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Round 6 Report: Magnus Leads the Chess TT Race

John Saunders reports: Round six of the 2017 Chess.com Isle of Man Masters, played at the Villa Marina, Douglas, on 28 September, saw world champion Magnus Carlsen of Norway move clear of the field with a stellar win against last year's winner Pavel Eljanov. At the end of the round the leading scores are Carlsen 5½ from a possible 6, while Santosh Gujrathi Vidit of India, who beat his compatriot Bharathakoti Harsha, is on 5 and the only player within half a point of the leader. On 4½ are 18 others players, including Fabiano CaruanaViswanathan Anand and Hikaru Nakamura, the third, fourth and fifth seeds.

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Magnus Carlsen's win with Black against Pavel Eljanov was very special, even for a world champion, and showcased what he is capable of doing when he's in the mood. Before the game he seemed upbeat, joking and smiling with his friend and sparring partner Laurent Fressinet at the adjoining board (whom he famously trash-talked for being 'too weak, too slow' in a blitz game immortalised on YouTube). This light-hearted spirit carried over into the game as he decided to take a risk and play the unusual 1...b6 in answer to his opponent's 1.Nf3.

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Magnus Carlsen enjoyed some pre-game banter with Laurent Fressinet at an adjoining board

Pavel Eljanov is a fine player and he has been in great form in this tournament so far. However, one psychological problem he brought to the game was his dire record against Carlsen, which was +0, =0, -5. Or, to put it another way, just one loss away being on a par from the notorious 0-6 drubbings handed to Taimanov and Larsen by Bobby Fischer during the 1971 Candidates' matches (though at least Pavel wouldn't have to suffer all those zeroes in so short a time frame). However, to his credit (and the same applies to those two great players who lost so heavily to Fischer – Pavel is not in such bad company) he came prepared to play a positive game. Carlsen himself mentioned this after the game, though adding that it is one of the reasons he likes playing against Eljanov, because he is always ready for a fight.

The game impressed me for the way it turned some standard chess shibboleths on their head. We know that the two bishops often confer a slight advantage on the possessor but here Eljanov's pair of prelates seemed powerless against the magical mystery tour weaved by Carlsen's wandering knights. It's not that Carlsen actually made many moves with his knights, but wherever they went they seemed to control the action. Anyone coming new to chess and trying to work out the relative value of the pieces by reference to this game might be beguiled into thinking that a knight would be worth more than a rook, and a bishop worth not much more than a pawn.

On the face of it, the position wasn't particularly complex or tactical and yet Eljanov was given niggling problems to solve at every turn. Often Carlsen is an constrictor, confining and cramping and grinding his opponent, but here he was the complete opposite. He seemed to relish giving Eljanov a plurality of options, challenging him to find the best move like a schoolmaster setting a pupil a multiple choice exam. But actually it was a cruel sham of a test since there were no easy or convincing answers to some of the questions posed around moves 15-17, with one of the moves played by White characterised later by Eljanov's torturer as a "horrible misjudgement".

Carlsen also offered Eljanov a number of minor piece exchanges, which the Ukrainian found himself obliged to reject, while at the same time being reluctant to make exchanges himself when they might have led to a stable positional advantage. This was Carlsen channelling Torquemada, devising ever more subtle tortures and endlessly spinning out the coup de grâce. Maybe that imagery is a tad over the top. Bringing it back to chess, I was reminded of Bobby Fischer's middle period, when he was already a world-class player but still occasionally dabbling in open tournaments in the States. His modus operandi was similar to Magnus's, smoothly outplaying his opponents in the middlegame.

With this full point gained with the black pieces, Carlsen assumed the sole lead on 5½/6, with just Vidit within half a point of him. The Isle of Man is famous for its TT motorcycle race, and it feels like Magnus's classic motorbike, after a number of false starts during 2017, is finally roaring into top gear. One can't really see anyone catching him when he's in this mood, which is a bit reminiscent of the young Alexander Morozevich whose barnstorming 9½/10 at the 1994 Lloyds Bank Masters in London I had the privilege of witnessing at close quarters. Carlsen's main danger is himself: he has to be careful he doesn't drive a bit too hard, lose control, and come off at one of the bends ahead in the next three rounds. As he himself observed later, a tournament can only be lost in the first six rounds, it can't be won. In an open tournament the final sprint is decisive. In round seven he has white against Vidit, so, if he wins that, he will be a point clear of the field and can afford to ease off the pedal and coast the last two rounds.

