My tournament ended and not too bad at that, I finished 2nd. I will write a separate post on it, now it’s time to round-up the remaining rounds of the Candidates. I will go round by round and give my impressions also with the benefit of hindsight.
In Round 10 the only player to win was Kramnik. It is very important to note when he won a game – in the exact moment when he lost ambition and his over-confidence. This was quite apparent in the press-conference, when instead of his “winning” refrain he was using “I don’t know,” a certain sign of objectivity in chess players. When a chess player is not certain about a position this means that he is careful and caution is objectivity’s best friend. This was Kramnik’s second win against Aronian, who, by his own admission, still hadn’t realised that he had to switch to damage-control mode. He tried to be ambitious in his game against Kramnik, but when in bad form whatever a player does will backfire.
The derby of the round was the clash of the leaders, Mamedyarov and Caruana. It produced a sharp Catalan where Caruana wasn’t in any great danger of losing and relinquishing the lead.
The other two games, Ding-So and Grischuk-Karjakin were tame draws.
Round 11 saw the start of the emergence of Sergey Karjakin. It was again Aronian who paid the price for the only decisive game of the round. He tried to press and play for a win until the end and again it backfired. The position was balanced for a very long time, but it was Aronian who blundered after the time control, on move 42, and the rest was a superb realisation by Karjakin.
The miss of the round was Ding Liren’s draw from +15 against Grischuk. In a way it was a compensation for Grischuk’s missed win against the same opponent in Round 4. But please be aware that if the strongest players on the planet cannot find a clear-cut win in spite of the engine pointing to +15, it simply means that the position was complicated and not at all easy to play. This was Ding’s 11th draw in as many rounds.
This round also saw a very important opening innovation as early as move 5. The innovator was Kramnik in his game against Caruana.
The game So-Mamedyarov didn’t produce much excitement. By now it became clear that So was just trying to make draws as easily as possible and Mamedyarov, playing with Black, didn’t object.
Round 12 saw Karjakin take over the lead in the tournament. An amazing comeback by the player who started the tournament with two White losses! In the derby of the round he beat Caruana with White in a Petroff. It is very instructive to note what Karjakin’s “secret” was. After losing in the beginning he didn’t set out to make-or-break the tournament like Aronian and Kramnik did, with super-aggressive play and single-minded “play for a win”. No, he tried to improve little by little. First, stop losing games. Second, try to get your preparation in for increase in confidence. Third, keep the level of your play at a constant level. And when the tension in the tournament began to rise, Karjakin’s gradual improvement started to bear fruit. In the previous round he took advantage of Aronian’s stubbornness (of playing for a win at all costs) and in this round he took advantage of Caruana’s burden as a leader. As you can see, he didn’t “go for it”, he was patient and waited for the chances to come and was ready to take them when they did. The game with Caruana was his finest, especially when taken into consideration at what point in the tournament it was played.
An impressive game by Karjakin! On the other hand, as Caruana admitted afterwards, this loss liberated him from the burden of playing too conservatively to hang onto his lead. Now he had to go for it again and he did it in spectacular fashion.
This round also saw Mamedyarov’s first loss. Perhaps he thought that a long series of draws must end in a loss (as it usually is the case), but then again maybe they haven’t heard of this saying in China. The decision to play for a win in a position that didn’t allow it was also uncharacteristic for Mamedyarov’s tournament strategy, which can be summed up by his often-repeated in the press-conferences “draw is good”. Not surprisingly, such an abrupt change in the strategy backfired. In a balanced position Mamedyarov went sharply forward but Ding’s superb counter-attack refuted his attack. This win brought Ding Liren on +1, now together with Mamedyarov and Grischuk only half a point behind the leaders Karjakin and Caruana on 7/12. With 2 rounds to go 5 (!) players had a realistic chance of winning the tournament.
Grischuk introduced a very interesting early novelty against Aronian’s attempted Marshall Gambit but failed to make the most of it. Curiously enough, it will be another player who will make the maximum profit from Grischuk’s innovation in the next round!
Kramnik also introduced a very important idea in the Exchange Variation of the QGD against So. He was winning (this time objectively!) but didn’t manage to convert.
The penultimate, Round 13, saw both Caruana and Mamedyarov bounce back from their defeats with wins over Aronian and Grischuk respectively. Caruana made good use of Grischuk’s innovation in the previous round and took full advantage of Aronian’s disturbed state.
Another game where Caruana was superior to his opponents when it came to calculation.
The game Mamedyarov-Grischuk was headed for a draw, but Grischuk wanted to keep the tension for a tad too long and when he decided to force a draw he blundered and was swiftly punished.
Ding was on the verge of losing to Kramnik, but Big Vlad again failed to keep the level of his play constant throughout the game. After outplaying the Chinese, just like he outplayed So the previous day, he faltered in the phase of realisation of the advantage.
So didn’t give Karjakin any chance as he quickly dried up the game in a forcing line in the 4 Qc2 Nimzo.
Before the last round Caruana was again alone in the lead with 8/13, but he had a worse tie-break than most of the other players. The practice of the last years shows that the players in such situations mostly bank on the games finishing in a draw. After all, wins are so hard to come by!
The last round saw all the candidates for first place adopt the safety-first strategy. Caruana chose his usual Petroff against Grischuk, Karjakin against Ding Liren went for an even more simplified position than in his game against Caruana and only Mamedyarov, playing Black, was forced to go for some risky play against Kramnik’s Catalan. Aronian and So, understandably, quickly drew.
Karjakin tried to repeat his winning strategy from the game with Caruana. He went for the variation in the Spanish that was heavily disputed in his match with Carlsen and Ding chose a line where most of the light pieces are exchanged. Ding also needed a win, yet he chose to sit passively and wait for a possible counterattack. Karjakin was slightly better with a position easier to play, as he was the only one with an active plan, but his plan was marred by a tactical oversight that immediately cancelled any chance to play for a win for either side. A draw.
Kramnik openly went for Mamedyarov’s throat, at the same time allowing Mamedyarov to try his luck in the complications. Unfortunately, he was never in a chance to turn things around, it was rather Kramnik who again missed a few opportunities. Another draw.
These results meant that a draw also suited Caruana. But he played a perfect game. In yet another Petroff he obtained a solid yet playable position, one that can be played for a long time in case he needed to play for more. By the time he discovered that Mamedyarov had also made a draw (as Karjakin’s game finished earlier) he was already winning. His decision to go on and win the game was quite admirable and reminded me of Carlsen’s decision to play for a win against Aronian in the last round in St. Louis even though a draw would have sufficed to win the tournament. This was prior to his match with Anand in 2013 and it showed Carlsen’s supreme confidence going into the match. Carlsen made a similar decision to play for a win in the last game in that same match when a draw would have given him the title. This sole decision by Caruana makes him more than a worthy opponent for Carlsen.
With the highest score in the history of the modern Candidates, 9/14, Caruana displayed the best chess under the conditions of immense stress and tension. He was excellently prepared, mostly playing 1 d4, and generally calculated better than his opponents. This time Carlsen will meet a younger opponent and also one that will not go down Karjakin’s way of playing defensively. It will be an excellent match in November!