Monthly Archives: Mar 2016

Candidates 2016 – Rounds 13-14

And so it is Karjakin. He needed only a draw in the last round against Caruana, but thanks to the latter’s blunder he even went on to win the game and score Anand’s +3 from Khanty 2014, 8.5/14, a full point ahead of the rest.

In my Preview I said that unless Karjakin reinvented himself he wouldn’t stand a chance to win. He won, so what did he do? What I see is not so much a reinvention, but rather a sharpening of his best qualities – excellent technique, infinite resilience and thorough preparation. He saved quite a lot of unpleasant positions (Giri in Round 3, Topalov in Round 5, Caruana in Round 6, Aronian in Round 7, Svidler in Round 8 and Aronian in Round 13) while he missed very few opportunities: a win against Svidler in Round 8 and a draw in his only loss in the tournament, against Anand in Round 12. This difference of chances taken versus chances missed is what won the tournament for him.

Caruana came close, but unlike Karjakin he spoilt too many chances. Like I said in my previous post, he only need to look as far as the games with Topalov, both of which he should have won easily. The fact that he came that close in spite of all his misses shows that there is fantastic potential in him.

Anand was the most exciting player in the tournament, he had the most decisive games, exactly half of them! With white he was a dominant force, +4=3, but with black things went wrong with him in the English Opening, with two bad losses against the Americans in Rounds 10 and 12 and a very bad +0-3=4. This was unexpected for me, as I have grown accustomed to see him excellently prepared, but the new generations have found ways to dodge his preparation and this caused him trouble. Nevertheless a fantastic result for the oldest participant.

As expected (!) Giri drew all his games. He should have won several and was never in danger of losing. I read that Kasparov said this was due to “bad psychology.” I don’t know what he meant exactly, but there’s work to do for Giri in that area, as chess-wise he’s almost impeccable. On a lighter note, I heard that there is a new engine coming out called Deep Giri 0.00. And that Giri is considering change of career and becoming a rapper because he already has the perfect name, 50 Percent.

The other three players on 50% were Aronian, Svidler and Nakamura. The happiest of the three is probably Nakamura, who came back after an abysmal first half of the tournament. Unfortunately he was never in contention and he only started to play well when he realised that, when there was no more pressure and he could play normally. Svidler was plagued by his inability to finish things off in the first half of the tournament and his only win, against Aronian, came from a dubious position. This is a common trait of counter-attacking players: when the momentum is with them from the beginning they cannot sustain it and spoil their advantage; but when the momentum switches to them during the game they are unstoppable. Aronian saw another chance slip. The loss to Anand in Round 9 was the turning point for him as then he spoilt a winning position against Topalov in Round 10, even lost a very promising position against Svidler in Round 11. Then he didn’t make the most of his good positions against Caruana in Round 12 and Karjakin in Round 13. Notice how he had chances in every single round after his loss to Anand, but he didn’t take any of them.

Nothing much to say about Topalov, who finished dead last, whole 2.5 points behind with -5. In my Preview I said I wouldn’t be surprised if he repeats Khanty 2014 and so he did, the only difference being that in Khanty he scored 6/14 and here he scored 4.5/14. He was obviously in bad form for the whole tournament and he didn’t manage to change that.

In Round 13 Caruana had a wonderful chance to get ahead as he had a winning position against Svidler. He missed that and a theoretical endgame R+B vs R appeared and as expected Svidler defended well for a long time. But even the greatest can slip in these endgames and Caruana had one final chance. Yet he slipped again, returning the favour. Now, it’s easy to criticise the players of mistakes in theoretical endgames, but in the penultimate round of a high-tension Candidates tournament, after almost 7 hours of play and a winning method that isn’t that easy to reproduce, perhaps we should cut the players some slack. Although, to be honest, I’m sure Carlsen would have nailed it.

The only decisive game of the round was Topalov’s second loss to Nakamura, after he again messed things up in the opening. The game is typical of Topalov’s play in the tournament: sloppy from start to finish.

