Three rounds from the end of the $430,000 Fide/Chess.com Isle of Man event, chances of a bunch finish were growing as just half a point covered the leading 13 contenders, among them the world champion, Magnus Carlsen, and the world No 2, Fabiano Caruana.
Top pairings in round nine (of 11) on Saturday are Levon Aronian (Armenia) v David Anton (Spain) and Carlsen (Norway) v Caruana (US). Anton, Aronian and Caruana are joint leaders with 6/8, followed by Carlsen and nine others on 5.5/8. The upset of Friday’s eighth round was a crushing 24-move victory by Anton over the world-ranked Russian Alexander Grischuk, whose king was fatally exposed on an open board. Anton, 24, is ranked only No 52 in the world in the live ratings, but now takes on three of the top 10 elite.
Carlsen and Caruana, who competed for the world crown in London last November, have both avoided defeat as a mixture of defensive skills and missed chances by their opponents in time pressure pulled them through.
The champion had the luckier escape when his careless Sicilian allowed Vladislav Kovalev from Belarus a crushing central advantage with a passed d6 pawn supported by Qd5 and Ne4. How did Carlsen react to such a horrible position ?
“He reached for the rook, and then I saw oh, oh, Rae 1. He took a couple more minutes before he actually made the move and I am sitting there thinking. I have 1.30 on the clock and I am completely lost. I mean how can you be so dumb? Afterwards there were so many good continuations for him but he probably got nervous. Then he got low on time and then anything can happen.”
Resilient Carlsen got away with it and that seemed to spark his creative juices and a return to peak form. His next two wins were stylish and elegant, his confidence boosted because he had already defeated Surya Ganguly and Alexey Shirov as a teenager.
After Friday’s seventh round Carlsen’s unbeaten streak reached 98 games, surpassing Mikhail Tal’s 95 in 1973-74 and closing in on Ding Liren’s record of 100 against high-level opponents. The record could fall in the 11th and final Isle of Man round on Monday if he continues to avoid defeat.
“For sure, I’m thinking about it” Carlsen said. “It’s been so many games that you cannot help to want to get that record, but from the way I’m playing it doesn’t seem that it’s what I care about. Over this streak I’ve shown very good resilience in defence, but I’ve been lucky. My opponents have missed some pretty easy wins.”
Caruana’s great escape came against Luke McShane in the fifth round. McShane drew his first game, then he followed up with three excellent wins from which his smooth victory over India’s Baskaran Adhiban was the pick.
The Englishman, whose main career has been in the City and is often called the world’s strongest amateur, had a chance to become the clear leader on 4.5/5. He had a large advantage and missed several wins ranging from clear to complex, including the one in this week’s puzzle.
It would be stretching the story to say that with a clear lead McShane at age 35 could have gone on to qualify for the 2020 candidates, but the missed opportunities were a defining moment for his tournament. A loss to Wang Hao and a draw with Kovalev followed.
Levon Aronian is one of the greatest players, with an impressive career record and a fearless and imaginative style, but the Armenian has failed in four candidates tournaments. At 37, qualifying from Douglas to the 2020 candidates is his last realistic chance. He began slowly with two draws, then surged with 4.5/5 and is in pole position for the final four rounds.
3641 1 Nc1! wins at least another piece (1…Qg2+ leaving White a rook up) since Caruana’s black queen has no reasonable way to maintain guard against Qh5+ and Qxe8+. Take credit if you chose 1 Rf7 Bc3 2 Rf2, which is also strong. Even McShane’s choice of 1 Nxb4 still leads to a win, but 1 Nc1! would probably have induced Caruana to resign.