After totally dominating the new ‘normal’ of the pandemic-inspired digital super-tournament scene over the past six-month, and banking nearly $500k in prize-money in the process, World Champion Magnus Carlsen returned to the more traditional analogue game with real wooden chess pieces and boards, not to mention the little matter of his amazing record-breaking unbeaten streak in classical chess.
It’s the Altibox Norway Chess tournament in Stavanger, where after a 10-day quarantine period (not to mention plenty of Covid safety measures throughout) play finally got underway in the six-player, double round-robin that features an intriguing mixture of the world’s top elite up and their wannabe rising young stars: Magnus Carlsen (Norway), Fabiano Caruana (USA), Levon Aronian (Armenia), Jan-Krzysztof Duda (Poland), Alireza Firouzja (FIDE) and Aryan Tari (Norway).
The rejigging of the tournament with its shortened and more diverse field also allows the always innovative Norwegian organisers to test yet another new scoring system: You get 3-points for a win in the classical, and if the game is a draw, the points are split followed by an all-deciding Armageddon blitz game.
The big novelty here is that there has to be a winner from each round, and this means that the scoring system is heavily ‘weighted’ in favour of the classical games: 3 points for a win and 0 for a loss; if it is a draw, there’s an Armageddon-decider scoring 1.5 for a win and 1 for a loss – the idea being that the overall tournament winner will be determined by the player with the highest score from the fewest number of games, hence the somewhat strange-looking standings below.
Caruana is using the tournament as a ‘warm-up’ before he resumes battle next month in the second half of the pandemic-hit Candidates, and the US world #2 got off to a flying start with his perfect 6/6 with a brace of fine wins over Tari and Duda in the opening two rounds to jump into the early lead – but after drawing with 16-year-old Firouzja in round 3, and losing the Armageddon, he’s now in the co-leader alongside Aronian, with both on 7/9.5.
Meanwhile, Carlsen got off to a somewhat shakier start, drawing his first two games with Aronian and Firouzja, and then riding his luck to win both Armageddon-deciders from positions he really shouldn’t have. But the world champion bounced right back in round 3 against Tari, as he put his unbeaten streak on the line against his compatriot with some very risky play in search of his first classical win and a maximum 3 points.
Carlsen’s big gamble paid off, and he now moves to within striking distance of the co-leaders. And with it, his live unbeaten streak is still active, currently standing at 123-games without a loss, his last coming in what must seem like a Capablanca-like eternity now, 2 years, 2 months and 7 days ago, when he was beaten by Shakhriyar Mamedyarov in round 9 of the Biel Masters at the end of July in 2018.
Another test of Carlsen’s streak comes in Thursday’s crunch round 4 clash with former title challenger Caruana, as the world’s top two players go head to head in Stavanger. There’s simply unmissable top live commentary of the showdown with super-GMs Vladimir Kramnik & Judit Polgar on Chess24.
Photo: Fabiano Caruana gets off to a hot start! | © Lennart Ootes / Altibox Norway Chess
1-2. L. Aronian, F. Caruana, 7/9.5; 3. M. Carlsen, 6/10; 4. A. Firouzja, 5.5/10; 5-6. J-K Duda, A. Tari, 0/9.
