The schedules are getting slightly hectic these days for the world’s top players. Just as the US Championship - with three top-10 players vying for the title:Fabiano Caruana, Hikaru Nakamura and Wesley So - takes a well-earned rest day in St Louis, now all the action switches over the Atlantic to Stavanger, as the Altibox Norway Chess Tournament gets underway with five of the strongest players in the world taking part.
World Champion Magnus Carlsen is the top seed in the ten-player all-play-all ahead of ex-champion Vladimir Kramnik of Russia, the world No.2; Anish Giri of the Netherlands, No.4; Maxime Vachier-Lagrave of France, No.5; and Levon Aronian of Armenia, No.7. And completing the line-up is Veselin Topalov (Bulgaria), Li Chao (China - a late replacement for Sergey Karjakin), Pavel Eljanov (Ukraine), Pentala Harikrishna (India), and last but not least wild card qualifier Nils Grandelius (Sweden).
Strangely, on his home turf, Carlsen still has a lot to prove in front of his very loyal and patriotic fans following a disastrous series of below-par performances in three previous Stavanger tournaments, and also not forgetting his disaster on top board for Norway in the 2014 Olympiad in Tromsø. But Carlsen has been looking lean and mean lately, and he went into the Altibox Norway Tournament on a positive note with a streak of 35 games without a loss, six away from his personal best according to Norwegian journalist Tarjei J. Svensen, who is the statistics anorak when it comes to all-things Magnus.
And he certainly looked ‘up for it’ as he romped to first place in the pre-event blitz that decides the pairing order for the tournament. He then followed that by breaking a two-year (730 days, to be precise, according to Tarjei) jinx of finally winning his opening round game!
So the omens are looking good for Carlsen, if his pre-tournament check list is anything to go by: Do well in the blitz. Check. Finally win in the 1st round. Check. But the World Champion didn’t have it all his own way in the opening round, because rating rivals Kramnik and Giri also had impressive wins.
Photo © | Altibox Norway Chess/Joachim Steinbru
Carlsen 1-0 Harikrishna
Kramnik 1-0 Grandelius
Giri 1-0 Eljanov
Aronian draw Topalov
Vachier-Lagrave draw Li Chao
GM Magnus Carlsen - GM Pentala Harikrishna
4th Altibox Norway Chess, (1)
Queen’s Indian Defence, Nimzowitsch Variation
1.d4 Nf6 2.c4 e6 3.Nf3 b6 4.g3 Ba6 Since the 1980s the main response here for Black has been the Nimzowitsch Variation 4... Ba6, first played in 1925 by the famous theoretician Aron Nimzowitsch. The bishop looks out-of-place here on a6, but in fact it is doing a job of work, as Black tries to hinder White s development by attacking the c4-pawn. 5.Nbd2 Bb4 6.Qa4 c5 7.a3 Bxd2+ 8.Bxd2 0-0 9.dxc5 bxc5 10.Bg2 Qb6 11.0-0 Nc6 12.Be3 Timed. With Black's queen having to defend the bishop on a6, Carlsen has the luxury of taking the time to put his bishop on a more promising square, attacking c5. An added benefit, is also that Black would like to play Rac8 but can't for two reasons: first, the rook has to stay on a8 to defend a future attack on a7, and secondly, any White capture of Bxc5 will gain a vital tempo as it could hit the rook on f8. So with that in mind, Harikrishna plays.... 12...Rfc8 13.Rfd1 d5 In view of how easily Carlsen now hits Black's weaknesses hard now, perhaps Harikrishna should have accepted the inevitable and sacrificed a pawn for activity by placing the other rook on b8?: 13...Rab8 14.Rac1 Qa5 15.Qc2 d5!? at least here Black has active piece-play for the pawn - something he doesn't achieve in the game. 14.cxd5 exd5 15.Bxc5! Taking full advantage of the errant Nimzowitsch variation bishop hanging on a6. 15...Qa5 16.Qc2 Carlsen has an easy game here, with the better pieces and pawn structure. In fact, arguably stronger than what he played, was simply exchanging queens here: 16.Qxa5 Nxa5 17.Nd4 and White has a big advantage. 16...Bxe2 The bishop maintains the material equality - but long-term, White has a big plus here with the isolated d-pawn and active rook play on the c- and d-files. 17.Qxe2 Qxc5 18.Rac1 Qb6 19.b4 h6 20.Qe3?! I find this move to be just a little baffling and bluffing at the same time. Carlsen has the better pieces and the play against his opponent's isolated d-pawn....and now he suddenly offers the exchange of queens, and with it the fracturing of his own pawn structure in the process. Hmmm. 20...Qb7?! I think this is a case of Harikrishna falling for the World Champion's bluff that the exchange of queens was worse for him. But I'm not too sure about that - if anything, instinct should tell you here that exchanging queens had to be better as it relieves the pressure: 20...Qxe3 21.fxe3 Ng4 22.Bh3 (Alternatively, there is 22.Re1 Ne7! 23.Nd4 Rxc1 24.Rxc1 Nxe3! 25.Re1 N7f5 26.Nxf5 Nxf5 27.Re5 g6 28.Rxd5 Rc8 29.Be4 Black's over the worst of it here - surely this is easier to hold also rather than the game?) 22...h5 23.Rc5 Ne7 24.Nd4 Rxc5 25.bxc5 Rc8 26.Rc1 Nc6 Yes, White is better - but is it such a clear path to victory here? White now has weak pawns on e3 and h2, and Black will soon be playing Kf8-e7 to centralize his king for the endgame. Hindsight is, as they say, 20/20 - but I think Harikrishna would have been better trying to defend this rather than what happened in the game. 21.Bh3! (See Diagram) Carlsen's bluff has worked: He's still got his queen on the board, and has now dramatically improved his pieces and the pressure on the Black position. 21...Re8 22.Qc3 Ne7 23.Nd4 With the bishop on h3 now giving White total control of the c-file, there's no rush for Carlsen to make the telling blow. He simply now continues to build up the pressure. 23...Ne4 24.Qc7! Now Black can't exchange the queens this time, as White will not only dominate the c-file, he will soon also have double rooks sweeping across the seventh. 24...Qa6 25.f3 Ng5 If 25...Nf6 26.Qc3! and Black can't stop White playing b5 and a4 with a python-like squeeze on the position. 26.Bd7 Red8 27.h4 Nxf3+ May as well hang for a sheep than a lamb - the alternative, 27...Nh7, would really have been humiliating. 28.Nxf3 Qxa3 29.Kg2 Qb2+ 30.Rd2 Qxb4 31.Re1 a5 32.Rde2 Ng6 33.h5 Nh8 Total and utter despair now. No feng shui expert would condone Black's position here; all his pieces look sorrily misplaced. How Harikrishna now had wished he'd exchanged queens back on move 20! 34.Bf5 a4 35.Ne5 Qd6 36.Qc2! Re8 If 36...d4 37.Nc6 moves in for the kill now, as after 37...d3 38.Bxd3 Qxd3 39.Re8+! Rxe8 40.Rxe8+ Rxe8 41.Qxd3 is easily winning. 37.Bh7+ Kf8 38.Qf5 I suppose we can’t really quibble here with Carlsen having such a dominant position and so many ways to win, but he did miss a forced mate in 7 here with 38.Nd7+ Qxd7 39.Qc5+ Re7 40. Rxe7 etc. 38…Re7 39.Bg6 Kg8 40.Nxf7 Rxf7 41.Bxf7+ 1-0 After 41…Nxf7 42.Re8+ will prove decisive.