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Reports Sep 13, 2021 | 2:32 PMby Colin McGourty

Norway Chess 5: Karjakin takes down Carlsen

Sergey Karjakin played a brilliant exchange sacrifice on the way to defeating Magnus Carlsen in a classical game for the first time since Game 8 of their World Championship match in 2016. It was a dramatic turnaround for Sergey, who the day before had lost to Ian Nepomniachtchi after reacting badly to a novelty. In Round 5 Nepo overcame Richard Rapport in Armageddon, while a gamble from Alireza Firouzja paid off with a classical win over Aryan Tari.

It wasn't clear who won the first opening battle, but Sergey won the war | photo: Lennart Ootes, Norway Chess

You can replay all the games from Norway Chess 2021 using the selector below.

And here’s the day’s live commentary from Judit Polgar and Dirk Jan ten Geuzendam. 

Sergey Karjakin and Alireza Firouzja scored the maximum three points for winning their Round 5 matches in classical chess, while Ian Nepomniachtchi took 1.5 points for drawing the classical game but winning in Armageddon.

Karjakin 1-0 Carlsen

The loneliest game for Nepo and Karjakin on the rest day | photo: Lennart Ootes, Norway Chess

Saturday was supposed to be the only rest day in Norway Chess 2021, but there was unfinished business after the Round 1 match between Ian Nepomniachtchi and Sergey Karjakin had been postponed due to Nepo’s late arrival. So they played on the rest day, with things going about as badly as they could for the 2016 World Championship challenger. Here he is talking after Round 5: 

I’m very happy and also it was very important for me to play well today after yesterday’s terrible game. Everyone was having a rest day, everyone was relaxing, and I came and I lost terribly, and so no rest day, spoiled mood, just everything so bad, and of course it was very, very difficult after yesterday’s game. Thanks to Galiya, my wife, for her support, because otherwise I don’t know what I would do. 

Until move 9 the players were following a draw Sergey had made with the black pieces against Maxime Vachier-Lagrave in the recent FIDE World Cup, and there were probably few people expecting anything other than a draw from another Berlin Endgame. 16.Nce4 instead of 16.g4 didn’t look like a dramatic improvement, but after 16…c5 Nepo uncorked 17.Nf6!, an idea found by his second Vladimir Potkin.

17…gxf6 seems to be playable, but it was also tempting to evacuate the attacked bishop on e6. The computer suggests the odd-looking 17…Bc4! as the best move in the position, but instead, after 21 minutes of thought, Sergey went for 17…Bxa2?, when Ian said his notes simply commented, 18.b3! 1-0.

It’s not even so much that the bishop is trapped, but that it no longer defends the f7-square, with Sergey having nothing better than the ugly 18…Kc8 19.Nxf7 Rg6

Here 20.Nh8! forced Sergey to give up the exchange with 20…Rxf6, and ultimately even the famed Minister of Defence was unable to hold the position. Ian said his opponent told him afterwards that he’d looked at Bxa2 initially, realised it didn’t work because of b3, but then forgotten that information when he later returned to the move.

So Sergey was in a tough place going into a game against Magnus Carlsen, commenting:

I was very angry after yesterday’s game. For today’s game actually, honestly speaking, I almost didn’t prepare, because I thought, ok, let’s go, let’s fight, and we’ll see, because Magnus could play anything. I felt like he might try to go for some complicated lines, and I thought fresh air, fresh brains could be the best way for me today, and then the position could go any way. It was very much double-edged and probably objectively Black was very much fine, but the position was crazy. 

In hindsight some preparation for the opening "handshake" might have come in useful!

What we saw was a repeat of the Sveshnikov Sicilian that Magnus championed in the 2018 World Championship match against Fabiano Caruana, with the position up to 14.Nc3 following the 2nd rapid game that Magnus won on the day he took the title.

Magnus played 14…a5 in that game, then 14…f5 to beat Jorden van Foreest in the following Tata Steel Masters, while this time he opted for 14…Be7. As we saw in the match and afterwards, Magnus has a wonderful feel for the positions, and when Sergey accepted the challenge of taking a pawn on h5 it looked as though he was going to be the latest player to suffer at the World Champion’s hands. 

Until, that is, 24.Rc6! appeared on the board.

