John Henderson
By John Henderson

After the bitter disappointment of Fabiano Caruana coming so near yet so far in his recent World Championship Match in London against Magnus Carlsen, the speedy return to the UK capital for the London Chess Classic/Grand Chess Tour Final, staged at the offices of DeepMind within Google’s London HQ, offered the American world No.2 the conciliation prize of knocking his Norwegian conquerer off his coveted world No.1 spot.

It’s tight at the top between the two former title-combatants, with just three rating points separating Carlsen and Caruana in the world rankings. A win against fellow countryman, Hikaru Nakamura, in the opening game of their GCT semi-final classical match-up, and Caruana would gain four-points to supplant Carlsen as the new world No.1 on the unofficial live rating list.

And remarkably, at one stage it looked to be ‘game on’ for this scenario to play out, as Caruana had a very promising attack raging down on Nakamura’s kingside. But in time trouble, and in a very promising position, Caruana couldn’t see the wood for the trees as he failed to find the money shot with 26.g4! that would have led to victory, and with it, becoming the first American-born player since Bobby Fischer to be numero uno.

But it wasn’t to be, and as the position further liquidated, the game ended in a draw. And in the second classical game, Caruana’s Petroff Defence proved to be as solid as it was during his recent London match with Carlsen – Nakamura got nowhere fast with the white pieces, and that game also ended in a draw; the classical leg ending tied at 6-6 between the two.

And with the near 100 point rating difference between the two Americans, this equates to a little backwards step for Caruana, as the brace of draws has cost him a further two rating points. There’s now a five-point gap between Carlsen and Caruana at the top, and the defeated American title-challenger now needs to win his two remaining classical games in the GCT final/or the playoff for the 3rd-4th place to supplant his Norwegian rival at the top of the world rankings.

A very tall order indeed. So for now, it looks as if Carlsen is set to end 2018 still world No.1, which the Norwegian claims to be one of his prized possessions, even ahead of his world crown. In doing so, he’ll also equal Anatoly Karpov’s second-place standing of 102 months as world No.1, but still some way behind Garry Kasparov, the all-time record holder, at 255 months.

And with both classical games between the other semifinalists, Levon Aronian and Maxime Vachier-Lagrave also ending in draws, both matches will now go to the rapid and blitz to determine which two will contest the GCT Final.

GCT Semi-Final Scores:
Nakamura 6-6 Caruana
Aronian 6-6 Vachier-Lagrave

Photo: Demis Hassabis, CEO and founder of DeepMind, makes the ceremonial first move in Caruana-Nakamura | © Lennart Ootes / GCT

