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John Henderson
By John Henderson

We are well into December now; the nights are getting longer and ever-darker, the trees are trimmed and the lights are flashing, and it’s beginning to look a lot like Christmas as the holiday festivities begin to kick off. And chess-wise, that can only mean one thing: it’s now time for the London Chess Classic, Britain’s one and only super-tournament, and with it this year, a new-styled grand finale to the year-long Grand Chess Tour season.

Defeated American world title challenger, Fabiano Caruana, along with fellow countryman Hikaru Nakamura, Armenia’s Levon Aronian and France’s Maxime Vachier-Lagrave top the table standings after tournament legs earlier this year in Brussels, Paris and St Louis, and they are now set to do battle in a series of knockout mini-matches for the title and prize fund of $300,000 (the overall winner taking the top prize of $120,000, with $80,000 going to the runner-up).

The semi-final pairings are Caruana v Nakamura and Aronian v MVL, with all matches taking place 11-13 December, at the offices of DeepMind within Google’s London HQ. Each match consisting of two classical games, two rapid and four blitz. There’s also a different scoring system: The classical games are worth six points for a win, rapid four and blitz just two, meaning that a minimum of 15 points will win a match.

After a rest day on Friday, the final of the GCT, as well as a third-place play-off, will take place from Saturday-Monday, 15-17 December, at the traditional LCC venue of the Olympia Conference Centre.

A pre-cursor to the big event is the now traditional Pro-Biz Cup  – a prestigious Pro-Am tournament like no other, with grandmasters competing alongside amateurs, who also happen to be leading businesspeople, in a charity fundraiser for Chess in Schools and Communities, with each player in the pairing having alternate moves in this fun rapid tournament with a purpose.

Caruana, Nakamura, Aronian and MVL are all in the line-up of the 20 pairs taking part. Also in the mix was the legendary former world champion Garry Kasparov, and Demis Hassabis, the former chess prodigy who is now co-founder of Google’s leading Artificial Intelligence (AI) company DeepMind and creator of Alpha Zero and Alpha Go, which have pioneered breakthroughs in Chess and Go.

The top three seeds were Caruana & Chris Flowers (CEO of investment firm J.C. Flowers & Co. LLC); GM Matthew Sadler (A two-time British champion) & Hassabis; and Kasparov & Terry Chapman (a serious amateur tournament player, entrepreneur and former Chairman and CEO of Terence Chapman Group PLC).

In the end, after a tough day of entertaining play, the ProBlitz Cup went to the fourth seeds of GM David Howell (the England No.2) & Rajko Vujatovic (a model risk consultant and three-time gold medallist in the World Diving Chess Championship), who beat Aronian & Justin Baptie (Managing Director of Insight Strategic Associates) to take the 2018 title.

Photo: Rajko Vujatovic (left) and David Howell, winners of the 2018 Pro-Biz Cup | © Lennart Ootes / London Chess Classic

