Monthly Archives: Dec 2015

Qatar Masters 2015 – Rounds 6-9

As I predicted in my previous post, when the elite starting playing each other they reverted to their usual elite ways: playing it safe, especially with black.

Both So-Carlsen (a Spanish) and Kramnik-Mamedyarov (a harmless line in the Grunfeld) were calm draws. The only surprising exception was, believe it or not, Giri, who kept on playing the Najdorf against everybody. This included the World Champion, when they met in Round 7.

In the meantime Kramnik continued in his usual ways, not minding the occasional draw with black in the Berlin, like against Yu Yangyi, the guy who beat him last year in the last round to take the tournament. Another game on the top boards saw a Berlin, Ponomariov-So. It was obvious that with the end of the tournament in sight the players were less reluctant to risk, especially when they have reached a respectable score. Quite typical for opens.

When the aggressive Mamedyarov played the more-than-usually aggressive Carlsen in Round 8 it was the battle to decide the winner of the tournament. But Mamedyarov imploded – something not uncommon for him, especially when playing Carlsen. With classical controls he lost his 4th game in a row against the World Champion! Carlsen said it himself, I’ll paraphrase, when he noted that Mamedyarov can play very well, but when things don’t go his way he frequently loses his composure.

This win practically won the tournament for Carlsen. Like I wrote in How to Win Opens the key is to have a strong finish and a win in either round 8 or 9 almost guarantees a win. Carlsen kept his sole lead before the last round and Kramnik’s win in Round 8 against Sjugirov (anything but technical! But he did play a rubbish opening!) set up the mouth-watering (only for the naive) final round pairing.

A few words about Kramnik’s choice of the London System lately. I am sure he brings mixed feelings in the hearts of the club players – he is thoroughly hated for “refuting 1 e4” with the Berlin, but his use of the London System must have made him the favourite elite player among them, the only one who plays their opening!

Speaking of the Berlin (I just love speaking on that topic!) it was strange to see Karjakin go for it against Nguyen (rated 2642) in Round 8 and practically make a draw without playing. If he wanted a shot at the top places he had to try to play for a win, even with black. Perhaps inexperience in playing opens?

The last round saw the derby Carlsen-Kramnik end like many top board games in open tournaments – with a draw without playing. When both players are happy with their scores they don’t risk and just collect the money. Obviously the money doesn’t matter to these guys, but Kramnik wouldn’t change for the world (and play something else than a Berlin) and why would Carlsen risk playing when a draw secures his victory (or at least a tie-break)?

Inconspicuously, last year’s winner emerged from the mass of players as the only other player who scored 7/9. After drawing Kramnik in Round 7, he beat Grandelius in Round 8 and So in Round 9. I have always been impressed by these last round must-win games!

So Yu risked and it paid off. That’s how you play last round games, you’re never allowed to win smoothly against a strong opponent. And after winning last year’s edition Yu was now to play a blitz tie-break with Carlsen. A true hero! Unfortunately, squeezing a win like this takes everything you have and Yu didn’t have strength for the tie-breaker. Carlsen won convincingly, 2-0. The secong blitz game clearly showed that Yu was completely exhausted.

And thus Carlsen won an open tournament. Aggression did pay off for him, but only when coupled with reasonable caution when playing the fellow elite players. Great result for Kramnik as well, who came 3rd.

In my view the open experience of Qatar proved a great success. The mix of elite players with more common GMs is a great way to capture the public eye and the games were always exciting. After the saturation of elite-only events this is a good way to liven things up and I hope we’ll see more of this type of tournaments in the future.

Have a Merry Christmas everyone (a few days late, but still) and a very Happy New Year!


Qatar Masters 2015 – Rounds 1-5

Open tournaments are tricky. I wrote a post last year on how to win them, but Qatar Masters is no regular open. It fields a lot of elite players (something unimaginable until a couple of years ago) and the total number of players is relatively small (I have noticed that I play better in smaller opens, with the number of participants lower than 100). The playing conditions are nothing like the regular opens, in fact they are more similar to the tournaments the elite are used to playing (I believe this is the main reason they decided to play – apart from the financial aspect).

