In an unusually tense final round, Magnus Carlsen came through with flying colors to take clear first place at the London Classic with an impressive +3 undefeated score. His was the last game to finish as he and Nigel Short played a complicated Dragon down to bare kings, a fitting finale for a fighting event. This also means Carlsen will be confirmed as the world #1 on the January 2010 rating list, the exact goal set by Carlsen and his coach, Garry Kasparov, when they began working together near the start of this year. Congratulations to Carlsen on both counts! It's always a little early to hang a "Mission Accomplished" banner, but it's been an impressive year for the newly 19-year-old Carlsen, especially the last few months. First in Nanjing, equal second at the Tal Memorial, and now first in London. That's +11 =15 -0 against the world's elite. Not even counting his domination of the World Blitz. And, as if to respond to Kramnik's November statement that, "To my mind, Magnus is still not as strong as some of the "old guys", like Anand, me and Topalov," in those events Carlsen finished ahead of, umm, Topalov, Anand, and now Kramnik, and beat Topalov and Kramnik. (I know, I know, and I respect Kramnik's evaluation of "strength" as opposed to mere results. But results do matter. And the #1 rating spot has to be worth something.)
Against Kasparov's former world championship challenger Short Carlsen avoided the Najdorf and went with his old love, the Dragon. They followed Smeets-Radjabov from a few months ago for 20 moves and Black comes out with center control while White has the better long-term endgame prospects because of his bishop and mobile queenside majority. But Carlsen kept the initiative burning all the way down to a queen and pawn endgame, though Short also played excellently and quickly throughout. A draw was likely looming, but for some strange reason Carlsen decided not to take the annoying white f-pawn on move 54. He would have been two pawns up and the white c-pawn is no further advanced than in the game. Instead, suddenly he was having to find difficult moves to avoid losing the game. (He would have won the tournament title anyway but it might have cost him the clear #1 spot on the next list.) Carlsen played the rest with computer-like accuracy to hold the draw.
Kramnik's clear second place in London with +2 is impressive because it came after an opening loss to Carlsen that would have taken the wind out of many a sailor's sails. He came back with two straight wins and later beat Short to make the final round relevant. All of his wins had the look of a heavyweight against lighter, less substantial fighters. He had to fend off a charged-up Nakamura in the final round and was again up to the task, sacrificing the exchange to gain counter-chances and eventually force a repetition draw. (Because Carlsen had the head-to-head tiebreak, this meant Carlsen knew he had clinched first even if he lost to Short.) As Nakamura told us himself live on Chess.FM from London after the game, "Kramnik is Kramnik, he's just so solid." Had Black gone for 20..Bh5 21.Rdg1+ Kh8 Nakamura said he might have had a chance at the brilliancy prize, such were the wild variations he envisioned. But after 20..Qxf2! things quieted down substantially.
Speaking of the brilliancy prize and the massive 10,000 euros that accompany it, it went to Luke McShane for his round-five win over Nakamura, much to the surprise of just about everyone I polled before the award was announced. (Of the GMs I asked on the ICC today, four went for Carlsen-Kramnik, one for Carlsen-McShane.) It's great for the hometown hero McShane, the former prodigy and now amateur chessplayer who has a real job and who came to the tournament from home every day. It does leave me a little fuzzy on the other criteria for the prize, however. It's a nice game and all, but at the time it looked like Nakamura fluffed the opening and that Black was basically much better as soon as he squelched some desperate attacking attempts. Certainly Carlsen-Kramnik was a far better game on the whole, although that's not usually how brilliancy prizes (as opposed to best game prizes) are decided. But the prize-winning game fails on that count as well, since there aren't any of the flashy sacrifices that usually attract trophies. Those are quite rare these days, of course, but both Carlsen-McShane and McShane-Kramnik come closer to fitting that bill. (Adams would have been a lock had he completed his piece sac game against Carlsen with the winning line.) Maybe it's just me, but I like an exclam or two in my brilliancy games! (22..Bh6 is probably worthy, and, as I mentioned at the time, 44..Bg7 is nice, if a bit easy for an exclam. All other moves lead to relatively clear draws.) Anyway, these things always seem to come about mysteriously, though I do hope the committee that awarded the prize publishes their reasoning. I'm sure it would enlighten us all quite a bit about the game. No doubt the big prize helped assuage the pain of McShane's final-round debacle against Adams. (FYI there is no daily best game prize for round seven.)
Adams and Howell saved their best for last and picked up their only wins of the event in the final round to both finish +1 undefeated. This is particularly impressive from the bottom-seeded Howell, the 19-year-old British champion. He was lost against Carlsen for a moment in an otherwise fine game, and was generally very solid. McShane seemed to be holding on against a typical slow-burning Spanish attack from Adams today, but he imploded in time trouble. Black's sacrificial attack with 33..Nxg2 is very interesting; McShane just didn't have enough time to do it justice. His blunder on move 39 ruined any chance of holding on. In a way I'm glad McShane didn't win this game. Had he done so he would have reached an even score and yet finished ahead of Howell and Adams thanks to the 3-1-0 scoring system they used in London. I'm all for the Sofia Rules and encouraging fighting chess with financial incentives, and for using number of wins or 3-1-0 as a tiebreaker. But putting someone who loses as many as he wins ahead of someone who wins more than he loses is distortion and beyond the scope of what should be attempted with rule modifications. It's not as if Howell (or Adams) didn't play hard or play to win games. As an added perk, Adams should now take back the English #1 spot on the rating list.
Nakamura sounded surprisingly upbeat after the event. He felt he played well, missed a few chances, and has no reason to fear the future. He now heads into a busy stretch with the World Team Championship followed immediately by Corus and then perhaps Aeroflot. If he even survives that schedule he should win some sort of prize. Or maybe the frequent-flier miles are worth it. McShane brought just what I said he would bring at the start, excitement and losses to go with wins. Ni Hua did the same, especially the losses part. He fell apart today against Howell, who played a nice pawn sac with 12..b3!, a sac that goes back to Leonhardt-Duras, 1909! White never got organized and Howell had total domination by move 30. Time trouble made things ugly before the Chinese resigned after reaching the control at move 40.
A great event well worth the attention lavished on it. The top players played well and every round was full of fighting chess from start to finish. Organizer Malcolm Pein said at the closing that there would be another LCC event in 2010 and that they hope to bring the world championship to London in 2012, the year the city also hosts the Olympic Games.