It turned out Carlsen didn’t stand a chance to win the tournament. In retrospect, the decisive game was in Round 2, when Carlsen missed a win against Aronian. After that their paths diverged – Carlsen got stuck and kept on drawing while Aronian rode the proverbial winner’s luck and won 4 games in a row. To make things even more unbelievable, he failed to win in the last round against Caruana being a knight up. Have a look at what he didn’t win:
I don’t know what is more amazing – his 4 wins in a 7-round tournament, scoring 5.5/7 and winning by a 1.5 point-margin or a missed win with a knight up. Aronian’s wins followed a pattern – he would be better prepared in the opening and pose problems to his opponents; they would fail to solve them and he would wrap things up, whether in smooth positional style (against Vachier, Bluebaum and Hou Yifan) or in an aggressive sacrifical way (against Naiditsch, which eventually ended as an endgame with opposite-coloured bishops). It is still early to say whether the dominant Aronian is back, but this victory will surely boost his confidence. Confident Aronian is a player who can beat anybody and in the wake of So’s rise, Carlsen’s unsteadiness and Caruana’s slump we surely get another exciting player in the mix to stir things up!
Both Carlsen and Caruana lost some Elo points with their result of +1 and this reflects their tournament. It was the first round that set things up for both – Caruana lost to Hou Yifan for the first time in his life and even though he won the next two games he never had another chance to win. His last round’s howler against Aronian (see above) just confirms my opinion that he is going through a slump – his play in Gibraltar, US Championship and now here shows too many ups and downs for a player of his caliber.
Carlsen’s tournament would have been completely different had he converted the winning positions in Rounds 1 and 2 against Bluebaum and Aronian respectively. A confident Carlsen is no less fearsome than a confident Aronian and most probably we would have seen a clean sweep by the World Champion in case he started with 2/2. His subsequent games showed lapses in his calculations and this has happened to him before. Whether it is lack of practice (no classical games since Tata Steel in January), the new girlfriend (this time it’s official), or something else, a second tournament in a row where he is not in contention for first place must be a worrying sign for the World Champion. He needs to re-establish his dominance or the chasing pack will smell blood and then it may become even more difficult for him.
Hou Yifan had a great start and she should have put Carlsen under bigger pressure after her fantastic start of 2/2. From that point onwards things started going downhill even though her eventual 50% can be considered a relative success for her. I would say that the value of her victory against Caruana lies in the fact that she proved to herself that she can beat the best in the world. It has the potential to be a game changer for the best female player.
Vachier paid the price for his over-confidence. He lost in Round 1 against Naiditsch because he risked too much. I think this must have been a shock to him. He has firmly established himself as a Top 10 player and this gave him confidence, but sometimes this confidence can lead you to forget that you can lose against “lesser folk.” And when it happens, it feels like falling from grace. He beat Bluebaum in Round 2 but then lost to Aronian in Round 3. Then he beat Hou Yifan and drew the rest for a 50% score. A challenging period for the Frenchman lies ahead – people got used to him and now he needs to find new resources to remain at the top.
The local boys probably enjoyed the tournament and the opportunity to play the big sharks. The most ambitious of them was Naiditsch, who shared 1st place in 2015 with Carlsen, but his losses to Caruana and Aronian were due to inferior opening preparation. You cannot hope to do well when you end up much worse from the opening against these guys – they do not allow many chances afterwards.
The Gashimov Memorial in Shamkir saw 2 rounds played already. The early leader is Eljanov with 2/2 and the intrigue in the tournament is spiced by the fact that So’s invincible streak finished already in Round 1 when he lost to Mamedyarov after a big one-move blunder. Let us see how he reacts when the tournament doesn’t go his way from the start! Kramnik’s games were a 83-move draw against Wojtaszek and a 73-move draw against Radjabov. And it is good to see Topalov win in his trademark style:
The tournament has just begun and all the fun lies ahead. I’m most curious about So and Kramnik because together with Caruana they are actually fighting for two direct qualification spots to next year’s Candidates based on rating and every rated game for them counts a lot. Caruana is barely hanging above 2800 after his bleak US Championship and Grenke Classic while So’s loss to Mamedyarov cost him quite a lot and he’s basically tied with Kramnik on the live list with 2808. True, the average rating over a longer period will be taken into consideration, but obviously it will be a case of an odd man out. Who will that be?