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Hard labor -- a chess champ’s work ethic pays off

September 19, 2018 GMT

It’s supposed to be a game, but on this Labor Day week, let’s celebrate the hardest-working man in chess who just happens to be the world champion.

Magnus Carlsen is a fine positional player, an excellent tactician and one of the world’s best endgame specialists. But what sets the Norwegian apart is a work ethic at the board that may be unrivaled in the history of the game.

Carlsen has proved willing time and time again to keep grinding for a win from the smallest of advantages, long after most grandmasters would have agreed to split the point. That attribute proved critical for Carlsen in the recent superelite Sinquefield Cup tournament in St. Louis, where his last-round, 97-move marathon win over American GM Hikaru Nakamura clinched a tie for first place.

Despite needing a win, Carlsen as White was content with the tiniest of edges in a 5. Bf4 QGD, creating a target in Black’s isolated c-pawn after Move 11. The position clarifies itself more than 20 moves later after 34. Rxd7 Qxd7 35. Rd5, when White can torture his opponent over his a-pawn like a cat with a mouse.

The queens come off on Move 56, but White secures an even more enduring edge after 61. g4+ Kh6 62. Kg3 g5?! (allowing a protected passed pawn, but White was threatening 63. g5+ Kh5 64. gxf6 gxf6 65. Kh3, and Black either has to abandon the f- or a-pawn or retreat his king and let the White monarch advance) 63. h5, and soon Nakamura has to abandon the a-pawn to try to set up a kingside fortress.

But the fortress can’t hold as Carlsen methodically marches his king from g2 to e6 by way of b5 for the decisive blow in the seventh hour of play: 90. Kd7! Rxf3 91. Ke6 (White has given back the pawn, but now the Black king is in a coffin-shaped box) Rf4 92. h6 Kh8 (Rxe4 93. h7+ Kh8 94. Kxf6 Rd4 95. Kxg5 Rd6 96. Kh5 e4 97. g5 Re6 98. g6 and wins) 93. Rb7 Kg8 94. Rg7+ Kh8 (Kf8 95. Rg6 Rxg4 96. h7 Rh4 97. Rg8 mate) 95. Kf7 Rxe4 96. Kg6 Ra4 97. Rh7+, and Black finally throws in the towel, as he’s lost after 97...Kg8 98. Re7 Ra8 (to stop the back-rank mate) 99. Kxf6 e4 (Rf8+ 100. Kxg5 Rf7 101. Rxf7 Kxf7 102. Kf5 e4 103. Kxe4 Kg6 104. g5) 100. Kxg5 Kh8 101. Kh5 e3 102 g5 Ra5 103. Rxe3 and wins.

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A lack of what the Germans call “sitzfleisch” can lead to true heartbreak in tournament chess. At the recent Continental Open in Sturbridge, Massachusetts, master Yoon-Young Kim was put up what can be described only as a heroic defense of a pawn-down position against Filipino Oliver Barbosa, up through today’s diagrammed position, where Kim as White has just played 122. Bc6-b7.

Then this happened: 122...h3? (the grandmaster falters, though it’s not clear there’s still a win after redeploying with 122...Ke1 123. Kg1 Kd2 124. Bc6 Kc3 125. Kf1 Ne3 126. Ke1 Kd1 127. Bf3 Nd4 128. Bb7) 123. gxh3 Nxh3 124. Bc6 Ng5 125. Bd7?? (125. Bg2! saves the day through a string of stalemate tricks 125...Nf3 126. Bf1! Nh4 [Kxf1 stalemate] 127. Bg2! Ng6 [Nxg2 stalemate] 128. Bf1 Nf4 129. Bg2, and Black can’t make progress) g2+, and White has to resign.

Carlsen-Nakamura, 6th Sinqufield Cup, St. Louis, August 2018

1. Nf3 Nf6 2. d4 e6 3. c4 d5 4. Nc3 Be7 5. Bf4 O-O 6. e3 b6 7. Bd3 dxc4 8. Bxc4 Ba6 9. Qe2 Bxc4 10. Qxc4 c5 11. dxc5 bxc5 12. O-O Nc6 13. Rac1 Rc8 14. Ne5 Qb6 15. Nxc6 Rxc6 16. b3 h6 17. Rfd1 Qb7 18. h3 Rfc8 19. Na4 Nd7 20. Rd2 Nb6 21. Nxb6 Rxb6 22. Rcd1 Bf6 23. Rd7 Qa6 24. Qe4 e5 25. Bxh6 Re8 26. Qg4 Qxa2 27. e4 Qxb3 28. Be3 Rb7 29. R7d6 Be7 30. R6d5 Bf8 31. Bxc5 Bxc5 32. Rxc5 Qe6 33. Qe2 Rd7 34. Rxd7 Qxd7 35. Rd5 Qc7 36. Qd2 Ra8 37. Rd7 Qc4 38. f3 Qc5+ 39. Kh2 Qc6 40. Rd6 Qc5 41. Ra6 Qe7 42. Qe3 Kh7 43. Kg3 Qb7 44. Qa3 f6 45. Kh2 Qc7 46. Qa1 Qb7 47. Qa5 Qd7 48. Qa2 Qe7 49. Qf2 Qb7 50. Qa2 Qe7 51. Qd5 Rb8 52. Qa5 Rb7 53. Qe1 Qd7 54. Qh4+ Kg8 55. Qf2 Qf7 56. Qa2 Qxa2 57. Rxa2 Kh7 58. Ra6 Kg6 59. h4 Kh5 60. Kh3 Rf7 61. g4+ Kh6 62. Kg3 g5 63. h5 Kg7 64. Kf2 Rb7 65. Ra3 Kh6 66. Ke3 a5 67. Rxa5 Rb3+ 68. Kf2 Rb2+ 69. Kg3 Kg7 70. Ra7+ Kg8 71. Ra1 Kg7 72. Rf1 Ra2 73. Rf2 Ra3 74. Rd2 Ra7 75. Kf2 Kf7 76. Ke2 Rb7 77. Rd3 Ra7 78. Kd2 Ke6 79. Kc3 Ke7 80. Kc4 Rc7+ 81. Kb5 Rc1 82. Rb3 Kf7 83. Kb6 Rc2 84. Kb7 Rc1 85. Kb8 Kg8 86. Rb6 Kg7 87. Rb7+ Kg8 88. Rc7 Rb1+ 89. Kc8 Rb3 90. Kd7 Rxf3 91. Ke6 Rf4 92. h6 Kh8 93. Rb7 Kg8 94. Rg7+ Kh8 95. Kf7 Rxe4 96. Kg6 Ra4 97. Rh7+ Black resigns.

David R. Sands can be reached at 202/636-3178 or by email dsands@washingtontimes.com.