A lot of things happened in the last 3 rounds of the Candidates. First, in Round 7, Anand’s closest rivals won and Aronian drew level with him and Kramnik came within half a point. Round 8 was the calm before the storm, in the bottom half only Karjakin scored his first win. Round 9 was the big one – Anand won while both Aronian and Kramnik lost, giving him a whole point lead over Aronian in second (but having beaten him 1.5-0.5 in their mini-match, that’s practically a 1.5 point lead, just like with Kramnik in third).
Before the tournament I remember seeing the odds for winning the tournament and the least probable winner was Andreikin, while the second least probable winner was Anand. The odds were somewhere in the region of 50, in other words, a total outsider (for comparison’s sake, the odds for Aronian were 2.7 while for Kramnik around 3). But as things are now, we’re maybe witnessing one of the largest upsets in the whole history of sport! So far Anand has shown perfect balance between enegy-saving mode and nailing it when possible. Yes, he could have tried to play on in the final position against Andreikin, but he thought it more important to save his energy. If he wins, all his decisions will be more than justified and his tournament strategy will be glorified. In my opinion the secret to his success so far has been the lack of pressure, the “just play” attitude he’s taken – after losing to Carlsen he ceased to be the favourite, something that hasn’t happened to him for decades. It must feel good to be able to play chess without pressure, without a goal of winning at all costs and Anand is proving it. All this helps him play very good chess and coupled with his excellent preparation took him where he is now. But even in his case the pressure will creep in as the tournament draws to a close, so I’m still curious to see how he responds to that in the remaining rounds.
Aronian failed to control his nerves for yet another time. He beat Karjakin in Round 7 in a wonderful game, showing excellent technique (which for some reason was missing in the previous game against Andreikin, which was much more easily won for a player like Aronian), but then it seems he pumped himself up way too much for the derby with Anand. First he allowed himself to be scared by Anand’s preparation (perhaps bearing in mind Anand’s brilliancy against him from Wijk in 2013), this led to a “heretical” (Kramnik) opening innovation on move 3 (at least on elite level). I’m still not sure of Anand’s decision to sacrifice the pawn and this led to a position where Aronian was pawn up but Anand had free development. And just when I thought that this was a position when Aronian might try to fend off Anand’s initiative and try to play for more, he started repeating moves – another show of fear, which was confirmed in the press conference by his statements (“the stress of the start [opening]”). Showing and playing with fear never goes unpunished and Aronian was punished the very next day when he managed to catch Mamedyarov in his preparation (although he admitted he forgot it, but again I’m not sure he can be trusted on this), only to be faced with excellent reaction and lose an unclear game. Unless he manages to pull himself together and finally play his “chess with confidence” until the end, barring a spectacular meltdown from Anand, Aronian seems to have lost his chances to challenge Carlsen.
Kramnik is another player who seems to have pumped himself up a bit too much. He has played uncharacteristically uneven chess for his standards. A typical example was his game with Mamedyarov – he achieved a dream position after the opening, he started to press in his trademark style and then something unexpected happened. He was looking for a forced win (when there wasn’t any – another sign of nervousness, looking for a win too early because you cannot stand the pressure of grinding it out and playing a long game) and miscalculated. Then it became murky and after further mistakes (and good play by Mamedyarov) he was lost. He was extremely lucky that Mamedyarov blundered and he even won the game. This was followed by another strange game with Andreikin when in a calm Chebanenko Slav he started sacrificing pawns left and right in yet another attempt to be over-aggressive. The culmination was in Round 9 when he blundered on move 7 (!) against Karjakin and lost. The biggest successes in life happen when you’re being yourself and you do things your way. Kramnik hasn’t been himself in this tournament, trying to be over-aggressive isn’t his style. And time is running out for him to reset himself and show his best, vintage Kramnik style.