The game of the tournament was the last round struggle between the leaders. But the chances were heavily in Karjakin’s favour, as he had white and draw odds. It’s next to impossible to play for a win with black on this level, yet Caruana managed to obtain a complex position with long-term prospects. That is the maximum a black player can hope to obtain and I am surprised Karjakin allowed it.

The winner is always a deserved one. Karjakin proved himself to be a fighter par-excellence, both in Baku (remember that tie-break against Svidler) and here. Carlsen won’t have it easy.


Candidates 2016 – Rounds 10-12

It’s amazing how fast things change in Moscow. Every round brings new (or old) leaders and it seems the ups and downs have only begun.

Anand has been considered as one of the best defenders ever, but I am afraid this is no longer the case. In the last 3 rounds he lost twice with black, both times in the English Opening, and won once. In the games he lost he never got out of the opening, and, what’s more surprising, he never offered resistance. Very similar to his loss against Karjakin from Round 4 – when things started to go wrong he simply stopped resisting. This is not the same Anand that was impossible to beat. I think I know the reason for this, and no, it’s not age. With his perfect opening preparation he almost always gets excellent positions out of the opening, whether that be an advantage with white, or a safe or equal position with black. And this has been going on for quite a while. When you get accustomed to starting the game from a favourable position you grow out of the habit of fighting from a position with a disadvantage. And in those rare cases when he gets surprised in the opening (the losses with black in Rounds 10 and 12) he simply cannot adjust and goes down easily. If you recall my analysis of Karjakin-Anand from Round 4 you will remember that I called this the Grischuk strategy – getting Anand into unfamiliar terrain early on. But both Caruana in Round 10 and Nakamura in Round 12 modified this strategy by going for main lines (in the English) and preparing a rare continuation there.

Another point may be that once Anand understands he’s lost he stops trying, probably because he believes he cannot save the game and saves energy and time by playing shorter games. But that is not the attitude he used to have.

The game Anand won was a masterpiece. He punished Karjakin for his cynical play by playing a wonderful endgame. Bear in mind that in Round 11 it was a must-win situation for Anand as he was trailing Karjakin by half a point and had already lost to him in the first half of the event, thus losing to him in a possible tie-break in case of a draw.

It is notable that the players came to the conclusion that 1 c4 is the move to play, as more and more games start with this move. It has the merit of avoiding the Grunfeld and the Berlin and it leads to playable positions.

Karjakin played a theoretical draw with white against Giri in Round 10 and was then punished by Anand for throwing away the white pieces. He was lucky to play Topalov in Round 12 as he practically got a point very easily in view of Topalov’s atrocious handling of the Najdorf. Topalov may be in last place, but he is directly influencing the standings – if Caruana fails to win the tournament then he only need to look at his games against Topalov – he was winning in both and yet managed only 2 draws.

Giri keeps trying and keeps drawing. It’s strange that he didn’t manage to finish Nakamura off in Round 11, after increasing his advantage to a point where he thought he was winning by force:

The players look at each other’s preparation during the tournament, so Giri chose the a4 plan in the Giuoco Piano (even though he’s not an 1 e4 player) that brought success to Anand against Aronian in Round 9 and Caruana against Topalov in Round 4 (even though Caruana didn’t win being a piece up!) So far black hasn’t managed to show a clear-cut way to equalize against this plan, so expect to see it more in the future!

Svidler caught Aronian on 50% by beating him in their direct duel in Round 11. Only a second black win in the whole tournament, courtesy of Aronian’s very unstable play after his loss to Anand in Round 9. Aronian should have bounced back from that loss to Anand as he got a winning position against Topalov in Round 10, but what he did in that game is difficult to explain:

Add to this his game with Svidler, where he had an almost decisive attack and we get the same Aronian who botched all the previous World Championship cycles he participated in. It’s incredible how his level of play drops so dramatically in the course of a single game!

