Snapshots from the European Club Cup 2019

As I already said in my last post, I am currently in Ulcinj, Montenegro, for the European Club Cup. I am coaching the Italian women team of Caissa Pentole Agnelli, just like last year.

So far the tournament is going turbulently for us, we have won 3 matches and lost 2. With two rounds to go there is everything to play for, though it has to be admitted that the first place is almost certainly out of reach.

In today’s Round 5 I noticed quite a few crazy games that I wanted to share. I don’t know if it’s the constant storms with strong winds and rain that (finally) affected the players so they started to play in stormy ways, but the fact remains – today’s games were quite crazy. You can see for yourselves below.

Saric-Suleymanly, after 51 Bg8.

The engine displays 0.00 in this totally irrational position with 5 pawns for the rook. It reminds me of the famous Game 13 of the match Spassky-Fischer. In both games the side with the pawns won after the side with the rook missed a draw.

Zimina-Djukic, here White played 28 g4!

The above position was from our match. In a crazy game White took on g7 with the queen and continued to play for mate before taking back the material. Eventually Black resigned before being mated.

Velikic-Pogonina, after 27 f4

Another position where White is a rook down for some vague compensation. In fact here Black took on f4 and proved that the compensation was non-existent.

My time here is very restricted: after waking up in the morning the board pairings come out, after which we start preparation; then lunch, after lunch there is approximately one hour before we go to play; after the match it’s dinner time, then the team pairings come out after which we have a short team meeting to discuss the next match. When all this is finished, it’s already time for a short stroll or bed.

I even wonder how I found the time to write this post!

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Busy Times

It’s been a month since I last posted and this is the longest period I’ve gone without a post since I started this blog back in 2014.

As usual, I followed everything that was happening in the chess world, the Grand Swiss, the European Team Championship, the Fischer Random World Championship, to name just the biggest events. But I didn’t have the time to write about them, so I think this is a good opportunity to explain what I am so busy with and what my activities are nowadays.

The last period was entirely dedicated to the creation of my Chessable repertoire on the Anti-Sicilians. This was the plan ever since my Najdorf repertoire was published. I had to complete the work and provide a full repertoire after 1 e4, not just the Najdorf.

It took me quite some time to finish this and in order to do so I had to block out everything else. Now of course “everything else” is coming back with a vengeance. But first, this blog post.

Apart from my online coaching, I do quite a lot of writing. I write for a few websites (Chessable, The Chess World) and for British Chess Magazine. I have my newsletter, which I send out every week and of course this blog. I also have a YouTube channel, but that one has been the most neglected of all.

When I mentioned the coaching, this is not only online. On Friday I go to Montenegro to be a captain and coach of the Italian women team of Caissa Pentole Agnelli in the European Women Club Cup.

I also manage to play a game or two from time to time. I love playing chess, but in view of all the other engagements this one suffered a heavy blow. So these games are mostly league games as I play in teams in England and Germany (with the odd game in the Swiss league).

The above has been about chess. However, I am also involved in chess politics. Ever since I became a President of the ACP this spring I have had a lot of obligations on this front. These are mostly “under the hood” and rarely see the light of day. What the public sees will be an official announcement, while what happened before and led to that announcement is never mentioned. I can assure you that a lot happens and that it is hard work!

My work in FIDE is different, as it is of a less political character. I am a member of the FIDE Fair Play Commission (formerly known as the Anti-Cheating Commission). Here the work is expanding by the minute with the cheating cases we need to work on coming in on regular basis. There are many problems here as well that take away both time and energy.

When you add to the above the need for some time off, family time, meeting friends and probably also time to breathe, I think you get a pretty good idea why I called this blog post “busy times”.

To wrap up, just a fact from my upcoming schedule: in the period starting this coming Friday, 8 November, when I leave for Montenegro, until before Christmas (24 December) I will spend mere 13 days at home. The other 33 days I will be away travelling. Busy times indeed.

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A Technical Win

The Spanish Division de Honor, their Premier League, took place in Melilla from 30 September to 6 October.

I was present during the tournament and had a chance to observe the games as they happened in the playing hall. As it turned out, every round was more or less marked by Ivanchuk’s games.

