World Champion Magnus Carlsen came perilously close to losing his coveted status of ‘top dog’ in the chess world in - of all the places - his homeland, as his campaign to retain the 5th Altibox Norway Chess title in Stavanger ended in a slump as he turned in arguably his worst tournament performance in a decade, and remarkably finished second to last in the strongest tournament of the year.
In Round 7, Carlsen’s bad tournament (following his sore loss to Levon Aronian in Round 4) turned into an unmitigated disaster after he was dramatically outplayed by ex-champion Vladimir Kramnik of Russia, as he plummeted to -2 score and the unfamiliar territory of last place in the tournament. It also proved to be the Russian’s first win over Carlsen since 2010 and, with it, the world champion saw his unofficial live rating dramatically plummet to less than 10 Elo points between the two.
Indeed, Carlsen play was so erratic throughout, that he came close to ending the tournament on his home turf without scoring a win - something that hadn’t happened to Carlsen since 2007, when he went through Wijk aan Zee and Dortmund without a win. He did, though, manage to salvage some pride with a somewhat lucky penultimate round win against his Russian title challenger Sergey Karjakin - but it all proved too little too late for the hometown hero, who finished on a -1 score and a sizeable rating dip of nearly 10 points to 2823.
And for the second successive tournament, Carlsen found himself being upstaged by a re-energised and rampant Aronian, as the Armenian ace - following hard on the heels of his Grenke Chess Classic victory in late April - again turned on the style to take the title by a full point margin ahead of Kramnik and America’s Hikaru Nakamura, and he now storms back up the top 10 to world No.4.
1. Levon Aronian (Armenia) 6/9; 2-3. Vladimir Kramnik (Russia), Hikaru Nakamura (USA) 5; 4-6. Wesley So (USA), Anish Giri (Netherlands), Fabiano Caruana (USA) 4½; 7-9. Maxime Vachier-Lagrave (France), Viswanathan Anand (India), Magnus Carlsen (Norway) 4; 10. Sergey Karjakin (Russia) 3½.
GM Magnus Carlsen - GM Sergey Karjakin
5th Altibox Norway Chess, (8)
1.d4 Nf6 2.c4 Carlsen abandons his Italian Game and London System that got him nothing in this tournament. But against Karjakin, Carlsen would have had a deep and intensive study of his openings from their world championship match last year that he can, at least, utilise the labours of that title defence to good use. 2...e6 3.Nc3 Bb4 The Nimzo-Indian is a safe, solid Karjakin staple - but there are lots of lines for the Russian to diverge into. 4.e3 0-0 5.Bd3 d5 6.cxd5 exd5 7.Nge2 Re8 8.Bd2 Bf8 The uber-solid move here. Very Karjakian. The more active continuation is 8...Bd6 where even 9.0-0 c6 10.Rc1 Ng4 (It looks very tempting, but 10...Bxh2+ doesn't quite work here, as 11.Kxh2 Ng4+ 12.Kg3! Qd6+ 13.f4 and White has just won a piece for a couple of pawns - but there's no mate.) 11.g3 and White has a solid set-up. 9.0-0 b6 10.Rc1 c5 11.Nf4 Bb7 Karjakin continues in the classic vein here. Tempting would have been to lessen the potential of Carlsen white-squared bishop by exchange them off with 11...Ba6 12.Bxa6 Nxa6 13.dxc5 bxc5 but after 14.Nce2 Qb6 15.Bc3 Black's hanging pawns on d5 and c5 become a long-term weakness. 12.Qf3 Na6 The knight looks offside here, but Karjakin is planning the knight tour Na6-c7 (and possibly -e6) to shore up Black's pawn center. 13.Rfd1 cxd4 Karjakin can't be too hasty with his knight tour, as 13...Nc7?! 14.dxc5 bxc5 15.Na4! and again, the hanging pawns are ripe for picking off. 14.exd4 Nc7 15.Bc2 Bd6 16.Be3 Ne4 17.Ba4 Re7 18.Bb3 Qd7 19.h3 Nxc3 20.bxc3 Bc6 21.Nh5 Re6 22.Bc2 Ba4! Those bishops being exchanged are a priority for Karjakin, as there's less of a chance of a sudden kingside assault. 