Svidler was getting a lot of opportunities in the previous rounds, thanks to his excellent preparation, but only won when he got problems out of the opening. Some people need to suffer and only suffering brings the best out of them! Compare this mental setup with Anand’s habit of getting good positions and capitalizing on them – different people have different preferences, obviously!

As I wrote in my previous post, the players who no longer have a chance to win may heavily influence the outcome of the tournament. Nakamura busted Anand in Round 12, Topalov gave Karjakin an easy win also in Round 12 and this affected the standings yet again. They play each other after the rest day and in the final round Nakamura is white against Aronian while Topalov is black against Giri.

A possible decider could be the last round game Karjakin-Caruana. For now Karjakin has the better tie-break (bigger number of wins) which means that most probably Caruana will have to try and use his last white against Svidler in Round 13. Karjakin is black against Aronian in Round 13 and that is the last theoretical chance for Aronian, as in case of a win he will catch Karjakin. Anand is white against Giri in Round 13, a chance for both actually, and he’s black with Svidler in the last round. Perhaps the man who holds everything in his own hands is Svidler, because he gets to play the players above him and if he beats them then he can easily come off a winner.

Six players still have chances to win and this makes the tournament quite unique. I wouldn’t dare predict how all this will pan out.


Candidates 2016 – Rounds 7-9

In the third three-game segment Anand replaced Aronian in the lead by beating him in Round 9 so now he leads together with Karjakin with 5.5/9, the same +2 as before.

Anand was the most impressive player in the last 3 rounds – with black he drew with Giri after the Dutchman took on f6 without any shame in the position on move 12:
Then he drew with Topalov with black in the same line (you can see the opening phase of that game in the comments above) in a game where he was pressing. And in Round 9 he crushed Aronian, his uncomfortable opponent. But perhaps it’s better to say uncomfortable with a twist – Anand usually loses to Aronian, but when it matters the most, in the World Championship cycle, he usually beats him: he beat him 1.5-0.5 in Mexico 2007, in Khanty 2014 and now in Moscow.

Karjakin continued with his peculiar unstable stability: he got nothing and was soon worse with white against Aronian in Round 7, unleashed a good novelty in Round 8 against Svidler and was better before starting to commit mistakes and became lost, only to be saved by Svidler’s inability to finish off winning games, and finally played a decent game in Round 9 against Nakamura in his favourite line in the Queen’s Indian. I really don’t know what to think of Karjakin’s play – he shows his usual resilience and it’s almost impossible to beat, but as fatigue accumulates his “luck” may run out.

Aronian was in cruise control until his loss to Anand – he pressed with black against Karjakin and with white against Giri, but without a threat to win. The loss to Anand will force him to take more risks as he needs to win a game or two to catch up, so I’m curious to see how he reacts to this new situation.

Caruana was very lucky (or perhaps better to say “lucky,” as in Karjakin’s case, meaning “extremely resilient and finding all the best moves when lost”) not to lose after falling into Svidler’s preparation in Round 7.

And he got the beat his fellow-American, Nakamura, who is definitely out of contention after suffering 3 losses in 9 rounds. This win brought Caruana to +1, finally, one may add. The game was, rather surprisingly, one-sided:

Giri is on 50%, probably still in his comfort zone. He missed his best chance against Caruana in Round 9, when Caruana seemed to mix up his preparation:

Giri is the last participant who can still win the tournament (although very unlikely). But the rest are definitely out of contention.

It is amazing how many times Svidler missed a win in this tournament. He gets his preparation in in almost every game, gets a winning position, and then fails to win. When he didn’t get his prep in, against Anand in Round 6, he lost in a miniature, and against Karjakin in Round 8, when he was caught in the opening, he managed to turn it around and still get a winning position only to spoil it again. He saved a difficult position against Topalov in Round 9, a game that I feel shows that he still hasn’t found a balance between a good prep and a good play afterwards – against Topalov he got a more or less decent position, but he still failed to play well afterwards. A very frustrating tournament for Svidler!

