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John Henderson
By John Henderson

Ever since the first edition of New in Chess magazine came rolling off the presses in 1984, the former Dutch magazines’ inspired metamorphosis into a new English-language edition transformed the publication into undeniably the best chess magazine in the world, and now a recent new addition to the Play Magnus Group stable. And along the way, NIC has chronicled all the best rivalries in the game – none more so than Magnus Carlsen and Hikaru Nakamura, who now fittingly fight it out in the dream final of the New in Chess Classic.

The Carlsen-Nakamura rivalry is so intense it could be described as the classic of classics, going from rivals in their youth on the ICC to now become two of the game’s biggest online influencers. And in the past pandemic-hit year, with the rise of the Carlsen-inspired online Tour, both have also broken ground by becoming the first two chess-players to enter into the esport Top 10 earners-list, with the Norwegian taking the #1 spot ahead of some legendary gamers.

Both also contested the very first Tour final back in late April/early May 2020 when the world went into lockdown, with Carlsen beating Nakamura to win his own signature event, the ‘Magnus Carlsen Invitational’, that in turn inspired the formation of what’s now become the $1.5m Meltwater Champions Chess Tour.

But both though had conflicting paths to the New in Chess Classic Final, the fifth leg of the Tour. For Carlsen, it was an über-smooth semifinal performance from the world champion, as he showed signs of now firing on all-cylinders by crushing Levon Aronian in the second set to win the contest 2-2, 3-1. And typically for Nakamura, his was a rollercoaster path to the final, with a bruising street-fight semifinal brawl against Shakhriyar Mamedyarov that not only went the distance, but also saw seven straight decisive games(!) – 3-1, 0-3 – before the match was decided in the blitz tie-breaks, where after two draws, the US speed maven’s superior blitz skills was more than enough to win the final armageddon-decider.

Neither Carlsen or Nakamura have won a Tour event this season, so something has to give in this classic rivalry showdown. Could it be the turning point for Carlsen to final break his hoodoo of not winning a tournament since he turned 30 late last November, or can Nakamura defy the odds to beat the ‘beast’ he once famously described as “Sauron”, the omnipotent dark lord with the all-seeing eye from J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings fantasy?

Either way, something has to give in this classic rivalry as Carlsen and Nakamura go head-to-head for the $30,000 top prize and a first Meltwater Champions Chess Tour title. Play begins on Saturday at 19:00 CEST (14:00 EST | 11:00 PST) with live coverage on Chess24 throughout with the regular Tour commentary team of Kaja Snare (host), GM David Howell and IM Jovanka Houska.

