The Candidates 2022 – Impressions from Behind the Scene

It is good that my Candidates prediction is the post preceding this one. This makes it easier to see that my predictions were mostly wrong! Indeed, of the first four finishers in Madrid, I placed three of them as the most unlikely to win.

I had the priviledge to share the same stage with the players. Working as a Fair Play Officer I spent my time in the same areas where the players were – the playing hall and the refreshment area. This allowed me a unique opportunity to observe them during the whole duration of the games.

Their behaviour while in the refreshment area, when hidden from the public eye, were particularly telling and while I cannot disclose some of them, in order to protect their privacy, they did contribute to the general impressions I formed.

This is what I think of the players and their performance in Madrid.

Nepomniachtchi – the winner had an event where everything went his way. From the starting victory over one of the favourites Ding Liren, to the pointed preparation against Duda, to the “gift” by Rapport, to the lucky, but deserved escape against Caruana (twice!) and the ideal set of circumstances against Firouzja.

He was in good practical form, playing fast and with confidence, his massive World Championship preparation bringing enormous dividends in every game. I think the secret of his success, which made him only the second player in history after Smyslov to win two Candidates in a row, was the ideal combination of good form and detachment.

The last word probably needs a bit of explanation. Nepomniachtchi repeatedly stated in press conferences, and he also told me several times before and after the games, that he just wanted the event to finish and to go home. To paraphrase Nakamura, he “literally didn’t care,” but at the same time he was fully focused and played great chess. It has long been observed that the state of flow, when everything goes your way, is best achieved like this, with full focus and detachment from results. Nepomniachtchi did it perfectly and nobody could come close to matching that combination. The final result speaks for itself.

Speculation aside whether Carlsen will play him in a match or no, I think this victory is a true sign of maturity for Nepomniachtchi and in the next match, against whomever he plays, he will be a much better player than in Dubai.

Ding Liren – the pre-tournament favourite for many, myself included, had a very uneven event. I still cannot grasp how could the Chinese Federation, so capable and efficient to organise the necessary games for Ding to qualify, couldn’t organise his trip to Madrid in time so that he arrives at least a week earlier and doesn’t suffer from jet lag. Also, how is it possible not to send a second with him, leaving him all alone in the most important tournament of his career.

These major organisational blunders cost Ding Liren a better shot at first place. The jet leg led to a loss to Nepomniachtchi in round one and this was followed by missed wins in rounds three and five against Rapport and Radjabov, respectively. When he finally hit top form, he won three games in a row, but then this was followed by an abysmal loss with White to Radjabov in mere 26 moves.

What impressed me most from his games was his ability to squeeze water from stone. Three games stand out: against Duda in round nine, when I expected a quick draw in a symmetrical and simplified position only to see the game turn very exciting thanks to Ding’s persistence and Duda’s mistakes; against Firouzja in the penultimate round, when faced with a theoretical drawing line (the same one Nepomniachtchi used against him in round eight) he sacrificed a pawn in the endgame only to keep the game going. He succeeded to put so much pressure on Firouzja that the prodigy was forced to find the only way to save the draw by sacrificing a piece; against Nakamura in the last round – in a must win situation Ding entered an equal endgame and managed to pose problems and eventually outplay the American and claim second place.

While eventually the second place can be regarded as a success (especially if that gives him the match in case of Carlsen’s withdrawal) in view of Nepomniachtchi’s dominance, I still think that Ding Liren didn’t manage to play at the maximum of his ability in Madrid.

Radjabov – he turned out to be my favourite player of the event! By far the friendliest of them all, with light banter both before and after the games, he always seemed to be in a good mood. What impressed me was something that I never thought was possible – that he could come back after starting and staying on -2 for a long time. But his London 2013 experience was crucial – there he went from 50% in round two to finish on -6 at the end, so this gave him perspective and, most importantly, patience. He kept grinding, taking it game by game and kept waiting for his chances.

They came, first thanks to his good preparation against Nakamura in round nine and Ding Liren in round 12 and a good defensive effort against Rapport’s over-optimistic sacrifice in the last round.

When talking to Radjabov at the closing ceremony, I asked him about his transition, from a dynamic player to a solid one, particularly when it came to the openings: the KID and Sveshnikov were replaced by QGD and Berlin. He said that he started losing games in the former ones, claiming that players like Anand, Kramnik, Leko, were very good at putting him under pressure there, so he was forced to evolve. He also predicted that Firouzja will also evolve in this direction, opining that it’s impossible to play and stay on the highest level playing constantly that type of dynamic chess that he used to play.

Radjabov benefited from his relaxed attitude, not putting too much pressure on himself to get a result. He knew that the tournament was tough and tiring so he took the games as they came. I think his result was the most surprising one, at least for me it was, and I am glad I was so wrong about Radjabov. I have criticised him in the past for boring play, but observing him in action for weeks on I realised the reason for this “boring” play – it is all about keeping the probability of loss to the minimum and waiting for one’s chances. When in good shape, like Radjabov in the second half of the event, this strategy can bring great results!

Nakamura – I found his games the easiest to follow. Possibly because his body language and facial expressions when seeing his opponent’s move while looking at the screen in the refreshment area were so telling!

