Chess: Magnus Carlsen sets another record despite ‘playing badly’

May 17, 2019 Off By readly

Magnus Carlsen won the $150,000 Grand Tour opening speed event in Abidjan, Ivory Coast, with two rounds to spare last weekend, and the world champion broke another record when he became the first player ever to reach a stratospheric 2900 rating at one-hour rapid chess.

Carlsen’s current surge was previously in longplay elite tournaments, where he won Tata Steel Wijk, Shamkir and Grenke earlier this year to take his classical rating to 2875, just short of his own record which he will try to break on home ground in Stavanger next month.

The Norwegian, the first reigning world champion to play in Africa, continued his winning streak with an unbeaten 7.5/9 in the Abidjan rapid, before some setbacks in the five-minute blitz games. Disappointed fans had optimistically hoped for a massive total and a 3000 blitz rating. “The rapid was very good but the blitz wasn’t,” Carlsen admitted. “At some point I was playing so badly I had to look over my shoulder.” Overall, his results were still good enough for a new Tour record total of 26.5/36 in rapid/blitz points, where the rapid section counts double.

Maxime Vachier-Lagrave, France’s world No 6, won the blitz section, where he beat Carlsen in both their games, and the champion also conceded a significant draw to Bassem Amin. The Egyptian was a wildcard and was expected to finish last but he proved a resilient competitor and twice defeated the US champion, Hikaru Nakamura.

Carlsen’s transformation in 2019 from careful conservative grinder to enterprising attacker stems from his pre-match prep for his world title series against Fabiano Caruana and his decision then to include the Sveshnikov Sicilian in his repertoire. The opening sequence, named after its Russian pioneer, runs 1 e4 c5 2 Nf3 Nc6 3 d4 cxd4 4 Nxd4 Nf6 5 Nc3 e5 where Black strikes at the dark squares and develops fast.

More recently, Carlsen has added the Kalashnikov 1 e4 c5 2 Nf3 Nc6 3 d4 cxd4 5 Nxd4 e5, a still sharper system with extra options for both sides, and this has overawed even some of his strongest opponents.

The eight-time Russian champion Peter Svidler chose 3 Nc3 e5 4 Bc4 Be7 5 d3 at Grenke and Sergey Karjakin repeated this passive plan in the Abidjan rapid. Carlsen beat them both with the same strategy of a central pawn bloc which kept White’s light-squared bishop out of action on the queen’s side while Black created a winning king’s side attack.

Long ago the Sicilian was a punchbag for Bobby Fischer’s Bc4, Mikhail Tal’s mazy Nd5 sacrifices and Paul Keres’s g4 attacks. There was an interlude when the solid Nc6/e6 Taimanov and the e6/a6 Kan gained ground, but then came Anatoly Karpov with his anti-Dragon and Be2 anti-Najdorf systems.

The pendulum swung again when Garry Kasparov made the Najdorf his principal reply to 1 e4 and remained faithful to it during his long career. There was another interlude when Vishy Anand demolished Sicilians, but for the present the opening is back with a vengeance.

Carlsen scares the elite with his Sveshnikov and Kalashnikov, while Vachier-Lagrave scores well with the Najdorf as his main defence. Some time in future there will be new white strategies, and the only safe prediction is that 1 e4 c5 will continue to be keenly debated.

3619 1 Qh7+ Ke6 (Kf8 2 Qh8+ and 3 Qxa8) 2 f5+ Kd5 3 Qg8+!! Qxg8 4 Kd3 and 5 c4 mate.

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