Too Much of a Good Thing
The following is my article on the Zurich tournament published in the latest Informator (number 123, Hawaiian).
The famous Candidates tournament in Zurich and Neuhausen in 1953 lasted for almost two months and had 30 rounds. The Zurich Classic in 2015 had 5 rounds and lasted for 5 days. There was an additional day for the blitz and the rapid, but even though the rapid counted towards the final standings, I see these convoluted formats and mixture of time controls as whims of the rich patrons, who keep finding different ways to entertain themselves.
I will mostly talk about the classical part of the tournament, where only two players won games – the winners Anand and Nakamura, each winning two. All of them were won by white and three of the four decisive games were a result of superior opening preparation coupled with unreliable memory on the part of the losers. Quite an expected occurrence in these days of overburdening computer-generated analyses when the nous to sense which opening and what line the opponent will play on the given day and then refresh one’s memory of that line is a talent that not so many players possess.
I think the only way Anand can beat an elite player nowadays is if he manages to catch him in some deep preparation. When that didn’t happen his result was dismal in Baden-Baden, but when it does, then he wins the tournament. In Zurich he beat his traditionally difficult opponents, Aronian and Nakamura. Aronian went for the Grunfeld against him (which should have been a surprise, as the Grunfeld isn’t his main weapon) but couldn’t remember the only move that didn’t lose, thus going down quickly and without a fight. Nakamura couldn’t find a way to counter Anand’s improved treatment of the popular line with 5 Bf4 in the Queen’s Gambit Declined. These +2 in a 5 round tournament proved more than enough to win outright. Big win for the former World Champion, who everybody seems so eager to bury after every loss he suffers, and yet I cannot get rid of the lingering feeling that he cannot outplay these guys anymore.
Nakamura looks more relaxed now and this shows on his results. He won the Gibraltar Open quite convincingly and if it wasn’t for the bad day against Anand he would have won the Classical part of the tournament as well. He did have his revenge by winning the Armaggedon game against Anand and winning it overall, but I think he would have preferred to win the Classical part – even for a (former) bullet-addict like Nakamura classical chess weighs more.
Kramnik was solid and unambitious. He had 2 whites that he opened with 1 Nf3 (in Kramnik-talk this means “let’s just play”) while he suffered a bit with black, but only a bit, I’m sure he didn’t even notice it. He was probably happy to win the rapid part of the event, coming third overall, but I’m sure he’s thinking of the most important event for him, the World Cup, as his only certain chance to qualify for the Candidates (the ratings average is never certain). For a player who has been a World Champion, the only motivation that remains is to be World Champion again.
The unending string of super-tournaments is taking its toll on the players, who like a circus travel from one place to the other, doing their routines and collecting the paychecks. The most active among them is Caruana, this was his third super-tournament since the start of the year (Wijk aan Zee, Baden-Baden and now Zurich) and no wonder his play suffers the most. The game he lost to Nakamura was a clear example of fatigue – in an advantageous position he miscalculated and lost. When a player is tired the first thing that fails him is the ability to calculate and this is true even for such a superb calculator as Caruana.
Karjakin was non-existent. He lost a game because he couldn’t remember the sharp theoretical line against Nakamura while he drew the rest. He scored 1/5 in the blitz and 2/5 in the rapid. He’s been unimpressive lately, he even shared last (!) in the Russian Superfinal in December last year. The former prodigy, who was expected to be Carlsen’s closest competitor, seems to have lost his drive. Many prodigies grow up with the conviction that it is their destiny to become World Champions, but when reality sets in and they realise that this is not going to happen, their dreams shattered, something breaks inside them and their progress stops. Karjakin’s level is high enough to keep him in the elite, but for a serious try to climb up the World Championship ladder he needs to change something drastically.
I remember reading an interview by Aronian many years ago where he said that he wanted “to play chess with confidence.” He’s always been a very confident player, but a year of mediocre results is tough even for the most optimistic among us. This became apparent in the first round, when instead of continuing in a very promising position against Karjakin he chose to draw with a perpetual. Without his confidence Aronian cannot hope to bounce back, but as Korchnoi said (and did), when things are going badly on the board, it’s time to take care of the things off the board (what he meant was personal life).
It is always a treat to watch the games of the best players in the world, but when their play becomes too routine and they cannot show the best they are capable of then they resemble craftsmen and not artists. The Zurich tournament was one of the many super-tournaments we witnessed lately, but one that showed that sometimes you can have too much of a good thing.