John Henderson
By John Henderson

The very word strikes terror into the minds of many people, but “Armageddon” is not just a click-bait title of the fearful biblical prophesy in Revelations 16:16 that foretells the final battle between Good and Evil, it is also a relatively new phenomenon in chess for a “sudden death” tiebreak that guarantees a victor – and at the revamped seventh edition of the Altibox Norway Chess tournament, they’ve added a devilish new twist to it.

Each time a top chess tournament sees a lot of games ending in draws, there is a debate about whether something should be done about it. Most tournaments these days use a rule that doesn’t allow draw offers, but the organisers in Stavanger have taken it a step further, stating that the goal of their novel new change is “to create a tournament with fewer draws per game, create more excitement for spectators and put more pressure on the players.”

So for the first time in modern tournament praxis, if the players split the point in normal time, then they have to play an Armageddon game, having the same colour as in the original game. If Black, with less time on the clock (10 minutes to seven minutes), holds a draw, he wins. But for it to work in Stavanger, there’s also now a somewhat convoluted scoring system in operation.

If you win the Classical game: 2 points; if you lose: 0 points; Draw the Classical game and win the Armageddon game: 1½ points; Draw the Classical game and lose the Armageddon game: ½ point. the only other game that didn’t make it to the Armageddon decider, as Caruana caught-out Sicilian Najdorf Poisoned Pawn fiend Maxime Vachier-Lagrave with a well-prepared novelty in the Frenchman’s favourite opening.

1. S. Mamedyarov (Azerbaijan) 3½/5; 2-3. M. Carlsen (Norway), Yu Yangyi (China) 3/6; 4. F. Caruana (USA) 2½/5; 5-7. Ding Liren (China), L. Aronian (Armenia), W. So (USA) 2/6; 8. A. Grischuk (Russia) 1/6; 9-10. M. Vachier-Lagrave (France), V. Anand (India) ½/5.

Photo: Fabi opts to avoid Armageddon with an impressive win over MVL | © Lennart Ootes/Altibox Norway Chess

