A shaken Magnus Carlsen lamented how much he’d missed as his attempt to mate Shakhriyar Mamedyarov almost backfired spectacularly, but ultimately what he described as an “epic struggle” ended in a draw. In fact all games were drawn in Round 4 of the Croatia Grand Chess Tour, but only after some big misses, with Anish Giri surviving a moment of mutual chess blindness against Maxime Vachier-Lagrave. Ian Nepomniachtchi still leads by a point after being let off the hook by Sergey Karjakin.
You can replay all the games from the 2019 Croatia Grand Chess Tour using the selector below:
Let’s start with the by far the day’s more dramatic encounter:
Magnus Carlsen was making absolutely no secret of his intentions when he played 5.h4 against Shakhriyar Mamedyarov’s Grünfeld. The watching Garry Kasparov was a fan:
I love to see this h4… Magnus played chess that I wouldn’t say is typical for him, so it’s more like Tal, Kasparov, but not Magnus, but I was quite pleased to see him having such an attacking, aggressive attitude.
At first the aggression was richly rewarded, with Magnus describing himself as, “thrilled about the opening”, since one serious mistake by Black (8…b6?) left Shak on the edge of the abyss. A critical moment arose after 11…Bb7:
Magnus summed up:
After he made this move Bb7, which I thought was very strange, it was a weird situation for me, because I felt that if I play normally, let’s say 12.Bd3, it’s pretty much winning already after 12 moves, it’s just completely busted - he has no counterplay. Nc6 is always met by d5 and my kingside attack is just playing itself. The problem was I started to think, hang on doesn’t 12.Ng5 just win? And then I just calculated these long, long variations to convince myself that that was true, and I just missed… it turned out I missed a number of things! I knew that Ng5 is the kind of decision you usually regret, because it did feel like it would be just too much, but I just couldn’t help myself.
Others also noted the moment, with Mamedyarov commenting:
He gave me a chance, a good chance with Ng5. Maybe it’s a winning move, but you need to calculate too much and you need to be very accurate.
And Garry Kasparov felt it wasn’t a Magnus thing to do:
It’s not typical for Magnus. Everything depends on one move and Magnus is very good in just squeezing his opponents. Now I don’t know how comfortable he is at this very point. The way he plays, it’s not his game. Anything can happen in this game…
Why did Garry think he’d done it?
It’s more and more difficult to get promising positions without taking risk, so Magnus knows it. I was in this high atmosphere 25 years ago... When the average rating is 100+ points below yours, you have to take risks. I think it’s some sort of a conflict between his natural style but also his fighting spirit. He wants to win, and he knows he has to take risks. Again, I’m grateful, as I think we should all be grateful for him that instead of just trying to play for +2, +3 he’s fighting in every game. So I think he spends more time at the chessboard than any other player, and that’s absolutely phenomenal! Whatever happens in this game I’m really happy that we could see the World Champion taking this risk, and ready to play this very aggressive chess, because it’s not important for him just to win, but it’s important for the public to see that classical chess is not dead. It’s all about the attitude. If you’re willing to take chances and risk, anything can happen!
But it wasn’t abstract ideas but concrete moves that had driven Magnus. His choice was objectively the best, since after 12…cxd4 he had the move 13.Bc4!!. He’d looked at that, but couldn’t see the follow-up of playing Qb3, cxd4 and transferring the queen to h3 to pile pressure on the black king. Instead Magnus had been drawn to some other beautiful variations. If after 13.Qg4!? Black replies 13…Qc7 14.Bc4 Qxc4? (14…Nd7!) he has the beautiful finish 15.Rh8+!! (a move Stockfish curiously misses at lower depths):
After 15…Bxh8 16.Qh4 there’s no stopping mate. The main line of the World Champion’s calculations had been 14.Bc4 Nf6? 15.Nxf7!! Nxg4 and White could simply capture on d8, but Magnus was planning to make it a queen sacrifice for the ages with 16.Nh6+!!:
So a brilliancy prize was within Carlsen’s grasp, but as so often in such positions there was a refutation, with Magnus spotting 14…Qc7! there.
He felt forced to switch to a Plan B, and went for 14.Qh3!?, a move that wasn’t quite as bad as his opponent thought. Mamedyarov later commented, “after Qh3 I have an absolutely winning position and I start to think about a win”, while he wondered if Magnus, getting his jacket, was considering resigning.
In fact Magnus still felt positive as he met 14…Nf6 with 15.e5 Nh5 16.e6, but he was shaken by 16…Qd5!?, a move he’d overlooked. In fact the computer was crying out for 16…f6, while things really did begin to look shaky for Magnus after 17.exf7+ Rxf7 18.Bd3 Qe5+!
Again, Magnus had missed this, and the move White would like to play, 19.Kf1, loses on the spot to 19…Ng3+! 20.Kg1 Qe1+! 21.Kh2 Qxh1+. So Magnus played 19.Kd1, and admitted he’d been very lucky:
I missed just so many things here! For instance, I didn’t see that this check was possible, and it’s just insanely lucky that 19…Rxf2 20.Rb5 keeps me in the game. Or ok, the engine says it wins. I think, who knows? I was just satisfied to see that Rb5 kept me in the game. Obviously after this I had no sense of control whatsoever.
Magnus admitted he was “just trying to hang on for dear life”, but he managed, gradually evacuating his king to c1. This was the time for Mamedyarov to switch gears:
He could have played 25…Nxg2, forcing an ending as the only move for White is 26.Bb4! and 26…Nxe3 27.Bxd6. Magnus:
I thought Nxg2 he should go for with a better ending, but I felt that’s already a relief. I can try and hold that, but then after this I started to feel like I might win.
