Magnus Carlsen is known to have a dry sense of humour. Last year, the world champion suffered the biggest crisis of his career following a string of lacklustre performances ahead of his World Championship Match with Fabiano Caruana. And frustrated that he couldn’t break the deadlock in the match, when he was asked during a press conference who his favourite player from the past was, with a hint of a wry smile, he replied: “My favourite player from the past is probably…myself, three or four years ago.”
Well, that just happened.
The Norwegian was back to his vintage best by turning in a stellar Magnus Carlsen-like performance at the first major of the year, the 81st Tata Steel Masters in Wijk aan Zee, as he not only took the title once again ahead of the local Dutch hero Anish Giri, but he did so by also besting his own record in the premier Dutch super-tournament by capturing a magnificent seventh Wijk title.
Last year, Carlsen and Giri tied for first with the world champion taking the Tata Steel Masters title after a speed tiebreak playoff. And once again it proved to be a two horse race between the rivals, with Carlsen and Giri in the joint lead going into the penultimate round. But the tournament swung decisively in Carlsen’s favour after he relentlessly and very systematically ground down Jan-Krzysztof Duda to take the outright lead, with Giri lucky to have escaped with a draw against Teimour Radjabov.
But the two rivals still had to face each other in the final round – only this time, with no tiebreak-scenario possible between the two, Giri had to win for his chance to become the first Dutch player since Jan Timman in 1985 to win the title. But it wasn’t to be, as a very confident and upbeat Carlsen comfortably secured the draw with the black pieces to claim victory with his +5 unbeaten score of 9/13, half a point ahead of Giri, and both well ahead of Russia’s Ian Nepomniachtchi in third place on tiebreak.
“It feels good but I hope to be able to break the record again later!”, said a smiling Carlsen in the official Tata Steel post-game victory video. “I started a bit slowly but obviously plus five over the last nine is very good. Generally, my level of play has been stable. It hasn’t been sparkling but it’s been good.”
1. M. Carlsen (Norway) 9/13; 2. A. Giri (Netherlands) 8½; 3-5. I. Nepomniachtchi (Russia), Ding Liren (China), V. Anand (India) 7½; 6. G. Vidit (India) 7; 7-9. T. Radjabov (Azerbaijan), S. Shankland (USA), R. Rapport (Hungary) 6½; 10. J-K. Duda (Poland) 5½; 11-12. V. Fedoseev (Russia), S. Mamedyarov (Azerbaijan) 5; 13-14. J. Van Foreest (Netherlands), V. Kramnik (Russia) 4½.
Photo: It’s seventh-heaven for world champion Magnus Carlsen at Wijk! | © Alina l’Ami / Tata Steel Chess
GM Anish Giri – GM Magnus Carlsen
81st Tata Steel Masters, (13)
1.e4 c5 2.Nf3 Nc6 3.d4 cxd4 4.Nxd4 Nf6 5.Nc3 e5 6.Ndb5 d6 7.Bg5 a6 8.Na3 b5 9.Nd5 Be7 10.Bxf6 Bxf6 11.c3 Bg5 12.Nc2 Rb8 13.Be2 0-0 14.0-0 Kh8 Carlsen played this against Teimour Radjabov two rounds earlier, but Giri felt it “looked wrong”, as he thought Black’s light-squared bishop shouldn’t go to b7 in this structure. For this reason, he thought Carlsen wouldn’t repeat this line, but did look at it at home in preparing for the final round showdown, and admitted after the game that, while it always looks nice for White, it’s not so easy to prevent Black’s counter-play. So it seems that in preparing for his title match with Caruana, Carlsen has done a lot of good work in this line. 15.Bg4 Bb7 16.Ncb4 Slightly strange, as the more obvious – and safe – move looked like 16.Qd3 Ne7 17.Nxe7 Bxe7 18.Ne3 and White fears no danger with the Black bishop-pair, as his pieces boss the key squares of d5 and f5 – but there’s method in Giri’s madness, as he at least has to try to ‘mix it’ by unbalancing the position against Carlsen if he’s ever going to try to win. 16…Nxb4 17.cxb4 g6 18.a4 Again, the required move was 18.Qd3 keeping control of the vital d5 and f5 squares – but for some reason, Giri looks as if he’s miscalculated the position, as Carlsen has no risks whatsoever now, and even emerges with good chances of playing for a win. 18…bxa4 19.Rxa4 Bc6 20.Be2!? The bail-out move was 20.Rxa6 Bb5 21.Ra1 Bxf1 22.Qxf1 but White has more than enough compensation with the potentially problematic b-pawn. So Giri explains his rationale for the not-so-obvious move: “I’m supposed to take on a6 obviously, but he was sitting there, sort of so eager to go home, that I thought OK, how can I keep him sitting here, and I went for this insane Be2.” 20…Bxa4 21.Qxa4 f5!? This is one of those moves in chess that’s playing for all three results: Black intends striking up a rapid attack on the White king; it does come with an element of risk, though, and it all could backfire with White emerging with a winning endgame with the passed b-pawn; but likely as not with it being a Sveshnikov, it will all fizzle out into some sort of equality and a draw. 22.exf5 Rxf5 23.Bd3 Rf8 24.Qxa6 Bd2 Black could try and keep an element of tension in the position with 24…Ra8 but after 25.Qb5 Ra2 26.Qc6 Rxb2 27.Qc3 Ra2 28.Bc4 Ra8 29.Qb3 the attacking chances are with Black, but White’s heavily protected b-pawn is now ready to push up the board, and with it, a double-edged position where anything and any result is possible. 25.Qc4 Qc8 [see diagram] Carlsen, realising there’s an element of danger for him on the board, doesn’t like the idea of trying to force more out of the position than there really is in it. He explained that he could have tried for more, probably with 25…Rc8, but after 26.Qe4 Qg5 27.b5 Rc1 28.b6 Rxf1+ 29.Bxf1 Black will not be able to push home the attack due to the problematic b-pawn. Hence his preference now for the safer continuation, as it comes with no risks for him and a seventh title within his grasp. 26.Qe4 Bxb4! It looks like White is in danger of losing, but Giri just about has everything under control. 27.Nxb4 Rf4 28.Qc6! Rfxb4 29.Qxd6 The dual threats of Qf6+ and Qxe5 has to be stopped, and there’s only one way to do this. 29…Qf8 30.Qxe5+ Qg7 ½-½ Some may wonder why Carlsen offered a draw here? The short answer is that the world champion does stand better but after 31.Qe3 Rxb2 32.Rc1 with all the pawns restricted to the same wing, and so few pieces left on the board, it is all but impossible for him to profit from his material advantage – and there’s also the matter of always have to worry about the precarious state of his king stuck in the corner.