The term ‘El Clásico‘ is used to describe the undisputed flagship fixture between Spain’s most famous, oldest, bitterest and most intense of La Liga football/soccer rivalries: FC Barcelona and Real Madrid C.F. The literal translation of El Clásico is ‘The Classic’, and now it has become a big part of the universal punditary lexicon, with many plays on the term to describe any number of big sporting rivalries.
Chess also falls into this category, and any encounter between Magnus Carlsen and Fabiano Caruana – especially in classical games – has now taken on the billing of ‘El Clásico of Chess’. No rivalry comes bigger today in chess than a clash between the world’s top two players and former title combatants, who played a 12-game World Championship Match in London in 2018 that saw all the games ending in draws, with Carlsen only retaining his title after a nerve-wracking and compelling tie-break.
Carlsen has found it difficult to break Caruana down in classical chess, with a streak of 19 draws between the two, and the Norwegian’s last victory coming on May 28th, 2018… in the opening round of Norway Chess! But in the current edition of Altibox Norway Chess in Stavanger, a determined and confident Carlsen cashed in big-time on some erratic play from his US rivals for a maximum 3-points to ominously jump into the clear lead at the midpoint.
“Yeah, it’s a very good day!,” said a clearly upbeat Carlsen after his crushing win. “Frankly speaking, I was thinking during the game that this was probably the best position I’d had against him since the first game of the match [their London World Championship match in 2018], so it was obviously very, very sweet to get that win.”
And with that sweet win, as Carlsen describes it, he’s now recorded his 11th classical victory over Caruana – and his record-breaking live unbeaten streak in classical games now extends to 125-games, with it being 800 days now since he last lost a classical game, to Shakhriyar Mamadyarov in Rd.9 of the Biel Masters, on July 30th, 2018.
Friday is the rest day, but play resumes on Saturday with live coverage on the Altibox Norway Chess official site from the top Russian commentary team of GMs Vladimir Kramnik & Peter Svidler. Play starts at 17:00 local time (11:00 EST | 08:00 PST).
1. Magnus Carlsen (Norway) 9/13; 2. Levon Aronian (Armenia) 8/13; 3. Alireza Firouzja (FIDE) 7/13.5; 4. Fabiano Caruana (USA) 7.5/12.5; 5. Aryan Tari (Norway) 1½/12.5; 6. Jan-Krzystof Duda (Poland) 1/12.5.
Photo: Magnus Carlsen channels his inner Steven Seagal to crush Fabiano Caruana | © Lennart Ootes / Altibox Norway Chess
GM Magnus Carlsen – GM Fabiano Caruana
Altibox Norway Chess, (4)
Nimzo-Indian Defence, Classical Variation
1.d4 Nf6 2.c4 e6 3.Nc3 Bb4 4.Qc2 The Classical or Capablanca variation was popular in the early days of the Nimzo-Indian, made famous by being adopted by the great Jose Raul Capablanca. The idea is for White to try and gain the bishop pair without compromising the pawn structure after …Bxc3, and at the same time possibly planning on domineering the center with e4. 4…0-0 5.a3 Bxc3+ 6.Qxc3 d5 7.Bg5 dxc4 8.Qxc4 b6 9.Rd1 An annoying but simple little move that, for now, stops Black breaking with …c5 or …e5 as he’d like to. 9…Ba6 10.Qa4 h6 11.Bh4 Qd7 All things considered, this will lead to the queens being traded that will ease a lot of pressure on Caruana’s position. And a quick check of the databases will show nothing but all the games ending in draws – but Carlsen bucks that trend by mercilessly honing in on the minuscule advantage he’ll get with Black’s crippled pawn structure. 12.Qc2 Qc6 13.Qxc6 Nxc6 14.Bxf6 gxf6 15.e3 Bxf1 16.Kxf1 Na5 17.Nf3 As Vladimir Kramnik explained in his commentary: “This is a Magnus position” – and how right the former world champion is, as the current world champion ruthlessly grinds away at his small advantage with the better pawn structure and his king strategically well-placed for the coming ending. 