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John Henderson
By John Henderson

Behind every great man is a great woman, as they say. And for Garry Kasparov, that woman happened to be his very formidable mother, Klara Shagenovna Kasparova (1937-2020), who sadly passed away at 83. She died of Covid-19 on Christmas Day, the ex-world champion announced, describing her as, “my role model, my greatest champion, my wise counsel, and the strongest person I will ever know”.

She was indeed the rock on which the Kasparov legend was built, devoting herself entirely to her son’s educational/personal development and chess career after her husband Kim died from leukaemia when the young Garry was just 7 years old. Kasparov would tell the story many times about how his mother strived for greatness in him from a young age, once as a 10-year-old, finding a handwritten note pinned to his bed that read: “If not you, who else?”

With stunning Sophia Loren looks, Klara was an indispensable part of Garry Kasparov’s inner-team for all his important tournaments and world championship matches – always the first to congratulate her son when he won, and also the first to console him when he lost: notable in 1997 in New York, in his epoch-making defeat to IBM’s Deep Blue, and three years later in London in 2000, when after a 15-year reign, he dramatically lost his world championship crown to Vladimir Kramnik.

And even with her son being persona non grata in Vladimir Putin’s Russia, she continued to live in Moscow – even representing her son in Russian chess circles, such as giving a speech in late January of this fateful pandemic-hit year at the Central Chess Club in Moscow on behalf of Garry for the 85th birthday of his former coach Alexander Nikitin.

Garry Kasparov pays a short tribute to his mother on his own website: https://www.kasparov.com/a-short-tribute-to-my-mother/

Elsewhere in the chess world, there was a somewhat tepid start to the Airthings Masters, the first Major of the Champions Chess Tour from the Play Magnus Group, where everything is doubled – the prize fund is $200,000, with up to 100 points available for each player in the second leg of the tour.

The spate of draws on day 2 could well have been down to the tournament being held in the immediate post-Christmas period, but 88% does seem ridiculously high for an online rapid event! On the upside, it meant there would be a tense finish on the final day of the preliminaries, to see which of the 8 players would make the cut to go forward to the business end of the knockouts.

For Magnus Carlsen, after losing to Wesley So in the final of the Skilling Open, there was an obvious relief that he was never really in danger of losing in any of his games – and he quickly pounced on tournament leader Hikaru Nakamura’s mistake in the penultimate round, as he went on to win the preliminaries.

Also joining Carlsen and Nakamura in the KO stage is So, Ian Nepomniachtchi, Teimour Radjabov, Levon Aronian and Danill Dubov. Not so lucky though was Alexander Grischuk, Anish Giri, Pentala Harikrishna and David Anton, as Maxime Vachier-Lagrave staged a dramatic late rally to just scrape through on tiebreak for the final spot.

The quarterfinal matches start on Tuesday, 29 December, at 15:00 CET (09:00 ET | 06:00 PT). There’s live coverage with a full multi-lingual line-up of top commentators to pick from on the official Champions Chess Tour platform.

Preliminary final standings:
1-3. Magnus Carlsen (Norway), Wesley So (USA), Hikaru Nakamura (USA), 6½/11; 4-5. Ian Nepominiachtchi (Russia), Teimour Radjabov (Azerbaijan), 6; 6. Levon Aronian (Armenia), 5½; 7-10. Maxime Vachier-Lagrave* (France), Daniil Dubov* (Russia), Pentala Harikrishna (India), Alexander Grischuk (Russia) 5; 11-12. Anish Giri (Netherlands), David Anton (Spain), 4½.

Quarterfinal pairings:
Carlsen v Dubov; Radjabov v Nepomniactchi; Nakamura v Aronian; Vachier-Lagrave v So

 