There are several things I noticed in Nakamura’s games.

First, if he managed to get his opening preparation in, he would play with double energy and more likely than not would win the game – examples of this are all his wins, where he managed to surprise his opponents in the opening. He also had other opening surprises, like against Nepomniachtchi in round five when he misplayed a very favourable middlegame position and against Ding in the last round – even though he lost that game his opening was a great success and he should have drawn that without too much trouble.

It has to be said that the above is true for more or less everybody in the top nowadays – the importance of a good opening. If they don’t get anything out of it, not necessarily an advantage or a new move, but even a pleasant position that they have analysed, it’s almost impossible for them to outplay each other under normal conditions. As an example we can observe the game Nakamura-Rapport from round 11 when Nakamura didn’t expect the Sveshnikov, chose a harmless line and tried in vain to get more than a draw for 96 moves.

The above games were all played by Nakamura with White. When he was playing with Black he stuck to his usual repertoire (except in the last round game with Ding when he chose the Semi-Tarrasch instead of his usual QGD, but even there he transposed to a QGA, an opening he’s been playing lately as well), but he was under pressure in all of his games.

Here comes the second point I noticed – he was extremely resilient when in trouble. A characteristic example is his game with Firouzja, when he fould a fortress when it seemed that he was dead lost. He used dynamic defence, with his games against Caruana (round one), Ding (round six, when he was White) and Duda (round seven) being typical.

Third thing I noticed was his abitlity to play with utmost precision when playing with an advantage or converting it. I know the others are also quite capable of it, but in his games I noticed this more clearly. For example, in his game against Duda in the penultimate round, when his opponent left him off the hook, Nakamura started to play very aggressive and powerful moves and his conversion of the advantage in the endgame was exemplary.

Outside the board Nakamura was less exemplary, but his dedication to produce daily video analysis of his games was both a blessing and a curse. A blessing for the millions of viewers who got instant view into his understanding after the games finished, but a curse for himself, because these recaps took even more energy and eventually this took its toll: in the last round, when he had to avoid a loss to take second place, in spite of obtaining what should have been easily holdable endgame, he failed to show his usual level and the more professional player won. Caissa is a jealous goddess and rewards the ones dedicated to the game, not the ones dedicated to activities built around the game.

Caruana – the other American had a heaven and hell in Madrid. What started like a dream tournament with three wins achieved in powerful style, turned into a hellish nightmare.

In the first half of the event Caruana was magnificent. Starting from his great opening round win over Nakamura he displayed excellent preparation (the game with Duda the only exception) and his wins over Firouzja and especially Radjabov were impressive.

During that game with Radjabov I witnessed what it seems to me the turning point of the whole event.

Caruana was playing for a win against Radjabov and the game Rapport-Nepomniachtchi was following a well-known theoretical draw. Caruana was watching that game and logically expected it to end in a draw so with a win he would catch Nepomniachtchi.

And then Rapport struck. Coming down a full hour down on the clock he decided to avoid a draw and enter an objectively worse (the engine says lost!) position. When Caruana saw that, he couldn’t contain his disappointment. He started shaking his head, as if he couldn’t believe how his main opponent is being given free gifts while he has to work so hard for his points. While he did manage to win the game against Radjabov after a gigantic effort, and stay within half a point behind Nepomniachtchi, it appeared that his energy was spent.

The next game was another titanic battle where Caruana defended to the best of his ability against Nakamura, but eventually lost. Then he had a chance to catch Nepomniachtchi with a win in the direct duel. He employed a very interesting early novelty in the Petroff, obtained a winning advantage, but the character of the position was such that there was so much calculation involved that in spite of his excellent abilities in that department Caruana was not able to overcome all the complexity and only drew that game. Then, exhausted, he tried to play for a win against Duda with Black, but did so very poorly and basically forced Duda to beat him. In the next round he obtained a promising middlegame position after Ding Liren missed a small trick and was playing safely for a win, but he could no longer keep his level constant during long games – he misplayed it badly and lost again. The last round loss against Firouzja was similar – he had a safe advantage but let it all turn around on its head and was lost. Then he defended well to achieve a drawn position only to blunder and lose.

When I spoke to his coach Chuchelov at the closing ceremony I shared my view that it must have felt as if Fate was leading his main rival to victory while blocking Caruana’s way at the same time. He basically agreed, confirming my impression that lack of energy in the second half of the event was a major factor.

It was a very high tempo that Caruana imposed on himself, but that is how he plays chess. This time, faced with Nepomniachtchi’s “easiness” it was impossible to compete, but the quality of chess he displayed in the first half of the event was impressive. I only have one question, which I forgot to ask Chuchelov: why did he gave up on the Petroff? It seems like the winner’s opening in the last three Candidates!

Firouzja – the prodigy showed that he was clearly not ready to win this type of event. Not even that, but he was lingering in last place for most of it.

The tournament showed several huge problems in Firouzja’s play. First of all were his problems in preparation. He had several opening fiascos, starting from his almost forcing loss to Nepomniachtchi in the Najdorf in round four all the way to his round 11 loss to Nepomniachtchi when he couldn’t remember that he had to insert a4 before playing g4. He misplayed the opening against Nakamura in round 10 and also against Duda in round 12.

