Category : Tournaments

Candidates 2018 Preview

With all the players deeply immersed in preparation for the most important tournament of the year, and with Wijk and Gibraltar behind us, it is time to take a look at each player’s chances and prospects.

Of the 8 players only Ding Liren and Grischuk didn’t play anything in the new year. So let’s start with them.

I am very much looking forward to Alexander Grischuk’s participation. He is one of the deepest and most original thinkers, especially in the openings. I will only mention two of his latest ideas that had a big impact on modern theory – one is the move …Bc5 in the English Opening after 1 c4 e5 2 Nc3 Nf6 3 Nf3 Nc6 4 g3 d5 5 cd Nd5 6 Bg2:

and the other, again in the English, and as early as move 2 (!) 1 c4 e5 2 d3, which he used to beat Anand in 2015. He also expressed his desire for the latter to be called by his name – after all, you don’t get to invent new ways as early as move 2 nowadays! I am curious what he will come up with in the openings this time. With White, he mixed the theoretical approach of going for the main lines with the non-theoretical (London System, Reti etc.). It is likely that he (like everybody else!) will tailor his approach to every opponent so we may see again a mixture of both. With Black against 1 e4, apart from the inevitable Berlin when wanting to play safe, he will undoubtedly come up with something else. In the last few years he was successful with the Sveshnikov Sicilian, but his latest Sicilian games have been in the Taimanov with transpositions to the Scheveningen. Against 1 d4 he has been experimenting lately, but the Grunfeld, an integral part of his repertoire since the Candidates matches in 2011, is definitely a possibility. All of these choices (and this applies for every player) will depend on his strategy for the tournament and also on the people he will work with (his decision to play the Grunfeld in 2011 was a result of him having Peter Svidler as a second). Apart from his opening originality, Grischuk is a player who is notorious for his time-troubles and this will both add to the excitement and harm his chances. Even though I am a big fan of Grischuk, I don’t see him winning the tournament, mostly because of his time-troubles. In order to stand a chance he will need to be in the form of his life, like in the Petrosian Memorial in 2014 which he won with 5.5/7 and crossed 2800. Let’s see if he manages – if he does, I for one won’t complain!

Ding Liren is the biggest mystery to me from all the 8 participants. A player with fantastic technique, excellent opening preparation and quite a resilient nervous system – his last round wins in the Sharjah Grand Prix over Aronian and in the Moscow Grand Prix over Gelfand were major factors in his qualification for the Candidates. On the other hand, he lost matches to So and Grischuk in 2016and Giri in 2017, so perhaps he needs to work to improve in situations with prolongued tension. He will have all the resources of China to aid him in his preparations. His opening preparation seems to be more limited than that of the others, his mainstay with Black is the Marshall against 1 e4 and the Semi-Slav with the Nimzo against 1 d4, while with White he is mostly a 1 d4 player. It can be expected that he will expand or change his openings, though I don’t expect him to change his manner of play. But only with great technique it will be impossible to win games in this field and for now I cannot see what can that extra spark be that will help him introduce something novel and give him a playing edge in the games. I don’t see him winning the tournament, but I do expect to have a better understanding of Ding Liren as a player.

All the other players had some practice in January so there is fresh information about them to be analysed.

One of my favourite players on the circuit is Vladimir Kramnik. Big Vlad had a very exciting Wijk, winning 6 games, more than anyone else, but also losing 2. Kramnik will undoubtedly come with fantastic preparation and I can only guess what novel concepts he will introduce. The only thing I think he will keep is the Berlin against 1e4. Against 1 d4 I think he will introduce new ideas within the already well-established openings in his repertoire as I don’t see him taking up the Grunfeld! I am more interested to see what he will do with White. He has been a proponent of the non-theoretical approach, like starting with 1 Nf3 and doing a double-fianchetto, and even though he still analyses these “offbeat” lines deeply, I am not sure this is the way to go in every game of the tournament. So I expect to see him mix it up, after all he has amassed such a big amount of opening analysis over the years! But Kramnik’s problems won’t be the openings, it will be his ambition. With Carlsen’s emergence and his insistence on playing until the end and looking for the tiniest chances, Kramnik successfully adapted and adopted this approach himself, becoming one of the most uncompromising players. His infinite belief in his abilities that he can beat anybody is perhaps natural for somebody who has been a World Champion and beaten Kasparov, but there is only one problem with it – he cannot keep that level of play, concentration and determination in every single game. There are too many ups and downs in his play and Wijk was an excellent example – he had two very bad games, the ones he lost to Giri and Karjakin and he had a few (just) bad games, the ones he didn’t win against Jones and Hou Yifan and the last round game he won against Adhiban (from a losing position). These are 5 games out of 13! In his desire to win he also made mistakes and dubious sacrifices in his games with Matlakov and So. With these two it is half the tournament! This kind of instability will not go unpunished in Berlin. I think that the Big Vlad of old, the stable and solid player who dethroned Kasparov would have more chances. But can he change his approach and adapt after years of “living dangerously”? If anybody can, it is Kramnik. But I am not entirely sure that he will see the need for it. And therein lies the core issue that will impede his chances of winning. This time his over-confidence and ambition will work against him. As much as I would like to see him win the tournament, I am afraid I have to say that he won’t. Though I can still hope…

