Monthly Archives: Jun 2014

On Life, Universe and… Paris

It only took a few hundred meters and a view of the Arc de Triomphe in the night lights to remind me what a fascinating place Paris is.

A few days ago, on my way back from Spain, I stayed for two days in Paris, waiting for my connection further on. It wasn’t actually waiting, as I eagerly jumped at the opportunity to revisit the city that in the past years I frequently used to change trains and planes, but only decently saw whole 11 years ago.

Back in 2003 I had a whole week in Paris, thanks to the gap between the tournaments in Cappelle and Cannes. I remember I would go out in the morning and roam the city until late at night, spending time on activities like searching for the location of the famous Café de la Regence or visiting the Montparnasse cemetery for the graves of Alekhine and Polugaevsky. Needless to say I went to all the important places, from the Louvre to the Invalides and Eiffel to the Monmartre up north and everything in between. It was an inspirational stay as my list of world cities I came to know closely grew steadily.

This time I had only two days so I decided to go for “the basics.” The Louvre was the first one, for two reasons. The obvious one was Mona Lisa. I could still remember the hypnotising effect her eyes had on me. Nothing changed since the last time I saw her, the moment I set my eyes on her I was lost for the hordes of tourists around me and the deeper I looked the deeper I got lost in those eyes. I could just stay there for ever, looking in her eyes. It took a strong conscious effort to break free from her look and move on, but even then I had to fight the desire to go back and look again.

The second reason was my favourite sculpture. It’s Hercules fighting Achelous, by Francois-Joseph Bosio. 

I am no big connoiseur of art and I didn’t know this sculpture existed before I saw it in 2003. But when I saw it I was thoroughly captivated. It was the expression on Hercules’s face, that rooted, steely, inner conviction, he simply knowshe will kill the beast. 

There is no emotion on his face, as if he’s doing a task and not performing a heroic deed and yet he is focused and determined. I used to recall this image as a way of inspiration before games. But I write all this from memory, as this time I was unlucky – the sculpture wasn’t there! I only found an empty postament with the information that the sculpture is in Portland, USA. Tough luck.

The Louvre is a vast place and I spent the whole of day one there. The rest was left for day two.

My flight on day 2 was at 9pm, so I had time until 6pm when I had a bus to the airport. After breakfast I set afoot for the Notre Dame. The reason for this was that back in 2003 the church was under reconstruction so I couldn’t see it in all its magnificence. Now I could. I love going to churches. They have this effect on me as after a meditation. After the usual walk-around I usually sit in the middle of the church and then just sit there. The feeling of tranquility comes naturally and I sit for a very long time. It’s very difficult to leave, in fact, it’s very difficult to get up from the chair! But as I didn’t have much time, I forced myself to – I exited the church as I exit all the churches I have visited: peaceful and calm.

The third stop, for yet another hypnotising experience, was the Eiffel Tower. The architectural marvel, visible from pretty much everywhere in Paris (unless your view is blocked by a building), mesmerises me with the curved shape that starts from the four “legs” and goes upwards until the top. It’s difficult to explain why I find this curve so fascinating, but as with the Mona Lisa and Hercules, I can watch it for a very long time.

As I queued for the tickets I read that the top had been closed for visitors. Tough luck, I thought again, as I could go all the way up to the top in 2003, but by the time my turn came I was informed that the top had been reopened and I could go there. Finally some compensation for Hercules and I was happy to go all the way up and watch the city around and beneath me.

I like going to high places and observe the surrounding terrain. “I am a monarch of all I survey” is what comes to mind at those moments. It is the first verse of a poem I studied back in University (William Cowper’s The Solitude of Alexander Selkirk – Alexander Selkirk was the real life Robinson Crusoe and Defoe’s work was based on his life), but most probably I remember it from Thoreau, an author I very much liked (especially his Walden). So the Eiffel Tower is a wonderful high ground from where I could monarch all I surveyed, the whole Paris itself.

By the time I was down to earth it was high time to go flying and I had to rush back to the hotel to grab my suitcase and go to the airport. The trip was smooth and I arrived safe and sound.

Paris is still wonderful after 11 years. Even though this time it was just a short visit, it was one that reminded me of the spirit and the splendour of the city of light. 

The Universe stood still and Life moved on while I was in Paris. For me the most important thing when visiting a place is to feel its spirit. All places have different spirits and feeling them makes me feel vibrant and alive. Just like the Universe.

Stavanger 2014 – Round 9

I have said it several times before, but this tournament not only reminded me of the famous St. Petersburg tournament 100 years ago, but it also ended like that one. Apart from being the strongest tournaments of their times, the comparison primarily concerns their winners.

Lasker had his fair share of dubious positions in 1914 but once he got going, there was no stopping him. Karjakin won 4 games in Stavanger, but only the last game was more or less decent, even though even there he had a dubious position at some point. But just like Lasker, he kept fighting, posing difficult problems for his opponents and taking even the slightest chance offered to him. The difference lies in the fact that Karjakin, unlike Lasker, didn’t have a single convincing win throughout the tournament and that is why I am still suspicious of his future prospects.

The situation was clear for Caruana – he had to beat Karjakin in the last round in order to win the tournament (or play a play off in case Carlsen also won). So he went for the all-popular (at this tournament) English Opening to obtain a position where he could try and outplay his opponent. Black had a good position after the opening and early middlegame, but after the tempting 25…a5 he gave Caruana a weakness on b6 to latch onto. The Italian played very well after that and obtained an advantage and after Karjakin’s imprecision 31…Qd6 he could have taken full advantage of it by changing his plan and playing 32 Ne4 Qe7 33 Bd7 and Rc6 with total domination. He followed with his plan instead and after the mistaken 32 Na4 the tables were turned in an incredible way that suddenly there was no saving for white (after missing his last chance with 34 Nc3)! In yet another twist of fate Karjakin won again and this victory led to him winning the tournament for a second year in a row. An incredible feat!

Carlsen beat Agdestein, something which was expected. But it wasn’t easy at all. Agdestein was a tough nut to crack until the end and fought valiantly against Carlsen. The game should have been drawn, but Carlsen did what he does best – he won from a drawn position after maneuvering better than his opponent. It was yesterday’s game against Svidler that prevented Carlsen from winning the tournament, but it was entirely his fault and it should give him something to think about. It just shows how good Carlsen is and what the expectations are when a second place is considered a disappointment.

Topalov and Aronian played an interesting Ruy Lopez. Topalov’s plan of a4-a5 put black under pressure but he spoilt his advantage on move 24 when he should have taken on b5. His 24 h4 let Aronian simplify the position and draw. A bad tournament for Aronian, while Topalov’s tournament was saved with his win against Kramnik – after that he beat Agdestein and came to 50%.

Giri and Svidler found a way to repeat in a complex hedgehog when the game should have started instead of ended. Both finished on -1 and probably Giri has more to be happy about, only because he seems to be a happy character.

The game Kramnik-Grischuk marked another important event. For the first time in his career Kramnik lost in the Be3, Qd2 system against the Grunfeld, blitz and rapid included. Grischuk repeated the side-line he used against Karjakin and obtained a dynamically balanced position, but white’s powerful centre and centralised queen and rooks made it easier to play with white. Kramnik launched an all-out attack in the centre and the kingside and put Grischuk under severe pressure. Just like against Karjakin, Kramnik refused to repeat moves and played for more. And just like against Karjakin, it backfired on him. He missed his best chance on move 31, when he should have taken on g6 first – it wasn’t easy, but he should have found it. And to make things worse, on his next move Kramnik missed the draw too. After the loss to Topalov, Kramnik scored 0.5/3, losing his last two games. A very disappointing tournament for Kramnik, one that started so well and promised to be one of his best ones. 