Looking at the games in Qatar I noticed that some elite players changed their approach while others remained true to their usual styles. Take Carlsen for example. Apart from the first round sensation, when he couldn’t beat WGM Nino Batsiashvili, rated 2498, and the second round lousy play against GM Aravindh (2486), both of which I think were result of his getting accustomed to the tournament, he has been more aggressive than usual – instead of 1…e5 and the Spanish he’s been playing the Sicilian on a regular basis. Also, when facing a fellow elite player in Round 5, GM Li Chao (2750), he went for an ultra-sharp line against the Grunfeld. That game was rather spectacular.

Mamedyarov is usually an active player, but he upped his aggression for the open. Here’s an example from Round 5.

On the other side of the spectrum is Kramnik, a player who didn’t change one bit. His black repertoire is perfectly suited for equalising against the elite, but how do you play in an open with such repertoire? His rationale is that it’s easier to play for a win from an equal position than from a worse one. True, but even if the equal position is completely dry? Why not try a dynamic equal position? Kramnik couldn’t beat GM Vocaturo, rated 2597, (and was fortunate not to lose!) in the Guioco Piano but look what happened when he played a solid GM like Matlakov (rated 2684).

Half way through the tournament it seems both ways are applicable – the aggression and the dry technicality. But my experience from opens tells me that usually aggression wins.

In an open surprises are very common and this one is no exception. Apart from the already mentioned Carlsen draw in Round 1, there were quite a few, for example Wei Yi losing to IM Gagare (2470) and IM Vignesh (2422), the latter one with a horrendous blunder:

Another sensation was GM Tregubov losing to 12-year old Firouzja. The young are coming!

My very good friend GM Neelotpal is also playing in Doha. He’s been struggling in the first half of the tournament and is currently with two losses and three draws. I wish him all the best in the second half and hopefully to come to 50%.

Round 6 already sees familiar pairings like So-Carlsen and Kramnik-Mamedyarov. Will Carlsen and Mamedyarov continue in their open-style or will they revert to the more conservative play now that they are playing people they know well? I would go with the latter, but even if it happens so there will be plenty of action to follow. There should be more opens of this kind!


London Chess Classic 2015 – Rounds 6-9

As expected Giri drew with Carlsen in Round 6, playing white he was very comfortable doing it. With the bishop pair and no risk whatsoever he didn’t even try for more. Probably he judged that even if he tried for more the game would have ended in a draw. Which is probably correct.

The decisive game of the round was Anand’s second loss in the tournament. This was surprising as the previous day he beat Topalov very convincingly and this gave him confidence. It was also Grischuk’s second win against Anand ever and second in a row, after his win at the Sinquefield Cup in August. Playing white in both these games Grischuk opened 1 d4 Nf6 2 Bf4 in St. Louis and 1 c4 e5 2 d3 in London. It is apparent that he tries to get off the theory as soon as possible and get a game, but he tries this against Anand for the second time in a row, while against anybody else he seldom uses this approach.

Things started to happen starting from Round 7. Anand fell to a second loss in a row, he has always been unstable after losses and the loss to Grischuk affected him. But all credit to the Frenchman who played directly and aggressively. To make things worse for Anand, he celebrated his 46th birthday on the day. It’s tricky to play on one’s birthday, the most famous case that comes to mind was Capablanca’s loss to Alekhine in the AVRO 1938 (with Alekhine visiting the hairdresser before the game, especially for the occassion!)

