Remember all the complaints everyone had about the lack of excitement in the recent Magnus Carlsen v Sergey Karjakin title tussle in Manhattan? Well, the antidote could be found at the 8th London Chess Classic, the final leg of the Grand Chess Tour, where each round has consistently produced the goods. It couldn't get any better, could it? Well, it can and it did, as round six turned out to be a ROTY day - that’s “ROTY” as in Round of the Year!
In one of the most exciting tournament rounds of recent times that I can remember, there were more spills ’n’ thrills than usual in London - and by the end of it, two Americans had power-housed themselves into an intriguing fight to the finish, one game of which producing a positional brilliancy that’s destined for the anthologies, and the unique scenario of no less than five 2800-players now at the top of the rankings in the unofficial live ratings.
Let’s start at the top, and tournament leader Wesley So’s impressive performance at London continued, as he went from strength-to-strength with a crushing win over Bulgaria’s Veselin Topalov, who continues his ratings death spiral with a fourth successive loss, as he now plummets eight places to No.23. But for So, he’s on a chess-high, as he continues to hold the lead, and with it now a virtual lock-in for the 2016 GCT title, and closing in fast now on Vladimir Kramnik’s berth in the world No3 spot.
Not to be outdone, US Champion Fabiano Caruana uncorked the Novelty of the Year against his predecessor Hikaru Nakamura, with a simply stunning positional queen sacrifice and follow-up that could well be a double whammy of the Game of the Year - and a very instructive game that showed that you have to dig a lot deeper than just a simple silicon assessment of a position.
And Caruana’s brilliant win now moves him to just 10.4 points behind Carlsen, the closest anyone has ever been to the No1 since 2010, when the Norwegian first took over the top spot. And going down the home straight now, So and Caruana are set to meet each other in a penultimate round showdown, where the London title and perhaps also the world No1 spot could well be up for grabs.
1. Wesley So (USA) 4.5/6; 2. Fabiano Caruana (USA) 4; 3. Vladimir Kramnik (Russia) 3.5; 4-8. Levon Aronian (Armenia), Vishy Anand (India), Anish Giri (Netherlands), Maxime Vachier-Lagrave (France), Hikaru Nakamura (USA) 3; 9. Michael Adams (England) 2.5; 10. Veselin Topalov (Bulgaria) 0.5
GM Fabiano Caruana - GM Hikaru Nakamura
8th London Chess Classic, (6)
1.e4 c5 2.Nf3 d6 3.d4 cxd4 4.Nxd4 Nf6 5.Nc3 a6 6.Bg5 e6 7.f4 In another era influenced by an American in world chess, the mainline Najdorf was all the rage. 7...h6 8.Bh4 Qb6!? The 'Poisoned Pawn' proper after 7...Qb6 was a big favourite of Bobby Fischer when he was in his pomp during the late 1960s/early 70s. However, it was all but 'played out' at elite levels with the theory on it being so deep and mostly computer-generated. The early noughties saw it making a comeback of sorts, thanks to this new modern day twist of throwing a little spanner in the works first with 7...h6. 9.a3 The mainline runs 9.Qd2 Qxb2 10.Rb1 Qa3 11.Bxf6 gxf6 12.Be2 Nc6 13.0-0 where play becomes razor-sharp. Black has a pawn and the bishop pair, but White has excellent compensation with attacking chances against the Black king. 9...Be7 You may think that White's 9.a3 looks like a duffer's move, but in fact it has great logic behind it as Black now can't take the 'poisoned pawn' with 9...Qxb2? as the simple 10.Na4 wins the Black queen! 10.Bf2 Qc7 11.Qf3 Nbd7 12.0-0-0 b5 13.g4 g5 14.h4 gxf4 15.Be2 b4 A novelty from Nakamura, but little was he to know he was about to be out-noveltied by a move that was set to rock his world. Frenchman Maxime Vachier-Lagrave is the daring Bobby Fischer of today, and he is the biggest champion of this aggressive line with Black - and indeed, back in April, at the 4th Altibox Norway Chess, here MVL played 15...Rg8 against Anish Giri and went on to score a quite brilliant win. 16.axb4 Ne5 17.Qxf4 Nexg4 18.Bxg4 e5 19.Qxf6!! Caruana said afterwards that Nakamura had been "over-relying on the computer's evaluation." His reason being is that there's a follow-up that the engines don't even rate that soon leaves Black quite impotent. 