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John Henderson
By John Henderson

Everything started so well for Magnus Carlsen at the 83rd Tata Steel Masters in Wijk Ann Zee: the Norwegian got off to a flying start by beating the young pretender to his crown, Alireza Firouzja, and many believing the world champion would simply romp to a resounding victory. But since then, an “upside down” paradox has befallen those two first round combatants with a series of contrasting fortunes.

Far from running away to yet another Wijk victory, a stuttering Carlsen was held to a series of draws by sub-2700 players that was only punctuated by crashing in round 8 to a one-sided, humiliating defeat to the 18-year-old young Russian hope, Andrey Esipenko – the first time during his reign that Carlsen has lost to a teenager in classical!

And competing in his first super-tournament, it was also a dream first-ever classical game for Esipenko against the world champion. And as all-stats Carlsen guru Tarjei Svensen noted on Twitter, it was the World Champion’s first loss in Wijk aan Zee since 2017 and his first loss against a sub-2700 player since 2015.

“Before the game, I wanted to play solid,” said a a clearly delighted Esipenko after his big shock win. “I think it was his choice to beat me with this opening probably, and I just played very logical. After the opening, I thought maybe I’d have some chances because it’s really an initiative position. After I sacrificed my piece, I felt like I could do something in this game.”

There’s not much you can say after such a sore loss, but Carlsen at least took it all with a bit of Covid tournament safety protocols black humour, tweeting: “Had a very unpleasant experience at the playing hall today, felt like a swab was being shoved into my nostril and all the way inside my brain, causing a lot of pain. Covid test after the game was not that bad though.”

By contrast, while Carlsen is languishing in the unfamiliar terrain of mid-table on a 50% score, he’s a full 1½-points behind Firouzja, with the 17-year-old Iranian exile going on the rampage with three successive victories to grab the outright lead ahead of the now Carlsen-less chasing pack, as the first major of the year reaches its second rest day.

And with it, Firouzja has now jumped four places to #14 and 2761 on the unofficial live ratings, and tantalisingly he only needs a further 5 rating points to move into the Top 10 for the first time.

Standings:
1. Alireza Firouzja (FIDE) 5½/8; 2-5. Anish Giri (Netherlands), Fabiano Caruana (USA), Andrey Esipenko (Russia), Jorden Van Foreest (Netherlands) 5; 6. Nils Grandelius (Sweden) 4½; 7-8. Pentala Harikrishna (India), Magnus Carlsen (Norway) 4; 9. Radoslaw Wojtaszek (Poland) 3½; 10-13. David Anton (Spain), Maxime Vachier-Lagrave (France), Aryan Tari (Norway), Jan-Krzysztof Duda (Poland) 3; 14. Alexander Donchenko (Germany) 2½.

GM Andrey Esipenko – GM Magnus Carlsen
83rd Tata Steel Masters, (8)
Sicilian Scheveningen
1.e4 c5 2.Nf3 d6 3.d4 cxd4 4.Nxd4 Nf6 5.Nc3 a6 6.Be2 e6 7.Be3 Be7 8.g4 It’s a sort of delayed Keres Attack against the Scheveningen – the warning signs for Carlsen being that the Keres Attack is one of the reasons these days why no one likes playing the Scheveningen proper with 2…e6 etc. 8…b5 9.g5 Nfd7 10.a3!? An intriguing little move, but hardly terrifying. But Carlsen decides he’s going to risk snatching the pawn, regardless of what it means to his development – big mistake, Magnus! 10…Bxg5 11.Qd2 Bxe3?! There was a strong case for playing 11…Bf6 rather than exchanging on e3 – at least the …Bf6 helps protect the dark-squares in the Black camp. 12.Qxe3 Qh4?! This is a clear sign that Carlsen definitely is in “a funk”; bad form, as it looks stupid and just loses time, all of which just gifts Esipenko more easy moves to complete his development and launch an early attack – what’s not to like for a pawn with an eager teenager looking to make a name for himself? 13.Rg1 g6 14.0-0-0 Qe7 As we said previously, …Qh4 was a big waste of time, as the queen has to retreat to help shore up the defense of d6 – but it is all too late now. 15.f4 Bb7 16.Kb1 Nc6?? A gross blunder in an already difficult position – and one that shows that the World Champion is human after all, and even he has bad days at the office. The only possible move to make was 16…Nc5 but after 17.Bf3 White is ready to open the game up with e5 (or possibly even b4, embarrassing the knight, in certain circumstances) before Black can complete his development and get his king to safety. 17.Ncxb5!! [see diagram] All the warnings signs were there for Carlsen that this thematic Sicilian knight sacrifice was in the air – however, it comes with an added twist, with the follow-up not being Nxb5 but Nxc6 and a double hit on c6 and h8. 17…axb5 18.Nxc6 Bxc6 19.Qc3 Oopsie! 19…0-0 20.Qxc6 d5 You know you are in a bad way when the engine says your best hope is to try 20…Nf6 21.Qxd6 Qb7 but after 22.Bf3! Nxe4 23.Qd3! f5 24.Rge1 Ra4 25.h4 Rfa8 26.Bxe4 fxe4 27.Qb3 Black’s position is just too loose, especially with the doubled e-pawns being weak and very vulnerable. 21.exd5 Rfc8 22.d6 Qd8 23.Qxb5 How many players in the annals of the game have managed to get four connected passed pawns against a world champion by move 23, never mind it being a teenager? 23…Rcb8 24.Qc4 Just as good, and perhaps more methodical was 24.Qd3 that hangs on to the a-pawn to leave four connected passed pawns(!), but Esipenko’s move just looks to return a pawn to get in Qc7 quickly, as with it the world champion is all but dead and buried with a hopeless position. 24…Rxa3 25.Qc7 Qe8 26.Rg5! The name of the game for Esipenko is to exchange as many pieces as he can now, and this nice rook lift threatens swinging over to a5, perhaps even b5 (or even supporting Bb5). 26…Ra4 27.Ra5 Effectively snuffing out any possibility of tricks down the a-file, and leaving Carlsen in dire straits. 27…Rab4 28.b3 R4b7 29.Qc3 Qd8 30.Bf3 Rb4 31.Qc7 Qf6 32.Ra8 The game is effectively over now, but Carlsen prolongs it just a little longer, praying his young opponent panics and misses the one final trick. 32…Rxa8 33.Bxa8 Qf5 34.Kb2! Stopping Carlsen’s ‘Hail Mary’ save of …Rxb3+, and with it, resignation is on the cards. 34…Rb5 35.Qxd7 Rc5 36.Rc1 Qxf4 37.Qe8+ Kg7 38.d7 1-0

 

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