After a slow start to the Norway Chess tournament, being held in the Stavanger region, which had many online fans openly critiquing the pros and cons of the scoring-system, the second half by comparison has proved to be the very opposite, with the tournament dramatically coming to life with a series of wins going down the homestretch.
Magnus Carlsen has a history of being a notorious slow starter, but when he gets going, it can often feel like the tournament is being hit by a juggernaut in the closing rounds – and that’s just the scenario playing out going into the final two rounds. After a setback classical loss to Karjakin in round five, Carlsen has hit back as only Carlsen can, with a spectacular hat-trick of classical wins to collect a maximum 9 points.
Not only that, but it was “back to business” for a very happy Carlsen with three trademark grinds in successive rounds respectively against Alireza Firouzja, Aryan Tari and, most crucially of all, Richard Rapport, to now bring the world champion tantalisingly to within a half point of the tournament leader.
And it’s not just Carlsen with the hat-tricks that’s set the final stages of the tournament ablaze. Rounds seven and eight witnessed the most bloodthirsty chess of all, with all three classical games in each round proving decisive and six wins that soon had the fans changing their minds about the tournament format.
1. R. Rapport (Hungary), 15½/25.5; 2. M. Carlsen (Norway), 15/26; 3. A. Firouzja (France), 12/25.5; 4. I. Nepomniachtchi (Russia), 9½/26.5; 5. S. Karjakin (Russia), 8½/26; 6. A. Tari (Norway), 6/25.5.
You can follow live coverage of the final rounds of the Norway Chess tournament at the official site, with commentary from former elite star Judit Polgar and GM David Howell. There’s also live coverage at chess24.com.
GM Magnus Carlsen – GM Richard Rapport
Norway Chess, (8)
Ruy Lopez, Berlin Defence
1.e4 e5 2.Nf3 Nc6 3.Bb5 Nf6 4.d3 In recent years, this has become the more-popular, though reserved way of deftly avoiding the notorious “Berlin Wall” endgame after 4.0-0 Nxe4 5.d4 Nd6 6.Bxc6 dxc6 7.dxe5 Nf5 8.Qxd8+ Kxd8 that Vladimir Kramnik famously rehabilitated during his successful 2000 World Championship challenge in London against Garry Kasparov, who was reduced to hitting his head against a brick wall in frustration. 4…Ne7 5.0-0 c6 6.Ba4 Ng6 7.Re1 Be7 8.d4 d6 9.c3 0-0 10.Nbd2 h6 11.Nf1 Re8 12.Ng3 a5 13.Bc2 Qc7 14.a4 Bd7 15.h3 We now have a typical Lopez formation for White, who has emerged from the opening with more space and the better prospects. And although Black is a little cramped, there’s no real obvious weakness in his position – but Carlsen is in his element in such positions, as he does what he does best of all by grinding away until he gets blood from a stone. 15…b5 16.Be3 Rab8 17.Qd2 b4 I would imagine Rapport probably felt more comfortable now after getting in …b5 and …b4. 18.Bd3 bxc3 19.bxc3 Be6 20.Qc2 Also an alternative plan here was 20.Nf5 – but Carlsen decides he wants to keep his options open for a little longer. 20…Rb7 21.Nf1 Nh5! The knight is heading to the natural f4 outpost. 22.N1d2 Nhf4 Now here’s the quandary: If it was Carlsen playing Black, many would say he was winning. But he’s White, and he’s tried to keep the tension in the position for as long as he can, pushing the envelope a little to see if Rapport over-extends his position. 