Fabiano Caruana missed a golden chance to mate Magnus Carlsen in their classical game, but he still went on to win the Armageddon and become the only player to defeat the World Champion in a mini-match in Altibox Norway Chess 2019. That spoiled the Norwegian’s day, but not his tournament, which he still won by 3 points ahead of Levon Aronian and Yu Yangyi. We take a look at 7 conclusions from the event.
You can replay all the games from Altibox Norway Chess 2019 using the selector below:
Let’s get to the conclusions:
Magnus Carlsen was the runaway winner, claiming the Norway Chess title with a round to spare, but fortunately for tournament intrigue we still had the best possible pairing for the final round: Caruana vs. Carlsen. World no. 2 Fabiano Caruana beat MVL in classical chess in Round 2, but otherwise he had a difficult start, losing the classical game to Ding Liren as well as three Armageddons. He needed a boost, and he got it from his opponent’s blunder in Round 6: “All I needed was for Grischuk to give me a free bishop!”
After that Caruana beat Vishy Anand in Armageddon after almost winning their classical game and then defeated Levon Aronian in classical chess in the penultimate round. It was the perfect moment to be facing Magnus, and Fabiano carried that momentum into the match. Peter Svidler has analysed all the action:
Instead of the Nd5 Sveshnikov Sicilian we've all become so familiar with, Fabiano returned to the 3.Bb5 lines he’d played at the start of the London World Championship, though by move 6 the players had taken a new path. It was Fabiano who was dictating play, with an almost 30-minute lead on the clock by the time 16…Rad8 appeared on the board:
Although two rooks are usually considered more than a match for a lone queen, 17.Qxd8!? here may objectively not have been the best choice. As Fabiano explained afterwards, however, he felt a move like 17.Qe3 would lead only to a draw, and he “wanted to keep the game alive”. It’s that ambition that makes him dangerous to Magnus, and he explained afterwards that he was willing to play passively while he consolidated his position, since he felt the time advantage would later give him chances. So it proved, as Carlsen’s will to win almost backfired spectacularly:
Fabi had almost 7 minutes to his opponent’s 1 minute 18 seconds, and of course looked at the most natural move in the position, 50.Nf5!. That wins almost on the spot, since 50…Qd2+ is met by 51.Kf3!! and after 51…Qxe1 it’s mate-in-2: 52.g4+ Kg5 53.Rg7#
If Black instead plays 51…Qd3+ then after 52.Kf2 Qd2+ White can now interpose the rook with 53.Re2 and it’s also game over.
After three minutes of not finding a clear finish, however, Fabi admitted he was afraid of losing his time advantage and still finding nothing. He described 50.Nf3?! as “panic, of course”, and you can imagine the emotions of the World Champion, who had seen the win for his opponent – he even showed it to him after the game!
The move Fabi played was almost losing itself, but in this case it required that after 50…Qc2+ 51.Kh3 Carlsen found 51…Qb3!!, which Peter Svidler described as “an absolutely futuristic idea.” He didn’t think it was “humanly possible” to find with so little time, and sure enough Magnus played 51…Kg6, when after 52.Rc7! the game fizzled out into a draw.
Once again, you might feel the psychological advantage should have been in Carlsen’s favour, since it was Caruana who had missed a forced mate, but, just as against Vishy, Fabiano shrugged off that disappointment. The second game saw Magnus meet the same 3.Bb5 Sicilian with 3…Nf6 4.Nc3 Nd4!?, an old line with a shaky reputation. It brought back fond memories for Svidler, who had faced it in an exhibition game against a 15-year-old Magnus Carlsen on the Norwegian Polar archipelago of Svalbard back in 2006. It’s worth interrupting to give a couple of moves!
Here Peter unleashed the extraordinary 13.Rfe1!! Qxa4 14.Rxe7+!! and went on to win. He comments in the video above:
I can’t really stop myself from including this humble brag. I won a very, very nice game a long, long time ago against Magnus in this line. We played an exhibition match on Svalbard and this still remains one of the games I enjoy remembering the most, because it’s not often you win a very nice sacrificial game. I think I sacrificed the bishop and then a rook in two moves in a row against a very strong player, who was very young at the time – full disclosure, he was a lot younger than he is now when that game happened.
