After the upset of his opening round loss to Hikaru Nakamura in the 9th Bilbao Masters Final, World Champion Magnus Carlsen has gone on the carnage with a decisive three-game win streak to storm into the sole lead at the top. And along the way, he’s inflicted what could well be a very big phycological blow to his Russian title-challenger, Sergey Karjakin, ahead of their upcoming world title match scheduled for New York City in November.
Following his mishap to Nakamura, Carlsen was back to his brilliant best as he simply dominated and ripped apart Wei Yi, Karjakin, and Wesley So respectively in successive rounds in Bilbao; with each game seeing his opponent’s being emphatically overpowered. And amazingly Carlsen has now featured in all four decisive games so far in Bilbao - and after he beat So to take the sole lead, worryingly for his opponent's he told the Norwegian newspaper VG that his “play is getting better by the day.”
And another day later, and Carlsen almost took the streak to four games as he began to overpower his “bogeyman” Anish Giri in round five. But the very resilient Dutch No.1 - the only player in the game today whom Carlsen has never beaten in classical chess - mounted a successful rearguard action to hold off the world champion, forcing him to cede the draw as the tournament reached its midpoint. Play will resume on Tuesday, as the players meet again, though with colours reversed.
Carlsen and Karjakin are the two golden boys of 1990, hailed by many as the best birth year for top players in chess history. Karjakin was the first to make an impact on the game when he became the youngest grandmaster ever in history at 12 and Carlsen soon followed - and from then they have gone on to fulfil their early destiny of being fated to meet each other in a future world championship match.
When Karjakin won the Candidates earlier this year, he immediately withdrew from the Norway super-tournament and an early collision with Carlsen in order to be better prepared ahead of their title bout. Many thought they wouldn’t meet this year till then, but Bilbao sprang a surprise when both accepted an invite to play. Carlsen’s crushing win though in round three may give him a big psychological boost ahead of their title match.
Carlsen now leads Karjakin 4-1 with 15 draws in classical games between the two that will only reinforce his odds as being a big favourite to retain his title later in the year. But anything can happen in a match-play situation over 12 games, and the result is likely to be much closer than many experts and pundits believe it will be.
Photo © | 9th Bilbao Masters Final
1. Magnus Carlsen (Norway) 10/15; 2. Hikaru Nakamura (USA) 7; 3. Anish Giri (Netherlands) 5; 4-6. Sergey Karjakin (Russia), Wesley So (USA), Wei Yi (China), 4. (In Bilbao, the three-point soccer rule applies for a win, with 1 point for a draw)
GM Magnus Carlsen - GM Sergey Karjakin
9th Bilbao Masters Final, (3)
1.e4 c5 2.Nf3 d6 3.c3 Nf6 4.Be2 A not-so-innocent sideline against the Sicilian that brings back lots of memories for this writer, as it was developed and pioneered by the wonderfully eccentric English IM Michael Basman back in the early 1970s. In those days before digital media, Basman recorded a very instructive cassette tape on this line, the idea being that there's a trick of Qa4+ winning the knight if you now take the pawn on e4. I was heavily influenced to buy Basman's tape and play this line after his win with it against Michael Stean at Hastings 73/74, where Stean played ...Nc6 and was obliterated by Basman's gambit play for active piece-play in a very instructive game shown in the link by clicking here. 4...g6 And after most players saw the difficulties with playing ...Nc6, this soon became the accepted way to play against Be2. 