17…Nc4 18.Rb1 c5 19.Ke2 Rfc8 20.Rhc1 Nd6 21.dxc5 bxc5 22.Rc2 To be able to convert good positions, you have to think like a good player – and the good player here will try to envision the endgame with all the pieces removed from the board, leaving just the K+P ending. And here, Carlsen will be looking at all of Caruana’s handicaps: Black has four pawn islands to White’s two, three of Black’s pawns are isolated and weak, and, most crucially of all, White’s king can quickly target the weak queenside pawns. 22…Kf8 23.Nd2! The knight is heading to c4 where either Black will have to exchange knights and left with a bad double R+P ending, or White will have his knight posted on the best possible square for it on c4 – and neither of these options appeals to Caruana, who rightly decides its time to try and create a little activity in his bad position. 23…c4 24.Rbc1 Rab8 25.Kf3! Simple prophylaxis! Magnus just removes his king from e2 and avoids the awkward …Rxb2+ threat, and now intends the multiple captures on c4, where after …Rxb2 he’ll have Rc7, Rc6, Rc5 etc eventually picking off the loose a-pawn and a winning R+P ending. Faced with the reality of this, Caruana uncharacteristically panics. 25…c3? It’s the critical moment of the game, and remarkably Caruana crumbles under the pressure. As usual in dealing with a bad endgame scenario, the best option often or not is to activate your rooks. And here, Caruana has to play 25…Rc5! threatening …Rcb5 and White’s b-pawn is under lock and key. White will have to try 26.b4 (Now 26.Nxc4 is well-met by 26…Rf5+! 27.Ke2 Nxc4 28.Rxc4 Rxb2+ 29.R1c2 Rxc2+ 30.Rxc2 Ra5! and this time the R+P endgame is drawn, as Black’s rook is well placed to both defend his own a-pawn and attack White’s a-pawn.) 26…Rc6! with excellent prospects of achieving the draw, as now the c-pawn can’t be captured due to the pin down the c-file with …Rbc8 – and now Black is threatening …a5 breaking down the queenside pawns. 26.bxc3 Rc5 27.c4 Not only is Carlsen a solid pawn to the good but its a passed pawn…and it doesn’t take him long to get the c-pawn moving down the board. 27…f5 28.Ke2 With Ne4 now ruled out, Carlsen just retreats his king to the better square of d3 offering cover for his c-pawn and freeing his pieces. 28…Ke7 29.Kd3 Kd7 30.Rc3 Rc6? This is somewhat strange play from Caruana, and the further mistake only hastens his demise. The only slim hope to try and hang on was to try to keep the rook where it is blockading the c-pawn, where now 30…f6 31.f3 Carlsen will still have a lot of work left to do to convert any win. 31.c5 As the old chess adage goes, “Passed pawns must be pushed!” 31…Ne8 32.Nf3 The knight is heading to either e5 or d4 allowing the c-pawn to move further up the board. 32…Ra6 33.Ne5+ Ke7 34.Ke2! Carlsen technique is simply sublime, as he vacates the d3 square to now add to the mix the further threat of Rd3-d7+. 34…Nf6 35.R1c2 Nd5 36.Rd3 Rc8 If Caruana does nothing, then Carlsen will quickly regroup with Ne5-f3-d4 to push the pawn on with c6. 37.Rb3 Rc7 38.Rc4 Ra5 There’s nothing for Caruana to do other than hang around waiting for Carlsen to strike. 39.Nd3 [see diagram] Simply protecting the c5-pawn, and suddenly Carlsen is threatening to swing his rook over to h4 to pick off the loose h-pawn. This had to be nothing but pure agony for Caruana to have to endure. 39…e5? It really is a desperate position for Caruana, and here he might well have had enough by throwing the towel in now rather than prolonging his agony with 39…Kf6 40.h3 Ne7 41.Rh4 Kg5 42.Rhb4 Kf6 43.Rb5 Nc6 44.Rxa5 Nxa5 45.Rb4 where, slowly but most surely, he’s going to be squeezed off the board by Carlsen in this hopeless endgame. 40.Nxe5 Raxc5 41.Rxc5 Rxc5 At least, at first sight, it looks like progress for Caruana with the troublesome c-pawn removed – but the damage has been done, as now all of Black’s remaining pawns are sitting targets as Carlsen easily picks them off. 42.Rb7+ Ke6 43.Nxf7 Ra5 44.Nd8+ Kd6 45.Rb3 Ra6 46.Nf7+ Kc5 47.Ne5 Given a free-hand, Carlsen will play Ne5-f3-d4 hitting the vulnerable f5-pawn and threatening Rb5+. 47…h5 48.Kd2 h4 49.Nd3+ Kc4 50.Kc2 Rd6 51.Nf4 1-0 Caruana resigns, not wishing to see Carlsen continue to play Space Invaders with his remaining pawns and 51…Nb6 52.Rb4+ Kc5 53.Nd3+ Kc6 54.Rxh4 etc.