The penultimate round of the 9th Bilbao Masters Final in the Spanish Basque Country proved to be the storm before the calm. Again, Magnus Carlsen turned in a true masterclass of a performance, as the world champion secured victory with a round to spare to claim his third Bilbao title. Therefore it came as no surprise to anyone that we witnessed three rather tame draws to end a tournament that was dominated by - who else? - Carlsen.
Carlsen is in a league of his own at elite-level in the game today, as he notched up his 28th supertournament victory - and now well on his way to breaking Garry Kasparov’s career-best record of 40 victories. In the past year, Carlsen has won five supertournaments; and another Carlsen “statgasm” is that (apart from two occasions) he was in the top three in his last 50 classical tournaments.
And the world champion’s powerhouse performance in Bilbao will also come as a major boost to his confidence and chances of regaining his title ahead of his November title match with challenger Sergey Karjakin - who like Carlsen, was also born in 1990. And to put both their records in perspective, while Carlsen has had five supertournament victories in the past year, his challenger, by comparison, has only won five in his career.
Save for Carlsen’s dominance, Hikaru Nakamura turned in a solid performance as the US No.2 took second place and - finally! - ending his jinx of beating the world champion at classical chess. Also, a performance of note was the return to form of Chinese teenager Wei Yi - seen as a future challenger for Carlsen - who took the bragging rights to third place on tiebreak ahead of Wesley So.
But Carlsen’s dominance was such that he won 4 games with the remaining five players winning 3 games combined in Bilbao - and one of those was Nakamura’s opening round win over the world champion. This means that Carlsen was where all the action was, with the world champion involved in 5 of the 7 decisive games. And we’ve covered 4 of those games so far, with the only Carlsen win left for us to publish in this final Bilbao report being his stylish, near miniature masterpiece against So.
1. Magnus Carlsen (Norway) 17/30; 2. Hikaru Nakamura (USA) 12; 3. Wei Yi (China) 11; 4. Wesley So (USA) 11; 5. Sergey Karjakin (Russia) 9; 6. Anish Giri (Netherlands) 7. (In Bilbao, the three-point soccer rule applies for a win, with 1 point for a draw).
GM Magnus Carlsen - GM Wesley So
9th Bilbao Masters Final, (4)
Ruy Lopez, Anti-Berlin
1.e4 e5 2.Nf3 Nc6 3.Bb5 Nf6 4.d3 Bc5 5.Bxc6 dxc6 6.Qe2 We've seen so many elite-level 'Berlin Endgames' where the queens come off early. But now the new battleground has become this quiet approach; the sort of approach that best suits Magnus Carlsen's play. However, usually more common here is 6.Nbd2 rather than Carlsen's 6.Qe2. 6...Qe7 7.Nbd2 Bg4 8.h3 Bh5 9.a3 This is a new twist from Carlsen with some queenside expansion, rather than the more usual set-up of b3, Bb2, Nc4 and a4. 9...Nd7 10.b4 Bd6 11.Nc4 f6 12.Ne3 a5 Countering the queenside expansion with ...a5 is a normal approach in such positions, but So loses valuable time in doing so. And as those early writers in chess were wont to say "The purpose of castling is to provide safety for the King and get the Rook into play quickly - in one stroke." And with those wise words in mind, the safety-minded amongst us would instead have preferred 12...0-0 13.Nf5 Qe6 (But not 13...Qf7? 14.Bh6!) 14.g4 Bf7 15.Bd2 with a balanced game. 13.Nf5! Carlsen seizes his moment to give his knight the wonderful f5 outpost. 13...Qf8 The immediate 13...Qf7 was the better option. 14.bxa5 Rxa5 15.0-0! Qf7 A tacit admission from So that he has wasted valuable time with ...Qf8 that delayed his castling, as Carlsen's a3 pawn cannot be taken: 15...Bxa3 16.Bxa3 Bxf3 (16...Rxa3? 17.Rxa3 Qxa3 18.Nxg7+!) 17.Bxf8 Bxe2 18.Rxa5 Rxf8 19.Rb1 easily winning. 16.a4! A wonderful concept from Carlsen, the big idea behind it being to exploit Black's back-rank weakness. 16...Nc5 17.Qe1 The point of Carlsen's previous move. This subtle retreat puts So in a bind, as it removes in an instance the pin from the bishop on g4, and at the same time prevents him from castling to safety. 17...b6 The a4-pawn is taboo: 17...Rxa4? 18.Rxa4 Nxa4 19.Qa5! fully exposes the weakness in Black's back-rank. 18.Nd2! (See Diagram) Again, preventing So from castling as Nc4 is very strong...and comes with a sting in the tail. 18...Rxa4 As we said, castling was bad: 18...0-0? 19.Nc4! Rxa4 20.Rxa4 Nxa4 21.Bh6! wins material. That said, So should have realised the dangers in the position, and hunkered down to salvage what he could from the position with 18...Ra6 or even 18...Ra8. 19.Nc4! Bf8? With all the early pressure and numerous knight tricks to defend against, So cracks. Retreating all the way back to f8 was simply a bad mistake. So had to play 19...Be7 20.Be3 Kd7 where White has excellent compensation for the pawn, but crucially there's no knockout blow for Carlsen as happens in the game. 20.Be3 Kd7?! The inhuman computer will come up with the totally inhuman suggestion here of 20...Rg8 to protect the rook. But it looks ugly and it is difficult to see anything other than Carlsen going on to win, by following up with 21.Qc3 and f4 to open the game up. 21.Qc3 Nxe4 So finds now that he's totally busted. If 21...g6 22.Nxb6+! cxb6 23.Bxc5 Rxa1 24.Rxa1 and Ra7+ winning the queen is coming. 22.Nxb6+ cxb6 23.dxe4 Qc4 24.Qd2+ Kc7 25.g4 Bg6 26.Rfd1 1-0 So resigns, as he's getting mated after 26...Rxa1 27.Qd8+ Kb7 28.Rxa1.