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?
Alex Colovic
A professional player, coach and blogger. Grandmaster since 2013.
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