Magnus Carlsen’s vintage performance at Wijk aan Zee gained the world champion three rating points in his quest for a world record 2900. A week later the Norwegian, 31, gave them all back with interest on a Saturday night in Oslo to Tallaksen Ostmoe, rated 399 points lower than the No 1.
The very first meeting 22 years earlier between the then nine-year-old Carlsen, rated under 1000, and the 15-year-old Ostmoe, rated over 2200, had also been a draw and a rating upset, but this was the other way round.
In Saturday night’s game Carlsen, White in a Caro-Kann 1 e4 c6, provoked a very early queen exchange, gained a slight edge … then missed a one-move winner. Can you do better?
Carlsen’s progress towards 2900 has been handicapped by his lack of 2800-plus opponents, meaning that his rating gain from a victory is small while a draw is guaranteed to lose him rating points. There has also probably been some deflation at top level in the rating system since 2014, when Fide’s March rating list showed 50 players rated 2700 and above, contrasting with only 38 players over 2700 in the current live ratings.
It would be bizarre for the world champion to abandon his 2900 target so soon after announcing it as a preferred alternative to meeting anyone from his own generation in a title match, and the indications are that he will look towards the St Louis-organised Grand Chess Tour this spring for his next major tournament, before returning to home territory at Stavanger in June. He also starts next Saturday, 19 February, in the Airthings Masters, the first event of the year in the online Meltwater Champions Tour which Carlsen won in 2021.
Yuri Averbakh became the first ever centenarian grandmaster on Tuesday, when the 1954 USSR champion and famous endgame writer celebrated his 100th birthday. Last week’s column marked the veteran’s achievement with an elegant Averbakh puzzle whose brief answer is well worth solving if you missed it.
Averbakh has written a dozen books, but the one which stands out for would-be improving players is Chess Endings: Essential Knowledge, around 120 pages and still freely available online for around £10.
US grandmasters have dominated their Russian rivals in the group stage of the first leg (of three) of the Fide Grand Prix, which qualifies its top two to the eight-player Candidates at Madrid in June. Hikaru Nakamura and Levon Aronian are through to this weekend’s semi-finals, while Wesley So and Leinier Dominguex meet in a speed tie-break on Friday (2pm start). In contrast, Alexander Grischuk, Andrey Esipenko, Vladimir Fedoseev and Daniil Dubov have all been eliminated.
Aronian has been the standout player so far. The former Armenian not only impressively won his group with a round to spare, but is now neck and neck with Fabiano Caruana in the ratings in a race to become established as US No 1.
Nakamura sparked controversy when the Fide president, Arkady Dvorkovich, chose him as his personal wildcard when it was expected that he would prefer Esipenko, 19. As it turned out, Esipenko got in anyway via another withdrawal, and when they met Nakamura played what he called a “statement game” as a response to the criticisms of his inclusion. White’s 24 b4-b5! led to some well calculated tactics.
Nakamura’s strong performance in Berlin confounded those who called him just an online streamer who did not merit his Grand Prix wildcard. The five-time US champion believes that online is still the same game as over-the-board chess.
He said: “It’s nice to win games, and to prove to people that there is really no difference. Just look at who won most of those online tournaments. It was this guy called Magnus, and he seems to be pretty decent at over-the-board chess too!”
Thursday’s return Esipenko v Nakamura game was in the final round of the group stage. The Russian needed a win with the white pieces, the American only a draw to top the group. Too much tension? The game proved chaotic and error-strewn as both GMs made numerous mistakes until Nakamura managed to reach a drawn queen ending.
China’s world No 3, Ding Liten, who was thought to be out of the current world championship cycle after his journey to Berlin was stopped by visa difficulties, could yet have another opportunity.
If Ding reaches the semi-finals or better in the second Grand Prix leg at Belgrade, he would then be eligible to fill a vacancy if one occurred in the third and final leg back in Berlin. One possible scenario would be if the second Chinese player, Yu Yangyi, did badly in Belgrade and then dropped out.
The rules appear to say that in case of a withdrawal, Dvorkovich decides who will be the replacement. The politically savvy Dvorkovich will be well aware of the importance of keeping friendly relations between Fide and China, and that in some circumstances Ding might get a chance for a direct match with Carlsen should the world champion refuse to meet Fide’s designated candidate.
3802: 1 Bg2! Ke3 (Kxg2? 2 h4 wins) 2 h4 Kxf4 3 Bf3! Ke5 4 h5 Ke6 5 Bd5+! (stops Kf7) Ke7 6 h6 Kf8 7 Kd2! and wins. The BK is kept away from g7/h8, while the WK eats the black pawns after which the BK is in zugzwang and must move away from f8, allowing the h6 pawn to queen.
Carlsen v Ostmoe: 1 Bb6! wins. If 1…Bxb6 2 Ra8+ and 3 Rxh8. If 1…Bb8 2 Rxg7. If 1…Bd8 2 Bxd8 Rxd8 3 Rxg7, all with a hopeless ending for Black. Instead 1 Ra8+? Bb8 2 Ba7 Kb7 leads to an equal pawn ending.