John Henderson
By John Henderson

The new season of the Grand Chess Tour got underway today in the distinctly sunny climes of Abidjan, Côte d’Ivoire. It also proved to be a monumental moment for the growing popularity of chess in the region, as with the opening leg being the Côte d’Ivoire Rapid & Blitz, this was the first time that a reigning World Champion has played in a tournament in Africa. And Magnus Carlsen didn’t disappoint the crowd!

Fresh from his latest conquest at the Grenke Chess Classic last month, the World Champion set the chess world buzzing once again as he started on a frantic pace with a brace of wins; one of which proving to be a standout game that ominously moved the on-fire Norwegian into the early sole lead on 4/4. But after being held to a draw in round three by the defending reigning GCT champion, Hikaru Nakamura, Carlsen had to be content to share the opening day honours with the young Chinese teenage hope, Wei Yi, with both undefeated and tied for the lead on 5/6.

Since his World Championship Match late last year against Fabiano Caruana, Carlsen has successfully adopted the Sicilian Sveshnikov into his repertoire. Now he’s added further firepower to his arsenal by reaching for the Sicilian Kalashnikov for a simply amazing takedown of Ian Nepomniachtchi that was easily the game of the day.

Back in the 1970s Evgeny Sveshnikov revived the discredited Lasker/Pelikan Variation (1 e4 c5 2 Nf3 Nc6 3 d4 cxd4 4 Nxd4 Nf6 5 Nc3 6 Nbd5 d6 7 Bg5 a6 8 Na3 b5) – and the Russian was so successful with this aggressive new treatment, that the variation was re-dubbed the ‘Sveshnikov’ in honour of his pioneering work. And like the Najdorf and the Dragon in the Sicilian, the Sveshnikov soon became popular at all levels of the game.

New ways were found to combat Sveshnikov’s pet-line – but for the player himself, the element of surprise was lost. So time for a change. He discovered that just by flicking in …e5 at move 4 White doesn’t get in the heavy-theory, desirable Bg5 move. It soon scored a number of impressive rapid-fire wins that the Dutch GM John van der Weil is widely credited with christening Sveshnikov’s dangerous new weapon with the clever moniker of the ‘Kalashnikov’, after the infamous Soviet-era submachine gun.

The Kalashnikov is basically an offshoot – so to speak – of its blood brother the Sicilian Sveshnikov. And like Sveshnikov before him, many pundits predicted that, sooner or later, Carlsen would also adopt this lethal weapon to mix things up for his opponents in the opening – and the first to be cut down in the crossfire proved to be ironically a Russian, as Nepomniachtchi seemed ill-prepared for it.

Day 1 Standings:
1-2. Magnus Carlsen (Norway), Wei Yi (China) 5/6; 3. Hikaru Nakamura (USA) 4; 4-7. Ding Liren (China), Sergey Karjakin (Russia), Wesley So (USA), Veselin Topalov (Bulgaria) 3; 8-9. Maxime Vachier-Lagrave (France), Ian Nepomniachtchi (Russia) 2; 10. Bassem Amin (Egypt) 0. (In the rapid, a win counts for two points and one point for a draw)

Photo: A ‘trigger-happy’ Magnus Carlsen mows down a Russian with a Kalashnikov! | © Lennart Ootes / Grand Chess Tour

