Risin’ up, back on the street
Did my time, took my chances
Went the distance, now I’m back on my feet
Just a man and his will to survive…
And if anything, that memorable Rocky theme tune by Survivor could well be adopted now by Magnus Carlsen, as the Norwegian world champion staged yet another remarkable comeback against a very determined Hikaru Nakamura in their epic clash in the Magnus Carlsen Chess Tour Final benefitting Kiva.
After tying the match at 2-2, and taking what many perceived to be a psychological edge, Carlsen was visibly left dazed and stunned as Nakamura simply refused to go down. Even when Nakamura looked out-for-the count by going behind in the blitz, he got off the canvas to fight his way back by winning the second blitz game, and then took the Armageddon-decider for a 4-3 win and on the brink of victory, in what the five-time US champ described as being “a crazy match”.
But 3-2 down in sets, Carlsen – holding an injury of a slight back strain – came out fighting right from the start of the sixth set, where despite the obvious discomfort, he proceeded to pummel Nakamura with some enthralling play for an emphatic 3-1 victory to square it all up again at 3-3. And now, like a pair of heavyweight prizefighters duking it out in the final round, this gripping best-of-seven contest is going the distance of a deciding final day.
And on Thursday’s winner-take-all final set, Carlsen says: “It’s obviously going to be tough – I feel like every day has been so far and I don’t expect anything to be different.”
GM Magnus Carlsen – GM Hikaru Nakamura
Magnus Carlsen Chess Tour Finals, (6.1)
Nimzo-Indian Defence, Rubinstein Variation
1.d4 Nf6 2.c4 e6 3.Nc3 Bb4 4.e3 The Rubinstein Variation, named after the great Akiba Rubinstein – who first brought this line into praxis against Alexander Alekhine, during the famous St. Petersburg International of 1914 – is one of the most critical of White responses against the solid Nimzo-Indian. 4…0-0 5.Bd3 c5 6.Nge2 d5 7.a3 Bxc3+ 8.bxc3 dxc4 9.Bxc4 Qc7 10.Ba2 b6 11.0-0 Ba6 12.Bb2 This is an age-old battle of the ideas in the Rubinstein Complex: Black has the better pawn structure and seeks a speedy liquidation to a potentially favourable ending, while White, though handicapped by his weak queenside pawns, has good attacking chances with the bishop-pair and will look to bust the game open for a quick kingside kill. 12…Nc6 13.Rc1 Rac8 14.c4 cxd4 15.exd4 Qe7 Just removing the queen from any tricks on the c-file after a d5-push, and at the same time potentially keeping an eye on the a3-pawn – and it also brings his queen to a more defence-minded square. If Nakamura is allowed to consolidate his position here, then those pawn weakness will soon be a major headache for Carlsen. 16.d5 This is exactly what Carlsen has to do, he has to strike first by opening the position, and not give a damn about any pawn losses or weakness created in the wake. 16…exd5 17.Re1 Bxc4 18.Ng3 Eyeing up the tempting jump into f5 and a potential knockout blow on g7. 18…Qd8 19.Bb1 b5 20.Nf5 Remarkably, the playing engines all say this position is “0.00” – but when you see those White bishops on sweeping long diagonals and that dangerous knight on f5, it should be enough to set alarm bells ringing for anyone playing Black here. 20…d4 21.Qd2! The simple plan is Qg5 and a mating attack. 21…Be6 22.Rc5 Now admittedly, when I saw it, the rook lift looked powerful and persuasive, as it brings another piece into the attack – but the engine finds the better 22.Qf4!? which all but forces now 22…a6 (If 22…Bxf5 23.Bxf5 Rc7 24.Bd3! just stopping any ideas of further pushing the d-pawn, and gaining a tempo with the hit on b5, looks to give White the momentum to continue the attack.) 23.Nd6! Rc7 24.Bd3 and it’s all beginning to look very awkward for Black, regardless of what the engine might let us believe. 22…a6?! Nakamura really had to bite the bullet here and forget about the b5-pawn and go immediately for another remarkable engine recommendation of 22…Re8!? 