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John Henderson
By John Henderson

Last month we returned to a form of ‘normality’ with flesh and blood facing each other across a real chessboard, with Magnus Carlsen clinching a somewhat shaky victory with a round to spare in the Altibox Norway tournament.  But as the Covid-19 second wave hits the virus-friendly climes of the northern hemisphere, there is no more ‘real’ chess scheduled for the rest of year.

Thankfully though, through the early stages of the pandemic, chess had a renaissance with a big digital ‘moment’ that brought the ancient game to the attention of the mainstream media and many new fans – and once again we return to the virtual online combat, just as more lockdowns are looming across Europe.  Later this month sees the return of Magnus Carlsen’s hugely-successful and innovative $1.5m ‘Champions Chess Tour’ (more of which in the next column) that started all the media attention.

First up though is the warm-up of the 2020 Chess.com Speed Chess Championship that started on Sunday, 1 November and will run through 13 December. It features online chess influencers and rivals Magnus Carlsen and Hikaru Nakamura amongst eight seeded players who are joined by eight qualifiers, and all battling for the $100,000 prize fund.

They are joined by the six other seeds: Maxime Vachier-Lagrave, Wesley So, Ian Nepomniachtchi, Anish Giri, Levon Aronian, Fabiano Caruana; with the younger generation making their mark through the qualifying events: Alireza Firouzja Vladimir Fedoseev, Vladislav Artemiev, Nodirbek Abdussatorov, Nihal Sarin, Parham Maghsoodloo, Haik Martirosyan and Jan Krzysztof Duda. 

As per the other editions,  each match lasts three hours and comprises 90 minutes of Blitz played with five minutes on the clock and a one-second increment per move, then 60 minutes of 3+1 Blitz, concluding with 30 minutes of 1+1 Bullet.

This is Carlsen’s first appearance in the other ‘house’ since winning back-to-back Speed Championship titles in 2016 and 2017 (defeating arch-rival Nakamura), and in his quest for a third title, he began his campaign by demolishing 24-5 the young Iranian 2018 World Junior Champion, Parham Maghsoodloo.

Maghsoodloo started solidly enough with a brace of solid draws – but then the floodgates dramatically opened as Carlsen began to warm-up, with the Norwegian ace hitting a purple patch with an eleven-game winning-streak to leave his young opponent for dead. “Once it starts going south it’s all psychological!” said Carlsen after winning 11 games on the spin.

