John Henderson
By John Henderson

So it wasn’t to be a second so-called ‘triple-crown’ in the same calendar year for World Champion Magnus Carlsen, who got off to a simply horrific start to the $1m FIDE World Rapid and Blitz Championship held between the Christmas and New Year holiday period in St Petersburg, Russia. He lost on time in the opening round, then playing ‘on tilt’ against his round two opponent, unwisely began with the beginner’s favourite opening of 1.e4 e5 2.Qh5?!, and duly crashed to a second successive loss, as his wayward queen got trapped.

Carlsen did, though, rally to fight back over the remaining 13 rounds, but the damage was already done, and the title and first prize of $60,000 went to “comeback kid” Daniil Dubov, who was unbeaten on 11/15, ahead of Shakhriyar Mamedyarov and Hikaru Nakamura, for the biggest win of his career. Despite the setback for Carlsen, “Team Carlsen” did win a triple-crown of sorts. The resurgent performance on the world stage by Dubov came as he was revealed to have been one of the “unnamed young players” on the world champion’s backroom team for his successful title defence against Fabiano Caruana’s late last year in London, and Carlsen himself also went on to dominate the blitz championship (further details in Monday’s column), taking the title ahead of a spirited challenge from Poland’s Jan-Krzysztof Duda.

Forgotten star Dubov, who will be 23 in April, was an exceptional young talent who got his grandmaster title at the age of 14 and made a very creditable debut in the 2012 Russian Championship Superfinal, the youngest player ever to have played in this demanding tournament. Many commentators predicted Dubov was on the cusp of a major breakthrough as the new Russian hope – but while in the old Soviet days they would have protected such a “valuable asset” from a potentially damaging experience, the young Russian never really recovered his early promise after being “slaughtered” by Alexei Shirov in the December 2013 “Battle of the Generations” in Moscow.

But Dubov’s form looks to have taken a turn for the better recently when he was secretly added to Carlsen’s backroom team in London, and he’s once again brimming with confidence at the board. “If I have learned something from Magnus,” explained a jubilant Dubov after winning the World Rapid Championship title, “it’s that you don’t need to care about what people think…I was on his team, so probably he gave me too many lessons!”

Dubov’s title win was also tinged with personal sadness after a family tragedy that almost prevented the young Russian from playing in St. Petersburg. His 80-year-old grandfather, Eduard Dubov – a leading mathematician, international arbiter and honorary member of FIDE – froze to death on the streets of Moscow just two days prior to his leaving for St. Petersburg. “My family obviously supported me and we had a short talk, everybody told me I have to go and play. I did it. I can’t say it affected me dramatically. It wasn’t like I was in my hotel room crying, not the case.”

Photo: Comeback kid Daniil Dubov finally makes his big breakthrough | © Lennart Ootes / official site

GM Wang Hao – GM Daniil Dubov
World Rapid Championship, (14)
Schlechter Slav/Grünfeld Defence
1.Nf3 Nf6 2.c4 g6 3.g3 Bg7 4.Bg2 c6 5.d4 d5 The Schlechter Slav/Grünfeld is, as it says on the tin, a hybrid of the Slav Defence and the Grünfeld Defence – and usually a very tough nut to break down. 6.Nbd2 0-0 7.0-0 a5 8.b3 Ne4 9.Bb2 Bf5 10.Nh4 Nxd2 11.Qxd2 Be6 12.f4 Although this comes as the top recommendation from the playing engines, it is a thematic move – looking to tie down the e5 square – that is synonymous with the white-side of the Schlecter Slav/Grünfeld, with its roots being traced back to the late 1950s and ’60s. 12…Nd7 13.f5 gxf5 14.Nxf5 Bxf5 15.Rxf5 e6 16.Rff1 f5! Preventing e2-e4 and the game opening up for White’s bishop-pair. And with this move, the game really only begins to take shape for both players as they set out their strategic stalls. 17.cxd5 cxd5 18.Rac1 Nf6 19.Bf3 White really has to stop the awkward …Ng4 that comes with the deadly threat of …Bh6. 19…a4 20.Qe3 Qd7 21.Rc2 axb3 22.Qxb3 Rac8 23.Rfc1 Bh6! 24.Rxc8 Rxc8 25.Rc5?! A half point behind leaders Dubov and his fellow countryman Yu Yangyi in the big penultimate round clash, Wang tries to keep some sort of control of the position in a hope for a little advantage he can work on – but the reality is that he should have traded rooks on the c-file and halved out here, not realising that Dubov has an ace up his sleeve. 25…Bf8 26.Rb5 But Wang relentlessly tries to press for something more than a draw – and now it all backfires. 26…Rc7 27.Rb6 Ne4 28.Bxe4 fxe4 29.Kg2 Bg7 More clinical was 29…Qf7! 30.Qd1 Bh6 31.Qe1 (No better is 31.Qf1 Qg6! and now there’s the added threat of …Rf7 and …e3 crashing through for the win.) 31…Qf5 and with …Rf7 coming, it’s hard to see how White can survive the coming tsunami. 30.Rb5 Qf7 31.Rb6 Bh6! [see diagram] But Dubov doesn’t miss the winning-plan the second time of asking! The simple threat is …e3 and …Qf2+ easily winning, and defending against those threats allows other winning plans of …Be3, …Qh5 coupled with …Rf7 and/or …Rc2. 32.Qd1 Be3 33.Qf1 Qh5 34.Rxe6 Wang now realises that 34.Rb3 Rf7 is winning, so opts now to hang for sheep than a lamb. 34…Rc2! [Much stronger than 34…Rf7 35.Rf6 Rxf6 36.Qxf6 Qxe2+ 37.Kh3 Qh5+ 38.Kg2 Qf7 – Black is still winning, but there’s still a lot of work to do here to convert the win. 35.Kh1 Rxb2 The rest is academic, with just a little flurry of tricky moves in the ensuing mini-time scramble that Dubov easily navigates his way through. 36.Re5 Qf7 37.Rf5 Qe6 38.Re5 Qd7 39.Qf6 Rb1+ 0-1 Wang resigns, as there’s no answer to 40.Kg2 Rg1 mate!

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