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John Henderson
By John Henderson

There’s no letting up the relentless digital pace currently being set by the World Champion, Magnus Carlsen, as the Norwegian’s remarkable streak in online tournaments continues, this time comfortably beating Wesley So 5.5-3.5 to win the Chess24 Banter Series final on Tuesday. The latest victory clinched Carlsen a nice little earner with a $12,000 payday and his ninth major title of a pandemic-hit 2020.

Ahead of the final, Carlsen had tweeted, “Banter series final vs So starting in a couple of mins. Blunders and brilliancies to come. Expect the unexpected!” And we didn’t have to wait long for Carlsen’s Monty Python cryptic hint of what was to come, as he shocked not only his opponent but everyone else watching on, with his first two opening moves of 1.f3?!? e5 2. Kf2?!? d5 – and still won the game!

Carlsen was most likely encouraged to play this off-the-wall, off-beat opening after seeing his rival online influencer, Hikaru Nakamura, reprise his infamous “Bongcloud Attack” with 1.e4 e5 2.Ke2??! – that he played three-times against Levon Aronian in the 2018 Chess.com Speed Chess Championship – to beat rising US junior star Jeffery Xiong in the last round of the recent online Saint Louis Rapid & Blitz tournament.

The Bongcloud Attack falls strictly into the “Remember kids, please don’t try this at home!” category, and the reason for its nomenclature is, well, er, somewhat self-explanatory, man! It had a cult following in the early online chess community that the younger Nakamura developed and honed his game and early style of play in, so it comes as no surprise that he sometimes plays it to “entertain” the online masses.

It wasn’t the “real” Bongcloud as such, said Magnus to great mirth during his banter session, explaining that it’s called ‘the Greek’ in Norwegian, and his reason for playing it was: “For the first game basically I just wanted to have some fun and I’d been talking to some of my friends earlier today and they’d been sort of saying, why should we tune in to this? And I think this gave them a reason.”

Fun it may well have been for Carlsen, but it proved to have a big psychological impact on his opponent, as So just couldn’t get it out of his head that he’d lost against such a patently bad beginner’s opening choice: “It’s just so hard to forget the game when someone plays f3 and Kf2 and just crushes you. That’s just so humiliating.” And it clearly was still perplexing So in game 2, as he crashed to a 2-0 deficit in the 10-game match, this time with Carlsen returning to more orthodox territory with the Alekhine’s Defence. But the damage had clearly been done by the opening game, and there was no way back into the match for So after his horrific start.

Despite the obvious silliness at the start and the banter blitz fun format, for Carlsen, his most Carlsen-like win came at the midpoint of the match with a very instructive game that came replete with a R+P endgame masterclass from the world champion.

The imperious streak will come as a big boost for a clearly upbeat and confident Carlsen ahead of the Altibox Norway Chess tournament – the first elite-level over-the-board event since the outbreak of the pandemic – that kicks off early next week and runs 5-16 October.