But there’s another question that I’m curious about – does this event perhaps mark the change of guard, the old generation of Topalov and Kramnik making way for the next generation of Karjakin and Caruana as Carlsen’s main contenders (with Aronian somewhere in the middle)?

Stavanger 2014 – Round 8

Karjakin continues to amaze me. Not in a positive way though. Against Kramnik, after being caught once again in the opening by Kramnik’s rare line in the QGD Exchange, he quickly retorted to his Candidates plan and went for mass exchanges and a draw. And if Kramnik didn’t become ambitious himself, they would have repeated moves around move 28 when Karjakin made it clear he wanted to draw, by playing Rg4-f4. But Kramnik did get ambitious and thought he could outplay his opponent from an equal and safe position – after all that’s his forte. But slowly things started to change and the position became easier to play for white, probably quite unexpected for Kramnik. This led to some inaccuracies before the time control and Kramnik found himself in difficulties and couldn’t cope with them. So Karjakin won inexplicably again (this does amaze me in a positive way), thus finding himself in sole lead before the last round. The question I posed some posts ago, whether Lasker (Karjakin) will win again by coming from behind or whether Capablanca (Carlsen) will snatch it with a last round win is now very much to the point!

Carlsen should have won quickly. But he didn’t and this was another amazing thing in round 8. Svidler played the English Opening atrociously and on move 10 was probably worse. Then things followed just like in the Grand Prix Attack in the Sicilian and black should have wrapped things up by move 25. But strangely enough, Carlsen failed to pounce, his 24…Rff4 letting the win slip, in a position where a lot of moves were winning. A curious miscalculation by Carlsen, something that doesn’t happen to him. Svidler didn’t miss his chance, once presented to him, and found the best moves, leading to a very complicated position when anything could happen. In the midst of the chaos the players found a way to a perpetual check. A very disappointing result for Carlsen who should have been leading with Karjakin before the last round.

Grischuk found a way to avoid Giri’s Grunfeld by transposing to a Benoni with a pawn on e3 and his bishop stuck on c1. I don’t know if that’s a good price to pay for avoiding the Grunfeld, but it turned out Giri overestimated his position when he sacrificed a pawn on move 15. But by then he probably didn’t like his position very much as 15…Nfh6 16 Nc4 Ne5 17 b3 didn’t give much counterplay either. This means that black’s plan to play automatically with Nbd7 probably wasn’t best – personally, as a life-long Benoni player, I would have preferred Na6-c7 and Rb8 on move 10, as this also wins a tempo against the pawn on d5, not being defended by e4. Giri did have some compensation after the pawn sac, but white’s position was solid and he managed to regroup. I’m not sure about his decision to double his pawns on the d-file though – this left him with an ineffective bishop on c1 (24 Bb2 was a natural alternative). Even that should have won for white, but the endgame was a bit tricky and Giri’s counterplay confused Grischuk who missed a win on move 36, when 36 Re8 would have been strong, the idea is to give check on g8 when the king defends the pawn on f5 and then go to b8, thus attacking both pawns on f5 and b4. Pretty depressing for Grischuk I suppose, who played interesting chess throughout the tournament, spoilt by unexpected turbulences in his play.

Aronian contined to show that he’s in poor form here. A nice opening idea (8 e4) followed by good play led him to win a pawn against Caruana, only to fail in the technical phase. Caruana did what he had to do to save the game, but it all depended on Aronian and he botched it. Thanks to this Caruana is still in the hunt for first place, but he will need to beat Karjakin with white in order to make it.

Agdestein lost to Topalov making my prediction that he will tire by the end of the tournament true. They followed a game by his second, Romanov, when Topalov introduced a novelty on move 14. White had the pair of bishops but black had good central control and blockade on e4. 18 d3 seems over-ambitious as it weakens e3, brings black’s Ba7 to life and gives the knight a wonderful square on e4. Then probably Agdestein miscalculated something as when he pushed 23 e4 both that pawn and the rook on g1 were hanging and white’s compensation in view of the strong black-squared bishop didn’t seem enough. Topalov was precise in the technical phase – quite a decent game from Topalov, who appears to have sprung back to life after the win against Kramnik. And whether Agdestein’s fatigue is too much to handle we will see in the last round when he will have to withstand Carlsen’s assault with the black pieces.

A very exciting finish of the tournament is ahead, Caruana-Karjakin and Carlsen-Agdestein the decisive games for the tournament victory. I’d say that Carlsen will win and Karjakin will draw and there’ll be a blitz play-off for the title! Always rooting for more top level chess, even if it’s blitz!

Stavanger 2014 – Round 7

Did I say that Karjakin is the modern Lasker? As if against his will, he’s among the leaders, winning today against Giri who pushed and pushed and pushed and blundered in the end when he should have repeated and agreed a draw after more than 7 hours of play and 131 moves. If you bear in mind that the other game Karjakin won was against Grischuk when he was practically lost after the opening, there you have the typical Lasker – people say that it is (or was, in Lasker’s case) psychology, but it’s much simpler than that. It’s true grit (John Wayne would be proud), complete concentration throughout the whole game, setting your opponent constant problems and never ever giving up. The psychology only comes into play in the moment when the opponent already has an advantage (or is winning) and is expecting the point, thus either relaxing prematurely, or not wanting to work hard until the end – then the above components gain further strength and the concentrated and determined defender becomes a ferocious attacker when the opportunity presents itself. The game itself was rather quiet and long. Black got himself in a bit of a tangle and saw it necessary to play 17…Bc6, allowing the doubling of his pawns on the c-file. This gave white a long-term advantage and he took it literally. From move 19, when the pawns were doubled, Giri pushed a pawn on move 63 and then when on move 73 all the pawns were blocked, another round of maneuvering ensued. Giri finally took the stranded rook on b5 on move 76 and then went back to shuffling until move 116 when he finally decided to push g4. It was the only way to create something and it almost worked – had he played 120 Qd7, preventing the activation of black’s queen his efforts would have probably been rewarded and I wouldn’t have been calling Karjakin a Lasker. But he missed that and then it was a draw, only for Giri to blunder in 1 and allow mate on move 131. This is probably the worst thing that can happen in chess – you play an extremely long game, trying to win for more than 100 moves and when you’re given a chance you miss it and to make things awfully unbearable, you blunder and you lose. No comfort there.

Caruana seemed surprised by Topalov’s choice in the English Attack of the Najdorf – Topalov went for a line that was popular some years ago, only to be abandoned as too theoretical and problematic for black. But too theoretical can go against the player who is supposed to have theoretical advantage if he doesn’t remember that theory! This is what happened with Caruana, 14 Kb1 is the main move, while his 14 b5 doesn’t give much to white. Furthermore, his 19 Qd4 was a new move (19 e5 led to several correspondence draws) and not particularly good one – white had 3 pawns for a piece but with black’s pieces active and aimed at white’s king it was white who was already thinking how to escape – not what you usually strive for when playing white! Topalov missed his best chance on move 23, he should have gone with his knight to the other side, on b6, covering d5. He went in the centre on e5 and after the forced 24 Nd5 Rd5 25 Qd5 Rc8 26 c4 white could breathe more easily as he exchanged a pair of pieces and his king was in no immediate danger. Then some strange play by Topalov ensused, rather passive and aimless like 26…Bc5 (instead of this 26…Kf8 would have maintained the initiative) and 28…Ke8 and 29…Ne7 provoking the exchange of queens which looked to me to be in white’s interest as without queens he would be in no danger and could even try to push his passed pawns on the queenside. But Topalov managed to establish a blockade on c5 and b4 and held the position.