23.Rec1 (The saving point is that now 23.Nxg7 doesn’t work, because after 23…Kxg7 24.Qg5+ Kf8! 25.Qh6+ and the Black king runs to safety with 25…Ke7 26.Rf5 Ng8 27.Qg7 Kd6 28.Rxb5 Qh4! and with …Qg4 and …Bd5 threatened White will have to trade queens while left with a heavy material loss.) 23…Ne7! 24.Rxc8 Bxc8 25.Nxd4 a6 and Black stays a pawn up with a more solid defence around his king, though White should be able to generate enough play with his active bishop-pair to hold on. 23.Nxg7! Now all the fun starts! 23…Kxg7 24.Qg5+ Kh8 25.Qh4! Setting up the haymaker of Rxc6! and Bxd4 winning. 25…Rg8?! More accurate was 25…Re8!? as it forces White into wasting a move with h3 or g3 to safeguard the back-rank mating threats. 26.Rxc6! [see diagram] The tactics are now hitting Nakamura like a tsunami – can his fabled survival skills save him? 26…Rxc6 27.Bxd4 Kg7 Better was the desperate looking, though remarkable engine defence of 27…Bf5!? 28.Bxf5 Rg6!? that seems to hold things together, as 29.Bxg6 fxg6 30.Qf4 Kg8 31.h3 Qd6 (If Black can trade the queens, then it will be a draw) 32.Be5 Qe7 where White holds the advantage with the better pieces and more secure king, but there’s no immediate ‘knockout punch’ to be found. 28.Qxh7+ Nakamura’s king is now set for the walk of shame. 28…Kf8 29.Qh6+ Ke8 30.Bxf6 Qa5 31.Qe3! A really tough move to find amidst the tension and pressure, not to mention the digital clock metaphorically ticking down, but Carlsen finds it and Nakamura looks out-for-the-count. 31…Qb6 32.Rd1? Seduced by the threat of Rd8 mate and cutting the king off from running to the queenside, Carlsen missed the clinical kill with 32.Be4! Rd6 33.Qc3! Kf8 34.Qc1! and with Black paralysed and his position stretched, his king will soon be snared. 32…Rd6! One of Nakamura’s great assets is his remarkable survival instincts under extreme pressure, as Carlsen has discovered to his cost during this enthralling battle between these two rivals. And with what should have been this saving move, there also comes with it a wonderful piece of psychology from the US champion, as Magnus explains: “He started shaking his head after he made this move and I guess I fell for the oldest trick in the book because when he started shaking his head I just assumed he missed Rd1 and it’s game-over – but of course, after …Rd6 I have to start over!” 33.Bd4 White was still better after the amazing 33.Rxd6 Qxd6 34.h4! as 34…Qd1+ 35.Kh2 Qxb1 36.Qd4 the only move Black has is 36…Rxg2+! (If 36…Bd7 37.Qe5+ Be6 38.Qb8+ Kd7 39.Qxg8 easily wins by pushing “Harry” right up the board to h8.) 37.Kxg2 Bd7 38.Qe5+ Be6 and the better side of what might become a likely draw, as the White king is also exposed and susceptible to a repetition and/or a perpetual check. 33…Qc6 34.Be4 Qc4 35.h3 Carlsen has to take a ‘time-out’ to secure his back-rank. 35…Kd7 It’s the critical moment, but arguably the deciding factor was the time Nakamura had eaten up on his clock trying to fathom out how to stay alive – and this is what rushes him to defeat. 36.Rd2 Re8?? Nakamura drops his guard! The save was 36…Qc1+ 37.Kh2 Rc8! 38.Bb7 Rg8 39.Be4 Rc8 40.Bb7 Rg8 repeating the position. 37.Kh2 Carlsen was also in a little time trouble, but he opted for the safety-first move though missed the very strong 37.Be5! Bd5 38.Bf5+ Kc6 39.Rc2! winning. 37…Bd5 If Nakamura had realised his mistake and found 37…Rc8! 38.Bd3 Qc1, it would still have been a contest. But not today, and certainly not this game now. 38.Bf5+ Be6 39.Bd3! The tempo and no cover on the c-file make all the difference now! 39…Qa4 After 39…Qc1 40.Bc5 Rd5 41.Bxb5+! axb5 42.Rxd5+ Bxd5 43.Qxc1 wins on the spot; and no better is 39…Qc7 40.Be5 and Black is set for a heavy loss of material. 40.Be5 Carlsen doesn’t miss it the second time of asking! 40…Rd5 41.Qa7+ 1-0 Nakamura throws the towel in, faced with the mate 41…Kd8 42.Qc7#