GM Magnus Carlsen – GM Hikaru Nakamura
Airthings Masters | Prelims, (10)
Ruy Lopez, Berlin Defence
1.e4 e5 2.Nf3 Nc6 3.Bb5 Nf6 4.0-0 Nxe4 5.Re1 “Every time the ‘Berlin endgame’ shows up on the board,” Vladimir Kramnik remarked a couple of years ago, “everyone starts to cry quietly, [because] such positions are boring. However, games are often full of exciting play, although there are no queens.” I don’t know about crying but after 5.d4 Nd6 6.Bxc6 dxc6 7.dxe5 Nf5 8.Qxd8+ Kxd8 the resulting endgames is not so much wet but dry, and it has become – certainly at elite-level praxis – almost impossible for White to play for a win without Black contributing to the process by blundering or over-reaching. 5…Nd6 6.Nxe5 Be7 When the Berlin Defence was first popular in elite-level circles, during the mid-to-latter part of the 19th Century, the first world champion, Wilhelm Steinitz, also favoured the 5.Re1 line, but it would have been followed up with 6…Nxe5 7.Rxe5+ Be7 where Steinitz would continue 8.Bd3 with adventurous ideas of Nc3, b3, Bb2 to launch a swashbuckling kingside attack – all of this I fondly remember reading in a wonderful August 1979 article by Jimmy Adams, published in the venerable British Chess Magazine. But in the era of the current world champion, 6…Be7 is now the preferred way to handle the black side. 7.Bf1 Nxe5 8.Rxe5 0-0 9.d4 Ne8 Up until a few years ago, the almost automatic response was 9…Bf6 – but Anish Giri’s suggested novelty of 10.Re2!? became popular, and even adopted by Magnus Carlsen himself, deploying it against Sergey Karjakin during their 2016 World Championship Match in New York. 10.Re1 d5 11.Bf4 Bd6 12.Qf3 Bxf4 13.Qxf4 Qd6 14.Qf3 Nf6 15.Nd2 Bg4 16.Qg3 Qxg3 17.hxg3 Rfe8 There’s absolutely nothing in this position, total equality – but somehow, Nakamura manages to contrive to lose this game. 18.f3 A useful move, as not only does it kick the bishop, it also allows for useful endgame moves such as g4 and Kf2. 18…Bd7 19.g4 h6 20.Kf2 Rxe1 21.Rxe1 Re8 22.Rc1 c6 23.a4! Just attempting to grab a little real estate on the queenside. 23…Re7 24.a5 It’s just so difficult facing Carlsen – the position looks innocuous, but this is his trademark, relentlessly grinding away at minuscule-levels of advantages that his opponents often crack under the strain. 24…Ne8 25.Nb3 With the little space gained on the queenside with a4-a5, Carlsen’s knight is heading to the ideal outpost of c5. 25…Nd6 26.Nc5 Bc8 27.b3 g6 Here’s the difference between a top grandmaster and a club/tournament player: Nakamura doesn’t want to risk making any committal moves to his pawn structure on the queenside, but the lesser player might well have instinctively wanted to kick the knight with 27…b6 – but after 28.axb6 axb6 29.Na4! b5 (Alternatively, 29…Rb7 30.c4!? dxc4 31.bxc4 b5 32.Nc5 Ra7 33.cxb5 cxb5 34.Ne4! Nxe4+ 35.fxe4 Bd7 36.Bd3 Black should still hold easily enough, but against Magnus, you don’t like to see him with those central pawns and the better rook on the c-file.) 30.Nc5 Ra7 31.Re1 Kf8 32.Nd3! The position is just easier for white to play than black to have to defend against. 28.c4 Objectively the position is totally equal – the only difference is that Carlsen has a clear plan of action while Nakamura has to hold firm and react to the world champion’s expansion plans. 28…dxc4 29.bxc4 Kg7 30.Bd3 f5 No use trying to kick the knight now with 30…b6?! as 31.Ne4! is good and strong. So rather than that, Nakamura has the right gut reaction of attempting to exchange some pieces to lighten the load on his queenside issues. 