GM Magnus Carlsen – GM Welsey So
Chess24 Banter Series Final, (5)
English Opening
1.c4 Nf6 2.Nc3 After bamboozling with his Bongcloud-styled opening game win, Carlsen soon reverted to more conventional openings, such as the English Opening here. 2…e5 3.e3 Bb4 4.Nge2 0-0 5.a3 Bxc3 6.Nxc3 d5 7.cxd5 Nxd5 8.Qc2 c5 We’ve transposed into a Sicilian Kan reversed of sorts, as So reaches for a Maróczy Bind set-up – but that’s not so wise, as the extra move from Carlsen makes it easier for White to challenge the grip of the bind. 9.Bd3 h6 10.Nxd5 Qxd5 11.Bh7+ This has no real bite to this move, but it is slightly annoying as it pushes the king further into the corner, making any potential endgame scenario just a little more difficult for So. 11…Kh8 12.Be4 Qd6 13.b4! Immediately challenging So’s Maróczy Bind grip – and with the game opening up early doors, Carlsen’s bishop-pair spring to life. 13…Na6 14.b5 Nc7 15.a4 Rb8 16.0-0 b6 17.Bb2 f5?! It’s blitz after all, but the trouble with aggressive pawn advances is that you can come to regret them, wishing there was a special chess rule that allowed you to retreat them! Instead, the more solid option of 17…Ne6 followed by …f6 looked best. But then again, being behind in the match and games beginning to run out, So decides he has no other option than to gamble by playing so aggressively. 18.Bc6 Bb7 19.Bxb7 Rxb7 20.d4! Carlsen’s undermining of So’s position is spot on, as it’s impossible to capture on d4 twice due to the little matter of Ba3 winning material. 20…exd4 21.exd4 Ne6 The only try – but now the endgame begins to favour Carlsen. 22.dxc5 Nxc5 23.Rad1 Qg6 24.Rfe1 The active placement of Carlsen’s pieces is simple chess at its very best, as So’s pieces in comparison are disjointed and lacking direction. 24…Kh7 Unfortunately for So, he can’t play 24…Ne4 as 25.Qc6! is very strong, considering that 25…Qxc6? 26.bxc6 Rc7 27.Rd7! forces 27…Rfc8 28.f3 Nf6 29.Rxc7 Rxc7 30.Re6! and Black’s position is on the brink. 25.Rd5 f4 26.Qxg6+ Kxg6 27.Ba3 Liquidating down to the endgame is always going to favour Carlsen – and he makes the best out of what he gets from it. 27…Rf5 28.Rd4 Rc7 29.Rc4 Rd5 Even the obvious punt of 29…f3 has its drawbacks, as White hits back with 30.g4 Rd5 31.h3 h5 32.Rec1 and with R1c3 coming, Black is going to lose either the f3-pawn or the c-pawn after multiple exchanges on c5. 30.Bxc5 Rdxc5 31.Rxf4 Carlsen safely wins a pawn – but any rook endgame is not so easy to win. 31…Rc4 32.Rxc4 Rxc4 33.Ra1 Rc5?! This is pointless and the turning point in the game – the rook was already well-placed on c4, and So should have simply improved his king by activating it with 33…Kf5! 34.Kf1 Ke5 as this R+P endgame looks more like a draw; the idea is that Black just shuffles his king over to the queenside with …Ke5-d5-c5-b4 to keep White’s a-pawn under attack that will free up his rook. 34.f3 a6?! It goes from bad to worse for So, as he falls into a bad plan that quickly backfires on him. His last chance was to admit his mistake and play 34…Rc4 and back to the plan noted above. 35.bxa6 Ra5 36.Rb1! Rxa6 37.Rb4 [see diagram] The Carlsen banter explains it all, really: “I think he made an instructive mistake there when he went for the plan with a6, exchanging. It meant that he did get to exchange a pawn, but also his rook became really passive, so I don’t think overall it was a worthwhile trade for him.” 37…Kf5 38.g4+ Ke5 39.Kf2 g5 40.Kg3 Just as good was 40.Ke3, but either way, So’s lost. 40…Kd5 The run over to the queenside to free up the rook just takes too long. 41.h4 Kc6 42.hxg5 hxg5 43.f4! With So’s king deflected over to the queenside, Carlsen easily establishes a passed pawn on the kingside that can’t be stopped. 43…gxf4+ 44.Rxf4 With the king now cut off from returning to the kingside, Carlsen easily runs his g-pawn home. 44…Kd5 45.g5 Ke5 46.Kg4 Ra8 47.g6 1-0 So resigns as the pawn can’t be stopped. The only trick left is the ‘Hail Mary’ attempt with 47…Rg8 and pray profusely for 48.Kg5?? Rxg6+ 49.Kxg6 Kxf4 and a draw, but Carlsen would have avoided this by first playing 48.Rf5+! Ke6 and then only 49.Kg5! and Black can resign.

 

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