One thing that has become a virtual certainty in the time of Covid is uncertainty – and with it, Fide, the game’s governing body, had to make the announcement late last week that everyone was expecting: the Candidates tournament to decide Magnus Carlsen’s next challenger was thrown into uncertainty once again by being further postponed, the latest dates now being touted being spring of 2021.
The fateful decision came during the final stages of the Altibox Norway Chess tournament in Stavanger. The Candidates was due to resume in its original host site of Yekaterinburg, Russia on 1 November, after it was stopped in April after seven of its scheduled 14 rounds due to the global pandemic.
Back then, France’s Maxime Vachier-Lagrave and Russia’s Ian Nepomniachtchi were joint leaders on 4.5/7, a point clear of the field. Nearest rival to the leaders is the US world No 2, Fabiano Caruana, who was planning to travel on to Yekaterinburg from Stavanger; indeed, he hoped playing in Norway would have been an ideal warm-up to the Candidates.
The news comes as no surprise to anyone, especially as the second wave of the pandemic seems to be hitting across the globe. Russia’s worsening coronavirus situation – cases up 10,000+ per day; and equally as bad was the rising numbers for Fide’s ‘Plan B’ location of Georgia – was a factor in the postponement. There were also problems with China’s Ding Liren and Wang Hao, as they had not yet received government permission to travel.
And in a vain attempt to try and stay one step ahead of the virus, months ago Fide even tried to relocate the Candidates to Stavanger, looking to piggyback off the infrastructure of the Altibox Norway Chess tournament. The Norway Chess founder Kjell Madland and his organising committee took an interest in this proposal, but according to sources it had to be rejected as no financial incentive was being offered by Fide for the Norwegians to take over the event.
In a funny aside after beating Carlsen in the Altibox Norway Chess final round, Levon Aronian suggested he had the ‘perfect solution’ should the Candidates not go ahead: and that was for everyone else to just stand aside and let him play a World Championship Match against Carlsen!
Photo: Levon Aronian rains on Magnus Carlsen’s victory parade – and offers his own unique Candidates solution! | © Lennart Ootes/Altibox Norway Chess
GM Magnus Carlsen – GM Levon Aronian
Altibox Norway Chess, (10)
Queen’s Gambit, Exchange Variation
1.Nf3 d5 2.d4 Nf6 3.c4 e6 4.Nc3 Be7 5.cxd5 exd5 6.Bf4 c6 7.Qc2 g6 This allows Black to play …Bf5 that will force the trade of the light-squared bishops. 8.e3 Bf5 9.Bd3 Bxd3 10.Qxd3 Nbd7 11.h4 This AlphaZero-like move would make more sense if White still had the light-square bishop still on the board. 11…a5 Just stopping White ideas of the usual Exchange variation minority attack with a3, Rb1 and b4 etc. 12.Kf1 a4! Aronian cannily avoids kingside castling, for now, waiting to see what Carlsen does – but in the meantime, he continues his lockdown on the queenside. 13.a3 Qb6 14.Qc2 h5 The a-pawn is taboo, a direct result of Carlsen’s Kf1, as …Qa6+ picks up a piece. 15.Bg5 0-0 16.Ne5 Rfe8 17.Bxf6 Nxf6 18.Rh3 The rook lift is Carlsen’s ‘Plan B’ after playing h4, hoping to swing the rook into the game via Rg3 or Rf3. 18…Qb3! Sensing the potential danger, Aronian seeks the trade of queens – and this puts Carlsen into a quandary of how to continue. 19.Qb1?! Carlsen is pushing the envelope here, gambling that he has good attacking chances on the kingside, so he commits to keeping the queens on the board – but it all backfires on the world champion. Instead, he had to accept the inevitable with the trade of queens with 19.Qxb3 axb3, however, the b3-pawn is difficult to target, and after 20.Rc1 Ra6! Black has …Bd6, …b5 and …Ne4 or possibly even just …Rb6 defending the b3-pawn. Either way, Black has complete equality. 19…Ne4! By avoiding the trade of queens, it just takes one very good move for Aronian to now take control of the game. 20.Nxe4 Forced, as fork-threats with …Nd2+ has to be stopped. 20…dxe4 21.Qxe4 Bd6 Suddenly the game is opening up to Aronian’s advantage. 22.Rg3 At long last, Carlsen’s rook comes into the attack – but any ‘Hail Mary’ saves with Rxg6+ is cunningly squashed by Aronian. 22…Bxe5 23.dxe5 Qb5+! Carlsen’s 12.Kf1 is coming back to haunt him. 24.Kg1 Rxe5! A rare oversight from Carlsen, as he originally thought he had the saving 25.Rxg6+ after this move, only to suddenly realise at the last minute that Aronian had the wonderful rejoinder of 25…Kh7! that wins a rook! 25.Qd4 Rd5 26.Qf6 Rf5! Stopping any ideas Carlsen might have harboured for the saving Rxg6+ perpetual hope, as the king will escape via …Kf8 and …Ke7. 