It once seemed as if world champions were invincible, almost impossible to defeat. José Rául Capablanca, the Cuban titan of the early 20th century, did not lose a game from 1916 to 1924, including his title match in 1921 against Emanuel Lasker. More than a half-century later, Russia’s Anatoly Karpov was considered so immune to defeat that the chess world was virtually stunned when he lost.
But current champion Magnus Carlsen, however, is not as invincible as Capa or Karpov were in their primes. The Norwegian is susceptible to being defeated, even susceptible to having a bad tournament or two - and this is proving to be the case in his homeland in the 5th Altibox Norway Chess Tournament in Stavanger!
In Round 4, Carlsen was up against one of his bete noires in Levon Aronian who, after a personal slump in his game, is now once again riding high and producing the flair and élan that many thought would see the Armenian ace contesting a world title match. At his best, Aronian can make the board look at times like something out of Alice in Wonderland - and playing against Carlsen, this was certainly the case as he took the world champion deep into the rabbit hole with all of his creativity at the board.
To really appreciate it, play through the game featured below with no engine, and try to fathom any of it out for yourself. It’s a bold, rich, swashbuckling game - and a game that consigns Carlsen down to 2825 in the unofficial rating list, his lowest point since November 2011, and we now need to go back to 2008 to find a year where Carlsen performed worse than he has so far in 2017.
And it’s not only Aronian showing a welcomed return to form in Stavanger. America’s Hikaru Nakamura, with two stand-out wins against Anish Giri and Maxime Vachier-Lagrave (also in Round 4), now moves into the outright lead after all the games from Round 5 were drawn, with a half point lead over nearest rivals Aronian and Vladimir Kramnik.
1. Hikaru Nakamura (USA) 3½/5; 2-3. Levon Aronian (Armenia), Vladimir Kramnik (Russia) 3; 4-7. Fabiano Caruana (USA), Sergey Karjakin (Russia), Wesley So (USA), Anish Giri (Netherlands) 2½; 8-9. Magnus Carlsen (Norway), Maxime Vachier-Lagrave (France) 2; 10. Viswanathan Anand (India) 1½.
GM Levon Aronian - GM Magnus Carlsen
5th Altibox Norway Chess, (4)
1.d4 d5 2.c4 c6 3.Nf3 Nf6 4.Nc3 e6 5.e3 a6 6.b3 Bb4 7.Bd2 Nbd7 8.Bd3 0-0 9.0-0 Qe7 10.Bc2!? A cunning novelty from Aronian that he'd created back in 2003, and one which Carlsen doesn't see the immediate dangers now in the position. 10...Rd8 Blissfully unaware of what's coming, Carlsen continues with a standard continuation here. But now his world is about to be rocked - and how! 11.a3! Bxa3 Carlsen, oblivious to the tactical labyrinth he's about to fall into, takes on the challenge. He could retreat with 11...Bd6 but after 12.e4 dxe4 13.Nxe4 Nxe4 14.Bxe4 Nf6 15.Bg5! h6 16.Bxf6 Qxf6 17.Qc2 White will have an easy game with more space and the better long-term prospects. But in view what now hits the World Champion, he may well have preferred defending this. 12.Rxa3!! Qxa3 13.c5 And here is the point of Aronian’s labors from 2003: now the Black queen is trapped on the queenside, and in trying to extricate the entombed queen, Carlsen falls further down an even deeper rabbit hole. 13...b6 After a lengthy thought, Carlsen realizes he's in deep trouble here. There are many lengthy and complex tactical lines here - too many to show, but we'll just take Aronian's word that they are all good for White - and one that best demonstrates Black's difficulties here coming after 13...b5 and now the subtle retreat of the knights with 14.Ne1! e5 15.Nb1! Qa1 16.Bc3 Qa2 17.Nd3 (with the threat of Nc1 winning the queen) 17...Ne4 18.Nb4! Nxc3 19.Nxc3 Qa5 20.Nxc6 Qxc3 21.Bxh7+!! Kxh7 22.Qh5+ Kg8 23.Ne7+ Kf8 24.Nxd5 either mating or winning the Black queen - what a wonderful concept from Aronian, and all conceived back in his chess laboratory back in 2003! 14.b4 Ne4 It's six to one and half a dozen the other. If 14...Qb2 15.cxb6 Nxb6 (If 15...Qxb4 16.Nxd5 Qf8 17.Bb4 c5 18.Nxf6+ gxf6 19.dxc5 a5 20.Ba3 Nxb6 21.Nd4 leaves Black's position in a mess.) 16.Ne5! Ne4 (As ever, Black has to wary of the queen being trapped: 16...Bb7 17.Nd3 Qa3 18.Nb1 Qa2 19.Bb3 Qa1 20.Bc3 etc.) 17.Nxe4 dxe4 18.Bc1! Qxb4 19.Nxc6 Qd6 20.Nxd8 Qxd8 21.Bxe4 Nd5 22.Qc2 f5 23.Bf3 White has a commanding position with a dominating bishop-pair. 15.Nxe4 dxe4 16.Bxe4 Rb8 17.Bxh7+!! Carlsen falls deeper and deeper down the rabbit hole, as now Aronian's 'Greek gift' comes as the killer blow. 17...Kxh7 18.Ng5+ Kg8 There's no alternative. If 18...Kg6 the not-too-obvious winning continuation is 19.Qf3! Rf8 (Black can't play 19...Kxg5 as the queen is lost after 20.e4+) 20.Qg3 Rh8 21.Nxe6+ Kf6 22.Qf4+! Kxe6 23.Qd6+ Kf5 24.e4+ Kxe4 (There's a quick mate after 24...Kg4 25.Qf4+ Kh5 26.Qg5#) 25.Qxc6+ Kd3 26.Qf3+ winning Black's queen and also stranding the Black king in No Man's Land. 19.Qh5 Nf6 20.Qxf7+ Kh8 21.Qc7! Either way, Aronian is now going to reclaim his material deficit with added interest. 21...Bd7 22.Nf7+ Kh7 23.Nxd8 Rc8 24.Qxb6 Nd5 25.Qa7 Rxd8 26.e4 Qd3?! It’s a tough position to be in, but Carlsen only hope of trying to stay alive was with 26...Nf6 27.Bg5 Qxb4 28.e5 Kg6 29.h4 Qxd4 30.exf6 gxf6 but Black’s position is a bit of a mess - it would be a miracle if this is survivable with all those pawn weaknesses. 27.exd5 Qxd2 28.Qc7 Qg5 29.dxc6?! Four pawns for a piece is usually more than enough compensation - but here the simple 29.d6! kept Black all tied up with no hopes of surviving. 29...Bc8 30.h3 Rather than rushing the win, Aronian just takes a little time-out to safeguard against any possible backrank mates. 30...Qd5 31.Rd1 e5?! Like the White Rabbit, time-trouble now takes its toll on Carlsen, who had to be careful in this complex position - but pressed for time, he didn't find 31…Rf8 and it is not all that clear how Aronian wins now. If 32.Qd6 Qb3! 33.Qxf8 Qxd1+ 34.Kh2 Qxd4 35. h4!? would be the only way to press on for the win, as 35.Qxc8 Qf4+ is perpetual check. 32.Rd3 exd4 33.Qe7! The threat of Rg3 now looms large for Carlsen. 33…Bf5? Better was 33…Rg8 but after 34.Qh4+ Kg6 35.Rxd4 White retains a big advantage. 34.Rg3 Bg6 35.Qh4+ 1-0