In Round 1 he beat Cheparinov following the Fischer-Reshevsky game in the Classical Dragon from 1961 (which, to remind you, was an improvement over the Alekhine-Botvinnik game from Nottingham 1936), then he was lost in mere 15 moves after experimenting in the opening against Iturrizaga. And in Round 3 he produced the following technical masterpiece.

In spite of the inaccuracies at the end, mainly caused by lack of time, an impressive technical performance by Ivanchuk. It appears easy, yet it is anything but. With hindsight, I also admire his opening choice – to play an equal position but one where the long-term advantages are in his favour. This made his play easier and this translated to practical advantage which he managed to convert.

All in all, a complete masterclass by one of the best players in chess history.

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World Cup 2019 Impressions

A huge knock-out tournament like the World Cup inevitably produces excitement and this excitement comes in many forms: unexpected streaks and winners, wild games, new opening ideas to name just a few.

In this post I’ll write about the things that made an impression on me, in no particular order.

Kiril Alekseenko

Apart from going far, losing only to Ding Liren in Round 4, his White preparation in the Giuoco Piano brought him 2 wins in the classical games, against Nguyen in Round 1 and Harikrishna in Round 3. He was very close to beating Ding Liren in the second classical game, again thanks to his preparation. He also put pressure on Ding in the second rapid game where he was in a must-win situation. The highlight of his performance was the 2-0 against Harikrishna. The young Russian shows good promise.

Anish Giri

Giri’s World Cup was notable for lack of notable things he did. The Armageddon win against Najer in Round 2 was the highlight of his tournament, but you would expect him to overcome Najer at an earlier stage. The same could have been said about his next match, but here he had no chance, as strange as it may seem. Read the next player for more.

Giri is slowly becoming one of the elite players who “deserve” to be in the Candidates but cannot qualify for different reasons. Luckily for him he will get there thanks to statistics, being the average highest-rated player for the year after Ding Liren, who qualified by making it to the final. In order to secure this Giri withdrew from the Isle of Man Grand Swiss, even with a signed contract, making sure he doesn’t lose any rating there. Not a courageous decision, to say the least.

Speaking of Giri’s game, I cannot escape the feeling that something substantial is missing there. He has fantastic opening preparation, calculates well, plays great chess (he’s changed a lot since his drawing days), he sharpened his game, but in spite of all this there is something that prevents him from moving forward. He often cannot overcome his opposition (the match with Najer started with 6 consecutive draws) and is struggling to win games. I can only guess it is something psychological, lack of breakthrough force or the internal intent that is bent out on winning, maybe lack of killer instinct. The only way I see him making progress is if everything falls into place for him as it did for Leko in 2002 when he won the Dortmund Candidates and qualified to play Kramnik.

Jeffery Xiong

For me, Xiong was the revelation of the tournament. His uncompromising aggression brought him farther than anyone expected. Beating Giri and Duda by playing courageous and ultra-aggressive chess was a feast to watch.

When I said above that Giri didn’t have a chance in this match I meant that Giri couldn’t adapt and handle such open aggression. Nobody in the elite does it so Giri wasn’t used to this type of high-tension tactical approach. The decisive game of the match was typical.

Xiong did the same to Duda before going down in flames in the same way in the second classical game against Radjabov, who was the first one who managed to navigate crazy complications better than him!

Teimour Radjabov

Quite a surprise this one. I never dreamed Radjabov could make it to the final and qualify for the Candidates, let alone win the whole thing. After his wunderkind years and the total collapse in London Candidates in 2013 I always considered Radjabov a very content wealthy young man who plays chess only because he has nothing else to do in his life. And even this often seemed against his will, as his games were mostly uneventful draws and he apparently lacked the ambition to try for anything at all.

In Khanty he didn’t seem any different at the beginning. But then he started winning games with White in technical style (the only exception is the second game against Xiong that I mentioned) and things started to go his way. It is no surprise that solidity is highly valued in knock-out events – another super-solid player, Ding Liren, was the other one who made it to the final.

In the final he showed better nerves. Coupled with his fantastic calculation he didn’t panic when low on time and just kept on playing good moves.

I cannot say how this will affect Radjabov. Will he motivate himself and wake up his ambition after the 6-year hiatus? Or will he come to Yekaterinburg to make draws and go home semi-content?