23.Ba6 Rbb8 24.dxe5 dxe5 25.Rab1 Bd7 26.Bc4! There’s nothing really in the position, but for Carlsen, he’s managed to keep some control over what’s happening by avoiding any trades – and with it, he now has a little something to bite on with pressure down the a2-g8 diagonal. 26…Ne6 27.Qa2 Nh4 28.Nxh4 Bxh4 29.Nf3 It’s almost a symmetrical position, but Carlsen has just a little edge with the better bishop-pair – and that’s enough for him to start ratcheting up the pressure on Rapport. 29…Be7 30.Rbd1 Bc8 31.Qc2 Nf8 32.Rd2 Be6 33.Qa2 Red8 Rapport was worried that 33…Bxc4 34.Qxc4 would see Carlsen piling the pressure on his three weak pawns on a5, c6 and e5. Probably nothing much to worry about, but he plays the natural human move that most would play here by trading rooks on the d-file. 34.Rxd8 Bxd8 35.Rd1 Be7 36.h4 Rd8 37.Rb1 Rb8 38.Rxb8 Qxb8 39.g3 Bd8 40.Kg2 Bc7 41.Bxe6 Nxe6 42.Qc4 Qe8 43.h5 Kh7 44.Qd3 Qe7 45.Nd2 Bd6 46.Nc4 Bc7 47.Qd1 Nf8 48.Qg4 Nd7 49.Kf1 There’s no denying this is the sort of grind Carlsen likes: he has no weaknesses to worry about, he’s improved his position a little, but is it enough to force a much-needed win to play catch-up with the tournament leader? 49…Qe8 50.Kg2 Qe7 51.Qf5+ Kg8 52.g4 Nf8 53.g5 hxg5 54.Bxg5 Qc5 55.Ne3 Qd6 56.Qg4 g6 57.Bh6 Nd7 For any human defending here – and especially against Carlsen – their heart would have been frantically beating, as they could sense the dangers. But all the engines are just like “chill, people, 0.00, easy.” 58.Nc4 It’s been a typical Carlsen squeeze up to now, but Rapport had been defending valiantly – but the tournament leader cracks for the first time in the tournament with the relentless pressure from the world champion. 58…Nf6? Unfortunately Rapport missed a key move in a critical position. The engine admits White is better, but can save the game with 58…Qe6 59.Qxe6 fxe6 60.hxg6 Nc5 61.Ne3 (No better is 61.Nb2 Nxe4 62.c4 Nc5 and Black is fine.) 61…Nxa4 62.Ng4 Bd8 63.Nxe5 Nxc3 64.Nxc6 Bf6 65.e5 Bg7 66.Bd2 Nd5 67.Bxa5 Nf4+ and with the g6-pawn falling, Black should easily hold the draw now. 59.Qc8+ Qd8 60.Qxd8+ Bxd8 61.Bg5! [see diagram] The crucial move Rapport must have missed, probably thinking a little like the note above, that he was easily holding after 61.Nxe5 Nxe4 62.hxg6 fxg6 63.c4 Bc7 64.Nxc6 g5! 65.f3 Nc5 66.Bxg5 Nxa4 and a draw coming soon. But instead, the pin is difficult to meet, and Rapport finds all his earlier hard work of staying in the game vanishing in a heartbeat, with this one very accurate move from Magnus that takes full advantage of Black’s overworked bishop. 61…gxh5 62.Bxf6 Bxf6 63.Nxa5 Kf8 64.Nxc6 Now Carlsen easily goes on to convert his advantage – but instructive nevertheless watching how effortlessly he does convert. 64…Ke8 65.Nb4 Bd8 66.Nd3 f6 67.Kg3 As if Rapport didn’t have enough to worry about, now a timely Kh4 is going to pick off Black’s h-pawn. 67…Kd7 68.f3 Ba5 69.c4 Ke6 There’s no way to stop Kh4 as 69…Bd8 70.Kh4! f5+ 71.Kxh5 Ke6 72.Nc5+ Kf6 73.Nb7 and now the twin threats of c5 and a5 will see one of the pawns passing. 70.Kh4 f5 71.Kxh5 fxe4 72.fxe4 Kd6 73.Kg6 Bc7 74.Kf5 Magnus’s knight and c-pawn stops Rapport’s king getting active for any saving hopes. 74…Kc6 75.Ke6 Kb6 76.Kd7 Bb8 77.c5+ 1-0 And Rapport resigns, faced with 77…Ka5 78.c6 Kxa4 79.c7 Bxc7 80.Kxc7 Kb3 81.Nxe5 and no stopping the e-pawn running up the board.