Shakhriyar Mamedyarov had a wonderful year. His rise to the number 2 in the world with an impressive 2814 on the February list speaks for itself. Shakh has always been a very dynamic and aggressive player and while that gave him irresistible force, he was always susceptible to instability. This instability wasn’t only in his chess, it was also a psychological factor, when he couldn’t bring himself to defend for long periods and be resilient. But these things changed with certain important developments in his personal life. He got married (for a second time), quit alcohol and started playing “boring chess” (in his own words). These events brought Shakh what he needed most – stability. Now he is a much more complete player who won’t always go for a win at all costs. He has kept his aggression but this time it is a controlled one. He is also more relaxed and doesn’t consider the Candidates as a “must-win” tournament. This approach should alleviate the tension that will undoubtedly be felt by all participants. While the openings were never his main strength, he has introduced some novelties in his repertoire, like the Ragozin Defence with Black (in which he beat Svidler in 21 moves) and the Catalan with White. He also successfully used the element of surprise in his game with So, using the Nimzowitch Variation in the Sicilian (1 e4 c5 2 Nf3 Nf6) daring So enter wild complications in the main line. So, being unprepared for this, understandably declined and Mamaedyarov didn’t have problems to draw. Whereas Mamedyarov quickly fell out of contention in the previous Candidates tournament he played in 2014 due to instability at the start (he started with 0.5/3), the new Mamedyarov will not repeat the same mistake. If he can keep the same form as in Wijk, coupled with good preparation and wisely using the element of surprise Mamedyarov will be in serious contention. I still don’t think he will win, but it will be exciting to see him add another dimension to the tournament.

Wesley So on the other hand is an epitomy of stability. And stability will be a very important factor in Berlin. His tournament will depend on whether he manages to win a game or two. If he does he may as well win the tournament, but if he gets stuck and starts making draws he can easily replicate Giri’s 14 draws from Moscow 2016. The Candidates tournaments in 2013, 2014 and 2016 were all won with a result of +3 (8.5/14). Such “dense” tournaments work well for players who don’t win (and lose) a lot of games so even though being a newcomer in the field (all the others apart from Ding Liren have already played in a Candidates tournament) Wesley So shouldn’t find it any different from the usual tournaments he plays. In Wijk he introduced small changes to his repertoire: with Black he changed the line in the Catalan (instead of the main line he went for 4…dc 5 Bg2 Nc6 against Matlakov, though he did revert back to the main line against Kramnik) and surprised Anand with the Open Spanish while with White he tried the sideline 1 d4 Nf6 2 Nf3 g6 3 Nbd2 against Svidler in an attempt to avoid the Grunfeld. He is usually excellent in the opening and he will introduce some adjustments to his well-established repertoire. I expect him to be the same player as before – solid and not taking many risks. Can he win it? It is possible.