Vachier-Lagrave

The Frenchman failed again at the last hurdle. Last year it was Aronian in the semi-final, this year it was Radjabov.

I think his stubborness in the openings, especially the Grunfeld, has lately been causing him more trouble than bringing him benefits. The losses to Radjabov and Jakovenko plus some games in the match with Yu Yangyi proved that he can be caught in the opening and the players have started targeting him there with more success. A bit more versatility in the opening, finding a back-up to the Najdorf and the Grunfeld will be huge for him and I think will help him make the final step.

The fact he won the match for 3rd place is some comfort at least.

The Chinese

They are not coming, they’re here for some time now. Both Ding Liren and Yu Yangyi were impressive, each on their own slightly different scale.

Ding Liren seems to have reached a different level, doing what Carlsen mentioned some time ago – winning elite events. At least he showed this by winning the Sinquefield Cup before this event. However, losing a second final in a row in the World Cup shows that he has the stability and quality to reach two finals, but also that he suffers from nerves. In the tie-break he collapsed and lost a game that was impossible to lose with White and then didn’t take his one chance with Black. He will be very disappointed, but there is psychological work to be done here!

Yu Yangyi is establishing himself as a clear Top-10 candidate and the will power he demonstrated in the match with Vitiugov was impressive. Losing the match for 3rd place to Vachier shouldn’t bother him too much. He played 34 (!) games in total in Khanty, playing the most tie-breaks than any other player (he only won one match in classical, against Nepomniachtchi), so fatigue was definitely an issue.

Nikita Vitiugov

The look of Nikita Vitiugov after the heart-breaking Armageddon loss to Yu Yangyi will haunt me for quite some time. A blank stare, failure to understand how could reality so abruptly change the script. Everything pointed to him winning that match, the tendency was clear, and then, without any warning, everything came down crashing. It felt as if a law of physics has been broken, as if gravity ceased to exist on Earth. Unimaginable.

What Vitiugov did before that was fantastic. It seemed he raised his level and his wins against Karjakin and So, both in classical, were amazing. The fact that Karjakin blundered in one move in a technically difficult situation only shows the level of complexity of the problems he had to solve during the game.

There were also other notable things like Eltaj Safarli (knocking out Shankland and Nihal Sarin, the latter in quite an amazing way), Svidler’s fear of the Frenchman (after qualifying and observing Vachier’s game together with the official commentators his comment along the lines of “He is not in good shape” after Vachier missed a move reeked of fear to me as he knew he was going to play him next and subconsciously wanted to cheer himself up!), Christiansen’s knocking out Wojtaszek 2-0 in Round 1, Nakamura’s Round 2 loss to Nisipeanu (after managing 1-1 against Bellahcene in Round 1 and winning the rapid) which in fact wasn’t surprising (Nakamura’s not in the Top 20 nowadays), the Yuffa-McShane match and probably a few more things.

Knock-outs are great for the public, but much less so for the players. Just remember Vitiugov.

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Opening Oddities from the World Cup 2019

One of the most exciting tournaments to watch, the World Cup in Khanty Mansysk, is well under way.

With every passing round the tension rises and as the usually say for knock-outs, the players with best nerves win. As I write this Round 3 finished and we already have players like Anish Giri, Sergey Karjakin and Hikaru Nakamura out of the tournament.

(I wouldn’t worry about Karjakin though – with the Candidates Tournament already announced to take place in Yekaterinburg, he can easily get the wild card spot.)

In this post I’d like to share some of the more original opening ideas the players have come up with. It is worth noting that especially in the shorter time controls these experiments paid out, at least out of the openings. Here they are in chronological order.

I always enjoy it when players come up with original ideas in the opening. Let’s hope they continue to do so!

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The Taimanov Syndrome in St. Louis

The legendary champion sits behind the board once a year to the delight of all chess fans. Last year and this one the discipline he chose was Fischer Random.

(Strangely enough the Americans prefer not to use the name of their great champion for the game he invented – this time it was Chess 9LX, the last two digits are Roman numbers, in case you were confused).

These outings haven’t been too delightful for Kasparov. Last year he lost to Topalov, this year before the match against Caruana he said it will be “fun.” I wonder where he got the idea.

