Shaking off mounting concerns of a ‘career crisis’ following his continued classical rating slump at Stavanger last week, world champion Magnus Carlsen defied his critics with a return to his brilliant best again with a bravado performance at the Paris Grand Chess Tour elite rapid leg, as he scored an undefeated 14/18 (two points for a win, one point for a draw) to take the title ahead of Russia’s Alexander Grischuk and Hikaru Nakamura of the USA.
After his Stavanger set-back, Carlsen looked to be in a determined mood right from the start of the Paris tournament to make amends for his fans - and there was simply no looking back for the 26-year-old Norwegian after he beat rating rival and co-leader Wesley So in Round 4, and from that point the world champion all but cruised home to an impressive victory.
The world champion did, though, squander a couple of good winning possibilities on Day 3 that could well have made his margin of victory far greater, but all-in-all it was a more re-assured Carlsen who was in the driving seat from start to finish in the tournament, and the victory will put him in a more positive frame of mind going into the Paris blitz tournament on Saturday.
But the constant pressure and questions surrounding the dip in form is clearly getting to the world champion, because when interviewer and computer analyst GM Maurice Ashley dared to venture to him that perhaps his play on the final day - not converting better positions against Sergey Karjakin and Fabiano Caruana - wasn’t so convincing as his play in the first two days, a clearly frustrated Carlsen quickly shot back at him “What do you want from me?”
Final Standings (Rapid)
1. Magnus Carlsen (Norway) 14/18; 2. Alexander Grischuk (Russia) 13; 3. Hikaru Nakamura (USA) 12; 4-5. Shakhriyar Mamedyarov (Azerbaijan), Maxime Vachier-Lagrave (France) 11; 6. Wesley So (USA) 9; 7. Sergey Karjakin (Russia) 8; 8. Veselin Topalov (Bulgaria) 5; 9. Etienne Bacrot (France) 4; 10. Fabiano Caruana (USA) 3.
GM Magnus Carlsen - GM Veselin Topalov
Paris Grand Chess Tour Rapid, (5)
1.d4 Nf6 2.c4 g6 3.Nf3 Bg7 4.g3 0-0 5.Bg2 d5 6.cxd5 Nxd5 7.0-0 Nb6 8.Nc3 Nc6 9.d5 Na5 While it is never advisable to put the knight on the rim, here it works as Black quickly follows up with ...Nac4 hitting b2 and perhaps even blockading by coming back with ...Nd6. 10.e4 c6 11.Bf4 Nac4 Black can't snatch the d-pawn, as taking it comes with dangerous consequences after 11...cxd5 12.Nxd5 Nxd5 13.exd5 Bxb2 14.Rb1 Bg7 15.Rc1! b6 16.Bc7 Qe8 17.Re1 and White will soon be regaining his pawn with a big advantage. 12.Qe2 Clearing the d-file for a rook, whilst at the same time indirectly defending the d5-pawn by hitting the knight on c4. 12...Bg4 13.h3 Bxf3 14.Bxf3 cxd5 15.exd5 Re8 Another idea in this line is solidly blockading White's d-pawn with 15...Nd6 but again, after centralising his rooks with 16.Rfd1 followed by 17.Rac1, White stands very well. And there's no time for any "tricks" on b2, as after 15...Nxb2 16.Qxb2 Na4 17.Qxb7 Nxc3 18.Rae1 Re8 19.d6! White is simply winning, with the double attack now on a8 means Black can't defend without further compromising his position. 16.Rac1 White has the more harmonious development of his pieces with his active bishop-pair and rooks on c1 and d1 - and so long as he avoids any silly tricks with a ...Nxb2, he will retain a big advantage. 16...e5 17.dxe6 Rxe6 18.Qc2 g5 19.Rfd1 Qe7 20.Bd2 Rd8 No better is 20...Nxd2 as after 21.Qxd2 Nc4 22.Qc2! Black will just have no answer to the coming Nd5 with a powerful knight outpost and big advantage. For this reason, Topalov opts to try and exchange knights when White plays Nd5. 21.Nd5 Nxd5 22.Qxc4 Topalov may well have stopped Carlsen having the knight outpost on d5, but it comes at the cost of White's bishop-pair now being the dominant force on the board. 22...Red6 23.Re1! Carlsen gains more momentum for his attack by hitting Black's queen. 23...Qf6 24.Qg4! It's remarkable how quickly Topalov's position capitulates after just a few very accurate moves from Carlsen. 24...h6 25.Rc8! Topalov's position unravels due to his vulnerable back-rank. 25...Bf8 26.Bxd5 Rxd5 27.Bc3 Qg6 Well it's six to one and half a dozen the other, as Black's defences have become stretched to their limits now. And even after 27...Qb6 28.h4! something will have to give soon. 28.Re8 Stronger and more clinical may well have been 28.Qf3! but all roads lead to Rome now anyway. 28...Rxe8 29.Rxe8 The problem is Black's Bf8 - just how is he going to defend it? 29...Qb1+ There's no defence! If 29...f5 30.Qe2 there's no stopping Re6 Qf7 and Rf6 winning. 30.Kh2 Qf1 31.Be1! Stopping the possibility of a perpetual with ...Qxf2+, and coming with the not-too-subtle threat of Qc8 winning the Bf8. And also note that Black can't play the tricky 31...Rd2, as White has the even trickier riposte of 32.Rxf8+! Kxf8 33.Qb4+ winning the rook and stopping the perpetual check on f2. 31...Kg7 32.Qf3! 1-0 Topalov resigns as there's no way now to defend against Bc3+ followed by a rapid mating attack.