This week sees the start of a new generational ‘Battle of the Millennials’ in chess, as Magnus Carlsen readies himself to defend his World Championship title against his Russian challenger, Sergey Karjakin (winner of the 2016 Candidates’ Tournament), in a 12-game match that will be held November 10-30 in the redeveloped Fulton Market building along the South Street Seaport in Lower Manhattan, New York.
And it will be a new generational battle, as for the first time neither player taking part in a title match are part of the ‘old guard’ left over from the Garry Kasparov era - Viswanathan Anand, Vladimir Kramnik, Veselin Topalov and Levon Aronian - as the two former child prodigies were born in the so-called ‘golden year’ of 1990.
As I type this column, the official match countdown gets ever-nearer, and now it shows that there are just 4 days 2 hours 2 minutes and 10 seconds until the first move is made in Manhattan. Many chess sites are currently doing previews of the Carlsen-Karjakin match - and New in Chess magazine today launched a free 40-page special that can be downloaded on pdf (or read online) when you register for it here: www.newinchess.com/special
Carlsen goes into this match as the favorite to retain his title - but anything can happen in a match-play situation, and despite being the underdog, Karjakin will make it an intriguing fight right to the end, as he’s one of the toughest players in the game to defeat. And the stats also point to a Carlsen victory, showing us that in classical, the score is +4 =16 -1 for Carlsen. Blitz: 8.5-3.5 for Carlsen and in rapid: 4-4.
The last 16 events that included both players, Karjakin has only finished ahead of Carlsen three times - but ironically, two of them being in Stavanger on the World Champion’s own home turf! But the last time the two met was back in mid-July at the Bilbao Masters Final in the Spanish Basque Country, which proved to be a critical win for Carlsen that went a long way to help him clinch the Bilbao title.
GM Magnus Carlsen - GM Sergey Karjakin
9th Bilbao Masters Final, (3)
Sicilian Defence, Basman Variation
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 a heavy loss of 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!