Another forgotten line was seen in Carlsen-Grischuk, this time in a Grunfeld. This line was supposed to be innocuous after the game Gelfand-Kasparov, Astana 2001. Carlsen deviated from that game by taking on a5 (Gelfand played 14 Qb3) and then allowed mass exchanges down the c-file (it should be noted that Anand, back in 1994, against Hertneck, put the a-rook on c8, 15…Rac8 and after 16 Nd2 avoided the exchanges and went 16…Nc6 and 17…e5. That is definitely a more dynamic way to treat the position.) At first I didn’t understand what Carlsen was aiming for, but once he put the bishop on c7 and the knight on c5 I saw that things are far from simple for black – he lacks the usual Grunfeld counterplay in the centre and he cannot approach the centre with his king. After the further exchange on c6, black did get the pair of bishops, but I’m sure he’d have rather not – the bishop on c8 was a sorry sight and white was dominating. I liked Grischuk’s Bf6-d8-b6, the only way to get rid of the knight and then his decision to sacrifice a pawn (30…Kd7) in order to activate the sorry sod on c8 (staying passive with 30…Bd8 was possible, but nobody likes staying passive, and especially not against Carlsen). It was a decision in true Grunfeld spirit and Grischuk kept the compensation for the pawn deficit in view of activity until the end of the game. A good defence for Grischuk and a note to Carlsen that he probably needs a bit more from the position in order to beat the best players in the world.

The great thing about these guys is that they keep their high level irrelevant of their mood. You won’t see them lose without a fight or play feebly just because they are disappointed from the previous game. Kramnik-Aronian was a game to illustrate this. Kramnik must have been furious after his loss to Topalov yesterday while Aronian’s loss to Carlsen and meek play against Giri weren’t the best examples of his art. And when I saw the opening of the game, one of the drawish lines in the Ragozin I thought Kramnik (since he was the one to choose the line) just wanted to make a draw. But then I remembered that Kramnik with white usually goes for extremely solid positions against Aronian (the Exchange Slav at the Olympiad in 2012, the Four Knights Scotch in the Tal Memorial 2012, the Reti in the Candidates 2013, the 4 e3 line against the Queen’s Gambit at the Candidates 2014) but at the same time always finds a way to press, even a bit. He probably found this to be the most unpleasant way for Aronian and he sticks to this strategy. The same happened today – white does have some slight pull. So Kramnik didn’t want to make a draw and Aronian was forced to defend a passive position (something that probably didn’t improve his mood during the game). But whatever the mood, the moves they play are always of high quality – Aronian’s 16…Ra7 was a very nice prophylactic idea against white’s plan to play a4 and b5, as then black would control the a-file, with the idea to double the rooks there. Black’s problem was that his bishop on f8 was out of play and white was practically playing with a piece more on the queenside. When the knights were exchanged and white pushed b5 the opposite-coloured bishops didn’t make black’s life easier as his pawns were all on white squares, suitable for attack by white’s light-squared bishop, especially the pawn on c6. With the nice 30 Bh3 white provoked 30…f5, further weakening black’s position. I had the impression there that white will eventually break through somehow. Kramnik methodically increased the pressure and obtained the ideal set-up on move 49, finally threatening to play Ba4 and take the pawn on c6. The comp says his strongest move was 50 Qb1 (instead of the tempting 50 Qb2 from the game), the idea is to have the Bc2 motif if black plays as in the game, hitting g6. Pretty difficult to see this, especially on move 50. Kramnik’s imprecision, followed by 55 Kh2 (55 Bc2 allowed white to continued the game) allowed Aronian to pull yet another swindle (55…Bg3) and save the difficult position he had. An amazing fight and another example how difficult it is to win against an opponent who always finds the most resilient ways.

Svidler decided that the French cannot be refuted and went for the reverse Torre against Agdestein. He has tried this before, against Kramnik at ther Russian Superfinal in 2011, a game he won. Incidentally, I have actually played this idea of c4 before, with colours reversed. It was a Torre Attack and I was black against IM Mantovani, at a rapid tournament in an obscure Italian town called Sandigliano in 2000. In that game I didn’t put my queen on e7 and played c5 after taking on g3 first (and I still had my knight on b8). It worked out pretty well. It’s funny because it turns out that the knight on d2 actually hurts white if he wants to play this idea of c4 as the queen from d1 doesn’t defend the pawn on d3 and allows black to play Nc5 with tempo. It should be noted that Botvinnik always put the knight on c6 (with black) in these position, as in the games with Petrosian in 1951 and Levitt in 1967. And in Svidler’s game his problem was that he didn’t have time to play 11 a3 (to prevent the check from b4 that happened) as then black regroups with Nc5 and Nfd7. White got the pair of bishops but black had excellent development and Svidler saw it fit to repeat the moves, admitting that he had nothing. Another impressive black game by Agdestein!

With two rounds to go the tournament is still wide open. Will Lasker triumph again, coming from behind like in 1914 (coincidence or not, 100 years after his famous St. Petersburg triumph) or shall Capablanca (Carlsen?) nail it with a last round win?

Stavanger 2014 – Round 6

A deja-vu for Kramnik, he lost again to Topalov. Even though he didn’t lose the opening battle like in Khanty, soon enough he made a rash decision to sacrifice an exchange and play with a dominating knight on d4 as compensation. Whatever he may say, he doesn’t seem to be his usual composed self in the games with Topalov. He had decent, quiet alternatives on move 10 (10…ed5) and 12 (12…Bc3 13 Qc3 Bd7) but he went for the risky sacrifice 12…Rd4 instead. At first sight this looks like an understandable exchange sacrifice for obvious positional compensation, but it reminds me of Carlsen’s “obvious” exchange sacrifice against Radjabov in Shamkir: in both cases “the obvious” turned out to be a shallow evaluation. In my opinion with this decision Kramnik wanted to demostrate some sort of disrespect to Topalov, in a sense that he could play “even that” and still have no problems. But Topalov could play around the dominating knight and soon it transpired that black has tough time as white can create threats both along the c-file and on the kingside, threatening f4. Kramnik couldn’t cope with the growing problems and was lost after the strong 26 b3, but then he got a lucky chance he didn’t take – it was a well-concealed shot, 31…Nh3 (Topalov could have avoided this with practically any other move 30) and after 32 gh3 Be2 33 Qc6 Qd3 34 Bd5 Qd5 35 Qd5 Rd5 black should be able to draw! Usually you don’t get these kind of chances, maybe that’s why Kramnik didn’t expect there would be one! As it was he lost quickly afterwards. After Elista these two have played 5 games (including today’s game), in 4 of which Topalov was white, and the score stands at +3-1=1 for Topalov. Only the first game after Elista (in Wijk aan Zee in 2007) was a draw, after that the white player always won the game. I now hope that Russia plays Bulgaria at the Olympiad…

Aronian probably wanted to go home after yesterday’s loss – at least his play today suggests so. He achieved nothing from the Semi-Tarrasch (after a transposition, avoiding the Grunfeld) against Giri and by move 20 he was already worse. He lost a pawn but liquidated into an endgame with opposite-coloured bishops and a pair of rooks where he threatened to exchange the remaining rooks and transpose to a drawn endgame. Giri managed to avoid this only at the cost of a very awkward position of his bishop. After some maneuvering he saw that it was impossible to avoid the exchange of rooks and agreed to draw. Aronian is usually slow to recover after serious set-backs like the Candidates and yesterday’s loss was another difficult blow to take. I reckon he’ll be back to his usual self for the Olympiad, playing for his country has an envigorating effect on him. Before that though, there are still 3 rounds to go in Norway.

