Since beating Vishy Anand to win the world title in 2013, many pundits have written that Magnus Carlsen has gone off the boil, not being the dominant force he was en route to the title. And yes, there was a kernel of truth in such remarks - but since about the midway point of last December’s London Chess Classic, Carlsen seems to have rediscovered his mojo and he’s back to his brilliant best; now perhaps arguably even playing the best chess of his career.
From victory at the London Chess Classic (and with it, the inaugural Grand Chess Tour title), he then started 2016 by winning the Tata Steel Masters. But now at the 4th Altibox Norway Chess Tournament, as perhaps rapper MC Hammer would say, his chess has been such that you can’t touch this. Looking for his first major victory in his homeland, he started in a determined fashion, and now it looks as if he intends finishing it in the same way.
In round seven, after playing the novelty of 12.Ne2! that led to the crushing of tough-nut-to-beat Vladimir Kramnik, Carlsen immediately headed to the ‘confessional box’ to acknowledge that this was the discovery of his long-time friend and Norwegian No.2, Jon Ludvig Hammer, who was doing the live commentary of the tournament for the Norwegian state television, NRK.
So together, I suppose we could say that Norwegians MC & Hammer rapped Kramnik’s world! The game was also a landmark win for Carlsen, as it not only extended the World Champion's lead at the top as we head down the home straight, but it also saw him beating his own personal record by now going 42 games without a loss.
Photo © | Aas, Erlend / NTB scanpix
And as Carlsen extended his lead at the top, Levon Aronian - the only other victor of the round, beating Pavel Eljanov - joined the ever-growing chasing pack a full point behind the World Champion. Commenting after the game, Carlsen said: "After like 16 moves my position plays itself and it’s pretty hard to screw it up.” And sure enough, such is the position Carlsen got from Hammer’s new idea, the White position did indeed play itself - but very instructive play nevertheless!
Carlsen 1-0 Kramnik
Aronian 1-0 Eljanov
Topalov draw Giri
Harikrishna draw Vachier-Lagrave
Grandelius draw Li Chao
1. Magnus Carlsen (Norway) 5/7; 2-5. Maxime Vachier-Lagrave (France), Levon Aronian (Armenia), Veselin Topalov (Bulgaria), Pentala Harikrishna (India) 4; 6. Vladimir Kramnik (Russia) 3.5; 7-9. Anish Giri (Netherlands), Li Chao (China), Pavel Eljanov (Ukraine) 3; 10. Nils Grandelius (Sweden) 1.5.
GM Magnus Carlsen - GM Vladimir Kramnik
4th Norway Chess Tournament, (7)
Queen’s Gambit Declined, Exchange Variation
1.d4 d5 2.c4 e6 3.Nc3 Nf6 4.cxd5 exd5 5.Bg5 c6 6.e3 The Exchange variation. Traditionally, White aims at the 'Minority Attack' of advancing his queenside pawns to weaken Black's pawns; if White's strategy works, then he has an easy endgame advantage. However, this is easier said than done. 6...Bf5 This is a line that was popularised by England's Nigel Short. 7.Qf3 Bg6 8.Bxf6 Qxf6 9.Qxf6 gxf6 10.Nf3 Black's kingside pawns may well be crippled, but he does though have compensation with the bishop pair. 10...Nd7 11.Nh4 Be7 12.Ne2! The standard move here is 12.g3 - but now with this opening novelty honed by Carlsen's long-time friend and the Norwegian No.2, Jon Ludvig Hammer, it’s all about the all-important f5 square! Yet the concept behind it is so easy, I'm surprised it hasn't been seen before. What White intends doing is Ne2-g3-f5 to immediately close down the potency of one of the Black bishops. Not only that, it also begins to demonstrate the long-term weakness of Black's kingside pawns. And amazingly for such a new opening novelty, its power is seen by the fact that in just a few more moves Kramnik's position becomes untenable. 12...Nb6 On reflection, this turns out to be a useless plan from Kramnik. Instead, he needs to concentrate on preparing ideas such as...c5 to open the game up for his bishops. 13.Ng3 Bb4+ 14.Kd1 Na4? this is a bad plan gone horribly wrong for Kramnik, as b2 is never really hanging and the sorrily-placed knight on a4 soon becomes a big burden to him. 15.Ngf5! Kd7 Of course not 15...Nxb2+? 16.Kc2 Nc4 (16...Na4?? 17.Kb3! wins a piece.) 