Carlsen pulled the biggest Houdini act in round 4 in IOM


The fourth round of the Isle of Man Grand Swiss almost brought a shock: the World Champion, Magnus Carlsen, was facing an imminent defeat (after 438 days of not losing a game), only to be saved by his opponent’s time trouble. The board-one clash between the World No 2, Fabiano Caruana, and China’s Wang Hao ended in a draw. The two have been joined at the top by the World Junior Champion Parham Maghsoodloo and England’s Luke McShane. Round four also saw an upset: the experienced GM Sergei Movsesian lost on board 70 to 21-year-old Antenaina Rakotomaharo Fy, an IM from Madagascar.

Kovalev vs Carlsen: Saved in the nick of time

Among the top boards of the Grand Swiss, the most dramatic game of the day was that between Magnus Carlsen and Vladislav Kovalev of Belorussia. The World Champion was lucky to escape with half a point after his opponent (who is 215-points lower-rated!) got into serious time trouble and managed to miss several winning moves.

Kovalev, who played as White, took the initiative early on. After 20 moves, he pushed his pawn to d6 and dominated in the centre with the queen and knight. With all of his pieces activated and well-positioned, and with a completely safe king, it seemed there was no hope for Magnus Carlsen. By move 26 the World Champion was completely lost. The expression on Carlsen’s face reflected the gloomy atmosphere of what was mostly a rainy day on the Isle of Man.

The scene was set for a dramatic event: the World Champion Magnus Carlsen was at the brink of losing and ending his streak of 93 games and 438 days without a loss. Carlsen had only one thing going for him: Kovalev was in serious time trouble – he had under two minutes to make 14 moves to reach the first time control. Still, World Champions are great not just because they are good at winning but, also, because they are skilled at defending. Appearing completely calm, Carlsen played the most precise moves which his position required. The tension was high and a large number of GM spectators further electrified the intense atmosphere on the board. At one point, Azeri GM Rauf Mamedov passed by, looked at the position and the clock and disapprovingly shook his head and mumbled something.

The 25-year-old Vladislav Kovalev (who won the strong Aeroflot open in 2018 and this January scored 10/13 in the Tata Steel B-tournament), was starting to panic: his look frantically shifting between the clock and the board. The Belorussian was down to his final seconds. His feet dug into the carpet, leaning on the side of the table trying to keep his legs still, but his body was shaking. Carlsen then offered a repetition of moves, but Kovalev wanted to go for the win. In the next couple of moves, however, he missed everything he could. He did reach the time control but at the price of losing his pawn on d7 and exchanging the queens, which led to an even rook ending.

After this, Carlsen got up for a good walk. When he came back, his opponent was still shaking his head in disbelief, trying to come to terms with a lost opportunity. Kovalev still had a loose pawn on the a-file, but the position was even. The players agreed to draw.

This was the closest the World Champion came to defeat for a long time. The Carlsen's unbeaten run continues and is now on 94 games and 439 days. The World Champion is struggling, but he is still just one point away from contending the top place.

A very instructive interesting comment about this game was published by GM and FIDE Director-General, Emil Sutovsky on his Facebook page: "Once Yussupov taught us, the young students of Polugaevsky chess school: when you are clearly winning - pick one move, focus on it and calculate till the end. Do not compare. But to Magnus' luck, Kovalev did not attend that lesson... Carlsen escapes, though he is yet to find his play."

[photo by John Saunders]

[photo by John Saunders]

[photo by John Saunders]

The Russian Game in an American – Chinese showdown

While the drama between Carlsen and Kovalev was unfolding, on the top board Fabiano Caruana was leading white pieces against Wang Hao. By the beginning of day four, the two were the only players out of 154 to have a maximum score after three rounds.

Petrov’s Defence (also called The Russian Game) was played. Caruana secured a small advantage after the opening, having a 2:1 pawn advantage on the queenside. After a lot of strategical manoeuvring, Caruana started to push his pieces forward. Black’s coordinated his knights to create a solid defence, supported by rooks, with the a-rook equally active in defending and also threatening white with back-rank intrusions. Caruana couldn’t find a way forward and, eventually, offered a draw which was accepted.

[Photo by Maria Emelianova/]

Four players in the lead

The Russian duel on board two ended in a draw where Alexander Grischuk (as black) had to sacrifice a whole rook to get a perpetual check against Kiril Alekseenko and both are now on three points.