Sergey Karjakin had a relatively successful Wijk, winning two games, against Kramnik and Caruana, and drawing the rest. This was his first decent result in classical chess ever since the Sinquefield Cup last year where he scored 5/9, another decent result. His other results were far from decent, to put it mildly, but Karjakin’s focus since the match with Carlsen has been on promoting himself and milking out the maximum of his status and not on playing good chess. The result in Wijk may play a trick on Karjakin if he thinks that all is well because he managed to beat two of his competitors in Berlin. The main danger lies if he thinks that after a year of mediocrity he can rise to the occasion and perform at his best in Berlin. I would like to draw a parallel here. When preparing for his match with Spassky in 1972, after carefully analysing his games Fischer came to the conclusion that the level of Spassky’s play in the last year had deteriorated and he was now a weaker player than before. After the match Fischer said that Spassky played as he expected he would, i.e. on his lower level leading to the match. What I’m trying to say is that it is next to impossible for a player to drastically improve and raise his level after a prolongued period of mediocrity. Even though Karjakin will prepare very seriously I don’t see him as a candidate to win the tournament. His honeymoon period, which started with his win in the Moscow Candidates in 2016, will end in Berlin and he will have nowhere to hide – then we will see the true character of Sergey Karjakin. If he manages to get back to his best and return to the fight for the top places in the tournaments he is playing in or continues to freeload and just be one of the many.

Fabiano Caruana had a nightmare in Wijk. Losing 4 games and winning only 1 (in which he was also losing) is not something we expect of a player of Caruana’s caliber. This is even more surprising as it comes only a few weeks after his triumph in the London Classic in December. How will this bad result affect his play in Berlin? I don’t think it will. After suffering a serious setback the intelligent player will draw very important conclusions from it and will adjust accordingly not to repeat the same mistakes again. Additionally, after a catastrophe like Caruana’s Wijk, a player is more likely to be more careful in his next tournaments. I see this as a very positive development for Caruana’s chances in Berlin because, as I noted above, stability will be key in winning the tournament. And extra care can only be welcome. There is also a historical parallel to Caruana’s situation. In 2008, a month before his match with Kramnik in Bonn, Anand played a very bad tournament in Bilbao, finishing last with a -2 score on 4/10. And we all know how he played in Bonn. To conclude, I don’t think Caruana’s disaster in Wijk will affect his chances. What may affect them though, is his lingering problem with realisation of an advantage. In 2016 in Moscow he ruined his chances of winning the tournament by failing to win from winning positions in Rounds 11 (against Topalov) and 13 (against Svidler). He also had problems with this aspect last year, but surely he must have worked on this very hard and will pay special attention to it in his preparations. Speaking of openings, last year Caruana introduced the Queen’s Gambit Accepted and the Petroff Defence to his repertoire. This is an obvious attempt to be more solid with Black and the results have been pretty good so far, even though he suffered in a few endgames in the QGA (the line with 7 dc) and lost to Anand in the Petroff in Wijk. But he also introduced the Taimanov Sicilian in which he won an important game against Karjakin in London. This shows that he has flexibility with Black and can adapt his choices based on the situation. With White, even though primarily a 1 e4 player, he has also been experimenting with 1 c4, 1d4 with then either taking the route of normal theory or playing an odd London System. Caruana is stable psychologically, but has a more incisive style than So. Can he win it? Yes.

Levon Aronian was another player, beside Mamedyarov, to have a wonderful 2017. Coming out of the shadows after a lousy period he had excellent results and firmly re-established himself as a formidable force. He played in Gibraltar instead of Wijk, but he needed no less grit to win an open than it is required to win a Wijk. In 2017 Aronian’s main strength turned out to be his psychological resilience, something that was severely lacking in his previous decisive moments, particularly notable in the Candidates of 2013, 2014 and 2016. Aronian qualified for Berlin by winning the World Cup, the only person to achieve the feat two times. In a tournament when practically every game is a decisive one Aronian’s new-found inner strength carried him all the way to the finish line. Aronian is the only player to have played in all the Candidates tournaments since 2013, but this time it will be different for him. Previously he always started well only to spoil it later on as the tension was rising. With the recent experience from the World Cup he will know how to play in such circumstances. While the ghosts from the past will come back to haunt him, this time he seems better equipped to deal with them. Aronian’s repertoire is limited, especially with Black, when he sticks to the Berlin and the Marshall against 1 e4 and the Nimzo/Slav/QGD complex against 1 d4. He varies more with White, choosing between 1 d4 and 1c4. I don’t expect him to change his openings, but I do expect him to introduce new ideas in them. Aronian’s chess talent is one of the brightest and coupled with his newly found inner peace that brings him stability when it matters most, he is definitely one of the main contenders. Can he win it? Yes.

These are my thoughts on the most important tournament of 2018. Please share your thoughts in the comments.


