Conservative play nearly backfires for champ in chess final

They say in football that the only thing a “prevent defense” does is prevent you from winning.

Sitting on an early lead by playing it safe is as hard to do on the chessboard as on the gridiron. The just-completed rapid online Chessable Masters had a familiar result — Norwegian GM Magnus Carlsen won — but the reigning world champ created all kinds of problems for himself trying to hold off Dutch rival GM Anish Giri with conservative play in the finale.

Carlsen won the first “set” of their three-day rapid final and put himself in position for a sweep with a fine win in the first of four games on Day 2, today’s first game. It was apparently all home preparation for White, including the line-opening pawn sacrifice 17. d5!? exd5 18. e5! (18. exd5 Qd6 and the blacked d-pawn is a weakness, not an asset), through 21. h4!, when the simple push of the h-pawn proves hard for Giri to counter.

Black’s pieces get caught on the wrong side of the border in the energetic finale: 27. Rxd4 Nxb3 28. Qg3! (no rush recapturing the knight when the Black king is undefended) g6 29. axb3 Rd8 30. e6! Qc1+ 31. Kh2 Rxd4 32. e7! Qc8 (Bc6 allows 33. Qb8+, while 32…Qc6 33. Qe5 gxf5 34. e8=Q+ Qxe8 35. Qxe8+ Kg7 36. Qe5+ is also winning for White) 33. Qe5! Rh4+ 34. Kg3, and Black, a full rook up, has to resign as lines such as 34…gxf5 35. e8=Q+ Qxe8 36. Qxe8+ Kg7 37. Kxh4 are hopeless.

But Carlsen’s bid to protect his lead almost led to disaster in the three ensuing games, as Giri repeatedly obtained excellent winning chances. The Dutch star had a put-away volley winner sitting on his racket in the very next game, which we pick up from today’s diagram.

Black’s strategy of trying to drain the position of drama led him badly astray: 14…Be6?? (it’s equal after 14…Bg4 15. Bxb7 Bxf3 16. Qxd8 Raxd8 17. gxf3 Rd3), when the simple 15. Qh6!, with the idea of 16. Ng5 to come, is simply devastating; e.g. 15…Bxd5 (Qf6, relatively best, still is grim for Black after 16. Ng5 Qg7 17. Qxg7+ Kxg7 18. Bxe6 h6 19. Nxf7) 16. Ng5 Re8 17. exd5 Qf6 (Qxd5 18. Qxh7+ Kf8 19. Rfe1! Rxe1+ 20. Rxe1 f6 21. Qh8+ Qg8 22. Nh7+ Kf7 23. Qxf6 mate) 18. Qxh7+ Kf8 19. d6 Rad8 20. Rae1 Nd7 21. Qh3! Kg7 22. Rxe8 Rxe8 23. Qxd7 and wins.

Instead, the game went 15. Bxe6? Qxd2 16. Bxf7+ Rxf7 17. Nxd2 Rd8 — White wins a pawn, but Carlsen was able to hold the draw in 44 moves.

We’ve been following the Croatian national championships in recent days, as it’s one of the very few over-the-board tournaments underway in these pandemic locked-down times. And GM Zdenko Kozul, whom we featured in this space last week, had another fine game on his way to a second-place finish behind GM Sasa Martinovic.

Kozul gave his best shot, with a fine last-round victory over GM Ante Brkic, initiating an aggressive early flank attack with White’s king still in the center of the board.

Kozul grabs the initiative with 15. b4 Bb6 16. g4!? and never relinquishes it. After 18. g5 h5 (hxg5?! 19. Nexg5 g6 20. h4 Rac8 21. h5, with a nice attack) 19. g6 Rac8?! (too casual, given the circumstances; 19…f6 20. b5 Bd5 21. Bxd5 exd5 22. Nc3 limits White’s advantage) 29. Neg5 f6 (not pleasant, but neither was 20…Bxf3+ 21. Nxf3 f6 22. Qf5! Rfe8 23. Qxh5) 21. Bxe6+ Kh8 22. Nxf7+ Rxf7 23. Qf5! (and not 23. Bxf7?? Bxf3+ 24. Kxf3 Rxc2 25. Rxc2 Ne5 and Black is better), the defense is reeling.

There’s no defense to White’s kingside infiltration. The clocks stop after 23…Kg8 24. gxf7+ Kf8 25. Nh4!, and Brkic resigned faced 25…Ne5 26. Qxe5! Qxf7 (fxe5 27. Ng6 mate) 27. Qd6+ Qe7 28. Ng6+ Ke8 29. Qxe7 mate.

We lamented the absence this July of the traditional World Open blowout in Philadelphia, but organizers have managed to stage a strong (though smaller) World Online Open this week, with many of the familiar masters and grandmasters taking part. U.S. GMs Jeffery Xiong and Sam Sevian shared first place in the 56-player event, a half-point ahead of a half-dozen pursuers.
We’ll have a full recap next week.

Carlsen-Giri, Finals, Chessable Masters, July 2020

1. d4 Nf6 2. c4 e6 3. Nf3 d5 4. Nc3 c5 5. cxd5 Nxd5 6. e4 Nxc3 7. bxc3 cxd4 8. cxd4 Bb4+ 9. Bd2 Bxd2+ 10. Qxd2 O-O 11. Bc4 Nd7 12. O-O b6 13. Rad1 Bb7 14. Rfe1 Rc8 15. Bb3 Re8 16. Re3 Nf6 17. d5 exd5 18. e5 Ne4 19. Qe1 Qc7 20. Nd4 a6 21. h4 Rcd8 22. f3 Nc5 23. h5 Ne6 24. Nf5 d4 25. Red3 Nc5 26. Rxd4 Rxd4 27. Rxd4 Nxb3 28. Qg3 g6 29. axb3 Rd8 30. e6 Qc1+ 31. Kh2 Rxd4 32. e7 Qc8 33. Qe5 Rh4+ 34. Kg3 Black resigns.

Kozul-Brkic, 2020 Croatian Championships, Vinkovci, Croatia, July 2020

1. d4 Nf6 2. c4 e6 3. Nf3 d5 4. Nc3 Bb4 5. Bg5 h6 6. Bxf6 Qxf6 7. e3 O-O 8. Rc1 dxc4 9. Bxc4 c5 10. dxc5 Bxc5 11. Qc2 Qe7 12. Ne4 Bb4+ 13. Ke2 Bd7 14. a3 Ba5 15. b4 Bb6 16. g4 Bc6 17. Rhg1 Nd7 18. g5 h5 19. g6 Rac8 20. Neg5 f6 21. Bxe6+ Kh8 22. Nf7+ Rxf7 23. Qf5 Kg8 24. gxf7+ Kf8 25. Nh4 Black resigns.

David R. Sands can be reached at 202/636-3178 or by email [email protected].

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