31.gxf5 Bxf5 32.Be2 h5 33.Nd3! Carlsen spots the simple but effective knight retreat, not necessarily heading to a better outpost on e5, but Nb4 threatening a6 to damage black’s queenside pawns. 33…Bc8 Nakamura rightly just wants to keep things solid, not allowing Carlsen to disrupt his queenside pawns. 34.Nb4 Nf5 35.d5 The only logical way forward now – but with it, Nakamura contrives to just go from slightly worse to bad to losing with a series of minor mistakes. 35…c5?! And after this first mistake, life gets difficult for Nakamura. Easy to say when you are facing Carlsen, but the correct plan was to start exchanging as many pawns or pieces as possible, and best was 35…cxd5 36.cxd5 Nd6 37.a6 h4! (Black wants to force White into axb7, where …Rxb7 should offer equality with the active placement of Black’s pieces.) 38.Bd3 g5! and it is hard to see any way forward for White that doesn’t involve 39.axb7 Rxb7 and a likely draw, as 40.Rc6 (If 40.Nc6 Rb3!) 40…Rb6 41.Ke3 Kf6 Black is more than fine here. 36.Nd3 Rc7 It’s only now you begin to see the world of hurt that Nakamura has inadvertently fallen into, as 36…b6 37.Rb1! Rb7 38.f4 (to secure the e5 outpost for the knight, and meet …h4 with Bg4!) 38…Kf6 39.axb6 axb6 40.Ne5 g5 41.g3 gxf4 42.gxf4 h4 43.Bg4! and the sort of endgame edge that Carlsen has made his career from. 37.Nf4 h4 38.Bd3 g5 39.Ne2 Also an option was 39.Nh5+!? Kf7 (Not 39…Kg6? 40.g4! hxg3+ 41.Nxg3 Kf6 42.Ne4+ with a big advantage.) 40.g3 hxg3+ 41.Nxg3 Nxg3 42.Kxg3 the position is not lost per se for Black, but it has just become awkward and so much more difficult in the long-term to hold. 39…Nd6 40.Nc3 Kf6 41.Re1 Tempting must have been 41.Ne4+ Nxe4+ 42.Bxe4 but after 42…Ke5 43.Ke3 it is difficult to see how White makes headway with Black’s king so well-placed. 41…Bd7 Crucial was 41…Bf5! as now 42.Bxf5 Kxf5 43.Ne4 Nxc4 44.d6 Rd7 45.Rc1 Nxd6 46.Rxc5+ Kg6 47.Rxg5+ Kh6 48.Re5 Nxe4+ 49.Rxe4 Kh5 the R+P endgame is just going to be a draw. 42.Ne4+ Nxe4+ 43.Bxe4 b5 44.d6 Rc8 45.cxb5 Bxb5 46.Rb1 Bc4? Hard to know what Nakamura was thinking here, as the easy draw looked to be had with the simple solution of 46…a6! 47.Rd1 c4 48.d7 Rd8 49.Rd6+ Kf7 50.Rg6 Rxd7 51.Rxg5 Rd2+ 52.Ke3 c3 53.f4 Bf1 54.Rc5 and neither side can make any progress. 47.Rb7 Rd8?! All the little errors are building up for Nakamura. It was not too late now for 47…a6! to save the a-pawn, but 48.Rb6 forces the likely scenario of 48…Ke5 49.Ke3 Be6 (If 49…Bb5? 50.Bb7 Rd8 51.Bxa6 Bxa6 52.Rxa6 c4 53.Rb6 the R+P endgame looks winning.) 50.Rxa6 which looks good for white, but after 50…Rb8 51.Rc6 Rb3+ 52.Kf2 g4 53.Rxc5+ Kxd6 54.Rh5 g3+ 55.Ke1 Ra3 56.Rxh4 Ra1+ 57.Ke2 Ra2+ 58.Ke3 Rxg2 it’s all going to fizzle out to a draw. 48.Rxa7 Rxd6 49.Rc7 Rd2+? It’s the final, fatal error from Nakamura – his only chance for survival was the immediate 49…Bd5 and heading for the R+P ending after 50.Bxd5 Rxd5 51.a6 Rd2+ 52.Kg1 Ra2! and a very likely draw. But unfortunately for the US speed maven, in his rush to try and get his rook behind the passed a-pawn, he’s missed something. 50.Kg1 Bd5 51.Rd7! [see diagram] Vive la différence, as the French would say! The pin on the d-file is the fatal flaw in Nakamura’s plan, and he freely admitted after the game that he’d been shocked to see it. 51…Ke6 52.Rd8 c4 53.a6 1-0 Nakamura resigns, as 53…c3 54.Rxd5 Rxd5 55.Bxd5+ Kxd5 56.a7 and Carlsen queens with check and will soon pick off the c-pawn.

 

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