The Fateful Eight - First Move Chess -First Move Chess

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After a simply thrilling tiebreak playoff, Magnus Carlsen finally managed to break the spirit and resolve of Andrey Esipenko to grab his place in the quarterfinals of the $1.9m Fide World Cup in Sochi, as the rapidly rising nineteen-year-old Russian star made his bid to be recognised as the new young pretender to the Norwegian’s crown in the hearts of the fans, as he matched the World Champion blow-for-blow in their enthralling match, before going down 2-0 in the blitz.

The fateful eight now battling it out in the quarterfinals is Carlsen, Sergey Karjakin, the Russian former world title challenger, the former French child prodigy Etienne Bacrot, plus five newcomers looking to make a name for themselves: Indian #2 Vidit Gujrathi, Polish #1 Jan-Krzysztof Duda, Russia’s Sergey Fedoseev, relative unknown and lowly-rated Iranian 2600 hopeful Amin Tabatabaei, and last but not least Sam Shankland, the 2018 US champion.

And after his nerve-wracking ordeal at the hands of Esipenko, Carlsen now looks to be fully focused on the task in hand of winning the World Cup, as he literally blew Bacrot away in their opening quarterfinal match with a stunning queen sacrifice and the execution of a near-perfect game, to take what could well be a decisive early lead.

But the heroics of the day once again went to Shankland, as the US #5 seized his moment with an amazing performance to defy the odds as he outplayed Karjakin, to now tantalisingly also have his foot in the semifinals – and with it, there now also comes a genuine chance of a Candidates spot possibility opening up for the red-hot Californian.

The joker in the pack though is Carlsen, as he looks to finally end his long-standing World Cup hoodoo. Famously, he’s failed in four previous bids, with his last attempt in 2019 seeing the top seed and red-hot favourite sensationally being knocked out by China’s Bu Xiangzhi in the third round.For Carlsen, this is the one major title he’d clearly like to add to his already bulging trophy cabinet – but the lucrative Candidates spot that comes with reaching the final becomes superfluous for he World Champion, and this opens up an intriguing prospect of a new young gun (or possibly two!) outside of the world’s Top 10 getting a dream call-up to the game’s top table.

In previous Carlsen World Cup tilts, the ruling was that if he got to the final, then the Candidates spot would carry over to the Fide Rating List, and going to a super-GM in the Top 10 – but now, if that scenario plays out in Sochi, then suddenly there’s everything to play for to get into the semifinals, as even if you lose, the big conciliation prize is that the 3rd place playoff match will see the winner claim the golden ticket into next year’s Candidates Tournament.

So the question has to be asked: As pre-tournament outsiders, could this prove to be a major breakthrough moment for either Sam Shankland, Vidit Gujrathi, Jan-Krzysztof Duda, or possibly even bigger rank outsider Amin Tabatabaei? You can follow their – and Carlsen’s – progress as the quarterfinal matches and tiebreak playoffs concludes through Thursday and Friday, with live grandmaster commentary on the official Fide World Cup site.

Quarterfinals (Game 1):
Bacrot 0-1 Carlsen
Vidit ½-½ Duda
Tabatabaei ½-½ Fedoseev
Shankland 1-0 Karjakin