The second big problem was endgame play. His level was far from a desired one for an event of this caliber – he went from drawn to losing against Rapport in round two, he missed Nakamura’s defence in round three and even in the last round he misplayed a technically winning endgame to a drawn one, only to win thanks to a blunder by Caruana.

The third problem was psychological. He didn’t seem prepared for the level of resistance and couldn’t maintain his level. The total breakdown was his reaction to his loss to Nakamura in round 10. He spent the whole night playing bullet games on the internet until 6am. Needless to say that he couldn’t remember his preparation and lost brutally to Nepomniachtchi the next day.

There were just too many problems in Firouzja’s play that prevented him to show his true talent. I hope he learns from the experience and comes back much stronger the next time.

Duda – to my mind, he was the least impressive participant. I was surprised how quickly he collapsed psychologically, after his first loss, in round six against Nepomniachtchi. After that game he was no longer the same, his body language gave away a disappointed and disillusioned player who didn’t have the strength to come back. As if he gave up on the tournament after that loss.

His next two losses were apathetic, Rapport mated him from a harmless position, Ding beat him in an endgame that should have been a relatively problem-free draw. The game Duda won, against Caruana, was more because Caruana was “playing for a win” by playing very badly rather than Duda winning. Even in that game he missed some moves and couldn’t believe his luck when he discovered he was winning after the time control – he couldn’t contain his smile and that was the happiest I saw him throughout the whole event!

Duda is a great player, but he turned out to be rather “soft”. He couldn’t pull himself together when things started to go wrong and that was the main reason why he failed at this event.

Rapport – was another favourite player of mine. I’ve known him since the tournament in Reykjavik in 2014 and he has remained very friendly and nice ever since. He complained that he was playing worse every day (like he told me after the game with Nakamura in round 11) but I don’t think he was in bad shape in Madrid.

I think the main reason for his bad result was the incompatibility of his fighting spirit and his preparation. He had the worst opening preparation from the whole field and his opening improvisations were rarely successful. This meant that he didn’t get very promising positions from the openings and as I stated above, without at least something to play for it’s impossible to outplay an opponent on this level from an equal position if he plays decently.

This incompatibility was possibly decisive for the eventual winner – his decision not to take the draw and play on against Nepomniachtchi in round seven led to his first loss and it gave Nepomniachtchi a valuable point.

What I liked a lot were two games where he employed a slow-burning attack. The first one was his win against Duda, when a harmless position transformed into a winning attack very quickly (not without Duda’s help, though) and the second one was his last-round game with Radjabov. After maneuvering for some time in an Anti-Berlin he started to build up a very promising attack on the kingside. Alas, by the end of the tournament his patience had also gone thin, so instead of continuing to build up he lashed out with an incorrect sacrifice that was refuted. In any case, that first phase where he was building up the attack was very nicely played.

Rapport was widely recognised for his fighting spirit and special approach to openings, but he will definitely have to raise the quality of his opening preparation. If he does that, his special approach will become an advantage rather than a disadvantage as it is now. Then he will become a mighty force to be reckoned with.

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The Candidates 2022 – A Preview

With Karjakin’s appeal to FIDE’s Ethics and Disciplinary Commission rejected, we now safely know the eight participants in the upcoming Candidates Tournament in Madrid.

I always like to think about what can happen and what can be expected of the participants, even though I fully realise I will be completely mistaken about some of my predictions. Nevertheless, here’s what I think.

The Experienced

Ding Liren and Fabiano Caruana have seen it all, having been world’s number two and three for many years now. Caruana convincingly won the Berlin Candidates in 2018 and only lost the World Championship match with Carlsen that same year on tie-break.
Ding Liren didn’t have a good first part in Yekaterinburg in 2020, but won the second leg of the ill-fated Candidates in 2021. He suffered the most due to the pandemic, but after a frantic run of games in April he is all set to have another go in normal conditions in Madrid.

Both of them are the natural favourites to win.

Caruana had a topsy-turvy period in the last few years. The most significant event was his separation from his long-time second Rustam Kasimdzhanov, which affected his results so that he even dropped from the standard top-3 on the rating list. But in 2022 his immense work to perform better on faster time controls is finally showing, with his results quite consistent in rapid and blitz, and his win at the American Cup (in classical) in April seems to suggest that he is hitting top form. But then, in the same topsy-turvy style, he was sub-par in the Superbet Chess Classic where he finished on 50%. He experimented with his openings, playing everything with White (1.e4, 1.d4, 1.c4) and quite a bit of mixture with Black (even playing the Sveshnikov!) so it’s quite clear that he is keeping his opponents guessing and keeping his best preparation for Madrid. At 29 he has the perfect mix of ambition and experience and coupled with his high class and powerful play he can easily win another Candidates Tournament. He only needs to be in good form and it will be difficult to stop him. The only thing that bothers me is the question: can he repeat Smyslov’s feat? I don’t quite see him on par with Smyslov, but I definitely rate his chances higher than Nepomniachtchi’s (see also the part where I discuss Nepomniachtchi below).

