The pandemic witnessed an unlikely digital renaissance for the oldest board game of them all, as chess positively boomed online during the lockdown. But for most top players and professionals – though Magnus Carlsen and Hikaru Nakamura might well disagree! – the clamour was for a return to physically moving the pieces across the board from an opponent with “real chess”.
And real chess, albeit with safety measures in place, is beginning to return again at the top level. Germany’s Schachbundesliga is the strongest in Europe and regarded as the original role-model for professional team chess. Its highly-competitive regular 16-team 2019/20 season had to be curtailed due to the pandemic and replaced by an interim eight-team 2020 championship final held in Karlsruhe.
Nevertheless, the squads were still very strong, with many top ten stars playing, as well as some 50 Grandmasters. The organisers had a number of safety and hygiene measures in-play, such as hand-sanitizers, a plexiglass wall barrier between the players, and no spectators allowed in the playing site.
OSG Baden-Baden, the hometown reigning 13-time champions were the big favourites to win the title yet again, especially with a powerhouse team led by the world title candidates Fabiano Caruana and Maxime Vachier-Lagrave, and also including Levon Aronian, Richard Rapport and Michael Adams in their lineup, to name-drop but a few of their 2700+ squad.
But it proved to be a close race, as OSG Baden-Baden narrowly won the title just ahead of second-placed SC Viernheim. And showing he was a little rusty after the long-layoff from real chess, Caruana scored 3.5/6, losing to Erwin L’Atmi, and dropping 7-points in the unofficial live ratings – but he did have an intriguing opening round tussle (see game below) with another US legend, Gata Kamsky!
The pandemic and the rise of online elite-level major tournaments has proved a boon for Nakamura, and something of a bust for Caruana – the latter being considered now as “just another very good player” rather than the world’s #2 player and the clear rival to Carlsen’s crown.
The former title-challenger says his trip to Germany is all part of his master plan to prepare for the game getting back to normal, where he’ll be based for the next few months. From there, he’ll be making his way to next month’s Norway Chess – featuring Magnus Carlsen, Fabiano Caruana, Levon Aronian, Jan-Krzysztof Duda, Alireza Firouzja and Aryan Tari – the first super-tournament to be held since the pandemic lockdown back in April.
The world #2 will first though have to observe a 10-day quarantine period in Stavanger before the start of Norway Chess. By the end of the tournament, Caruana says he’s hoping he’ll be the only player back to “tournament sharpness” again and ready for the resumption of the Candidates Tournament in early November, where he’s a point adrift of joint-leaders Ian Nepomniachtchi and MVL.
GM Gata Kamsky – GM Fabiano Caruana
1.d4 Nf6 2.Nf3 g6 3.c3 Bg7 4.Bg5 The ‘lazy man’s’ opening repertoire with the London System, and here, the Torre Attack, avoiding all the big main-line theory has become a staple diet in Kamsky’s repertoire – he’s just looking for a ‘simple position’ he can safely play, rather than having to memorise and keep up-to-date with all the main-line theory in multi-million game databases. 4…0-0 5.Nbd2 h6 6.Bh4 d6 7.e4 c5 8.d5 Nbd7 9.Bd3 Nh5 10.0-0 Nf4 11.Bc2 b5 12.Rb1 Nf6 13.Re1 Qc7 14.Nf1 e5 15.dxe6 Bxe6 16.Bg3 N6h5 17.Qd2 Nxg3 18.hxg3 Nh5 19.Bb3 c4 20.Bc2 Rfe8 21.Rbd1 Rad8 22.Nd4 Bg4 23.Ra1 Alternatively, another plan was 23.f3 Bd7 24.Qf2 d5 25.exd5 Rxe1 26.Rxe1 Nf6 27.Ne3 Qc5 with equality – though Black retaining a small grip due to the bishop-pair and long-term possibilities. 