The 5th Altibox Norway Chess Tournament in Stavanger kicked off on Monday with the preliminary blitz tournament to determine the pairings for the main event. This exciting way to get things underway is a recent idea stemming back to the 7th Mikhail Tal Memorial Tournament in Moscow in 2012 - and this exciting and novel precursor to the main event has become more or less the norm now for super-tournaments.
Previously, the pairings had been determined by drawing of lots, often in quite ornate ways, but mainly boring affairs. Although you must, of course, play everybody in an all-play-all, the pairings are of considerable importance; for in a normal tournament with an even number of players, half the field (in Stavanger numbers 1-5) get an extra White, while the other half have an extra Black.
Blitz on the eve of a massive tournament is very different from classical chess - and apart from fulfilling an important function, it provides an excellent ‘warm-up’ spectacle and some guide (though often an inaccurate one) as to who will be in form for the main event.
FIDE also has a blitz rating list nowadays, which Magnus Carlsen leads ahead of Hikaru Nakamura - and this also counts towards that rating list. And defending his title in his homeland, Carlsen totally dominated the blitz tournament, scoring an undefeated 7.5/9 (a performance rating of 3066!), to win by a clear two-point margin ahead of rivals Nakamura and Levon Aronian.
Carlsen’s emphatic blitz victory meant he got to chose his own pairing number - and he opted for #3, a tactical ploy, as he wanted to have White against Wesley So, Hikaru Nakamura, Anish Giri, Maxime Vachier-Lagrave and Sergey Karjakin - and it also meant a really big opening round match-up for the tournament, between the world No’s 1 and 2, Carlsen and So!
And Carlsen made a little out of his opening advantage, but despite winning a pawn, the US champion proved too solid a player for the World Champion to make anything of it, and the game ended in a drawn king and pawn ending. And indeed, this - almost! - was the script for the round, with four of the games ending in tough draws, the only exception to the rule being Nakamura’s win over Giri, as the American jumps into the early lead.
Vachier-Lagrave ½-½ Anand
Kramnik ½-½ Karjakin
Carlsen ½-½ So
Aronian ½-½ Caruana
Nakamura 1-0 Giri
1. H Nakamura (USA) 1/1; 2-9. M Carlsen (Norway), W So (USA), V Kramnik (Russia), F Caruana (USA), M Vachier-Lagrave (France), L Aronian (Armenia), V Anand (India), S Karjakin (Russia) ½; 10. A Giri (Netherlands) 0.
GM Hikaru Nakamura - GM Anish Giri
5th Altibox Norway Chess, (1)
1.d4 Nf6 2.c4 g6 3.Nc3 d5 The dynamic character of play makes the hypermodern Grünfeld Defence one of the most popular contemporary openings in modern-day chess. 4.Bg5 Ne4 5.Bh4 Nxc3 In the year 1970, the Bg5 system enjoyed a burst of popularity thanks to the novel new idea of Bh4, and the standard reply here had been the thematic 5...c5 - but Soviet Mark Taimanov won a number of games which put the whole Black setup under question. The tide turned that same year when Bobby Fischer (playing against Henrique Mecking, Buenos Aires 1970) came up with a daring new plan that involved 5...Nxc3, 6...dxc4 and 7...Be6 holding on to the pawn. 6.bxc3 dxc4 7.e3 Be6!? 8.Qb1 b6 Here, the 7-time Russian champion Peter Svidler, the modern-day Grünfeld maven prefers 8...c5!? that seems to offer easy equality. 9.Nh3 Bh6 The bishop looks a bit funny being developed here, but it serves a vital purpose as it stops White playing Nf4 hitting the bishop on e6 (and the d5 square), and readies Black's king for a quick kingside castling. 10.Bg5 Bxg5 11.Nxg5 Qd5 12.Nxe6 Qxe6 13.Qb4 Nakamura is going to recover his pawn and emerge with the better endgame, thanks to his mobile bishop and his long pawn chain stretching from c3-h2 - but it is far from a winning position, as Giri is not without resources here. 13...Qd5 14.Qxc4 Qxc4 15.Bxc4 e6 16.Be2! The bishop has a better future on f3. 