Ding Liren is a bit of an unknown at this point because he’s played the least from the rest. The recent events in China that he needed to play in order to comply with FIDE’s requirements are not exactly telling and they do leave a strange impression. We know that he is fully capable of winning events like the Candidates, but we don’t know much about his form and work leading to it. He is of the same age as Caruana and perhaps his motivation will be bigger to win the right to challenge the World Champion for the first time.

The New Wave

The new kids on the block are Alireza Firouzja, Richard Rapport and Jan-Krzysztof Duda. They represent the new wave, players that belong to a new generation debuting at this level.

All eyes will be on Firouzja. At 18, he is among the youngest in history to play a Candidates Tournament, putting him in the same category as Fischer at 16 in Bled/Zagreb/Belgrade in 1959 and Spassky at 19 in Amsterdam in 1956.

He had an amazing end of 2021 when he won the Grand Swiss, thus qualifying for the Candidates, and continued with excellent form at the European Team Championship. This run brought him above 2800 and made him a world number two. He stopped playing for several months, living his life and preparing for the Candidates, as he put it. The return to chess practice at the Superbet wasn’t great – he ended up on a minus score and lost rating points which saw him drop below 2800.

A notable details is that in Romania he was seen together with Ivan Cheparinov, Topalov’s long time second and the main generator of ideas for the Bulgarian champion. This indicates that he will be extremely well prepared in the openings, especially if this cooperation started months ago.

It’s difficult to predict his performance. In the past he’s been way too susceptible to pressure and cracking under it and the Candidates is a high-tension event from start to finish. Chess-wise he is not inferior to anybody, but psychology will be the key for the teenager in Madrid. My personal opinion is that while possible, I still think he is too raw to win it.

I observed Rapport (26) very closely during the Grand Prix in Berlin. I was impressed by his ability to find ideas and pose problems even in the driest positions, while his decision to risk and play for a win in the final game of the match with Andreikin in Belgrade won him the event and gained him qualification – the man has the courage of champions!

However, there are a couple of problems with his chances in Madrid. The first one is that he is a loner. He works alone and likes it like that. I am all for going at it alone, a-la Fischer, but in modern chess this has proven to be impossible. Therefore I really hope that he has managed to find somebody he can trust and work together with in the period after the Belgrade Grand Prix.

The second problem is that he didn’t believe he could qualify for the Candidates! With this in mind, he just accepted all invitations to events, thus clogging his calendar. Now he’s stuck with a lot of commitments and this prevents him from properly organising preparation and play. Playing in the Superbet saw him dip in form, finishing on -2 and losing 12 points. He also has the Norway Chess scheduled, a tournament that finishes six days (!) before Madrid. In a recent interview he said that he will just take the Candidates as another tournament, but this doesn’t bode well for his chances there – in order to win the Candidates, a player needs dedicated preparation and strong will to win, something that Rapport doesn’t seem to be able to provide for himself. And to think of it, the reason for all this was his lack of confidence before the start of the Grand Prix in Belgrade! As much as I like him personally, with the issues outlined above, it’s difficult to see him win.

Duda (24) won the World Cup in 2021 and this secured his spot in the Candidates. The only classical event he played this year was in Wijk aan Zee, where he finished on a minus score. Everything else was online and rapid, where he has no problems holding his own against the very best. Even more so, before Madrid he is scheduled to play only in two events in Poland, one rapid and one blitz, which are part of the Grand Chess Tour. So no classical before Madrid for him.

The lack of practice can mean only one thing – Duda is very serious about the Canddates and is preparing heavily for it. One glimpse from that preparation is that in the last event he played, the Olso Esports Cup, he introduced the Grunfeld and the Berlin in his black repertoire. Players usually like to test their new openings in real-life events against the best players, so we can expect to see Duda play these openings in Madrid.

Armed with heavy preparation, it remains to be seen how (and if) the lack of practice will affect the young Pole. If he manages to get comfortable in the event then he can be a major surprise.

The Unlikely

I consider the remaining three players Ian Nepomniachtchi, Hikaru Nakamura and Teimour Radjabov, with the least chances to win.

There has been only one player in history to win two Candidate Tournaments (and he did it in a row) and that is Vassily Smyslov – he managed this feat in Zurich 1953 and Amsterdam 1956. (note that I am talking about Candidate Tournaments, not a qualification cycle). Is Nepomniachtchi (31) of the same caliber?

With all due respect, I don’t think he is. I was happy to see him play well after the debacle in Dubai, even though it was mostly rapid and online events. He is using his match preparation and his results in these disciplines were rather good. However, returning to classical chess he immediately suffered a setback: in the last event he played in – the Superbet Classic, he ended on a minus score. He can take some consolation from that result because he won a psychologically important game with Black against Firouzja, but playing classical is perhaps not too kind on his nerves.

Nerves remain his main issue. Keeping and not succumbing to the tension for many hours for a duration of 14 rounds will not be an easy task. Note that he won in Yekaterinburg not in one go of 14 rounds, but rather in two, as the event was stopped after seven rounds and resumed one year later. He is wiser and more experienced now, he still has leftovers from his match preparation, but I don’t think he will overcome everybody else and reach the status of a Smyslov.

