Vishy Anand became the first player to win with the black pieces in Altibox Norway Chess 2018 as he beat Maxime Vachier-Lagrave to join Magnus Carlsen and Wesley So on +1 going into the final two rounds. That game saw the initiative swing in Black’s favour so fast that both players struggled to adapt, while elsewhere the balance was never seriously disturbed in three carefully played draws that left seven players still in contention to win the tournament.
For the fifth time in this year’s edition of Norway Chess there was a day of just one decisive game:
The draws were fast and MVL acknowledged defeat the moment he reached the time control, so it was a relatively short 3-hour day for our intrepid commentary duo:
Magnus Carlsen was scheduled to play Ding Liren in Round 7, which meant he got an extra rest day. He decided to spend at least some of it in the spectacular venue for the final three rounds, the Stavanger Concert Hall, giving a boost to the Norwegian TV analysis that had previously been powered by Norwegian no. 2 Jon Ludvig Hammer.
He shared some of his opinions on the players, including the man he took the World Championship title from:
It also happened to be the day when Vishy demonstrated some of that chess understanding. You can now check out Peter Svidler's half-hour video on the game:
Vishy played the Open Ruy Lopez with 5…Nxe4, and both players remained in their opening preparation at least until move 14:
Maxime said afterwards that he’d looked at the position after 14…Nxc1 and knew that White ends up slightly better, but Vishy’s 14…Nf4 is unlikely to have come as a complete surprise. Alexander Alekhine had played it in 1914, and was followed by such names to conjure with as Wolfgang Unzicker and Jan Timman. Play continued 15.Nf3 Bg4 16.h3 Bh5 17.Rc3 Ne6 18.g4!? (MVL: “After this it gets a bit double-edged”) 18…Bg6 19.Be3 a5!? (Anand: “It went very fast, because until here I’m trying to solve problems”) 20.Bc2 Bb4!
Suddenly the board was on fire, with the computer suggesting clever lines such as 21.Bxg6 Bxc3 22.Bb1! Bxb2 23.Qc2 – when White’s attack on the black king is probably only enough for a draw. There was nothing wrong with Maxime’s 21.Rb3, but it was met by the explosive 21…f5!. The French no. 1 later commented, “somehow I missed that after f5 I need to be in a hurry to consolidate my kingside”. The players’ both sensed a swing in the initiative:
Anand: Then suddenly here I had the sensation, what am I playing for? And I was already playing for an advantage. It went too quickly for me to adjust.
MVL: This was a trap for me – I just thought I was better or pushing most of the time, and suddenly I’m in trouble.
The action continued 22.exf6 Bxc2 23.Qxc2 Qxf6 24.Ne5:
Here it was Vishy who was first to sacrifice an exchange with 24…c5! 25.Nd7 Qf7 (Maxime visited the confessional round about now to say he was much more worried by 25...Qh4) 26.Nxf8 Rxf8:
Vishy was playing fast, and, like so many of his opponents down the years, Maxime made the mistake of doing the same. Here he had a chance to equalise with 27.a3!, but commented, “somehow it didn’t cross my mind that this was legal and not losing by force”. Play might have continued 27…c4 28.axb4 cxb3 29.Qxb3 Qf3 30.Qd1! and White should hold.
Instead he quickly played 27.Qf5? cxd4?! 28.Qxf7+ Rxf7 and here he had a second chance:
29.a3! Nc5 30.Rxb4! axb4 31.Bxd4! and again White seems to hold, but instead Maxime quickly played the losing 29.Rxb4? axb4 30.Bd2…
…and it was in this picturesque position that Vishy unleashed the moves Maxime said had completely slipped his mind in going for this line: 30…b3! 31.axb3 Rf3! and just like that the position was, as the Frenchman put it, “beyond repair”.
Now, too late, he spent fifteen minutes on 32.b4, but then the players again raced to the time control, and there was nothing left for White to do but resign:
It was mixed fortunes for the players, with Maxime now in sole last place on -2 and admitting that his thoughts have turned to the Grand Chess Tour event in Leuven. Vishy, meanwhile, finds himself level with Carlsen and So in the lead on +1:
Just like the game took a sudden turn, suddenly I find myself in the lead. It’s kind of random, so I haven’t given it too much thought.