Santosh Gujrathi Vidit earned the honour of being Carlsen's nearest challenger (and the more dubious privilege of being his next opponent) by reaching a score of 5/6 with a win against IM Bharathakoti Harsha.

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Santosh Gujrathi Vidit

The latter, a close family friend of GM Harika Dronavalli, has had a splendid tournament so far and even after losing this game he is on an eye-watering TPR of 2787, which is not bad for someone currently rated 2394. The GM title can only be a matter of time for someone who can turn in a tournament performance that good. But round six didn't go well for Harsha after a rather tentative opening which allowed Vidit to grab the initiative with a positional pawn sacrifice. The 2702-rated Indian GM soon regained it with interest and wrapped up the win.

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Fabiano Caruana blew a win against Emil Sutovsky just before the end

Fabiano Caruana looked odds-on to join Vidit on 5 but he blew a very advantageous endgame right at the end, allowing Emil Sutovsky to escape with a draw. This leaves him back in the 18-player pack but a good result in the next round could yet earn him a chance to be paired with the champ.

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Another half-point goes begging: Hikaru Nakamura looked pensive at the end of his game with Alex Lenderman

Hikaru Nakamura, was another prospective challenger to the leader who looked a bit disappointed after drawing with his compatriot Alex Lenderman, who is playing consistently above his rating here in Douglas. Lenderman played a French Defence, against which Nakamura chose the Tarrasch variation, maybe less than ideal for a player trying to win to catch up with a runaway leader.

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A confident Praggnanandhaa as he presses for the win against Nils Grandelius

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Incredible shrinking boy: Praggnanandhaa not so confident as the win ebbs away

The 12-year-old Indian prodigy Rameshbabu Praggnanandhaa once again caught the eye, after his remarkable performance in downing English GM David Howell in round five. He looked to be winning quite comfortably against Nils Grandelius but the tenacious Swedish GM hung on and managed to hold a draw. It was a long-drawn out game but the youngster contained his disappointment without any visible difficulty. His temperament seems to match his talent, and is a further pointer to his enormous promise.

Vishy Anand was back to winning ways against SP Sethuraman, quipping after the game that it was the first time in living memory that he had conducted the post mortem in his native Tamil instead of English or Spanish. An earlier Anand quip underlining the large numbers of his compatriots in the line-up is that he can no longer navigate to the board by looking for an Indian flag as there are rather a lot of them in the tournament hall, a goodly number of which are on the higher boards. Anand also chats to Panchanathan in Tamil, who, as it happened, became the first man to play (and, sadly for him) lose to Hou Yifan in the tournament.

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A determined Anna Zatonskih playing her hero (and ours) Boris Gelfand

The race for the women's first prize of £6,000 is currently being led by Anna Zatonskih of USA and Nino Batsiashvili of Georgia. Anna was paired with Boris Gelfand, who is something of a hero of hers (and the rest of us, of course). I received an indirect message from her to make sure I took a photo of this encounter. But Anna did better than just get a souvenir photo as Boris missed a tactic and lost the game. Nino Batsiashvili also won, beating German GM Rasmus Svane to improve her TPR for six rounds to a Carlsenesque 2813 and making her chances of a GM norm very favourable. Anna, too, has an excellent TPR of 2692 so the same applies to her (though I have a feeling she may already have all her norms – maybe her obstacle is getting her rating up to 2500). 

Finally, Jim Tarjan proved that his win against Vladimir Kramnik in round four was no flash in the pan by defeating 2589-rated GM Pavel Tregubov from Russia. At the moment Jim's TPR is up to 2662 which would be well on the way to earning him a GM norm were it not for the fact that he became a grandmaster a few decades back, before most of the competitors were born. Once a grandmaster, always a grandmaster, of course, but not all of them can get back the form that they showed in gaining the title. Jim seems to have turned that logic on its head and turned the clock back to a time in the 1970s. 

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