Magnus Carlsen’s bold decision to play in an open tournament, the first reigning world champion to do so since Boris Spassky in 1971, paid off handsomely this week at Qatar when the 25-year-old Norwegian won first prize unbeaten on 7/9 with one of his best performances. He tied with Yu Yangyi, then crushed his Chinese rival 2-0 in the speed tie-break.
Carlsen’s first-round draw with the lowly ranked Georgian woman champion Nino Batsiashvili looked ominous but then he took off with some fine tactical and strategic chess, notably with a brilliancy against Li Chao and a fast win against the dangerous Shak Mamedyarov. A tougher test awaits Carlsen when the elite Tata Steel Wijk tournament starts on 15 January but, with victories in London and Qatar under his belt, he looks to be overcoming the erratic form which dogged him for much of 2015.
Several potential Carlsen rivals competed in Qatar. The former world champion Vlad Kramnik tied for third half a point behind Carlsen and advanced to world No2 but Kramnik is not qualified for the Moscow candidates in March which will decide the next title challenger. Holland’s current world No3, Anish Giri, and Russia’s Sergey Karjakin, both candidates, halved too often.
England’s No2 David Howell, 25, scored 5.5/9 with only one defeat, a par result in such company despite his self-imposed handicap of continued addiction to time trouble. Howell was often down to just the 30-second per move increment and missed some chances.
The big loser was Wei Yi, Chinese champion at 16 and freely canvassed as a future Carlsen challenger. The teenager lost in the very first round and from then on struggled to impose himself against opponents rated around 200 points lower. He did score in one elegant finish where he sacrificed queen for rook and bishop to create a zugzwang, then calmly marched his king up the board before transposing to a won pawn endgame. But another ending, featured in this week’s puzzle, ended disastrously and Wei Yi’s 4.5/9 total shed a bucket of rating points.
Wei Yi, like Carlsen, starts at Tata Steel in a fortnight’s time, so needs an urgent repair job. Otherwise China did well in Qatar with Yu, who won Qatar 2014, tying for first. Blitz chess is rarely played in Beijing, so Yu’s play-off debacle against Carlsen was predictable.
The tournament received glowing reports due to its high-class playing conditions and interesting entry. Elite GMs, top women players, talented juniors, and unknown locals were all in the mix. The rating floor 0f 2300 excluded weak players and meant that the field was sufficiently small for there to be several games among key contenders.
Top chess now has three competing models: all-play-alls with a small select invited group, large knockouts (like the World Cup) and very strong opens (like Qatar and Tradewise Gibraltar). At present they all flourish but, come the next recession, it could be survival of the fittest.
Mamedyarov v Carlsen was routine until the Azeri tried to be bold with 17 h4?! and 20 d5? Optically it looked good, in reality the white d5 pawn was self-pinned and lost. With Black a pawn up, Mamedyarov tried another tactic by 24 Bxf5? which lost a piece to Rc6!
Shak Mamedyarov v Magnus Carlsen
1 d4 Nf6 2 c4 e6 3 Nf3 d5 4 Nc3 Bb4 5 Bg5 h6 6 Bxf6 Qxf6 7 e3 O-O 8 Rc1 dxc4 9 Bxc4 c5 10 O-O cxd4 11 Ne4 Qe7 12 exd4 Rd8 13 Qe2 Nc6 14 Rfd1 Ba5 15 Ng3 Bb6 16 Qe4 Bd7 17 h4?! Be8 18 a3 Rd6 19 Qg4 Rad8 20 d5? Qf8! 21 Qe4 Ne7! 22 Bd3 f5! 23 Qe5 Nxd5 24 Bxf5? exf5 25 Nxf5 Rc6! 0-1
Yu Yangyi v Magnus Carlsen, blitz
1 d4 Nf6 2 c4 e6 3 Nc3 Bb4 4 Nf3 b6 5 e3 Bb7 6 Bd3 0-0 7 0-0 c5 8 Na4 cxd4 9 exd4 Re8 10 a3 Bf8 11 Bf4 Bxf3 12 Qxf3 Nc6 13 d5 exd5 14 cxd5 Ne5 15 Qd1?? Nxd3 16 Qxd3 Re4 0-1
3423 1 Qxc4?? bxc4 2 Kf4 f5! (only move) wins for Black. If 3 Kxf5 c3 and queens, or 3 Ke3 Kh6 and the BK eats White’s king’s side.
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