Reports Oct 14, 2019 | 10:27 AMby Colin McGourty

Grand Swiss 4: Magnus Carlsen’s great escape

Magnus Carlsen stretched his unbeaten streak to 94 classical games and 439 days in Sunday’s Round 4 of the FIDE Grand Swiss, but he’d never looked more doomed in all that time. He was dead lost for a dozen moves but used Vladislav Kovalev’s time trouble and his own resourcefulness to claw his way out. The World Champion is now one point off the pace set by Fabiano Caruana and Wang Hao, who drew their game and were joined in the lead on 3.5/4 by Luke McShane and Parham Maghsoodloo.

Vladislav Kovalev came incredibly close to becoming the first man to beat Magnus in a classical game of chess in 439 days | photo: John Saunders, official website

You can replay all the FIDE Grand Swiss games and check out the pairings using the selector below:

The game that had spectators on the edge of their seats in Round 4 of the Grand Swiss was undoubtedly Kovalev-Carlsen, which early on seemed to be going according to the plan of the World Champion. 25-year-old Vladislav Kovalev from Belarus had played an 8-hour game the day before, and it must have been an unpleasant surprise when Magnus followed 1.e4 c5 2.Nf3 with 2…d6, an invitation to play the Najdorf that he’d made only once in 2019 after switching to 2…Nc6 for his match against Fabiano Caruana. Kovalev spent almost 3 minutes before deciding, it seems, to play it safe, going for 3.Bb5+ and then a Maroczy bind system with a later c4.

Magnus played fast, for 9 moves following a blitz game he’d won against Etienne Bacrot in the 2017 Paris Grand Chess Tour - an encounter in which he’d allowed a passed pawn on d6 that turned out to be a weakness. Still barely thinking while his opponent struggled, Magnus played a provocative f5 and again let White’s pawn get to d6, this time with no c5-pawn to support it. It was risky, but how bad could it be?

The point of no return came after 23…Rad8?, a move with the obvious intention of eliminating the thorn in his side (23…h6! was the best try to grovel for a draw, preparing 24…Qf7 next move – 23…Qf7 immediately runs into 25.Qxf7 Rxf7 25.g4!):

Kovalev had under 20 minutes to Carlsen’s more than 1 hour and 20 minutes, and only one move that would save the pawn and avoid his being worse – but when he found it, 24.f4!, he wasn’t simply ok but winning the game!

Vladislav Kovalev could also have been the first sub-2700 player to beat Magnus in a classical game in almost 4 years... | photo: John Saunders, official website

24…Nxd6 25. Nxd6 Be7 was now no option for Black since simply 26.fxe5 holds on to the piece, and Magnus sank into a 22-minute think. It was already objectively too late, and after 24…Nxe3!? 25.Rxe3 exf4 26.Rxf4 h6 the only good news for Magnus was the clock situation. Vladislav burnt over half his remaining time on 27.d7 (a good move, but 27.Nxf6! might have made his life easier), and after 27…Be7 28.Ref3 Rxf4 29.Rxf4 Carlsen’s 29…b5! was a desperate attempt to muddy the waters!

This was perhaps the moment on which the game really turned, since Kovalev had some powerful options. Stockfish, running on the high-powered Sesse hardware, gives 30.h4! as an eye-watering +24.71 advantage for White, with h5 to follow. White can ignore the queenside for now. A more brute force approach was the plan of 30.Rf5! to be followed by Re5, and either winning the bishop on e7 or playing Re6/Re8+. Again, there’s very little Black can do.

Instead Kovalev thought 5 minutes and left himself under 3 minutes when he played 30.Nxc5!?, a clarification of the situation that didn’t alter the evaluation of it being winning for White, but was the first glimmer of hope for Magnus. After 30…Bxc5 31.Qxc5 Kh7 32.Qd5 he showed his plan of survival with 32…Qg5!

He was dangling the prospect of a promising rook ending in front of a no-doubt exhausted Kovalev. Again at this point 33.Rf5!, with the idea of Re5 to follow, was the way to go, though it was understandable that Vladislav would have some fears about allowing checks on his king. There was also another factor – to win the game he essentially only needed to reach move 40 with nothing altered, since he’d then get 50 minutes and would be able to calculate his way to glory.

To reach that goal repeating the position twice, but not three times, was to his benefit, but here Magnus managed to bamboozle his opponent. Play continued 33.Qe4+ Qg6 34.Qd5 Qg5 35.Qd6 Qg6 36.Qc7 Qg5 37.Qd6 Qg6 38.Qc7 Qg5 39.Qc6 and the World Champion, simply shuffling his queen one square backwards and forwards for 7 moves, had done it! 