The streamer-turned-unexpected-Grand-Prix-winner Nakamura (34) showed that he is a very strong player. The main ingredient in his success was lack of nerves – his earnings do not depend on his results, so he can play without fear. I am certain he will continue with the same attitude in Madrid and this will be his main strength.

Nakamura has a well-established opening repertoire – the Berlin and the QGD with Black, with a hit-and-run approach with White (where he prepares in a very concrete manner against the given opponent), which demands constant influx of fresh ideas. I also expect him to continue with the same strategy, most likely refreshed with new ideas within those realms.

The problem I see with Nakamura is that he doesn’t really have the ambition to win the event. There is no perspective for him there – a match with Carlsen won’t mean much to him financially (he is comforably set for life and a million doesn’t make much of a difference) and it will require a lot of time and effort in preparation and traning. Not to mention that playing Carlsen (against whom he has an awful score in classical chess of 1 win and 14 losses) in a World Championship match is as gruesome as it gets and he won’t be able to stream it.

The wild card for the event is the player who qualified to play in Yekaterinburg, but declined to do so because of the pandemic. As some sort of compensation, FIDE seeded Radjabov (35) directly in the next Candidates.

Radjabov’s last Candidates Tournament was in 2013, when he finished last with the awful score of -6. He qualified for Yekaterinburg by winning the World Cup in 2019. The last event he played in was the European Team Championship in November last year.

This scarcity of active play, coupled with his propensity to draws (his last classical win was against Ding Liren in the final of the World Cup in 2019!) makes him the least likely player to win the event. I can see him repeat Giri’s record of 14 draws, but I cannot see him win many (if any!) games. The reason for this is that I can easily see him continue doing what he has been doing for many years now, basically playing for draw with both colours, and I cannot fathom a return to the exciting player of his youth who played the King’s Indian and the Sveshnikov and who beat Kasparov with Black when he was 15. I would be delighted (and would like) to be proven wrong, but this is how things look to me now.

Like Rapport, Radjabov is scheduled to play in Norway Chess. Unlike Rapport, I think this will be good for him – after a way too long absence of classical practice, he will get a chance to get into some shape before Madrid. If and how much this will help, we will see in about a month.

For me, the Candidates Tournament is a the tournament I cannot wait to follow. I cannot wait to see the opening ideas, the high-quality chess and the eventual result, where the winner indeed takes it all.

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Grischuk’s Shoes

Continuing the story from the first leg of the Berlin Grand Prix, this is a text from my newsletter.

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At the recently finished Grand Prix event in Berlin I served as a Fair Play Officer and as such I was sharing the same stage as the players. It was a very exciting experience for me as I could follow the games and try to understand what was happening from a player’s perspective, as I had no access to a computer while the games were in progress.

The following game left a very strange impression on me. It was played in the second round and it was played mere two meters from where I was sitting. I could observe both players carefully. What I tried to do during the game was try to undestand Grischuk’s play and psychology, primarily connected with his time-trouble issues.

The first surprise happened on move one. After Bacrot’s 1.e4 Grischuk replied 1…d6. Grischuk can play many things with Black but the Pirc has not been part of his repertoire. After the usual moves 2.d4 Nf6 3.Nc3 g6 4.Nf3 Bg7 5.Be2 0-0 6.0-0, which are the standard moves of the Classical Variation against the Pirc, Grischuk stopped for more than 15 minutes.

Since it’s impossible that he wasn’t prepared I started wondering what was he thinking about. But as I observed him I noticed that perhaps he wasn’t thinking per se. At times he appeared to be thinking, but at other times he would be looking at the monitor displaying the other games and would make facial expressions.

What the hell was going on in his head?

There was no way for me to tell, so I assumed that he was warming up his head for the battle ahead.

Eventually he played 6…a6, one of the many moves at Black’s disposal here.

(While he was thinking, a curious thought crossed my mind – I realised that this opening never brought good luck to anybody at that elite level – starting with Korchnoi (losing the decisive, 32nd, game in Baguio to Karpov in 1978), Kramnik (losing the decisive, last-round game at the London Candidates in 2013 to Ivanchuk, incidentally playing the same move 6…a6), and now Grischuk – like a premonition, even though the game was still at the beginning, so I couldn’t know how it would finish.)

Bacrot also started to think, but was faster than his opponent and he played the natural 7.a4. Then another 15 minutes passed before Grischuk replied with 7…b6, the second most common move in the position and, perhaps more importantly, played several times in the past by his very good friend (and possibly helper for this tournament) Peter Svidler.

Bacrot played the main move in the position, 8.Re1 and almost 20 minutes passed before the third pawn move was played, 8…e6, still a highly theoretical move (and played twice by Svidler).

Bacrot played the main move in this position, 9.e5 and Grischuk replied immediately with 9…dxe5 10.Nxe5 Bb7 11.Bf3 Qc8 (a motif known from one of Svidler’s games) and went for a smoke.

If we look at the previous moves it’s clear that he must have been still in preparation – he chose the opening, his opponent was following one of the main lines so everything was known. Why then spend masses of time?

Bacrot replied with 12.Bg5, a natural move that must be analysed in one’s preparation, yet Grischuk spent 20 minutes on his next move 12…Nfd7, another known motif from Svidler’s games.