GM Ian Nepomniachtchi – GM Magnus Carlsen
Côte d’Ivoire Rapid & Blitz, (2)
Sicilian Kalashnikov
1.e4 c5 2.Nf3 Nc6 3.d4 cxd4 4.Nxd4 e5 5.Nb5 d6 6.N1c3 a6 7.Na3 Be7 This was basically Sveshnikov’s little wrinkle that avoids all the heavy theory in his pet-line that came from Bg5. And with it, again Carlsen is making his opponents have to think more before they play him: Will they now get the Sicilian Sveshnikov, or will it be the Kalashnikov? 8.g3 The popular lines here, in order, are 8.Nc4, 8.Nd5 and 8.Be3 – Nepo’s choice is regarded as one of the more safer, though less adventurous options, just attempting to double down on the control of the d5-square. 8…Nf6 9.Bg2 b5!?N In the Kalashnikov, usually seen here is 9…Bg4, 9…0-0 or even 9…h5 – but Carlsen’s novelty just sensibly steers the game back into a more conventional Sveshnikov-like position. 10.Nd5 Nxd5 11.exd5 Nb8 Not really a retreat back to its own square, as after being redeployed with …Nd7, the knight will have an excellent outpost on c5. 12.0-0 Nd7 13.c4 0-0 14.cxb5 axb5 15.Nc2 Bad is 15.Nxb5?? Ba6 as White can’t play 16.a4 as 16…Bxb5 wins a piece with the a1 rook being pinned. 15…f5! Carlsen has “won” the battle of the opening skirmish, as his pawns and knight control the middle of the board. 16.Nb4 Bf6 17.Nc6 Nepo has a well-placed knight – but unfortunately, the knight is only attacking empty squares. 17…Qe8 18.a4 Nc5 19.Be3 There’s no time for 19.a5 as Black plays 19…e4 20.Ra3 (trying to prevent an irksome …Nd3) 20…Bd7 21.Nb4 Na4! and Black has a big advantage with the a-pawn potentially being cut-off, as well as b2 under attack. White could go “all-in” by pushing the a-pawn with 22.a6 but after 22…Nxb2 23.Bxb2 Bxb2 24.Ra2 Be5 Black is not just a pawn up, the White a-pawn isn’t likely to go any further, and his bishop-pair has great potential for a quick storming of the kingside. 19…Nxa4 Carlsen has effectively just won a pawn, as Nepo opts to generate activity by putting his pieces on good squares. 20.Qc2 Bd7 Nepo has a brief glimmer of a chance of perhaps saving the game now, as this wasn’t Carlsen best move. Far better was 20…e4! that puts the kibosh on b3. 21.b3 f4 22.bxa4? It’s the critical moment, and Nepo misses his best chance to stay in the game with 22.Bd2! as now 22…e4 23.Rae1 and a double-edged position with chances for both sides. 22…fxe3 23.axb5 Rxa1 24.Rxa1 Bg5 25.b6 Admittedly, the running b-pawn does look a tad dangerous – but the truth is that it is Black’s running pawns that are soon going to the danger! 25…exf2+ 26.Kh1 Bc8! A nice retreating move that stops the b-pawn in its tracks – and with it, Carlsen now finds a very attractive way to force a big winning material advantage. 27.Rf1 Qf7 28.Qe2 e4! 29.h4 The point is that the e-pawn can’t be taken. After 29.Qxe4 Ba6! wins, as also does 29.Bxe4 Bh3 30.Bg2 Bxg2+ 31.Kxg2 Qxd5+ etc. 29…e3! Now all the fun begins, as Carlsen ingeniously clears a path for his passed pawns the big game-winner. 30.hxg5 Re8 31.Kh2 Bg4!! [see diagram] An amazing concept by Carlsen, who sacrifices a second piece for both his pawns to majestically reach the seventh, with an extra queen soon appearing on the board. 32.Qxg4 e2 33.b7 Qxb7 34.Rxf2 e1Q Nepo is simply lost here – but with it being rapid, and Carlsen with just a few minutes left on his clock, the position is still tricky enough to justify his playing on. That said, Carlsen very efficiently now snuffs out any possible danger to convert the win. 35.Qf5 Qe3 36.Rf3 Qe2 37.Nd4 A good try with the world champion down on the clock. If Nepo can somehow quickly get in Ne6, he could possibly have some cheapo chances with a Qf8 mate – but Carlsen is fully alert to the dangers. 37…Qe5 38.Qg4 Qbxd5 The game is effectively over now, as Carlsen – aided by the little matter of that extra queen! – efficiently sweeps up now. 39.Nf5 Qde6 40.Qh5 Qg6 41.Qg4 h5 42.Qc4+ d5 43.Qb5 Qxg5 44.Qd7 In the event of 44.Re3 then this is where that second queen comes in handy, as now 44…Qexe3 45.Bxd5+ Kh8 46.Nxe3 Rxe3 47.Qb8+ Kh7 48.Qg8+ Kh6 49.Qh8+ Kg6 white has run out of checks and now the black queen and rook will move in to mate the white king. 44…h4 45.Rf1 Unfortunately for Nepo, the two queens prevent 45.Nxh4 because of 45…Qxh4+! 45…hxg3+ 46.Kg1 g6 There are many ways for Carlsen to win with the extra queen – but this is the simplest, as the knight has no safe square to go to that doesn’t end in the White king being mated. 47.Bxd5+ Kh8 0-1


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