Chess: Carlsen takes on No 1 junior, No 1 woman and No 1 rival on same afternoon

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Starting at midday on Saturday, Magnus Carlsen will take on in succession: first, the 18-year-old widely tipped as a future world champion; second, the world No 1 woman; and third, the reigning US champion who has become Carlsen’s main rival for first place in the online Meltwater Champions Tour. All three games can be viewed online, free and live with grandmaster and computer commentaries on the Chess24.com playzone.

The event, the Goldmoney Asian Rapid, is the seventh of nine qualifiers before the Tour final in September-October. The prize pool is $100,000-$200,000 for each qualifier and $300,000 for the final. So far Carlsen and Wesley So have won two qualifiers each, Anish Giri and Teimour Radjabov one each.

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Alireza Firouzja, Hou Yifan and So represent between them the No 1 junior, the No 1 woman, and Carlsen’s current No 1 rival. The games will be at rapid time limits, 15 minutes per player per game plus a 10 seconds per move increment, and the trio should take around two hours. Norway’s world champion will take on further opponents later in the day.

So has returned to over-the-board speed chess with the same impressive form he has shown on the online Tour, where he has held his own or better with Carlsen. He dominated last weekend’s rapid and blitz event in Paris, where he won both the 15-minute and five-minute sections. Sound play is the So’s trademark, even at speed chess with its high risk of blunders. He lost only one game out of 27, and won first prize with a round to spare.

It seems that So worked on chess more effectivelyduring the pandemic than some of his colleagues and rivals. In those months he wrote a well researched course for Chessable explaining his opening repertoire, and was ready to use his own recommendations even after others had the opportunity to look for holes in his analysis.

“At Bucharest (where he tied second behind Shak Mamedyarov) I was preparing five hours a day on openings, so I still have my notes and the memory is fresh. For rapid and blitz, opening preparation is not so important,” he said.

After Paris, So is up to world No 3 in the blitz rankings, with a rating of 2861, behind only Hikaru Nakamura and Carlsen. However, his last over-the-board classical event before Bucharest was third to Fabiano Caruana and Carlsen at Wijk 2020. while he was only seventh in the 2018 Candidates, did not qualify in 2020, and has withdrawn from the 2021 World Cup which qualifies its top two for the 2022 Candidates.

The final round game at Paris between So and Carlsen’s challenger, Ian Nepomniachtchi, apparently had little at stake, since So had won first prize with a round to spare, but it proved to be an all-out struggle until So found a winning tactic at the end.

The Russian champion still did very well. Nepomniachtchi was only a wildcard, yet played with full force including an interesting novelty in the much analysed Berlin Wall Ruy Lopez. After 1 e4 e5 2 Nf3 Nc6 3 Bb5 Nf6 4 0-0 Nxe4 5 d4 Nd6 the two standard lines are 6 dxe5 Nxb5 7 a4 Nbd4 8 Nxd4 Nxd4 9 Qxd4 d5 10 exd6ep Qxd6 11 Qe4+ Qe6 12 Qd4 Qd6 13 Qe4+ Qe6 which has become the elite grandmaster’s favourite way to halve out by repeated position, and 6 Bxc6 dxc6 7 dxe5 Nf5 8 Qxd8+ Kxd8, as played in all four Berlins of the Garry Kasparov v Vlad Kramnik world title match in 2000 and in numerous high level games since. The position is equal but not sterile, and Berlin specialists have won with both colours.

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In the well-trodden position after 5...Nd6 Nepomniachtchi against Radjabov launched 6 Ba4!? exd4 7 c3! The idea is not new, and was played by Jackson Showalter against the legendary Harry Pillsbury as far back as the US Championship of 1897(!). The obvious question “What happens after 7... dxc3?” was answered in that game. Radjabov preferred 7...Be7 8 cxd4 b5 9 Bb3 0-0 10 Nc3 Bb7 11 Re1 Bf6 12 Bf4 when White has a small space advantage and Nepomniachtchi eventually won a 91-move marathon.

Kasparov was watching and said: “I wish I could have found this idea when I played Kramnik in 2000!” – a strange comment since Showalter v Pillsbury should have been on his database even then. Kramnik made a cameo comeback in the blitz section in Paris but was very rusty, winning only twice in 18 games, making tactical oversights and losing on time. When Kasparov makes his own cameo reappearance in the Zagreb blitz on 10-11 July, the bar for surpassing his old rival will be set low.

3729: 1...Qh8+! White resigned. If 2 Kd5/e4 Qh1+ skewers White’s king and queen. If 2 Kf4 Bd6+! and now if 3 Qxd6 Qh2+ wins the queen, 3 Ke4 again allows Qh1+xc6, while 3 Kg4 Qh5 is mate. If 2 Ke6 Qh3+ when if 3 Kf6/e5 Qf5 mate or 3 Kd5 Qh1+xc6 wins as before.

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