Board three saw an interesting clash between Ivan Cheparinov(as white) and Nikita Vitiugov. The game took a wild turn at move 17 when black’s king set off on a walk. Cheparinov attacked, but the Black king quickly reached safety. In the meantime, Vitiugov managed to align his queen pieces for an attacking position. After a tactical struggle, the position ended with Black being two pawns up in a bishop ending. Vitiugov was completely winning but missed 32...Qh6, mating black in a few moves. Cheparinov found a way to escape and the position was then equal. The game ended in a draw.

On board four, reigning World Junior Champion, Parham Maghsoodloo of Iran defeated India’s Santosh Gujrathi Vidit. After a miscalculation in the middlegame, black ended up in a worse position, with weak pawns. Maghsoodloo then pushed his king forward to help block black’s pieces. White, however, needed to play precisely until the end as Black skilfully struggled to release his king from the blockade. A pawn race to the final line was launched by both sides, but White had a clear advantage. In desperation, Vidit sacrificed a bishop at the end, only to resign in the next move.

After winning the game, Maghsoodloo told that he was happy with his play but he half-jokingly said he is upset that the dress code did not allow him to wear his lucky jacket. The Iranian added that, if he became World Champion – which he said he wants to achieve – he will use that position to insert a change in the dress code!

Another great performance by “the world’s strongest amateur”, Luke McShane who scored his third consecutive victory in the tournament as is now on 3.5 out of four. McShane sacrificed a pawn in the centre to open up his pieces and block those of his opponent. He then carefully coordinated an attack on the Black king which led to an exchange of pieces finishing in a winning pawn endgame for White. With this win, the Englishman joined ranks of the top-performing players in the tournament.

After the first four rounds, no player has a 100% score anymore. Only four players have the top score of 3.5 points: Hao, Caruana, McShane and Maghsoodloo.

[photo by John Saunders]

The other hopefuls

Leading white pieces on board nine, Sergey Karjakin decimated Anton Demchenko. With three pawns and an exchange up against his opponent, Karjakin confidently pushed Demchenko until he surrendered.

An interesting detail caught the eye of the reporters: during round four, Levon Aronian was comfortably touring the room in his green shoes which stood out from all other players’ footwear. At the end of the day, Aronian had a reason to be cheerful: his opponent, Sam Sevian got his pieces somewhat stuck and oddly positioned. He could not escape the uncomfortable situation until the end and had to resign. Aronian has now won his second game in a row and with two draws from the first two rounds is on three points, joining the second tier of hopefuls at the tournament.

On board 15 there was a quick draw between Peter Svidler and his compatriot Alexander Riazantsev in move 18, by repetition. Both players are now on 2.5 points.

Hikaru Nakamura drew as white against Rauf Mamedov after both players decided to avoid testing each other in what the computer judged as a completely even position after 30 moves.

On board 32, Vishy Anand had drawn his game with Romanian GM Mircea-Emilian Parligras. Wesley So continued his straw of draws, this time splitting the points with Norwegian GM, Aryan Tari. Both Anand and So are now on 50%, joined, among others, by Jeffery Xiong whose game with Varuzhan Akobian was drawn after repetition.

After the round 3 loss to Caruana on board one, Alexei Shirovrecovered and defeated the Mongolian IM (and so far, the only woman player to reach the top 40 boards after round one), Batkhuyag Munguntuul.

A surprise at the bottom boards

On board 70 (out of 74) 21-year-old Antenaina Rakotomaharo Fy, an IM from Madagascar – and a wild-card entry – defeated the experienced GM Sergei Movsesian. The 21-year-old organised an efficient attack on the Black king, beating the experienced GM in a very convincing game.

Finally, the oldest participant at the tournament and the World Senior Championship in the 65+ category, GM Vlastimil Jansa, shared a point with Georgia’s Nino Batsiashvili. Both players are now on half a point.

After four rounds, there are only two players without a point and seven on half a point. It is still early days and a lot could change, especially in the Swiss system. But, having said that, the strength of the players and the level of play is such that it doesn’t matter much on which board you play – you are guaranteed to have an extremely strong player on the opposite side, no matter how poorly you are doing in the tournament.

Text: Milan Dinic

Photos: Maria Emelianova/ John Saunder