Nakamura’s 3 losses are something very uncharacteristic of him. After the touch-move drama and loss to Aronian he came back and beat Topalov in Round 7, but his resurgence was short-lived as he lost horribly to Caruana in Round 8 (see above). This was followed by a good game against Karjakin in Round 9, but it’s already too late for him. Too many losses as a result of nerves and tension (as I see it). Perhaps he put too much pressure on himself as he saw it as a must to win this one?

Topalov didn’t manage to improve either his play or his standings since the last free day. He lost to Nakamura in Round 7, from a position with initiative and attack, got nothing with white against Anand in Round 8, and failed to win a promising position against Svidler in Round 9. I don’t expect things to change for him in the remaining 5 games.

The last 5 rounds will revolve around the resistance the outsiders will put against the players trying to win the tournament and the latter’s ability to hold their nerve. Tension is rising and anything can happen.


Candidates 2016 – Rounds 4-6

The tournament entered the phase where the start is behind but the half still hasn’t been reached. The players are already warmed up and the main battles have begun.

The number of leaders decreased, after Anand lost to Karjakin (for the first time in his life) and left the leading group, which now consists of Karjakin and Aronian with 4/6, or +2.

Karjakin’s first win against Anand (in Round 4) showed that he copied Grischuk’s recipe for playing against the former World Champion. The recipe is as follows: it’s impossible to pose Anand problems in normal theoretical lines, his preparation is immaculate, having been honed in decades of tournament and match play; so in order to achieve something it’s best to steer the game clear of normal theory. This doesn’t mean that the less-explored paths aren’t deeply investigated, quite the contrary, but the idea is that these paths should be less familiar to Anand. You can see Grischuk’s ways in the comments to the game.

Then Karjakin survived two difficult positions, against Topalov and Caruana, both with black and both in the Queen’s Indian, an opening under severe pressure in this tournament (more on this below). This bodes well for the Russian, as saving difficult positions is no less important than scoring wins. As things stand, he seems to me the number one contender to win it – he has taken his chances and escaped from all trouble.

Aronian joined Karjakin by beating Nakamura in Round 6. I won’t go into the scandalous end of that game (Nakamura touching the king, then wanting to play with the rook, Aronian reacting, the arbiter forcing Nakamura to play the losing move with the king), nor into Aronian’s pompous claims that the (drawn) rook endgame 3 vs 2 is winning. I will only say that this behaviour from Aronian shows a man determined to fight to the death for the slightest possible chance to win, a man who is (over)confident that his time has come and who won’t stop before anything to take what he believes is his. I cannot know how that will affect his future tournament luck, but it’s something I am looking forward to find out.

After losing to Karjakin in Round 4, Anand came back to +1 with a fine win against his old customer Svidler. For the record: Svidler has never beaten Anand in his life. The way he lost today is perplexing, as he went down a road that was known (to be bad) from before, as the elementary improvement of white’s play was too simple. Svidler said he knew of that game, but wasn’t sure if it was that exact position – failure to remember lines clearly is one of the greatest dangers for today’s players. This is also a punishment for Svidler who missed several good chances in the first rounds. For Anand this is a new lease of life, half a point within the leaders and a wonderful comeback after a loss.

Caruana and Giri are on 50% and both can be dissatisfied with the result. Caruana was winning against Topalov in Round 4 and had good winning chances against Karjakin in Round 6, while Giri was close to beating Topalov in Round 6. There is still time for these two, but they should start converting their advantages and taking their chances.

Svidler was punished for his missed chances (mainly against Nakamura in Round 3) at the first available opportunity. Nice people usually get punished like this, at the first available opportunity. And this usually means that luck is not on their side, against which it’s impossible to fight. I hope he finds a way though.

