Carlsen a Smash Hit in Nanjing
By GM Ian Rogers   
October 29, 2010
GM Magnus Carlsen, Photo Cathy Rogers
In Nanjing last October, Magnus Carlsen looked like a very average player. 

He was completely unable to cope with the defensive skills of  opponents such as Peter Leko and even managed to lose a series of friendly games against this writer, long retired from competitive play. 

However the young Norwegian has improved dramatically in the past 12 months. I realized this while retrieving the ping-pong ball for the tenth time from the corner of the table tennis room in the Mingfa Hotel, smashed past me by Carlsen's now deadly forehand.  

The 2010 Pearl Spring tournament, which concludes late tonight,  is being played on the outskirts of Nanjing and there is not a lot to do of an evening except play table tennis or snooker, so Carlsen has spent a lot of time at the ping pong table. (Grandmasters Vugar Gashimov and Etienne Bacrot prefer the snooker table, although neither of them would trouble Gilbert O'Sullivan, let alone Ronnie O'Sullivan.) 

Of course during the daylight hours, preparing for and competing in China's strongest-ever chess tournament - one of the most exciting tournaments of 2010 - occupies most of Carlsen's working day. 

In a tournament featuring three 2800+ players for the first time in history, Carlsen has taken up where he left off in Nanjing 2009, when he was anything but average over the chessboard. 

At the 2009 Pearl Spring tournament, Carlsen won every game with White and ultimately finished two and a half points clear of then world number one Veselin Topalov. 

In 2010 Carlsen, now aged 19, won his first three games with White before being held to a draw by a resourceful/lucky Viswanathan Anand. (At the end of the game, the World Champion congratulated his opponent on finally drawing a game with White!) "If he had beaten me he would have won nine consecutive games with White in Nanjing," explained Anand. "Even eight is an incredible achievement." 

Carlsen came into the tournament in a form slump, possibly the first of his career. He had played poorly at the Siberian Olympiad - with wild speculation as to the cause providing him almost enough amusement to compensate for his lost Elo points - and then performed modestly at the Grand Slam Final in Bilbao which finished just days before the start of the Nanjing event. The latter event cost Carlsen his world number one ranking, with Anand edging past him. 

However in Nanjing, Carlsen has been unstoppable, leading the tournament from the first round and being chased only half-heartedly by Bacrot and Anand. He has won the tournament with a round to spare and the only sporting interest in the final round is whether he can increase his lead to near Nanjing 2009 proportions. Twice Carlsen has seemed to be in serious trouble with Black, against Bacrot and Gashimov, but twice he successfully defended seriously depressing endgames.  

So dominant has Carlsen appeared that at various press conferences both Anand and Topalov were asked impertinent questions by the Chinese media which bordered close to 'Isn't it about time that you retired?' (One journalist prefaced his question by saying that hardly any top Chinese players managed to play on past 30, so how did Topalov keep going at 35?)  
Magnus Carlsen, Photo Cathy Rogers

Anand dismissed the idea of retirement out of hand, while Topalov gave himself another five years, while admitting, "It is hard to compete with the younger players. They calculate better, they are fitter and they have better memory. But it is mostly motivation." 

Carlsen was also asked, since Anand and Topalov couldn't beat him in Nanjing, who could now be a threat to him? Carlsen pointed out that the World Champion might still pose some threat and added Topalov, Kramnik and Aronian as players who were rather serious. 
Magnus Carlsen signing autographs, Photo Cathy Rogers

The Nanjing press conferences - one held after each round - have been entertaining affairs. A Carlsen press conference seemed to attract a surprising number of young, female journalists, and all players had to be on their toes as the questions ranged far and wide: from the effect of vegetarianism on Anand's chess to a question to newly married Topalov on who dresses him so stylishly, himself or his wife? 

Topalov has been going through a lean streak, which continued in the first half of the Nanjing tournament. Devastating defeats against both Anand and Carlsen sent Topalov plummeting to the foot of the tournament standings - and to as low as number five in the world. 
Anand vs. Topalov, Photo Cathy Rogers

However the Bulgarian is nothing if not a fighter, and he made a modest second half recovery, which included the following adventurous draw against Anand. 