Caruana, Nepo and Carlsen Win in London 2017

Things changed quickly in London after the first half of the tournament. Unsurprisingly, people stopped complaining about the draws.

After Caruana’s two in a row it was Nepomniachtchi who improved on it and scored three in a row! He was helped by Adams’s “Christmas presents” (his own words). In a drawn rook endgame 2 vs 1 on one wing Adams blundered and lost.



Nepo then went on to beat Anand, who had a bad tournament, and none other than the World Champion. It was a shocking collapse for the World Champion – he played the game well up to a moment, but then what happened is impossible to explain. When you see the World Champion make beginner’s blunders the only thing you can do it scratch your head in disbelief.



While Carlsen did play the second part of the tournament with a severe cold, this is in no way an excuse for the blunders he committed. To his credit, even though visibly shocked by the loss and with more blunders to come in his last round game with Aronian, the World Champion did manage to win that game and finish on a shared third with 5/9. This lack of stability in his game has become quite a plague for Carlsen in the last year or so and he doesn’t seem to have found a way to deal with it. Still, even with those problems he easily holds his rating and the others don’t seem to be capable to catch up.

Carlsen was also the winner of the Grand Chess Tour 2017, thanks to his dominance in the rapid and blitz sections. In these formats he dominates as he did in classical chess. I wonder whether he can dominate in classical again…?!

Caruana’s last round must-win situation was playing White against Adams. In his own words, he would have accepted the repetition had Adams repeated, but Adams played on! Things really must go your way if you are to win a tournament! Adams not only played on, he also blundered (his last Christmas present in London) and Caruana secured a tie-break with Nepomniachtchi.

The tie-break was dominated by the American, especially the blitz games (the two rapid games were drawn). Caruana doesn’t have a great reputation as a rapid/blitz player, while Nepo does, but he has been improving in this aspect as well. He’s beaten Nakamura and Grischuk in matches with faster time controls, so he shouldn’t be underestimated. Still, what he didn’t win in the first blitz game is no less shocking than what Nakamura didn’t win against Carlsen earlier in the tournament. It seems being a piece up is no guarantee to win anymore…


Nepomniachtchi-Caruana, first blitz game


The missed chance didn’t seem to disturb Caruana too much. He went on to win the second blitz game convincingly. Now compare that to the position from Nakamura-Carlsen.


Nakamura-Carlsen, Round 6


Well, at least these guys provided some comfort to us lesser mortals, who sometimes fail to win with a big positional advantage.

As a personal observation, what the London Chess Classic showed is that Karjakin doesn’t stand a chance to play well in the Candidates. He’s been having too many bad results and it is impossible to just suddenly wake up, play fantastic chess and win a tournament as serious as the Candidates. Which probably makes Caruana the favourite, but I will write in more detail about the Candidates after Tata Steel and Gibraltar (where almost all the Candidates are playing, 5 in Wijk and 2 on the Rock, only Ding Liren is not playing anywhere).


London Chess Classic 2017 Underway

More than half the tournament passed in London and there is an outcry in the public on the number of draws. Only two decisive results from 25 games, incidentally, both these games were won by Caruana.

People are complaining, the talks of the “drawing death of chess” is immediately back, the usual suspects are pushing their ideas of abandoning classical chess and moving onto rapid and blitz.

There are 23 drawn games out of 25. And my question is: so what?

I am not even going into the arguments that chess is basically a drawish game, that much we all know. What I would like to point out is that another tournament with the same people at another point in time may as well have more than 50% decisive games. These people are trying the best they can at the given circumstances and sometimes it just doesn’t work out.

They are the best players in the world, they all want to beat each other, they try their best, but more often than not they fail because the other player is doing the same! There is an infinite number of factors that influence these things, current form, physical condition, opening preparation, state of mind and also plain luck. The bottom line is that simply there are tournaments like this and we have to accept that fact. If the games are well-fought and you can see the players trying hard, there is nothing more we can ask of them.

Speaking of the death of chess, a ground-breaking Alpha Zero program crushed Stockfish 8 in a 100-game match, winning 28 games and drawing the rest. There are certain moot points here, like the strength of the hardware the engines were using (incomparably stronger for Alpha Zero), the time control of 1 minute per move and the openings used by Stockfish (and no opening book for it), but that is all beside the point. The main point is that Alpha Zero was only taught the rules of the game and then was left alone to learn the game by itself. It did it by using the Monte Carlo simulation, i.e. playing a mind-bogglingly huge number of games with itself and learning along the way. In a matter of hours (some say 4h, some say 24h, any way equally impressive) it reached a level good enough to annihilate one of the best engines in the world.