5.0-0 Bg7 6.Bb5+ Nc6 7.d4 Qb6 8.Ba4 cxd4 9.cxd4 0-0 10.d5 Nb8?! Heading to e5 leaves White with a comfortable advantage, thanks to a not-so-obvious recapture: 10...Ne5 11.Nxe5 dxe5 12.Nc3 e6 13.Bb3 exd5 14.Bxd5! The dominant knight on d5 guarantee's White holds the advantage, as Black's queen is soon nudged around with the gain of space and tempo: 14...Nxd5 15.Nxd5 Qd8 16.Qb3! soon to be followed by Rfd1 with active play. However, Black has faired much better in praxis here with 10...Na5!? 11.Nc3 Bg4 12.h3 Bxf3 13.Qxf3 Rac8 14.Qe2 Nc4 15.Bb5 Qc5 and Black is fine (Palit-Gopal, Kolkata 2014). 11.Nc3 Bg4 12.h3 Bxf3 13.Qxf3 Nbd7 14.Rb1 Rfc8 15.Bc2 Ne5 16.Qe2 Nfd7 White has more space and the bishop-pair - but Black should have adequate counterplay on the queenside by dominating the c-file and his knight coming to c4 (much like the Palit-Gopal game in the note above). 17.Bg5! h6?! This looks wrong and leads to a bad weakening of Black's kingside. Better was keeping things more solid while looking to exchange off the dark-squared bishops with 17...Bf6!?. 18.Bh4 White can't, of course, take the pawn with 18.Bxe7?, as after 18...f6 the bishop finds itself trapped. 18...g5 19.Bg3 Qa6 By now Karjakin has to be thinking his plan has backfired, as he's left with a very weak kingside that is difficult to defend, so looks to ease the pressure by exchanging of queens. 20.Qd1! Carlsen is not interested! 20...Rc4?! The wrong choice. As we've mentioned before, c4 is best for the knight, and best practical chance Karjakin had here was 20...Nc4!? 21.Qg4 Nde5 22.Bxe5 Nxe5 23.Qf5 b5 and seeking quick counterplay on the queenside. Now, however, Carlsen's pieces run riot over on Karjakin's badly weakened kingside. 21.Kh1! The coming f4 will blast a hole through Karjakin's defences. 21...Rac8 22.f4 gxf4 23.Bxf4 Qb6 Karjakin is in a fix, as Carlsen more or less has free reign for his pieces where all the action is - on the kingside! 24.Qh5! Nf6 25.Qf5 Carlsen's attack is beginning to reach critical mass, as all his assets come together for the final push. 25...Qd8 Karjakin is looking for salvation with ...Qd7 and a much-welcomed exchange of queens to ease the pressure. But Carlsen isn't going to make it that easy for him. 26.Bb3 Rd4 27.Bxe5 dxe5 28.Rbd1 Perhaps stronger was 28.Rbc1!? with the threat of Nb5 in the air. 28...Qd7 29.Qf3 Rb4 30.Rd2! (See Diagram) A clever little move indeed! Carlsen is in no hurry to rush things, as Karjakin is in dire straits - and with Rd2, he keeps his options open by defending b2, the possibility of doubling his rooks on the d-file, or even a dramatic rook lift over to the f-file (or even the g-file, as happens!). There was an immediate attack with 30.d6 e6!? (Not 30...exd6? 31.Nd5! Nxd5 32.Bxd5 and the pressure on f7 will be unbearable.) 31.Qe3 Qc6 but Black could well have resources here simply by blockading White's d-pawn. 30...Rf8 31.g4! The squeeze is on. Sooner or later, Karjakin is going to run out of useful moves he can make to defend his king. 31...a5 32.Rg2 Carlsen's "heavy furniture" has now been successfully switched over to the kingside for the final push. 32...Nh7 33.h4 Rb6 34.g5 Kh8 35.Rfg1 f5? The relentless pressure from Carlsen has taken its toll, as Karjakin now crumbles. His only hope here was 35...Rg6 36.Qf5 Qc8 and try to hang on for dear life. Now, however, Carlsen has his quarry trapped. 36.Qh3! Rb4 If 36...Rg6 37.gxh6 quickly wins. 37.gxh6 Bxh6 38.Qg3! The pressure on the g-file is unbearable - Karjakin is either going to be mated or lose material. 38...Nf6 39.Qg6 Ng4 40.Rxg4 1-0 Karjakin resigns, as after 40...fxg4 41.Qxh6+ Kg8 42.Qg6+ Kh8 43.Qh5+ Kg8 44.Rxg4+ he's going to lose both his queen AND his king!