Magnus Carlsen took the sole lead in the Croatia Grand Chess Tour with four rounds to go after finally beating Ian Nepomniachtchi in a game of classical chess. The Russian made one mistake, but it was catastrophic, and saw his position collapse in an instant. Elsewhere all the games were drawn with little incident except in Karjakin-So, where both players missed a simple tactic after which Wesley So might have resigned on the spot.
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If the players had been busy recharging their batteries on the rest day it didn’t really show in Round 7. Although there were the usual high-level opening debates, there was essentially nothing to report about the draws in Mamedyarov-MVL, Anand-Ding Liren, Nakamura-Aronian and Caruana-Giri. The balance never swung significantly in favour of any of those eight players.
Karjakin-So looked, on the surface, to fall into the same category, and when Sergey Karjakin went to the post-game interview with Maurice Ashley he may have felt the most interesting thing they’d have to talk about was his 6.a4 in the Berlin:
That eccentric move was introduced by Hikaru Nakamura against Levon Aronian in Zurich in 2015 and had been used to good effect by Daniil Dubov against Luke McShane just a few days ago in Netanya.
That wasn’t the topic Maurice was interested in, however, and he instead immediately confronted Karjakin with the key position of the game, where Wesley So had just played 20…Bd6??
Sergey took only a minute to retreat his rook to e2 for a second time in five moves, while, as he spotted instantly after the game, 21.Rxf5! was simply winning. After 21…Rxf5 22.Qxg4+ White regains the rook with a 2-pawn advantage and a horribly exposed black king. 21…Bxh2+ is better, but for a super-GM to see that White is winning after 22.Kh1! is trivial. How had Sergey missed it?
It’s psychological - when you show me this and say, “White to win,” I see it in one second, but when you play against a super-GM you just can’t imagine he can blunder something like this.
The centrepiece of the round, however, was Nepomniachtchi-Carlsen. The clash of the leaders was critical for the tournament, but it was also a grudge match. Magnus has gradually been extending his dominance of chess in the last couple of years, finally gaining a plus score against Anish Giri and Peter Svidler to leave Ian Nepomniachtchi as the last 2700 player standing who can boast a plus score against the World Champion in classical chess. Not just any plus score, however, but 4:0, and while you can argue two of those wins came in junior events, one was in the 2011 Tata Steel Masters and the other in the 2017 London Chess Classic. That may already seem like a long time ago, but since that game only Wesley So and Shakhriyar Mamedyarov have beaten Magnus!
So the incentive was there for the World Champion, and once again he returned to countering 1.e4 with the Sicilian. On move 3 Nepo picked not 3.Bb5 or 3.d4, as Caruana had in the London World Championship match, but 3.Nc3. The last two times that quiet move had been made against Magnus it had seen him beat Peter Svidler in the GRENKE Chess Classic and Levon Aronian in the World Blitz Championship, while Maxime Vachier-Lagrave, who had played it and drawn against Magnus in the 2018 Sinquefield Cup, also wasn’t recommending it. During the round he noted he “got into trouble” in that game, and commented, “[Ian’s] not worse, clearly, but I don’t think he’s better at all”.
Nepomniachtchi followed almost exactly the same plan as MVL, with one of the few differences being that Maxime routed his knight from f3 to e3 using the f1-square while Nepo used g4:
Magnus would later comment on the opening:
Basically all I can say is that it looks worse for Black than it is. There’s something nice about being positionally worse out of the opening – that at least in this case all the holes are already there, so you don’t have to worry about concessions because you already made concessions. It’s about me trying to get counterplay.
Nepomniachtchi is a famously fast player, but in this game he manoeuvred slowly and hesitantly, even if he came up with some bold ideas:
17.Qb1!? Be6 18.Qa2 was a double-edged decision. As Magnus explained:
He went for a very ambitious plan with the queen to a2 and so on. The problem, of course, is that his king lacks shelter, so the opening of the position is always going to be good for me.
Magnus said he “got very excited” when the position did begin to open up around move 25, but right up until 27…f5!? it remained completely in the balance:
“If I’d thought for longer I wouldn’t have played f5, and the game would probably have been a draw”, said Magnus, who also called the move “a bit silly” and an accidental “bluff”. The point was that after 28.exf5! Magnus had just assumed he was winning, missing that after 28…Bd4+ 29.Kg2 Qe2+ the king could simply take refuge on h3. He’d actually missed even more, as he discovered during the post-game interview, since the king also wouldn’t get mated on h1.
It didn’t matter, however, since Nepomniachtchi took just a minute to blunder away the game with 28.gxf5??, when 28…g4!, a move crying out to be played, left White with no hope of surviving an assault on the dark squares around his king:
Nepomniachtchi is a brilliant tactician and realised what he’d done instantly, so that 29.d4 Qh4+ 30.Ke2 Qh2+ 31.Rf2 gxf3+ White resigns was blitzed out.
As chess suicides go, that recalled the 31.exf5? e4 32.fxe4?? that Veselin Topalov had played against Vishy Anand in the final game of the 2010 World Championship match, when the Bulgarian was seemingly hell-bent on avoiding a playoff at all costs. Was Magnus using juju, as Aronian suggested earlier in the tournament, or had Nepomniachtchi simply cracked under the pressure? Magnus himself had no real explanation for his run of results this year:
I’m trying to play positions that they’re less familiar with, and it’s definitely a strategy of mine to play for the attack, but it’s a bit extreme how often it actually is working these days!
Watch Magnus talking about the game below:
And here’s Jan Gustafsson with a blow-by-blow account of the game:
Once again Tarjei Svensen was on hand with the stats:
The best insight into Carlsen’s phenomenal run this year
came from his father, Henrik, who explained to Maurice Ashley:
If we go back to the last period when he was doing so well, I think it took us some time to appreciate how much everything had been working together for him - that he had to be extremely focussed and determined, not by discipline, just by sheer will and interest and enthusiasm, in each and every game, and at the same time play with low shoulders and kind of draw upon the intuition he had practiced so much at home, without thinking about the outcome of the game. In addition to that, he was quite sportive, he was a happy young man in every respect. I think I could mention a lot of factors that all really pulled together. If there are one or two of these that are a little bit out of sync, then it’s difficult to perform at your theoretical max, which I think Magnus probably did 5-6 years ago, close to his, at that time, theoretical max.
And now I think he’s gradually understood what it takes and now he’s so focussed and determined to show his best and it’s been a gradual development over the last 12 months or so, he’s been gradually getting closer to where he wants to be. It’s of course extremely difficult to maintain this. Also over the last year the factors have been working together, so that I think already back in the World Championship match he played quite well, it’s just that he was up against a formidable and extremely well-prepared opponent, so it was such a tough match.
The standings with four rounds to go see Magnus in his familiar clear first, with Wesley So now in sole second place despite his brush with disaster:
In Round 8 Magnus faces a new challenge, with Black against another player he’s never beaten in classical chess. Talking about his tournament situation he commented:
It looks great at the moment. I have a very difficult game tomorrow against Ding, another Black, so if I get through that I’m in very good shape.
The other games include So-Nakamura, an all-US clash for US Independence Day. Don’t miss all the action here on chess24, where we’re going to have commentary in English, Russian, German and Spanish from 16:30 CEST!
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