Another elite player tried too hard to win against Agdestein and another failed attempt it was. Caruana’s 1…d6 was a clear indication of his ambitions, but he never got to anything even remotely close to winning against Agdestein’s solid play. Even the exchange sacrifice to liven things up didn’t bring much as Agdestein was careful to keep things under control. Unlike Karjakin and Grischuk, Caruana didn’t push things too far so all in all was a well-played game that was dynamically balanced throughout.

The remaining two games were nothing to write home about. In both the players demonstrated their preparation from start to finish and the games ended in correct draws. Carlsen’s preparation in the Berlin was probably intended for Anand, as Karjakin decided to follow the 4th game of the match until move 11 and then his 11 g4 was played by Dominguez against Navara and Caruana against Grischuk, both games from 2013. They followed Dominguez-Navara until move 18 when Carlsen played 18…Be6 instead of Navara’s 18…Rf8. They reached a rook endgame that Carlsen drew comfortably, in all probability back in October last year.

Grischuk and Svidler played a rare line in the English Opening and they followed the computer recommendations from the moment they left theory on move 11 until the end on move 31. A high-quality game, undoubtedly, but alas, just a demonstration of the players’ good memory.

There is now a triumvirate at the top with +1, Carlsen, Kramnik and Caruana. Carlsen still needs to play Agdestein and in view of what I said that I expect Agdestein to tire and lower his level, I’d go with the World Champion to win the event. Not too original a prediction, admittedly, but a very probable one…

Stavanger 2014 – Round 5

A change of leader and 3 decisive games, all won by white.

Kramnik again showed excellent preparation. As white in the English Opening against Caruana he went for a somewhat rare line, 8 Qd3, seen in Bocharov-Shomoev, 2009, followed by the novelty 12 Nd5. Caruana went for the complicated 11…Ne4 – while it is commendable that he went for probably the best move, it is also impractical to go for the complicated line that your opponent had analysed deeply. But this decision also showed the self-confidence Caruana has in his own calculations, not being put off even by Kramnik’s famous preparation. As expected, they followed Kramnik’s preparation well until move 17-20 (my estimate.) In a sense, Caruana was right in choosing 11…Ne4 – it gave him acceptable play, but on the other hand it wasn’t completely equal and he spent masses of time and energy to get there. Typical modern preparation – nothing much is obtained on the board, but time advantage, psychological pressure and energy investment are all in favour of the better prepared player. Kramnik continued to press for a very long time but Caruana defended well and when it seemed that a draw would be agreed he decided to try one last chance, and as it usually happens, it worked! Instead of the drawing with 43…Kf8 Caruana chose the losing 43…Ke8, quite an unexpected oversight for him. Again we see a game decided by a big blunder, this time after a long and successful defence, only succumbing at the last hurdle. Chess is a merciless sport.

Carlsen finally won. Yesterday I said I didn’t expect too much of his game with Aronian, but how wrong I was! It was a fantastic game – it started with the anti-positional novelty 11 fg3 in the Ragozin. Everybody analyses the first line of the engine, so novelties nowadays are the second, third, forth, nth line of the engine, or, if someone gets lucky, a purely human idea that doesn’t fail tactically. Carlsen’s 11 fg3 is the only other possible recapture, but I’m sure nobody analysed it! It has the advantage of discouraging short castling by black and this led to a very unbalanced position. I was impressed by Aronian’s idea of domination on the queenside, starting with 16…Bd7 and 17…Na4 and then 20…Nc3 and 21…Qb4 – a very successful concept of defence, simply by dominating white’s queenside he defended against possible attack! This was followed by domination in the centre by 23…f5 and the doubling on the f-file. I would feel uncomfortable with white there as there’s nothing constructive to do! Worth mentioning is Carlsen’s idea to activate his rook on a1 by 24 Ra5 and 25 Rc5 and then his plan to get rid of the annoying knight on c3 by 27 Nh2, liberating the f1-square for the queen, 28 Qf1 with the idea of Rc1. Very good defensive play! The comp points out that his 29 Re2 was a mistake, but it was also part of the plan – to liberate e1 for the queen after the f-file is opened. But Aronian kept the dominating position and could have maintained the grip by 32…h5, shutting the knight on h2. Instead his decision to exchange queens turned the tables completely! Without the queens it was white who overtook the queenside and black’s bishop, with all the pawns on white squares from the dominating force it was turned into the typical bad bishop. From then onwards it was one way street, in spite of Aronian’s heroic defence. An impressive game!

Svidler and Karjakin played an English Opening (pretty popular in Norway) and Svidler was the better prepared of the two – it showed on move 15 when the right move was 15…Nd5, as played in one correspondence game, instead of Karjakin’s 15…Na6. This gave white an advantage that he increased with straight-forward play. The key moment was on move 23 when Svidler didn’t find a way how to improve his position even further – with hindsight (or, rather, computer help) it is easy to logically explain the correct move: you should improve the piece that doesn’t perform optimally, in the position from the game it’s the bishop on g2 – hence the solution 23 Nh4 (which at the same time improves the scope of the knight, threatening to come to f5.) After the meek 23 h3 was followed by 23…h6, the same idea again was the best chance, but he didn’t take it. It’s curious to know what he missed. Soon after the game liquidated in a drawn queen endgame and ended with perpetual check.

Grischuk repeated the same line in the French Karjakin used against Agdestein. This time however the Norwegian was the first to deviate with the novelty 16…Rb8, Houdini’s first choice. Agdestein’s way to combat the elite with black is worth noting – against 1 d4 he chose the solid Queen’s Indian, thus avoiding forced surprises, while against 1 e4 he himself choses deeply analysed lines. Against Karjakin it could have led him in trouble, as Karjakin introduced a good novelty, but this time it was him to introduce a novelty and he didn’t have any problems in the opening. It was apparent that Grischuk, just like Karjakin before him, was trying to win at all costs – some of his decisions cannot be explained otherwise. 23 a3 was interesting, sacrificing a pawn to enter a position with opposite coloured bishops. These can be very dangerous in the French, they usually favour the side with the better king and in this case it seemed it was the white one. But white couldn’t get his pieces to cooperate optimally and black was successful to parry the threats. 32 c4 was a reckless move, it reminds me of a man who cannot break down a wall and eventually uses his head to do it. Probably white could still have drawn after it (35 Rd8), but he wasn’t playing for a draw and it should have cost him dearly had black found 39…Rg2 winning on the spot. After 41…Be6, another imprecision, Grischuk played the best moves to escape with a draw. A game with almost identical pattern with the Karjakin-Agdestein game: the favourites try too hard to win, end up lost, but eventually escape unpunished. Had Agdestein won those two games he would have been leading this tournament…

Some people are not born to play the Open Sicilian and one of those people is Giri. He probably tried to catch Topalov in some prepared line in the Najdorf, but when Topalov unexpectedly chose the Rauzer Giri was like lost at sea. 14 h4 on paper seems like a good, Sicilian, attacking move, but in Giri’s case it was connected with the idea of Rh3-d3 (and later to d2) to defend his queenside! The typical move for these structures, f5, without which white cannot achieve anything, was played on move 30! This cautious play may be good for the Catalan, but it’s the most inappropriate thing white can do in the Sicilian. It should have been a scholarly game for Topalov, he outplayed Giri very easily (I’d even say typically, as it usually happens when white is passive in the Sicilian) and it would have been a great example had Topalov found 25…Qa6 with the idea of Qa8 – curiously enough white cannot defend the e4-pawn. He got a second chance when the typical Sicilian break in the centre 31…d5 would have given him a winning position. Instead of winning Topalov blundered in 1 move by 31…Kh8 as after 32 Nf3 his rook on e5 and pawn on d6 are both under attack. Giri mopped things up after that. I’m afraid that what I said about Topalov is becoming true and the blunders definitely do not help his cause. Giri was lucky this time, but maybe this game marks a change of generations in the top echelons of the elite.