23.c4 dxc4 24.d5 Rg6 25.Bd4 Bxc2 26.Rxc2 Qa4 27.Rcc1 Qxa2 28.Nxg7! This is the only practical chance for Carlsen to save the game. If not this, then long-term Black's queenside pawns can't be held back. 28...Rxg7 29.Bxg7 Kxg7 30.Qg4+ Kf8 31.Qh4 This position is just not all that easy for Black to defend in practical terms, as his pieces end up being a little awkward to organise. If they were easy to organise, then Black would be winning this, as his queenside pawns would quickly storm down the board. 31...Qb2 Karjakin's queen has to track back to defend f6 and g7. 32.Rxc4?! It's hard to judge whether this is a mistake from Carlsen or simply a calculated gamble from the world champion looking to complicate things in search of a win, as his opponent is in a difficult position. If it is a gamble, then Carlsen is a brave player! The easy way to continue was taking the draw by repetition after 32.Qh6+ Ke7 33.Qh4+ Kf8 (Not 33...Kd7? 34.Qxc4 and Black is losing this.) 34.Qh6+ Ke7 35.Qh4+ etc. And as this was easy to spot, I'm inclined to believe Carlsen opted to roll the dice here for a win. 32...Ne8 33.Re1 Qf6 Rightly, Karjakin looks to try and prevent any mating chances by tracking back with his queen - but there was a better shot, though not so easy to spot, with 33...Qd2! as it hits the rook on e1 and covers against Qh6+. The likely continuation now would be 34.Rce4 h5! (such creative defences are easy for the engine to spot in an instance - but not so easy when you are a human and your digital clock is metaphorically ticking down and its flag hanging!) 35.Qxh5 Nf6 36.Qh8+ Ng8 37.Qh5 Qh6 and Black has everything covered and looks more co-ordinated. 34.Qxh7 Qg7 With Karjakin's king "boxed" in somewhat by Carlsen's rooks and queen, the defence is all a little awkward - but if he can somehow exchange queens, then he's winning, as there's no way to stop Black's queenside pawns rolling down the board. 35.Qc2 Qf6 36.Rg4 Bc5 With little time left on his clock, Karjakin begins to very carefully unravel his pieces. 37.Re2 Qh6 Making way for the knight now to come into the game. 38.g3 A clever try by Carlsen in his opponent's time trouble to threaten Rh4 - the point being, that if 38...Qxh3? 39.Qf5! Qh8 4.Rh4 Qg7 41.Rh7 and suddenly Black is in deep trouble. 38...Nf6 39.Rh4 Qg7 40.Kg2 Forced, as Karjakin threatened ...Qxg3+! 40...Qg5 It all becomes too complicated just at the wrong moment when your flag is hanging! If he had more time, Karjakin could well have seen through the complications and opted for 40...Nxd5! 41.Rg4 (Also 41.Qd1 Nc3 42.Qa1 Nxe2 43.Rh8+ Qg8! 44.Rxg8+ Kxg8 45.Qe5 Nd4 and Black wins.) 41...Qf6 42.Qh7 Ne7! and Black has everything covered, snatched the d5-pawn to boot, and now begins to unravel after 43.Rf4 Qg7 44.Qh5 Rd8 with good prospects of going on to convert the win. But this is chess, and human frailty plays a deciding factor! 41.Qc3 Bd6?? How many games are decided by a blunder the first move after the time-control? Too many! Faced with a difficult position and beginning to relax after making the time-control, Karjakin drops his guard and pays the price for it. He had to consolidate with 41...Rd8 42.Re5 Qg6 and try to find a safe passage from here. But now it is too late, as the homeland hero strikes to record his first win of the tournament. 42.Rh8+ Ng8 43.Re4! The threat of Rg4 now can't be defended against. 43...Qg7 44.Rxg8+! 1-0 And Karjakin resigns, as after 44...Qxg8 (If 44...Kxg8 45.Rg4 wins the Black queen.) 45.Qf6! Bc5 46.Rg4 and again White wins the Black queen with an easy win.