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Chess: The player of the decade, the combination of the year

He was unquestionably the player of the decade, so it makes sense that world champ Magnus Carlsen finished up 2019 with two more major titles for his bulging trophy room.

The 29-year-old Norwegian, playing some of the best chess of his career, has just captured the King Salman World Rapid and World Blitz Championships in Moscow. It’s the second time that Carlsen has held the classical, rapid and blitz titles at the same time.

In the rapid tournament, Carlsen was an undefeated 11½-3½ against a stellar field. Budding 16-year-old Iranian GM superstar Alireza Firouzja used an amazing 4½-½ final-day kick to take the silver medal a point behind Carlsen, nipping American GM Hikaru Nakamura on tiebreaks. Carlsen went on to win the blitz tournament after defeating Nakamura in a playoff Monday.

Indian GM Humpy Koneru won the women’s rapid title by edging Lei Tingjie of China in a blitz playoff. Russian GM Kateryna Lagno claimed the women’s blitz title.

The twin victories illustrate once again this is Carlsen’s world and the rest of us are just living in it. He has held FIDE’s world No. 1 rating for all but three months since 2010, and confirmed his supremacy with his 2013 world title win over India’s Viswanathan Anand. Carlsen saw off tough challenges from Anand in 2014, Russian Sergey Karjakin in 2016 and U.S. GM Fabiano Caruana in 2018 to retain the classical chess crown, and will be the likely favorite when he defends the title once again in November.

Carlsen’s play at times reminds one of Capablanca at his best, with an accuracy and deep positional understanding that can make even the strongest GMs look helpless. His smooth-as-butter rapid win over Azerbaijani super-GM Shakhriyar Mamedyarov in Moscow is a case in point, as White employs the queenside minority attack to perfection in a classic Queen’s Gambit Declined battle.

White’s play against Black’s queenside pawns and isolated d-pawn is standard stuff in this opening, but Carlsen’s willingness and ability to nurse even the slightest edge into the ending routinely forces his opponents to lash out just to avoid the python’s squeeze.

Here Black just finds himself a pawn down after the rash 19. Rxb5 Ne4?! (White’s edge is minimal after the simpler 19…Rc7 20. Qb2 Rec8 21. Ne2, though Carlsen would happily take this position) 20. Qb2! Nd6 (Nxc3 21. Rxc3 22. Qxc3 Qd7 23. Qb3, and either the b- or d-pawn falls) 21. Nxd5 Rxc1+ 22. Qxc1 Qe6 23. Rc5! Rd8 (on 23…b6, White has 24. Nc7! Qd7 25. Nxe8 bxc5 26. Nxd6 Qxd6 27. Qxc5) 24. Nc3, and the win for a player like Carlsen is now almost a matter of technique.

White ruthlessly shuts down Black’s counterplay hopes, and after 32. Rd7 Kg8 33. Rc7!, Mamedyarov resigns facing lines such as 33…Rxc7 (Rxf2 34. Rc8) 34. Qxc7 Qa4 35. d5 Qxa2 36. Qc8+ Kh7 (Nf8 37. d6 Qd5 38. Qxa6 wins as well) 37. d6 Qd5 38. d7 Qd6+ 39. Kh1 Ne7 40. Qe8! Nc6 41. Qe4+ Qg6 42. Qxc6! and wins.

With one day left in the calendar year, it’s time to celebrate some of the achievements of the past 12 months. is polling readers on the best of 2019, and here’s my vote for the year’s best combination.

Young Russian WIM Polina Shuvalova won her second straight women’s Under-18 world title this year in Mumbai, India, in October, helped in large measure by an inspired knight-rook-queen sacrifice leading to a “staircase mate” against compatriot WFM Anna Afonasieva. We pick it up from today’s diagram — Black has just played a knight back to g8 to cover her weak squares, but instead invites a cascade of sacrifices: 29. Bxe4!? (Nxe4 was also strong, but Shuvalova’s idea proves way more fun) Qxc5 30. Bf2 Qe7 31. Rxg7! Bxg7 (Bh4 32. Rxh7+ Kxh7 33. f6+) 32. Qxh7+!!.

It’s a forced mate after 32…Kxh7 33. f6+ Kh6 (Kh8 34. fxg7 mate) 34. Be3+! (fxe7?? f5! 35. exf8+ Rxf8 throws away the win) Kh5 35. Bf3+ Kh4 36. Bf2+, and Black resigned just ahead of 36…Kh3 37. Bg4 mate.

It was good to see many old friends at the just-concluded 46th annual Eastern Open, held at The Westin Hotel in Tysons Corner, Virginia. The Open section may not have been as strong as in recent years, but there was a nice turnout and spirited battles in all the class tournaments. Congratulations to longtime Northern Virginia master and chess author Macon Shibut, who finished alone in first in the Open section with a 5½-1½ score.

We’ll have more details and some action from the Eastern in an upcoming column.

Carlsen-Mamedyarov, King Salman World Rapid Championship, Moscow, December 2019

1. Nf3 Nf6 2. c4 e6 3. Nc3 d5 4. d4 Nbd7 5. cxd5 exd5 6. Bg5 Be7 7. e3 c6 8. Qc2 O-O 9. Bd3 Re8 10. Bf4 Nf8 11. h3 Bd6 12. Bxd6 Qxd6 13. O-O Ng6 14. Rab1 Bd7 15. b4 Rac8 16. Rfc1 Qe7 17. b5 cxb5 18. Bxb5 Bxb5 19. Rxb5 Ne4 20. Qb2 Nd6 21. Nxd5 Rxc1+ 22. Qxc1 Qe6 23. Rc5 Rd8 24. Nc3 h6 25. Qa3 a6 26. Qa5 Qe8 27. Qb6 Kh7 28. Rd5 Rc8 29. Rxd6 Rxc3 30. Qxb7 Rc1+ 31. Kh2 Rc2 32. Rd7 Kg8 33. Rc7 Black resigns.

David R. Sands can be reached at 202/636-3178 or by email [email protected].

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