The Tata Steel chess tournament, held in the small town of Wijk aan Zee in the Netherlands, recently concluded. This is one of the biggest, big-time chess tournaments in the world, usually attracting all the top talent. This year was no exception: current World Chess Champion Magnus Carlsen won the title.
Carlsen got off to a sluggish start, but he came on very strong at the end.
Two major stories emerged from the tournament. First, a host of new, young Grandmasters, all well under 30, challenged Carlsen for supremacy. The next decade in major-league international chess is going to be very exciting.
Second, Carlsen’s closest challenger, the American-born Italian GM Fabiano Caruana, squared off against the World Champ in round 6 or the tourney. Caruana, 22, is rated 2820 and was coming off one of the most impressive performances ever recorded in competitive chess, taking the trophy at a big tournament in St. Louis and totally dominating the field, at one point winning 7 games in a row, including a win against Carlsen.
Carlsen, 24, has the highest rating in chess history, 2862.
But that’s only 40 points higher than Caruana. And Caruana, prior to the Tata Steel, was seen as the player who was surging.
Carlsen played a rather un-Carlsen-like game to ultimately defeat Caruana.
That’s right, defeat. No draw. A clear and impressive win.
Carlsen now has a reputation as a player who likes to avoid sharp, attacking chess, preferring to obtain a small edge and use that edge to achieve wins in gruelling endgames. This gets into opponents’ heads. They expect Magnus to grind them down in 4-5 hours games. To a degree, they fear it.
However, Carlsen, when he was younger, played in an attacking style (to be fair, most young, good players are pretty aggressive — it’s only later that they calm down and learn to play in a more steady manner). And he can still play very aggressive chess. He decimated his WCC challenger, Vishy Anand, with a very bold and attacking game last year when the two men were starting to play for the title.
In the Tata Steel game, here’s the point where things got scary for Caruana. Carlsen has the black pieces and the opening was a well-known variation on the Sicilian Defence — the most aggressive opening response that black can play to white’s first move of pawn-to-e4 (the so-called “King’s Pawn” opening because you move the pawn in front of your king two spaces).
In the Sicilian, black responds by moving his c-pawn two spaces: the move, c5, creates an “asymmetrical” position and signals that black is going for a win from the first move.
The variation Carlsen and Caruana got into is called the “Rossolimo,” named for the 20th-century GM Nicolas Rossolimo, who popularised it. The basic idea, without getting too deep into the thing, is to damage black’s so-called “pawn structure,” creating the liability of two pawns sitting in tandem on a single file — “doubled” pawns, which can be a problem for black in and endgame.
Carlsen, however, wasn’t thinking endgame, as the position below illustrates:
Ouch! He’s just hammed that f-pawn DEEP into Caruana’s territory. Note as well that he’s massed a ton of attacking power on the f-, g- and h-files. A ferocious onslaught is coming.
And come it did!
Look at the position after black’s move 31! White’s king is naked, in check from the black pawn, and the melée on the f-, g-, and h-files has left black with a still-protected king and white with … not much in the way of counterplay on the other side of the board.
Anyway, it’s all over 9 moves later, with this terrifying position for white leading to Caruana’s resignation:
There’s no question that Carlsen was out to prove something here. Much as he switched to the attack, from his “normal” style, to gain an early advantage against Anand in the WCC, so he came out swinging in this game against Carlsen, who had been the hottest player in chess.
This game was much-anticipated. And Carlsen demonstrated that although he and Caruana are close in rating, when it comes to a contest over the board, the World Champion can control the action.
You can review the entire game at ChessBase.
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