Magnus was already fast approaching 2700 at that point… but let’s get back to 2019. Fabiano knew what to do, at first, but there was an issue - “the last time I saw this was when I was 8 years old!” He played the "refutation" 5.e5 Nxb5 6.Nxb5 Nd5 7.Ng5, but by that point was out of book. Play continued 7...f6 8.Ne4 f5 9.Nbc3 and it was quite a sight to behold:
The opening surprise looked to have worked, but after Magnus exchanged off dark-squared bishops he ended up clearly worse, and, after some more inaccuracies than we’re used to seeing, Fabiano was confident he’d win the game when he got to play 29.Ne3!
It’s a case of Magnus having to pick his poison, and although there was a little more drama than there needed to be in the latter stages, Caruana went on to win in 52 moves.
The Armageddon victory only took Fabiano up to 4th place, and he’d missed the chance to end his foe’s 67-game unbeaten classical streak, but in a way the victory in Armageddon may have been even more precious. The narrative for over a year has been that Fabiano is doomed against Magnus in fast chess, but here he pulled off victory on his opponent’s own soil.
Watch Fabiano talking to Judit Polgar and Anna Rudolf after the game:
One of the strangely worst feelings in the world is playing a stellar tournament and then losing the final game… It’s really very unpleasant. It feels like you’ve ruined your masterpiece.
By all accounts that describes the World Champion’s emotions:
But despite the pain of his one loss in the tournament coming at the very end, Magnus had only been beaten in an unrated and relatively unimportant blitz game. Yes, he’d had shaky classical games against Aronian, Ding Liren and Caruana, but all the good things he’d taken from the event the day before were still unchanged. And the final table looked only very slightly less impressive!
Altibox Norway Chess was trialling a new approach this year, and from a spectator perspective there was a lot to like. The draws in classical chess certainly didn’t go way – there were 76% in total – but while in previous years that would mean a shrug and a tepid post-game press conference, this time round uneventful draws were followed by more action, with the Armageddon games often providing a good break from the slow-moving classical play. The day’s games would wrap up in 4-5 hours, with little downtime, and reports from Norway suggest that helped boost the TV audience.
The fear that the 10-minute vs. 7-minute format would unduly favour either colour proved unfounded. White won 15 Armageddons to Black’s 19, with players divided over which colour was best. Caruana, for instance, commented:
I have one draw in 10 games usually in my blitz games, so it doesn’t matter to me. I might as well take White!
The time control with two hours for all moves and a 10-second increment only from move 41 was the fastest allowed so that the games would still be rated, and it was a challenge to the players. Aronian noted that if you get into time trouble “you’re dead!” and he didn’t consider the control to be classical. Fabi didn’t agree with that, but he did feel it was tough:
It’s a classical game, but I am playing very quickly in these games. Today I was playing very, very quickly, and yesterday as well, and still we get into time trouble! I basically feel I have to play intuitively the whole game, at least until it gets really concrete. You just don’t have time to waste.
One watching grandmaster lamented a lack of time:
But Svidler could see both sides as he described the Caruana-Carlsen classical game:
All in all a very interesting and intricate game, which you can say was slightly marred by blunders in huge mutual time trouble… or you can say that the mutual mistakes around move 49 were the jewel in the crown of a somewhat flawed but very, very interesting game!
Civil rights lawyers were out in force over the case of
Chinese no. 1 and world no. 3 Ding Liren. The issue? Well, this is what the
final standings look like if you include only classical games:
1-2: Carlsen, Ding Liren: 5.5 (+2)
3-4: Caruana, So: 5 (+1)
5-6: Aronian, Yu Yangyi: 4.5 (50%)
7-8: MVL, Anand: 4 (-1)
9-10: Mamedyarov, Grischuk: 3.5 (-2)
Overall the (pleasingly symmetrical) classical standings and the combined standings are similar, but you can note that the Armageddon pushed Caruana and So below Aronian and Yu Yangyi. Much more dramatically, however, Ding Liren went from sharing first place with Magnus to finishing in a distant 6th.
Of course that’s partly his own fault – no-one forced him to lose 6 Armageddon games! – but we already heard Vishy Anand noting after Round 8, “I feel that Ding’s +2 should be worth something”. Vishy felt, “if you work for four hours that should count more than working for 20 minutes”, and more grandmasters agreed after the final round.
It’s not really fair towards a guy like Ding who scored +2 and is not going to be in the Top 3. That’s just crazy. In my opinion, in my humble opinion!
I think the scoring system could be adjusted. It doesn’t feel right that you can win a perfect game, and it’s very difficult to beat these guys in a classical game, and you get 2 points, or you could make a bad draw and your opponent hangs a bishop or something [and you get 1.5].
