Skaak: Carlsen loses three in a row twice as champion heads for World Cup

Magnus Carlsen suffered a rare double setback last weekend when the world champion twice lost three games in a row at the $100,000 Goldmoney Asian Rapid. The defeats occurred in his losing semi-final against the world No 5, Levon Aronian, then in his third place play-off against Ding Liren, though he still managed to defeat China’s world No 3. The 30-year-old Norwegian had an off day, missing several tactical chances.

The No 1 has already qualified for the Meltwater Champions Tour final after winning the two previous events, so diminished motivation explains it. Next week he bids to try and put to rest a long standing hoodoo when he makes his fourth attempt at the 206-player, $1.9m World Cup knockout in Sochi.

Carlsen, who had his first Covid‑19 vaccination before leaving Oslo for Crimea, made a cautious and guarded self-prognosis: “ In such a big knockout if you go there with a mindset that anything but a victory is a disappointment you’re setting yourself up to fail. So I won’t be thinking in those terms, more of getting good training and trying to advance as far as possible”.

Die naweek, immediately before the World Cup, Carlsen will be one of four seeds, along with Ding, Aronian, and Wesley So in the online eight-player San Fermin Banter Blitz Cup.

He is top seeded in Sochi, has a bye into the second round, and seems to have a clear path into the last 16 and a potential rematch with Andrey Esipenko, the 19-year-old Russian who beat the world champion at Wijk aan Zee.

English hopes in Monday’s opening round will rest in the unlikely hands of 22-year-old Ravi Haria, who did well in last month’s European qualifier and gets his chance because England’s top grandmasters all turned down a World Cup place, due mainly to travel and Covid concerns.

England will be much better represented at the 114-player Fide Grand Swiss in the Isle of Man in October, for which the top 100 in the world rankings automatically qualify. Die live ranking list from 2700chess.com shows Michael Adams at 26, Matthew Sadler at 44, Gawain Jones at 49. Luke McShane at 61, and David Howell at 84. Both the World Cup and the Grand Swiss qualify two winners for the eight-player 2022 Candidates.

This week the over-the-board Grand Chess Tour, which began in Bucharest last month, is in Zagreb for rapid and blitz and a rare chance for online viewers to watch many people’s all-time No 1, Garry Kasparov, now aged 58, make a rare return to action.

The rapid section is in progress on Wednesday to Friday (2pm start, live and free to watch online). Kasparov is playing only the blitz on Saturday and Sunday, where his most eagerly watched games will be against the top seed and current world title challenger, Ian Nepomniachtchi. The pair meet in rounds nine and 18, the final games of the day, and should be in action around 6pm both days.

Nepomniachtchi is in excellent form, scored in round one of Wednesday’s rapid section with a fine attacking game, and was the clear leader after three rounds.

Over-the-board classical chess has been steadily reviving in Central and Eastern Europe in recent months. The just finished Serbia Open in Belgrade had a mammoth 288 spelers, headed by 14 GMs rated in the 2600s, and was won on 7.5/9 by India’s 16-year-old rising star Nihal Sarin. Next month Reykjavik organises the European individual championship, staged at an iconic venue linked to Bobby Fischer in 1972. The Higher League stage of the Russian championship has just ended, with a notable performance by Aleksandra Goryachkina, who finished tied second and became the sixth woman in chess history to surpass a 2600 rating.

In contrast, English over-the-board competitive chess is only now starting to revive from the pandemic, although pent-up demand is certainly there. This weekend’s 4NCL (Four Nations Chess League) congress in Leamington Spa and next Saturday’s £2500 DecodeChess Rapidplay in Manchester Square, Londen, have entry limits of 130-150 and are already oversubscribed. The London tournament is followed next day, Sunday 18 Julie, by the ChessFest in Trafalgar Square, which may attract thousands of players.

The pandemic wiped out the last 4NCL over-the-board season, although it continued to thrive online. Now the plan is to play the first of five 2021-22 weekends in late November, with venues at Milton Keynes, Leamington and Doncaster. The return of the 4NCL is significant not only for competing clubs but for individuals, because it offers a realistic chance of qualifying for GM and IM norms, plus the women’s equivalents, which are a prime target for ambitious players.

3771: The game finished 1 Qxg7+! Kxg7 2 Bd8+! (the only way to win) Kh8 3 Rg8+! Rxg8 4 Bf6+ Rg7 5 Bxg7+ Kg8 6 Bd4+ Kf7 7 Rf1+ Ke7 8 Bxb2 Resigns. White wins easily on material with his extra endgame bishop.

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