“The chess world is a better place when Aronian is playing well!”, once commented Garry Kasparov. And right now, the chess world has to be on a high, because Levon Aronian is probably playing some of the best chess of his career with big back-to-back wins at the Grenke Chess Classic in Baden-Baden and now the 5th Altibox Norway Chess Tournament at the weekend, especially with both victories coming ahead of World Champion Magnus Carlsen.
And after a bad dip in form that lasted for the best part of nearly eighteen months, Aronian is now back to his brilliant best. His +3 victory in Stavanger, in the strongest tournament of the year, moves the popular Armenian to world No.4 in the unofficial live ratings, sandwiched in-between Wesley So and Fabiano Caruana - but probably still not enough for contention for a possible late run for one of the two rating spots into next year’s Candidates’ Tournament.
The two spots are based on the average ratings during the period 1 January 2017 to 1 December 2017. And after Altibox Norway, the latest standings still show a close - now even closer - three-horse race for the two spots, with Wesley So still in the lead on 2813, Fabiano Caruana with 2811.66 and Vladimir Kramnik 2811.25; with Aronian still lagging in fourth place on 2795.
It was down to an all-American clash in the last round in Stavanger that kept Caruana’s nose just ahead of Kramnik in the average ratings' battle, with what became a crucial win over a clearly frustrated Hikaru Nakamura, who had to gamble everything with the Black pieces if he was to deny Aronian outright victory - and the intriguing match-up between the two also had an added American twist to it.
The Soviet great, David Bronstein was one of the original pioneers of the Najdorf Poisoned Pawn Variation (1.e4 c5 2.Nf3 d6 3.d4 cxd4 4.Nxd4 Nf6 5.Nc3 a6 6.Bg5 e6 7.f4 Qb6) - but it only really became popular after someone by the name of Bobby Fischer took it up against Georgi Tringov, during the 1965 Capablanca Memorial in Havana, and that led to there being thousands of games played with it, not to mention the reams upon reams of analysis which went into every Poisoned Pawn game.
But some would say that having to play the risky Poisoned Pawn during a final round, must-win scenario could well become more like a poisoned chalice - especially if you unwittingly walk right into a well-prepared opening novelty, as happens to Nakamura against Caruana in today’s featured game.
GM Fabiano Caruana - GM Hikaru Nakamura
5th Altibox Norway Chess, (9)
Sicilian Najdorf, Poisoned Pawn
1.e4 c5 2.Nf3 d6 3.d4 cxd4 4.Nxd4 Nf6 5.Nc3 a6 6.Bg5 e6 7.f4 Qb6 Nowadays, the so-called “Deferred Poisoned Pawn” with 7…h6 8.Bh4 Qb6 is the in-vogue line rather than the real Poisoned Pawn. 8.Qd3!? White's usual reply to 7...Qb6 was 8.Qd2 but 8.Qd3 is a new twist, developed by the Azeri players (Teimour Radjabov, Vugar Gashimov, Rauf Mamedov, etc) that has scored well. The difference between putting the queen on d3 against the previous d2 is that from d3 it can swing more readily to the kingside, and also has access to several crucial white squares, including g6, h3 and c4. 8...Qxb2 9.Rb1 Qa3 10.f5 Be7 11.fxe6 One of the original stem games from the 8.Qd3 line even had a Scottish tinge to it, with Radjabov playing 11.Be2 against Jonathan Rowson in the Azerbaijan-Scotland clash at the 2004 Calvia Olympiad. So with that mauling in mind, we see exactly what White is up to with 8.Qd3. 11...fxe6 12.Be2 Qa5 13.Bd2 Qc7 14.g4 h6 15.Rg1!? And here's the reason why Caruana was willing to take Nakamura head-on in the Poisoned Pawn, as he had this direct and very blunt new novelty he'd prepared at home. And the idea behind it is brutally simple: he wants to push g5 and open the g-file for his rampant rook. And with one new novelty, the Poisoned Pawn now becomes a poisoned chalice for Nakamura. 