This is an actual Artificial Intelligence, capable of learning by itself and dominating such a complex game like chess. The fact that it managed to do it in such a short amount of time makes it even more incredible.

To wrap this up, I offer two excerpts. One of the best humans playing chess and the other of the best computers doing the same. Judge them yourself.



For the computer game I will only comment with exclamation marks to show my amazement at the moves. Enjoy and learn if you can.



Queen Sacrifice in Hungary

I received a message from my friend GM Imre Hera where he informed me of the very strong Hungarian team championship taking place plus the exceptional match between two of the best teams.

Here you can find the complete board parings and the results, while on this link you can see all the games played. One of the games played was by GM Hera himself and in it he got to sacrifice a queen with what seemed winning chances. Alas, it was the beauty of the sacrifice which deluded him and let the win slip!

Here’s the game so you can judge the complexities of the position yourself:


Excerpts from Crete

I am writing this from the Creta Maris resort in Hersonissos in Crete, the venue of the European Team Championship. This is my first time as a coach and captain of a national team, I am helping the Macedonian women team. The call to get involved arrived late, at the beginning of October. We managed to have a few sessions which we used to prepare some lines and do some training.

The going is tough so far, but we hope that we are tough enough to get going. There isn’t much time for anything else than eating, preparing, playing and sleeping. I will probably write in more detail after the tournament, for now I leave you with a few curious positions that caught my eye.



White has a dominating position, but he blunders in 1 move: 29 Qc6?? allowing 29…Qb4 with a double attack on a4 and e1.



Not your typical Sicilian. Things have gone wrong for the ever-original Jobava and he’s just lost after 18 moves.


1-0 L’Ami-Movsesian

Quite a picturesque position.



Black’s king was getting mated on g7, but miraculously escaped and made a career by reaching e2! Somehow Almasi managed to save this and thanks to his draw Hungary beat Russia 2.5-1.5.



Fischer’s Openings in Reykjavik – Part II

This is Part II of my 3-part analysis of Fischer’s openings in the Match of the Century in 1972. The series was written for my Inner Circle to which you can also subscribe using the yellow form on the right. Once inside The Circle, if you would like to read the other two parts, let me know and I will send them to you. In the meantime, enjoy!


Fischer’s Openings in Reykjavik – Part II

Continuing my analysis from last week, we left off with Game 11, Fischer’s only catastrophy in the match. This was the first time he repeated an opening, the Poisoned Pawn from Game 7, but this time Spassky was ready and the punishment was severe.

This serious setback forced Fischer to implement the same strategy of changing his openings after 1 e4 as well. But this was more problematic for him because playing almost only the Najdorf since the US Championship in 1963 he had less solid openings at his disposal.

Fischer’s choices of the Alekhine and the Pirc in games 13, 17 and 19 were the most puzzling for me in the whole match, due to several reasons. Even though Fischer played the Alekhine on several occassions in 1970, the opening is far from being solid enough for a World Championship match. And the Pirc even less so! Yet he still played them in 3 games!

I read an interesting observation somewhere, that Fischer didn’t know how to play solidly for equality. That he always needed dynamism and activity. And this was the only reasonable explanation I could find to explain his choices of those openings.

The Alekhine in Game 13 saw a very poor reaction by Spassky. His improvisation on move 7 in a very-well know theoretical position (7 Nbd2 on which he spent 17 minutes) was of low quality. It is surprising that on both first occassions with an opening (the Poisoned Pawn in Games 7 and 11 and the Alekhine in Games 13 and 19) Spassky reacted badly! And as Russians vs Fischer tells us, he was excellently prepared for all the openings! Puzzling indeed.

In Game 15 Fischer returned to the Najdorf and didn’t venture again in the Poisoned Pawn, choosing the line with 7…Be7. In view of Spassky’s superior preparation he was close to losing after the opening. This was another surprising choice because later Fischer would say that approximately after Game 13 he started to play safe, stopped looking for chances and was leaving it to Spassky to beat him. No reason not to trust him, but how does that go along with his
opening choices with Black?

