Mention “Reykjavik” to a chess player - any player - and immediately it’ll resonate with them, as they conjure up images of the famous 1972 encounter between Boris Spassky and Bobby Fischer, when the Cold War was on full freeze. And that epic showdown recently received the Hollywood treatment with the global release in movie theatres of Pawn Sacrifice, with a cast headed by Tobey Maguire as Fischer, Liev Schreiber as Spassky and Peter Sarsgaard as Bill Lombardy.
Reykjavik has thus since become a place of pilgrimage for all chess aficionados and players; and seldom do they ever pass up an opportunity to go there. It therefore comes as no surprise then that this was a popular venue for the biennial European Team Championship that got underway late last week in the Icelandic capital - and not just “any” old venue in Reykjavik, but evocatively in the very same indoor sports arena, the Laugardalshöll, where Fischer and Spassky played that famous match, and which normally hosts athletics, handball, basketball, and volleyball.
Russia, led by Alexander Grischuk, are the top seeds in an Open section of 36 teams vying for the title, followed by Ukraine, Azerbaijan and France - but all eyes were also on one of the outsiders, as they had the services of the first world champion since Fischer to play in that same venue since since 1972. Magnus Carlsen leads a Norwegian team seeded 11th - and he’s also the first Western world champion since Fischer.
Could this all make for a good omen for Carlsen, who suffered something of a playing crisis throughout 2015? The short answer was no, as he discovered his game was still in crisis. He sat out the opening two rounds against weaker opposition, and when he finally appeared in round three, for the big clash with Armenia, he was soundly thrashed by old foe Levon Aronian - a win that broke a seven-game winning streak by Carlsen over Aronian dating back to 2009.
And things went from bad to worse for the world champion. He then over-pushed and blundered to a bad defeat at the hands of Switzerland’s Yannik Pelletier to now drop to 2832 on the unofficial live rating list, his lowest point since November 2011. Carlsen has now lost 10 classical games so far in 2015 - and that’s the highest amount since 2008 when he lost 14 (out of a total of 93).
Magnus Carlsen - Levon Aronian
20th European Team Ch., (3)
Ruy Lopez, Berlin Defence
1.e4 e5 2.Nf3 Nc6 3.Bb5 Nf6 As we have mentioned many times in past columns, the uber-solid Berlin Defence - revived in 2000 by Vladimir Kramnik, as his surprise weapon to capture Garry Kasparov's world crown - is once again riding high in popularity with elite players. 4.d3 Bc5 5.0-0 Nd4 6.Nxd4 Bxd4 7.c3 Bb6 8.Na3 c6 9.Ba4 d6 10.Bb3 a5! Aronian not only claims some space on the queenside but also gives his strong bishop a retreat square that will pay big dividends, as we shall see later. 11.Nc4 Ba7 12.a4 0-0 13.Bg5 h6 14.Bxf6?! You can't help but feel Carlsen badly misjudged his opponents prospects with his active pieces after this pawn snatch. Instead, better perhaps was 14.Bh4 g5!? 15.Bg3 Bg4 16.Qc2 Nh5 with about equality. 14...Qxf6 15.Nxa5 d5! Carlsen may have won a pawn - but just watch how quickly Aronian's pieces now suddenly spring to life as the center opens up. 16.Bc2 dxe4 17.dxe4 Rd8 18.Qe1 Qg5! With the not too subtle threat looming of ...Bh3 winning material. And now, in order to stop this, Carlsen cedes Aronian total control of the d-file, as the rook takes up residence on d2. 19.Kh1 Rd2 20.Bd1 Be6 21.b4 What more could Black wish for for the pawn? His bishops are actively placed, his queen is lurking with intent on the kingside, and to cap it all, the Black rooks totally control the only open file on the board. What's not to like here? 21...Rad8 (See Diagram) 22.Nxb7 This is practically forced now, regardless of how dangerous it is. And seeking relief by exchanging pieces offered no respite, as witness what Aronian cunningly had planned after 22.Bb3 Bh3!! 23.gxh3 Qf4 24.Bd1 R8d3 25.Kg2 Rxd1! 26.Rxd1 Qf3+ 27.Kg1 Rxd1 28.Qxd1 Bxf2+ winning the queen and with it the game. 22...Bc4 Carlsen's queen is going to be lost anyhow - but can he muster some form of tangible compensation for it to save the game? 23.Nxd8 Bxf1 24.Qxf1 Rxf2 25.Qg1 Ra2!! 26.Rxa2 Certainly not 26.Qxa7?? Qxg2. 26...Bxg1 27.Kxg1 Qc1! The answer to the last question is a resounding "No!" - Aronian has it finely calculated, seeing that Carlsen may well have been winning after the automatic recapture with 27...Qxd8 28.Be2! and the a-pawn looks to be a winner for White. Now, with 27...Qc1!, Carlsen is just lost as he can't co-ordinate his pieces to defend against the marauding queen. 28.Kf2 Qxd1 29.Nxc6 Qb3 30.Rd2 Qxc3 31.Rd6 Qb2+ 32.Ke3 Qa3+ 33.Kf2 Qxa4 The hard part is over, and now it is just a matter of technique as Aronian clears up. 34.Nxe5 Qc2+ 35.Kf3 f5 36.Rd3 fxe4+ 37.Kxe4 Qxg2+ 38.Nf3 Qg4+ 39.Ke3 g5 40.Kf2 Qf5 41.Rd8+ Kg7 42.Kg2 g4 43.Nd2 Qe6 44.Nf1 Qc6+ 0-1 Carlsen's king is now forced onto one of the dark squares and his rook is lost to either 45...Qc7+ or 45...Qb6+. A slick performance from Mr. Aronian.