Many of the players had spent a very pleasant second rest day (and kudos to Ding Liren for daring to step on a boat with a dodgy hip!):
That calm vibe continued into some of the games on Tuesday. Once again there were three draws, and once again none of them really caught fire. Karjakin-Aronian was perhaps the smoothest, with the players competing in what Jan Gustafsson called, “a trendy line of the Ragozin”. The chess24 database suggested Levon was the main trendsetter, since he’d played the position various times with both colours. There was a choice on move 14:
Here Sergey thought for 7 minutes and decided not to keep queens on the board, as Sam Shankland had done against Aronian in the 2015 World Team Championship, but to exchange queens as David Navara had done against Wesley so in the 2016 Tata Steel Masters. The players suggested micro-improvements in the endgame that followed, but it never seemed likely to end in anything other than a draw.
Sergey wasn’t too disappointed about that, since his main goal was to avoid what had happened in 2017:
I remember that one year ago we played exactly in the 7th round and I was also White, and I wanted to win very much, and at some point I overestimated my position and lost to Levon, and then I was in clear last place.
Back then Levon finished in clear first, while this year although he’s currently tied for first he’s played one game more and gets a rest day in the penultimate round.
Mamedyarov-So followed the Wojtaszek-Giri draw from the final round of Shamkir Chess earlier this year, a game that could almost be the poster-child for modern, accurate preparation where two players both know what they’re doing and cancel each other out. Giri’s 12…Qe8 is “somehow the computer move”, said Wesley:
He also "praised" Anish’s skills at using a chess engine (“Giri’s very good at pressing the spacebar”)…
Shak tried something different from Wojtaszek’s 13.d5 with 13.e4 g6 14.h4!?, and played it fast enough, it seems, to bluff Wesley: “Shak played very fast this h4 so I knew he had some idea”. Mamedyarov claimed he had no idea but was just desperate to kickstart his tournament. His overarching problem was that he was on -1, doesn’t play on the final day and has Black against Magnus in Round 8. His more immediate problem, though, was that Wesley played very accurately with 14…Nd7 and Harry the h-pawn never made it any further before a draw was reached on move 26.
It was a game that had enthralled some of the other players. MVL described it as “brilliant” during a visit to the confession booth, and Vishy commented that, “rather annoyingly my opponent made a move,” so he’d had to take his eyes away from it. On the other hand, Sergey admitted he’d had it all worked out at home, while although Shak was somewhat caught out he also wouldn’t have raced to the critical position in the game without knowing that there was likely to be a happy ending.
There was of course one possibility that you hesitate to bring up since there’s no direct proof - that the two friends had decided to make a draw and simply put on a little show for the crowd. The World Champion decided to go there:
Mamedyarov denied there was any arrangement for that game, but admitted that such things do happen.
Of course Mamedyarov would be far from alone at the elite level in having planned out such encounters from time to time.
That leaves Caruana-Nakamura, which reached a curious position by move 7:
Hikaru Nakamura was familiar with the position, but surprised to learn afterwards that he’d played the most prominent game in the line – Nakamura ½-½ Wei Yi from 2016. The excuse for forgetting about it was that it happened in the World Rapid Championship. Back then Wei Yi had allowed Nakamura to get in Be4, while Fabiano Caruana didn’t pause before discouraging that with 7…Bd7 (ready to meet 8.Be4 with 8…Bc6). Queens were exchanged on move 10, Fabiano made the first new move of the game on move 12 and perhaps the key moment came as early as move 14:
Fabi thought afterwards he should perhaps have played 14.f4 here, since after 14.Ke2 e5! Black had solved all his problems, and soon to avoid a worse fate Caruana had to go for a rook ending he described as “a bit sad”. He had doubled pawns and was on the defensive, but Hikaru concluded there were no winning chances and brought the game to an abrupt end.
That means the standings with two rounds to go are as follows – note Aronian and Mamedyarov have both played one more game:
The three leaders Anand (vs. Caruana), So (vs. MVL) and Carlsen (vs. Mamedyarov) all have White in Wednesday’s penultimate round and may all feel as though this is their moment if they want to fight for clear first place. They all face tough games with the black pieces in the final round and a playoff will take place if there's a tie for first after that.
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