GM Fabiano Caruana – GM Jan-Krzysztof Duda
Altibox Norway Chess, (2)
1.d4 d5 2.c4 c6 3.cxd5 cxd5 4.Bf4 Nc6 5.e3 Nf6 6.Bb5 Bd7 7.Nc3 a6 8.Bd3 The Slav Exchange variation is a tough nut for both sides to break – and for this reason, probably more than any other opening, the databases for this line is filled to the gunnels with an abundance of draws. 8…Bg4 9.Nge2 e6 10.0-0 Bxe2 11.Qxe2 Be7 12.a3 0-0 13.Na4 The game is afoot, as Sherlock Holmes would say – Caruana’s game-plan revolves on establishing his knight on c5, from where it can target Black’s vulnerable queenside pawns. 13…h6 14.Bg3 Nd7 15.h3 Qa5 16.Qd1 Rfc8 It now becomes a game of nuances on the queenside, as Black can’t risk being too hasty to kick the knight. If 16…b5 17.b4! Qd8 (Not 17…Qxa4?? 18.Bc2 winning the queen.) 18.Rc1! Rc8 (If 18…Nxb4 19.axb4 bxa4 20.Qxa4 Nf6 21.Rc7! and White will destroy Black on the queenside.) 19.Nc5 Nxc5 20.bxc5 Qa5 21.a4! with a decisive queenside initiative. 17.b4 Qd8 18.Rb1 Ra7 It looks strange putting the rook here, but this is a common Slav strategy, the idea being to try and play b6 either denying the knight access to/or kicking it from the c5 square. 19.Nc5 Ncb8 20.Qe2! Again clamping down on Black playing the kicking …b6 move, by keeping the pressure on the a6 pawn. 20…a5 21.Rfc1 axb4 22.axb4 Nf6 In view of the discomfort that now comes for Duda after this move perhaps now was the time for 22…b6!? 23.Nxd7 Nxd7 24.b5 Rca8 25.Rc6 Ra2 26.Rb2 R2a7 where it’s just not easy for White to engineer a queenside breakthrough. Sure, White has the space advantage – but there’s no clear way to see a breakthrough coming. 23.b5 b6 24.Na6 As Duda simply can’t afford the risk of trading on a6, the knight becomes the lynchpin for the queenside breakthrough. 24…Rxc1+ 25.Rxc1 Nbd7 26.Rc6! Caruana ratchets up the pressure on the queenside. 26…Qf8 27.Qc2 The build-up continues, but Caruana misses a trick that allows Duda to put up a resilient rearguard defence when many could well have simply collapsed under the relentless pressure. 27…Ra8 28.Rc7? The only misstep from Caruana the whole game, missing the clever tactical trick of 28.Nb8! forcing 28…Nxb8 29.Rc8 Bd8 30.Qc3! the engine always finds the best killer quiet moves – and this clever covering of …Ra1+ is likely what Caruana overlooked in dismissing the Nb8 possibility. The idea is that Black is totally paralysed now, as 30…Nfd7 31.Bd6! Qxd6 32.Rxd8+ Qf8 33.Qc8!! and resignation on the horizon for Black. 28…Bd6? And Duda, perhaps worried having seen that …Bd8 in the above note was losing, fails to realise this time around it is the best option! After 28…Bd8! 29.Rc6 Kh8 30.Bd6 Be7 31.Bc7 Bd8 Black is still hanging in there, with no clear way for White to pick off the b6 pawn. White certainly has the big space advantage and Black all the discomfort, but just no way to make the breakthrough. 29.Bxd6 Qxd6 30.Qc6! Now White is in control. 30…Qf8 The only try to hang-on, as after 30…Qxc6 the correct recapture is 31.bxc6! Nf8 32.Rb7 and, with c7 to follow, resigning is worth thinking about. 31.Rxd7 Nxd7 32.Qxd7 With the two minor pieces for the rook and b6 looking somewhat precarious, White has a winning advantage – but it will take time to convert. 