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!