SANDS: Magnus Carlsen is a chess champ with a taste for slow torture

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He’s young, he’s good, he’s a fighter at the board. He’s even got a great back story as an upstart from the game’s hinterlands who now ranks No. 1 on the world wall chart ahead of all those powerful Russians, Armenians and Chinese.

But Norway’s Magnus Carlsen presents something of a problem for a humble chess columnist. His best wins tend to be slow, sadistic positional squeezes, anacondalike asphyxiations in which Carlsen will happily nurse the tiniest of endgame advantages — or sometimes no advantage at all — before forcing his exhausted opponent to concede on Move 79. It gets the job done, but doesn’t leave much for the annotator to remark on or for the reader to enjoy.

Happily, Carlsen occasionally can fashion a more expeditious crush, and against the very top competition. On his way to winning the superelite Fifth Masters Final tournament, Carlsen seized on a tiny inaccuracy from reigning world champion Viswanathan Anand to strike like a cobra, dispatching the Indian star in just 30 moves.

While games between top-level players rarely produce spectacular fireworks, it is also the case that one mistake can prove fatal — and quickly. Here in a Rossolimo Sicilian, Anand goes wrong as Black just after getting in the classic Sicilian freeing move with his d-pawn: 15. Kh1 d5 16. Nxc6! (Black was inviting 16. cxd5? Nxd5! 17. exd5 Rxd5 18. Nxc6 Rxd1 19. Nxe7+ Kh8 20. Raxd1 Qe6, restoring the material balance) bxc6 17. Qe1 Rdc8? (perhaps the losing move, according to Anand; better was 17. … Re8 18. e5 Nd7 19. e6 fxe6 20. Bxg7 Kxg7 21. Nf4 e5, holding) 18. e5 Ne8 19. e6! fxe6 20. Nf4 Bxc3 21. Qxc3, and White’s control of the long diagonal and pressure on the e-file more than make up for the lost pawn.

A nice repositioning by Carlsen turns the positional edge into a winning attack: 24. g4! (keeping the bad knight on g7 bottled up) Rc6? (the last mistake; something like 24. … Rf8 held out longer) 25. Nh3! Ne8 26. Qh6, the point of White’s previous move — now the knight comes back into play with a killer kingside attack.

The finale: 27. Ng5 d3 28. Re5! (with the threat of 29. Nxh7! Nxh7 30. Qxg6+ Kh8 31. Rh5) Kh8 29. Rd1 Qa6 a4, and Carlsen will first take the pawn on d3 and then target the pawn on e6 at his leisure. Seeing no defense, Anand resigned.

Carlsen and New York-born Italian GM Fabiano Caruana ended up in a tie for first in the tournament, a six-GM double round robin split between Bilbao, Spain, and Sao Paolo. Carlsen won both games of the blitz playoff to claim the title in this Category 22 event.

Not every game is so flawlessly played, and we can thank the chess gods for that. The recent U.S. Chess League match between FM Alex Getz of the Dallas Destiny and WGM Tatyana Abrahamyan for the Los Angeles Vibe saw the advantage swing between the two players like a badminton shuttlecock, with Getz emerging the winner in an uneven but hugely entertaining affair.

Their Tarrasch French (3. Nd2) produces a wild, wide-open battle after Black’s aggressive 8. … g5!? 9. dxc5 g4; Abrahamyan launches an all-out mating attack at a time when her king is still in the center and her queenside still undeveloped.

Her gamble seems to be paying off after 15. Rb1 g3 16. Kh1 Qh4 17. fxg3 Rxg3 18. Rb3 Ng4, as Black’s pieces swarm around the White king. Both players wobble on the tightrope in the ensuing play: 19. Nf3 Qh5 (coming up just short was 19. … Rxf3!? 20. gxf3 Nf2+ 21. Kg1 Nd3+ 22. Be3 Qg5+ 23. Kh1 Bxe3 24. Qxd3 d4 25. Qxh7, with a highly unclear position) 20. Bd1 Be5 21. h3 Bc7 22. Nh2?! (Ng5! Rxb3 23. axb3 Bd7 24. Nxf7 looks much more dangerous to Black) Rxb3 23. Nxg4 Rxh3+ 24. gxh3 Qxh3+ 25. Kg1 (see diagram), a crazy position almost impossible to evaluate over the board.

The players trade wild blows until one last Black oversight allows Getz to launch a mating attack of his own: 25. … f5? (Black holds the balance with 25. … Bb6+ 26. Be3 Qg3+ 27. Kh1 Bxe3 28. Nxe3 Bd7, as 29. Nxd5? is met by 29. … Bc6) 26. Rxf5? (White overlooks 26. Ba4+! Ke7 [Bd7 27. Qxe6+] 27. Bg5+ Kf7 [Kd6 28. Qe5 mate] 28. Rxf5+! exf5 29. Qe8+ Kg7 30. Bf6 mate) Bb6+ 27. Be3, when Black still could have claimed the draw with 27. … Qg3+ 28. Kh1 Qh3+ 29. Kg1 Qg3+, as White can’t escape with 30. Kf1? Qh3+ 31. Kf2 Bxe3+ 32. Nxe3 Qh4+ 33. Kg1 Bd7.

Instead, White this time finds the killer check: 27. … d4? (calculating that any move of the attacked bishop allows 28. … d3+, winning the queen) 28. Ba4+! Bd7 (Kd8 29. Bg5+ Kc7 30. Qe5 is mate) 29. Bxd7+ Kxd7 30. Qb5+, and Black’s king is caught in the crosshairs.

The swarming White pieces run the king to ground on 30. … Ke7 31. Bg5+ Kd6 32. Qe5+ Kd7 (Kc6 33. Qxe6+ Kc7 34. Bf4+ Kd8 35. Rf8 mate) 33. Rf7+, and Abrahamyan resigned ahead of 33. … Kc8 (Kc6 34. b5 mate) 34. Qh8+ Bd8 35. Qxd8 mate.

Carlsen-Anand, 5th Finals Masters, Bilbao, Spain, October 2012

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About the Author
David R. Sands

David R. Sands

Raised in Northern Virginia, David R. Sands received an undergraduate degree from the University of Virginia and a master’s degree from the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University. He worked as a reporter for several Washington-area business publications before joining The Washington Times.

At The Times, Mr. Sands has covered numerous beats, including international trade, banking, politics ...

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