Fabiano was clearly thinking of his match against Grischuk, who was another advocate of adjusting the scoring in favour of classical chess. Svidler even went to the lengths of creating a spreadsheet to demonstrate a system where a classical win is worth 4, an Armaggedon win 2.5 and an Armageddon loss 1.5:
So there was definitely a consensus that Ding was unfairly scored down by the system, but it looks like something that could easily be “fixed”. In any case, it was a great tournament for the Chinese player, who now has an over 30-point gap to 4th placed Anish Giri. His place in the 2020 Candidates Tournament by rating is looking ever more secure.
Levon Aronian in the end only scored 50% in classical chess, though he was a move or two away from beating Magnus, but he richly deserved his 2nd place for perhaps being the player to most get into the spirit of the tournament. Things never got wilder than his first Armageddon against Alexander Grischuk…
…but there might have been similar time trouble if Wesley hadn’t blundered mate-in-1!
The Anand-Aronian Armageddon in the last round was yet another thriller, with Levon this time surviving some tough moments before finding the brilliancy 36…Rd3!
It’s only the threat of back-rank mate that means that after 37.Ne5 Qg3+ 38.Kg1 Rxd5! 39.Qxg3 fxg3 40.Ng6+ Kh7 (40…Kg8?? 41.Ne7+! and White wins) 41.Nxf8+ White is lost, with Vishy offering a draw that gave his opponent victory in Armageddon.
The one unknown quantity in this year’s Altibox Norway Chess was Yu Yangyi, who despite some fine results, such as winning the Qatar Masters Open and Capablanca Memorial, had never played a supertournament of this calibre. His recent -3 in the Shenzhen Masters had many fearing the worst.
He began by defying expectations in the blitz opener, however, starting with wins over Ding Liren and Vishy Anand, then in the main tournament he also looked immediately at home, beating MVL and again Ding Liren in Armageddon in the opening rounds. He bounced straight back from a classical loss to So in Round 3 to beat Grischuk in the next round, and then later bounced back from a loss to Carlsen to beat Mamedyarov in the only classical win of the final round.
Yu Yangyi played the Four Knights as he had against Aronian in Round 7, but while Levon followed Jan Gustafsson’s recommendations in his recent video series, Mamedyarov took his life into his own hands in Round 9 by daring to follow his own path!
In truth 11…Qd6 didn’t look fatal for Black even when Yu Yangyi managed to get a pawn to d7…
…but Yu kept applying pressure on every move and eventually wrapped up victory in just 30 moves. Aronian claimed second place on tiebreaks, but the players share the prize money, and it was in any case a fine performance by the 25-year-old. Consider his application for more supertournament appearances submitted!
Vishy Anand, Maxime Vachier-Lagrave and especially Shakhriyar Mamedyarov didn’t have much to celebrate in Stavanger, but an Armageddon win over Ding Liren in the final round couldn’t paper over the cracks of what had been a disastrous tournament for Grischuk. Before it began you could predict time trouble in the accelerated classical games (even if Alexander had been in excellent classical form in the Moscow Grand Prix), but few could foresee that the 3-time World Blitz Champion would struggle so badly in Armageddon.
Maybe it all meant too much to him, since he called his crazy first round loss to Aronian one of the three worst defeats of his life. In the next three rounds he lost to So in Armageddon and in classical chess to both Magnus and Yu Yangyi. When interviewed by Anna and Judit at the end he suggested they should say, “First of all, congratulations with the end of the tournament!”
He went on:
I was content with the last place after two rounds. If they said to me, “you’re last, but the tournament is finished”, I would take it without thinking! I guess this knockout [the Moscow FIDE Grand Prix] is really exhausting.
Grischuk thought he’d somehow avoided last place since he’d beaten Mamedyarov in their match, but it turned out “direct encounter” wasn’t one of the tiebreaks. All in all, a tournament to forget, but as bad as it may have been it can’t be worse than the time Svidler helpfully agreed to arrange hotel accommodation for Grischuk in St. Petersburg! Don't miss the latest edition of Story Time with Peter Svidler:
So that’s all for Norway Chess 2019, but if you’re eager to see the best play a more traditional supertournament there’s not long to wait! In 11 days’ time it’s the Croatia Grand Chess Tour in Zagreb, a new classical supertournament that will feature Magnus Carlsen and all of the Grand Chess Tour main participants playing 11 rounds of classical chess. Ok, it also has an unusual time control (130 minutes for all moves, with a 30-second delay from move 1), but this will be slow, heavyweight chess between almost all of the world’s best players.
Before that, there’s a little time for our heroes to do some trolling of a certain vocal Dutch Grandmaster!
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