The last big event of 2015, the Qatar Masters in Doha, ended in yet another triumph for Magnus Carlsen, who added to his impressive December haul of the London Chess Classic (and the ultimate prize of the Grand Chess Tour title) with back-to-back victories to round off a remarkable month that salvaged the World Champion’s status at the top, as he take’s the plaudits and the bragging rights to the unofficial title of “Player of the Year”.
And Carlsen’s stylish win in Qatar was almost a carbon copy of his victory in London. After finishing on 7/9 and a share of first place with China’s Yu Yanghyi, the 2014 defending champion, Carlsen - with Yu exhausted from having to grind out a marathon last round win over Wesley So - almost effortlessly and inexorably went on to win the tiebreak playoff 2-0 to capture the $27,000 first prize and the title for the strongest opens ever to be held.
Carlsen started 2015 with a rating of 2862 - and he’s now completed his most active year since 2009, with the stats showing a record of +28 =34 -10, (62,5 %) for a year-ending rating of 2844, well ahead of Vladimir Kramnik and Anish Giri in the 1st January 2016 Fide Rating List. Yet going into December, many pundits were claiming 2015 was proving to be a “disaster” for Carlsen - only to be left eating their words by the end of the year after a phenomenal late run that saved the Norwegian’s year.
In 2015, Carlsen didn’t have a good year by his own high standards; a year that more resembled a rollercoaster ride. But during that ride, he won the Grand Chess Tour with victory in London, defended his World Rapid Championship title, won in Qatar and ended the year as the no. 1 in classical, rapid and blitz chess - so it’s hard to make a case for anyone else winning the category of Player of the Year.
(photo opposite: Maria Emelianova, Qatar Masters)
While Carlsen took the honours for player of the year, Chinese rising star Wei Yi, 16, took the bragging rights for "Game of the Year" with his stunning king-hunt victory over Lázaro Bruzón in Danzhou - a game we annotated here in The Long March. But a late close contender proved to be that man Carlsen again, as China’s Li Chao, the world number 15, threw everything but the kitchen sink at the World Champion, only to be spectacularly foiled in easily the most entertaining game played at the Qatar Masters.
Magnus Carlsen - Li Chao
Qatar Masters Open, (5)
1.d4 Nf6 2.c4 g6 3.f3 A currently popular Anti-Grunfeld line that often leads to a pitched battle with kings on opposite wings. 3...d5 4.cxd5 Nxd5 5.e4 Nb6 6.Nc3 Bg7 7.Be3 0-0 8.Qd2 Nc6 9.0-0-0 f5 10.e5 Nb4 11.Nh3 Qe8 12.Kb1 a5 13.Be2 c6 14.Rc1 Kh8?! Given how quickly the attack comes from White, time is of the essence, and this may well be the move that ultimately decided the game. What Black is trying to do is play ...Be6 and, if Ng5, ...Bg8 to preserve his bishop for the attack on the White king. 15.Ka1 Be6 16.Nf4 Qf7 17.h4 Bxa2 This was enormously tempting, but reality perhaps called for the safer 17...Rfd8 18.h5 g5 19.Ng6+ Kg8 20.Nxe7+ Qxe7 21.Bxg5 Qd7 22.Bxd8 Qxd8 where White only has a very minimal advantage. But with the text, mayhem now ensues on the board. 18.h5 Kg8 19.hxg6 hxg6 20.g4! Bludgeoning open all lines of attack towards the Black king now, as both players prepare to do battle-to-the-death. 20...Bb3 21.Bd1! Not only defending White's king, but crucially clearing a path for White's queen to h2, and an assault down the h-file. 21... a4 22.Qh2 Rfd8 23.Qh7+ Kf8 24.d5! Nc4! Kudos to Li Chao for coming up with a resourceful counter-attacking idea, the shock value being a queen sacrifice which Carlsen admitted he had not seen. In reality, though, this is Li Chao's only hope, as he has to be careful he doesn't walk into a checkmate, with the obvious 24...N6xd5? 25.e6 Qf6 26.Nxg6+ Ke8 27.Qg8+ Bf8 28.Rh8. 25.Nxg6+ Ke8 26.e6 a3!! If 26...Qf6 27.Qg8+ Bf8 28.Rh8 Black doesn't have enough time to get his attack in. 27.exf7+ Kd7! (See Diagram) 28.Ne5+! Luckily for Carlsen, there's a way out of the tactical mess. However, such are the complications on the board that even Peter Svidler, the seven-time Russian champion, was caught out during the live commentary, when, working without the "safety-net" of a playing engine, he pointed out that Magnus would simply win by promoting the pawn to a knight and not a queen, as this gave a decisive check that would divert the attack with 28.f8N+ - but it was quickly pointed out by an alert kibitzer (no doubt using an omnipresent engine) that Black would win by not capturing the promoted knight with the stunningly simple: 28...Ke8!! and, despite being a whole queen and a rook up, White can't avoid being mated! 29.Kb1 (If 29.bxa3 Rxa3+ 30.Kb1 Rda8! the ability to make this move after 28...Ke8!! makes all the difference.) 29...axb2 30.Bxb3 Ra1#. And Black's attack is far from being a bluff, if you think that White can simply play 28.bxa3 Rxa3+ 29.Kb1 - as Black has a series of stunning killer-blows to hand 29...Bc2+!! 30.Bxc2 Ra1+!! 31.Kxa1 Bxc3+ 32.Kb1 Na3# - a fantastic fantasy mate that everyone dreams of playing against a World Champion. But the fantasy is just that: fantasy - Carlsen's 28.Ne5+! not so much rains but pours down on Li Chao’s parade of a famous victory. 28...Bxe5 29.Qxf5+ Kc7 30.Qxe5+! The real point behind Carlsen's 28.Ne5 - he simply returns his queen and Black has no support for his mating attack. 30...Nxe5 31.Bxb3 axb2+ 32.Kxb2 Nbd3+ 33.Kb1 Nxc1 34.Rxc1 The dust has settled, and it is very clear that Carlsen has emerged from the tactical melee with a big material advantage. 34...Kc8 35.dxc6 bxc6 36.f4 1-0