There is one thing that will be intriguing tomorrow and that is the clash between the leader and the tail-ender. Something similar happened in the Candidates – before round 6 in Khanty Kramnik was on +1, trailing Anand by half a point and playing good chess. But then he played Topalov with black (who at that time was on -1) and he famously lost that game. From then on his play was never the same and he dropped out of contention. Tomorrow Topalov is again white and it will be very interesting to see what they prepare this time, especially in view of Kramnik’s lost theoretical battle in Khanty. A lot of unknowns, but one thing is certain – they won’t shake hands.

Stavanger 2014 – Round 4

Something happens when Karjakin plays. Today he went for 1 d4 against Grischuk and against the expected Grunfeld he chose the Be3, Qd2 set-up. Grischuk deviated a bit from the mainstream theory and Karjakin seemed to be caught unprepared. Incidentally, I have played this line before with black (in 2001 and 2002) and after having analysed it I came to the conclusion that the only way for white is to play 11 d5. After Karjakin’s 11 Ng5 black has good play. Soon enough, strange things started to happen – first instead of 16 0-0 Karjakin played 16 Bd4, which allowed 16…Bh6, but even after Grischuk’s 16…Bd4 black seems to be taking over the initiative. Now how is this possible for a player who has a whole brigade of coaches working for him (I read somewhere that there were 9 of them), to be worse with white after 16 moves in an opening he was expecting? And it’s not even his first time, just remember the most recent examples Karjakin-Nakamura, Shamkir (the 14 f3?? in the King’s Indian) and Karjakin-Carlsen, Shamkir, both games in openings he was expecting and yet coming out of the opening with a worse position. Back to the game, after the expected 17 Qd4 when black can play 17…Nd3 immediately or prepare it with 17…Bb5, black is already a bit better, but instead of this Karjakin decided just to give the exchange by taking 17 cd4. I don’t know what he missed, but after the forced sequence on move 21 he was in a technically lost position. It’s not easily winning, far from it, but for players of this caliber it should be a technical win. And then Karjakin started to find the best possible chances while Grischuk seemed to relax prematurely. 22…b6 (instead of his 22…b5) not weakening c5 is one suggestion, 24…a5 is another weakening move, probably missing 25 Rc3 with the idea of Rc5. Grischuk continued to push his queenside pawns, but without the proper support they were harmless – after taking on e7 and establishing strong passed pawns in the centre Karjakin was out of danger. And as it usually goes in such situations, the player with the advantage cannot readjust and eventually loses. Amazing win for Karjakin – you cannot say it’s undeserved, but also on the other hand what kind of play is that for an alleged challenger for the world title? And a pity for Grischuk who seemed to be on his way to 3/4 and a hattrick of wins, but alas, he only has himself to blame.

Nothing much to comment about Aronian-Svidler. They played a long theoretical line in the Grunfeld that ends in an equal endgame. They drew just after the control. Strange choice by Aronian, to say the least.

Topalov introduced a novelty on move 10 against Carlsen’s Ragozin and it seemed that white had a slight edge. Carlsen was obviously eager to complicate things as he went for the a2-pawn, but this gave white ample play with his pair of bishops. White had full compensation for the pawn when he decided to repeat the moves – Topalov has a horrible score against Carlsen, so maybe it’s understandable why the usually pugnacious Bulgarian decided to end the game so soon. I wonder whether Carlsen is getting impatient because he cannot win a game.

Kramnik played the very rare 11…h6 against Agdestein in a very topical line of the Nimzo Indian. Agdestein is very solid in this tournament and he continued to be so – as soon as he got the chance, he pushed 13 d5 and liquidated into a symmetrical position where he had a slight press but where the draw was the likely result after the expected mass exchanges down the d-file. That is what happened and I thought Agdestein would play the simplest 27 b3, just taking away the pawns from the dark squares. He went for the more active 27 Qd8 and after the exchanges of pawns black had a passed a-pawn, but white’s activity allowed him to control it. They drew after the bishops were exchanged and black held a perpetual check.

Caruana-Giri was the round’s most complicated game. The opening reminded me of Botvinnik-Portisch, Monaco 1968, one of Botvinnik’s most beautiful games, only there black didn’t allow b4 by playing 10…a5 (after a slight transposition of moves), while Giri decided to allow it. So just like in Svidler-Kramnik from round 1, the Reversed Sicilian a tempo up (also known as the English Opening) didn’t give white anything. But they don’t play that to get an advantage, they play it to get a position. And they did get a position, a complex maneuvering position with a lot of ideas to think about – white could push e4 or d4, he could try to play along the b-file; black could try to push f4 himself or just stay solid and react to white’s ideas. I was surprised by Giri’s 19…g5, not a move you’d expect from a cautious player like him. He could have gone 19…Nde7, something he did on the next move. Maybe he was worried about 20 f4 then as after the exchange of queens white retakes with the g-pawn and establishes a pawn mass in the centre. It’s difficult to move it though, but perhaps Giri was just worried and wanted to avoid it. In the subsequent maneuvering Caruana outplayed Giri, I have the impression that he was psychologically uneasy because of his weakened king. But Caruana missed his chance after the time-control and they transposed to a heavy-piece endgame, which was equal.

A very tight tournament and +2 might as well win it. Wins are very hard to come by and as we have seen so far they happen only when a big mistake occurs, otherwise the players’ defensive skills, technique and opening preparation do not allow for winning chances.

Tomorrow the world number 1 plays the world number 2, but somehow I don’t expect much from that game. I hope I’m wrong though.

Stavanger 2014 – Round 3

Today we found out that Carlsen knows how to prepare topical lines. I read it somewhere that he’s consciously going for complex positions, on one hand to enrich his playing style, and on the other, and this is my opinion, to prepare for the match with Anand – after all, he can’t expect Anand to do the same and play the boring chess he played in Chennai; surely Anand should try to play more active and dynamic chess and this is exactly what Carlsen has been doing in the tournaments this year (the games Nakamura-Carlsen, Zurich, Karjakin-Carlsen, Shamkir, Carlsen-Radjabov, Shamkir, Nakamura-Carlsen, Shamkir are all good examples.) Curiously enough, a week ago I was browsing through Kaufman’s book “Sabotaging the Grunfeld” where the line with 3 f3 is recommended for white. And quite unexpectedly, Carlsen goes for it! In the book Kaufman suggested the novelty 15 Bh6 and up to move 17 they followed his analysis when Caruana played 17…Qe7 instead of Kaufman’s 17…Qf8. Probably Caruana’s move is worse than Kaufman’s, who used a very powerful hardware for the book, as Carlsen managed to get an edge – after black’s 18…e5 white is better on both wings. But then it seems to me that Carlsen miscalculated something. It’s obvious that black’s counterplay is based on the move …c6 and on move 26 he could have prevented it with 26 Qe3 and if Rb8 renewing the threat, then 27 Qc5 with domination. Instead, he allowed it and suddenly it was white who had to be careful – a clear indication that he missed something in his calculations. Realising this, he made another debatable decision – instead of keeping equal material and defending against black’s initiative (30 Nd5 Nd5 31 ed and now black can choose between 31…a4 and 31…b4), he went for an endgame – a piece down. This decision clearly shows his preferences! True, he got two pawns for the piece, and they should have stayed only two, if it wasn’t for Caruana’s miscalculation on move 34 – he should have inserted the zwischenzug 34…gf4, the idea is that white cannot take on d7 in view of 35…f3 and black wins! Good technique often relies on such “details.” Instead he allowed Carlsen to get a third pawn for the piece and increase his drawing chances. The position was difficult to play for both – Carlsen had to be careful not to lose the pawns for nothing, and Caruana wanted to avoid too much simplification. Probably both players missed better ways of handling the position (as the comp suggests) but this only shows the level of complexity. Eventually Carlsen managed to save the draw. It’s not the first time that Carlsen gets into trouble with Caruana with white (see for example their games from Wijk aan Zee in 2010 and the Tal Memorial in 2013 – the latter particularly typical as he blundered in an equal position) but what is surprising is that he got into trouble after achieving an advantage from the opening – usually at this level it’s a rare sight to see an advantage turn into a fight for a draw. When it happens though, it’s always as a result of a miscalulation. Both players can be equally unhappy with the result, but Caruana still leads with 2.5/3 while Carlsen is yet to win a game.