GM Fabiano Caruana – GM Hikaru Nakamura
10th London Chess Classic/GCT Final, (1)
Queen’s Gambit Declined
1.d4 Nf6 2.c4 e6 3.Nf3 d5 4.Nc3 Be7 5.Bf4 Despite losing, one of the big advantages of playing a recent World Championship Match, is that you come ready-armed back to London with your openings finely-honed. And here, Fabi continues the system he played against Magnus Carlsen that has impeccable English and historic roots, having been first played in 1887 by the leading English master, Joseph Henry Blackburne (1841-1924), and then played at the great Hastings 1895 tournament, regarded as the world’s first super-tournament. But the player who did much to champion this system was Hungary’s Lajos Portisch through the mid-1970s and into the ’80s. 5…0-0 6.e3 b6 A divergence; and something of a rare line here against the 5.Bf4 system. In the aforementioned title match, Carlsen played the more critical response of 6…c5. 7.Qc2 Bb7 8.Rd1 Bd6 We’ve now skipped from rarity to the realms of not seen before! 9.Bg3 Serious alternatives of 9.Ne5 or even 9.Bg5!? also looked promising. But with the retreat, Fabi is looking to tempt Hikaru into …Bxg3, where after hxg3 there are good prospects of a kingside attack and a hit on h7. 9…Nbd7 10.cxd5 Nxd5 11.e4 Nxc3 12.bxc3 Bxg3 13.hxg3 e5 This looks a little premature, as Fabi has an excellent response that perhaps Hikaru had either overlooked or underestimated. More prudent first was 13…Qe7 as after 14.Bb5 Rfd8 15.Bxd7 Rxd7 16.Ne5 Rdd8, and although the Ne5 looks good, Black will soon be hitting back by countering in the centre with …c5 and …Rac8. 14.Bb5! Forcing a passive move that blocks the …Bb7 in. 14…c6 15.Be2 Qc7 16.g4! It’s ‘Welcome to Awkwardsville’ for Hikaru, as now Fabi makes it all but impossible to play …h6 to defend against any possible ‘happenings’ on h7, as pushing on with g5! looks very strong. 16…Rfe8 17.g5 Rad8 18.Kf1! It is always better to be safe than sorry, and Fabi simply nudges his king away from any possible checks or trouble down the e-file. That said, it was tempting to cut straight to the chase with 18.Bc4, but the engines – with no nerves at all – see through the ensuing impending havoc with 18…exd4!? (The dangers were evident after 18…b5? 19.Bxf7+! Kxf7 20.Qb3+ Re6 21.g6+! hxg6 (There are no easy answers now, as 21…Kf6 walks into the crushing 22.Ng5! Qd6 23.Nf7 Qe7 24.Nxd8 Qxd8 25.dxe5+! Ke7 (There’s no hope. If 25…Rxe5 26.Qf7+ Kg5 27.f4+ Kg4 28.fxe5 will soon be mating.) 22.Ng5+ Kf6 23.Qxe6+ Kxg5 24.Rd3! and the Black king is snared.) 19.g6 hxg6 20.cxd4 b5 21.Bxf7+ Kxf7 22.Qb3+ Ke7 23.Ng5 Qa5+! Hence Fabi’s prophylaxis Kf1, removing the king from any checks, as now after 24.Rd2 Kd6! there’s no mating attack, and the Black king is running to a safe haven on c7, and White has to bailout now with a repetition with 25.Qg3+ Ke7 26.Qb3 Kd6 27.Qg3+ etc. 18…b5?! This becomes the source for all Hikaru’s coming difficulties, as he’s giving Fabi valuable extra time to ready the kingside attack. Instead, opening up the game kept the position competitive after 18…exd4!? 19.cxd4 Nf8! It’s the old Bent Larsen maxim: “It can’t be a mate with a …Nf8”! And here, Black has better resources and an easier game. If 20.Bc4 Ng6 Black is threatening …Qf4 that looks difficult to prevent, as g3 will only serve to open the long a8-h1 diagonal for Black’s bishop. So definitely a missed opportunity there for Hikaru. 19.Rh4 a6 20.a4 Looking to prevent Black playing …c5. 20…Qa5 This looks a tad risky, as the queen will be offside on the queenside while Fabi piles on the pressure with his kingside attack. 21.g6 hxg6 22.Ng5 Nf8 Compare this position to the note on move 18, you will see that this position is very awkward for Black to defend. 23.Rd3! It only takes one very good move, and suddenly there’s a threat hanging in the air of Black’s position imploding. Right now, the big threat is swinging the rook over to h3 to mate down the open h-file. 23…Bc8 The only way to stay in the game – but Hikaru’s kingside defences look very vulnerable now. One more inaccurate move from Hikaru and he’s toast. 24.Qb3 Qc7 A clear admission from Hikaru that his 20…Qa5 was a pure folly. In the space of less than six moves, Black’s position has gone from solid to downright shaky. 25.axb5 axb5 [see diagram] 26.Rf3?! Sometimes, in a time scramble, despite calculating a lot of good lines, we just can’t see the wood for the trees, and here, Fabi misses his golden moment to replace Magnus as the unofficial world No.1 on the live rating list by playing 26.g4! that renews the mating threat with Rd3-h3. The only slim hope Black has is 26…Ne6 27.Rdh3 Kf8 and attempt to run with the king. But it is doomed to failure, as now comes the breakthrough after 28.Nxe6+ Bxe6 with 29.d5! Bd7 (Herein lies the problem, as Black can’t capture on d5, as after 29…cxd5 30.Bxb5 wins the exchange, as the …Re8 can’t move due to the mate on h8.) 30.Bxb5! The same motif, only stronger now, as taking the bishop allows Qb4+ quickly mating again. 26…Be6 27.d5 cxd5 28.exd5 Rxd5 29.Nxe6 Still an option even now is 29.g4!? – but after 29…Nd7! 30.Rfh3 Kf8 31.Nxe6+ fxe6 32.Bxb5 Rb8 33.c4 Rd4 Black looks to be OK here. 29…fxe6 30.Rfh3 With the escape now on f7, this is now more of a pseudo-threat than anything else. 30…e4 31.Rxe4 Ra8 32.g3 Without missing a beat, the engines calmly tell us that it was safe to play 32.Bxb5 – but the time pressure was such, survival instincts kick in, and Fabi opts instead for an escape plan for his own king! 32…Qc5 The pendulum has swung now to Hikaru, who has made the most of getting his rooks and queen on their most optimum squares to threaten Fabi’s king – and right now, the threat of …Rf5 has to be stopped. 33.Re3 Ra3 34.Qb2 Qd6 More awkward for Fabi would have been 34…Qa7! 35.Rh4 Rf5 36.Kg2 Nh7! and, from nothing and from nowhere, suddenly all of Black’s pieces are massing for an attack on the White king. Of course, easy to see and say all this when you have an engine crunching it all in the background and you don’t have a digital clock metaphorically ticking down! 35.Rh4 Ra4 36.Rhe4 Qa3 The trade of queens releases the pressure and comes with the inevitable further liquidation of the position and a draw. 37.Qxa3 Rxa3 38.Bg4 Rc5 39.Bxe6+ Nxe6 40.Rxe6 Raxc3 41.Rxc3 Rxc3 42.Rxg6 b4 43.Rb6 b3 44.Kg2 Kf7 45.f4 g5 46.fxg5 Rc2+ 47.Kf3 b2 48.Kg4 Kg7 49.Rb7+ Kg6 50.Rb6+ Kg7 51.Rb7+ There’s no progress to be made here for White, as after 51.Kf5 Rf2+ 52.Kg4 Rc2 53.Kf5 and a repeat of the position. 51…Kg6 ½-½


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