It was partly born of desperation, with Sergey explaining:

Actually I didn’t see what else I could do, because otherwise he wants to play g6, Bf3, e4 and then e3, and it might just get very bad for me, and after Rc6 i thought it’s interesting, I thought that I might get some play.

As Sergey himself pointed out, it seems the best option was for Magnus to ignore the sacrifice, for instance by preparing g6, Bf3, e4 with 24…Re8, but he also felt 24…Bxc6!? 25.dxc6 Rc4 was a logical continuation. 

The problem was that the c6-pawn never dropped, with 26.a4! causing Magnus to lose his way after 26…Nd4!? (26…Rxa4) 27.Nxd4 Bxd4 28.axb5.

Perhaps Magnus had originally thought he could play 28…Rxc6 here, only to spot it runs into trouble after 29.Be7, but now was the time to defend against the white passed pawns with 28…Rc5! There are some tricky lines, but in the game after 28…d5? 29.Rc1! Rxc1+ 30.Bxc1 Qb6 31.Be3! Sergey felt he was already much better and "the question was will I be precise or not".

The game came off the rails for Magnus | photo: Lennart Ootes, Norway Chess

The answer was “yes and no”. Sergey found some excellent moves, but according to the computer the position kept oscillating between completely won for White and a draw. For instance, the penultimate chance for Magnus came after 42.Qf3.

Here it turns out 42…f5! holds. After a queen exchange on c3 the black pawn queens faster and Black can give perpetual check, while 43.b6 can be met by 43…Qc2+ 44.Qf2 Qe4+, picking up the c6-pawn. How tricky it all is is shown if Sergey played 44.Kh3 instead there, when only 44…g5! draws — Black has to open up the white king and give perpetual check before the pawns advance. 

It was the kind of defence Magnus might have found if he had more than five minutes on his clock, but as it was he played 42…Qb4?, and after 43.Kh3? Qd6? (43…Qe1! was the last chance) there were no more swings.

That didn’t mean it was simple, however, since Magnus went for a queen exchange line that Sergey pointed out came very close to drawing.

48.c7? is the natural move, but Sergey explained that after 48…Rxb3 49.c8=Q Rxb5 Black does seem to have a fortress. Instead Sergey correctly went for 48.b6! Rxb3 49.b7 Rb6 and here the last star move of the game:

50.h5! Sergey commented:

h5 was I think the only move to win, because otherwise if I promote the queen he’ll play Rb5, and then he controls the 5th rank and I think it’s a draw, so it was the only way to win. And I think that if I play f5, he takes, I think it’s also a draw, at least if he puts the rook on the 6th rank, so h5 is clearly the way to play.

Seeing such things clearly at such a stage of such a high-profile game is anything but easy, but from here on it was straightforward. Magnus stumbled on with 50…gxh5 51.Kh3 Rxc6 52.b8=Q Rc5 but it was a sad position for a man who had said he didn't believe in fortresses during his World Championship match against Sergey. 

A couple more extremely precise moves, 53.Qb2+! f6 54.Kh4! and Magnus resigned, ending his 4-game drawing streak in just the way he wouldn’t have wanted.

So as you can see, it was far from a perfect game, but nevertheless it was a fantastic battle full of moments of brilliance from both sides. Sergey summed up:

I think that he went for a big fight and anything could happen, and also for his tournament situation he wanted to fight, so it was normal. It could go a different way, he could play a very good game, he could win, and then everyone would say, good decision, right decision, so it just depends on his form, so maybe today he didn’t play his best chess.

Another player who felt he had to get his tournament going was Alireza Firouzja, and he had more success against Aryan Tari. 

Firouzja 1-0 Tari

Alireza Firouzja got some assistance for his first move | photo: Lennart Ootes, Norway Chess

Firouzja beat Tari twice in classical chess in 2020 on his way to second place in Norway Chess, and it was clear he would be out to do the same this year. It was looking good for Alireza when Aryan played 17…d5?! and later confessed he’d overlooked his opponent's reply, but the advantage evaporated until the computer was giving 0.00 and the players were repeating moves. Then Alireza gambled with 25.Kh1?!

He explained:

Earlier I thought I have some advantage but then I messed up, but ok, I didn’t want a draw anyway, because the tournament situation is not letting me do this, so I thought I have to go for it anyway. 