It’s always a pleasure to see Kramnik go on the offensive, especially with black. This is such a rare sight and the examples I recall have mostly tended to backfire on him – against Naiditsch in Dortmund 2010, against Shirov in Shanghai in 2010, against Svidler at the Russian Championship in 2011 and most famously against Ivanchuk in the last round of last year’s Candidates. But today it went well for him, probably because they had a classical position on the board as Giri chose to play the Catalan against him. I very much liked 13…Qe8, the move that set the tone for the whole game. The idea is obvious: he wants to put the knight in the centre and play …f5. Giri seemed to play with fear, as if he didn’t expect such an open aggression from Kramnik. Kramnik’s 22nd continued his aggressive intent, he could have taken on b5 and played …b6, establishing something of a fortress, but he wasn’t interested in that – he sacrificed the pawn on a5 instead in order to plonk the knight on f3! When you’re under this sort of pressure, both psychological and chess-wise, it feels very uncomfortable and this makes it difficult to find the right moves – Giri chose to sit and wait while he could have tried to disturb Kramnik’s maneuvering by Ba5 at some point (on moves 34 and 35 for example.) Both players committed inaccuracies on move 40, as Giri’s 40 Qf1 allowed 40…Qf7 with the idea of Bb3, but they were both probably in time-trouble. But some mistakes are made on move 41 and that’s what Giri did – it seems that he completely missed that he had a weak back rank, after his 41 Rc2? Qe6 black threatens to take on h3 and mate with Rd1. It seems Giri just collapsed, but coupled with his missed 16…Rh4 yesterday, it doesn’t bode well for him at this tournament – missing tactics is the worst sin you can have in chess! On the other hand, a great game by Kramnik, it’s good to see him play liberated and aggressive chess, something he used to do in the late 1990s!

I admired Karjakin’s spirit today. Losing a game after 17 draws in a row must have pissed him off and he went out guns blazing against the rating outsider Agdestein. He was white and introduced a novelty on move 17 – it’s remarkable that Houdini doesn’t think much of it, while the move (17 g3) is actually recommended by the latest version of Stockfish! It’s obvious Karjakin (or his coaches) have used Stockfish to find this novelty – they followed Stockfish’s line until move 23 and here it seems Karjakin either forgot his preparation or didn’t leave Stockfish long enough to think. After 23 Bb4 white is almost winning! It takes Houdini quite a while to understand this – what an amazing discrepancy between the engines in this position (sometimes to crack a position you need to switch between the engines, usually one will suggest a way forward.) After his sacrifice 23 Nd5 he could maximum hope for a draw, but he kept pushing (he could have drawn with 26 ef6+ for example)! He didn’t risk losing, but to my eyes it seemed risking too much to play on in a position when the only side that had winning chances was black! As it usually happens, when you try too hard to win (and I suppose he was trying to win, even though there weren’t really any chances) the hunt becomes the hunter. 42 fg5 was the final drawing possibility as after 42 Qd3 black was already winning. Agdestein’s cleanest chance was on move 48, when the calm 48…Kf7 would collect the g7-pawn with the king, while after the game move it became messy again. Black’s last mistake was 55…f3 and after that white saved the draw. A hugely disappointing game and result for Karjakin – he blew a great novelty and then he spent most of the game trying to invent chances when there weren’t any, in defiance to the inevitable draw that should have happened. The only positive for him is that he didn’t lose, but I’m sure he was expecting to win against the lowest rated player in the tournament. But all sharks, big or small, have sharp teeth and Agdestein has definitely proven that he is one! It will be interesting to see if he manages to keep it up, even though I suspect that he will let his guard down when he tires, simply because he’s not used to this level of chess on a daily basis.

Svidler-Topalov started as a Najdorf, then transposed to a Scheveningen and after Topalov’s very rare 8…d5 (I must quote the only other game in the database: Gietl-Wuensch, Mittelfranken 1996) it transposed to a French with the superfluous a4 for white.This weakening gave black enough counterplay on the queenside. Topalov’s decision on move 17 (17…Qa5) is typical of the player’s character. A player with a calmer disposition and a liking for endgames would have taken on f2 and would have entered a well-known endgame that is slightly better for white, but drawable for black. Topalov chose to keep the queens on board in order to have more counter-attacking chances. In view of white’s weakening a4, I would tend to agree with him. But even with the queens on he was forced to patiently destroy white’s pawn centre, first with 22…f6 and then with 27…e5. This eventually allowed him to equalise. All in all a game that shows the kind of patience one must have when defending slightly worse positions.

Grischuk-Aronian was a strange game because it lasted only 12 moves. Something went awfully wrong with Aronian’s preparation, but usually that is not the end of the world in non-forced variations. To make things irreparable, he blundered badly with 12…e4 (losing a pawn, but he played this with his next in mind) and 13…Qf5, losing the queen. This reminds me of Mamedyarov’s blunder against Aronian at the Candidates, when he also lost the queen in the opening – what goes around, comes around you could say! The rest was not too difficult and Grischuk mopped things up. A nice comeback by Grischuk, who after the initial loss scored 2/2 and is now in shared second with Kramnik, half a point behind Caruana.

So blunders still lose games, let’s stick with yesterday’s motto!

Stavanger 2014 – Round 2

Before examining the games from round 2, I’d like to explain why yesterday I called Agdestein’s exchange sacrifice a-la Botvinnik and not Petrosian, as everybody else. It is because it reminded me of a very old game of Botvinnik as black, somewhere from the 1940s, way before Petrosian became famous for his exchange sacrifices. So today I checked and the game in question was Luiblinsky-Botvinnik, Moscow 1943. Long time ago I was a serious student of Botvinnik’s games, thoroughly digesting his 3 tomes of selected games and not surpsingly something stuck in my memory.

Today was an exciting round. The main match-up of the day, Kramnik-Carlsen was a bit of a let-down because they chose to play it safe. It was a repeat of the Catalan they played back in 2011 in Wijk aan Zee. Kramnik blundered badly in that game and lost, but here it was Carlsen to introduce a novelty on move 11. It was within the boundaries of equality throughout and what I found interesting was to observe Carlsen (again!) try to squeeze something out of nothing in the symmetrical position starting from move 31. And, as we’ve grown accustomed by now, he managed to squeeze something! It was not enough for win, but he definitely made Kramnik suffer – he even won two pawns at one moment. Of course, Kramnik was never in any danger, but in games like this one it is no less important to establish a psychological initiative: Kramnik was pressing from the beginning and Carlsen defended patiently and when it was finally equal Carlsen started to play for more! Why? Because the trend shifted in his favour and he tried to capitalise on it. He didn’t manage this time, but players like Lasker, Karpov and Carlsen himself (to name just the most typical ones) have won immeasurable number of games after defending for long periods and when they finally equalised they started to play for a win, very often quite successfully. It is difficult for the side that had an advantage to shift gears and steer to a draw, they either continue playing under the impression of the old (and gone) advantage, or they just relax thinking that the position is an “easy draw.” In both cases they start to make mistakes and end up in trouble. This is the psychology behind the incredible victories of the great fighters.