To avoid a repetition Vladislav had allowed 39…Qe7! 40.Qxb5 Rxd7 and suddenly there was no advantage at all for White. Kovalev was understandably shell-shocked:

After the 8-hour game Vladislav wisely didn’t decide to play on with a token one-pawn advantage in the rook ending, but quickly offered a draw on move 47. Magnus had been in trouble a few times since he last lost to Shakhriyar Mamedyarov in Biel on July 31st 2018 – for instance when computers saw a mate for Caruana during the World Championship match, or when he lost a piece against Ding Liren in the 2018 European Club Championship – but it had never looked like such a certain point for his opponent as here. The streak goes on, however, and it’s now 94 classical games unbeaten. All that was left was the post-mortem:

Of course a draw wasn’t a result Magnus would have particularly welcomed at the start of the day, but it left him only a point off the pace after the leaders Fabiano Caruana and Wang Hao drew their clash. Fabiano again used an idea against the Petroff that Peter Svidler had played against Vassily Ivanchuk all the way back in 2007. We mentioned it in our article on Tata Steel Chess Round 2 earlier this year, when Svidler was proud that Anand had employed it:

Fabi may have missed a chance to implement Svidler’s idea with 27.b4! or 28.b4! and while trying to squeeze out something he actually flirted with danger before a draw was agreed on move 46. He would say later that he felt more licence to take risks in open tournaments, since, “if things go wrong I have more of a chance of not being punished”. He could have been talking about Magnus, and indeed he agreed with Magnus that it was strange he was able to play in the tournament at all: “I wouldn’t complain if next year they said a player who’s qualified isn’t allowed to play”.

19-year-old Parham Maghsoodloo's rise has been a little bumpier than that of his Iranian colleage Alireza Firouzja, but he could make a big statement on the Isle of Man | photo: John Saunders, official website 

That draw was a chance for the chasing pack, and it was seized upon by World Junior Champion Parham Maghsoodloo (this year’s World Junior Championship starts tomorrow!), who beat Vidit with remarkable ease. It was impressive how confidently Parham went for an opposite-coloured bishop ending which he correctly judged to be winning.

Parham is joined by Luke McShane, whose f5 was a star move for a second day in a row, but this time with the white pieces!

The English grandmaster followed up with 17…Re8 18.fxe6 fxe6 19.e5! and the attack went like clockwork against the “beast” Adhiban. Another beast awaits in Round 5, as Luke has White against Caruana.

Even Adhiban couldn't hold Luke McShane in this form | photo: John Saunders, official website

Nikita Vitiugov, fresh from his World Cup heroics, could have joined those four leaders, but he allowed Ivan Cheparinov an escape of Magnus-like proportions:

Nikita had done everything right with Black and here needed to play 32…Qh6! first, forcing 33.Rg2, and only then 33…Re3! Instead he rushed with 32…Re3 and after 33.Rff3! the game ended up fizzling out into an opposite-coloured bishop ending. Vitiugov fought on to move 87 trying to exploit his extra pawns, but it was all in vain.

Nikita Vitiugov was a move away from joining the leaders | photo: John Saunders, official website

As always there’s too much to summarise, so let’s just note that Sergey Karjakin and Levon Aronian’s acceleration continues as they followed wins in Round 3 by beating Anton Demchenko and Sam Sevian respectively in Round 4 to move to 3/4. Another player on that score is Boris Gelfand, who beat Egypt’s Adly Ahmed to get the chance to face another player from his generation in Round 5, Alexey Dreev:

One game that was a curiosity was Ponomariov-Jobava, since you might have thought Ruslan Ponomariov had burned his novelty 16.Ng6! with a tweet after his World Cup exit:

Whether Baadur Jobava had missed that or simply liked the resulting positions he ended up losing a brilliant attacking game to Ponomariov!

Peter Leko won a fine game against Indian prodigy Nihal Sarin, but got a dubious “reward” – the black pieces against his student 14-year-old Vincent Keymer in Round 5!

Vincent has had an excellent start – draws against Kryvoruchko, Saric and Eljanov and a win against Sjugirov – and is well on course finally to score the last norm he needs to become a grandmaster. But could Leko put a dent in his own student’s chances? Or can Vincent dent the hopes of Peter getting a surprise chance to qualify for the World Championship again (Leko in the Candidates after 5 months to prepare could still be a formidable force!)? Our money’s on a quiet draw between players who know too many of each other's secrets.

In other pairings it’s McShane-Caruana and Wang Hao-Maghsoodloo at the top, while Magnus takes on Ganguly with the white pieces on board 11. Tune into all the live action here on chess24 from 16:00 CEST!

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