It could have backfired badly, since after 25…Bc4! there are no comfortable squares for the white queen (26.Qe4 runs into 26…Bd3!). Instead, however, Aryan quickly played 25…Ng6? and after 26.Qxe8+ Rxe8 27.Rxe8+ White was on top. Aryan hadn’t been surprised by Alireza playing on, but had missed his potentially winning reply. 

I thought Ng6 was the only move — I didn’t see Bc4. If I would see any other move I would not play Ng6, but after he plays Qxe8+ he gets two rooks and it’s probably difficult for Black, because my king is very weak.

It’s perhaps worth noting in passing that 25…Bb8 was also a much better option for Black than the move in the game. 

In what followed Alireza demonstrated just how powerful a pair of rooks can be, with the final position summing things up.

Since the g6-knight is pinned White is threatening either to double up his rooks on the 8th or the 7th rank. It was as good a time as any to resign.

Aryan summed up his tournament at the halfway mark:

It’s better than the previous one… That’s not so difficult, that it’s better than the previous one, because that was the worst tournament ever!

Alireza was also less than thrilled with his event:

The first half unfortunately was not so great for me, but it could have been better, of course. Anyway, I managed to get some points at least, and I think the second half will see very interesting and fighting games, hopefully.

Alireza starts the second half of the event with the black pieces against Magnus Carlsen.

Nepomniachtchi 1/2-1/2 Rapport (Ian won in Armageddon)

Magnus takes a look at Nepo-Rapport | photo: Lennart Ootes, Norway Chess

The final match-up featured openings that at least formerly were considered somewhat dubious. Ian began by playing 1.Nf3 d5 2.d4 Nf6 3.Bf4, with that last move the signature move of the London System. Ian commented:

Well, I just decided to join the London club, so for the first time I guess in my life in a classical game I played a London-like system, and I guess he reacted quite well, or it was my lack of experience. 

Perhaps one ulterior motive was to give Magnus Carlsen’s camp something new to worry about in the run-up to the World Championship match, while in Stavanger the game never quite caught fire, with Richard Rapport defending accurately when required. It was one of those games were there was more happening under the surface:

Certainly it helped that I had enough time to solve all the problems, and then it seems quiet, but actually there was lots of calculation required for both of us.

Then for Armageddon Richard replied to 1.e4 with 1…d5, the Scandinavian, which had worked well for him against Sergey Karjakin.“I played the Scandinavian yet again, for luck, but it didn’t work!” said Richard, with Ian noting, “his Scandinavian choice worked great against Sergey, but once an opponent can prepare for the Scandinavian there is a slightly different story”. 

Richard felt his position was bad but should be holdable until he played 16…Bd5?, which was met by 17.Re3

The huge threat is simply c4, trapping the bishop, a threat that was renewed after 17…b5 18.b3. Here Richard came up an inventive defence linked to giving up his queen: 18…Qh2!? (giving the bishop the g2-square) 19.Rg3 Ne4 20.Rh3 Nxd2 21.Rxh2 Nf3+ 22.Kd1 Nxh2 23.Kc1 Nxf1 24.Qxf1

Nepo felt White was completely winning here and that he was never in any real danger of not bringing home the victory, while Richard lamented some chances to put up more resistance. You can see the details in Richard’s interview above, though the executive summary is that the computer has as little belief in the fortresses as Ian. 

A great day for the Russian players | photo: Lennart Ootes, Norway Chess

It was therefore another of those mixed days for Richard, where he hadn’t won the match but his draw in classical chess ensured he remained the tournament leader.

Ian regretted some missed chances against Firouzja and Tari, but his focus is on the World Championship match:

For me it’s more about training, and from this part I’m of course satisfied, because it’s ten games in a row — very nice and priceless experience in our times!

The curiosity for Round 6 is that Karjakin has an early chance for revenge against his countryman. Carlsen is sure to be keen to get his tournament back on track (he’s dropped 12.6 rating points so far) and continue to signal “not yet” to Firouzja, while Rapport may feel his best chance of winning the event is to beat underdog Aryan Tari before facing the big guns again in the final four rounds.

Judit and Dirk will be joined by David Howell for Round 6. Don’t miss all the action right here on chess24 from 11:00 ET/17:00 CEST!

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