32…Rc8 33.g3 Rc3 34.Bf1 Qc8 35.Qxc8+ Rxc8 36.h4 g5 37.Nb4 The game is strategically won, but first, we have to endure an intriguing cat and mouse battle before Caruana finds the win. 37…Kf8 38.Nc6 Ra8 39.Be2 Ra2 40.Kf1 Ra1+ 41.Kg2 Ra2 42.Bd3 Rd2 43.Bf1 f6 44.hxg5 hxg5 45.g4! Just stopping Duda playing …g4 and …f5 and a likely un-breachable defence. 45…Ke8 46.Kg3 Rd1 47.Be2 Rg1+ 48.Kh2 Re1 49.Bd3 Rd1 50.Nb4 Kd7 A sterner test was keeping the rook active with 50…Rd2! 51.Kg3 Rb2 52.Nc2 e5!? 53.f3 Rb3 54.Ne1 Rb4 forcing White’s hand with 55.dxe5 fxe5 56.Bg6+ Ke7 and, with Black’s central pawns being connected and no weaknesses, there’s every chance of saving the game. 51.Kg2 Ra1 52.f4! The whole point is to undermine the e5 square – if Caruana can swing his knight into a vacant e5, he will be in total command. 52…Ra3 53.fxg5 fxg5 54.Nc6! The fork on e5 comes in handy. 54…Kd6 55.Ne5 [see diagram] The knight is like an unmovable octopus on e5: it protects the Bd3, g4, threatens Nf7(+) picking up the g5 pawn, and if Duda’s king wanders too far from the d7 square, then in certain circumstances Nd7 will pick up the b6 pawn. 55…Ke7 56.Kf3 Ra2 57.e4 Ra1 58.Ke3 Re1+ 59.Be2 Rg1 60.Kf2 Ra1 61.Nf3 Kf6 62.Ke3 Ra8 Duda would have offered more resistance with the active option of 62…Ra2!? 63.Bd3 Rg2 64.Ne5 Rg3+ 65.Kf2 Rh3 66.exd5 exd5 67.Bf1 Rh7 68.Bg2 Ke6 where here, Black’s rook and king are better placed than in the game. The win is there in the position, it’s just going to take a lot more patience and careful manoeuvring to achieve it – but at the end of the day, one way or another, the two minor pieces will eventually pick off one of those isolated pawns. 63.Bd3 Rg8 64.Bb1 Ke7 65.Ne5 Ra8 66.Bd3 Rc8 67.Nc6+ Kd6 68.Ne5 Rf8 69.exd5 exd5 70.Bf5 Re8 71.Kd3 Re7 72.Bg6 Ra7 73.Ke3 Ke6 74.Bf5+ Kd6 75.Kd2 Ra2+ 76.Kc3 Ra3+ 77.Kb4 With Caruana’s king now protecting the weak b4-pawn, the key to converting the win is going to be how to pick off the g5-pawn. 77…Ra7! Duda continues to battle on, finding all the right rook moves to make Caruana’s task of converting the win difficult. 78.Bc2 The point of Duda’s rook retreat is that after the immediate 78.Nf3 Black has 78…Rc7! threatening …Rc4+, forcing 79.Bd3 Rg7 80.Kb3 Rf7 81.Ne5 Rg7 82.Kb4 Ra7 and White will have to go back to the drawing board to find the crucial breakthrough. 78…Ke6 79.Nc6 Ra2 80.Kb3 A little quicker would have been 80.Bf5+ Kd6 81.Nd8! Re2 (If 81…Ke7 the engine soon finds the obscure knight tour to win with 82.Kb3 Rh2 83.Ne6 Rh3+ 84.Kb4 Re3 85.Nc7 Kd6 86.Na8! and b6 falls.) 82.Kc3 Re3+ 83.Kc2 Re2+ 84.Kc3 Re3+ 85.Kd2 Rb3 86.Nf7+ Ke7 87.Nxg5 Rxb5 88.Kc3 and the king will easily deal with Black’s b-pawn, leaving the minor pieces to escort the g-pawn up the board to victory. 80…Ra1 81.Kc3 Rc1 82.Ne5 Rg1? It was always going to be a tough ask for Duda to find all the best moves in such a tough endgame, but 82…Ke7 would have been more problematic for White. 83.Bf5+ Either way, Caruana has been gifted a crucial tempo to get the winning knight moves in of Nd7 or Nf7, picking off either g5 or b6. 83…Ke7 84.Nd7 Rc1+ 85.Kb3 Rc4 86.Nxb6 Rxd4 87.Kc3 Caruana’s king and the bishop will easily deal with Duda’s d-pawn. 87…Rd1 88.Nc8+ Kd8 89.b6 d4+ 90.Kc2 Re1 91.Nd6 Re3 92.Nf7+ Ke7 93.b7 d3+ 94.Kd1 1-0