World Champion Magnus Carlsen has beaten his upcoming challenger Fabiano Caruana in Round 1 of the 2018 edition of Altibox Norway Chess, opening up a 36-point lead at the top of the live rating list. Magnus called the win “a confidence builder”, and what was only his second win in the opening round of a closed tournament since 2014 also gave him the lead as the other four games were drawn. Hikaru Nakamura came closest to drawing blood, but Ding Liren escaped again to stretch his unbeaten streak to an astonishing 73 games.
There was no question about the game of the day in Round 1 of Altibox Norway Chess, and it lived up to its billing!
Peter Svidler and Jan Gustafsson were again commentating on all the action, including the final hour or two of the Carlsen-Caruana game when the outcome was no longer in doubt. Needless to say, it was a lot of fun!
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While the main focus on the eve of Norway Chess this year was whether Shakhriyar Mamedyarov would play despite his dental problems, it seems there was a potentially bigger story involving Fabiano Caruana, who had to be persuaded to play:
Perhaps Caruana was finally feeling groggy after his incredible run of tournaments from March onwards. If he had pulled out it would have mirrored Sergey Karjakin’s decision to skip the tournament in 2016 after he won the Candidates, and might have meant that the last Carlsen-Caruana clash before their match in November was the first round of the GRENKE Chess Classic. There Magnus had looked certain to win only to find himself in a study-like ending which his opponent held before going on to win the tournament in style - advantage Caruana. This time, though, Fabiano couldn’t escape the champion’s clutches.
In what may be a sign of things to come in November, Magnus dodged his opponent’s Petroff Defence with 1.e4 e5 2.Bc4 - the Bishop’s Opening. Fabiano went for a rare line with 7…a5, but one his opponent was aware of. Carlsen commented later when talking to Simen Agdestein:
Basically White is not pretending to play for too much, but as you can see, although the position is fairly balanced the pawn structure is not completely symmetrical, so there’s something to play for for both sides.
It was a principled struggle as Caruana went for 12…b5!?
Both Magnus and our commentary team felt 12…b6 was the “normal” move, while after the move in the game things were heating up: 13.a4 b4 14.cxb4 axb4:
Magnus poured more oil on the fire by going for a positional pawn sacrifice with 15.Ne3 Bb7 16.d4 e4 17.Ne5!
The World Champion hadn’t gone for this lightly, but not because of what happened in the game – after 17…Nxe5!? 18.dxe5 Rxe5 19.Qd4 Carlsen’s only question was, “am I really better, or is my position just comfortable?” What he was concerned about was the exchange sacrifice 17…Rxe5! – “I think this was just completely unclear”. It does seem as though after that move Fabiano would have got an active position much more in his style, while in the game he was at risk of getting slowly asphyxiated.
It’s perhaps a sign of bad form – the midweek loss to Anish Giri can’t have helped – that Fabiano then tried to switch to active play at the wrong moment:
It’s true that Black’s options here, such as 25…Qa6, 25…Ba8 or 25…Qd8, are awkward and not greatly appealing, but Magnus described Fabiano’s 25…Rc7?, giving up the b-pawn to 26.Rxc7 Qxc7 27.Qxb4, as “insane”:
His position is unpleasant, but I’m really not sure if I can make serious progress. The problem was that maybe it’s harder for him to find a move… but when he went for this it’s just much worse.
In the game nothing was working out for Black, and his problems were confounded by another Achilles heel Fabiano will need to work on before the match – time trouble. There’s no increment (time added to your clock after a move) before move 61 in Norway, so Caruana was forced to make critical decisions on seconds. He kept fighting:
33…e3! 34.fxe3 Ne4! was the best try to muddy the waters, but when he made the time control with 6 seconds to spare he was simply two connected passed pawns down against the World Champion. The game went on and on after that, with Carlsen summing up, “Although I suspect my technique wasn’t sublime, there wasn’t really much that could go wrong”. Magnus heeded the advice not to rush in endings, and when Caruana finally resigned on move 77 he was three pawns down:
Asked about his opponent playing on for so long, Magnus commented, “maybe he wanted to give me flashbacks of my match against Karjakin, where I failed to win every winning position”, though mainly he felt it was just the done thing nowadays:
I think it’s more of a modern standpoint – you go for whatever chances there are. If there’s a 1% chances of winning the game you should keep going, even if it ends up with punishing you.
Our commentary team had speculated that Magnus was probably enjoying himself anyway, though it seems there was too much at stake for that. The man himself commented:
I wasn’t enjoying it, I was nervous. I didn’t want to screw up!