Aronian beat Topalov easily, which can happen when Topalov is completely out of sorts. The game of the day was undoubtedly Carlsen-Nakamura. I was curious to see whether the game from St. Louis when Carlsen squandered a winning position and gifted Nakamura the draw would alter the trend between these two. And the answer turned out to be a resounding “No!” In fact, the game was very similar to many other Carlsen wins against Nakamura: Nakamura botched the opening and obtained a prospectless position and then Carlsen went on to win. In London the prospectless position was facing the pair of bishops with a pair of knights. Carlsen demonstrated excellent technique (I wouldn’t be writing this if there weren’t examples of his failed technical attempts lately) and won deservedly. The score between these two in classical games now stands at 12-0 (counting only wins – it must be very depressive for Nakamura – see the next round). I am quite certain that this win made Carlsen’s tournament – he has been suffering in the second half of the year and this win provided the necessary self-confidence booster that he badly needed.

Round 8 saw the despondent Nakamura slump to a second loss in a row against Giri. I was watching a video where there the players were asked to describe each other (and themselves) with one word. I was struck by Nakamura’s description of himself, I’ll paraphrase: aggressive, but also sometimes very passive. Obviously the second characteristic was the surprise, but the game against Giri (and now that he mentioned it, many games against Carlsen!) clearly showed he was correct.

Carlsen followed Kramnik once again in the opening, this time by implementing the Semi-Tarrasch against Topalov. And when you follow Kramnik in the opening only good things can happen to you. Soon Carlsen was pressing in a symmetrical position and although he didn’t manage to win it was clear his ability of squeezing out water from stone was back in full swing.

The last round brought a three-way tie for first when Carlsen beat Grischuk and everyone else drew: Vachier, Giri and Carlsen finished with 5.5/9 and then the tie-break followed (note that the winners of the first Grand Chess Tour tournament, Topalov and Anand, this time finished 10th and 9th respectively). I won’t go into the obscurity of the tie-break regulations that saw Vachier play Carlsen in the final and lose and then be awarded points for 3rd (!!) place and Giri, who lost to Vachier in the tie-break was awarded points for 2nd (!!) place. Going back to the final round, it was daring of Grischuk to repeat Topalov’s 7…g5 against Carlsen, but as he said, he was playing for a win. This desire to win led him to take too many risks and eventually lose, thus single-handedly “creating a monster” (Grischuk).

Carlsen won the tie-break against Vachier (who deserves full credit for coming back and winning with black against Giri’s bunker and then winning the Armageddon) comfortably, as he wasn’t in any danger while the Frenchman was exhausted.

So Carlsen won the Grand Chess Tour. Convincingly? Hardly. Deservedly? Definitely. Things weren’t going well for him at all, but he kept on fighting and eventually was rewarded for never giving up.

Now that the Tour finished I can share my impressions of it. While I am all for good chess and seeing the best players in action, I am not sure at all we need 3 tournaments where 9 out of 10 players are always the same: some diversity will bring more excitement of the possible match-ups. I know that the general public and quite a lot strong GMs were chanting “boring, Berlin, boring, Berlin” in every round, but I cannot agree. For me, anything that happens on the board is interesting. Sometimes what is interesting is what the moves on the board tell us is happening in the minds of the players and their preparations. Having no access to this information it is very challenging for me to try to understand what they were preparing, what they were trying to achieve, why they played certain openings against certain players and many other questions of this kind. I try to dig under the surface of the “boring Berlin” and this opens a fascinating world that amazes me. I remember a quote by Spassky: “There is only one thing Fischer does in chess without pleasure: lose.” What he meant is that Fischer wouldn’t mind studying “boring” positions and lines that he will never play. And, besides, I can never think chess is boring just because of a variation.


London Chess Classic 2015 – Rounds 4-5

The tournament continued in the same constrained vein, with two more decisive games in total. Both these games saw Anand as the main protagonist.

In Round 4 Nakamura repeated the style of play he successfully adopts against Anand – slow game, with nothing special out of the opening, but with constant pressure and problems to solve for Anand. Plus, always the same Catalan. This game also illustrates the approach to the opening preparation of the elite players – it’s equal everywhere, but at least the equal should be with some venom, whether that be a pawn (for compensation) like here, or some other type of disbalance.

