Norway Chess R1-4 2020

It is time to “resurrect” my blog after a long pause. I cannot think of a better opportunity than on the heels of a nice win against the London 2018 World Championship match challenger Fabiano Caruana. In London he pushed me all the way to rapid play-off, and prior to yesterday we had played 19 draws in a row (in classical chess).

I’ve really enjoyed all the strong online events taking place over the last six months and except for a few minor setbacks it has been fairly successful.

Play Magnus and Chess24 built on the initial popular MC Invitational in April with three additional qualifying events concluding with the 4-player final in August. We borrowed the “best-of-x-matches” concept from US sports, and after beating Ding Liren 3-1 (in best-of-5), I played best-of-7 against Hikaru Nakamura (who advanced after 3-0 against Dubov in his semifinal), in the final. Having had only a few days to recharge after the two week long Legends of Chess tournament finishing early August, the Final match was as tense and nearly as excruciating as my World Championship matches. Hikaru won our first match and we exchanged wins all the way up to 3-3. In a match none of us deserved to lose, I spoiled a last day early lead in the rapid games, barely survived the blitz games by winning on demand with little time and no real advantage in the second game, and held a draw in a topsy-turvy Armageddon game with black to win by the smallest margin possible. I think only a potential cliffhanger finish to the early November 2nd half of the suspended March FIDE Candidates tournament can prevent the match against Nakamura from being the chess highlight of 2020.

The Norway Chess organizers has worked very hard and diligently to make this year’s event possible, and the foreign participants gracefully agreed to arrive in Stavanger and quarantine the necessary ten days before the tournament.

I haven’t had such a break from classical chess since playing my first tournament more than 20 years ago and didn’t know what to expect.

The first round draw against Aronian with black was alright, although I could maybe have been slightly more ambitious in the early middle game.

Norway Chess has continued with the novel format introduced last year; Rapid Armageddon play-offs in case the classical game ends in a draw. Against Aronian I thought I was lucky winning a wild game until the next day. After another classical draw, this time against the young star Alireza Firouzja, I somehow managed to turn a disastrous opening into a worse position without an obvious path to victory for black. He spent too much time and went for simplifications to reach an equal but somewhat complicated rook ending. He pondered too long at one point and lost on time. Now, that was close!

Caruana won his first two games quite convincingly and in round 3 I had to try to win with black against my young compatriot Aryan Tari. The Rauzer Sicilian variation is slightly worse for black, but when trying to complicate matters I made several inaccuracies and ended up considerably worse. However, as computer analysis showed after the game, it was extraordinary tactical and none of us had much of a clue really. His inaccuracy Nh5 turned out to be a significant blunder, although I still struggle to understand how one such move could reverse our fortunes so decisively. I found the counterplay and although not playing perfectly I managed to maintain the initiative and enough king safety to win in the end. Phew..

Yesterday against Caruana he decided against all the sharp alternatives and went for a quiet continuation that I knew should allow white to get a small but comfortable advantage, but I couldn’t remember how! I probably found the right moves over the board because the rooks and knight ending is quite tricky for black due to the week c-pawn. He decided to sacrifice the pawn for activity and that might have been a decent plan unless he subsequently had made several inaccuracies allowing me to get my pawn to c5 while keeping control of key squares. His position crumbled surprisingly fast, and I could enter the first rest day with 9/12 points ahead of Aronian at 8 and Caruana and Firouzja at 7. (It is 3 points for a classical win, 1 point for a draw and half a point extra for an Armageddon win.)

Tonight there is a competition staged over at Norway Chess sponsor HTH offices, and tomorrow I’m black against Jan-Krzysztof Duda from Poland at 5pm local time.