For a more in-depth look at the game check out Niclas Huschenbeth’s video below:
The result and the way the game went was a reminder of who’s who in the chess world for now, with the World Champion’s troubles in 2016/7 seemingly behind him. He now leads world no. 2 Caruana by 36 points on the live rating list – 2847.7 to 2811.7 – and wasn’t hiding what it meant to him afterwards when he talked to Simen Agdestein:
[Caruana] does to some extent seem to be a different player in these championship events from otherwise, so I know that I cannot expect to win like this every game, but for sure, to beat such a strong player is a confidence builder for me. He’s a pro, he doesn’t like losing, but I think he also feels that he can do better and he’ll put this game behind him.
On Twitter Magnus was more laconic:
He was referencing an English football cliché dating back to a football pundit in 2010 talking about the brilliance of Lionel Messi before asking, “but can he do it on a cold, winter night in Stoke?” Stoke City have just been relegated from the top division, but for years were famous for roughing up all-star opposition at their home ground. London is of course the planned venue for this year’s World Championship match. And Magnus is Messi.
Carlsen wasn’t getting carried away, though, and commented, “I think it’s a bigger blow for [Caruana] in terms of this tournament than for the World Championship”. In a way it’s a shock for Magnus, too!
As he commented:
It’s an unusual situation for me. I haven’t won the first round for ages, so I don’t know how to deal with it!
The other games had to play second fiddle, but they all had at least some spark of life. Shakhriyar Mamedyarov said his opening choices against Maxime Vachier-Lagrave were, “just to go and play chess, play on the board”. It worked out almost to perfection:
Maxime eventually sacrificed a pawn for compensation, but at the end White might also have played on:
The computer suggests 22.Qb4 or 22.g3 and feels White is better despite the b-pawn falling. Instead a draw by repetition followed with 22.Bh6 Qf6 23.Bg5 Qg7. There may have been an element of taking a repetition while you can, since there are strict Sofia rules in place in Stavanger that completely ban draw offers. Wesley So would later say, “It’s very unpleasant you cannot offer a draw”. The reasons Mamedyarov might not have fancied a long game have been well-documented. He was asked if he slept well:
No. My dentist told me the next days will be better.
Wesley So’s method of finally fixing a draw against Sergey Karjakin was to play on to bare kings, but perhaps the main action in his game came in the early opening. Wesley made use of an idea of his second Georg Meier to launch a striking queenside pawn advance:
Here he played 11.cxd5, and later pointed out that he’d prepared the trick 11…e4? 12.dxc6! exf3 13.Bxf3 Qc7 14.cxb7!, but added, “probably it only works in blitz!” Instead after 11…cxd5 12.dxe5 Nxe5 Black was doing fine, though Sergey felt he went on to misplay the ending somewhat and also got into time trouble, making the control on move 40 with just 13 seconds to spare.
Anand-Aronian saw something like the trick line above appear on the board, with 8…a6!?
Levon commented, “It’s nice for amateurs that you can take the time out to play a6!” Levon’s fellow countryman Hrant Melkumyan was the only player to try it before, in a game where he demonstrated the plan of 9.Bc4 Na5. Vishy instead went for 9.Bxc6, and accurate play saw the game soon fizzle out into a draw. The former World Champion explained how he’d been caught out in the opening:
I was just telling Levon that even though I was aware of this idea I wasn’t able to spend a lot of time on it, since there isn’t a sub-system in the Anti-Berlin that Levon doesn’t play. So I spread myself too thin.
The final draw was the one other absolutely full-blooded encounter of the day. With Black Ding Liren repeated something his opponent Hikaru Nakamura had played the day before, but 9…Qa5 was a novelty he’d cooked up for the Candidates with his second Wei Yi. For a while Black was doing well, but Ding admitted to simply having missed 18.Bg4!
He responded 18…Bxg4 19.Qxg4 h5!?, which Hikaru described as “a little bit crazy”. Soon Nakamura decided, most likely correctly, to go for a direct assault on the black king rather than play on the queenside, but the Chinese no. 1 hadn’t gone on a 72-game unbeaten streak without showing great determination in defence. Ding was even ready to seize the initiative after playing 30…Ng6?
There followed 31.Nh6+ gxh6 32.Qf7+ Kh8 33.Qxf6+ and a draw by perpetual check, but in fact the computer claims a win for White after 31.Rce1!. There was some confusion as to why…
…but it seems that Nd6 and potentially Nc8 are coming, and the e-pawn is stronger than Black’s play on both the queenside and kingside. It was very far from trivial, though, and the players struggled to find anything in the post-mortem either.
So the standings after Round 1 are of course that Magnus is top, Fabiano bottom and everyone else has half a point. In Round 2 Carlsen has Black against his past challenger Karjakin, while Caruana can try to give Mamedyarov more than toothache to worry about. It’s such a powerful field, though, that all the pairings deserve a mention: Ding Liren-MVL, Aronian-So and Nakamura-Anand are the other games to savour.