15...Bd7 16.g5 hxg5 17.Rxg5 Nc6?! It's a double-edged position, and Caruana expected Nakamura to defend the pawn on g7 with 17…Rh7. "My notes say nobody will ever go for this [17…Nc6]”, Caruana said after the game to commentator Nigel Short.The reason is that Black's position is hanging by a thread, and holding it depends on spotting a difficult rook move later. “He couldn't have calculated it,” added Caruana. “I mean, he's a fantastic calculator but for anyone, it would be unbelievable. If he saw everything he deserves a draw and maybe even more than a draw.” 18.Rxg7 0-0-0 19.Ncb5 axb5 20.Nxb5 Ne5 21.Nxc7 Nxd3+ 22.cxd3 Ng8? A bad mistake, after which there's no going back for Nakamura, as Caruana's pieces now dominate the position. This time Nakamura simply had to play 22...Rh7! 23.Rxh7 Nxh7 24.Na8 Bh4+ 25.Kd1 Ba4+ 26.Kc1 Bc6 and try to hang on in this position. He's a pawn down, but this is far from lost with so few pawns now left on the board, and especially as it comes with the Black pieces being more active. 23.Na8 A little cheeky, but even stronger was 23.Ba5! with the idea of Rc1 and White's pieces loitering with intent around the Black king. But I guess Caruana had to be pleased with this position, as his rook on the seventh is so strong and Nakamura's pieces are so disorganized. 23...Kb8 24.Nb6 Bc6 25.Bf4! Defending the only weakness on h2 and forcing the concession of ...e5, that will only make the d5 square vulnerable later in the game. 25...e5 26.Bg3 Bf6 27.Rf7 Nakamura can't unravel with the rook on the seventh - and to shift it, he creates a further white-square concession in his position. 27...Be8 28.Rf8 Bg7 29.Rf2 Ne7 If 29...Nf6 30.Nc4! and White is threatening Nxd6 and Na5, both of which are impossible for Black to defend against. 30.Bg4 Nc6 There's a chronic white-square weakness in the Black camp - but exchanging off the bishops just makes White's rook dominant again. So, if 30...Bh5? 31.Bxh5 Rxh5 32.Rf7! practically wins on the spot. 31.Rfb2 Nd4 32.Nd5 There's just no hope here whatsoever of saving this position, with the exception of an unexpected earthquake or your opponent dropping to the floor with a sudden heart attack - and indeed, you'd probably get better odds on those two disasters happening than saving the game at the board! 32...b5 33.a4 Bh6 34.axb5 Rg8 35.h3 Kb7 Nakamura is just playing on instinct through his time-trouble just to make the time control. 36.Ne7 Rf8 37.Nc6 Bxc6 38.bxc6+ Kxc6 39.Bf2! If the knight comes off, then the White rooks and bishop combine to quickly mate the Black king. 39...Rxf2 40.Kxf2 Rf8+ 41.Kg2 Be3 42.Rb8 Rxb8 43.Rxb8 Nakamura should really have resigned here - but the game goes on, and we explain why later. But for the rest, the moves aren't worth commenting on. 43...d5 44.Rc8+ Kd6 45.Rd8+ Ke7 46.Rd7+ Kf6 47.exd5 e4 48.dxe4 Bf4 49.h4 Nb5 50.h5 Be5 51.Bf5 Kg5 52.Bg6 Nd6 53.Re7 Nc4 54.Re6 Bf6 Nakamura spent almost 30 minutes on this move - and it was clear from his body language that he wasn't looking for some deep saving concept behind it, he was in fact by now reflecting on how the game had gone and how he emerged with such a bad position to defend. Caruana went as far as calling it "not very good sportsmanship...you either play quickly and resign in a few moves, or just resign now." Admittedly, 30 minutes is a bit excessive in a hopeless position - but sometimes in chess, there are certain games where you just have to reflect on what had just happened to you while you are still there at the board. 55.d6 Ne5 56.Bf5 Nd3 57.Rxf6 Kxf6 58.d7 Ke7 59.h6 1-0