David Howell & Rajko Vujatovic – Garry Kasparov & Terry Chapman
Pro-Biz Cup, (1)
Caro-Kann Defence, Advance Variation
1.e4 c6 2.d4 d5 3.e5 Few lines are as assertive and aggressive as the Advance Variation of the Caro-Kann 3…Bf5 4.Nf3 Very patriotic, with this being in London, as this is the Short Variation, named after England’s Nigel Short! Kasparov’s former world title challenger’s big idea was to treat the position a little like the Advanced Variation of the French Defence. 4…e6 5.Be2 Ne7 6.0-0 Nd7 7.Nbd2 h6 8.Nb3 Qc7 9.Bd2 Bh7 10.Rc1 The idea behind the Black set-up is to play for a freeing …c5 – and to counter this, White looks to open the game with c4. 10…Nc8 11.Ba5 Ncb6 12.Bd3 Bxd3 13.cxd3! Stronger than recapturing with the queen, as the doubled d-pawns control vital squares, and the opening of the c-file now makes …c5 impossible. 13…Be7 14.Ne1 The retreat makes way for gaining for space and attacking possibilities with f4 coming. 14…0-0 15.f4 Qc8 16.Kh1 f5 Black wants to stop White attacking with f4-f5 etc – but regardless of the loosening of his position, White ploughs on with the attack anyway. 17.g4 Qe8 18.Rg1 Kh7 19.Rc2 Rg8 20.Rcg2 Qf7 21.Bd2 g6 The battle-lines are set: White is intent on an all-out kingside assault – but Black has a solid set-up, and any long-term endgame scenario will see White’s doubled d-pawns being a liability. 22.Qf3 Raf8 23.Na5 Rb8 24.b4 Nf8 25.a3 Na8 26.Qh3 Nc7 27.Nc2 Ne8 28.Ne3 Ng7 29.Nb3 b6 30.Be1 Rc8 31.Bh4 Rh8?! Black blinks first and starts to stray in a complex position, over-worrying about a kingside assault – and more than likely, it was Chapman’s turn to move here rather than Kasparov’s. He had a more ingenious way to allay his fears with 31…Bxh4 32.Qxh4 fxg4 33.Nxg4 Nh5! and the knight on the rim more than holds Black’s position together, while at the same time will look long-term to target the weak f-pawn. But in fairness, we do return later to this possibility, and I’d hazard a guess that, when it comes back again, it was Kasparov’s turn to move! 32.Bxe7 Qxe7 33.Rg3 Threatening Qg2 with the ‘heavy furniture’ crashing through down the g-file. Not bad, per se, but better was 33.Nd2! with the lethal plan of Nf3-g5+ or even Nf3-h4xg6. 33…Rg8 34.Qg2 fxg4 35.Nxg4 Nh5 36.Rh3 Nd7 37.Nd2 White now finds the ‘right plan’, but at the wrong moment, as Black has all the bases covered now with his strategically placed …Nh5. 37…Rcf8 38.Nf3 Rxf4? I’m guessing that at this critical moment in the game, it was Chapman’s turn to move again, as Black falls down the rabbit hole of a big tactical trap. 39.Nxh6!! [see diagram] Splat! 39…Kxh6 40.Rxh5+! Kxh5 No better was 40…gxh5 41.Qxg8 Rg4 42.Rxg4 hxg4 43.Qxg4 with White is not only a pawn ahead, but also has the vulnerable Black king to target. 41.Qh3+ Rh4 42.Nxh4 Qxh4 43.Qxe6 The problem for Black is that with the rook and knight attacked, there’s just no time to consolidate and safeguard his vulnerable king now left wandering around in no man’s land. 43…Rg7 44.Rg3! Threatening Rh3 winning. 44…Nf8 45.Qc8 Qf4 It just gets all too awkward for Black, as his position gets stretched trying to hold everything together. But something has to give. 46.Qh3+ Qh4 47.Qg2! There’s no answer to Rh3 snaring either the Black king or the queen – or even both! 47…Rf7 What else is there now? If 47…g5 48.Rh3 Ng6 49.Qf3+! Kh6 50.Rxh4+ gxh4 (Unfortunately, after 50…Nxh4 51.Qf6+ Rg6 52.Qh8#) 51.Qf6 wins just as quickly. 48.Rh3 g5 49.Qe2+ Kh6 50.Rxh4+ gxh4 51.Qe3+ Kg6 52.Kg2 The quick, clinical kill was 52.Qc1! – but I guess the spectre of possible backrank mate with …h3 worried White, so better safe than sorry. 52…Ne6 53.Kg1 Rf4 54.Qh3 Nxd4 55.Qc8 Nf3+ 56.Kg2 Ne1+ 57.Kh3 Nxd3 58.e6 Nf2+ 59.Kg2 Ng4 60.e7 h3+ 61.Kg3 1-0

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