By here he had only 20 minutes left to reach move 40.

White played 13.Bf4, a move he spent half an hour on, to which Grischuk replied with the dubious 13…Rd8 and after White’s next 14.Ng4 he was in deep trouble.

Imagine the problems he faced when the best he could do was go back with the rook 14…Rf8, after which he had mere 5 (!) minutes to reach move 40.

I was observing all this and couldn’t help but think, what the hell happened here?? How could an elite player who prepared for this game where his opponent played theoretical and natural moves, end up lost in 14 moves?

The more I thought about this, trying to undestand what could have possibly happened, I suddenly realised that I would never understand it, simply because this type of thinking and playing was too alien to me. I am just more practical and my mindset is completely different to the one Grischuk normally displays in his games. In spite of my best attempts to put myself in Grischuk’s shoes, I couldn’t – they were too big, not my style and I didn’t even like them!

Another idea that crossed my mind during this game was a connection I made observing Grischuk before the game. He took his Covid tests immediately before the games, running the risk of being late for the game and arriving at the last possible moment. The way he smokes is rushed and doesn’t seem like he’s enjoying it – it seems more like he is satiating some thirst. So maybe he was just an adrenaline junkie? Add to this the eternal time troubles and the rush he is probably getting from playing with seconds left of the clock and who knows, maybe he’s happy then.

In the game Grischuk was hopelessly lost in more than one way but Bacrot couldn’t finish him off and he managed to save the game.

As much as I admire him as a player and personality, I am now pretty certain that I can never fully understand the inner works of Grischuk’s mind. And perhaps it is better like that.

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Impressions from the Berlin Grand Prix

The recently finished Grand Prix in Berlin produced a lot of fighting chess. I was very lucky to be able to observe the players on the stage, literally sitting next to them, as I was serving as a Fair Play Officer (FPO) for the event.

Apart from my duties as FPO I also followed the games as a fan and player. It is very different when you follow the games at home, even without an engine, and on the stage with the players. When I was there on the stage, I could more easily “plug in” and feel the position and the players. I tried to calculate lines myself and I had much higher respect for the moves the players were coming up with.

This last issue needs special mention. Since I am guilty of it myself I assume others are too. When I follow the games with an engine at home, I am so easy to dismiss the moves that are played if they don’t follow one of the engine’s top choices. This habit takes over very quickly and I soon find myself thinking the players are not very good. Yes, I understand they are very strong, 2750 rating is nothing to smirk at, but I easily forget the hard mental work and the calculations they had to do in order to come up with the move that I am so quick to dismiss just because the engine doesn’t rate it in its top 3 (or 5, 6…) choices. In other words, if a strong player calculates and thinks for a while and then comes up with a move that isn’t a clear blunder, then certainly there must be good reasons and definite advantages for that move to be played. I need to be reminded of this aspect when I am at home!

I didn’t fall into this trap when I was in Berlin. Simply because I was alone there, no engine, just the players and the positions. There I got to admire and respect their decisions again.

What I found to be an interesting exercise was to imagine the scenario of the games. There were two exceptional players who posed problems to each other and tried to overcome them. And then there was an engine, rated several hundred rating points higher, which would easily solve those problems and pose unsolvable ones to them. I imagined that it must be the same when I play opposition at my level, at higher level and at lower level, when I would be considered the engine!

This exercise helped me understand the need for consistency. Every single move had to be precise. At their level a single mishap is fatal. Connected to this is their constant creation of problems. Every single move poses a problem. I found some players easier to follow in this respect, for example I found Rapport’s moves easier to understand when it came to constant problem-posing.

By trying to get into the players’ minds I tried to understand their decisions from a psychological point of view. I tried to understand their approaches. For example both finalists, Nakamura and Aronian, had similar serve-and-volley approach when playing with White: the serve was the targeted preparation, often by entering a forced variation, aimed at catching the opponents unprepared and gaining time on the clock; if successful the rest would be the volley – converting the advantage.

With Black they were also very similar. They play solid openings against both 1.e4 and 1.d4 and don’t fear preparation in their trusted defences. If they change something it is usually a sideline within their repertoire, not the whole opening.

The experience in Berlin helped me greatly understand chess and the best players in the world much better. Unfortunately, most likely it won’t make me a better chess player because better understanding doesn’t directly transfer to better decision-making at the board. The latter requires practice of decision-making and that type of work is the actual calculation of variations. I did some calculation in Berlin, but that was far from enough to make me better at it.

They usually say that with time our understanding of chess improves, but our practical strength declines. I will try to fight that process, but for how long that will work I don’t know. In any case, I am grateful for every opportunity that I get to understand this game even a little bit better. May there be many more.

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Rook Endgame by Ulf Andersson

In my last blog post I mentioned the game Andersson-Comas where White had a choice to enter a rook endgame in two version.

Andresson chose the inferior version but his opponent still didn’t manage to take advantage of that and lost.

Below I present the analysis of both versions. I hope you find it instructive.

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New Year, Old Everything?

The new year, popularly called 2020 too, arrived. For me the new arrival is usually filled with optimism and big plans for the year ahead, but this time it was different. No optimism, no excitement, no plans. For apparent reasons, I should add.