Caruana made it 2/2. Svidler’s Paulsen quickly became very sharp and Caruana sacrificing, first a pawn and then a piece. My feeling is that these types of attacks in the Sicilian are won by white, in the vast majority, simply because it’s easier to play when attacking. It was far from straight-forward, of course – to illustrate, the comp gives 19…Rb8 as the only way to hold a draw! The idea is to play …Rb5 at some moment, defending the pinned knight on e5. Not an easy move to find! After 19…Bf6 Svidler gave his queen for a lot of material, but he probably missed that white recaptures one of the pieces by force. But even then I thought he had enough counterplay based on the passed f-pawn. Caruana’s 30thmove (30 Qf2) was strange to me – I thought it was natural to block the pawn with the rook, leaving the queen free to roam around. But he thought otherwise, he thought that the rook should roam around and the queen can jump out at the opportune moment. After looking at the position for a while I realise that it is actually difficult for black – white has many motifs to play for a win – he can use the h-pawn as a deflection in order to win the f-pawn, he can start attacking black’s queenside pawns with a3 and he can create threats against black’s king, while all black can do is wait. In such situations, when one side has ideas while the other one has to wait, it’s almost certain that the side with the ideas wins, as it is next to impossible to be very precise against anything that they throw at you. It also happened here, on move 38 (possibly in time-trouble) Svidler blundered (38…Bd7 would have continued the fight) and allowed a mating attack.

Topalov-Grischuk was an exciting Najdorf. By a curious transposition they found themselves in the old game Shirov-Gelfand from Greece 1993. Ever since then it was considered that black is quite comfortable and the current game didn’t change that verdict. Topalov varied with 17 Kb1, instead of Shirov’s 17 h4 (due to the …Ng4, Bc1 repetition in the opening the numbering of the moves is different from the Shirov game, there it was 15 h4) but black just proceeded with natural development of his pieces and it was him who actually started to create threats first. Topalov lunged forward on move 23 with Nf5, when he had a more solid alternative in 23 Bg5 and only then Nf5. The game move allowed …d5, but he probably thought that the pawn sacrifice gave him an attack – a typical decision by an aggressive player, trying to wrestle the initiative from the opponent by violent means. However, his 26 h5 allowed 26…Qf2, a kind of defensive move you know it’s good once you see it. Looking at the position with a comp, it suggests the check on h6 first (26 Nh6 Kg7 27 Bc1) and then it gets crazy and simply takes on b2 for black and after 28 Kb2 continues calmly with 28…Qc6. An amazing idea – the threat is Na4+ and the Nh6 is out of play. White can bring it back by 29 Nf5 Kg8 30 Nd4 and it seems it just wins, only to be countered by 30…Na4 31 Ka1 h5!! The line goes on 32 Qf3 Bd4 33 cd Rac8 and it’s “just” a draw (i.e. 0.00.) Unbelievable stuff, I mean it’s relatively easy to make sense of the moves, once you look at them with the help of the comp, but actually finding them over the board is impossible. After 26…Qf2 black took over the initiative as he managed to defend his kingside. I suspect that Grischuk was in time-trouble again, but it was Topalov who succumbed to the pressure with a gross blunder on move 33. I have the impression that Topalov is on his way out of the elite – he did win some Grand Prix tournaments last year, but his play was far from convincing and the disappointing result at the Candidates must have left him pretty depressed. I think he lacks motivation and, more importantly, energy to be able to play his trademark chess.

A long series of draws almost always finishes with a loss and this was proven again by Karjakin. He had 17 draws in a row until today and it seemed the series would continue as in a tame line of the Queen’s Indian Aronian only got a small advantage. But the advantage wouldn’t disappear in spite of the exchanges, making it more difficult to play with black. This structure, of 2 vs 1 pawns on the queenside and 3 vs 4 pawns on the kingside (from white’s point of view) can arise from many openings, like the French, the Sicilian and here from the Queen’s Indian. Usually it is pretty safe for black, provided he puts his knight on d5 and controls white’s queenside pawns. Here it was exactly this that was Karjakin’s problem – he couldn’t put a knight on d5: just watch how Aronian skillfully prevented it, first with 25 Qf3 (f7 is hanging) then 28 Re3, with the idea of retaking on f3 with a rook, again not letting the knight jump to d5. Hence Karjakin’s 28…Rf8, but then 29 Rc4, again preventing it – if black takes on f3, 29…Qf3 30 Rf3 Nd5, there comes 31 Nf7! It’s very difficult to play against this type of moves, you can’t play what you want, they are not letting you! And since you can’t play what you want, you play something you don’t want – nevertheless I’m still surprised by Karjakin’s 29…a4. Why give white a passed pawn for nothing? He should have kept still with something like 29…Qd6 and suffer some more. After 29…a4 30 b4 white’s advantage rose to almost decisive. Aronian even let black finally establish a knight on d5 as white’s domination was too much for black to handle. I was a surprised though by Aronian’s decision to put the wonderfully centralised knight on e5 on a6 (34 Nd7, 35 Nc5, 36 Na6), it just doesn’t look like “good technique.” The comp then suggests 36…Ra7 and says that black should hold – the idea is to prevent the exchange of black’s pride, the knight on d5. Karjakin missed that and went down quickly after the knights were exchanged.

Giri varied from his usual Grunfeld and went for the Ragozin against Agdestein, a rare occurrence in his repertoire. Agdestein in turn decided to turn back the clock and chose Capablanca’s move 7 Qa4 from his famous win against Spielmann in New York 1927. Giri decided not to follow Spielmann and chose the modern treatment of 7…c5 (incidentally, Spielmann played this in 1936). Agdestein’s 14 Be2 was new, but it didn’t change much in the position – black had good play in a typical position from the Ragozin. Something strange happened on move 16. The comp points out an amazing resource for black, namely 16…Rh4!! The idea is to come to e4 with the knight from f6 and then take on f2 as this knight cannot be taken by the king in view of Ne4+ and the queen on a3 is undefended. But otherwise white’s pawn on e3 also falls and white is just lost! This means that white’s 16 Rfd1 was a big mistake and that the players didn’t notice this hidden idea. Two moves later it was white’s turn to miss a tactic. By 18 c4 he could have got rid of the weak pawn and opened the position for his bishops. After 18…dc 19 Bd6 and Bxc5 black would have a difficult time to defend the doubled pawns on the c-file and his kingside. The same move c4 was a possibility again on move 20, but Agdestein decided to straighten up his structure by moving this pawn to d4 (after the exchange of the rooks on that square.) But this actually gave black a good square for the knight on e4 and from there it went to c3, completely paralysing white’s queenside. All white could do was give one of his bishops for the dominating knight and reach a drawn opposite-coloured bishop endgame. Curious missed chances by both opponents, especially the more positional c4 ideas, as the sacrifice on h4 really isn’t something you expect to work (and consequently you don’t look at it too deeply.)

If yesterday’s motto was “you don’t blunder, you don’t lose” today’s can quite appropriately be “you blunder, you lose!” Let’s see what tomorrow brings.

Stavanger 2014 – Round 1

I am not able to follow the games live so I only take a look at them once they finish. I find this useful as I’m not clouded by the opinions of the commentators, the players, the GMs on Twitter and the rest of the world – I can draw my own conclusion and explain my own thoughts.

Before going on to the games, I noticed that even though Carlsen won the blitz, he didn’t get the number 1 starting number, as I expected, but he got number 4 instead. Whether it was his wish or there was something else, I don’t know.

