18-year-old Nodirbek Abdusattorov took the sole lead in the Tata Steel Masters after outplaying Magnus Carlsen in Round 5, with the World Champion losing two classical games in a row for the first time since 2015. There were also wins for Levon Aronian, who tricked Vincent Keymer in an endgame, and Parham Maghsoodloo, who scored a bounce-back win over Jorden van Foreest.
Magnus Carlsen is traditionally at his most dangerous after a loss, and there was plenty of time to recover from his defeat to Anish Giri in Round 4. There was the first rest day in Wijk aan Zee, and the traditional football match.
Then there was a change of scene, also with a football theme, as the players made their way to Amsterdam and Ajax’s Johan Cruiff Arena.
The playing hall looked awesome, with Parham Maghsoodloo noting it recalled a scene from The Queen’s Gambit Netflix show.
What stood in the way of a Carlsen comeback, however, was 18-year-old Nodirbek Abdusattorov, who went into the round as the co-leader. The Uzbekistan prodigy looks to be on the cusp of becoming an absolute monster, but we can’t say that we haven’t been warned. In 2014 chess24’s David Martinez published an article on the 9-year-old Nodirbek beating two grandmasters that began, “Remember, if you can, the name Nodirbek Abdusattorov”.
Their clash in Round 5 was the first time Nodirbek Abdusattorov had played Magnus Carlsen in classical chess, and Magnus began with the English Opening, 1.c4. Our commentators were already getting optimistic when 4…e5 appeared on the board.
Magnus paused for thought and went for the relatively rare move 5.Be2, with White keeping some edge until playing the provocative 13.Nf3!? Nodirbek felt that was “a little bit inaccurate”, because it allowed 13…Bf6, though it’s likely both players welcomed the exchange sacrifice that followed, 14.Ba3!?
Nodirbek told Fiona Steil-Antoni, “I evaluated this whole exchange sacrifice as dubious, because it seemed like I’m just getting a free exchange”.
The bishop on a3 stops Black from castling kingside, but Nodirbek felt Magnus had underestimated 14.Ba3 Bxa1 15.Qxa1 0-0-0! and suddenly we had a real strategic battle on our hands. Magnus didn’t back down, as he followed 16.Rc1 Kb8 with 17.Qxg7, the computer’s top choice, but a terrifying move to play.
Nodirbek replied with what he called a “very powerful move”, 17…Rhg8! and it was arguably the critical moment of the whole game. 18.Qxf7? would lose on the spot to 18…Rxg2+!
The point is that after 19.Kxg2 Bh3+ the queen is lost. It turns out 18.Qxh7! was the one move to keep the position balanced, even though in that line White has to allow Black to capture on h2 with check.
Magnus understandably tried to hold the position together with 18.Qb2!?, but after 18…Bg4! he was walking a tightrope. What ultimately made the win so impressive for Abdusattorov, however, is that Carlsen didn’t crack, but instead, despite getting low on the clock, found a string of excellent moves to continue the game.
You could point to some inaccuracies, but when Nodirbek returned the exchange it was only to get a queen endgame with an extra pawn, where the drawing chances were high, especially while Magnus had a passed h-pawn of his own.
If there was something ominous about the game for the World Champion, however, it was that, as David Howell pointed out, he’d been beaten by Abdusattorov before in a crucial queen endgame which helped the Uzbekistan star become the 2021 World Rapid Champion. The games were uncannily similar.
Although the colours were reversed, it was Nodirbek pushing in both cases, and in fact it turns out that the diagram on the right is the moment Magnus went from a theoretically drawn position to a lost one.
It was essential to play 43.Qe8+! first, controlling the e-file, and only then move the king. Instead after 43.Kh2 White is lost, with 43…Qe2+! 44.Kg1 Qe5! 45.Kf2 b5! following. The black queen has a perfect position and the b-pawn has begun its march.
Soon afterwards Magnus swapped off his g-pawn, which led to criticism from FIDE CEO Emil Sutovsky. Maxime Vachier-Lagrave felt compelled to respond, just illustrating how hard such positions are to play.
The practical difficulty of such endgames was also Nodirbek’s point, however, as he explained:
I think theoretically it’s drawn, but in our game his king was on f2 while if White places the king somewhere between h7 and g7 it’s always a draw, but he never had a chance to get this. So yeah, it’s a very tough endgame. It’s practically almost impossible.
Magnus never got another chance and, when the b-pawn reached b2, he finally resigned.
That was a remarkable display of strength by Nodirbek, which catapulted him up to world no. 18 on the live rating list, while it also sent observers scrambling to work out the last time Magnus had lost two classical games in a row. It’s no surprise it was difficult, since for the last five years Magnus has lost a maximum of two games in the whole year.