Karjakin’s play has reeked of fear. After pompous statements that his mission is “to return the chess crown to Russia”, having personal manager and private sponsorhip that covers all his expenses and working on constant basis with Motylev (current European Champion) and Dokhoian (Kasparov’s second since the beginning of the 90s), I wonder whether all off that has been a bit too much for him. He proudly tweeted before the tournament that he prepared really well and was feeling in excellent shape, but then he says he was “surprised by 2…d6” (in his game with Mamedyarov from Round 5, after 1 e4 c5 2 Nf3) and “because Mamedyarov has 3 seconds here and must have been very well prepared, I decided to deviate [by playing 3 Bb5+]”. Excuse me?? If you cannot trust your own preparation and you deviate at every hint of preparation on part of your opponent, then I’m sorry, but you have no future in elite chess. This was further confirmed by his appaling play with white against Aronian in Round 7, playing a meek opening and being outplayed by the Armenian. And then he got his lucky break, not because he deserved it, but because he was playing the tournament’s Santa Clause, Peter Svidler. Svidler 2.0 went for the kill and sacrificed a pawn for attack, but Karjakin defended well and it should have been a draw, but then Svidler started missing things and Karjakin was winning. Then Karjakin started missing things and it was draw again. Then Santa Claus stepped in and Karjakin won. On the next day he got another present, this time by Kramnik, who blundered on move 7 (in yet another “cowardly” opening, The London System – I wonder what these guys prepare for months on only to play the London System!). So Karjakin won two in a row and is back to 50%. This should give him a boost for the remaining games, unless he sees the presents as justification of his cowardly strategy!
Mamedyarov is definitely in good form in this tournament, it’s just that his style and character are not best suited for this type of tournaments. He plays well, but the pressure is too big that he also blunders. After Kramnik let him off the hook in Round 7 he played better than the Russian and got a winning position, only to blunder and lose – and he blundered in a position that required precise calculation, something he excels in. This just shows that when the stakes and the pressure are high, even your best qualities can desert you. He continued his enterprising play against Topalov in Round 8, but the Bulgarian decided to return the sacrificed piece and steered the game to a draw. His best effort so far came in Round 9 when he was faced with some sharp preparation by Aronian to which he responded in a great fashion and went on to win a complicated game. He will probably continue in the same way and finish somewhere in the middle, with some quality chess along the way!
Svidler tried to reinvent himself for this tournament, by playing aggressive and courageous chess. This worked well for him in the first half of the tournament, but quite openly against him when he started to tire. His game with Mamedyarov from Round 6 was the first warning sign when he started to blunder heavily (just to mention 24…h6??), but he continued in the same vein and was rewarded with a draw when Anand missed his best chance on move 20. The end of his ambitions was his game with Karjakin from Round 8 when again he sacrificed for initiative, but after nothing came out of it he failed to draw a drawable endgame. What I said above about being yourself applies to Svidler as well: it was a welcome change to see him play open and brave chess, but perhaps he should have kept some of his old self, the one who played in “energy-saving” (his words) mode and knew how and when to play for a draw. That mixture would have really given him better chances in a tournament like this one.
Andreikin beat Topalov in Round 7 when the latter went berserk. His King march e1-d1-c1-b1-a2 in the middlegame was a rare sight and he won a nice game. Apart from that he was his usual, safe and solid self. No reason why not to continue in the same fashion and wait for another chance like the one in the game with Topalov.
Surprisingly, Topalov is in last place.The principled game against Kramnik seems to have had a negative effect, as strange as it may sound. He probably thought he got positive wind from that and went all out against the solid Andreikin in the next round, only to be calmly dispatched. Then he was bit more careful and returned Mamedyarov’s sacrificed piece in Round 8 and steered it to a draw. In Round 9 he went for a Najdorf against Anand but his play was not up to his usual standards (and he missed things, as he said in the press conference) and didn’t really stand a chance. He usually loses to Anand in the Najdorf. It’s strange that his level went down after that win against Kramnik, but I read somewhere that it might affect him negatively. In his case, I think he overestimated that win and concluded that he was in good form and started to play carelessly, expecting to win his games just because he beat Kramnik in a nice game. Unfortunately, one good game is no guarantee for other good games – hard work is required in every game! He will undoubtedly try to improve his tournament position and he has another game with Kramnik coming soon, so maybe that will serve as motivation, now that he cannot win the tournament anymore.