23…Qc5 24.Ne3 Nf6 25.a4 a6 26.axb5 axb5 27.Nxg4 Nxg4 Again, there’s not much in the position – the only small difference being Caruana having the slightly more active pieces and more space on the queenside. 28.Bd1 Nf6 29.Bf3 Nd7 30.Nc2 Qg5 31.Qxg5 hxg5 32.Ra5 With the queens traded, opposite-colour bishops, and Kamsky’s rook active on the a-file, a draw looked a good bet here. 32…Rb8 33.Rd1 Better looked 33.Nb4! blockading the queenside pawns, covering the vital a2 square, and a possible knight hop to d5. It also leads to an easier simplifying process after, say: 33…Nf6 34.e5!? Rxe5 35.Rxe5 dxe5 36.Nc6 Rb6 37.Nxe5 Bf8 38.Bc6 Bd6 39.Nd7! Nxd7 (Bad is 39…Rxc6? 40.Nxf6+ Kg7 41.Ne8+ Kh6 42.Nxd6 Rxd6 43.Rxb5 and White has much the better of the R+P ending with the extra pawn and better rook.) 40.Bxd7 b4 41.Rd5 bxc3 42.bxc3 Rb1+ 43.Kh2 Be7 44.Bb5 Rb3 45.Bxc4 Rxc3 with the queenside pawns liquidated and opposite-colour bishops. 33…Nf6 34.Rxd6 g4 35.e5 If Kamsky was banking on this move to liquidate Caruana’s queenside pawns, then he missed something. 35…Rxe5 36.Bc6 Re2 37.Nd4 Re1+ If 37…Rxb2 38.Rxb5 R2xb5 39.Nxb5 should be an easy draw. 38.Kh2 Kh7!! It’s not so obvious, but this is what Kamsky has missed, as out of thin air Caruana has created alchemy with 39.Rxb5 answered by 39…Rh8! and a mating attack down the h-file! 39.Ra8 Rxa8 40.Bxa8 Rb1 41.Nxb5 Rxb2 42.Bc6 Rxf2 43.Kg1 Rc2 44.Rd4 With c3 defended and Caruana’s c4-pawn about to fall, at first glance you would think that Kamsky had weathered the storm and nothing left to be squeezed out of the game – but Caruana has an ace up his sleeve. 44…Bh6! [see diagram] Suddenly the game takes a further dramatic twist, as Caruana springs another cunning mating attack on Kamsky. 45.Rxc4 Be3+ 46.Kf1 Nh5! The threat of …Nxg3+ and …Rc1 mate is hard to meet – and to stave this off, Kamsky’s once active rook now has to take up the least active square possible for it. 47.Rxg4 f5 48.Rh4 Kg7 49.Rh3 Ugly, very ugly indeed. It’s certainly a humbling retreat for Kamsky – and despite the limited resources now left on the board, there’s just no hope of saving the game as Caruana ruthlessly moves in for the kill. 49…Bf2 50.Rxh5 Pure desperation now from Kamsky, with the lethal threat of …Nxg3+ hanging over his king. 50…gxh5 51.Nd6 Bc5 Also good was 51…Kf6 hanging onto the f-pawn – but White had the ‘Hail Mary’ saving attempt with the remarkable 52.Be4!? fxe4 53.Nxe4+ Kf5 54.Nxf2 Rxc3 which is objectively still lost for White, but you just don’t want to give someone like Kamsky the outside chance of a way to possibly save the game. 52.Nxf5+ Kf6 53.Nh4 First it was the rook awkwardly placed on the h-file, now it’s Kamsky’s knight on the rim! 53…Rxc3 54.Be8 If Kamsky can somehow get the ending down to B, N + P v R+B, then he has a slim chance to save the game – but Caruana avoids this possibility. 54…Kg5 55.Nf3+ Kh6 56.Bd7 Rc1+ 57.Ke2 Rc2+ 58.Kf1 Rf2+ 59.Ke1 Rxg2 60.Nh4 Rb2 61.Kf1 It’s the story of Kamsky’s chess career: he simply never gives up unless he’s forced to, making his opponent work all the way to the very end to prove the win. 61…Rf2+ 62.Ke1 Kg5 63.Bh3 Kf6 64.Bd7 Ra2 65.Kf1 Bd6 66.g4 Kamsky is running out of road now. Once the g-pawn inevitably falls, he’s toast, and if 66.Nf5 Bb8! 67.Ke1 Ra7 68.Bc8 Rc7 White will lose a piece. 66…hxg4 67.Bxg4 Kg5 68.Nf5 Bc5 69.Bh3 Rf2+ 70.Ke1 Rh2 0-1