Sporting events may well be re-tooling right now in order to open up again following the global coronavirus pandemic shutdown, but chess has thrived throughout the lockdown period. Online chess has witnessed a rapid and exponential growth – and, indeed, it has not only thrived but has used this period of crisis to try out some innovative new ideas to further entertain the fans.
The latest novelty comes from Rex Sinquefield’s Saint Louis Chess Club and their initiative of the ‘Clutch Chess International’, running Saturday, June 6 through to Sunday, June 14, with its star-studded field and $265,000 prize fund – making this the largest prize fund ever offered for an online chess event.
The eight-player field is headed by World Champion Magnus Carlsen (Norway) and world #2 Fabiano Caruana (USA), and also includes Maxime Vachier-Lagrave (France), Alexander Grischuk (Russia), Levon Aronian (Armenia), Wesley So (USA), Leinier Dominguez (USA) and Jeffery Xiong (USA).
“Clutch Chess” is the brainchild of GM Maurice Ashley, the resident Saint Louis analyst/commentator. Ashley came up with his “Jeopardy!”-style tournament during the early days of lockdown, the idea being is to find a way to keep many thousands of fans who would be following the live-action from getting bored of too many draws that are common to chess.
Ashley decided to increase the number of points each game was worth as the tournament progressed in addition to throwing in some additional prize money for Games 5 and 6 ($2,000 per game) and 11 and 12 ($3,000 per game) – calling them clutch games – and giving the players added incentive to win those games. If at the end of the event players are tied, the one with more “clutch game wins” wins the entire tournament.
One of the opening-day quarterfinal match-ups saw Magnus Carlsen being hit by this new “clutch” format. The World Champion looked to be romping to an easy victory with three straight wins against 19-year-old rising star Jeffery Xiong, only for the Texan teenager to produce a near-textbook Sicilian Hedgehog counter-attack for a dramatic comeback win – and with it being the “clutch game”, he not only won $2,000 but with it being double the value, an extra 2 points, and he’s given Carlsen something to think about going into Monday’s session.
Magnus Carlsen 4½-3½ Jeffery Xiong
Wesley So 5½-2½ Maxime Vachier-Lagrave
The rounds will be streamed live daily on uschesschamps.com at 13:00 local CT (11:00 PST | 20:00 CET) from June 6-14 with expert commentary from GM’s Yasser Seirawan and Maurice Ashley and WGM Jennifer Shahade.
GM Magnus Carlsen – GM Jeffery Xiong
Clutch Chess International, (2.1)
1.Nf3 c5 2.e4 e6 3.d4 cxd4 4.Nxd4 a6 5.c4 Nf6 6.Nc3 Qc7 7.a3 b6 8.Be2 Bb7 9.f3 Be7 10.Be3 0-0 11.0-0 d6 12.Rc1 Nbd7 You really had to have lived through the era, but the successful development of so-called Hedgehog systems of defence was one of the most remarkable theoretical milestones of the 1970s. The Swedish Grandmaster, Ulf Andersson, was one of the earliest proponents. Many Grandmasters, notably Ljubomir Ljubojevic, followed suit, as they realised not just the rock-solid defensive qualities of Hedgehog systems, but, more importantly, their counter-attacking potential – and we see this coming from Xiong. 13.b4 Rfc8 14.Kh1 Qd8 A typical Hedgehog strategical retreat, looking to pile the pressure on the c4-pawn with …Ne5 and a possible doubling of rooks on the c-file. 15.Nb3 Ne5 16.Na4 Nfd7 17.Qd4 b5 18.Na5 Carlsen has never been one to hold back from a fight, but, on reflection, he may well have realised by now that better was 18.Nb2 looking to control the c4-square, and perhaps building up the central pressure with Rfd1 and a c5-push. 18…Nc6 19.Nxc6 Bxc6 20.cxb5?! Carlsen’s troubles in this game can be traced to this move when it all starts to drift away from him. His best try was 20.Nc3 that at least forces Black’s hand with 20…bxc4 21.Bxc4 Bb7 22.Ba2 Rc7 23.Ne2 Rac8 and equality. But then again, Carlsen probably wasn’t looking for “equality” against his weaker opponent, hoping that by “mixing it”, he can confuse his young opponent. Alas, his gamble failed. 20…Bxb5 21.Rxc8 Rxc8 22.Qd1 Qc7 That’s the big problem for White – Black now dominates the c-file, and it is not so easy to bring the awkward Na4 back into the game. 23.Bd4 Qc2! 24.Bxb5 axb5 25.Nb6 Nxb6 26.Bxb6 Qxd1 27.Rxd1 Rc3 Hitting the a3-pawn, that simply can’t be defended. 28.Ra1 Bf6! 29.Rd1 Rxa3 If it were bishops of the opposite colour, then Carlsen would have had excellent drawing chances – but not with bishops of the same colour. 30.Kg1 It is possible to play 30.Rxd6 but after 30…Ra1+ 31.Bg1 g5! 32.g3 Rb1 White is in big trouble, as the b-pawn now falls. 30…Ra6! And Xiong highlights another major problem for Carlsen: How does he get his bishop back into the game without endangering his b-pawn? 31.Bc7 Trying to find salvation in the R+P ending with 31.Bd4 Bxd4+ 32.Rxd4 Kf8 33.Rd2 Ke7 34.Kf2 Ra4! 35.Rb2 Kf6 only seems to offer Black excellent winning prospects – one example being 36.Ke3 e5! and Black will be looking to play …Ke6 and …d5. So with that in mind, Carlsen opts to try to keep things a bit complicated by keeping the bishops on the board, at the very least defending his b-pawn. 31…Be5 32.Rc1 Kf8 33.Ba5 d5! (see diagram) Xiong creates a big central passed pawn, and at the same time swinging his rook more into the game across his own third rank. 34.exd5 exd5 35.Kf1 Carlsen tries one last throw of the die by sacrificing a pawn to try to generate some activity for his rook. But if 35.g3 Ke7 36.f4 Bd4+ 37.Kf1 Kd6 Black is soon going to be playing …Rc6 to challenge the c-file; and if no trade, then …Rc4 will be very strong. 35…Bxh2 36.Rc5 Re6! 37.g4 If 37.Rxd5 Bg3! 38.Rd1 Ke8 White is paralysed and running out of moves due to the omnipresent threat of …Re1 mate – Black will simply throw his kingside pawns up the board, with his king also behind them, and something will give. 37…d4 38.Rxb5 d3 39.Rd5 Rd6! Forcing the trade of rooks and a won bishop ending. 40.Rxd6 Bxd6 41.b5 There’s no easy way to get to Black’s d-pawn. If 41.Kf2 Bf4! 42.b5 Ke8 43.b6 Kd7 44.b7 g5! 45.b8Q Bxb8 46.Ke3 Bc7 47.Bc3 d2 48.Kxd2 Ke6 and …Be5 and …f5 is coming. 41…g6 42.b6 Ke8 43.b7 Kd7 44.Bb4 Bb8 45.Kf2 h5! The running h-pawn storms up the board just at the right time, as the White king can’t deal with both passed pawns. 46.gxh5 gxh5 47.Be1 h4 48.Kg2 If 48.Ke3 h3 and the h-pawn queens. 48…Kc6 49.Kh3 Kxb7 50.Kg4 Bg3 0-1 Carlsen resigns, as he faces 51.Bd2 f5+! 52.Kh3 Kc6 and White can’t stop the king march …Kc6-d5-c4-b3-c2 winning the bishop.