For anyone who has played chess a bit more seriously the only fun is the winning. Sometimes even that isn’t fun. For Kasparov to say that playing would be fun, simply cannot be true. Yet he said it.

You should probably be able to recognise this position:

It is the position that haunted Mark Taimanov for the rest of his life. It is the position from the 3rd game of his match with Fischer. In that moment Fischer was leading 1-0, the second game was adjourned in a drawn position and here in the third Taimanov had great position. He spent a lot of time and instead of trusting his intuition and play 20 Qh3 he went backwards 20 Nf3 and the rest is history.

In his book and all interviews afterwards Taimanov lamented how things would have been different had he played 20 Qh3 (he believed he was winning, though analysis shows he wasn’t), how the match would have been completely different, how everything would have been different. He couldn’t get this position out of his head.

Kasparov suffered a similar fate to Taimanov’s at Caruana’s hands in Saint Louis. In Game 2 he was winning (clearly, unlike Taimanov) but he blundered and lost. What happened next was a complete repetition of the Taimanov syndrome.

Kasparov mostly kept losing but it was all the 2nd game’s fault, if only he won, if only he didn’t blunder, the match would have been different. To make it worse, he kept getting winning positions but he also kept blundering, blaming it on that ill-fated Game 2. He said he couldn’t forget that game. A surprising thing to say by a player who often came back with a vengeance after a loss. Where did the psychological toughness go?

I am not sure how much Kasparov was saying what the public wanted to hear, or he was really fooling himself. He didn’t stand a chance in that match, irrelevant of that Game 2. Just like Taimanov would have lost that match to Fischer, Kasparov would have lost to Caruana. The fact that he was outplaying Caruana often means that Caruana wasn’t playing at his best, but even that sufficed to bludgeon the legend.

Time-troubles, age, lack of practice, these were the reasons given for the losses. Kasparov knew these would be present, so the real question is, why did he sit down to play and risk humiliation?

In 2016, when he decided to play blitz against America’s best players in the Ultimate Blitz Challenge, I asked him via Twitter why he was doing the same thing he criticised Fischer for in 1992 – coming back from retirement and risking a destruction of the legendary image he rightfully had. He never replied, of course, but I thought that perhaps the reason was the same as Fischer’s – money. But unlike Fischer, that money wouldn’t be from the prize fund.

I am sad that this happened to Kasparov. Perhaps even angry at him, for destroying his own image. He was my idol for as long as he played and I even briefly met him in Tromso in 2014. After the match Kasparov said that perhaps the suffering in the match was a sign from above to stop attempting to reverse time. I think he is right. Once retired legends should stay retired.

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Carlsen’s Comeback

I cannot but admire the man.

After the meltdown in the rapid and blitz he pulled himself together in the classical and basically closed down shop. Conservative, ultra-careful and safe he made 9 draws in a row. Curiously enough, the last draw followed a less well-known game by Fischer:

There was a curious story about this Fischer game I read somewhere (at this point of writing I cannot recall the details – where I read it, which analysis he wanted to refute). Fischer was trying to catch Matulovic in an improvement over existing theory at the time, but Matulovic improved on the bad analysis and caught Fischer instead!

In Round 10 more classical heritage appeared in Carlsen’s game, but this time to a better effect.

This position arose after move 19 in the Giuoco Piano, with Carlsen playing Nc4 previously and inviting …Bc4, bxc4. The position immediately draws comparison to the famous Liublinsky-Botvinnik game:

Botvinnik famously won by planting his rook on d4 and undoubling his c-pawns after White took the exchange.

Carlsen didn’t need to sacrifice an exchange, he planted a knight on d5 and this sufficed.

Then in Round 11 the Frenchman with two surnames continued the tradition (Grenke, Zagreb and now here) of losing in the last round to the World Champion, this time by committing a hara-kiri blunder in a double-edged position.

For me, this comeback was incredible. With these two wins Carlsen emerged shared 1st with Ding Liren, something which seemed not very likely, to say the least, from the way he was playing. He must be the only person alive to be able to pull this type of turnaround, to get beaten down (in the rapid and blitz), to stabilise, to take his chances and finish first!

The other big story was of course his loss in the tie-break. A first loss in a tie-break since 2007, after winning 10 of them in a row. But even this loss somehow falls into the picture of Carlsen not being at his best overall, yet finishing first. Losing the tie-break only meant that there was a guy who was better than him on that given day.

