- The Washington Times - Wednesday, June 21, 2017

Levon ain’t leavin’.

Armenian GM Levon Aronian has long been one of the world’s best players, leading his small country to three Olympiad gold medals and reaching No. 2 in the world rankings. But at 34, Aronian has seemed in recent years to have missed his chance, overtaken by Norwegian world champion Magnus Carlsen, who turns 27 this year, and a rising generation of younger stars capturing some of the game’s glittering prizes.

But in a powerful field that featured Carlsen, two former world champions and a passel of young guns, it was Aronian who shone the brightest, taking clear first in the 5th Altibox Norway Chess Tournament with an unbeaten 6-3 score, including wins over Carlsen and former Russian world champ Vladimir Kramnik. Coupled with his win at the 4th Grenke Chess Classic in Baden-Baden in April (again with Carlsen in the field), Aronian is in line for a major ratings boost and a restored place in the conversation over who is the world’s best player.

With three Americans in the field in Norway, there was a minicompetition for the title of highest-scoring Yank. GM Wesley So ran the table with nine disappointing draws, but GMs Fabiano Caruana and Hikaru Nakamura continued their rivalry with an entertaining last-round battle in which some Caruana home cooking cost Nakamura a chance to tie for first.

The Poisoned Pawn Sicilian (8…Qxb2) is yet another sharp opening line made famous by Bobby Fischer, and here the first real novelty comes on 14. g4 h6 15. Rg1!?, inviting 15…Nc6 16. Nxc6 Qxc6 17. e5!? dxe5 18. Bf3, with complications that Black may have feared to explore. Nakamura plays it cautiously, returning the gambited pawn with 15…Bd7 16. g5 hxg5 17. Rxg5 Nc6!? (it’s murky after the materialistic 17…Rh7!? 18. Bf4 e5 19. Nd5 Qa5 [Nxd5 20. exd5 Bxg5 21. Qg6+ Kf8 22. Bxg5 Kg8 is roughly equal) 20. Bd2 Qxa2 21. Rxb7 Nxd5 22. Bh5+ Kd8 23. exd5 Kc8 24. Rb4) 18. Rxg7 0-0-0, but after 19. Ncb5! axb5 20. Nxb5 Ne5 (Qb8 21. Rxe7 Nxe7 22. Nxd6+ Kc7 23. Bf4 is crushing), Black is still struggling to keep things level.

Nakamura’s downfall comes when he misses a computerlike finesse: 21. Nxc7 Nxd3+ 22. cxd3 (see diagram), when the only move to hold the position is the brazen 22…Rxh2!!; e.g. 23. Rxe7 Rh1+ 24. Bf1 Rf8!, winning back the piece because the pinned bishop on f1 can’t be saved.

Instead, after 22…Ng8? 23. Na8! Kb8 24. Nb6 Bc6 25. Bf4, White is a pawn to the good and has the better position.

Caruana cements his edge with 37. Nc6! Bxc6 38. bxc6+ Kxc6 29. Bf1 — with d7 and d5 denied to the Black king, the threat to trade off the knight and check with the White rooks forces Nakamura’s hand: 39…Rxf2 (Bf4 40. Bxd4 exd4 41. Rc2 mate) 40. Kxf2 Rf8+ 41. Kg2 Be3 42. Rb8, and White’s material edge is overwhelming.

In the final position, White wins easily in lines like 59…Ne5 60. h7 Nf7 61. e5 Kd8 62. e6 Nh8 63. Kg3 Ke7 64. Kf4 Kd8 65. Ke5 Ke7 66. Bc2 Kd8 67. Kf6 Kc7 68. Ke7 and wins; Nakamura resigned.

Caruana-Nakamura, 5th Altibox Norway Chess Tournament, Stavanger, Norway, June 2017

1. e4 c5 2. Nf3 d6 3. d4 cxd4 4. Nxd4 Nf6 5. Nc3 a6 6. Bg5 e6 7. f4 Qb6 8. Qd3 Qxb2 9. Rb1 Qa3 10. f5 Be7 11. fxe6 fxe6 12. Be2 Qa5 13. Bd2 Qc7 14. g4 h6 15. Rg1 Bd7 16. g5 hxg5 17. Rxg5 Nc6 18. Rxg7 O-O-O 19. Ncb5 axb5 20. Nxb5 Ne5 21. Nxc7 Nxd3+ 22. cxd3 Ng8 23. Na8 Kb8 24. Nb6 Bc6 25. Bf4 e5 26. Bg3 Bf6 27. Rf7 Be8 28. Rf8 Bg7 29. Rf2 Ne7 30. Bg4 Nc6 31. Rfb2 Nd4 32. Nd5 b5 33. a4 Bh6 34. axb5 Rg8 35. h3 Kb7 36. Ne7 Rf8 37. Nc6 Bxc6 38. bxc6+ Kxc6 39. Bf2 Rxf2 40. Kxf2 Rf8+ 41. Kg2 Be3 42. Rb8 Rxb8 43. Rxb8 d5 44. Rc8+ Kd6 45. Rd8+ Ke7 46. Rd7+ Kf6 47. exd5 e4 48. dxe4 Bf4 49. h4 Nb5 50. h5 Be5 51. Bf5 Kg5 52. Bg6 Nd6 53. Re7 Nc4 54. Re6 Bf6 55. d6 Ne5 56. Bf5 Nd3 57. Rxf6 Kxf6 58. d7 Ke7 59. h6 Black resigns.

David R. Sands can be reached at 202/636-3178 or by email dsands@washingtontimes.com.

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