World champion Magnus Carlsen all but effortlessly cruised into the final of the Saint Louis Chess Club’s $265,000 ’Clutch Chess International’ – the biggest-prize ever for an online tournament – after romping to a lopsided 12-6 semifinal victory over the top Armenian star Levon Aronian. And with it, we’re now set for the organiser’s dream final, as Carlsen now meets the US world #2 Fabiano Caruana in a redux of their closely-contested 2018 world title match.
Caruana’s route to the final was far from easy, though. After falling behind in his all-American semifinal clash with Wesley So at the end of Day 1, Caruana showed his mettle with a gritty do-or-die clutch comeback on Day 2 to narrowly edge the match, 9½-8½, to go forward to meet his old Norwegian foe in the final.
The pandemic lockdown has inspired a number of novel ideas to make the game more marketable for the media and exciting for the thousands of fans to follow, in what’s become a frenzied and almost incessant period of non-stop elite-level chess during the global crisis. And the Clutch Chess International – the “Jeopardy”-inspired creation from GM Maurice Ashley – adds its own dramatic tension to the matches, as it ramps up the pressure in “clutch” games by using a unique scoring system.
Players compete in 12-game matches, with six games held over each of two days. The final two games of each day carry added weight. While most of each day’s matches use the traditional scoring system (with players earning a point for a win or a half-point for a draw), the points are doubled for games 5 and 6 and tripled in games 11 and 12. Those clutch games also come with added bonus cash prizes of $2,000 per win on Day 1, and $3,000 per game on Day 2 – a format that guarantees drama right to the very end of every match.
Magnus Carlsen 12-6 Levon Aronian
Wesley So 8½8-9½ Fabiano Caruana
Tune in Saturday and Sunday, June 13-14 for the 12-game Carlsen-Caruana Clutch Chess International Final. Play gets underway at 13:00 local time (14:00 EST | 11:00 PST | 20:00 CET) with live expert commentary at uschesschamps.com featuring GM’s Yasser Seirawan and Maurice Ashley and WGM Jennifer Shahade.
GM Wesley So – GM Fabiano Caruana
Clutch Chess International, (11.5)
Slav Defence, Dutch variation
1.d4 d5 2.c4 c6 3.Nf3 Nf6 4.Nc3 dxc4 5.a4 Bf5 6.e3 The Dutch variation, sometimes called the Euwe variation, is named after Dr Max Euwe, the Dutch World Champion who, despite losing the crown, used this to good effect against Alexander Alekhine during their 1937 title rematch. 6…e6 7.Bxc4 Bb4 8.0-0 0-0 9.Qe2 One of the hallmarks of the Dutch variation is that it is a slower, more positional approach, rather than the bloodthirsty tactical mêlées we normally see with 6.Ne5. 9…Bg6 10.Ne5 Nbd7 11.Nxg6 hxg6 12.Rd1 Qc7 13.Bd2 a5 14.Rac1 Rad8 15.Ba2 Nb6 16.Be1 e5! When Black can safely get in …e5 in the Slav, then generally it leads to equality. 17.dxe5 Qxe5 18.g3 On reflection, perhaps best was 18.f3 with the plan of Bg3 or Bf2 and e4. 18…Nbd7! Caruana is quick to spot the potential of the kingside attack with the queen and knights combining. 19.Qc2? And So fails to sense the danger. 19…Qh5! White’s light-square weakness around his king spells trouble. 20.Bc4 Ne5 21.Be2 Qh3 22.f3 g5 Also a good option was 22…Rde8! 23.Ne4 Nxe4 24.Qxe4 Bxe1 25.Rxe1 Re6 with a promising attack. 23.Ne4 Qf5 The engines always find the best way forward in tactically-rich position, and it quickly finds 23…Nd5! 24.Qb3 Bxe1 25.Rxe1 Qf5! and White is in trouble. 24.Bxb4 axb4 25.Nxf6+ Qxf6 26.Kg2 Ng6 27.Qb3 Qe7 28.a5? A rash move that will soon come back to haunt So. Instead, better was 28.h3 just stopping …g4 and preparing the ground for e4. 28…Rfe8 29.Rxd8 Rxd8 30.Rd1? [So has totally missed what Caruana was up to. If he had, he would surely have played 30.Kf2 just to bolster the e3-pawn. 30…Rxd1 31.Bxd1 Qc5! Caruana seizes a big advantage, as So can’t defend both the over-stretched a5-pawn and the e3-pawn. 32.Qd3 Qxa5 33.Bb3 Nf8 Caruana has won a pawn, but he there’s still a lot of work left to convert his advantage into a win. 34.Qc4 Ne6 35.Qe4 Qa1! Caruana tactically trades down to a potentially winning Q+P ending. 36.Bxe6 So cuts his losses and heads for the Q+P ending – usually a good call in such circumstances, as there’s always chances of finding a potential game-saving perpetual check. White could try defending the b-pawn with 36.Qc2 but after 36…Nf8! 37.Qd2 Qa5 Black will have succeeded in regrouping his pieces and will look to play …Qc5 and then bring his knight back into the game. 36…Qxb2+ 37.Kh3 fxe6 38.Qxe6+ Kf8 It’s not easy in the heat of battle, with little time left on both clocks, but perhaps better was 38…Kh7! 39.f4 (There’s no perpetual. If 39.Qf5+ Kh6! 40.Qe6+ Qf6 and Black will easily win.) 39…gxf4 40.exf4 Qc3 41.Qe4+ Kh6 42.Qe8! Qc5 43.g4 Kh7 44.Qe4+ g6 45.Qe6 Qf8 and try to convert this difficult position. Not so easy with the Black king placed in the open, but White will have to deal with the worry of those queenside pawns pushing up the board. 39.Qc8+ Ke7 40.Qxb7+ Kd6 41.e4 This is just so difficult with both players running short of time. The most obvious practical try is continuing with the checks with 41.Qb8+ Kc5 42.Qa7+ Kc4 43.Qa6+ Kb3 44.e4 and try to hold this – on the plus side, White has chased the king up the board where it now momentarily blocks its own passed pawn, and now he can gain a move to start pushing his own e-pawn up the board. I presume there is most likely a win in there somewhere for Black, but it is going to take a lot of very accurate moves to do so. 41…Qc3 42.Qb8+ Kc5 43.e5?? So makes a crucial error and misses his best shot to save the game with 43.Qa7+! Kc4 44.Qa4 c5 45.Qa6+ Kb3 46.Qe2 and it is not going to be easy to convert the win with White threatening to start running his passed e-pawn. 43…Qxf3 44.Qd6+ Kc4 I think the chances are that So may have just simply overlooked that after …Qxf3 the queen was also defending c6. 45.e6 Qf5+ 46.Kg2 Qe4+! [see diagram] This is the final piece in the puzzle for Caruana: from its wonderful e4 outpost, the queen defends c6, covers the e8 queening square, and also protects his own queening square on b1 – and it puts the White king in the danger zone of a mating net! 47.Kh3 If 47.Kf2 b3 48.e7 b2 49.Qd8 b1Q 50.e8Q Qbe1#. 47…b3 48.e7 b2 49.Qd1 Kc3 50.e8Q Qxe8 51.Qf3+ Kb4 52.Qg4+ Ka3 53.Qf3+ Ka2 0-1