Sharing last place on -2 are Topalov and Nakamura. Topalov seems to be lost in every second game, his play is very uneven and he even went that far in avoiding Giri’s Grunfeld by playing 1 d4 Nf6 2 c4 g6 3 h4. Really? Months of preparation and to come up with this? His consolation can be that he hasn’t lost a game for 3 rounds, but he cannot count on much if he continues like this. As for Nakamura, a pre-tournament favourite for many (yours truly included), the event is slowly turning into a nightmare. His prepared opening for the event, the Queen’s Indian, is not paying dividents, quite the contrary, he lost a game both times he played it. I know it’s tough for players who prefer the dark square strategy (players of King’s Indian, Benoni, Benko Gambit) to switch to a white square strategy (in this case the Queen’s Indian), but I thought this didn’t apply to the elite. He was OK out of the openings, but in the subsequent play he wasn’t his usual self. Another question is how he’s going to react to his Round 6 loss to Aronian, from a drawn rook endgame, but after the touch-move rule being enforced upon him. He will have a full rest day to ruminate on it and then he gets to play his fellow cellar-mate, Topalov. Both will see this as a last chance for a way out, should be a great fight.

The best is yet to come in Moscow.


Candidates 2016 – Rounds 1-3

As it happened, the start of the Candidates coincided with my trip to France, where I played for my French club Grasse Echecs. We played in Cannes, a place I haven’t visited since 2003, when I played in the winter open. But the wild times I had in Cannes were in 2000 and 1996, during the summer opens. This time I had some time after the Sunday game to take a walk down la Croisette and it did bring back the great memories of those years!

My team won both matches, I won both my games. Here’s the mating finish of the second game against the Vietnamese WIM:

Before going on to the Candidates, I wanted to show the impressive defensive plan Hou Yifan demonstrated in the 8th game of the match against Muzychuk:

OK, so back to the Candidates now. Three decisive games in the first 3 rounds and 2 of them see Topalov on the losing side. He started with two blacks and lost one and then he proceeded to lose his first white.

The tone was set in the first round when in an excellent position with great winning chances Topalov went astray in an uncommon fashion:

A huge blow for Topalov and a huge boost for Anand. I am glad that Anand got to a good start, this should give him confidence and stability. He is leading the tournament after 3 rounds and hasn’t been in trouble yet.

Topalov went on to draw efortlessly in his second black against Svidler, practically burying a line in the Berlin with 5 Re1, but things went wrong for him again in his first white of the tournament. It’s quite obvious he messed things up in the opening.

As I predicted in the Preview, Topalov’s repeat of Khanty 2014 when he finished last was a probable eventuality. The core problem, as in Khanty, is again his bad form – it’s impossible for an on-form Topalov to miss those opportunities in the game with Anand. And when in good form you don’t tend to forget your preparation.

A black win is a rare pleasure in such events so this win is a great result for Aronian. It’s still early to say, but the dark horse (as I named him in the Preview) is slowly getting ahead.

The third leader is Karjakin. He wasn’t prepared against Svidler’s Slav, took advantage of Nakamura’s blunder and saved an unpleasant position against Giri. He can be happy.

Caruana and Giri are making draws, without clear-cut chances for more so far while I cannot really say if Nakamura is in bad form or not. His blunder against Karjakin is quite uncharacteristic and against Svidler in Round 3 he spoilt a promising position, but then showed his usual grit and saved a difficult endgame.

While the tournament just started and three rounds are the early stages, it seems that Topalov is on course for a repeat of Khanty, while all the others are still in the running. Nakamura is the biggest unknown of them, but having in mind his fighting spirit, he should be able to bounce back.

Tomorrow is a free day, but the 9th game of the Women World Championship match is on, one that perhaps will end the match as Hou Yifan only needs a draw to win the title. As things have gone so far, that is very probable.


Candidates 2016 – A Preview

Less than two weeks until the start of the first part of the exciting year 2016 promises to be. With the Olympiad and the World Championship match to follow we are looking at an exceptional year for chess.

The Candidates Tournament starts on 10 March in Moscow. There are three groups of players in the field: The Young, The Old and The Wild Card. Here is how I see the situation before the start.