GM Fabiano Caruana – GM Maxime Vachier-Lagrave
Altibox Norway Chess, (2)
Sicilian Poisoned Pawn
1.e4 c5 2.Nf3 d6 3.d4 cxd4 4.Nxd4 Nf6 5.Nc3 a6 6.Bg5 e6 7.f4 Qb6 8.Qd2 Qxb2 The Bobby Fischer favourite of the Poisoned Pawn Variation, one of the most heavily-analysed variations in chess, with the theory of many of the main-lines going deep into 30 or more moves. And MVL is today’s recognised Poisoned Pawn guru – and with it comes the challenge that he can, therefore, be an easy target to deeply prepare a specialised line for, as happen in this game. 9.Rb1 Qa3 10.f5 Be7 In the days when Fischer and then Kasparov played the Poisoned Pawn, the “mainline” used to run 10…Nc6 11.fxe6 fxe6 12.Nxc6 bxc6 13.Be2 Be7 14.Rb3 Qa5 15.0-0 Ra7 which, as far as I recall, all seems to be “played out” to a draw after a series of sacrifices from White (and Black). However 10…Be7 is a relatively new approach from Black, which looks to try and keep a little life in the position. 11.fxe6 Bxe6 12.Nxe6 fxe6 13.Bc4 This has become something of a speciality of China’s ex-teenage star Wei Yi ( the “ex” is because he recently turned 20!). 13…Nbd7 14.Bxe6 Nc5 So far, so theory – but Caruana has been burning the midnight oil to catch MVL out in this line. 15.Bc4!?N A novelty from Caruana, who improves on what Wei played against Ian Nepomniachtchi as recently as last month’s FIDE Moscow Grand Prix. There, Wei retreated the bishop to the other wing with 15.Bf5 – but after 15…g6 16.Bh3 Ncxe4 17.Nxe4 Nxe4 18.Qd4 Qc3+ 19.Qxc3 Nxc3 and with the queens off the board, now the Black king isn’t in any danger, even although it looks a little scary after the game continued 20.Bxe7 Kxe7 21.Rb3 Ne4 22.Rxb7+ Kf6 23.0-0+ Kg5 but the ever-resourceful Nepo soon found a way to sacrifice the knight for three pawns, and the game fizzled out to a draw in 70 moves. But with 15.Bc4!?, Caruana cunningly finds a way to keep the queens on the board, and also keep the Black king in the danger zone! 15…Ncxe4 16.Nxe4 Nxe4 17.Bf7+! Kxf7 18.Qd5+ Ke8 Forced, as 18…Kf8?? 19.Bxe7+ Kxe7 20.Qxb7+! Kf6 21.0-0+ is quickly mating. 19.Qxe4 Qa5+ 20.Kd1 Not only is Caruana’s king perfectly safe here but he also now has freed up e1 for his rook to heap more pressure on MVL’s king. 20…Qxg5 21.Rxb7 Rf8! Despite the difficulties, MVL continues to find the best way to stay in the game, as the alternative looked decidedly “iffy”. After 21…Qh5+ 22.g4 Qe5 23.Re1! Kd8 (Trading queens doesn’t help. If 23…Qxe4 24.Rxe4 Kf7 25.Rexe7+ Kf6 26.Rxg7 the rooks on the seventh are just too strong.) 24.Qc4! Rc8 25.Qxc8+ Kxc8 26.Rxe5 Bh4 27.Ree7! Bxe7 28.Rxe7 g5 29.Ra7 The R+P ending looks doomed, as too many Black pawns remain weak and vulnerable. 22.Re1 Rf7 23.Rxe7+ Rxe7 24.Qxa8+ Kf7 25.Rf1+ Kg6 26.Qxa6 Qe5 MVL, realising he’d been caught by a well-worked line by Caruana, headed to the “confessional” now to tell us: “I’ve been caught in some serious prep! Took me some time, I think. Maybe the more dangerous option, not completely sure what I did. I am still a pawn down. But I feel I got enough counterplay.” And it’s a testament to his survival skills because he probably has – but the fatal mistake is yet to come. 27.Qd3+ Kh6 28.c3?! Not the most clinical, as Caruana over-worries about possibly losing his a-pawn. However, the engines tell us that the check on a1 is not a threat. Caruana could have played 28.g3! Qa1+ 29.Kd2 Qe5 (29…Qxa2? 30.Qxd6+ Re6 – Even easier is 30…Qe6? 31.Qxe6+ Rxe6 32.c4 and a technical win with the Black king cut off on the kingside, as the c-pawn, supported by the king, runs up the board – 31.Qf4+ Kg6 32.Qf5+ Kh6 33.Qf4+ Kg6 34.Qg4+ Kh6 35.Qh3+ Kg6 36.Qf5+ Kh6 37.Rf4! soon forces the queens off and an easy endgame win after 37…Rd6+ 38.Ke3 Qe6+ 39.Qxe6+ Rxe6+ 40.Re4 Rc6 41.c4 and again, as noted above, an easy technical endgame win with the Black king marooned on the kingside, while the c-pawn supported by the White king runs up the board.) 28…Qxh2 There really isn’t much left in the position now with the pawns being equal – and MVL should be very close to drawing this. Caruana has bet everything on his a-pawn running up the board – but with very accurate play, Black should save the game. 29.Qd2+ Kg6 30.Rf4! Nicely cutting off the protection of the d6-pawn, and putting the Black king once more in danger. 30…Re6 It is always easy to be critical when you have an engine doing all the work for you, but all that MVL really has to do is provide a safe haven for the king, and it will end in a draw. So best was 30…h5! 31.Qxd6+ Kh7 32.Qd3+ g6 33.Qf3 Kg7 where Black’s king is very safe now, and it will be impossible for White to make anything of his extra pawn due to his own exposed king. 31.Qc2+ Kh6 32.Qf2 Qh5+ 33.Kd2 Qd5+ 34.Kc1 g6 It all starts to get difficult again for MVL after this move. Better was 34…g5! not only denying White access to the h4 square check for his rook or queen but also starting to push his own pawns up the board, not fearing the forced K+P ending after 35.Rf6+ Rxf6 36.Qxf6+ Kh5 37.Qf3+ Qxf3 38.gxf3 as 38…Kh4! 39.a4 h5 40.a5 g4! is going to end in a draw, as Black’s saving grace is that he queens with a check. 35.a4 Qe5 36.Kc2 g5? The rule of thumb in chess is that, when in doubt, always head towards the R+P ending. And here, MVL looks to be saving the game after 36…Qe2+!? 37.Qxe2 Rxe2+ 38.Kb3 Rxg2 39.a5 g5 40.Ra4 Rf2 41.a6 Rf8 as the worst-case scenario is sacrificing the rook for the a-pawn – but it looks just a draw, as Black’s g- and h-pawns will be quickly running up the board supported by the king. 37.Rd4! Kg6 38.Qf3! [see diagram] With a couple of accurate moves, Caruana turns the screw by improving his position to now force a better version of the R+P ending. 38…h5 39.Rd5 Qe2+ 40.Qxe2 Rxe2+ 41.Rd2 Now the K+P ending is won for White, as the Black king is too far from the running a-pawn, and the White king can always cut across to stop the g- and h-pawns. 41…Re6 42.a5 The ending has turned into a nightmare for MVL, as the White a-pawn – supported by the king – is running up the board like Usain Bolt, and the Black king is marooned on the kingside 42…h4 43.Kb3 g4 44.Kb4 Re1 The last roll of the die for MVL was probably 44…d5 hoping for 45.Rxd5 g3! and realistic saving chances. But White just ignores the d-pawn and plays 45.Kb5! to continue pushing the a-pawn. 45.Ra2! If you are trying to push home a passed pawn, or even trying to stop a passed pawn, then the best strategical place for your rook to be is right behind the pawn! 45…Rb1+ 46.Kc4 h3 47.gxh3 gxh3 48.a6 Rb8 49.Kd5 Ra8 50.Kxd6 h2 51.Rxh2 Rxa6+ 52.Kd5 Kf7 53.Re2 With the Black king cut-off from the queenside, and the White king supporting the c-pawn, we’re into the realms of the fabled Lucena position, one of the two most fundamentally important positions – the other being the Philidor position – in chess endgame theory that every player must know by heart just as well as such things as the Sicilian Najdorf, as one is winning and the other is a draw. 53…Ra8 54.c4 Rd8+ 55.Kc6 Rc8+ 56.Kb5 Rb8+ 57.Ka6 Rc8 58.Re4 And thus we begin to “build the bridge” to the win. 58…Kf6 59.Kb7 Kf5 60.Rd4 1-0


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