That guy is Ding Liren, one of the 3 players who manage to keep their rating steadily over 2800 for over a year. This stability is key. This is Ding Liren’s first super-tournament victory, one that undoubtedly sets a new level of expectation for him, and here I mean the Candidates Tournament next year. Together with Caruana, who, admittedly, doesn’t have a spectacular year (yet keeps his rating comfortably over 2800!), these two are the frontrunners for a match with Carlsen next year. But before that, they’ll fight it out in the Candidates, where I see them as the main contenders irrespective of who else plays there.

The move of the tournament was the final move of the tournament. In both blitz games Ding showed that he saw more than Carlsen and did it faster than his opponent.

Ding went for this position voluntarily. It appears that White’s winning, but the Chinese had the next move prepared: 40…Ne7! Carlsen could only smile and resign.

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Carlsen’s Meltdown

The main story of the Sinquefield rapid and blitz was Carlsen’s apparent inability to keep his composure.

Carlsen’s problem were his blunders. It has happened before that he starts with a loss or bad form, but this time he simply couldn’t manage to turn it around and in utter frustration he started to do odd things.

It’s not that he didn’t try to keep it contained. He tried to play more solidly (the French with a direct transposition to an endgame against Karjakin and the QGD against Ding Liren – he lost both) and then more sharply (transposing to a Dragon Sicilian against Yu Yangyi – he was brutally mated), but with equal (lack of) success.

Then came the most shocking thing for me – Carlsen’s own admission that he didn’t care anymore. I have never before heard a World Champion openly declare that he didn’t care about the remainder of the tournament (and Carlsen had a full day of blitz ahead of him).

The frustration was obvious, nothing seemed to be working, but to say that he didn’t care? That is giving up. How much did it have to hurt so that he saw no other way out but to give up?

Here’re a couple of examples of Carlsen’s frustration translated to chess moves:

If that was primitive, then this was too optimistic (to say it nicely).

There were other blows as well: getting mated by Yu Yangyi in a bad Dragon and losing to Dominguez in a Sveshnikov (a piece down on move 23). Additional pain must have been caused by his overall losses to Karjakin (2-1) and Caruana (2.5-0.5)

After such a long period of successes this was undoubtedly a shock to Carlsen’s system. Of all the players he is the one least accustomed to failures, but the strength of all champions has been their ability to overcome adversity. Carlsen has shown it before on more than one occasion. That is why I find this giving up so shocking.

Two rounds have already passed in the classical event in St. Louis. There have been 11 draws and 1 decisive result, Anand’s win against Nepomniachtchi. I expect it to continue in similar manner, with Carlsen more cautious than ever, not going after breaking records of reaching 2900. He is also human and a dent in his confidence is as bad as in anybody else’s.

In a way, and I’ll go off on a tangent here and speculate, I think that when the day comes, Carlsen will lose his title in a similar way Kasparov lost his to Kramnik. In frustration. Just to whom that may happen is the question, who will be capable to frustrate him like that? Though, what we can say for sure – nobody from the current players in St. Louis.

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Lack of Opening Ideas

The non-stop playing of the top players is taking its toll. There is no time to rest, there is no time to think things through, there is no time to invent new ideas.

The players play and it is their seconds and helpers who do the hard work of constantly coming up with new moves and lines to surprise the opponents. Some are obviously better than others, but even the best run out of ideas at some point.

It is not surprising therefore when there are so many games played with the same openings. Just sticking to what is safe ensures against big surprises, but that also leads to less excitement.

In the penultimate round of the Zagreb Grand Prix Mamedyarov employed the Scandinavian (also known as the Centre Counter) against Caruana. It was yet another tournament that wasn’t going well for Mamedyarov and it appeared as if he didn’t care. Hence, 1 e4 d5.

Black got the usual slightly inferior but extremely solid position from the opening and eventually drew the game. Players note very carefully what everybody else is playing and they probably concluded that the Scandinavian isn’t good enough for classical games, but the opening exploded in the Paris Grand Prix in both the rapid and the blitz.

Mamedyarov played 2 more games with it – he beat Anand and lost to Dubov. He stuck to his treatment of 3 Nc3 Qa5, the same line he played in Zagreb against Caruana.

