A game from London

Currently underway is a strong chess tournament in London. Among the participants are three of the top four players in the world: Magnus Carlsen, Viswanathan Anand (the current world champion), and Vladimir Kramnik (the former champion). In addition, Hikaru Nakamura, the strongest player in the US, is participating, as are four of the top English players.

In the first round, we saw English player Luke McShane face Magnus Carlsen. The latter has been the highest-rated player in the world for most of the past year. The former is not generally considered to be in the same class: he’s currently the 100th highest-rated player. Still, he has had some impressive results in the past, and going to college seems only to have stalled his progress temporarily.

What followed was a game I found to be especially inspirational and beautiful.

Luke McShane (2645) vs. Magnus Carlsen (2802), London Chess Classic, Round 1, December 6, 2010

1. c4 c5 2. g3 g6 3. Bg2 Bg7 4. Nc3 Nc6 5. Nf3 d6 6. O-O Nh6 7. d4 cxd4 8. Bxh6 Bxh6 9. Nxd4 Ne5

I don’t know much (if anything) about this opening, but to me it appears that Carlsen, playing against a much lower-rated player, is trying to pick a fight by playing for complications. It’s generally not recommended to move the same piece multiple times in the opening without a good reason, and the knight on e5 has to move again soon. Ordinarily, one might play 9…Nxd4 10. Qxd4 0-0 or 9…Bd7.

10. Qb3 O-O 11. Rfd1 Nd7 12. Qa3 a5

Black has to do something, so one try is to gain some space on the queenside. If given more moves, he can play Nc5, a4, and Bd7. But, of course, white gets to move too, and this plan is easily thwarted.

13. b4!

White immediately takes advantage of the fact that the pawn on a5 is pinned to the rook on a8, and this allows him to benefit immediately from the weaknesses created by black’s last move.

13…Ra6 14. b5 Ra8 15. e3 a4 16. Rab1 Bg7 17. Ne4 Qb6

The game has progressed fairly normally, with white having retained a nagging advantage. On the other hand, it isn’t immediately clear how he can increase his advantage: black has everything pretty well covered. However, McShane was able to find a spectacular way to reorganize his pieces.

18. Nc6!

One point of this move is that 18…bxc6 19. bxc6 Qxc6 20. Nf6+ wins the queen. Of course, black can play better, perhaps with 19…Qa5 20. cxd7 Bxd7 21. c5, but in this case as well, white has a large advantage. Because of lines like this, Carlsen wisely decided not to take on c6.

18…Re8 19. Nb4

One might naïvely expect that this knight is headed for d5, and in some lines, perhaps it would end up there.. But, in fact, McShane had another remarkable tactical point in mind.

19…f5 20. Nc3 Qc5 21. Nxa4 Qa7

This looks bad for white, since it appears that the knight on a4 is lost. All this changes, however, after

22. Na6!!

White threatens to continue with 23. Nc7, winning material. So, black must do something immediately. But, it appears that everything is awful for him. For example, he might try 22…Rf8 to avoid the fork, but then after 23. c5 dxc5 24. N4xc5 Nxc5 25. Qxc5, white ends up with an extra pawn and better-placed pieces, which should lead to an easy win. Hence, white felt compelled to take the knight. But, as we shall see, this does little to alleviate his difficulties.

22…bxa6 23. b6! Nxb6

Black could attempt to hang on to the extra piece with 23…Qb8, but this would lead to even more serious challenges. One possible line would be 24. c5 Nxc5 (dxc5 Bc6!) 25. Nxc5 dxc5 26. 26. Qb3+ Kh8 27. Qd5, winning back the piece (and more) with a devastating advantage.

24. Rxb6 Rb8 25. c5! Be6 26. Rdb1 dxc5 27. Rb7 Rxb7 28. Rxb7 Qa8 29. Nxc5 Qc8 30. Qxa6

Let’s take stock of what has happened. White is up a pawn, and a potentially dangerous one at that: if black does not watch out: the a-pawn could easily march up the board very rapidly. In addition, white’s pieces are placed on great squares, hampering black’s piece coordination while potentially making dangerous threats. To be fair, black has two bishops for a bishop and a knight, which is generally moderately advantageous. Still, for the time being, it’s not clear how he can make use of them. In an ideal situation, he would use them to attack white’s king, but white’s king is safe, and there are no natural entry points nearby.


30…Qxc5 31. Qxe6+ Kh8 32. Bc6 is even worse for black.

31. Bc6 Rd8 32. Nd7 Rxd7

I haven’t managed to convince myself that this move is really necessary. Black could also have tried 32…Be8 33. Qb6 Bxd7 34. Bxd7 Qa8 35. Be6+ Kh8 35. Bd5, although his chances there also appear to be similarly negligible. Perhaps Carlsen decided he should try to hold an endgame down an exchange as his best shot, probably without any expectations that it would actually work out well.

33. Bxd7 Qc1+ 34. Qf1 Qxf1+ 35. Kxf1 Bc4+ 36. Kg1 Bxa2 37. Ba4 e5 38. f3 Bh6 39. Bb3+ 1-0

Carlsen decided that he had had enough at this point; the rook and four pawns versus bishop and four pawns endgame is quite hopeless.

So far, after four rounds, McShane is proving to be quite a sensation in this tournament: he has two wins (this game against Carlsen and another one against Nigel Short) and two draws (against Vladimir Kramnik and Michael Adams). With three rounds to go, he is tied for first place with Anand.

Carlsen, on the other hand, has been rather inconsistent lately. After dominating top tournaments for a while, he has started to lose quite a few games. To be fair, he also wins his fair share, but losses to Michael Adams, Baadur Jobava, and Sanan Sjugirov at the Olympiad seem to have hurt him. He also lost another game in this tournament, to Anand, although that’s something that can happen to anyone. And, he also won his other two games in this tournament, against Adams and Nakamura.

The remainder of this London tournament promises to be exciting, with several players playing great chess. And, of course, the chess world is curious about how McShane will progress: will he surge up to the 2700+ level soon? Will he dethrone Adams as the top English player?


About Simon

Hi. I'm Simon Rubinstein-Salzedo. I'm a mathematics postdoc at Dartmouth College. I'm also a musician; I play piano and cello, and I also sometimes compose music and study musicology. I also like to play chess and write calligraphy. This blog is a catalogue of some of my thoughts. I write them down so that I understand them better. But sometimes other people find them interesting as well, so I happily share them with my small corner of the world.
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