The tournament is very strong (category 22) as usual, and I’m facing Ding, Giri, Mamedyarov, Anand, Grischuk, Radjabov, Karjakin, Topalov and Navara.

Todays round 7 against Anish Giri would normally be important for the fight for first for both, as Anish was no 4 on the March 2019 Fide rating list, runner up in Wijk aan Zee both in 2018 and 2019 etc. Surprisingly, he has been out of form in Shamkir, and was at -2 prior to the round. (I was in shared lead with Karjakin at +2).

Initially we followed a main line in the English Opening with 8... h6. White has a slightly more compact structure and black compensation with space and early development. Normally black is fine after the typical 13… Nd4. I thought todays position was somewhat promising for white due to 15.Qxf3 planning Qh5 and f4. He decided to take on f4 (while f5 is probably better) and grabbed the pawn on e3. After Kh1, my next few moves brought all white pieces into play against the black king and he lacked counterplay. The position looked overwhelming for white. 

I couldn’t find a clear winning attack and decided to go for 25.Bf6 aiming for the exchange-up endgame with very good winning chances. He was low on time and went astray immediately with a4 and b4 after which Be8 is crushing. He lost on time, but the position was well beyond repair.

I didn’t start out particularly smoothly. Flight connections were a challenge this time, and we decided to arrive via Tbilisi in Georgia, a two-hours drive from Shamkir. Despite having arrived already Friday 29thin Shamkir, I was not at my best in the first game against Radjabov on the 31st. He was close to 2800 rating 6-7 years ago, and after a substantial drop he is gradually closing in on the top ten again. I equalized fairly easily and should have taken his invitation to repeat moves with 15…. Bh5 16.Ng3 Bg6 etc. I went for 15… d5 and made several more inaccuracies leaving me in serious danger had he played 26.Bc4. He chose Nxc5 instead which may have looked promising as well, but I managed to draw relatively quickly. 

I won the next two rounds - more on that later - and was sole leader until Karjakin caught up with me in round 6. In the penultimate round Monday I’m black against the very same Karjakin. With the others at 50% score or less, it is likely to be the decisive game of the tournament.

Magnus Carlsen, Shamkir, Azerbaijan, April 7th 2019