With a first-ever for the chess annals, world champion Magnus Carlsen announced earlier this week he’s set to play in September’s FIDE World Cup in Tbilisi, Georgia, the 128-player knockout that acts as a direct world championship qualifier, where players must win a series of two-game mini-matches (and speed playoffs) to advance to the final. And his inclusion now makes it the strongest knockout ever, with all the world's top players taking part save for Veselin Topalov.
Bizarrely, FIDE rules don’t prohibit the reigning champion taking part in a world title qualifier, but there could well be two reasons for Carlsen wanting to play. Firstly, this is the only tournament title in elite chess he does not have to his name. And secondly, the Norwegian has in the past declared himself to be a big fan of the unpredictable knockout format, and indeed he has even touted this to the governing body as an annual world championship decider.
Ironically, the top two finishers in Tbilisi will win spots in next year’s Candidates Tournament, which will determine the next challenger for Carlsen’s crown. And this leaves FIDE in a bit of quandary and perhaps having to urgently look at tightening their rules and guidelines, as theoretically at least, Carlsen could win both events - and some have wryly suggested’s his ulterior motive here is to do so, and then host himself on his Play Magnus site for the title!
And the World Cup could well now be the last-gasp chance for Vladimir Kramnik to make it into the Candidates, following his mini-meltdown last week at the 45th Dortmund Sparkassen Chess-Meeting in Germany. Although the Russian ex-world champion - following his disastrous start - staged a late rally to bounce back above 2800 in the unofficial live ratings, he fell back in the race for the two ratings qualifying spots into the Candidates’.
These two spots are decided on the average year-long ratings, with the cut off point being 1 December 2017. Going into Dortmund, Kramnik held a very slender lead over Wesley So and Fabiano Caruana, but now the two Americans have jumped into the lead on 2813 and 2811 respectively, with Kramnik lagging behind on 2807. The pressure is now back on the American duo not to have a similar meltdown with the Sinquefield Cup - the next leg of the Grand Chess Tour - getting underway in St. Louis late next week.
GM Vladimir Kramnik - GM Matthias Bluebaum
45th Dortmund Sparkassen Chess-Meeting, (7)
1.Nf3 d5 2.g3 Bg4 3.Bg2 e6 4.0-0 Nf6 5.d3 Be7 6.h3 Bh5 7.c4 c6 Black can capture with 7...dxc4 but after 8.dxc4 Qxd1 (Alternatively, if 8...Nbd7 9.Qb3!? Nc5 10.Qe3 0-0 11.Nc3 White is soon going to be playing Rd1 to command the d-file, following up with b3 and Bb2 etc.) 9.Rxd1 and, despite the early exchange of queens, Black will have problems with White quickly playing Bf4, where after...c6, it won't be so easy to contest the d-file as White will have Nc3 and rapid development. 8.Qb3 The best move to exploit Black's early bishop sortie. 8...Qc8 9.g4 Bg6 10.cxd5 cxd5 Black recaptures to keep the pawn symmetry on both sides of the board, with this being the best way to attempt to hold a stronger player to a draw. 11.Bf4 Nc6 12.Nc3 0-0 13.Rac1 Qd7 14.Ne5 Nxe5 15.Bxe5 h5 On reflection, attempting to 'mix it' now with Kramnik spectacularly backfires for Bluebaum, so perhaps he should have sought a more peaceful continuation with the more cautious approach of 15...Rfc8 to contest the c-file? 16.g5 Ne8 17.f4 Bc5+ 18.d4 Bb6 So how is Kramnik now going to stop ...f6 trapping his bishop? 19.f5! Easy, he's simply going to brutally club his way through to his opponent's king with a series of spectacular sacrificial attack that seems to come out of nowhere. 19...Bxf5 20.Rxf5! The logical follow up is with the exchange sacrifice, as once d5 falls, White's pieces are all dangerously loitering with intent. 