John Henderson
By John Henderson

We didn’t have to wait long or even leave the country after the Berlin Candidates Tournament for the first clash between the world title combatants, as the dream opening round marquee pairing for the Grenke Chess Classic shared between Karlsruhe and Baden-Baden in Germany, threw up a very enticing clash between World champion Magnus Carlsen and Fabiano Caruana, the Norwegian’s newly-minted American title challenger.

And the big clash certainly didn’t disappoint one bit, with it turning into an epic hard-fought tussle between the two – and with both players each taking something away from the game. Carlsen outplayed Caruana in the middlegame, and looked set for victory in the endgame – but after an ‘inhuman’ slip in a fiendishly tricky rook and pawn ending, Caruana managed to survive; all of which left lead commentator Peter Leko to quip that “Magnus deserved to win and Fabiano deserved to draw”!

The crucial moment of the game came with today’s diagram, when Carlsen (black) played the very human-like move of 54…a5, only to see that it allowed Caruana to slip the noose with 55.h6, and a few moves later the game ended in a draw. And after being shown by Leko that instead 54…Rh7!! was winning, Carlsen first reaction to the commentator was “What do I know?”

All rook and pawn endings are notoriously drawn, so the old adage goes – but here, in the diagram position, it almost transcends into the realms of being study-like with 54…Rh7!! the only way to win, the idea only being easy to understand once you see the concept behind it. The point that had to be seen, was that with 54…Rh7, Black is just stopping the enemy pawns dead in their track, and only then do you push forward with …a5 to win, as White will soon run out of useful moves to play.

But while Carlsen was asking questions of himself after missing what surely would have been a big psychological win over Caruana ahead of their world title match in London in November, one player who did know what he was doing was the new upcoming Russian star Nikita Vitiugov, who stole the show and the early tournament lead with a modern-day brilliancy that’s sure to make the rounds of the newspaper columns and the anthologies.

Vitiugov’s stunning 21…Rxf2! was just the prelude to a combination running a dozen or so moves, requiring a whole series of very precise, yet very subtle, beautiful moves before he uncorked the sting in the tail with 25…Ra3!! that forced his opponent into immediate resignation.

Standings:
1-2. Maxime Vachier-Lagrave (France), Nikita Vitiugov (Russia) 2.5/3; 3-5. Fabiano Caruana (USA), Magnus Carlsen (Norway), Levon Aronian (Armenia) 2; 6-8. Viswanathan Anand (India), Arkadij Naiditsch (Germany), Matthias Bluebaum (Germany) 1; 9-10. Hou Yifan (China), Georg Meier (Germany) 0.5.

Photo: The main attraction was Caruana vs Carlsen – but Vitugov stole the show! | © Georgios Souleidis (Grenke Chess Classic)

GM Matthias Bluebaum – GM Nikita Vitiugov
GRENKE Chess Classic, (1)
Slav Defence
1.d4 d5 2.c4 c6 3.Nf3 Nf6 4.e3 Bf5 5.Nc3 e6 6.Nh4 Bg6 7.Bd2 Nbd7 8.Nxg6 hxg6 9.c5 This is somewhat rare, and invariably such big pawn chains from White vs the Slav never work, so long as Black reacts quickly to undermine the chain. 9…e5 10.b4 Be7 11.b5 0-0 12.Qa4? Either of 12.Be2 or 12.bxc6 is much better, as there lurks a cunning tactical point that Vitugov fails to spot – but he more than makes up for this miss later in the game! 12…Re8 It’s not bad per say, but there was a good tactical point why 12.Qa4 was bad, as now 12…exd4! 13.exd4 Re8 14.Be2 forces White down the rabbit hole of 14…Bxc5! 15.dxc5 Nxc5 16.Qa3 (If 16.Qc2 d4 17.0-0 d3! 18.Bxd3 Qxd3 19.Qxd3 Nxd3 20.bxc6 bxc6 leaves Black with a big advantage.) 16…Qd6 17.0-0 d4 18.Rfd1 dxc3 19.Bxc3 Qf4 and Black not only has an extra pawn, he also has the upper-hand. 13.bxc6 bxc6 14.Be2 exd4 15.exd4 Nxc5 16.dxc5 d4 17.0-0! This is the only solution now – but a good one, as White emerges with equality. 17…dxc3 18.Bxc3 Bxc5 19.Bf3 Rc8 The dust has settled and we have equality – but Bluebaum overlooks a very subtle tactical point in the position. 20.Bxc6? You can be forgiven for not understanding fully why taking the pawn was dangerous. Instead, White had to play 20.Rad1! Nd5 21.Ba1 and, despite being a pawn down, White’s bishop-pair are dangerous and Black’s pawn structure is weak. This should all end in a draw – but there’s a tactical resource missed by White. 20…Re2 21.Bf3? For reasons we are about to discover, Bluebaum had to play the very ugly 21.Be1 – but if he had spotted that this was the case, then he would surely have never have captured the c-pawn in the first place. 21…Rxf2!! It was a typical Slav Defence where, up until around move 19, it looked likely to fizzle out to a draw – but Bluebaum, unwittingly, has fallen hook, line and sinker into a very deep trap. But kudos to the Russian for this modern-day brilliancy, because it all had to be very precisely calculated. 22.Rxf2 Bxf2+ 23.Kxf2 Rxc3 24.Qxa7? What’s not to like here? You can see that was White’s thinking here – after all, he’s restored the material imbalance, has a dangerous passed a-pawn, and crucially now covers the a7-g1 diagonal. But he’s about to be hit by another tactical tsunami. Instead, he had to admit he stood worse, and try to limp on now with 24.Kg1 Qb6+ 25.Kh1 Qb2 26.Rd1 Qf2 where Black is a pawn to the good and has the better pieces and the safer king. 24…Ne4+!! 25.Kg1 The full impact of the knight sacrifice is that after 25.Bxe4 Rc7! White gets hit now by either a …Qd4+ or …Qf6+ winning after 26.Qa8 (If 26.Qe3 Qf6+ picks up the a1 rook.) 26…Rc8 27.Qa6 (If 27.Qd5 Qf6+ again hangs the Ra1.) 27…Qd4+ easily winning. 25…Ra3! 0-1 If it wasn’t for this very subtle finesse, White would be fine – but now he is lost in all lines, as he’s lost control over the crucial a7-g1 diagonal and resigns. The point is that it is not just the Ra1 under threat now, but his king caught in a beautiful smothered mating net after 26.Qxa3 Qd4+ 27.Kh1 Nf2+! 28.Kg1 Nh3+ 29.Kh1 Qg1+!! 30.Rxg1 Nf2#.

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