Amazingly, it’s been almost 3 weeks since World Champion Magnus Carlsen visited the Bay Area. I’ve been meaning to write about meeting and playing some chess with him, but somehow I hadn’t quite found the time until today.
I had seen Magnus before (for example in Mainz 2008), but we had never really met or spoken. The occasion this time was a dinner at Joe Lonsdale Jr’s house in Woodside (attended by about 30 people). When we shook hands, he shocked me immediately when he said that he reads this blog on occasion, although he admitted he used to read it more when I was playing regularly!
He also told me about how he first heard about me, after a game of mine against GM Wang Yue from China in 2002 showed up in New In Chess. It was a Bb5+ Sicilian where he remembered some nice tactical sequences I used, but also that I didn’t manage to win from a much better position. The game can be found on chessgames here and the sequence he described starts with 15.a5!, the point being that if 16…Re8, then 17.Nab5! will lead to the queen being trapped.
After chatting for a bit (and being floored by the fact that the World Champion was telling me about how he heard about me, not the other way around), we played a game of bughouse, but not against each other. We were partnered with players around 1500 or so, and while both of us were winning our games, I dominated my side a couple minutes sooner and so we beat Magnus and his partner. The only drama for me was when they would give up the ghost.
Soon after, I got to play Magnus a blitz game, 5 minutes per side. I got the white pieces and had to make my first real decision as early as move 5:
rn1qkb1r/p1pp1ppp/bp2pn2/8/2PP4/5NP1/PP2PP1P/RNBQKB1R w KQkq - 0 5)
Depending on the opponent, I’ve switched between 3.Nc3 allowing a Nimzo and 3.Nf3. And against the Queen’s Indian, I’ve played a bunch of moves in this position, but it’s been at least 1.5 years since I last looked at anything here. So naturally, instead of any one of the moves I’ve played before (5.Qa4, 5.Qb3, and 5.Qc2), I decided to play 5.b3.
The game continued 5…Bb4+ 6.Bd2 c5 7.Bg2 Bb7. I didn’t know this position at all, but amusingly, I had told a GM friend a few weeks before this game that I didn’t understand these QID/Bogo positions where Black plays with …a5/…c5 instead of exchanging or retreating with the checking bishop. As it turns out, Magnus has had this position at least a few times before, against the likes of Aronian, Grischuk, Mamedyarov, and Gelfand. And at first, I ended up following the way Grischuk and Mamedyarov played it with 8.Bxb4 cxb4 9.0-0 0-0 10.a3 Na6, reaching the position in the diagram below.
r2q1rk1/pb1p1ppp/np2pn2/8/1pPP4/PP3NP1/4PPBP/RN1Q1RK1 w - - 0 11)
Thanks to my lack of knowledge in these positions, I now managed to find a move that wasn’t one of the 7 moves previously tried with 11.Nbd2. After 11…Qe7 12.a4, Magnus finally started to think – looking at my database, pretty much only one game featured a plan with a3-a4 instead of exchanging on b4, and that was a game between Ivanchuk and Grischuk from 2007, so this is definitely rare. However, I actually like the looks of it at the moment, so who knows, maybe I’ was onto something?! Magnus continued in a normal fashion for these lines with 12…d6 13.Qc2 e5 and I once again had to think out how I wanted to treat the position.
Within a couple more moves, I was unhappy with my decision of 14.d5 (reaching the diagram below) – the alternatives I considered were 14.e3 and 14.a5, both of which are probably objectively a little better. One the one hand, the d5-pawn kills the bishop on b7, but it also hands Black the c5-outpost, and it’s that fact that dictates the struggle over the next 20 moves.
r4rk1/pb2qppp/np1p1n2/3Pp3/PpP5/1P3NP1/2QNPPBP/R4RK1 b - - 0 14)
After 14…Nc5 (14…e4 might look attractive, but now White gets the d4-square and after 15.Nd4 e3 16.Ne4, Black’s activity looks to be all for naught in my view), the game continued 15.a5 Qc7 16.Ng5 bxa5 17.Nde4 (fighting for c5!) Ncxe4 18.Nxe4 Nd7 (18…Nxd5? 19.Nxd6 Qxd6 20.Rfd1 leaves White on top) 19.g4 (diagram below), Magnus had himself another think.
r4rk1/pbqn1ppp/3p4/p2Pp3/1pP1N1P1/1P6/2Q1PPBP/R4RK1 b - - 0 19)
My last move might look strange, but the theme is the same – I need the e4-square to contest c5, and with the queenside and center somewhat bottled up, my active chances lie on the kingside. Magnus surprised me with 19…a4!, but I understood the rationale pretty quickly. If he can’t dislodge my Ne4, then he’s just asking for me to double on the a-file, take on a5, and leave Black with weaknesses on b4 and a7. Without play anywhere else on the board, he’s just waiting for the axe to drop.
Of course, I set up this plan with my temporary sacrifice on a5 and now g3-g4, but I was calculating 19…Nb6 (trying to get in a4, but forcing White to take with a pawn) 20.Rxa5 Nxd5. However, 21.Rb5 keeps a plus for White, so this tactical solution doesn’t save Black.
After 20.Rxa4 a5 21.Rfa1 Ra6 22.R4a2 Nc5 23.Nxc5 Qxc5 24.Be4 g6 25.g5, Magnus decided it was time to regroup. The Queen on c5 is nice, but the a-pawn isn’t crashing through on its own. Meanwhile, 25…f5 forces White’s hand, but also means that he won’t be able to focus all his attention on the queenside as the kingside will get opened up.
