By Ian Rogers
Photo: Cover and Left – Carlsen winning in Baden Baden, one of his five classical titles for 2015
2015 was a year of inconsistency for international and domestic stars alike, but ended on a high for the very best.
World Champion Magnus Carlsen suffered a six month long slump, yet strong results in London and Qatar in December left him further ahead of the pack than when the year started.
The Norwegian won December’s Qatar Open after a playoff with Chinese Olympic Champion and defending titleholder Yu Yangyi.
Carlsen’s participation in the Qatar Open was already a coup for organiser GM Mohammed Al Modiakhi; the first time a reigning World Champion had competed in an open tournament since 1971.
Carlsen’s participation, facilitated by a giant appearance fee plus all expenses in Doha for his entire family, helped lure other world class players to Qatar. However, not coincidentally, overall the number of Grandmasters in Doha was reduced compared to 2014, since some journeymen GMs decided that their prize chances were no longer realistic.
After a shaky start, Carlsen was the dominant player in Qatar, though unambitious play in the final round allowed Yu to catch Carlsen with a marathon six hour win against Wesley So.
Carlsen, however, has not lost a playoff since 2007(!) and duly demolished the exhausted Yu 2-0.
The win was Carlsen’s fifth classical tournament victory of the year – three of them following playoffs – but his world rating has dropped in 2015 due to disastrous performances at Norway Chess in June and in Reykjavik last month. 2016 is a World Championship year and Carlsen’s inconsistency will give his rivals see a glimmer of hope.
Above: Carlsen’s low point of 2015, losing on time to Topalov in Norway in June.
In contrast, the world number two position became a game of musical chairs in 2015, occupied at one time or another by Caruana, Anand, Topalov, Nakamura, Giri and finally Kramnik.
Of these, Nakamura was the only player close behind Carlsen in the number of tournaments won, capturing titles in Gibraltar, Zurich, the US Championship in Saint Louis and a Grand Prix tournament in Khanty Mansiysk.
In a sign of the changing chess world, Chinese Grandmasters defeated Russia in a team match and also captured Australia’s two most prestigious tournaments of the year; Ni Hua dominating January’s Australian Open and then Zhou Weiqi topping the Doeberl Cup in April.
The World Chess Federation, FIDE, finally took other than cosmetic action against computer cheating, banning Georgian Champion Naioz Nigalidze for 3 years and stripping him of his Grandmaster title for using a smartphone during the Dubai Open.
Domestically, 2015 will be remembered mostly for Max Illingworth’s Grandmaster title; a rare achievement for an Australian. Though Illingworth also won the Oceania Zonal tournament to qualify for the World Cup, the 23-year-old lost form badly in September and October and remains well short of the Australian number one position some thought he might take over in 2015.
Other talented young Australian players such as 14-year-old International Master Anton Smirnov also enjoyed a mixed year, but it was much worse for the older generation.
Australia’s number one Zhao Zong Yuan had limited opportunities due to his medical work but modest performances at the Doeberl Cup and NSW Open showed how difficult it is attempt to combine a normal work life with a chess career.
Grandmaster Darryl Johansen would have been annoyed to throw away July’s Koshnitsky Memorial in Adelaide with a final round loss to Hrant Melkumyan but worse was to follow in December when the veteran finished tied for last place at the Australian Masters in Melbourne – Johansen’s first wooden spoon since 1975.
The year finished on a high for Queensland’s Moulthun Ly, who competed at the Qatar Open and ultimately finished only half a point below the level required to secure his second Grandmaster ‘norm’ – three are needed for the GM title. Along the way, Ly defeated highly ranked Russian GM Danii Dubov in the following brilliancy.
Qatar Open 2015
Opening: Sicilian Defence
Carlsen’s best game was the epic struggle against Chinese rising star Li Chao, former winner of Canberra’s Doeberl Cup.
In the diagrammed position, Li (Black) appears to be in grave danger, with the obvious 24…N6xd5 walking into checkmate after 25.e6 Qf6 26.Nxg6+ Ke8 27.Qg8+ Bf8 28.Rh8.
However Li comes up with a counter-attacking idea of genius, a queen sacrifice which Carlsen admitted he had not seen.