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Carlsen’s Narrow Escape and Matanovic’s Great Influence at the Chessboard

Former world champ Magnus Carlsen was this close to going home early, but held on and is one of eight players still in the hunt as the FIDE World Cup reached the quarterfinal stage in Baku, Azerbaijan, this week.

The Norwegian top seed was on the ropes against young German star GM Vincent Keymer in their two-game knockout match in the round of 32, after Keymer won the first classical game and missed a crushing tactic in the second that would have put him through.

Still seeking the one major trophy in the game that has eluded him, Carlsen went on to win the blitz playoff to keep his hopes alive.

American GMs Fabiano Caruana and Leinier Dominguez Perez are also still in the fight, although they are paired against each other in the quarterfinals. Caruana eliminated 2022 World Cup winner GM Jan-Krzysztof Duda with a model positional win at classical time controls from the Black side of a Grunfeld Defense in the round of 16.

After 14. Qb3 Bxc3 15. Qxc3!? (bxc3 might have been the better choice to keep the center fluid), Duda has the advantage of the bishop pair, but the d-pawns clog the center, the Black knights are active, and there are some worrying soft spots in White’s kingside. Caruana brilliantly proceeds to exploit every advantage.

Black grabs the initiative with 17. Kg2?! (Bf4 looks solid, while the computer offers this amusing pathway to a perpetual: 17. Re1!? Nxf2 18. Kxf2 Qh4+ 19. Ke2 Rfe8+ 20. Be3 Rxe3+ 21. Kxe3 Re8+ 22. Kd2 Qf2+ 23. Re2 Rxe2+ 24. Bxe2 Nc4+ 25. Kd1 Ne3+ 26. Kd2 Nc4+ 27. Kd1) Rc8 18. Be3 f5! 19. f3?! (creating more holes; better was 19. Rac1 Rxc1 20. Rxc1, easing the pressure) Nc4!, and the threatened knight forks force more concessions from White.

By 24. Bf4?! (White has to shake things up with something like 24. b3 Nb6 24. Qa5, though Black remains better after 24 … Qd7 26. Qg5 Nd5 27. Rf2 Rc3) Qd5!, dominating the board and setting the stage for the tactics to come.

The break is not long in coming: 26. Qb4 Rf7 27. Rc1 (see diagram; with Black’s pieces all on such great squares, there has to be some forcing play lurking, and Caruana finds it) g5! 28. Qxc4 (Bxg5? Qxg5 29. Qxc4 Qe3+ 30. Kh4 Qf2+ 31. Kg5 Qf6+ 32. Kh5 g6 mate) gxf4+ 29. Kg2 f3+ 30. Kf1 Qd7 — material is equal, but the connected passed pawns are a bone in White’s throat.

Black never takes his foot off the gas in the finale: 37. Kf2 (Rxe4 Qg6!, pinning and winning) Qa6+ 38. Kg1 Qd6! 39. Kf1 Rd1 40. Qe3 (Rxd1 Qxd1+ 41. Qf1 Qxf1+ 42. Kxf1 e3 43. h4 Kg6, with an elementary endgame win) Qd3+ 41. Kf2 (Qxd3 Rxe1+ 42. Kxe1 exd3 43. h4 Kg6, again winning) Rd2+ 42. Kg3 f2!, and White had seen enough and resigns. After 43. Qxd3 fxe1=Q+ 44. Kf4 Rxd3, it will be mate in just a few moves.

Carlsen got off to a great start in the quarterfinals, defeating Indian GM D Gukesh with Black in Tuesday’s first game. Gukesh is one of four Indian players still in the hunt for the top prize in the knockout event.

For both the men’s and women’s knockout tournaments, there’s a valuable prize for doing well in Baku: The top three finishers in both sections earn automatic slots in the 2024 Candidates tournaments.


Serbian GM Aleksandar Matanovic held many distinctions over a long life — he was Yugoslavia’s junior champion in 1948, a three-time national champion in one of the world’s strongest chess-playing nations, and was the world’s oldest living grandmaster before passing away Aug. 9 at the age of 93.

But chessplayers around the globe also owe Matanovic a deep debt of gratitude for his decision in 1966 in the depths of the Cold War to start publishing the instantly indispensable Chess Informant, followed by the production of the equally iconic Encyclopedia of Chess Openings, the fabled “ECO.”

In the dark days before the internet made everything available everywhere every day, the biannual release of a new Informant, with top players analyzing hundreds of games in the chess Esperanto of exclamation points, infinity signs and squiggly lines, was a genuine event. To this day, opening up an Informant from the mid-1970s can revive an entire era and lead to several hours of blissful time-wasting.

No slouch at the board, Matanovic defeated some of the best players of the 20th century over his long career. Mikhail Tal was at the height of his powers at the 1958 Portoroz Interzonal in Slovenia and would claim the world title just two years later. His only loss in the 21-player field was to Matanovic, who turned the tables on the great attacker with a surprise piece sacrifice right out of the opening.