5rk1/1b3p1p/r2p2p1/p1qPp1P1/1pP1B3/1P6/R1Q1PP1P/R5K1 b - - 0 25)
Instead, he rearranged with 25…Bc8 26.Kg2 Bd7, trying to make use of the bishop. Not wanting to wait around for a queenside expansion, I played 27.h4. He provoked another weakness with 27…Bg4 28.f3 Bd7 and then after 29.Qd3 Rfa8 30.h5 Kg7 (diagram below), I had a nice long think.
r7/3b1pkp/r2p2p1/p1qPp1PP/1pP1B3/1P1Q1P2/R3P1K1/R7 w - - 0 31)
Black’s plan of breaking with …a4 isn’t going to end the game on its own, but there’s no reason to wait around. I played a move that Houdini approves of in 31.f4!, starting active operations on the kingside. No reason to let Magnus get complacent!
(It was at this moment that Richard Shorman, my first coach outside of my mom, said “don’t you know that it’s rude to beat a guest?” While I acknowledged him and his comment with a smile, I don’t think this is why I lost later on.)
After 31…exf4 32.Rf1 Qe3 33.Qxe3 fxe3, it was my turn to go wrong in a bad way with 34.hxg6?! hxg6 35.Rf3?. Instead, I should have played against the weakness on d6 with something like 34.Rf6 or 34.h6+ and 35.Rf6. The game (which has been level) remains level with that continuation.
Magnus returned the favor though with 35…a4 36.Rxe3 Re8?! 37.Kf2 Re5? (diagram below). I’m not sure why he didn’t play …a3, as to me, that pawn pretty much means he’s playing for two results. By leaving the pawn on a4, he really risks something and it should have cost him to go pawn grabbing on g5.
8/3b1pk1/r2p2p1/3Pr1P1/ppP1B3/1P2R3/R3PK2/8 w - - 0 38)
Already after 38.Bd3, White is back on top, and after 38…Rxg5 39.c5 Ra5 40.c6 Bf5 41.Rxa4, White is already much better. My chance for glory came a few moves later after 41…Rxd5 42.Rxb4 Be6 (42…Bxd3 is better, but Black will struggle to draw after 43.Rxd3).
8/5pk1/2Ppb1p1/3r2r1/1R6/1P1BR3/4PK2/8 w - - 0 43)
It took me all of a couple seconds after the game to see one win here with 43.Rb7, which clears the way for the b-pawn while threatening 43.Rxe6, but an even more forceful win is 43.Rxe6! fxe6 44.Rb7+ and 45.b4. There’s no good way then to stop the c-pawn.
But going into this move, I had 32 seconds compared to Magnus’s 30 seconds (the tape confirms this, and there are at least 3 versions of this video floating around), and I didn’t want to take a couple seconds to find a way forward. Instead, I played 43.Rc4?, forgetting that after 43…Rc5 (which I had expected), the Be6 is hitting the Rook on c4 as well! Somehow I had seen the move …Be6 get played but it hadn’t quite registered I think.
White is still winning actually, but now it’s a bit less obvious I think and the pressure of the clock started to creep in. The only win is with 44.Rxe6! fxe6 45.b4, the point being that while Black’s remaining rook can stop the c-pawn after an exchange on c4, it can’t compete against the two passers and a bishop. Not hard to see in a slow game, but I couldn’t call a timeout and ask for a classical time control now.
Instead, I thought (somewhat correctly) that I had just screwed up royally and while I regrouped after a head shake, I was now down a few seconds on the clock with a much worse position. I played on a bit with 44.Rxc5? Rxc5 45.Be4?! d5 46.Bf3 Rxc6, but I ended up resigning after move 57 in a lost position down 10 seconds to his 12.
As soon as the game was over, I realized I had blown it. My one chance against the World Champ, and I was oh so close, and yet close doesn’t really count …
Most non-chessplayers have told me how great it is that I was able to hang with Magnus for so long (not having played seriously for years and 2 drinks in – note that Magnus did not drink the entire evening!), but I didn’t find much solace in that though.
I was also told the room went deathly silent a few minutes into the game (I did notice this) as our game captivated everybody in the house, but I was not feeling like Maximus asking “Are you not entertained? Are you not entertained, isn’t that why you are here?”
Instead, I had to come to terms with the loss on my own, and while it took me the remainder of that week, I’m over it now. So even with my leaky sieve of a memory, I’ll remember this one for a while as a great evening. It would’ve been even greater had I won, but that’s how it goes sometimes.
I was reminded of this feeling of acceptance when seeing GM Hikaru Nakamura’s game yesterday with Carlsen – a game in which he dominated for most of the afternoon, but rushed the denouement and then found himself lost within just a few more moves. And all this after saying, “I do feel that at the moment I am the biggest threat to Carlsen” too. After that, it was no real surprise that he came out flat against Aronian today (Aronian has been on a roll and played a smooth game, but it was still more like a flailing effort than a full effort from Hikaru there).
Anyway, getting back to me, my ego was already inflated a bit from Magnus’s comments earlier in the evening, so this “moral” victory hasn’t done much for that. However, when talking to Magnus and his manager a couple nights later, the close shave did get his attention and the verbal guarantee of a rematch via Espen during his next visit to the Bay Area. Time to start training!