It turns out the last time he lost two classical games in a row was at the start of Norway Chess 2015, but even there you need to add an asterisk. In the first round Magnus was winning against Veselin Topalov, but was unaware the time control had been altered for that year’s event, and lost on time. It was only his second-round loss to Fabiano Caruana that was a normal loss.
If there’s any good news for Magnus it’s that although he plays Black in Round 6, back in Wijk aan Zee, he faces Jorden van Foreest, who has suffered two defeats in his last three games. In Amsterdam, Jorden went badly astray early on, allowing Parham Maghsoodloo an obvious piece sacrifice to reach the following position.
Our commentators said that after 13…Qxd4? 14.cxd4 you’d simply want to resign as Black, facing such an amazing pawn chain, but in the game after 13…Qc7 14.c6!? Jorden gradually righted the ship, at least until he went for 23…a3?! (23…Qe7! was Parham and the computer’s suggestion to hold the balance.)
Parham went for it with 24.Bh5! a2 25.Rxe4, and although Jorden had some chances after the queen sacrifice, Parham went on to win in very convincing style. He said afterwards:
I’m so happy for my win today and I really needed it after that loss, to just come back to the tournament mentally, and I’m just so happy with the way I played. I just started to attack and I never stopped!
Levon Aronian was the day’s other winner, showing that 18-year-olds can be beaten as he took down Vincent Keymer. The response of the day came when Fiona asked him about another interview where she’d overheard him saying he hates playing youngsters:
I never said I hate playing youngsters, I said I hate the youngsters, to paraphrase! But the good thing is I have to take advantage to beat them while they’re still very young. I have experience playing against Magnus when he was little, then Fabiano and Anish, so these guys are very, very good, so you never know how good these youngsters will be.
At 40, Aronian is by far the oldest player in the field, but he said he’s not “Uncle Levon” just yet: “I still feel like I’m one of the youngest participants!”
In the game against Vincent Keymer he built up a big advantage, but let most of it slip until his German opponent seemed close to holding a fortress a pawn down. 65…Be8? was a mistake, however (David Howell felt Vincent was dreaming of 66.Be6 Ba4! and suddenly it’s White scrambling not to lose), allowing 66.h5!
After 66…gxh5 67.Bxf5 the crucial f-pawn had gone and Levon went on to win comfortably.
The remaining games were drawn, with Gukesh-Rapport relatively uneventful. That also applies to Praggnanandhaa-Giri, where the game started in a Giuoco Piano that lived up to the name.
Anish joked “he’s young and inexperienced” about how Pragg didn’t take the hint and repeat moves for a draw on move 21, costing the players another three hours.
Caruana-So was tense, with Fabiano going for the Scotch and playing what he said was a “very risky line”. It succeeded in getting Wesley to burn a lot of time on the clock, but no further, since Fabi admitted he had to “grovel” for a draw by the end. Wesley has drawn all five games so far, and commented:
It’s my 10th year in Wijk aan Zee and it’s my worst start so far. Usually I win a game in the 1st or the 3rd round.
By far the most entertaining draw came in Arjun Erigaisi vs. Ding Liren, which Ding admitted had been a rollercoaster.
At some point it looked as though the world’s top two players might both lose again for a second round in a row, but then Ding took over, until the exchange sacrifice 31…Rxf3!?, eliminating a knight on f3, looked to be the killer blow.
In hindsight Ding should have kept an advantage with e.g. 31…Bc5 instead, since it turned out Arjun had a defence to the direct assault.
He soon played 32.Qd5+! Rf7 33.Bd8! Qf4 34.Bc7!, the move Ding said he’d missed, and amazingly, despite all the black pieces swarming around the white king, there’s no knockout blow. Ding had to go back with 34…Qf6 and with Bd8 and Bc7 Arjun forced a draw by repetition.
So after five rounds Nodirbek Abdusattorov is the sole leader, Anish Giri is in sole 2nd place, and you have to go down to 10th place to find Magnus Carlsen, who hasn’t often found himself on a minus score since his top group debut as a 16-year-old in 2007, when he finished joint last without winning a game.
In Round 6, as we’ve seen, Magnus has Black against Jorden, while the leaders have the white pieces against Indian opposition: Abdusattorov-Praggnanandhaa and Giri-Erigaisi.
The Challengers will also be back in action on Friday, after taking a rest day while the tournament was on tour to Amsterdam. They played the day before that, however, with the schedule confusing Amin Tabatabaei, who was late to his game after assuming he had a rest day. He went on to lose to Mustafa Yilmaz, whose 3rd win in a row gave him the sole lead on 4/5.
There was also a win for 17-year-old Javokhir Sindarov, another Uzbek prodigy following in Abdusattorov’s footsteps, and for Thomas Beerdsen, who beat 16-year-old Eline Roebers despite having looked dead lost.
28…Ke7 would still have kept a big advantage for Black, but Eline was down to 30 seconds when she played 28…e2? and the game turned around.
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