Critical moments.

Hello to all the readers of this blog, this is a new contributor Simon. We have known each other with Greg for a while now from plenty of games at the blitz meetup at the Tea Lounge  that I organize and from the tournaments at the Marshall that he directs and I play in. It’s been one of my favorite blogs for a long time, which makes me even happier to be one of the writers of. I will follow the general formula here of “thinking out loud” on all things chess, whether it’s a super-GM tournament kibitzing, online blitz madness, chess literature reviews or reflection on hopeless positions from my own games (will try to spare you these). I hope you enjoy my writing and appreciate all the comments.

For today’s article I chose to focus on the critical game of my favorite tournament of the year, London Chess Classic, which finished last week. It’s just a wonderful event to follow online, with a streaming live video commentary of all the games. Maybe it’s a good spoken English that does it for me? Or the British humor perhaps? And the games themselves somehow are always very entertaining (with Sofia rules encouraging players to fight).  As every chess player not living under the rock knows by now, Magnus Carlsen won it yet again, and by doing so, his live rating has reached a stratospheric 2861 level, which beats Garry Kasparov’s old record.


How does he do it ? One of the factors may be what Magnus said with a smile during one of the interviews in London: “I pride myself to be an unforgiving player”. He said it with a smile on his face, but he was serious. Playing against him even the slightest inaccuracy will put a strong grandmaster in trouble. We’ll see it in our featured game. In the final tournament standings Magnus was ahead just two points (or half a point in traditional scoring) of Vladimir Kramnik, who also had a fantastic tournament, elevating his rating over 2800 again. Upon closer look, you will find that this small difference between numbers one and two in the final standings was made in their games against Michael Adams (who himself had a very good tournament, finishing in the 3rd shared place). They both had Black pieces against Adams, they both even started with 1.e4 e5, but Kramnik drew and Carlsen won. So that was  the critical game. The thing is, Carlsen was for a long time worse in that game, but he managed to capitalize on Adams’ inaccuracies and win. We start with this position:




White is up a pawn, but he gives it up by playing 29.Nf3. Instead, Nc6 would have maintained his advantage and he shouldn’t be in any danger of losing. It is impressive to observe Carlsen’s technique, how he goes from a worse position to a winning one. One may argue that these were the mistakes of his opponent which allowed him to do that, but this is where he is so efficient like no one else- over the course of the next 11 moves needed to make the time control he just “improves his pieces” (these chess cliches really mean something, just compare the position of his queen to the one from the previous diagram) and it’s White to play with 3 seconds left on the clock:




Now, it’s very easy to understand that White didn’t want to play the computer move 40.Nd2, putting himself in a pin along the second rank, but this was his best defence here. Instead, 40.e4 loses a pawn (it’s a good tactical exercise- try to visualize the sequence that follows before checking the game below). What really is amazing for me to watch here is how Carlsen has everything under control and never loosens his grip- one thing leads to another – and he achieves a winning queen and pawn endgame where one would think there generally is a high ratio of draws, but not here- he methodically advances his queen and passed e-pawn without giving White any chance for counterplay. Finally, we come to a position where Black has to decide whether the time is right to exchange queens. Serious calculation is required- he will remain up a pawn, but is it still winning. He just has to see the pawn endgame position 14 moves ahead, including the king opposition battle dance and evaluation of the pawn race. Very exact calculation, and you’re not allowed to make a mistake because there’s no way back. So, when he’s looking at the position in the diagram on the left( Black to move), he sees its outcome 14 moves later in the diagram on the right, just like that:


Carlsen’s games (especially the ones from the last two years or so, since he has been winning almost everything) are full of examples like this- him being unforgiving. They are a great material to study for everyone who wants to learn the magical winning technique.

Please check the game annotations and variations below. Before writing this post, I saw commentary from the Chess Evolution weekly newsletter, which covers this endgame in much more depth than I do here- I certainly recommend it for its high quality material sent to my inbox every week.