Opening: Catalan
1.d4 Nf6 2.c4 e6 3.Nf3 d5 4.g3 Bb4+ 5.Bd2 Be7 6.Bg2 0-0 7.0-0 c6 8.Qc2
8.Bf4 led to trouble for Anand in the fantastic seventh game of his 2010 title match against Topalov.
8...b6 9.Rd1 Nbd7 10.Bf4 Ba6 11.cxd5 cxd5 12.Ne5 Nxe5 13.dxe5 Rc8 14.Nc3 Ng4!
Heralding a piece sacrifice which originated from the fertile brain of Topalov's long-time second Ivan Cheparinov - though Anand had also analyzed the idea in the distant past.
In any case 14...Nd7 15.e4! already gives White an edge.
15...Nxf2! 16.Kxf2 Bc5+ 17.Be3!
If 17.Kf1, f6! opens up the position to Black's advantage.
17...Bxe3+ 18.Kxe3 b5 19.Qd3 Rc4!?
Topalov considered 19...Qb6+ 20.Qd4 Qb8!, which probably also forces Anand to return the piece after 21.Kf2 b4 22.Nxd5 since 22.Na4 Qb5 is unfortunate.
20.Nxd5! exd5 21.Bxd5 Qg5+?!
After 22...Qb6+ and 23...Rc5, Black should be fine.
22.Kf2 Qxe5 23.Bxc4 bxc4 24.Qd6?
"I had to play 24.Qd4! and after 24...Qf5+ 25.Kg2 Bb7+ 26.Kh2 Re8 27.Rd2 White must be better," said Anand. "However the game continuation looked clearer to me."
24...Qf5+ 25.Ke1
All part of a grand plan, but in any case it is too late for 25.Kg1 since 25...Qxh3! is similar to the game.
25...Qxh3! 26.Qxa6
Played with a heavy heart. "While he was thinking on 24...Qf5+ I suddenly realized that my plan to run my king to safety on a3 fails to ...Rxb3+ at the end," said Anand. "Actually, when the king is on a3 he will also be able to play ...Qc5+ so I have no idea what I was thinking about."
26...Qxg3+ 27.Kd2 Qf4+ 28.Kc2 Qe4+ 29.Kc1 Qe3+ 30.Kb1 Qe4+ 31.Kc1
Draw Agreed 

Topalov, the winner of Nanjing 2008, had a chance to seriously liven up the tournament when he reached a promising position against Carlsen in the penultimate round but a series of inaccuracies followed by a major blunder gave Carlsen another point and the tournament title with a round to spare. 

Carlsen turns 20 at the end of November and has now won four of the last five Grand Slam tournaments in which he has competed - Nanjing x2, Wijk aan Zee and Bazna - and is back on top of the world rankings.  

"He's an incredible talent," said Anand, soon after being outplayed by Carlsen in round 7 from a dead-equal position and barely hanging on to a draw. "Some of the things he does, even Vlady [Kramnik], who is a great technician, can't do."


Opening: Ruy Lopez

1.e4 e5 2.Nf3 Nc6 3.Bb5 a6 4.Ba4 Nf6 5.0-0 Be7 6.d3!? b5 7.Bb3 d6 8.a4 Rb8 9.axb5 axb5 10.Nbd2 0-0 11.Re1 Bd7
A strangely insipid plan; 11...Be6 was less obliging. "I made a bad opening choice," admitted Topalov later."
12.c3 Ra8 13.Rxa8 Qxa8 14.d4 h6 15.Nf1 Re8 16.Ng3
This looks like a standard Ruy Lopez position, with White having spent two moves on d4 but saved one by avoiding h3. Nothing to see here, one might think, yet 10 moves later, Black is facing inevitable defeat.
17.Nh4! Bf8 18.Ng6
This maneuver, exchanging a passive bishop for an active knight, seems bizarre but Carlsen explained that "afterwards I can play f4 with a big attack." The maneuver would have had the stamp of approval of Carlsen's former coach Garry Kasparov, who used the same idea to beat Nigel Short in game 3 of their 1993 world title contest.
18...Na5 19.Nxf8 Rxf8 20.Bc2 Re8 21.f4 Bg4 22.Qd3 exf4 23.Bxf4 Nc4 24.Bc1! c5 25.Rf1!
As if by magic, Carlsen has built up a winning position. White now has threats against f6 and h6, with additional ideas of b3 followed by e5.
25...cxd4 26.cxd4 Qd8 27.h3 Be6 28.b3 Qa5 29.Kh2
Showing super-human calm. Most players would take the pawn on h6, or pick up two pieces for a rook by capturing on c4, but Carlsen has bigger fish to fry.
29...Nh7 30.e5! g6
31.d5! Nxe5 32.dxe6!! 1-0

Topalov has seen enough. After 32.dxe6 Nxd3 33.exf7+ Kf8 34.Bxh6+ Ke7 35.fxe8Q+ Kxe8 36.Bxd3 Black will soon lose the knight on h7 as well.

*He made some lousy moves today," observed Carlsen. A lot of players seem to make lousy moves against Carlsen nowadays. And they can't even get their revenge on the table tennis table any more! 

The final round of the Pearl Spring tournament starts at 10pm EST. The games can be viewed on the official tournament web site or, with computer analysis, on Live commentary is also available on ChessFM. Also see video coverage on chessvibes, hosted by Macauley Peterson who you can follow on facebook.