17.Bxc4 dxc4 18.Rhb1! and Black can't stop White playing a3 and Rxb7 with a crushing game, with all of Black's pawns on both sides of the board now shattered. 16.Rb1 Kramnik had to realise how impotent his knight was by now after this move. This was the time to realise the errors of your way, swallow your pride by making the retreat - but Kramnik fails to do so, and he pays the price dearly. 16...Ke6 17.Bd3 Rhc8 18.Ke2! The ease with which Carlsen plays this position is frightening. Here we have a World Champion on a roll, playing his best chess since winning the title, and he has the world No.2 and ex-champion struggling here to stay in the game to avert a miniature of losing in under 25 moves - and the queens have been long exchanged off! 18...Bf8 Kramnik now realises his pieces are all on the wrong squares and awkwardly placed - but the damage has been well and truly done now, and he's too late to change direction. 19.g4! When Carlsen is playing simple chess like this, there's not a greater sight to behold in the game - he makes it all look so, so easy. The pawn thrust doesn't just reinforce the protection of the knight on f5, it now allows him the winning plan of Ng2, h4 and Nf4+. 19...c5 20.Ng2! When was the last time you saw Kramnik in a lost position after 20 moves? 20…cxd4 The only other option lead to an easier path to victory for Carlsen: 20...c4 21.Bc2 Nb6 22.h4 h6 23.Nf4+ Kd7 24.Nxg6 fxg6 25.Ng3 and Black is busted on the kingside; something will have to give, either the pawn on g6 or opening up the h-file for the rook to infiltrate. 21.exd4 Many may well have opted here for 21.Nxd4+ to keep the better pawn formation. But Carlsen very quickly realises that recapturing with the pawn not only keeps the pressure on the position, but it importantly denies Kramnik a possible route for his knight back into the game via c5. 21...Bd6 The only move, as the check on f4 leads to instant resignation: 21...h5 22.Nf4+ Kd7 23.Bb5+ winning the misplaced knight on a4. 22.h4 h5 Kramnik is in face-saving mode here. He's not playing for survival but avoiding having to resign in a miniature; perhaps even struggling on to reach the time-control. All of the above are scenarios of seeing such brevities appearing in any future miniature anthologies. He's well and truly busted though, his only other option being 22...Rh8 23.Nge3 Bf4 24.h5 Bxf5 25.Nxf5 and we now see one of the reasons behind the unlikely 18.Ke2!, as White simply threatens Kf3 and Rhe1+ winning. And still, that sorrily placed knight on a4 is doing nothing. 23.Ng7+ This wins a pawn and the game, but Kramnik gets to prolong the game a bit - but he could easily have resigned any time around now. 23...Ke7 24.gxh5 Bxd3+ 25.Kxd3 Kd7 26.Ne3 Nb6 Finally, the knight retreats from its folly on the queenside to do something constructive! 27.Ng4 Rh8 28.Rhe1! More lethal than 28.Nxf6+, as it not only cuts the king off from the kingside, it also stops the knight getting to d7. 28...Be7 29.Nf5 Bd8 30.h6 This had to be torture for Kramnik to have to sit through. 30...Rc8 31.b3 With all the time in the world, Carlsen coolly and calmly just removes any active squares for his opponent's pieces, and yet again Kramnik has to find another way for the errant knight to get into the game. 31...Rc6 32.Nge3 Now Carlsen forces the knight to stay offside on b6 by attacking d5. 32...Bc7 33.Rbc1 Rxc1 34.Rxc1 Bf4 35.Rc5 Ke6 36.Ng7+ Kd6 37.Ng4 Nd7 Kramnik would dearly love to snatch off that advanced h-pawn with 37...Bxh6, but alas... 38.Nxh6 Rxh6 39.Nf5+ forks king and rook. 38.Rc2 f5 39.Nxf5+ Ke6 40.Ng7+ Kd6 Again the knights prevent the king coming across to the kingside - and still the knights support the h6-pawn with a knight fork. 41.Re2 Kc6 42.Re8 Now with the rooks exchanged, Carlsen can easily push through his h-pawn. 42...Rxe8 43.Nxe8 Nf8 44.Ne5+! The final twist of the knife in Kramnik's back - the knight check either pushes the Black king further away to the queenside and f7 falling, or he has to exchange off his bishop and see the h-pawn passing. 44...Bxe5 45.dxe5 Kd7 46.Nf6+ Ke6 47.h5! (See Diagram) The final finesse: now g6 is denied to the Black knight to cover the queening square on h8. 47...Kxe5 48.Nd7+ Nxd7 49.h7 Nc5+ 50.Ke2 1-0