The surprise of the round for me was Carlsen’s inability to squeeze more from the technical position an exchange up against Adams. He usually wins these positions, but this time perhaps there wasn’t really a way.

The Najdorf with 6 Bg5 is not a frequent guest in these circles, so it was a welcome sight, especially for a lifelong Najdorf player like myself. A lively battle led to a well-played draw in Grischuk-Vachier.

Round 5 saw Anand come back to 50% thanks to Topalov’s continued bad form. For the second time in the tournament the faithful Najdorf brought only grief to Topalov, but if against Vachier in Round 3 he was doing well after the opening here he was suffering almost from the start because of his passive play.

Aronian-Carlsen was a decent draw, notable for Carlsen’s acknowledgement of Kramnik’s opening preparation – he employed his predecessor’s idea in the Semi-Tarrasch. (This was played by Fressinet, Carlsen’s second, in 2014, one year before Kramnik, but note that Fressinet was Kramnik’s second before he started working for Carlsen. My guess is that this was all Kramnik’s preparation for the London Candidates in 2013 when he introduced the Semi-Tarrasch in his repertoire.)

The other 3 games of the round were two Anti-Berlins (4 d3) and one main line Berlin. The latter saw Giri demonstrate his superb prep to make a draw without much effort against Vachier. I don’t think the Frenchman minded much. In the Anti-Berlins, Adams got nothing against Nakamura while Caruana was winning against Grischuk, but somehow managed not to win.

With 3 players on +1 (Nakamura, Giri, Vachier) and everybody else except Topalov on 50% everything is up for grabs in London. In the next round I expect Giri with white to play for a draw against Carlsen. But I always expect that.


London Chess Classic 2015 – Rounds 1-3

The start of the London Classic coincided with my trip to France where I played for Grasse Echecs in the second French division, Nationale I. After we were relegated from Top 12 in May our season in N1 started in October (for various reasons the matches in October and November were postponed). The trip to Toulouse was long and tiring, which luckily cannot be said for the games I played – I won easily against a rather weak opposition and we won both our matches allowing 3 draws in total. You can see the complete results together with the current standings here (when in the drop-down menu you have to choose Interclub Adultes, Nationale I and Group C).

Meanwhile in London things started slowly. From 15 games only 2 were decisive and there have been 6 Berlins (or Anti-Berlins) so far. Now, I really don’t like it when people start criticising the players for playing the Berlin, as if it’s the equivalent of watching paint dry (even the venerable doctor Nigel Short is guilty of this). I don’t know about Short, but this is mostly because people don’t understand (or, rather, try to understand) the intricacies of the positions that arise in this opening (for starters I can direct you to my comments to the 11th game of the match Carlsen-Anand in 2014). I know that for non-professionals understanding the Berlin is difficult and good explanations are necessary (for those interested I can recommend the fantastic book The Berlin Wall by John Cox), but reading the criticism from the professionals is shooting ourselves in the leg – criticising the very thing we’re trying to show the world that it’s interesting and worth investing in! So, in order to demonstrate the richness of the Berlin, here are the latest examples from London.

Grischuk (who never plays 4 d3 when confronted with the Berlin) was very close to a win in Round 3, but alas, his time management was again awful.

The duel between Anand and Carlsen was fascinating – first it was Anand who was pressing and then all of a sudden, in 1 move, the tables were turned and it was Carlsen who was playing for a win!

The decisive games in the tournament were courtesy of Topalov. Strangely enough, before the tournament I had a feeling that a Topalov collapse may be possible in London. And it’s difficult to call these losses other than a collapse.

In a Najdorf against Vachier he got a great position after the opening, but then it seems he got confused when white created some counterplay on the queenside.

So Giri and Vachier lead with 2/3 with everybody else (except Topalov) on 50%. It will be tight in London until the end.