19...Bxf6 20.Nd5 Qd8 21.Nf5!! A simply stunning follow-up to the queen sacrifice, as Nakamura was no doubt expecting to return the queen after 21.Nc6 Bxg4! 22.Nxd8 Bxd8 23.Rd3 f5 24.exf5 Bxf5 and an equal game. But this is where Caruana uncorks arguably the novelty of the year, with a follow-up that the computer engines don't assess at first as being good for White. Caruana explained afterwards that his coach, Rustam Kasimdzhanov, played this against him in a training match, and he discovered at first hand how much a stranglehold that White had on the position: "Rustam played Nf5 over the board. I pretty much stopped my analysis. The position is a nightmare to play for Black and probably objectively just lost." 21...Rb8?! Black's "best", according to the engines, is apparently 21...Bxf5 22.Bxf5 Be7 where Caruana adds, "The computer does not understand that Black is lost. This is one of the saddest positions that I have seen for Black - It's just complete domination with my bishop and knight." 22.Nxf6+ Qxf6 23.Rxd6 More clinical, as pointed out in the London VIP suite by Dr. John Nunn, was 23.Nxd6+! Kf8 24.Bf5!! and the coming threat of Bc5 leaves Black quite helpless to the power and unity of the minor pieces, the possible continuation being: 24...Bxf5 25.Nxf5 Rd8 26.Rxd8+ Qxd8 27.Rd1 Qf6 28.Bc5+ Ke8 (If 28...Kg8 29.Rd6! and the queen is lost, leaving Black with a helpless ending.) 29.Rd6 Qg6 30.Bb6! (Even stronger than 30.Rxg6 fxg6 31.Ne3) 30...Qxd6 31.Nxd6+ Ke7 32.Nf5+ Ke6 33.c4 and an easy endgame win for White. 23...Be6 24.Rhd1 0-0 At least Nakamura has managed to castle and connect his rooks - but even here, he is paralyzed by the Caruana's minor pieces. It only now takes one accurate move and Nakamura is a dead man walking. 25.h5! And here is that one accurate, killer move. The threat is Bh4 reducing Nakamura into the humiliating retreat of ...Qh8. Rather than groveling on with this, Nakamura opts to take the exit route that at least offers him some cheapo chances if Caruana doesn't follow through correctly. 25...Qg5+ 26.Be3 Qf6 27.Nxh6+ Kh8 28.Bf5 Caruana discarded the clinical win of 28.Nxf7+! as he'd missed a key move in his calculations. He discarded it because he only saw that 28...Qxf7 29.Rxe6 Rbd8 30.Rh6+ Kg7 31.Rg1 Qf1+!! turns the tables. What he'd missed was that, instead of 30.Rh6+, simply 30.Rxd8! wins on the spot after 30...Rxd8 31.Bf5, with the idea being Be3-g5 and eventually Re6-h6+ followed by Bg5-f6. A sad miss, but Caruana had seen his own clear route to victory now and had basically ruled out other quicker ways to the win. 28...Qe7? The pressure mounts on Nakamura, who blunders while searching for some tactical respite. Caruana said he expected the game to continue with 28...Rfe8 when he intended to prolong Nakamura's agony here with the slow build up of 29.b3 and Kb1, where he'd have a strategically won game. 29.b5! Stopping any hopes Nakamura had of some tactical loophole. Caruana said he'd seen some tricks in the position he wanted to eliminate, such as 29.Nxf7+ Rxf7 30.Rxe6 Qxb4 31.Rh6+ Kg8 32.Rg1+ Rg7 33.Be6+ Kf8 34.Rh8+ Ke7 35.Rxg7+ Kd6! where, because of the unexpected mating threat on e1, Caruana said Black was still in the game. Of course, instead of 34.Rh8+ 34.Bc5+! won, but Caruana opted instead for this safety-first way to the win. 29...Qe8 Now, if 29...Rxb5 30.Nxf7+! easily wins, as Black no longer has the mating threat on e1 available in the above note that Caruana had specifically mentioned: 30...Qxf7 (No better is 30...Rxf7 31.Rxe6 Qxe6 32.Bxe6 Rf8 33.Rd5 and an easy win.) 31.Rxe6 Qxh5 32.Rh6+ Qxh6 33.Bxh6 Rfb8 34.Rd7! R5b7 35.Bg7+ Kg8 36.Bxe5 Rxd7 37.Bxd7 Rb7 38.Bc6 and yet again, another easy win in prospect for White. 30.Nxf7+ Rxf7 31.Rxe6 Qxb5 32.Rh6+ 1-0 And with the Black queen now diverted from the "hail-mary pass" escape of the mate on e1, Nakamura resigns, as White will easily win now after 32...Kg8 33.Rg1+ Rg7 34.Be6+ Kf8 35.Rh8+ Ke7 36.Rxg7+ Kd6 [36...Kxe6 37.Rh6#] 37.Rxb8 Qxb8 38.Bd5 and White's h-pawn queens.