Game 17 and the Pirc was perhaps the strangest choice. First about the move-order. After 1 e4 d6 2 d4 Fischer went 2…g6. This begs several questions to be asked: why did he allow the King’s Indian that would have most probably arisen after 3 c4 (and he didn’t play it in the first half of the match when Spassky was playing 1 d4)? Since Spassky was sticking to 1 e4 did he really know Spassky so well that he trusted him he wouldn’t switch to a 1 d4 opening once he
abandoned them? And what was he trying to achieve by playing 2…g6 instead of 2…Nf6? The only explanation I could come up with for the last question was that he was avoiding 2…Nf6 3 f3, as Spassky played against Jansson in 1971.

To continue with the questions, did he intend something else after 3 c4 instead of a normal KID transposition, by leaving the knight on g8? And after Spassky’s 3 Nc3 (on which he spent 4 minutes, probably thinking to KID or not to KID) Fischer spent 4 minutes on 3…Nf6. Why? The only obvious alternative is 3…Bg7, so again, what was he trying to avoid?

The following few moves and the times spent on them continue to be mysterious. Being faced with an obvious surprise by Fischer, Spassky again, as in Game 1, chose a line from his youth, one he played only once in his life, in 1960 in Mar del Plata (incidentally a tournament where Fischer also played) – Fischer’s own pet line, the Austrian
Attack. After 4 f4 Bg7 5 Nf3 Fischer sank into a 15-minute think before choosing 5…c5. When playing the Austrian Attack with White Fischer convincingly demonstrated the strength of the line 5… 0-0 6 Bd3, winning several good games with it. So it is perhaps understandable that he wanted to avoid it with Black, but why spend 15 minutes on that decision?

The game was very important theoretically and it established the best way to play for Black in that line of the Pirc (namely to play …Bg4 before White can prevent it by h3) and it was also notable for Spassky’s original middlegame plan of 11 Rad1 and 12 Bc4.

Game 19 saw the return of the Alekhine, with Fischer varying with 4…Bg4 instead of the 4…g6 from Game 13. Another first-ever by Fischer, but Spassky was prepared. I find an interesting parallel between this game and Game 5. Had Spassky taken 12 gf (he took 20 minutes on that decision) the blocked character of the position would have resembled the one from Game 5. Why was Fischer luring Spassky in such closed positions, did he learn in his preparation that
Spassky didn’t like them and played them less well? It was considered that Fischer didn’t like closed and blocked positions, buthere he was actively pursuing them!

Fischer’s choice for what turned out to be the last game of the match was excellent and I wonder why he didn’t come up with it earlier. Again a first-ever, this time in the Sicilian, 2…e6 instead of the automatic 2…d6. (Curiously enough, in Game 20 of their match in 1992, the first game of that match where Spassky played 1 e4, after 1…c5 2 Ne2 Nf6 3 Nbc3 Fischer again played 3…e6, signalling that he wanted to play something else than the Najdorf. Here the most probable is the Scheveningen after 4 d4 cd 5 Nd4 d6, but Spassky played 4 g3).

After 3 d4 cd 4 Nd4 there came 4…a6, a move he so convincingly dismantled with White in Game 7 of his match with Petrosian. So the first question, what did he have in mind against his own choice of 5 Bd3? My guess is 5…Nc6, as Petrosian played, and after 6 Nc6 dc, instead of Petrosian’s inferior 6…bc. The positions after 6…dc are much calmer and more solid, quite in line with Fischer’s admission that he wasn’t trying to look for chances in the second half of the match. And being a Sicilian, it still offers more dynamism and activity than other openings. Still, this is why I think his choice was good, because he finally found a solid and safe line for Black.

But Spassky stayed in line with his established way to reacting to surprises, he chose a line he played before. The system with Be3 and Bd3 brought him the title with a draw from a winning position in Game 23 of his match with Petrosian in 1969, but Fischer played an important novelty after 5 Nc3 Nc6 6 Be3 Nf6 7 Bd3 d5 (the game Spassky-Petrosian went via a different move order 7…Qc7 8 0-0 Ne5) 8 ed ed! and Black was already equal. Fischer’s love for old games was crowned by employing a move played by Adolf Anderssen in 1877!

Fischer’s strategy with Black turned out to be very efficient. His frequent changes of openings and sub-lines coupled with Spassky’s predictability and bad first-time reactions enabled him to have the opening initiative in most of the games. The only opening disaster he had was when he himself was predictable, but he didn’t let that happen again.


