He can be beaten.
Norway’s Magnus Carlsen claimed the world title in October without dropping a game in his 10-game match with India’s Viswanathan Anand. In his first return to competitive play since then, he breezed through the first half of the Zurich Chess Classic that ended last week with three wins and two draws at classical time controls, against one of the strongest fields ever assembled.
But the young Norwegian finally showed a small chink in his armor in the rapid-game half of the Zurich event, scoring just 2 points in five games with losses to world No. 2 Levon Aronian of Armenia and Italy’s Fabiano Caruana. Caruana won the rapid competition, but Carlsen had racked up enough points in the first half of the tournament to claim the overall title. Caruana’s win over the new champ was particularly impressive, for he appeared to mimic the Norwegian’s own relentless style to secure the win.
In a very positional Reti Opening, the champ seems to have been unsettled by White’s 18. Nh4 Bh7 19. Bh3!, pinning the knight on d7. Black’s dubious attempt to complicate the play with 19…d4!? only gets him into trouble after 24. Na1! (a world-class repositioning idea) e4 25. Nxd4 exd3 26. exd3 Bxd3?! (Qe5 27. Nac2 Bg6 28. Bg2 Qd6 also looks better for Caruana) 27. Qxd3 Nxb4 28. Qc3! (Qc4!? Qe1+ 29. Bf1 Qxa1 30. Rc7 Nbd5 31. Rxb7 Qe1 gives Black real counterplay) Ne4 29. Nf5! (Qxb4? Qxc5 30. Qxc5 Nxc5 31. Nac2 g6 is equal), taking advantage of the fact that 29…Qxc5?? 30. Qxg7 mate is out of the question.
On the game’s 29…Qf8 30. Qxb4 Nxc5 31. Nc2 Nd3 32. Qc3, White’s three minor pieces prove a very powerful combination, while Black has real troubles keeping his king safe.
Carlsen gets a taste of his own medicine here — the more he struggles to save an inferior position, the quicker his game deteriorates. After 40. Qc3 Nd7 (Ne6 41. Nxe6+ fxe6 42. Qc7+ Kg8 43. f4 is very pleasant for White) 41. f4 b5 42. Nb4, the Italian dominates the board. A Black blunder at the faster time controls wraps things up posthaste: 42…Nb8 (Kh7 43. Qc7 Nf8 44. Nf3 Rd7 45. Qc8 Kg7 46. Nxa6 is a winning endgame) 43. Nd5 b4? (Rxd5 44. Bxd5 Nd7 45. Bc6) 44. Nf5+, and Black resigns as he not only loses his queen but it is mate in five: 44…gxf5 45. Qxf6+ Kg8 (Kf8 46. Qh8 mate; 45…Kh7 46. Qxf7+ Kh6 47. Ne7 and mate next) 46. Ne7+ Kf8 47. Ng6+ Kg8 (Ke8 48. Qe7 mate) 48. Qh8 mate.
As we have noted before, the player rating system devised by Hungarian-born American physicist Arpad Elo a half-century ago has proved a remarkably predictive tool: In the vast majority of cases, the higher-rated player tends to win, even when the difference in rating is slight. So it’s always fun to see a genuine upset, like the amusing one pulled off by Class A player Petra Kejzar (1910) against Serbian GM Sinisa Drazic (2420) at a recent open tournament in Slovenia. On the White side of a Rossolimo Sicilian, the grandmaster is cruising to a ho-hum early-round win when things go horribly wrong.
White opens up a big positional edge after 15. 0-0-0 Bb7?! (both 15…0-0 and 15…Nc4 were more prudent here) 16. Qd2 Qc7 (see diagram), and the grandmaster could have kept his edge with simple moves like 16. Rhe1 or even 16. e6. Instead, Drazic gets greedy (or lazy) and his lower-rated opponent doesn’t miss her chance: 17. Bxb5+? (a standard idea in this opening, but one with a big hole in it here) axb5 18. Nxb5, when after 18…Qe7 19. Nd6+ Kf8 20. Qb4, White has two pawns and plenty of attacking compensation for the lost piece.
But that’s only if Black doesn’t find the game’s 18…Nb3+! 19. Kb1 (sadly, the c-pawn is pinned and 19. axb3 Ra1 is mate) Nxd2+ 20. Rxa2 Qa5 and Black has won a queen for two pawns. No doubt disgusted by the abrupt turn of events, White plays on in hopes of a miracle, but Black shows her mettle in bringing home the point.
Kejzar finishes with a flourish, giving up two pawns and an exchange to drive the White king to its doom: 29. Kf3 g4+! 30. Kxg4 f5+ 31. Kxf5 Raf8+ 32. Nf6+ Rxf6+! 33. exf6 Qe3 34. Rhd1 Qe4+, and White gave up ahead of 35. Kg5 h6+ 36. Kh5 Qf5 mate.
Caruana-Carlsen, Zurich Chess Challenge/Rapid, February 2014
1. Nf3 Nf6 2. g3 d5 3. Bg2 c6 4. O-O Bf5 5. d3 e6 6. c4 Nbd7 7. cxd5 cxd5 8. Be3 Bc5 9. Bxc5 Nxc5 10. Nc3 O-O11. Qd2 h6 12. Rfc1 Rc8 13. b4 Ncd7 14. a4 Qe7 15. Nb5 a6 16. Nbd4 Bg6 17. Nb3 e5 18. Nh4 Bh7 19. Bh3 d420. Nf3 Rxc1+ 21. Rxc1 Nb6 22. a5 Nbd5 23. Rc5 Rd8 24. Na1 e4 25. Nxd4 exd3 26. exd3 Bxd3 27. Qxd3 Nxb428. Qc3 Ne4 29. Nf5 Qf8 30. Qxb4 Nxc5 31. Nc2 Nd3 32. Qc3 g6 33. Nfd4 Nc5 34. Bg2 Qd6 35. h4 h5 36. Qe3Qf6 37. Nf3 Qf5 38. Nfd4 Qf6 39. Kh2 Kg7 40. Qc3 Nd7 41. f4 b5 42. Nb4 Nb8 43. Nd5 b4 44. Nf5+ Black resigns.
Drazic-Kejzar, 19th HIT Open, Slovenia, February 2014
1. e4 c5 2. Nc3 Nc6 3. Bb5 Na5 4. Nf3 a6 5. Be2 d6 6. d4 cxd4 7. Nxd4 Nf6 8. Bg5 e6 9. f4 Be7 10. Qd3 b5 11. e5 dxe5 12. fxe5 Nd5 13. Bxe7 Qxe7 14. Nxd5 exd5 15. O-O-O Bb7 16. Qd2 Qc7 17. Bxb5+ axb5 18. Nxb5 Nb3+ 19. Kb1 Nxd2+ 20. Rxd2 Qa5 21. Nd6+ Kd7 22. c3 Qxa2+ 23. Kc2 Qa4+ 24. Kd3 Ba6+ 25. Ke3 g5 26. g3 Bc4 27. h4 f6 28. Ne4 Qa7+ 29. Kf3 g4+ 30. Kxg4 f5+ 31. Kxf5 Raf8+ 32. Nf6+ Rxf6+ 33. exf6 Qe3 34. Rhd1 Qe4+ White resigns.
• David R. Sands can be reached at 202/636-3178 or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.