John Henderson
By John Henderson

It wasn’t all that long ago that some pundits were speculating that Magnus Carlsen’s reign as World Champion could be drawing to a close. They even ventured to suggest that he would also soon be replaced as numero uno on the rating list – but Carlsen defied his critics as only Carlsen can with a truly remarkable performance at the 6th Gashimov Memorial in Shamkir, as he went into ‘beast mode’ to secure first place with the luxury of a round to spare.

But Carlsen didn’t rest on his laurels at this point with a quick and easy last round draw  – far from it! The Norwegian ace finished on a chess-high with a trifecta of standout wins against tough opponents Anish Giri, Sergey Karjakin and Alexander Grischuk respectively – any which one of not only would have been a hard pick for the best game of the tournament but also three leading candidates already for Game of the Year!

After several spluttering performances over the past eighteen months or so, 2019 has marked ‘the Return of the King’, as Carlsen dominated the Gashimov Memorial to claim victory by a winning margin of 2-points ahead of his nearest rival, and with it, his fourth successive title. It also re-established Carlsen back in the all-time legends pantheon with chess fans once again comparing him with Bobby Fischer and Garry Kasparov.

At the closing ceremony, a jubilant Carlsen declared it to be “one of the best tournaments I’ve ever played, both in terms of performance and also the quality of the games!” It also went into the annals as being Carlsen tenth 2900+ tournament performance of his career, as his unofficial live rating once again shot past Kasparov’s all-time high of 2851, now at 2861 – and many are once again speculating about Carlsen breaking 2900!

This was also Carlsen’s third-best career performance. His undefeated +5 score equated to a 2988 TPR, third only behind Nanjing 2009 (3002 TPR) and the London Classic 2012 (2994 TPR). And as leading Carlsen number-cruncher Tarjei J. Svensen also noted – after his last round win over Grischuk – this is the World Champion’s 50th game without losing (+14 =36 -0), and his rating performance so far in 2019 being 2927 (+10 =12 -0). Yes, the King is back!

Final standings:
1. M. Carlsen (Norway) 7/9; 2-3. Ding Liren (China), S. Karjakin (Russia) 5; 4-6. A. Grischuk (Russia), V. Anand (India), T. Radjabov (Azerbaijan) 4½; 7-8. V. Topalov (Bulgaria), D. Navara (Czech Rep.) 4; 9. S. Mamedyarov (Azerbaijan) 3½; 10. A. Giri (Netherlands) 3.

Photo: Four-time winner Magnus Carlsen collects his prize at the Gashimov Memorial! | © Shamkir Chess

(Note: Friday’s column will feature Carlsen’s win over Grischuk)