European Club Cup 2017

I have played many European Club Cups in my career and it is such a huge difference between following the tournament from home and being there in the playing hall. When you are in the playing hall, you can feel the tension, the atmosphere and all the subtle nuances that decide the high-stakes matches. You can feel the progress of the match, sense the direction and understand the choices of the players.

It is quite different when watching from home, even if you manage to be glued to the screen for the whole duration of the match. At home you only see the moves and even if you can try to follow the matches as if you were present, it is still not the same.

This year’s ECC in Antalya was won by the top seeded team of Globus from Russia. A star-studded team with Nepomniachtchi on Board 6 (preceeded by Kramnik, Mamedyarov, Grischuk, Karjakin and Giri) they won 5 matches and drew 2. A relatively easy win with only a single scare in the drawn match with 4th finishers Odlar Yurdu when both Kramnik and Grischuk saved lost positions. An additional fact showing their superiority is that they only lost 1 game in the whole tournament – Karjakin’s last-round loss to Grachev, which meant nothing as they were already winning that match and secured the title.

I think this year’s second place for the Macedonian title-defenders of Alkaloid was maybe a bigger success than last year’s win. They came close to defend their title and would have done it if not for the superiority of Globus; why I rate this result higher is that after their unfortunate loss as early as Round 2 (5 draws and Eljanov blundered) they picked themselves up and started scoring big wins, 6-0, 5-1 and 5.5-0.5 before the crunch match with Globus. Alas, in that match they didn’t manage to pose problems to the eventual winners as all 6 games finished in draws without any real chances for Alkaloid for something more. In total they lost 3 games, 2 by Eljanov, and the crucial one from Round 2 led them to lose the only match in the tournament:



A truly unfortunate episode, but Eljanov was not in form in Antalya, losing one more game and finishing on 50%. He was the only player who disappointed, as all the others posted excellent scores of at least +3 (Ding Liren on Board 1) while Kryvoruchko on Board 6 had an amazing 6/7.

Third were Odlar Yurdu, the revelation of the tournament. The were leading before the last round, but unfortunately then lost minimally to Novy Bor and this dropped them to 3rd place. Still, with the starting rank 6 this is by far their greatest success.

The other Macedonian team, Gambit, had a dream start of 3 wins in the first 3 rounds and were delighted to play Globus in Round 4. This is the true joy for the weaker teams, if they are lucky they get a chance to play the elite players; where else can they get such a chance? Even in that match they didn’t lose 0-6, with IM Mitkov making a draw with Korobov. At the end they finished more or less around their starting rank, but I am sure they had a great experience playing this tournament.

There were many games in the tournament that deserved attention. I will present here the wildest one.



Next up is the European Team Championship. I should be there.



Kramnik’s Disaster in Isle of Man

The problems a strong player faces in an open tournament are all too-well known to me. Having to win and win quickly, but the guy just won’t fold. Thinking you deserve to be playing on the top boards, yet you’re stuck on board 50. “What am I doing here?”

I address these issues and some more in my latest video, available on my YouTube channel.

Check it out here.


Aronian’s Triumph

Chess is perhaps the only sport where the semi-final matches of a World Cup are more important than the actual final. While this may be difficult to explain to the outside world, we know that the main prize of our World Cup is not the title, but the qualification for the Candidates tournament. And the finalists get those spots.

We left off at the point of the semi-finals and they proved to be as tough as expected.

I would say that the main story of this year’s World Cup in Tbilisi is Aronian’s newly-found (or discovered) belief that he can do it in stressful conditions. His meltdowns in the Candidates in London in 2013, Khanty in 2014 and Moscow in 2016 are all well known. And we have come to get accustomed that Aronian is this fantastic player who cannot perform when the stakes are high.

In Tbilisi he managed to overcome the two difficult types of situations a player can find himself into in a knock-out tournament: not making a draw while being ahead (twice against Matlakov) and needing to win to stay in the match (against Vachier). The latter situation produced this spectacular game:



Winners are always lucky, in this case Aronian was lucky that Vachier was predictable and he could get his fantastic preparation in in the most important moment of the match.

But after this game they started making draws, one more improbable after the other. Take a look at this exchange of “courtesies”:



The Armageddon game was no different. Vachier was better for most of the game then it was a draw and then Aronian won. Nerves, luck, fate, whatever you call it, it just happened that it was Aronian’s day.

