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John Henderson
By John Henderson

It seems only the digital gremlins can put a stop to Magnus Carlsen these days. Fresh from his shared victory with Hikaru Nakamura in the St. Louis Chess 9XL, the world champion got off to a flying start to the second leg of the Saint Louis Chess Club’s ‘Chess Showdown’, the St. Louis Rapid & Blitz, with an emphatic opening game victory over his competing chess influencer rival.

And brimming with confidence with the big statement opening win, Carlsen looked to be in a strong position against Russia’s Ian Nepomniachtchi, only for the Norwegian to be dramatically hit by a disconnect and the automatic loss of a game he never looked to be in any danger of losing, subsequently ending the day on a below-par 50% score and trailing early frontrunners Levon Aronian and Pentala Harikrishna.

Disconnects have proven a big issue with the pandemic-forged new chess media spotlight of elite-level online super-tournaments: We’ve witnessed Alireza Firouzja being disconnected during the opening leg of the Magnus Carlsen Tour, Ding Liren also struggling with his ‘China Firewall’ throughout the Tour, onto the farce of Fide’s Online Olympiad final between Russia and India ending in a controversial shared gold because of a global online outage, and now the world champion being the latest disconnect ‘victim’.

Unfortunately, there’s no easy fix to what’s often called a ‘digital disco’ that’s totally out of the control of both the players and the organisers. They happen, they are a fact of online digital life, but it does seem unfair for all concerned when punitive action has to be taken when they strike. There are many wise-heads in the chess world that really need to get together to look into finding and formulating a protocol of what to do when a disconnect hits.

Many may well have psychologically ‘collapsed’ after such an unfair loss, but Carlsen took it all in his stride as top dog to strike back as only Carlsen can with a stunning perfect performance on day 2.  He finished the day on a high with a trifecta of successive and emphatic wins over Aronian, Leinier Dominguez and Harikrishna respectively to dramatically jump into the sole lead, a full point ahead of the chasing pack going into the final day of the Rapid tournament.

Obviously pleased with his reversal of fortunes, an upbeat Carlsen nevertheless was sanguine about his setback when he appeared in a tag-team interview with the Saint Louis Chess Club commentary team of Yasser Seirawan, Maurice Ashley and Jennifer Shahade: “Being a frontrunner in chess is unbelievably hard, but I think that just applies to everybody. It’s very easy to play well when you’re winning and you don’t have too many scares, but as soon as you lead and lose one important game…it’s very, very easy to collapse.”

Rapid standings:
1. Magnus Carlsen (Norway) 9/12; 2-3. Wesley So (USA), Ian Nepomniachtchi (Russia) 8; 4. Levon Aronian (Armenia) 7; 5. Pentala Harikrishna (India) 6; 6-8. Hikaru Nakamura (USA), Alexander Grischuk (Russia), Jeffery Xiong (USA) 5; 9. Leinier Dominguez (USA) 4; 10. Alireza Firouzja (FIDE) 3.

(In the rapid a win is worth 2 points, a draw is 1 point and a loss is 0)