Shak, who was chasing the glory of not only being the last person to beat Magnus in classical chess but also ending his 70+ game unbeaten streak, instead chose 25…Bh6!?, and was soon worse. It looked like a perilous situation for the Azeri player, but Carlsen perfectly summed up both what followed and the game as a whole:
For me personally I was in time trouble for 40 moves, or 35 moves, so that really puts a dent on the quality. It was too hard, but it was an epic struggle, that’s for sure. It wasn’t a well-played game by any stretch of the imagination, but I had to admire the fact that he managed to pull himself together, at least a little bit. I would say at this point it’s very, very easy just to go down without a fight. That he didn’t do.
The players eventually drew in 59 nerve-wracking moves.
Watch Magnus talking about the game (and the rest of the day’s live commentary):
Here’s Garry Kasparov’s interview during the day’s play:
And finally here's Spanish Grandmaster Pepe Cuenca to take us through the game move-by-move:
Elsewhere there were draws as well, but only two, So-Anand and Ding Liren-Nakamura were relatively quiet, with Hikaru’s thoughts turning to the markets after that game against the Chinese no. 1:
Aronian-Caruana left Fabiano frustrated:
It felt like the game was going in my favour the whole way and I had much more time… it was a free advantage. It was a bit disappointing.
One moment where Fabiano had a chance for more seems to have been after 28.Ng1:
He played 28…Bh7!? (“It’s a bit too slow - I wasn’t really calculating, I was playing intuitively in his time pressure”) and after 29.Bxe4! Qxe4 30.Rc8! the game soon fizzled out into a draw. Instead 28…g4! looks to be the move, and after 29.Bxe4 Qxe4 Black has huge mating threats, though after the only move 30.Bh6! it’s still murky.
Garry Kasparov pointed out a dislike of murky positions might be a weakness of Caruana’s and one that let him down in the game against Nepomniachtchi. He continued:
Maybe nerves, maybe Fabi wants to compete with Magnus and he’s still missing something. But if you look at other players, I think Fabi’s the only one who could really give Magnus a run for his money.
Sergey Karjakin of course did give Magnus a run for his money in the 2016 World Championship match, but since then we’ve rarely seen the Russian hit the heights. He had a chance to make a name for himself in Zagreb by taking down the leader Ian Nepomniachtchi, who wasn’t thrilled with how he’d handled the opening:
I chose possibly the worst move order ever in the (Giuoco) Pianissimo, literally the worst, so this 8…h6 9…g5 idea works brilliantly.
Nepo was soon desperate, but he was to be handed a lifeline on move 24:
Karjakin went for the pseudo-aggressive 24…h4?, but after exchanging queens with 25.Qf5+! all White’s problems were over. Instead stopping that trade with 24…Ne7! looked like the way to go, although it’s true that things get complicated after 25.Qf6 Rhg8 26.Ng2. Still, an ambitious player would have gone for that, with Sergey’s resources including ideas like 26…Rg5!? 27.Qxe7? h4! and Black wins.
Kasparov also chimed in on Nepomniachtchi’s tournament lead:
He’s lucky! Lady luck could have strange preferences, so if you look at the quality of the games there’s nothing to be proud of, but at the end of the day, who cares? He has +3, and today he was lucky again. At move 10 he was already worse, and at one point he was just sliding downhill, and Karjakin could deliver, but he failed. So we’ll see. Again with Nepo, he can win many games, but he can start losing games. We know that’s his nature, but again that’s good, because it makes the whole event unpredictable.
Nepo didn’t disagree:
I’m lucky not to lose more points, but it’s a game and everybody makes mistakes. This is how it works, I believe!
The final game to look at saw Maxime Vachier-Lagrave deliver Anish Giri a belated birthday gift after all. The advantage had swung from side to side, but it all came down to one position, which you could pose as a puzzle:
This turned out to be an accidental bluff from Giri, since Maxime, who thought for 9 minutes here, could have played 34.Rxf4! and won. He explained afterwards that what he’d missed is that after 34…Rxh3+ 35.gxh3 Qxh3+ 36.Kg1 Nf3+ 37.Kf2 Rg2+ 38.Ke3 the white king can run and there’s no mate.
“Simple as that”, he said, before adding, “though there’s nothing simple about this position!” He elaborated:
It’s a 7-move line, and I just somehow missed it from afar. It also looks very dangerous for me. The point is in this position you’re not surprised that there’s going to be a mate for Black, so when you see it you don’t question it as much as you would in a normal-looking position.
Giri had missed something else, as he was tempted by the lines after 34…Rxh3+ 35.gxh3 Qxh3+ 36.Kg1 and now 36…Qe3+ 37.R1f2 Nf3+ when 38.Kh1 would allow a beautiful mate:
38…Qc1+! 39.Nxc1 Rg1# Alas, after 38.Kf1 Nd2+ 39.Ke1 Rg1+ 40.Rf1 it again looks like there should be something for Black, but there isn’t. Meanwhile in the game after 34.Nxf4? from Maxime, Black was better, but the players were soon shaking hands. Giri later quipped:
I attack so rarely, that whenever I attack people get really scared!
So a day that somehow ended in all draws left the standings unchanged except for the addition of half a point all round:
There are still two rounds to go before there’s finally a rest day (the Grand Chess Tour believes in pushing players, commentators and reporters to the limit!), and the key games for the standings in Round 5 are Karjakin-Carlsen, Caruana-So and Nakamura-Nepomniachtchi. Mamedyarov-Aronian always has the subplot of the huge rivalry between Azerbaijan and Armenia.
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