— from Mark Jordan, ECF Manager of Publicity
The somewhat comprehensive rout of the top seeds in the early rounds of the Masters, with top seed, Sethuraman (2647), starting his campaign with a rather startling 0.5/2, led to some very interesting pairings in the first 5 rounds, with lots of opportunities for ambitious juniors and established and often dangerous campaigners to take on the top guys. Top seeds, however, are not in the position they’re in for nothing, have rating points to lose and, therefore, rounds 3-5 saw their inexorable progress back towards the top of the table where they could breathe down the necks of the leaders. Those leaders were number 6 seed, GM Rasmussen (2502) on 4.5/5 and English GM and 8th seed, Hebden (2492) in sole second position on 4/5. These two faced each other in a crucial clash in Round 6.
Rasmussen opened with the mild 1) Nf3 and the game developed in to a closed Classical Kings Indian in which White had a spatial advantage but Black’s position was solid. Hebden tried to break out of his defensive shell with a thematic pawn expansion on the Queens-side but was perhaps overly optimistic with 18…b5 which weakened c6 on which Rasmussen was shortly able to establish a knight. The resulting position left White with a solid edge and any winning chances which were to be had, but Black still had plenty of defensive resources which Hebden utilised skilfully. Towards the time control Hebden was able to complicate the position but never had quite enough to challenge for the full point. Unfortunately, he blundered just before the time control with 39…Rb1 which led to the loss of a knight and his resignation. The result gave Rasmussen a 1-point cushion at the top of the table.
Meanwhile, leading seeds, Sethuramen, Fier (2590), Gupta (2575) and Karthikeyan (2530) all of whom were in the chasing group on 3.5/5, won their games to form a threatening quartet in equal 2nd, a point behind the leader. 3rd seed, Glendura (2584), failed to make it a quintet when he drew with Black against the impressive young Australian IM, Cheng (2446), and headed the very large group on 4/6 which now also included formerly second placed, Hebden. Other English players in the 4/6 group were GMs Gormally (2493) and Flear (2428), IMs, Ledger (2377) and Bates (2347) and FM Haria (2382).The round 7 pairings for the top 3 boards were Sethuraman (4.5) – Rasmsussen (5.5), Sengupta (4.5) – Fier (4.5), Karthikeyan (4.5) – Glendura (4) so, after their earlier travails, the top 6 seeds were now back in control. Sethuraman needed a win after his poor start to draw level with his opponent and complete his recovery. He opened with 1e4 to which Black responded with a Caro-Kan. White played aggressively with 5.Ng5 but Black was able to consolidate, although without quite being able to attain equality. The crucial moment came on move 22 when White’s c3, attacking Black’s Bishop on d4, provoked a miscalculation, 22…Be5, which allowed a simple combination winning Black’s f-pawn and allowing White to simplify to an ending a pawn up and with a better pawn-structure. From here on in, both players played accurately but Sethuraman was able to gradually increase the pressure which eventually led to the win of a second pawn and thence the game. There were wins for White on Boards 2 and 3 as well which meant that going in to round 8 there was a four-way tie for first on 5.5/7: Sethuraman, Sengupta, Karthikeyan, Rasmussen.
The chasing group on 5/7 includes Indian prodigy, IM Pragnanandhaa, who has progressed through the tournament unbeaten, and English GM, Flear, who beat his fellow countryman IM Bates. Also of interest to home readers in the 5/7 group is FM Haria who drew with Pragnanandhaa and achieved 2.5/3 against GM opposition to still remain in touch with the main prizes.