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John Henderson
By John Henderson

Sixty years ago, after Russian cosmonaut, Yuri Gagarin became the first man to go into space, the compelling story of the U.S. space program’s response at the height of the Cold War, with newly-formed NASA selecting seven of the military’s best test pilots to become astronauts, was immortalized in print by Tom Wolfe in his riveting bestseller The Right Stuff, that subsequently was also made into a blockbuster movie of the same name, and now an anniversary new hit TV series for Disney+.

The title was the phrase Wolfe coined to describe the mystique of flying associated with the test pilots recruited to test experimental aircraft and rockets who became known as the ‘Mercury 7’ astronauts. The phrase also entered the general discourse by being associated with the qualities needed to do or be something, especially something that most people would find difficult.

Likewise, as the Magnus Carlsen Invitational – with a partnership with the Breakthrough Initiatives in space exploration and the Breakthrough Junior Challenge – takes on a space-theme to commemorate Gagarin’s historic space flight of April 12, 1961, we don’t have seven but rather eight who possess ‘the right stuff’ after battling through three days and fifteen rounds of intense battle in the 16-player prelim, and now go forward to the knockout stages of the latest leg of the $1.5m Meltwater Champions Tour from the Play Magnus Group.

Magnus Carlsen and Anish Giri dominated the prelims from start to finish, with the Dutch world #7 taking the sole lead after an almost flawless defeat of the world champion. But Carlsen, the $220,000 tournament host, hit back with a dominant performance of yore on the final third day to rack up a record tour prelim winning score of 10.5/15 to book his spot into the quarter-finals.

Carlsen now meets old foe Levon Aronian in Tuesday’s quarter-finals, after the latter edged out on tiebreak former world title challenger Sergey Karjakin for the final knockout spot. The other pairings sees Giri facing Maxime Vachier-Lagrave, Ian Nepomniachtchi taking on Hikaru Nakamura, and reigning US champion Wesley So playing 17-year-old rising star Alireza Firouzja.

MCI Prelims (final standings):
1. Magnus Carlsen,10.5/15; 2. Anish Giri, 10; 3. Wesley So 9.5; 4. Hikaru Nakamura, 9; 5-7. Ian Nepomniachtchi, Alireza Firouzja, Maxime Vachier-Lagrave 8.5; 8-9. Levon Aronian*, Sergey Karjakin, 8; 10. Daniil Dubov, 7.5; 11. Teimour Radjabov, 7; 12. Shak Mamedyarov, 6.5; 13-14. Nils Grandelius, Jorden van Foreest, 6; 15. David Anton, 4; 16. Alan Pichot, 2.5. *Aronian takes final qualifying spot on tiebreak)

Quarterfinal pairings:
Carlsen v Aronian, Nepomniachtchi v Nakamura, So v Firouzja, Vachier-Lagrave v Giri
Play gets underway on Tuesday at 16:00 GMT (17:00 CET, 11:00 ET, 08:00 PT).

Every move of the MCI quarterfinals will be streamed live around the world on Twitch and YouTube with coverage from the tour’s broadcast studio in Oslo with the commentary team of Kaja Snare, GM David Howell and IM Jovanka Houska– and many top multi-lingual grandmaster commentary teams on Chess24 – and now with the knockout stages, in 62 countries on the Eurosport TV network.