To give you an example, the FIDE Candidates tournament was announced for mid-June in Madrid and I was very excited about the news as I would like to go and visit the event. But how do I plan that when it’s not clear what will happen tomorrow or next week, let alone in six months?

Perhaps an even more extreme case is the Bangkok Open, already announced for December.

The main problem with today’s situation is that there is way too much contradictory and confusing information that is being constantly fed to the public via all possible channels. I won’t go into debate whether this is on purpose or because nobody really knows what is going on so everybody’s guessing. The problem with contradiction is that it is difficult to tolerate as with lack of clarity and stability the stress levels are impossible to control.

Strangely as it may sound, chess calms my mind when I am not competitively involved. I have written about this in my newsletter, that it helps me fall asleep as I go over various variations in my mind when I go to bed. Recently I ran into the following game of Ulf Andersson. He had a choice of going for one of the two versions of a rook endgame:

Version 1:

or Version 2:

One of them is winning for White, the other one is a draw.

Andersson wenr for Version 2 and that was the drawn one. But as so often happened in his games the opponent didn’t show the necessary technique and lost anyway. The winning version was the first one, the key to the position being the more active position of White’s rook, as it can go to a5 as opposed to a4 from the second diagram. Details always matter in chess.

I suppose that chess calms me down because it focuses my mind and isolates me from everything external. It’s a very cosy bubble to be in. I understand that having the opportunity to enter this bubble is a priviledge, but it is still the outside world that will have to make some order out of the current chaos. Bubbles are nice, but they cannot offer refuge forever.

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The Match in Dubai

When the World Championship match happens, then the place to be is there.

My first World Championship match visit was in 2018 in London and I fell in love with the experience. The whole atmosphere was magical, observing history in the making with the world’s two best players competing, in addition to discussing chess with luminaries in the VIP rooms and the media centres.

The main problem this year was the situation with the virus, as no long-term planning was possible, but I took the risk and arranged to go to Dubai for the games six to ten. It turned out I was spot on with my planning.

I arrived on the day of game six. You already know how that game ended and what it meant for the match. That day was also fenomenal for me personally as I managed to talk with the people I needed to talk to, I gave several interviews (for NBC and a couple for the Norwegian media and the studio in Oslo and the chess24 live transmission) and talked to Maurice Ashley and Alejandro Ramirez about a possible promotion of my book The Sinquefield Generation in the Saint Louis Chess Club. I ended up giving interviews every day, becoming a regular for the Norwegian media and the studio in Oslo.

From that first day onwards everything was adrenaline fueled. Most of my time was spent in taxis (the distances are huge! – they drive 100-120 km/h on the eight-lane wide motorways and you still need half an hour to get either to the Expo, where the match was played, or to downtown Dubai) but the positive energy of everybody I met there was lifting me up and keeping me there!

From a purely chess point of view, there is a massive difference experiencing the match there at the venue and from the comfort of your home. When at home I tend to be dimissive of the players’ decisions as I stare at the computer screen and the engine is too happy to criticise their moves. It’s too easy to side with the engine and forget the human aspect. At the venue, however, it is all about the human aspect.

During game six I remember how we (several GMs) were looking at the evaluation swings and even after seeing the moves of the engine we distinctly felt the difficulty of those decisions and were not really surprised when the players missed their opportunities. I felt more attuned to the players and felt more like a player than a spectator armed with an engine.

Since I spent all my time at the venue while the games were in progress I didn’t have much time to explore the Expo and in fact I only went to several pavillions. It was nevertheless an amazing experience, the best one was probably touching the moon (literally!) in the USA pavillion as they had a piece of the moon exhibited there that the visitors could touch.

Three more touristic activities I managed to do was to swim in the Indian Ocean, to go to the top of the Burj Khalifa and to go on a desert safari. I have to say that Dubai was great from a touristic aspect even though I got to experience very little of it.

Going back to the chess part, like in London I also got the chance to get on the big stage. This time I sat in the winner’s chair.

The winner was decided on that day when I arrived, but I didn’t know that back then. Now that the match is over I can say that it seemed to me that Nepomniachtchi tried to play like Karjakin and while the result was equal this worked, but when he lost a game he couldn’t readjust to his more natural aggressive instincts.

The confusion and the indecision how to continue the match resulted in lowering of his psychological defences and he reverted to faster play, which under the duress of the match led to horrendous blunders that ended the match prematurely.

I wrote a detailed account of the match with full analysis of games three to 11 for the January issue of British Chess Magazine (I analysed the first two games for the December issue). The main surprise of the match was how Black never had any problems in the openings even when just following the established theory and not inventing any new ideas. Black is so good that White has become desperate.

When I was a kid I thought I’d be one of the players playing on that stage. Life didn’t turn out that way, but I did end up on that stage, twice so far. I am definitely looking forward to more appearances in the future.

I will leave you with one fine sunset from the desert:

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Rook Endgames from Riga

The recently finished FIDE Grand Swiss had a lot of interesting games. I happened to be present in Riga for several rounds and I witnessed a few of them.

I was in the playing hall when the following two rook endgames were played. I had my impressions while the games were in progress and I will share them in the comments. As usual when we use our brains, my impressions were much more cautious than the definite verdicts of the engine.