GM Magnus Carlsen – GM Parham Maghsoodloo
Chess.com 2020 Speed Championship, (11)
Sicilian Defence, Rossolimo Attack
1.e4 c5 2.Nf3 Nc6 3.Bb5 A Carlsen favourite with strong US roots. The Rossolimo Attack, named after the Russian/Greek/French/American GM Nicolas Rossolimo (1910-1975), who emigrated to the US in 1952. The idea behind this set-up is to exchange the bishop for the knight and doubling up the pawns on the c-file – and this is difficult for Sicilian players to maintain the sort of counter-attacking chances they are more accustomed to. 3…e6 4.Bxc6 bxc6 5.b3 Ne7 6.0-0 Ng6 7.e5 Just putting a spanner in the works of Black intending d5. 7…f6 8.Bb2 Be7 9.d3 0-0 10.Nbd2 Rb8 11.Qe1 Ba6 12.Nc4 With its slow and careful build-up, you can see why the Rossolimo is a Carlsen favourite pet-line. 12…Qc7 13.Qe3 Rbe8 14.Rae1 Rf7 15.h4 Bxc4 16.dxc4 fxe5 17.h5 Nh4 A bit of a gamble for Maghsoodloo, as the knight on the rim is left out of the game for a considerable period. 18.Nxe5 Rf5 19.g4 The more testing punt looked like 19.Qh3!? Rxh5!? 20.g4 Rh6 21.Bc1 g5 22.f4!? with a double-edged game. And with hindsight, I dare say that Carlsen, given a second chance, would have opted for this rather than the route he chooses. 19…Rff8 20.f4 The trouble for Carlsen is that, although the Black knight looks marooned on the edge of the board, it is not so easy to get to it, and the mere fact that it lurks there with intent gives Carlsen something to think about over his own king safety. 20…d6 21.Nd3 Bd8 22.Qh3 Qd7 23.Re3?! One square too many! Better was 23.Re2! and now there’s a major threat of Bb2-c3-e1 to ask the question of the knight on the rim. The difference of the rook going to e3 rather than e2 proves crucial. Now, if 23…e5 24.fxe5 Rxf1+ 25.Kxf1 White is in command. 23…e5! 24.fxe5 If 24.Bc3 e4! 25.Ne1 (There’s no difference – if 25.Nc1 d5 and the Black central pawns are storming up the board.) 25…d5 26.Be5 g5! and White is in deep, deep trouble. 24…Rxf1+ 25.Kxf1 Rf8+! Vive la difference! If Carlsen had played 23.Re2, then he could have easily answered with 26.Rf2 with the advantage. 26.Ke2 Bg5 Now it has all suddenly become “awkward” for Carlsen, with the game threatening to be blown open in front of his exposed king caught in no man’s land slap bang in the middle of the board. 27.e6 Qe7 28.Re4 d5 The brave try was 28…Nf3!? 29.Qxf3 Rxf3 30.Kxf3 Qf8+ 31.Kg2 Qe8 32.Re2 and Black should be equal; marginally better at least – but that big passed e-pawn will give anyone something to fear as the game goes on. 29.cxd5?! Typically, Magnus is demonstrating here that he’s the Alpha Player of the Chess World by aggressively pushing the envelope – but when you are the World champion, your name alone can instil fear in an opponent, and sometimes this fear makes all the difference, as it allows you to gamble a little.  And it probably didn’t help Maghsoodloo’s confidence that this game came right in the middle of that 11-0 Carlsen winning streak! For safety reasons, Carlsen had to play 29.Re5! Bf6 (Alternatively, 29…Nf3 30.Qxf3 Rxf3 31.Kxf3 Bf6 32.Re2 much the same as the note above.) 30.Re3 Bg5 31.Re5 with a repetition. 29…cxd5 30.Re5 Bf6 Maghsoodloo misses his golden shot, as now 30…Nf3! 31.Qxf3 Rxf3 32.Kxf3 there’s a big difference with the note above, as now Black has 32…c4! that leaves White struggling to continue, as the knight can’t move due to …Bf6 winning the Bb2, so he’s forced into the ugly alternative of 33.bxc4 dxc4 34.Nf4 Bf6 35.Rb5 (White would be winning if he could play 35.Nd5 but alas, it’s pin and win with 35…Qb7! 36.Re4 Qxb2 37.e7 Bxe7 38.Nxe7+ Kf8 39.Nd5 Qxc2 40.Rf4+ Ke8 41.Ne3 Qxa2 42.Rxc4 Qb1 and the a-pawn running up the board will prove decisive.) 35…Qe8 36.Rb4 a5! 37.Rb6 Qd8! the check on d1 is going to be fatal. 38.Rb5 c3! 39.Bc1 Qd1+ 40.Ne2 Qf1+ 41.Ke3 Qh3+ 42.Ke4 Qxg4+ 43.Nf4 h6 and Black will eventually clean-up. 31.Re3 c4 Right idea, wrong execution! (see above note). 32.Bxf6? Carlsen is really taking liberties with his opponent having to deal with a complicated position whilst in a frantic time-scramble. The ‘safety’ option was 32.bxc4 dxc4 33.Ne5 c3! 34.Bxc3 Qxe6 35.g5! Qa6+ (After 35…Qxh3 36.Rxh3 Bxg5 37.Nf3 Re8+ 38.Kd1 Nxf3 39.Rxf3 the game will soon peter out to a draw.) 36.Rd3 But the complications both players had to see through in the blitz was mind-boggling, especially when the engine spots 36…Bxg5 37.Qd7 Qxa2 38.Bb2! Ng2 (The bishop is taboo as White takes full advantage of the smothered knight mate scenario with 38…Qxb2?? 39.Qe6+ Kh8 40.Nf7+ Kg8 41.Nh6+ Kh8 42.Qg8+! Rxg8 43.Nf7#) 39.Ng6! To miss-quote iconic football manager Sir Alex Ferguson: Playing engines, eh? 39…Qf7 40.Nxf8 Nf4+ 41.Kf1 Nxd3+ 42.Qxf7+ Kxf7 43.Nxh7 Nxb2 44.Nxg5+ Kf6 and a level ending – of course, we all saw that though, didn’t we? 32…cxd3+ 33.Kxd3 Qxf6 34.e7 Re8 35.Qh1 Qa6+?? [see diagram] Tick-tock. Maghsoodloo misses the win with 35…Qg5! the wonderful all-purpose move that defends d5, protects the marooned …Nh4 and also keeps tabs on the e7-pawn. Now 36.Re2 h6 37.c3 Kh7 and with the king safely out of the loop of any Qxd5+, Black will soon be playing …Qxg4 and …Nf5 to gang up on the e7-pawn. But anything sensible or logical is thrown out the window with the vagaries of blitz, as the natural human instinct is to reach for the nearest check you see.  We’re all human, been there and done it – even Carlsen himself. 36.Kd2 d4? Maghsoodloo is in a blind panic now, with little or no time left on his clock – and ultimately this proves the crucial difference in a complex position. Instead, 36…Qa5+ 37.Kc1 Qc5 not allowing the annoying Qd5+ is good for Black, where now 38.Re1 g5 and despite the knight on the rim still out of the game, Black should be able to overcome the difficulties. 37.Qd5+! Kh8 38.Re5 1-0 Basically the dreaded zeitnot.

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