27.Qd4 Qe2! The attack on f2 leaves Carlsen in deep trouble. 28.e4 No better was 28.Rf1 and again 28…Rb5! leaves White in trouble, as 29.Rb1 is easily answered by 29…Qc2 30.Re1 Qxb2 31.Qc4 Qb3 covering against any potential Rxg6+ sacrifice. 28…Rb5 While this move was very strong in the above note, Aronian missed the even stronger option of 28…Rf4! forcing 29.f3 Rxh4 picking up the h-pawn. 29.Rb1 Qc2 30.Qd3 Carlsen is now forced into even worse terms for the queen trade. 30…Rc5 31.Qxc2?! Carlsen misses his best chance to save the ending with 31.b4! axb3 32.Rxb3 Qc1+ 33.Kh2 Qf4 34.Qe3! Qxe3 (Unfortunately grabbing the h-pawn gets hit by 34…Qxh4+ 35.Rh3 Qe7 36.Rxb7! Qxb7 37.Qxc5 Qc7+ 38.Kg1 Rb8 39.Rc3! Qf4 40.Rc1 Qxe4 41.Qxc6 and a likely draw.) 35.Rgxe3 b5 36.Rbc3 Rxc3 37.Rxc3 Rc8 38.Rc5 and a rook ending that’s heading for a draw, as this time it is the White rook that is active. 31…Rxc2 32.b3 b5 More precise was 32…Re2! 33.Rd3 axb3 34.Rbxb3 Ra4 35.Rdc3? Carlsen’s play in this game has been a complete enigma to me, as he misses several good chances to save the game that normally you would expect the world champion to find, the latest being here, as 35.f3! preserving the integrity of the kingside pawns looks good for the draw. For example 35…Rac4 36.Rb4! Kg7 (Also possible is 36…Rxb4 37.axb4 Rc4 38.Rd8+! Kg7 39.Rc8 Kf6 40.Kf2 Ke5 41.Ke3 but this also looks like a draw .) 37.Kh2 Kf6 38.Kg3 Ke5 39.Rd7! Ke6 40.Rc7 and White’s pieces are more actively placed to hold the draw. 35…Rc4! The best try for Aronian to make something out of his small advantage, and not falling for 35…Rxc3? 36.Rxc3 Rxe4 37.Rxc6 Rxh4 38.Rc5 Ra4 39.Rxb5 Rxa3 and with all the action on the kingside, the extra pawn should make no difference in the R+P ending. 36.Rxc2 Rxc2 37.f3 This time, better was 37.g3! as the king gets to f3 quicker via g2, and also the Black rook has less influence on the seventh rank. 37…Kf8 38.Kh2 Ke7 39.Kh3 Carlsen is caught in a dilemma of his own making, namely, he can’t play Kg3-f4 as g2 is under attack – so he now has to waste even more time trying to untangle himself from the mess. 39…Ke6 40.Rd3 Rc4 41.Kg3 Ke5 Aronian’s king and rook are just too active – but there’s not quite enough right now to win, though it’s the direction of travel. 42.Rd7! Invariably activating your rook, rather than a passive defence, is always the rule of thumb in a difficult R+P ending. 42…Rc3 43.Ra7?! Once again, another untypical Carlsen response, as 43.Rxf7! looks good to hold the draw, i.e.: 43…Rxa3 44.Rc7! Ra6 (R+P endgames can be fickle things, as 44…Kd6? 45.Rb7 stops Black pushing either of the passed queenside pawns and if 45…Rb3 suddenly 46.Rg7! and Black will be the one seeking to bailout with the draw.) 45.Rb7! and White’s active rook will hold the draw, as it’s difficult for Black to start pushing his passed queenside pawns. 43…f6 44.Ra8 Kd6 A bit too cautious – better was 44…Kd4! 45.Rd8+ Kc4 46.Rd6 c5 47.Ra6 Rb3 and Black is set to push the c-pawn with 48…Kd3 49.Rd6+ Kc3 etc. 45.Kf4 Kc7 46.g4! This should be the best practical chance to draw, by seeking out as many pawn trades as possible. 46…Kb7 47.Rg8 hxg4 48.fxg4 Rxa3 49.Rxg6 b4 50.Rxf6?? [see diagram] This is just as bad endgame technique as Firouzja’s K+P distant opposition mishap in the previous round against Carlsen! The easy way to draw was with simply pushing his own passed pawn with 50.h5! b3 (If 50…Rh3? now 51.Rxf6 works as 51…b3 52.Ke5! and the rook can now not only trackback to stop the b-pawn, but suddenly, White, with the extra pawn, the upper-hand and Black is the one who needs to grovel for the draw.) 51.Rg7+ Kb6 52.Rg8! The key to saving many R+P endings is to find a way of getting your rook behind a passed pawn, such as here. 52…Ra7 (It is very easy to go wrong here. If 52…Kc5? 53.Rb8! and White is the one who is winning.) 53.Rb8+ The contrast between this and what happens in the game is day and night with White’s h-pawn equally as far up the board as Black’s b-pawn. 53…Rb7 54.Rxb7+ Kxb7 55.h6 b2 56.h7 b1Q 57.h8Q and total equality in the Q+P ending. 50…b3 This time due to Kf4, the rook can’t track back in time to stop the running b-pawn. 51.Rf7+ Kb6 52.Rf8 Ra7! The win now is simple, as …Rb7 both stops the annoying check on the b-file and further supports pushing the b-pawn home. 53.Rb8+ Rb7 54.Rd8 c5 With both pawns now running, Carlsen is dead in the water. 55.Ke3 c4 56.Rd1 c3 57.Rb1 Kc5 58.Kd3 0-1