The other semi-final was a repeat of the friendly match held in 2016 in China when the home player beat the American 2.5-1.5. In his own words, that victory gave him confidence that he can overcome So again.

As strange as it may seem, the turning point of the match was the second rapid game which ended in a draw after 9 (!) moves. This warrants an explanation: in the first rapid game Ding was winning (with Black) but he failed to win. He was disappointed and depressed, plus he was surprised by So’s choice of the Ragozin Defence in the second game. Making a very practical decision, Ding offered a draw in a position he already didn’t like. And while generally a draw with Black is a good result, this situation was one of the exceptions, where in fact Black had to play on. But So didn’t know Ding’s state of mind and he took the superficial “draw with Black is good” probably thinking that a quick draw with Black is even better. But this quick draw gave Ding time to clear his mind off the previous game, get it out of the system and continue to play normally. Needless to say he won the next game, again with Black, and won the match since So’s Benoni failed to produce winning chances in the last game.

The final was won by Aronian because he wanted to win it more than Ding. He was pressing in the 4 classical games but Ding managed to hang on. When it came to the rapids, Ding collapsed. The last game was a must-win for Ding and he came very close, but again, it seems that as if destiny wanted Aronian to win another World Cup after 2005 and become the only player to have won it twice.

Now we have 3 certain players for next year’s Candidates, which will be held in Berlin from 10-28 March: Karjakin, Aronian and Ding Liren. Two more are very likely, So and Caruana will most probably qualify by rating in view of Kramnik’s collapse in the Isle of Man open. Two more will come out of the World Cup that finishes in November and only 4 players still have a chance: Mamedyarov, Grischuk, Radjabov and Vachier. The last player will be the organiser’s wild-card and in view of the Russian sponsorship of the tournament we can expect another Russian player in the mix. I am already thinking of visiting Berlin next spring.


Four Men Standing in Tbilisi

The semi-finals of a World Cup are infinitely more important than any other match, including the final. The reason is simple – with a semi-final victory the player has secured a place in next year’s Candidates, which is the main goal for all participants. Once the main goal is achieved, they can calmly play for glory and money in the final.

Two of the four players will be heart-broken after tomorrow’s tie-breaks. There is nothing worse than coming so close to the goal and missing it.

Of the four, Aronian is the most surprising participant. A player notorious for his breakdowns in all qualification events he seems to have overcome his psychological frailty. I think the defining moment for Aronian was his match with Matlakov. When he couldn’t make a draw with Black in the second classical game in order to win the match he showed true inner strength. He wasn’t broken even when Matlakov came from behind in the second rapid game and he won the blitz convincingly. This win gave Aronian the much-needed confirmation that he is strong enough to overcome his nerves and the other matches saw a confident Aronian. And confident Aronian is maybe the best player in the world.

The Frenchman stumbled in the semi-final in the World Cup in 2013, losing to eventual winner Kramnik. In 2015 he lost in the quarter-final to Giri.  In Tbilisi he eliminated both Grischuk and Svidler and before the event he achieved his biggest triumph to date by winning the Sinquefield Cup. He is on an excellent run and facing the confident Aronian is a battle of the players on best form recently. Both players are excellently prepared and it will be interesting to see how they will approach the tie-breaks from an opening perspective – still playing highly forcing lines as the Grunfeld in Game 1, or going for the popular “get a game” lines of Nf3 and g3. Vachier is less likely to adopt the latter approach, but Aronian’s excellent novelty in the popular line in the Spanish in Game 2 may give him some headaches in his preparation (plus there is always the Giuoco Piano).

After the collapse in Saint Louis Wesley So is back to his usual self. The technical win against Fedoseev was impressive and his narrow escape in the second game against Ding Liren may give him a psychological advantage for the tie-breaks.

Ding Liren is a typical “белоцветчик”, a player who presses very strongly with White and often makes it count. His pressing is very technical and he had a stable tournament where he was rarely in danger. He missed a (very concealed) win against So in the second game and this may affect him, though you can never be sure with the Chinese players. The tie-break between these two is something I am very curious about – will one of them lose composure? Who will crack first? And what if it goes all the way to Armageddon?

Tomorrow we will know the two players who will play in the Candidates next year. And then the final will be for money and glory.

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