GM Magnus Carlsen – GM Levon Aronian
New In Chess Classic | Semi-final, (2.4)
Sicilian Rossolimo
1.e4 c5 2.Nf3 d6 It’s do-or-die for Aronian needing to win or being eliminated, hence a sharp Sicilian Defence – but Carlsen isn’t going to play ball by walking down a big mainline variation. 3.Bb5+ The Moscow Attack, a particular favourite of Carlsen’s, and a cousin to the Rossolimo (2…Nc6 3.Bb5). The idea is just simple and solid development and avoid your opponent’s well-honed favourite pet-line in the Sicilian, such as the Najdorf or the Dragon. 3…Nc6 4.0-0 Bd7 5.Re1 e5 The match situation dictates that Aronian has to go for broke, and this explains his somewhat risky plan, as most of the other alternatives offer White an easy and safe game. 6.c3 g5 7.d4! The logical way to counter Aronian’s risky flank attack – hit back immediately in the center. 7…g4 8.Nfd2 exd4 9.Na3! Carlsen sacrifices the pawn for rapid develop; and with it, Aronian had to realise his position now is somewhat compromised. 9…Qf6 The point of Carlsen’s plan is that if Black gets greedy with 9…dxc3?! then the tsunami comes in quickly with 10.Ndc4 a6 11.Bxc6 Bxc6 12.bxc3 b5? 13.e5!! and Black is in dire straits, and not in any good way either with Mark Knopfler licking the riffs! 10.cxd4 cxd4 11.e5! The more the game opens up, the more Aronian is in trouble. 11…dxe5 12.Nac4 0-0-0 You can understand Aronian’s desire to quickly get his king off the troubled e-file – but despite doing so, he doesn’t escape the trouble coming his way. 13.Bxc6 Bxc6 14.Nxe5 A bit more clinical was 14.Qxg4+! Kb8 and now 15.Nxe5 and White has the big advantage because of Black’s compromised structure with three isolated and weak pawns. All White needs to do is find ways to trade pieces for a decisive endgame advantage. 14…Bd5 15.Qxg4+ Qe6 Aronian senses he’s busted. If you attempt to keep the queens on with 15…Be6 16.Qg3! now forces 16…Qg7 (There’s nothing left in the tank. If 16…Bd6 17.Nb3 and Black’s in trouble with Bg5 and Rac1+ looming.) 17.Ndf3 Qxg3 18.fxg3 d3 19.Bf4! Ne7 20.Rec1+ Nc6 21.Nxc6 bxc6 22.Rxc6+ Kb7 23.Rc7+ Ka8 24.Rd1 Bd6 25.Bxd6 Rxd6 26.Ne5 and Black can seriously consider resigning, as White is going to pick off the weak pawns (f7 and d3), and note how White also threatens Nc6 mating! 16.Qxe6+ Bxe6 17.Ndf3 Bb4 18.Rd1 The problem for Aronian is not his weak d-pawn but the potentially precarious situation with his king, with Bf4 and Rac1 being major threats to have to deal with. 18…Rd5 19.Bf4 Bc5 20.Rac1 Carlsen’s pieces are superbly placed, and the world champion reinforces how superior his position has become by finding a clever winning tactic. 20…Kd8 21.Nxf7+! [see diagram] With Aronian chronically under-developed, Carlsen moves in for the kill as all the tactics now work in his favour. 21…Bxf7 22.Be5 Ne7 23.Bxh8 Nc6 24.Rxc5! And here we see the difference with the brute force of the computer and the pragmatic approach of the human. The engines are screaming out for 24.b4! but Carlsen just calmly sacrifices the exchange to see more pieces being traded, and a very safe and easy endgame win. 24…Rxc5 25.Nxd4 Kc7 26.Nxc6 Kxc6 27.a3 Rd5 It’s all desperado stuff now for Aronian. He knows he’s crashing out, but tries at least for a slim hope of saving the game by heading for an opposite-colour bishop ending – but Carlsen makes sure that slim has left the building! 28.Rxd5 Kxd5 29.f3 Kc4 30.Kf2 Kd3 31.Bc3 Just stopping any ideas of …a5 and ..b5 looking to trade queenside pawns and keeping that saving endgame hopes with the opposite-coloured bishops. But Carlsen very efficiently converts his big material advantage into an easy win by pushing his own kingside pawns up the board. 31…b5 You could try 31…h5 but after 32.g4 h4 33.h3 b6 34.Bf6 Kc2 35.f4 followed by Kf3 and Black can resign as there’s no stopping the f- and g-pawns never mind the …h4-pawn being lost. 32.g4 a6 33.Kg3 Ke3 34.f4 Ke4 35.f5 h5 36.h3 hxg4 37.hxg4 1-0 And Aronian resigns, faced with Carlsen’s simple winning plan of 37…Bb3 38.Kh4 Bf7 39.Kg5 Kf3 40.Kf6 Kxg4 (Alternatively 40…Bb3 41.g5 Kf4 42.g6 Bg8 43.Be5+ Kg4 44.g7 Bh7 45.b4 Kh5 46.Ke7 Bg8 is just a s bad) 41.Kxf7 Kxf5 42.Ke7 Ke4 43.Kd6 and with the Black king cut off, the White king waltzes over to the queenside to pick-off the a- and b-pawns without the worry of falling into the drawing endgame trap of being left with only the a-pawn and the wrong colour bishop to win.

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