Another week, another new record opportunity for Magnus Carlsen. Last Monday the world champion won the $150,000 Legends of Chess final, stretched his current unbeaten run to 19 online mini-matches, then took a few days off to prepare for the online Tour semi-final and final which start next Sunday afternoon.
Pairings for this concluding event have been kind to the Norwegian, who takes on three rivals qualified from previous Tour contests. Russia’s Daniil Dubov, the only player apart from Carlsen to win a final, meets the reigning US champion and online speed specialist, Hikaru Nakamura, in one semi-final, while in the other Carlsen, seeded No 1, plays China’s Ding Liren, who is world No 3 but seeded No 4.
Ding has been seriously handicapped throughout the Tour by internet disconnections and due to the 3pm BST start has had to play almost all his games at night. Ian Nepomniachtchi would probably have been a more dangerous opponent for Carlsen, but the Russian was defeated 6.5-2.5 in last week’s Legends final.
It was closer than the final score implies. Nepomniachtchi has an over-the-board plus score against Carlsen, although most of his wins date from their years as juniors, and co-led the 2020 Candidates when it was halted by Covid-19 at the halfway point.
His solitary victory against Carlsen was an occasion in itself, a 21-move attacking miniature where Carlsen could have held two moves earlier by 19…Bxg5.
Carlsen’s own fastest win was with the popular Bf4 London System where White’s quiet approach tempts Black to overpress and here provoked a rash pawn advance at move 15.
In the months before coronavirus interrupted over-the-board chess, Carlsen set a record streak of 121 unbeaten games. It is unclear when that sequence may continue, since although some tournament play has resumed in recent weeks, it is not at Carlsen’s elite level. The traditional Wijk aan Zee, Netherlands event in January may provide an opportunity before he defends his world crown later in 2021 against the Candidates winner.
Garry Kasparov, Carlsen’s rival as the all-time No 1 and a guest commentator, gave his analysis of the reasons for the 29-year-old’s dominance: “Magnus is very tough and always tries to improve. He’s so good at the board, looking for practical chances, he does a lot of work. It’s a combination of great players of the past: he has Karpov’s ability to locate his pieces in perfect positions, Fischer’s rage at the chessboard and also from myself/Botvinnik, the willingness to analyse his games and find improvements. He’s a universal type of player and that explains his dominance. Even after winning so much he wants to win more.”
However, Kasparov also claimed that Carlsen’s current rivals are less of a challenge than those of his own heyday, where besides his marathon and tightly contested series of world title matches against Anatoly Karpov, he had to face Vasyl Ivanchuk at his peak plus the then rising stars and future champions Vlad Kramnik and Vishy Anand. He could have added that, whereas Carlsen has always turned down matches against computers, he took the engines on at a time when their strength was fast improving, a decision which led to his 1997 disaster against Deep Blue.
3683: 1…Nxb4! when if 2 axb4 Qxd4! gains decisive material. If 2 Rxd6 Nxd3+! 3 Rxd3 Rxh5 wins.