Other players tried their luck with the Scandinavian as well and they all went their own ways. Nakamura also played 2 games in it, choosing 3 Nc3 Qd6 in his loss to Caruana and draw with Giri.

It was Duda who employed it the most. Perhaps tired a bit of his trusty Petroff, he kept choosing the peculiar development after 3 Nc3 Qd8 that involed the double fianchetto. His results were great – he lost 1, won 3 and drew 1. The good thing about his opening was that he always played the same, which is very practical as it requires very little preparation.

While things worked out better than expected for Duda, I doubt the Scandinavian will catch up on the highest level. It will now be subjected to serious analysis and they will find ways how to deal with it. Surprises only last so long on that level. That is why they need a constant supply of fresh ideas.

The public had its quick rush with the Scandinavian and now we’re waiting for the next one. I wonder what it will be.

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Opening Cycles


This one is from my newsletter. Enjoy it!

Nowadays chess theory develops by the minute. New ideas appear constantly and it is difficult to follow every single one of them. But sometimes it is not necessary to do so.

The openings in chess have their cycles. A characteristic cycle of an opening is that it becomes popular as a lot of new ideas and plans appear in it; people start to play it a lot and it is analysed in great depth; in these stages it is vitally important to follow all the latest developments and novelties; after a period of this process, which depends on the complexity of the opening, the main directions and variations are crystallised and it becomes easy to determine which are the most critical lines; here already the impact of the novelties is not as strong; then the main directions are explored and if the ideas are getting exhausted the opening is slowly abandoned or other, new directions appear, usually at an earlier stage.

To be aware where a certain opening is in this cycle is very important from a practical aspect. It is not very practical to start playing an opening when it is in its first stages, when it’s not clear what the main lines are and which plans are the most promising – though it is in exactly this phase that the elite players are thriving. A typical example for this is the Giuoco Piano – there are many plans and move-orders for both players: White has plans based on Bg5, Be3, the queenside expansion, the knight-transfer to f1 and then g3 or e3, the central d4-push, while Black can play with …a6 or …a5 (favoured by Ding Liren), go for …d5 or not (depending on White’s move-orders), go for …Ne7-g6 or/and …Be6. While this leaves scope for surprises and new developments for the elite, it is very confusing for the rest.

A different example is the Najdorf. This ever-green opening can never be abandoned, and is in the stage of new ideas appearing, as early as move 6, with White players trying out moves like 6 h4, 6 a3 or 6 Nb3. The reason for this is that in the traditional main lines the variations have crystallised and Black usually has a choice of a couple of reliable and straight-forward lines to choose from. For example, in the 6 Bg5 line he can either go for 6…Nbd7 or the delayed Poisoned Pawn 6…e6 7 f4 h6 8 Bh4 Qb6, championed by Vachier-Lagrave. Or in the English Attack, he can choose the lines with …h5, which are all the rage now, the sharp variations with 10…a5 (after 1 e4 c5 2 Nf3 d6 3 d4 cd 4 Nd4 Nf6 5 Nc3 a6 6 Be3 e5 7 Nb3 Be7 8 f3 Be6 9 Qd2 0-0 10 0-0-0 a5) or even the complex lines after 10…Nbd7 11 g4 b5 12 g5 Nh5.

Therefore it is practical to take up an opening in these later stages, when one only needs to study the current theory, which has narrowed down thanks to the decades of “distillation.” In these stages the effect of novelties is diminished because normally they cannot drastically impact the variations, so they are mostly of a “local” character.

A similar case is the Sveshnikov Sicilian. As the last World Championship match implied, and Carlsen’s later games showed, Black is perfectly fine in the main lines after 7 Bg5, so White players are looking for alternative ideas, Caruana’s attempt of 7 Nd5 being such a case.

I understand that in order to be able to recognise these cycles a certain opening erudition is required. This however shouldn’t discourage the opening student. Speaking from personal experience, if you dedicate your efforts to a study of an opening, meaning you go back in time to the opening’s beginnings and then analyse its development over the years, you will start to recognise these changes that all openings experience.

As an additional advantage, having studied an opening in such a way will often enable you to be ahead of the curve and even foresee the changes that still haven’t occurred! That is one of the rare superpowers in chess!

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