20...exf5 21.Nxd5 Qe6 22.Kh1 Such is the power of Kramnik's bishop-pair, he could even have considered exchanging queens with 22.Nxb6 Qxb3 23.axb3 axb6 24.Bxb7 Rd8 25.e3 and White's game is by far the easier to play, as he's the one with all the attacking chances with his rook also set to get to the seventh. But with a dominant knight and two active bishops on the board, Kramnik opts instead to keep his queen on the board to compound his opponent's worries. 22...Rd8 23.Qf3! Not only keeping the dominant knight for now on d5, but also bringing the queen into the fray with attacking options on the kingside. 23...g6 24.e3 Kh7 25.Nf4! Eyeing up a potential sacrifice on h5 that could lead to a mating attack. 25...Qe7 26.Qg3 White can't be too hasty here, as after 26.Nxh5?! Qxg5! 27.Nf4 Nd6 Black is over the worst of it and now - with the knight heading to e4 - stands better. But with 26.Qg3, Black gets into a panic being all tied up in a knot, and he walks right into a further sacrificial blow. But heaven knows what must have been going through Bluebaum's mind here, as panic sets in now that he doesn't realize that it's all smoke and mirrors from Kramnik. 26...Bc7? A bad blunder in a very, very difficult position. The only option Bluebaum had was to attempt to brave it out - easier said than done I suppose when you are playing in your first super-tournament, and across the board from you is Vladimir Kramnik! - with 26...Rd7!? and let Kramnik do all the hard work to find the breakthrough, as now after 27.Qh4 f6!? 28.gxf6 Nxf6 29.Qg5 Qf7 30.Bf1! Ne4 31.Qg2 Black's position is still fraught with dangers here with White threatening Bc4, but there's still no clear-cut killing blow for now, as Black has spirited counterplay resources with 31...g5!? 32.Bc4 Qe7 33.Nxh5 Bc7! 27.Rxc7! Nxc7 28.Bf6 The net looks to be closing in now on the Black's king - all that's needed is one final breakthrough sacrifices to clear the h-file for White's queen. 28...Qb4 29.Nxh5 White has to play this breakthrough sacrifice - and it's all enough to induce Bluebaum into making the final, fateful error. But can you blame him with a rampant ex-world champion throwing everything but the kitchen sink at him here to get to his king? 29...gxh5?? Amidst all the mayhem swirling around your king, now was the time to keep your head and play 29...Ne8! like the cold, unbeating silicon heart of a playing engine! We now end up with the scenario of 30.Qh4 (Alternatively, White could try pressing the 'gamble button' with 30.Bxd8!? gxh5 31.Qf2 Ng7 32.Bf6 Rc8 33.Kh2 Kg6 but the likelihood here is that both kings are too vulnerable for either side to win.) 30...Kg8! and there's no winning attack for White! Of course, all easy for me to say from the comfort of my computer armed with a leading playing engine, such as Hiarcs! And with the insight coming from the omnipresent, all-seeing beast, White has to bail out now with 31.Be5 gxh5 32.Qxh5 f6 33.gxf6 (If 33.Qg6+ Ng7 34.gxf6 Rf7 35.fxg7 Qe1+ 36.Kh2 Qxe3 37.Qe6 f4! 38.Bd5 Qg3+ 39.Kh1 Qe1+ 40.Kg2 Qg3+ 41.Kf1 Qd3+ and a repetition.) 33...Qe1+ 34.Kh2 Rf7 35.Qg6+ Kf8 36.Qh6+ Kg8 37.Qg6+ Kf8 38.Qh6+ and again another repetition. 30.g6+! This could be what perhaps Bluebaum missed in his calculations - he was more than prepared to return the knight anyway, but the added interpolation with 30.g6+! comes with the deadly capture with a check followed by a mate if he plays 30...fxg6. 30...Kg8 31.Qg5! The mate now is inevitable - all Kramnik needs to do is a nice little shuffle to prevent a queen repetition. 31...h4 32.Qh6 Qe1+ 33.Kh2 Qg3+ 34.Kg1 Qe1+ 35.Bf1! 1-0 Bluebaum resigns, as he no longer has a repetition with his queen diverted from the connection to g3 after 35...Qg3+ 36.Kh1 Qf3+ 37.Bg2!