GM Sergey Karjakin – GM Magnus Carlsen
Gashimov Memorial, (8)
Sicilian Sveshnikov
1.e4 c5 2.Nf3 Nc6 3.d4 cxd4 4.Nxd4 Nf6 5.Nc3 e5 6.Ndb5 d6 The razor-sharp Sicilian Sveshnikov has been a brilliant addition to Carlsen’s arsenal, and it served him well in his recent title match with Fabiano Caruana. This aggressive line started life as the Lasker/Pelikan variation, first named after the former world champion Emanuel Lasker (who first brought it to prominence against Carl Schlechter, in their 1910 title match) and then the Czech IM Jiri Pelikan. But it is rightly eponymously named after the Russian GM, Evgeny Sveshnikov, who arguably did more than any other player to popularise and promote what became his pet-line. 7.Nd5 Nxd5 8.exd5 Ne7 9.c4 Ng6 10.Qa4 Bd7 11.Qb4 Bf5 Carlsen deviates from the immediate 11…Qb8 that so dramatically broke the deadlock against Fabiano Caruana in their first World Championship tiebreak playoff game last November in London – but after a couple of repeated moves, and a little divergence, we get back into the similar territory of the drawn final game 12 of Caruana-Carlsen 2018. 12.Qa4 Bd7 13.Qb4 Bf5 14.h4 h5 15.Bg5 Game 12 Caruana-Carlsen continued with 15.Be3 – but Karjakin follows a recent improvement with Bg5 that was fought out in early April to a tough draw between the two leading playing engines, Houdini and Stockfish. But Carlsen views to differ on what the engines think here (see note to move 20). 15…Qb8 16.Be2 a6 17.Nc3 Qc7 18.g3 Be7 19.Be3 e4 20.0-0 0-0!? This is where we see the big divide between silicon analytical power and human logic, as Carlsen explains during the post-game press conference: “This particular opening is a special case. If you turn on the computer early on it says White is better, but it doesn’t say if it?s easier to play for White or Black. He’s a pawn up but it feels like the stakes are higher for him. I’m going for mate and he has to survive.” 21.Bxh5 Ne5 22.Be2 Qd7 23.Qa4 Qc8 Karjakin may well be a pawn up, but this position is just so difficult to play for him, especially as Carlsen, laser-like, now hones in on the big white-square weakness surround his opponent’s kingside. 24.c5?! It all goes so, so wrong for Karjakin after this misstep. Perhaps now was the time to bail-out with 24.Bf4!? Ng6 25.Be3 Ne5 (Black could try pressing further with 25…Bf6 but after 26.Qc2! White has consolidated his position now.) 26.Bf4 Ng6 27.Be3 and a repetition? 24…dxc5 25.Nxe4 c4! Not only threatening the immediate …b5 and rolling the queenside pawns up the board, but also eyeing up the even more dangerous threat of a …Nd3. 26.Nc3 b5 27.Qd1 b4 28.Na4 Be4! Carlsen piles on the pressure by exploiting his white-square dominance around Karjakin’s now very vulnerable king; the main threat being to circumvent 29.Nb6 with 29…Qh3! 29.Qd4 Qf5 30.f4? Karjakin simply cracks under the pressure. Carlsen felt his opponent’s best chance to try and survive the onslaught was with 30.f3!? Nxf3+ 31.Bxf3 Bxf3 32.Nb6 (If 32.Qxc4 Rad8 and again all of Black’s pieces are coming into the looming kingside attack.) 32…Rad8 33.Rf2 Qh5 and try to defend from here – and Carlsen’s assessment looks to be spot on, as after 34.Qxc4 Rfe8 35.Raf1! Bxd5 36.Nxd5 Qxd5 37.Qxd5 Rxd5 38.Kg2 Bxh4! 39.gxh4 Rxe3 40.Rxf7, with accurate play, White should easily be holding this. 30…Qg6! [see diagram] The threat of …Qxg3 mate, the hole on d3, and no forced exchanges offering a little relief (that would have come from the more accurate 30.f3), now all adds up, as Carlsen takes aim at Karjakin’s king. 31.Bf2 There’s no answer to the mating attack crashing through. If 31.Kh2 Bxh4!! 32.Bf2 Bf6! 33.fxe5 Qh7+ 34.Bh5 Qxh5+ 35.Kg1 Qh1#. 31…Nd3 32.h5 Qf5 33.Bg4 Karjakin is just hopelessly lost, waiting for Carlsen to deliver the killing blow – and just as bad was 33.Bxd3 cxd3 34.Rae1 Bf3 35.Re3 Qxh5! and White can consider resigning now. 33…Qxg4 34.Qxe4 Bd6 35.Qg2 Everything sees White going down in flames now. If 35.Qxc4 Nxf4 36.Qb3 Rae8 37.Rae1 Nh3+ 38.Kg2 Nxf2 39.Rxe8 Qh3+! 40.Kg1 Qh1+ 41.Kxf2 Qh2+ 42.Ke3 Rxe8+ and the king will soon be dragged to the middle of the board to be mated. 35…Rae8 36.Bd4 Qxh5 37.Qf3 Qg6 38.Kh1 Re4 39.Bf2 Rfe8 0-1 Karjakin resigns, as there’s no answer to the multiple threats of …Re2, …Re8-e3 and …Nxf2 etc.


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