The first example was from the women’s event.

The second example was from the same round, but in the open section.

The third example was the one I noticed once I left Riga. It was a game that was crucial for the eventual winner, as he managed to win from a drawn position.

I found these endgames quite instructive. Perhaps a bit comforting is that even the best players mess them up, as with the physically demanding time controls it is more difficult to keep the concentration until the end and as we know, who errs the last is what matters.

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My First Book

I was sure that I would never write a book. I always felt that it was too much work and not worth the effort. And yet here I am talking about my first book.

I have to blame some friends (Josip, Dusan, looking at you guys!) for tricking me into it. I have to admit I liked the idea to write something that nobody has written about. You know the old saying, write the book you’d like to read.

And I always liked to read about the psychology and the preferences of the players and how they translated to the moves on the board. Nobody seemed to provide the proof when they say something like “Anand plays well with knights”, fine, but do the work and find those examples and convince me! Also, don’t stop with the knights, how about a complete analysis of Anand’s (or any other player’s) style and preferences, corroborated with concrete examples that show the correctness of the statements?

Botvinnik did that. But we only learned about it when his secret notebooks were published. I was fascinated reading those “characteristics” about the players. He dissected their styles based on their games with concrete examples.

I have desperately looked for something similar ever since reading those notebooks. An occasional glimpse here or there was not enough to satisfy my curiosity. I wanted the full picture but nobody would provide it.

I also understood why. It’s hard work! Looking back, I still find it hard to believe why I accepted to do that type of hard work… Going over hundreds of games of the player, trying to understand him, looking for patterns and preferences, avoiding false ones, while picking up the correct ones to form a complete “portrait”. Not easy, I assure you.

And yet somehow I did it. I enjoyed the hard work in fact, as this type of work fulfills me and I only wish I didn’t have a million of other things to do while doing this work. I remember envying guys like Hemingway who only wrote and had fun when not.

Still, I wish players like Kramnik or Anand (or maybe Peter Heine Nielsen!) wrote something like that. I am sure they have done this type of work for their most important tournaments and matches, as they had to know their opponents inside out. But for now their work remains hidden though I am hopeful that one day we will get to see the secret notebooks (in electronic form this time) of these great players.

But before that, the world is stuck with my work on the brightest American talents. I feel honoured to continue Botvinnik’s tradition and to have done something that nobody has done before, to analyse players in such detail and publish that work. Whether I have done a good job it’s on the world to judge.

The Sinquefield Chess Generation is out now.

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Tribute to Sveshnikov

In the beginning I had problems with the Sveshnikov.

A few of my junior competitors used the variation extensively and after several painful losses I discovered the cure: 3.Bb5 instead of 3.d4 and I was never getting mated again! Many years later Anand discovered the same when Gelfand used the Sveshnikov Sicilian against him in the World Championship match in 2012. In fact not playing the Sveshnikov won the match for Anand.

I saw the man in many tournaments over the years, but I never spoke to him. I maintained respectable distance and just observed how he played and how he analysed. And of course, I read everything he wrote and said in interviews.

In 2011 I played the European Team Championship in Porto Carras. There I got to face Evgeny Sveshnikov with Black.

I remember that in the preparation process I decided that I didn’t want to play my usual Sicilian because I didn’t want to face his Alapin. In spite of my excellent results against the Alapin I thought it’s probably not the wisest choice to play it against someone who has played and analysed it all his life and was likely the world’s best expert on it.

I decided to play 1…e5 because his choices of the Scotch and the Italian seemed easier to deal with. I remember I was expecting the Scotch, but he played the Italian instead.

After the game we had a very pleasant post-mortem, the results of which you can see in the comments to the game above. Evgeny was friendly and I was honoured to analyse with such a legend.

Only two years later I met Evegeny and his son, Vladimir, in Bratto, Italy. The Bratto tournament turned out to be a successful one for me (I finished 2nd in the end) and not in the least because of the following game facing Vladimir Sveshnikov.

I already knew that I was facing the Sveshnikov opening lab. Both father and son paid extremely high attention to the opening preparation and I knew that I had to find a way to surprise them, just like I did with Evgeny in Porto Carras.

This time I decided to play the Sicilian. The reason for my decision was that I had already prepared a line that I had never played before, a line that at that time was becoming popular. I knew that they would have something against it, but I was hoping on the element of surprise.

We didn’t analyse the game after it finished, but I could sense that Sveshnikov Senior was looking at me with certain respect. After all, I managed to outfox them in their strongest point, opening preparation. And on top of that, I won the game with Black in mere 23 moves!

After Bratto I occassionally saw Evgeny at tournaments, always cordially saluting him. I continued to follow his ideas, books and interviews. I admire independent thinkers who openly say what they think and Evgeny was one of them.

It was a big shock to read that he passed away today. He always seemed so full of energy and I had the feeling he would live until 100 with that amount of life force. But it wasn’t meant to be.

Evgeny Sveshnikov was one of the rare legends I got to meet, play and analyse with. I am grateful for the opportunity and I only wish I had more of them.

Rest in Peace Evgeny Sveshnikov.

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