The NCAA men’s basketball phenomena of ‘March Madness’ all revolves around what’s become known as ‘The Science of Bracketology’ of predicting the winners, as 64 teams become 32, then the ‘Sweet Sixteen’, ‘Elite 8’, and the ‘Final Four’ deciding the eventual winner. And it could now become part of the chess lexicon, as March sees the new Professional Rapid Online (PRO) Chess League reach the playoff stages that will ultimately decide the winner in the league's inaugural season.
Last Wednesday, the Sweet 16 saw a total of 49 GMs fielded over the 64 roster positions available. And not only that, five of the world's top six players - Magnus Carlsen, Wesley So, Fabiano Caruana, Maxime Vachier-Lagrave and Hikaru Nakamura - were in action for their relevant franchise teams!
Leading the charge was Magnus Carlsen, and the world champion more than played his part in the Norway Gnomes beating the Delhi Dynamite. Carlsen’s MVP-performance of 3.5/4 was more than enough to inspire his team to victory - and his game (featured today) against GM Sahaj Grover is also doubly leading the social media voting intentions for the Move of the Week and Game of the Week awards.
Also through to the next stage is So’s StLouis Archbishops, Caruana’s Montreal Chessbrahs, and Vachier-Lagrave’s Marseille Migraines - but not so luck was Nakamura's Miami Champions, as the four-time U.S. Champion had one of his worst-ever online days, scoring just 1.5/4 that played a big part in his team sensationally crashing out to the lesser-fancied Buenos Aires Krakens.
GM Magnus Carlsen - GM Sahaj Grover
PRO League Playoffs, (2)
1.b3 e5 2.Bb2 Arguably one of the most famous Nimzo-Larsen Attack brevities was the epic Bent Larsen v Boris Spassky encounter from the USSR v Rest of the World match in 1970 - a game that ended in a miniature with Spassky (as Black) finding a wonderful sacrificial finale. And just like the then world champion Spassky - although with colours reversed - the current world champion comes up with an equally stunning sacrificial finale to this game. 2...Nc6 3.e3 Nge7 Black wants to play ...d5 without the usual Nimzo-Larsen drawbacks of 3...d5 4.Bb5 Bd6 5.f4! and White will successfully chip away at Black's centre to open up the vulnerable a1-h8 diagonal. What Grover plans with 3...Nge7 is ...d5 and, if f4, then ...f6 and Black controls the centre - but Carlsen soon cuts across Grovers plans. 4.Nf3 Carlsen's idea is that, since Black can't continue with ...d5 with the e-pawn under attack, if Grover now plays 4...f6 then 5.e4! gives White a good game with the weakening of the white squares, not to mention the vulnerable c4-g8 diagonal. 4...e4 5.Ng5 d5 6.Qh5! It may well be caveman stuff, but it is all cutting across Black's strategy here, as the only alternative of 6...g6 will just make the long a1-h8 diagonal even more of a problem for Black to deal with. 6...Ng6 7.Nc3 Nce5 Although there's the crude threat of ...Bg4 winning the White queen, Black's in a bind here, as in certain positions Carlsen is threatening to wreck havoc with the piece sacrifice of Nxf7 and Nxd5. And if 7...Be7 8.f4! and White has a good game. 8.Be2 c6 9.f4 As we said earlier, a key freeing move in the Nimzo-Larsen Attack. 9...exf3 10.gxf3 h6? The knight was a thorn in Grover's side by stopping his plan of developing his dark-squared bishop and safely castling kingside. And this was obviously worrying him, as he unwittingly falls into a deadly trap. 11.Nxf7! Kxf7 Forced, as 11...Nxf7 12.Qxg6 leaves White with a winning game. 12.f4 The Nimzo-Larsen Attack freeing move of f4 strikes again! This time, though, it removes a vital defender from the heavily pinned Ng6. 12...Nd7 13.Rg1 Qh4+ 14.Kd1 Qxh5 15.Bxh5 Bd6 Although Black is a pawn down here, he was probably hoping his bishops hitting the kingside could give him a slim hope of perhaps salvaging something from this. But, unfortunately, he’s about to discover that slim has left town! 16.Nb5!! A stunning move from Carlsen that breaks his opponent's resolve. 16...Bf8 The (full!) point is that Black can't take the knight, as he gets caught in the cross hairs of a series of fatal discovered checks and attacks. Alternatively, if 16...cxb5 17.Rxg6 Ke7 (and if 17...Be7 18.Rxg7+ Ke6 19.Rxe7+ Kxe7 20.Bxh8 is also hopeless for Black.) 18.Rxg7+ Kd8 19.Rg6! easily winning. 17.Rxg6 Kg8 18.Nc7 Rb8 19.Ne6 Nf6 20.Nxg7! 1-0 Black resigns here, as after 20...Nxh5 21.Nxh5+ Kf7 22.f5 Rg8 23.Nf4 Be7 24.Rxg8 Kxg8 25.Be5 Ra8 26.f6 leaves Black in dire straits being two pawns down with a totally lost ending.