Magnus Carlsen announced recently that his main chess target this year will be a fresh attempt to reach an all-time record rating of 2900, a level which narrowly eluded the world champion in 2014 and 2019.
The 31-year-old Norwegian achieved 2882 in both years on the official Fide monthly rating lists, and peaked at 2889 on the unofficial 2700chess daily ratings. Carlsen also stated that he will only defend his world championship crown in 2023 if his opponent is Alireza Firouzja, 18, the world No 2 former Iranian who now represents France, or another from the teenage generation.
Expectations were high that after such a forecast Carlsen would aim for a fast start at Tata Steel Wijk aan Zee, the “chess Wimbledon” which he has won a record seven times. In the event, the early Wijk rounds have been a tale of missed opportunities for the Norwegian, 31, and in one case for his opponent.
On Thursday evening after five of the 13 rounds, Carlsen was joint fourth on 3/5 with just a single win and four draws, while the world champion’s rating had dropped more than four points. With eight rounds to go, a grandstand finish is still possible, but even 6/8 for a total of 9/15 would only gain one rating point. In short, the ascent of 2900 is going badly.
Carlsen began by drawing with Andrey Esipenko, the 19-year-old Russian who defeated him at Wijk 2021, after missing a chance for a strong central pawn push. Round two was a fine victory against the world No 7, Anish Giri. A draw against Poland’s World Cup winner Jan-Krzysztof Duda was followed by a wild game against Jorden van Foreest, the Dutchman who won Wijk 2021 and then joined Carlsen’s team for the world title match in Dubai. Carlsen missed an improbable win in the complications where the hidden winning manoeuvre was Kf1-e2-d1.
Thursday’s fifth round against the tournament tailender Nils Grandelius could have been a real disaster, Carlsen offered a pawn in a sharp position by 19…d5? but it would have been two pawns for little compensation had the Swede found 20 Bxb5+ Kf8 and now 21 Qb4+! Kg8 22 Qb3! when the d5 pawn is pinned and lost.
When Carlsen made his surges to a 2882 rating in 2014 and 2019, there were fewer rapid and blitz events, and little serious online play, to distract him. Now all this has changed, and Carlsen will defend his $1.6m Meltwater Champions Tour crown in a series of nine tournaments starting on 19 February. The Tour format has been revamped, with speeded up matches of one day rather than two and the introduction of three points for a win, one point for a draw.
The leading trio at Wijk before Friday’s sixth round (1pm start) are India’s No 2, Vidit Gujrathi, Richard Rapport of Hungary, and the world No 5 from Azerbaijan, Shak Mamedyarov, all on 3.5/5.
Mamedyarov caused a stir when he opened against Esipenko with 1 d4 Nf6 2 c4 e6 3 g4?! The Russian teenager declined the pawn after a long think, and the game was eventually drawn. Judging by the expert online comments, if that pawn is offered in a future game, it will be snapped up without hesitation.
Mamedyarov was also involved in an unusual finish against Duda where White (to move) is rook for knight ahead but Black’s h2 pawn is menacing and he threatens Rf5-h5. However, after White’s next move, Duda resigned. What happened? The answer is alongside the puzzle solution.
3799: 1…Bxe4! 2 Rxe4 Ra8! wins as Black threatens Qxe4, Nxe4 and Ra1+. The game ended 3 h4 Qxe4 4 Qxe4 Nxe4 5 Be3 Ra2 6 g5 Rxb2 and White resigned two pawns down. If 3 Bxf6 Ra1+ 4 Ne1 Rxe1+! and Qxf3. Mamedyarov v Duda: 1 Kb3! Resigns. If Rf5 2 Rc3+ Kg2 3 Rc2+ wins the h2 pawn and the game.