John Saunders reports: Magnus Carlsen strengthened his lead by beating Fabiano Caruana in round eight of the 2017 Chess.com Isle of Man Masters, played at the Villa Marina, Douglas, on 30 September. This took the Norwegian world champion to a score of 7/8. His only remaining challenger now is Hikaru Nakamura of the USA, who beat Emil Sutovsky of Israel to reach a score of 6½. In the final round on Sunday Magnus Carlsen will have the advantage of the white pieces, but a win for the American could still see him snatch the first prize of £50,000.
Fabiano Caruana and Magnus Carlsen: let battle commence
The final two challengers for the top prize played the two key games of the afternoon but both saw stern resistance and imagination from their opponents. Turning first to Caruana-Carlsen on the top board: I am reminding myself ruefully of what I wrote in my notes to Caruana-Jones yesterday about the Archangelsk variation of the Ruy Lopez that has been so vogue these past few days: "A bit of a Jones speciality, but Carlsen and his friend Fressinet also play it. Might it happen again in round eight? Doubtful, particularly as Caruana also plays it for Black." OK, I was wrong to doubt Carlsen's courage in going down the same line which his opponent had prepped so well, but at least I saw the possibility of it happening 24 hours before it appeared on the board in round eight.
For a while it looked like Carlsen's courage was more foolhardiness as Caruana steamed into him with his 15.g4 innovation and Carlsen went into a 20-minute ponder. The position seemed to be building up for an attack on the world champion's king. Back home in Norway Jon-Ludvig Hammer was writing off Carlsen's chances on Twitter ("Frankly I don't see Magnus surviving this. At the very least it'll need a valiant defensive effort. Amazing game regardless of outcome!" Hammer). But Carlsen's compatriot soon proved guilty of premature twitteration as, quite inexplicably, Caruana's attack stalled before it had started.
A few moves on from Magnus's big think, Fabiano went into his own massive 38-minute deliberation which we can summarise as "to b4 or not b4, that is the question." His g3 knight seemed destined to go to f5 but the elderly chess proverb about "having played A you must play B" was disregarded and the horse never arrived at the stable. Instead he vacillated with his light-squared bishop and inexorably the position turned around. Suddenly it was Caruana on the back foot, shedding a pawn and eventually being blasted from the board by a spectacular bishop move, which, as GM Jonathan Rowson commented on Twitter, must almost have come as a relief as his position was so rotten.
Battle over, and Fabiano Caruana stares into space, crestfallen
Hikaru Nakamura shares a word with his vanquished opponent Emil Sutovsky at the end of the game
Looking through the Nakamura-Sutovsky game, I am tempted to retract my earlier comment about 'stern resistance'. Black's play in this game looks just a bit too gung-ho from too early a stage, with Black giving up pawns to trap the queen, but quite unsuccessfully and then just making things worse in a desperate struggle to work up counterplay for the material. I have doubts as to whether this sort of play was the right plan against a player with such prodigious tactical accomplishments. Of course, it is always going to be a big problem figuring out how to handle such a player as Nakamura. On a good day his chosen strategy might have worked but this certainly wasn't a good day for Emil Sutovsky.
Emil Sutovsky pushed his luck a little too far
Top-rated woman player Hou Yifan wrapped up the £6,000 women's prize by beating Sebastian Bogner
Those two wins wrapped up the issue of who would contest the destination of the £50,000 first prize in the final. The winner of the top women's prize of £6,000 was decided with a round to spare when Hou Yifan beat Sebastian Bogner and her three rivals for the money, Nino Batsiashvili, Alexandra Kosteniuk and Anna Zatonskih, all lost, to Gawain Jones, Alexei Shirov and Jeffrey Xiong respectively. Fair play to the Chinese player for bouncing back from a rocky start to take this prize but check the ratings of all those names and you will notice how much easier a pairing Hou Yifan received than all her rivals, simply because she is so much higher rated than the other women. This is a good example of why I think traditional Swiss pairings are very unfair and should be replaced by 'Brandom' all the way through the tournament to remove this in-built bias in favour of the top rated players.
Nino Batsiashvili lost to Gawain Jones but has the satisfaction of clinching her final GM norm here
A note on norms: Nino Batsiashvili (GEO) and Bharathakoti Harsha have both clinched their GM norms (assuming they turn up for the final round). Well done, to them. Anna Zatonskih (USA), Michael William Brown (USA) and Sarin Nihal (IND) need to win in the final round to clinch their GM norms. Good luck to them. As regards IM norms: Jan Woellerman (GER) and Kalyan Arjun (IND) have achieved their norms already - well done. Vilmos Balint (HUN) and Stephen Jessel (IRL) need to win their final round games.