16...Nd7 17.a4 The idea is to throw the a-pawn up the board to try to fix Black's queenside pawns, where later they will come under pressure; particularly the a-pawn. 17...Ke7 18.a5 c6 19.Kd2 b5 20.Rab1 Rab8 21.Rb2 f5 22.Rhb1 Kd6 23.f3 e5 24.c4 The endgame can be described as being "equal" - but Nakamura's bishop is the key to White going on to exploit Black's cramped position. 24...exd4 25.cxb5! cxb5 26.Bxb5 dxe3+ 27.Kxe3 Nf6 28.Bc4 Rxb2?! Not unusually, the first instincts in a difficult position is to exchange off pieces as it usually relieves any pressure in a position - but here, although it goes slightly against the grain, Giri should have played 28...Rhe8+ 29.Kd4 Rbd8! where suddenly the centralised rooks prove problematic for White to deal with. For example 30.Rb7 Kc6+ 31.Kc3 Re3+ 32.Kc2 Rd4! 33.Bf7 Re2+ 34.Kc3 Rd7! 35.a6 Re3+ 36.Kc2 Re2+ with a draw by repetition. 29.Rxb2 Re8+ 30.Kd4 Re7 31.Rb8 It had to be clear here for Giri that he faced a very uncomfortable time ahead, as Nakamura's bishop simply dominates the knight and White's rook is also very active. He could probably deal with one of those disadvantages - but two makes it a loss. 31...Rd7 32.Rc8 Rb7 33.a6! The squeeze is on! Giri now has to abandon any thoughts of a rearguard defence of the seventh rank with his rook as, eventually, White will find a breakthrough - so instead, Giri looks to activate his rook to try and thwart Nakamura from winning. 33...Rb4 As we explained in the previous note: if 33...Re7 34.Bb5! Ke6 (To see how difficult the position has become for Black, if 34...Nd7?? 35.Rc6#!) 35.g3 and Black is so passive, White will sooner or later find the breakthrough. Rather than this, Giri takes the risk of going active with his rook - and, in general, this is usually the best way to attempt to save such endings. 34.Kc3 Ra4 35.Kb3 Nd7! The knight comes back into the game just in the nick of time. Now, if 36.Kxa4 Nb6+ and ...Nxc8 offer Black excellent chances of saving the game now. 36.Bb5 Perhaps more accurate was 36.Rd8 Ra1 37.Ra8 Nc5+ 38.Kb2 Rg1 39.g3 Rg2+ 40.Kc3 Rxh2 41.Rxa7 and White has the dangerous passed a-pawn. But most likely Nakamura feared Black could sacrifice his knight for the a-pawn and a likely scenario of the ending of R+B vs R and a technical draw - but in practice, most of the times the R+B has led to mate at elite-level. 36...Ra5 37.Kb4 Ra1 The idea of encouraging Kb4 is to give the Black rook "distance" from the king. 38.Rd8 Rb1+ 39.Ka5 Ra1+ 40.Kb4 Rb1+ 41.Ka4 Ra1+ 42.Kb3 Rb1+ 43.Kc4 Rc1+ 44.Kd3 Rc7 45.Kd4 Giri has very resourcefully managed to stay in the game - and now, his rook defends the vulnerable seventh rank and his knight is back in the game - and with accurate play here, he should be able to save this sort of position. 45...Ke7 46.Ra8 Kd6 47.h4 Nakamura is trying to gain a little space on the kingside. 47...Ke7? After doing all the hard work to stay in the game, Giri cracks at the crucial moment and throws it all away now. Instead, he had to play 47...Nc5! 48.Rd8+ Ke6 49.Re8+ Kf7 50.Rb8 Ke6 where Black has a good fortress-like set-up that's stopping White from making a breakthrough. 48.Bxd7! Nakamura didn't even have to think twice about this - the resulting rook and pawn ending is won, as White's rook is active and his king has a commanding position. 48...Rxd7+ 49.Ke5 Kf7 50.Rb8! The coming Rb7 will soon prove decisive. 50...Re7+ 51.Kd5 Kf6 52.Rb7 Re5+ 53.Kd4 Ra5 54.Rxa7 f4 55.Kc4 Ra2 56.Kc5 h5 57.Ra8 The plan is Kb6-a7 coupled with Rb8-b6 and the king protected on the b-file from rook checks, allowing the a-pawn to push home. 57...Rc2+ 58.Kb6 Rb2+ 59.Kc5 Rc2+ 60.Kb6 Rb2+ 61.Ka7 Rxg2 62.Rb8 Rf2 63.Rb6+ Kg7 64.Kb7 Rxf3 65.a7 Ra3 66.Ra6 Rb3+ 67.Kc6 1-0 Giri resigns, as he'll quickly run out of rook checks with the White king coming back down the board.