The tournament finished some time ago but I didn’t have a chance to pay it the attention it deserved. Here I would like to share some of the impressions I had while watching it unfold.
Mamedyarov’s second win in a row in Shamkir is a sign of highest class. He has always seemed a bit too unstable to be a regular member of the Top 10, but his latest results show increased maturity and stability (shared first at the Sharjah Grand Prix with a last round win was his last tournament prior to Shamkir). He is soaring at the moment, winning 20 rating points and reaching number 7 on the live list. He won 3 games with Black in Shamkir, beating So in Round 1 and Kramnik in Round 6. Perhaps this is understandable as winning with Black is often expected of players with counter-attacking style, but in fact Mamedyarov himself confessed that he was playing for a draw in Round 1 against So, when the latter made an atypical 1-move blunder on move 39. Against Kramnik he was under pressure but when Kramnik missed his best chance Mamedyarov simply played better chess. This new-found balance between solidity (he’s played exclusively 1 e4 e5 as Black) and his inborn aggression is bearing fruits and it only remains to be seen how far it will take him.
I was very curious to see how So will react to his first loss in over 9 months. Not only that, I also wanted to see how he will react to playing a tournament when starting with a minus score. In all the tournaments So has won in the last period there was a common scenario – he would win a game or two in the beginning, then he would stay solid and not mind draws, until a new opportunity came along, which he would take and then he would wrap up the tournament. Shamkir showed that So can deal with setbacks. In fact, he didn’t change one bit after that loss in Round 1. He continued in the same unhurried fashion and didn’t mind the draws (though it must be said that they were interesting draws!). Then came Kramnik, who gave him a chance in an equal position. And So pounced! This was followed by an excellent technical win against Karjakin, an ideal use of his two whites in a row – 2/2 and all of a sudden he was on +1. So didn’t win in Shamkir, but he showed that he can deal with losses and knows how to keep his composure when things are not going his way.
Kramnik is always a pleasure to watch. He started the tournament with long games (83 and 73 moves in Rounds 1 and 2 respectively), always playing until the end and looking for the slightest chances and opportunities to play on. Admirable, undoubtedly, but it seems to me that he forgets that he is not 25-year old anymore. Stamina is not the same at 25 and 41 and fatigue sets in unnoticeably. He even won a game before things went wrong – a wonderful game with a rook sacrifice “for nothing” against Harikrishna. That was another game that took so much energy and then a dip followed with two losses in a row – first he didn’t make anything of a favourable position against Mamedyarov and then allowed So a chance in an equal position. From +1 to -2 in only 2 rounds is a major change of fortune in a 9-round tournament! But then he surprised me – he won his last 2 games! We have witnessed collapses by Kramnik in the past (for example he lost three in a row in Shamkir in 2015) but we have rarely witnessed such a surge at the end of a tough tournament. Kramnik was risking too much against Eljanov in the last round, he was even lost, but his courage was rewarded and he finished on a high note. I would call it an excellent accomplishment by Kramnik, but I still cannot get rid of the feeling that continuing down the path of maximum exertion will bring him more pain than joy. His change in opening strategy, going the Carlsen way by playing various g3, b3 or 1 d4, 2 Nf3 and 3 Bf4/g5 systems makes things even more difficult for him. Very often he gets nothing in the opening and he then must try to outplay strong opponents from an equal position and this requires a lot of effort. True, he has also started playing 1 e4, with some ideas in the Giuoco Piano for White, so perhaps this is a sign of a more ambitious opening approach. With his analytical abilities this should be a positive change that should help him obtain at least something in the openings with White – after all he beat both Anand (last year at the Tal Memorial, where he also played 6 Bg5 against Gelfand’s Najdorf with his preparation ending around move 25) and Adams now in Shamkir in the Piano.
I was pretty sure that Topalov was on his way out, but he proved me wrong. And I am happy for that! A player of such class should never be written off, of course, but I had the impression that he didn’t care anymore. His fantastic win against Wojtaszek in Round 2 coupled with his fighting spirit that turned around his game against Eljanov are sign that he still does care. Although, to be honest, I expect more trouble than triumph for Topalov in his next tournaments. But until that happens, I will be happy to witness games like the ones he played in Shamkir.