So as number 4 Carlsen played Giri with white. In the blitz he allowed the Grunfeld but this time he decided to avoid it with 1 c4. Giri is well-known for his excellent preparation and fully in line with Carlsen’s strategy in the opening he went for something less explored. It’s curious to note that in the 23rd game in Seville Karpov also went for this system against Kasparov and managed to pose some problems to black. The first important decision was on move 12 – white decided to abandon his strong centre that limited the bishop on g7 and went for piece activity and initiative. Personally I prefer structure, but in modern chess initiative is probably valued more. I get a feeling that white was forced to go forward all the game as a result of this decision. So after 12 dc5, 13 Qd5 and 14 Rfd1 white got pressure in the centre and the queenside, but after black calmly defended white had to find a way to somehow keep the initiative that was about to evaporate. He went 16 Ng5 and after the forced 16…e6 17 Qc6. Somehow from move 12 to move 17 all play seems forced. Giri wasn’t forced to take on c6 and allow white a dangerous passed pawn, but perhaps he thought he could just take it? 17…Rac8 was quite possible when black is fully developed and not even close to being worse. But he was also OK after the game continuation – he must have calculated pretty well that he can contain the c7-pawn – in fact both players must have calculated pretty well – white not to lose it without compensation and black to see that he is out of trouble. And again pretty forced play ensues: white strives to defend the c7-pawn by all cost and black trying to take it, leading to a forced exchange sacrifice by white only to head to a positional draw when neither side can improve. White’s last chance was in fact 25 Bc5 and now I’d prefer to play 25…a5 with black, as after 25…Bc5 26 Nc5 and Na6 black is completely tied down – his best is probably 26…Kf8 27 Na6 Re8 with the idea to put the other rook on c8 and after 28 Nb8 Rb8 it’s a drawn rook endgame. 25…a5 is more double-edged after 26 Bd4 a4 27 Nf6 Kh8 white also needs to be careful. It’s probably again a draw, but at least here black threatens something with his a-pawn. All in all a good game, well played by both players and a somewhat surprising forced play from moves 12 to 17 and then from 17 to 25.

Aronian-Agdestein saw a theoretical line that I analysed more than 10 years ago when I was preparing the Queen’s Indian. Eventually I decided that I didn’t quite like these positions for black – he has good control over the central white squares, but I was never comfortable in the training games I played as white somehow always managed to regroup by Bf1 or Bh3, Nd2 or Nh4 and then f3 and e4 while black’s plan is rather vague. What Agdestein did was to play …c6 and …b5, followed by taking on c4 and opening the b-file. It’s one of black’s possible plans, but I don’t like it very much (this may be my old aversion to these type of positions!) Aronian exerted some pressure by putting his rooks on c1 and d1 and putting the knight on e1, finally achieving white’s basic plan of restriction of the black bishop by playing f3 and e4. But I’m not so sure this was good. Usually the unopposed bishop is the one to be activated and by closing the centre he killed it. It was better to play 22 Bc3, putting the bishop on the long diagonal. After 22 f3 the idea behind black’s 17…Re8 was seen as after 22…e5 he threatens …e4, forcing white to play e4 himself, but then the knight comes to d4. White’s knight also comes to d5, but since both knights can be taken with a bishop it means that eventually white will be left with a bad white-squared bishop. Eventually that is what happened but before that black even took over the initiative with the typical Botvinnik exchange sacrifice on b4. White was happy to escape after that. It seems that white’s chance for an advantage in the early middlegame was to push c5 at some moment, most conveniently on move 19. A good start for Agdestein, whom I had the pleasure to watch at the Llucmajor open where he played pretty well.

Svidler-Kramnik followed Carlsen-Kramnik, London 2009 until move 18, and now Kramnik put the knight on f7 instead of 18…Ne8. I have always wondered how is it possible that black has good play in this particular line of the English – it’s basically a Dragon Sicilian with colours reversed and a tempo up for white and yet white cannot prove an iota of an advantage! The peculiarities of chess I suppose. The game was very complex, both players were enticing each other with pawn sacrifices – first white could take on c7 (but then black develops strong iniative on the queenside after exchanging queens and putting a knight on c4) and then black could have taken on d3 on move 23, but then white would have compensation with the pair of bishops (even though the comp prefers black there.) Black didn’t have difficulty in the game, he even could have tried for more had he taken on c4 on move 24 – Kramnik went for a forced line leading to an equal endgame instead (with an optical pull for black though, something which is important when playing a game, but Svidler neutralised this neatly.)

Karjakin continues to dream he’s Carlsen. He went for an unambitious set-up against Topalov just to get a game. And he did get a game just that he didn’t win. Topalov’s 7…g6 is a known motif in these structures, usually arising from the Queen’s Indian when white plays 4 e3. My first thought was to take advantage of this by 9 Ba3, but it doesn’t work – black plays 9…Nc6 and puts pressure on the d4-pawn. Then my second idea was to take advantage of the fact that black has already played …a6 and play c5 and b4. This is a typical idea in these structures and white could in fact have played 10 c5 followed by Nc3. It is more effective here than in the Queen’s Indian because there black already has a pawn on b6 and that makes the c5-push more difficult to achieve. So that was an interesting option for white. After the standard moves 10 Nbd2 Nc6 11 Ne5 black had an interesting tactical possibility, he could have taken 11…Nd4. It’s unclear after 12 Bg6 hg 13 Bd4 – white has a strong grip in the centre, but with the pair of bishops black can’t be worse. It’s curious to know whether the players missed this. After Topalov’s solid 11…Bd7 white seemed to get what he wants with this system: good centralisation and more space. But black is solid as a rock – the reason behind this is the fianchetto as usually white wishes to attack the king after a timely d5-break but here that’s impossible. This makes me wonder whether then white’s set-up loses its appeal – why put all the pieces aimed at the kingside when you can’t do anything there? So Karjakin started to play on the queenside 14 a4, 15 Qb3 and then mixed it up with 17 Rfd1 and 18 f4. All this makes an incoherent impression and it was no surprise that white had to defend after black started attacking the pawns on c4 and d4 (not hanging anymore as there was a pawn on e5, but targets nevertheless.) An interesting decision was to push 22 d5 and take the exchange – it wasn’t a way to get an advantage, but rather a way to change the dynamics of the position, to create an imbalance, as white was under pressure in the centre and even though nothing immediate was visible for black, nobody wants to just sit and wait. Hence the decision to lunge forward and stir things up. With the pawn weaknesses on a5 and e5 and the more vulnerable king white had to be a bit careful as black’s position was just too solid with the blockade on the white squares. But white did have a better try on move 27, 27 Rdd1 at least kept the queens and the tension on. Instead, Karjakin’s 27 Rf4 allowed black to reduce the material and draw comfortably.

The only decisive game was Grischuk-Caruana. In a fianchetto Benoni I was surprised by black’s 13…a5 – not a move you normally see in a Benoni! But it wasn’t the “horrible positional blunder that gives away b5” because white couldn’t prevent black’s …b5 on the next move. As black was dominating the queenside with his rook on b4 white’s only possible plan was to try to do something on the other wing. Using his knight and black-squared bishop Grischuk created some threats on the kingside and Caruana decided to sacrifice a pawn in order to get rid of white’s black-squared bishop, thus eliminating possible threats against his king and establishing a monster bishop on g7, which coupled with his passed a-pawn seemed very Grunfeld-like (don’t forget that Caruana is a Grunfeld player!) White wisely sacrificed an exchange for the dangerous a-pawn and it seemed the game would be a draw as white had no weaknesses. But then time-trouble happened and sadly enough Grischuk blundered on move 38 (38 Qa1 should draw instead.) An exciting game spoiled by a blunder and now we have a leader in the tournament.

Tomorrow’s big match-up is Kramnik-Carlsen, so I’m looking forward to that!
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