Heavy is the Head - First Move Chess -First Move Chess

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To use that often rephrased Shakespeare quote from King Henry the IV, Part II, “heavy is the head that wears the crown”. Or, in Magnus Carlsen’s case even the more heavier with it being the triple crown, as the Norwegian ends the year by losing two of his speed titles at the recent year-ending World Rapid and Blitz Championships in Warsaw, Poland.

After emphatically defending his World Championship title earlier this month in Dubai, the smart money was on the in-form Carlsen ending 2021 on a high by also successfully defending his two speed crowns. But despite a promising start to this triple crown quest, Carlsen suffered a setback that saw the little-known 17-year-old Nodirbek Abdusattorov of Uzbekistan sensationally defeating the defending champion plus Fabiano Caruana and Ian Nepomniachtchi to become the youngest ever world champion.

Things soon went from bad to worse for Carlsen when it came to defending his blitz title. Misfiring with a lacklustre performance throughout, Carlsen suffered the ignominy of being hit by the rarity of six defeats. In the end, after a three-way tie on 15/21, France’s Maxime Vachier-Lagrave defeated Poland’s Jan-Krzysztof Duda in the final Armageddon tie-breaker to win the World Blitz title. The 18-year-old world #2, Alireza Firouzja, was third.

All of which left a forlorn Carlsen languishing in unfamiliar territory just outside the top 10, finishing in 11th place and in the process ceding his blitz #1 spot to rival Hikaru Nakamura, and sanguinely tweeting: “Some days you just don’t have it. I was nowhere near close to the level I needed to be today.”

The event itself almost had to be cancelled, only to be moved to Warsaw, Poland at the last minute after Covid regulations tightened in the original host country Kazakhstan. But Omicron was omnipresent nevertheless, and the event was almost stopped halfway after US speed maven Nakamura and three other players tested positive for Covid-19.

In the end – despite a large number of players complaining about being unable to get access to Covid tests in Warsaw, plus governing body FIDE not providing any private testing at the playing hall – it was only delayed an hour, though with Nakamura and the other players having to understandably pull out of the contest.

GM Maxime Vachier-Lagrave – GM Magnus Carlsen
World Blitz Championship, (21)
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 approach to Frank J. Marshall’s eponymous gambit/attack (after 8.c3 d5) that we witnessed many times during Carlsen’s recent successful title defence against Ian Nepomniachtchi. 8…Bb7 9.d3 d6 10.Nbd2 Re8 11.Nf1 h6 12.c3 Bf8 13.Ne3 Ne7 14.h3 Ng6 15.Nh2 d5 16.exd5 Nxd5 17.Qf3 Nh4 18.Qe4 Nxe3 19.Qxb7 Nexg2 20.Re4 Qxd3 Admittedly, capturing on d3 is the instant human reaction in blitz – but the engine quickly spots the even better move of 20…Rb8! that leaves White in a quandary, forcing 21.Qd5 (The point is that White can’t risk 21.Qxa6?! because after 21…Rb6 22.Qa7 Qc8! Black threatens …Ra6 embarrassing the queen, forcing 23.axb5 and now White’s in deep trouble after 23…Qxh3! 24.Bxf7+ Kxf7 25.Qxc7+ Be7 26.Qxb6 Ne3!! mating.) 21…Qxd5 22.Bxd5 Red8 23.Bb3 Rxd3 and a decisive advantage. 21.Rg4 Qxh3? Once again, in blitz, this is the all-too-human reaction – but it immediately allows White to seize the advantage now. Instead, better was 21…Red8! 22.Bxh6 bxa4 23.Bc4 Qf5 with a “messy” enough position where either player can equally and quite easily lose! 22.Rg3? It’s bad enough facing Carlsen in a murky position in blitz, but MVL fails to notice the rather cunning and clever move 22.Qd5! that turns the tables on Black, who is forced into 22…Re6 where now 23.Rg3! is more potent, as the …Re6 blocks off a retreating square for the embarrassed Black queen. Now comes 23…c6 24.Qxe6 Qxe6 25.Bxe6 fxe6 26.Bxh6! Nf5 27.Rxg2 Nxh6 28.Nf3 and White should easily clean up now with his material advantage. 22…Qf5 23.Rxg2 Nxg2 Again missing the cunning zwischenzug of 23…Rab8! forcing 24.Qd5 Red8 25.Ng4 Nf3+ 26.Kf1 Nh2+! winning on-the-spot, as any capture removes the threat of the Nxh6+ fork. 24.Qxg2 Rad8 25.Ng4 Kh8 26.axb5 axb5 27.Ne3 Qh5 28.Nf1 Also good was 28.Qe4 centralising the queen. 28…e4 29.Ng3 Qg6 30.Be3 MVL has staged a recovery of sorts, but the Frenchman is still under the cosh with Carlsen having the extra pawns and his powerful central rooks. But this is the sort of unbalanced material position that can quickly change in blitz, and how! 30…Bd6 31.Ne2 Qh5 The alternative was 31…Qxg2+ 32.Kxg2 f5 but after 33.Nf4! White’s pieces are coming to life and it is going to be difficult for Black to make anything of his extra pawns. For this reason, and with MVL’s king still exposed, Carlsen makes the right call of keeping the queens on the board. 32.Ng3 Bxg3 33.fxg3 The capture may look a bit puzzling, but after the more “natural” recapture with 33.Qxg3 there comes 33…c5! with the instant threat of …c4 and …Re6-g6+. 33…Rd3 34.Qf2 f5 35.Bc2 Rd6 36.Kg2 Red8 37.Rh1 Qg6 38.Bf4 Rd5 39.Qe2 Looking for a repetition with 39.Bb3 Rd3 40.Bc2 doesn’t work, as Black has the powerful 40…Rf3 quickly winning. Yet somehow, MVL is hanging on in this position, but this is blitz, and his position only improves with Carlsen being the one behind on the clock. 39…c5 40.b3 c4 41.bxc4 bxc4 42.Rf1 Qf6 43.Qxc4 Qb6 Threatening …Rd2+! winning. 44.Bb3 Rc5? This position, with both flags hanging in blitz, is just too difficult to find the win, but the engine quickly spots it! It’s 44…e3! renewing the winning threat of …Rd2+, and this time White can’t stop the many threats to his king and his position. 45.Qf7 Rxc3?? [See diagram] Tragedy!, as the Bee Gees would say. You can perhaps understand that Carlsen wanted to avoid something like 45…Qf6 46.Qxf6 gxf6 47.Be6 but in doing so, in the even more frantic time-scramble by now, he’s blundered away the game and gives MVL a play-off berth for the world title, which the Frenchman only too happily grabbed, going on to beat local hero Jan-Krzysztof to take the title. 46.Be5! Whoopsie! It suspiciously looks like Carlsen thought he could play …Rc7 to defend against the “threat” of Qxg7 mate, but doesn’t see until it is too late that the Be5 was also covering c7. Either way, a sore loss for the defending champion, and one that summed up the sorry story of the defence of his two speed crowns. 46…Rd2+ 47.Kh1 1-0

 

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