Sweet surrender

24 October 2020

9:00 AM

24 October 2020

9:00 AM

It’s over. Magnus Carlsen’s undefeated streak in classical chess has finally come to an end, after 125 games. It is hard to exaggerate what an unlikely accomplishment this is: Carlsen faced top-flight opposition in almost every game, winning 42 and drawing 83. He was beaten by the Polish grandmaster Jan-Krzysztof Duda at the Altibox Norway Chess tournament (played over the board!) earlier this month.

Carlsen’s preceding loss came against Shakhriyar Mamedyarov during a difficult period in late 2018. Back then, the talk of the town was Ding Liren’s progress toward what became a 100-game unbeaten streak, while Carlsen’s confidence looked at a low ebb. With gritted teeth, he defended his world championship title against Caruana. Getting through that match apparently reinvigorated the champion, and he has enjoyed an extended purple patch ever since. His game looked fresher, and he breezed past Ding’s milestone late last year.

Streaks like this remind me of the retro computer game Snake, in which one controls a grid-bound hatchling bent on gobbling up pixellated treats. Growing longer with each bite, one is soon corralling an unwieldy serpent which must never consume its own tail. I envisage the psychological burden of a long unbeaten streak growing in the same inexorable fashion.

I would hazard a guess at one mitigating factor: top players these days do not subsist on a diet of classical chess. During Carlsen’s unbeaten classical streak, occasional losses during rapid and blitz games provided a break from perfection, releasing the pressure just a little. Nonetheless, Carlsen declared that the end of his run at the hands of Duda was ‘very, very disappointing’. Maybe so, but one suspects it was accompanied by a sense of relief. At any rate, a crucial win in the penultimate round against Alireza Firouzja (who finished second) wrapped up yet another tournament victory for Carlsen. Firouzja, who is often tipped as a future challenger, conducted a long and stubborn defence, but his blunder on the final move of a simple endgame could only be explained by nerves.

The streak was over, but he won the event anyway. As if to underline both points, Carlsen lost again to Levon Aronian in the final round! Here, though, is a beautiful positional game against the Norwegian Aryan Tari, played in the eighth round. Carlsen makes the win look effortless: the knight assumes the outpost on d5 and the rook penetrates along the a-file.

Magnus Carlsen–Aryan Tari
Altibox Norway Chess, October 2020

1 e4 e5 2 Nf3 Nc6 3 Bb5 a6 4 Ba4 Nf6 5 O-O Be7 6 d3 b5 7 Bb3 d6 8 a4 Bd7 9 c3 Na5 10 Ba2 c5 11 Bg5 O-O 12 Nbd2 Rb8 13 axb5 axb5 14 Re1 b4 15 Nc4 Nxc4 16 Bxc4 bxc3 17 bxc3 Qc7 18 Qc2 Bb5 19 Bxb5 Rxb5 20 Bxf6! This exchange leads to a textbook good knight vs bad bishop scenario. White has an enduring advantage. 20…Bxf6 21 Nd2 Qc6 22 Qa4 An important step before placing the knight on c4. Rfb8 23 Nc4 Be7 With the queen on a4, 23…d5 offers no relief. 24 Na3! R5b6 25 Qxc6 Rxc6 26 exd5 nets a pawn. 24 g3 Qc8 25 Qd1 g6 26 Kg2 Patient play. I believe many would rush to play Nc4-e3-d5, but for now, the knight is well placed on c4, keeping the rook out of b2. 26…Bf8 27 Qf3 Rb3 28 Rec1 Qe6 29 Ra7 R8b7 30 Rxb7 Rxb7 31 Ra1 h5 32 Ra8 Kg7 33 Ne3 Rc7 34 Nd5 Rc8 35 Ra7 Rb8 36 h3! Initiating the final phase. Rd8 37 g4 hxg4 38 hxg4 Rd7 39 Ra8 f6 40 g5 f5 41 Qh3 Rf7 42 Re8! An exquisite finish. Qxe8 43 Qh6+ Kg8 44 Qxg6+ Kh8 Or 44…Bg7 45 Nf6+ 45 Nf6 Black resigns

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