GM Hikaru Nakamura – GM Magnus Carlsen
St. Louis Rapid & Blitz, (1)
Caro-Kann Defence, Advance variation
1.e4 c6 2.d4 d5 3.e5 Sixty years ago, Mikhail Tal electrified the chess world by beating Mikhail Botvinnik in their 1960 title match to become world champion. But the following year, he lost the 1961 return match – but this was a match that saw the Advance Variation getting a renewed interest as it was used as a potent weapon with a new Tal twist. 3…Bf5 4.h4 Tal’s twist was based on meeting the most common response, 3…Bf5 with the strange-looking, but now AlphaZero-like 4.h4; the big idea being to gain space on the kingside and “squeeze” the otherwise well-developed Bf5. In fact, 4.h4 remains a topical – if rather difficult – variation today. 4…h5 5.Bd3 Bxd3 6.Qxd3 e6 7.Bg5 Qa5+ 8.Nd2 Qa6 9.c4 The trade of queens after 9.Qxa6 Nxa6 and 10.0-0-0 Nh6 only makes life easier for Black, who will soon be following up with …c5 where we have a French-like position on the board, but without the problems of what to do with the light-squared bishop usually locked behind the pawn chain. 9…Ne7 10.Ngf3 Nf5 11.0-0 Nd7 12.b3 Bb4 13.Rfd1 The alternative was 13.Rfc1 hoping Black plays 13…Ba3 as it runs into 14.Rcb1 0-0 15.Qc3!? and another complex tussle ahead. 13…Nb6 14.Rac1 More in the spirit of the position was 14.a4!? with the idea of looking to throw in a further spanner in the works with a5!? 14…0-0 15.Nf1 c5 16.dxc5 dxc4 17.Qb1 Bxc5 18.b4 Be7 19.Ng3? It was difficult to imagine what Nakamura was thinking here, as the obvious move was 19.Bxe7 Nxe7 20.Ne3 which was certainly more preferable to what happens now in the game. It could be that he just underestimated the position, thinking that the opening of the f-file will mean more direct lines of attack being opened. 19…Nxg3 20.fxg3 Rae8 21.Bxe7 Rxe7 22.Ng5 It’s usually not a good idea to ‘gift’ Magnus an extra passed pawn, but Nakamura thinks he can generate enough kingside counter-attacking chances to stay in the game. 22…g6 23.Qe4 The direct threat is Qf4 (or f3) and Ne4 excellent kingside attacking chances – there’s certainly some danger signs, but all this takes time, and Black will also have some moves to make! 23…Nd5 The centralised knight covers f6. 24.Kh1? This was not the time for Nakamura to be spooked by seeing ‘ghosts’ – the position demands direct action, and to stay competitive, he simply had to play 24.Rxc4! Qxa2 (If 24…Ne3 25.Qxe3 Qxc4 the forcing line 26.Ne4 Kg7 27.Qg5! Qxe4 28.Qf6+ Kg8 29.Qxe7 Qxe5 and only now 30.Kh2! and with Rd7 coming, White looks to have more than enough resources to hold the balance.) 25.Rf1 Kg7 26.Rd4 the position is still dangerous for Black, the immediate threat being Qf3 and Qf6+. Black will have to continue with extreme caution. 24…c3 The passed c-pawn now becomes a big thorn in Nakamura’s side. 25.Rc2 Rc8 26.Qf3 Qa4 27.Rf2? Nakamura is running out of ideas, but slightly better to try and hold on was with 27.Rdc1 Qxb4 28.Ne4 Rec7 29.Qd3 but with White tied down by the c-pawn, Black should be able to find a way to patiently push his queenside pawns up the board to convert the win. 27…c2 28.Rc1 Rc3 More clinical was the immediate 28…Qxb4! as White can’t snatch the c2-pawn as a rook will hang to a …Qb1+ at the end. But I guess Carlsen probably had his own winning plan in his head. 29.Qe2 Qxb4 30.Kh2 Again, the c-pawn is taboo. After 30.Rxc2 Ne3! 31.Rxc3 Qxc3 and it is difficult to see how White survives a …Ng4+ fork winning. And also, if 30.Ne4 Re3! 31.Nf6+ Nxf6 32.Qxe3 Ng4! 33.Qxa7 Nxf2+ 34.Qxf2 Rc7! wins, as again the c-pawn can’t be snatched due to a …Qbl+ picking off the rook. 30…Rxg3! [see diagram] There are just so many ways to win, but certainly the bold and brassy rook and follow-up queen sacrifice will be the one that tempts the true chessplayer all the more! 31.Kxg3 Qa3+ 32.Kh2 Qxc1 33.Qc4 A bit of psychology going on here, as I think Carlsen knew very well that Nakamura wouldn’t go under timidly with 33.Qxc2 Qxc2 34.Rxc2 Rc7 and a hopelessly lost endgame. 33…Rc7 34.Qb5 Qxg5! 0-1 Nakamura resigns with the c-pawn close to a home run, and the temporary queen sac winning the knight to end the game with just a touch of added élan.

 

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