GM Anish Giri – GM Magnus Carlsen
Magnus Carlsen Inv. Prelim, (4)
Accelerated Dragon, Maróczy Bind
1.e4 c5 2.Nf3 g6 3.d4 cxd4 4.Nxd4 Nc6 5.c4 The Hungarian master Géza Maróczy – one of the world’s leading players of the early 20th Century – showed that, with a theme what went on to become known as the ‘Maróczy Bind’, that a big clamp on the d5-square is the best way to meet the Sicilian, especially the Accelerated Dragon. 5…Nf6 6.Nc3 d6 7.Be2 Nxd4 A system devised by the Georgian GM Bukhuti Gurgenidze and popularised in the mid-late 1960s to combat the Maróczy Bind, simply by exchanging a pair of minor pieces. 8.Qxd4 Bg7 9.0-0 0-0 10.Qd3 With the g7 bishop now protected, sooner or later the queen will have to move anyway, and praxis has show it is better sooner rather than later. Equally good is also the other retreat with 10.Qe3. 10…a5 In days of yore, the very common Accelerated Dragon options here was 10…Nd7 or 10…Be6; but 10…a5 – and delaying …Be6 and …Nd7 – is now the more modern approach, not only preventing white expanding on the queenside with a later b4, but also adding to the mix …Bd7 and a possible …a4 (after white plays b3) for counter-play. 11.Be3 Bd7 12.Bd4 Bc6 13.b3 Nd7 14.Bxg7 Kxg7 15.Qd4+ Kg8 16.Rfd1 Qb6 17.Qxb6 Nxb6 There’s nothing much in the position following the trades, but white retains the easier game with more space and the possibility of utilising the d5 square. 18.f4 f5 This approach from Magnus is a common theme to fight against the Maróczy Bind squeeze, looking to break-down white’s control over d5 – but it comes at a cost, as it splits black’s pawn structure to 3 islands vs 2 islands. 19.exf5 Rxf5 20.g3 g5 Magnus’ plan is just to chip, chip, chip away at Giri’s pawns, looking to neutralise the position as best he can – he may end up defending a worse endgame, but with pawns and pieces rapidly coming off the board, any endgame scenario will be easier to live with. 21.Bd3 Rc5 22.Re1 Re8 Better was simply 22…gxf4!? as the obvious reply of 23.Rxe7 fxg3 24.hxg3 is well met by 24…Rh5! 25.Be4 d5! and with the d5-square handicap resolved, Black should be safe with this ending. 23.Ne4! Now Giri seizes his chance to gain the upper-hand with the good bishop vs bad knight – but it still shouldn’t be a game-winner. 23…Bxe4 24.Rxe4 gxf4 25.Rxf4 Nd7! Giri may well have the good bishop, but at least Carlsen will have improved his knight with a good outpost on e5. 26.Re1 Ne5 27.Be4 b5 28.cxb5 Rxb5 29.Rh4 Rb4? Magnus misses a crucial resource with 29…Ng6! 30.Rg4 Re5! and I really can’t see this game ending in anything other than a draw now. But, far from thinking he can hold the ending sans a pawn, it just gets a little more difficult for Magnus, as Giri makes the most of his better R+B and extra pawn. 30.Bxh7+ Kg7 31.Be4! The best move by far. After 31.Rxb4 axb4 32.Be4 e6 Black has excellent chances of holding the game with his big knight on e5, central pawns and white’s backward a-pawn. 31…a4 32.bxa4 Rxa4 33.Re2 Rh8 34.Rxh8 Kxh8 Magnus probably felt he should be able to successfully grovel a draw here, but Giri suddenly gets creative with his rook, bishop and h-pawn to leave the world champion in a difficult position; and a difficult situation not helped by the flag on his digital clock now beginning to metaphorically rise. 35.Bd5! Ra5 36.Bb3 Nc6 If Magnus can get …e5 and …Nd4 in, he has genuine saving chances – but Giri soon cuts across this plan. 37.Rd2! The problem for Carlsen is that he can’t get his central pawns mobile, as meanwhile Giri brings his king into the game and threatens to start pushing his g- and h-pawns up the board. 37…Kg7 38.Kg2 Ne5 39.h3 Nd7 40.Re2 Kf8 Black’s best chance is not to dilly-dally and cut to the chase with 40…e5 41.Rd2 Ra6 where at least he has started to push his central pawns, and this has to be his best chance for survival. 41.Rf2+ Nf6 42.g4 It’s just starting to get a little more worse now for Carlsen, as Giri successfully has his pawns running. 42…Kg7 43.Rf4?! A strange move in many ways, as the easy solution looked like the annoying 43.Re2! forcing 43…e5 44.g5 Nd5 45.Kf3 Nf4 46.Rd2! d5 47.h4 with Kg4 and h5 coming. 43…d5 44.g5 Ne4 45.Bxd5 Nxg5?! Missing a trick with 45…Nc3! 46.Bb3 Rxg5+ 47.Kf3 Rc5 48.Rf7+ Kg6 49.Rxe7 Ra5! and Black should be holding for the draw. Certainly after …Nxa2 the rook ending is a draw, and if White starts pushing the h-pawn (rather than capturing the knight), then in the worst-case scenario black can always look to sacrifice the knight for the h-pawn and a technically drawn endgame of R+B v R. 46.Bb3 e5 47.Ra4 Rc5 If only it were so easy to trade the rooks, but after 47…Rxa4 48.Bxa4 Ne6 49.Bc6! Nc5 50.Kf3 the black knight won’t be able to cope with two passed rook pawns. 48.Rc4 Ra5 49.h4 Ne6 50.Ra4 Nf4+ 51.Kf3 Rc5 52.Rc4 Ra5 53.Rc7+ Kh6? Magnus unwittingly walks into a trap. The only chance was 53…Kf6! 54.Rc6+ Kg7 55.Kg4 Nd3 and trying to hold this ending. 54.Bc2! [see diagram] Setting up a nasty surprise for Carlsen, as suddenly he now needs to deal with the possibility his king might be in a mating net! 54…Ra3+ 55.Kg4 Nd3 56.Kf5 Nb4? The position has suddenly got hot for Magnus, all going ‘study-like’ at the wrong moment, with little or no time left on his clock, and he misses that his only saving try was 56…e4! 57.Kxe4 Nb4 58.Ke5 and 58…Kh5! admittedly a tough move to see, but it solves all of black’s problems, leaving 59.Rh7+ Kg4 60.Bf5+ Kg3 and white having to work to convert the win. 57.Be4 Rxa2?? Bungling his way into a mate. The last try was 57…Nd3 as 58.Bxd3 Rxd3 59.Ra7 Rd4 60.Ra8 (After 60.Kxe5 Rxh4 despite the Black king being on the ‘wrong side’ of the board, this is just a technical draw with accurate play.) 60…Kg7 61.h5 e4 62.Ke5 Rb4 63.a3 Rc4 64.Kd5 Rc1 65.Kxe4 as this is also a technical draw with both pawns being rook pawns – but easier said than done when you don’t have the engine’s Endgame TableBases confirming this! 58.Kg4 1-0 Mate with Rh7++ is now unavoidable.

 

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