There’s been a paradox of sorts at the top. The world No.1, Magnus Carlsen, regularly tops the rating list by a large margin - yet, since the Norwegian became world champion in late 2014, he has suffered recurrent form dips at major tournaments. All of which, say the fans and pundits alike, not only give hope to his rivals but also means he doesn’t “dominate” in the way that Garry Kasparov once did as champion.
But could Magnus be back to the tournament force he once was, before he had to go into the “deep preparation tank” for his two title matches? Apart from an earlier blip to Viswanathan Anand, where he salvaged a draw from a lost position, Carlsen has dominated at the 2nd Vugar Gashimov Memorial in Shamkir, Azerbaijan, as he now takes the sole lead at the tournament midpoint.
After yet an other impressive win in round five, this time over the young French star Maxime Vachier-Lagrave, Carlsen moved into a half point lead at the top over US frontrunner Wesley So going into today's rest day, after the latter lost a bizarre game to ex-champion Anand. Sure, Anand won a nice sacrificial game - but what was he intending to play if So had opted for the clearly better 14…exf4 instead of 14…hxg5?
Carlsen has also regained rating points previously lost during his form dip. He’s gained nearly 9 points, to climb to 2871.7 at the live rating site 2700chess.com - and over 72 points ahead of his nearest rival, US champion Hikaru Nakamura, who benefits from the more recent double dip in form of Fabiano Caruana and Alexander Grischuk, to put himself in pole position for a FIDE candidates’ rating spot.
Round 5 standings: 1. Magnus Carlsen (Norway), 4/5; 2. Wesley So (USA), 3.5; 3. Viswanathan Anand (India), 3; 4-5. Vladimir Kramnik (Russia) & Shakhriyar Mamedyarov (Azerbaijan), 2.5; 6-9. Anish Giri (Netherlands), Maxime Vachier-Lagrave (France), Fabiano Caruana (Italy) and Rauf Mamedov (Azerbaijan), 2; 10. Michael Adams (England), 1.5.
Round 6 pairings (Thursday, 23rd April; 6am Eastern, 3am Pacific, 11am BST): Adams-Vachier-Lagrave, Giri-Carlsen, Kramnik-Caruana, So-Mamedyarov, Mamedov-Anand. There's live coverage available at www.shamkirchess.az.
M Carlsen - M Vachier-Lagrave
2nd Vugar Gashimov Memorial, (5)
1.Nf3 Nf6 2.g3 b5 A sort of hybrid Polish defence - this method of meeting the Reti found favor in the 1960s after being adopted by the likes of Boris Spassky and Tigran Petrosian. 3.Bg2 Bb7 4.Na3 a6 5.c4 b4 6.Nc2 e6 7.d4 a5 8.0–0 Be7 9.d5 An idea borrowed from a well-known Lev Polugaevsky pawn sacrifice in the Queen's Indian Defence. If 9...exd5 10. Nh4 threatens Nf5 where White will either regain his pawn or leave a lasting weakness on the Black kingside. 9...Na6 10.Nfd4 Nc5 11.Re1 0–0 12.e4 e5 13.Nf5 d6 14.Bg5 Nxd5 15.Bh6! gxh6 16.Qg4+ Bg5 17.cxd5 Carlsen has sacrificed a pawn - but he has superb, long-term compensation for it. Not only is Black's extra pawn doubled on the h-file, he also has to deal with a serious white-square weakness and a dominant knight strategically anchored on f5. 17...Kh8 18.h4 Bf6 19.Nce3 Bc8 20.Qf3 Bg7 21.Bh3 Rg8 22.Bg4! Casually bringing his remaining piece to it's most optimum outpost on h5. Carlsen's pieces dominate his opponents pieces - Vachier-Lagrave simply can't find a plan to untangle his pieces without returning the pawn. And in doing that, Carlsen has the advantage. 22...Qf6 23.Bh5 Bxf5 24.Nxf5 c6 Returning the pawn in a desperate bid for counterplay. If he doesn't play this, then Carlsen will quickly develop his rooks to the most menacing outposts before launching a full-scale attack - Black will be all hampered, and only able to react to events unfolding. 25.dxc6 Rac8 26.Qd1! The retreat brings Carlsen's queen to it's best outpost on d5 - just look at how much of a tangle his opponent's pieces remain. 26...Rxc6 27.Qd5 Rgc8 28.Rad1 There's no rush to take the pawn - one of f7 or d6 will fall - and this complete's the development of his pieces and counters any ideas of Black playing a Nd3. 28...Bf8 29.Qxf7 Qxf7 30.Bxf7 Na4 31.Re2 Rc1 32.Rxc1 Rxc1+ 33.Kg2 Nc5 34.b3 Rc3 35.Kh3 Positioning the king for the possibilities of a ready-made endgame march of g4-f5. 35...Nd7 36.Be6 Nc5 37.Bd5 Nd7 38.Ne3 Now the threat is Nc4 attacking a5 and eyeing d6 - and at the same time giving the king the possibility of that endgame passage through g4-f5. 38...Nf6 39.Be6 Rc5 Not 39...Nxe4? as 40.Nd5 wins. 40.Nc4 Kg7 41.f3 Defending e4 and now allowing the white rook to come more into the game by attacking d6 - the pressure is mounting for Black, and something has to give. This is classic Carlsen, as he squeeze's his opponent off the board. 41...Ne8 42.Rd2 Nc7 43.Bg4 a4 43...d5 offered no respite: 44.Nb6! d4 45.Nd7 Rc3 (45...Rb5 46.f4!) 46.Nxe5 with an easy win. 44.Nxd6 Bxd6 45.Rxd6 a3 (See Diagram) MVL is hoping to salvage a draw with tricks involving his advanced a-pawn - but Carlsen see's through it all. 46.Bd7! Very precise - and it had to be. 46...Rc2 47.Bc6! Rxa2 No better is 47...Na6 48.Bd5 Nc5 49.Rc6 where with Black's pieces pinned, Carlsen wins with Kg4-f5. 48.Rd7+ Kf6 49.Rxc7 Rc2 50.Rxh7 Kg6 Of course, 50...Rxc6?? loses to 51.Rxh6+; and after 50...a2, there's 51.Ra7 Rxc6 52.Rxa2 Rc3 53.Kg4 Rxb3 54.Ra6+ Kg7 55.Rb6 with an easy, technical win. 51.Rc7 Kf6 52.h5 Rc1 53.Rh7! Carlsen has weaved a mating net rather than going into the aforementioned note of the technical endgame win. 53...a2 54.Bd5 1–0