On 12. Kb1 b4 13. Nd5!? (not totally a shock, as any other knight move just leaves Black better) exd5 14. Nf5 Bf8 15. exd5 0-0-0? (missing a trick — better was 15 … h6 16. Rhe1+ Kd8 17. Be3 Nc5 18. Bd4, with equality) 16. a3! — Tal would later call his loss here “annoying,” and this little move shows why — the great attacker will be forced to defend for the next 40 moves.  

Black, being Tal, manages to make things messy, but by 26. Bxh8 Rxh8 27. Rxd6, Matanovic has two pawns and a rook for two minor pieces and only White has winning chances.

The trade of a pair of rooks with 34. Ree7! only increases Black’s defensive burden.

White’s rook cleans out the Black queenside and Tal’s passed a-pawn is not enough of a distraction in the final play: 45. h4 a3 (this pawn looks scary, but it turns out Black can’t force it through) 46. b5 Bf7 47. Rg1 (Rg7? Na4+ 48. Kb4 a2 49. Rg1 Nb2 50. Kc3 Na4+ and White can’t make progress) a2 48. Kb2 Kb8 49. Rg7 Bb3 50. Rg1 Bf7 51. Ka1, and it turns out Matanovic doesn’t need his king’s help to advance the kingside passers.

The White rook does yeoman’s work in the final stage: 54. h5 Nf6 55. h6 Kc7 56. Rg7+ Kb6 57. Re7!, and Black resigns not needing to play out 57. Bxb5 (Kxb5 58. Rxe8 Nxe8 59. h7 wins) 58. Re6+ Kc6 59. Rxf6 Bd3 60. f5, and the pawn will queen.

(Click on the image above for a larger view of the chessboard.)

Duda-Caruana, FIDE World Cup, Baku, Azerbaijan, August 2023

1. d4 Nf6 2. c4 e6 3. Nc3 Bb4 4. e3 O-O 5. Bd3 c5 6. Nf3 d5 7. cxd5 cxd4 8. exd4 exd5 9. O-O Bg4 10. h3 Bh5 11. g4 Bg6 12. Ne5 Nbd7 13. Nxg6 hxg6 14. Qb3 Bxc3 15. Qxc3 Ne4 16. Qb3 Nb6 17. Kg2 Rc8 18. Be3 f5 19. f3 Nc4 20. Bxe4 fxe4 21. fxe4 Rxf1 22. Rxf1 dxe4 23. Qc3 Kh7 24. Bf4 Qd5 25. Kg3 Rf8 26. Qb4 Rf7 27. Rc1 g5 28. Qxc4 gxf4+ 29. Kg2 f3+ 30. Kf1 Qd7 31. d5 Re7 32. Qc5 Re5 33. Re1 Rxd5 34. Qc2 Qb5+ 35. Kf2 Qb6+ 36. Kf1 Rd4 37. Qf2 Qa6+ 38. Kg1 Qd6 39. Kf1 Rd1 40. Qe3 Qd3+ 41. Kf2 Rd2+ 42. Kg3 f2 White resigns.

Matanovic-Tal, FIDE Interzonal, Portoroz, Slovenia, August 1958

1. e4 c5 2. Nf3 d6 3. d4 cxd4 4. Nxd4 Nf6 5. Nc3 a6 6. Bg5 Nbd7 7. Bc4 Qa5 8. Qd2 e6 9. O-O-O b5 10. Bb3 Bb7 11. f3 Be7 12. Kb1 b4 13. Nd5 exd5 14. Nf5 Bf8 15. exd5 O-O-O 16. a3 h6 17. axb4 Qc7 18. Bf4 g6 19. Nxh6 Ne5 20. Bg5 Bxh6 21. Bxh6 Nc4 22. Bxc4 Qxc4 23. Bg7 Nxd5 24. b3 Qxb4 25. Qxb4 Nxb4 26. Bxh8 Rxh8 27. Rxd6 Nd5 28. c4 Ne3 29. Rf6 Nxg2 30. Rxf7 Rd8 31. Kc2 Nh4 32. Re1 Rd7 33. Re8+ Kc7 34. Ree7 Rxe7 35. Rxe7+ Kb6 36. f4 Ng2 37. Re6+ Ka7 38. Rf6 Be4+ 39. Kc3 a5 40. Kb2 a4 41. b4 Ne3 42. Re6 Nxc4+ 43. Kc3 Bd5 44. Rxg6 Nb6 45. h4 a3 46. b5 Bf7 47. Rg1 a2 48. Kb2 Kb8 49. Rg7 Bb3 50. Rg1 Bf7 51. Ka1 Kc8 52. Rg7 Be8 53. Rg5 Nd7 54. h5 Nf6 55. h6 Kc7 56. Rg7+ Kb6 57. Re7 Black resigns.

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

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