour, with the US world #2 making what will be his first tour appearance this coming weekend in the Chessable Masters, that runs 20 June – 5 July.
GM Magnus Carlsen – GM Fabiano Caruana
Clutch Chess International Final, (12)
1.c4 e5 2.Nc3 Nf6 3.g3 Bb4 4.e4!? A new and novel approach to the English…and this has become a big pet-line for Magnus Carlsen. It is now loosely termed as “The Carlsen English”, and it features in a new Chess24.com video from GM Pepe Cuenca, “English Opening with an early e4“. 4…Bxc3 5.bxc3 0-0 Of course, the e-pawn is taboo: After 5…Nxe4 6.Qg4! Nf6 7.Qxg7 Rg8 8.Qh6 White has the bishop pair and the better-attacking chances. 6.f3!? Such a new and fresh idea that, combined with Kf2, has become the hallmark of Carlsen’s play in this relatively “unexplored” line – and while you think you can blow it out of the water, the chances are you are more likely just falling down a big rabbit hole created by Team Carlsen. 6…b5 A bold try from Caruana that backfires. In Game 1, Caruana tried 6…Re8 7.Kf2!? c6 8.d4 d5 9.cxd5 cxd5 10.dxe5 Rxe5 11.c4! d4 12.Ne2 Nc6 13.Nf4 Nd7 14.Nd5! but after 14…Re8 15.Bf4 Nde5 16.Bxe5 Rxe5 17.Bd3 Carlsen took control of the game and had by far the much-better side of a draw; arguably even missing a win. 7.d4 exd4 8.cxd4 bxc4 9.e5 Nd5 10.Bxc4 Carlsen has total control of the center, the bishop-pair and more space to press home an attack. 10…Bb7 11.Nh3 It’s all unconventional play from Carlsen, but from h3, the knight has better-attacking prospects by coming to g5 or even f4. 11…d6 12.0-0 Nd7 13.Re1 dxe5 14.dxe5 N7b6 15.Bb3 Qe7 16.e6! It only took Carlsen a couple of minutes to see that this was going to cause chaos in Caruana’s kingside. 16…fxe6?! It looks a difficult move to have to admit you need to play, but in view of what now comes, Caruana simply had to try the awkward “containing” move with 16…f6 but after 17.Nf4 Nxf4 18.Bxf4 Rfd8 19.Qe2 that e6-pawn is like a nasty bone stuck in Caruana’s throat. 17.Ng5! Now it suddenly dawns on Caruana that he’s facing a tsunami-like attack from Carlsen. 17…Rf6? It’s simply a horrific position to find yourself in against Carlsen, but Caruana’s best hope to try and weather the coming storm was with 17…Qf6 18.Qd2! Bc8 19.Bb2 Qh6 and try your best to hang on to the wreckage. 18.Qc2! It’s a simple move, but the mate on h7 threatens to rip Black’s defences wide open – and not unsurprisingly, Caruana soon crashes. 18…Rg6? Better was 18…g6 but after 19.Bb2 ultimately Black is doomed. 19.Rxe6!! [see diagram] BOOM! And with it, Caruana’s whole world comes crashing down around him with the rook sacrifice. And I suppose realising he’s doomed, Caruana desperately attempts to hang on by giving up his queen. 19…Qxe6 What else is there now? If 19…Rxe6 20.Qxh7+ Kf8 21.Qh8#. 20.Nxe6 Rxe6 21.Bb2 Materially there is not much in the game – but with the bishop-pair and all those open lines swirling around the Black king, Carlsen easily converts his advantage. 21…Rae8 22.Bd4 Kh8 23.Qf5! Carlsen was in his element by now. 23…Bc8 24.Qh5 c5 25.Bxc5 A safe but sure way to victory – but the clinical kill was 25.Bb2! c4 26.Bc2 h6 27.Bg6! and due to the threat of Qxh6 mating, Black is set to lose more material. 25…Re5 26.Qf7 Bh3 It is a hopeless cause, but you can’t blame Caruana for attempting to set-up the ‘Hail Mary’ swindle. 27.Bf8! Carlsen cuts to the chase: Either Caruana’s king is going to get mated, or he is set for a heavy loss of material – so he at least goes down swinging with a few spite checks, as you do. 27…Re1+ 28.Rxe1 Rxe1+ 29.Kf2 Rf1+ 30.Ke2 Nc3+ 31.Kd3 1-0