GM Etienne Bacrot – GM Magnus Carlsen
FIDE World Cup, (6.1)
Ruy Lopez, Anti-Marshall
1.e4 e5 2.Nf3 Nc6 3.Bb5 a6 4.Ba4 Nf6 5.0-0 Be7 6.Re1 b5 7.Bb3 0-0 8.a4 The Anti-Marshall looks to take all the fun out of Frank J. Marshall’s eponymous Marshall Attack after 8.c3 d5!? – though I doubt whether Carlsen would play the Marshall, more likely than not the Breyer Variation with 8.c3 d6 9.h3 Nb8. 8…Bb7 9.d3 d6 10.Bd2 Qd7 Today’s live commentary on Chess24 was the interesting ‘Mr & Mrs‘ game show redo with the husband/wife tag team of GM Anish Giri and IM Sopiko Guramishvili, and the man of the house showing his insight and rivalry of the World Champion, noting that this is a typical Carlsen-like move: “I know my boy… He thinks he’s choosing, but actually he had already chosen… His whole life, if you look at his games, he was going to play Qd7, it’s just how he plays!” 11.Nc3 Na5 12.Ba2 c5 13.Ne2 Nc6 14.Ng3 d5 15.exd5 Nxd5 16.c3 Rad8!? Carlsen is intent on his opponent accept a Marshall Attack-like pawn gambit on e5. 17.axb5 axb5 18.Nxe5 Nxe5 19.Rxe5 Bd6 20.Re1 Nf4 21.Bxf4 Bxf4 Sure, the computer will try to convince you that White is OK here, even marginally better with the extra pawn – but you only need to see Carlsen with his rampant bishop-pair and control of the d-file in this position to understand that Bacrot is going to be in for a tough time defending this. 22.Ne4 The computer wants to go with 22.Qh5 but after 22…Qc6 23.Qh3 Rfe8 your first instincts here is that Black is going to win this. 22…Qc7 23.g3 I imagine Carlsen would be licking his lips here with the long a8-h1 diagonal opening up! 23…Be5 24.f4?! This just doesn’t look healthy at all for Bacrot – and perhaps now was the right time to go for the computer option 24.Qh5!? g6 25.Qh6 which in fairness, with Ng5 threatened, does look as if it forces Black’s hand somewhat into exchanging off that potential killer bishop with 25…Bxe4 (The trade looks unavoidable. If 25…Qc6? 26.Qe3! suddenly White’s on top.) 26.Rxe4! Rxd3 27.Rh4 Rfd8 28.Qxh7+ Kf8 and a complex position with any three results still possible here. 24…Bd6 25.Qh5 Qc6 Carlsen is not going to be taking any prisoners today! 26.Qh3? Bacrot panics, and who can blame the Frenchman the way Carlsen’s pieces are ominously set-up to move in for the kill? But you know you are in big trouble when the computer thinks the best hope to stay in the game was 26.f5 c4 27.f6!?! Rfe8 28.fxg7 Qb6+ 29.Nf2 and everything apparently is honky-dory in engine-world with the assessment of “0.00” – but this is where psychology plays a big part in chess, as alarm bells wildly ring out in your head that Carlsen will surely find a way to crash through this. 26…c4! And just like that, Carlsen is easily winning now. 27.d4 Rde8 This is another one of those “Carlsen moves”, where he just wants to squeeze you to death – but I was a little surprised he didn’t go straight for the jugular with the computer screaming out for 27…f5! 28.Nf2 Qf3! 29.Bb1 Rf6! leaving White’s only try being the desperate looking 30.g4 Qxf4 31.gxf5 Rdf8! 32.Qg3 Rxf5! 33.Qxf4 (White won’t survive long after 33.Bxf5 Qxf5 34.Re5 Bxe5 35.dxe5 Qc2! 36.e6 Qe2 and White will be resigning soon.) 33…Rxf4 34.Be4 Rxf2! 35.Bxb7 Bxh2+ 36.Kh1 Bb8 and White is back on the morphine drip again. 28.d5? In view of what comes next, the last hope was 28.Nxd6 Qxd6 29.Rad1 Qd5 although the 800-pound gorilla in the room is the long a8-h1 diagonal, and how can White possibly hope to survive this? 28…Qxd5 29.Rad1 Rxe4!! [see diagram] A stunning queen sacrifice from Carlsen that should have left Bacrot for dead. 30.Rxd5 Rxe1+ 31.Kf2 Rfe8 32.Re5 Forced, the point behind Carlsen’s queen sac being the little matter of the mate after 32.Rd2 Bc5+ 33.Rd4 R8e2#. 32…Bxe5 33.Kxe1 Bxc3+ 34.Kf1 Bc8 35.Qg2 Bf5 Some pundits crouched over computers were calling out for the flashy 35…Rd8!! 36.bxc3 Rd1+ 37.Ke2 Bg4+ 38.Ke3 Rd3+ 39.Kf2 (39.Ke4 Bf3+ 40.Qxf3) 39…Rd2+ and yes, that wins – but it’s not a logical follow-up for Carlsen, given that he’s taken his bishop off the long a8-h1 diagonal, and he’d only be thinking of re-routing it elsewhere to another diagonal. 36.Qd5 Against all the odds, Bacrot is fighting to stay in the game, as Black easily wins after 36.bxc3 Bd3+ 37.Kf2 Re2+ 38.Kg1 Rxg2+ 39.Kxg2 b4! and White can resign. 36…Be6 37.Qc5 White can’t chop on b5 with 37.Qxb5 as Black’s pieces swiftly move in for the kill with 37…Bh3+ 38.Kf2 Bd4+ 39.Kf3 Re3+ 40.Kf2 Re5+ 41.Kf3 Rxb5 etc. 37…Bxb2?! It’s the obvious move, but in fact the only real mishap from Carlsen in the game during what had now become a mutual frantic time scramble, as the clean kill was 37…Bh3+ first, when 38.Kf2 and now 38…Bxb2! 39.Qd5 where White somehow has to stop the nasty …Bd4+, which is answered by 39…Rb8! 40.Qd6 Rc8 and very soon Black is going to be playing …Bf6 and pushing that c-pawn home. 38.Kg2 Bd7 39.Qd5? With more clock time to think of how best to hang on here, Bacrot may well have found the crucial resource 39.Qc7! and suddenly trying to win this for Black proves to be problematic, for example 39…Bf5 (If 39…Bg4 40.h3! Bf5 41.Qb6 and we have the same line.) 40.Qb6 Be4+ 41.Kf2 and either the b- or the c-pawn drops off – so good luck trying to convert this ending, which at best looks like going down to Q v R, B+c-pawn. 39…Rd8! Carlsen is back on track for a stylish the win. 40.Qc5 Bf6 Both players have successfully made the time-control, and now it doesn’t take Carlsen long to force home the win now. 41.Bb1 g6 42.g4 Bxg4 43.Qxb5 c3 44.f5 g5 0-1 Bacrot has seen enough and resigns, as Carlsen is just going to bring his king to safety with …Kg7 (that also protects his bishop) and then follow-up with …Bd1, …Rd2+ and …c2 is a-coming.

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