The Young

Four players fall into this group: Caruana (23), Nakamura (28), Giri (21) and Karjakin (26).

Caruana is one of the favourites to win this tournament. He is well-established in the elite for quite some time now and, what is more important, has a record of winning elite events. History has shown that the player who earns his right to challenge the World Champion has always been the one who has had the best tournament record before the match. Ever since Caruana’s legendary 7/7 in Saint Louis in 2014 he is considered as the most likely challenger to Carlsen. He recently started playing 1 d4 as well, in an attempt to widen his opening repertoire (perhaps under the influence of his new coach Kasimdzhanov) and this will make him even more difficult to prepare against. The latest showing in Wijk aan Zee, where he shared second behind Carlsen, demonstrated that after some period of instability he is back his former self, even if a bit more polishing is needed.

Nakamura is my other favourite to win. I started to appreciate the American only when he evolved and started to win some excellent technical games against elite opposition. This universality has brought him more consistency and stability. Like Caruana, he has a record of winning elite events, but I still see him somewhat less stable psychologically – a few months ago in London, he was having a good event, but after yet another loss to Carlsen he played horribly and lost to Giri the next day. Maybe this was the Carlsen effect, his score against him is horrible, but there will be no Carlsen in Moscow. I see him as probably the best fighter in the field and this is his main trump.

Talking about Giri, I’d like to quote Johannes Hendrikus Donner, from his excellent book The King: “… but mostly as a natural result of the conviction – deeply rooted in the Netherlands – that no Dutchman can ever achieve anything worthwhile.” But then again Giri was born in St Petersburg. From all the eight participants Giri is the latest edition to the elite. However, I cannot get rid of the impression that Giri became an elite player not by winning, but by not losing. He hasn’t won an elite event and I cannot imagine that the first elite event he wins will be the Candidates. He is excellently prepared and it will be difficult to beat him, but that just means that he will make a lot of draws. If nobody goes mad against him I wouldn’t be surprised if he makes 14 draws.

Karjakin has too often been mediocre. Take the last Wijk aan Zee, a miserable -1 score with uneventful chess on display. He is a fighter, the World Cup clearly showed it, and I’m sure the memories of Khanty 2014 when he finished second are still fresh in his mind, giving him the hope that he can win it. But there is no edge in Karjakin, in spite of the tremendous support he enjoys in Russia, and unless he reinvents himself I cannot imagine him winning the event.
The Old

Here we have Anand (46), Topalov (41) and Svidler (39). I’ll say it immediately, I don’t think anyone from this group has a chance to win the tournament.

Anand’s win in Khanty 2014 was the final stand of the older generation before the young start to take over. Now that time has come. But the fact that these three are here after all those years shows what an exceptional and strong players they still are.

After more than 20 years Anand played an open earlier this year, in Gibraltar, and played like a regular open player, losing to guys rated 2500 and drawing solid IMs rated around 2400. The rating losses meant that he is now out of the Top 10, something unheard of. Then he went to Zurich, back to his usual company (albeit for a rapid/blitz event) and shared first with Nakamura, undefeated. A huge boost for his confidence, which is good for him, but as in Khanty, all will depend on his start – if he starts well then he will be in contention, but if not, then he’ll just try to draw and finish the tournament as soon as possible.

Topalov’s last tournament was in December, a last place in London, with 2.5/9, winless. Never an epitomy of stability, he will be somewhat of a loose cannon in Moscow. For him only the first place exists so he will take risks and go for broke. This approach can bring victory, but only if in good form. He did that when in bad form in Khanty in 2014 and finished last. It’s always extremes with him and I expect the same approach in Moscow. But a repeat of Khanty is quite probable in this field.

Svidler reinvented himself in the Candidates in London 2013 (finishing third) and continued along the same lines in Khanty in 2014. But while in London it worked, it backfired in Khanty. The reinvention meant playing sharper chess, avoiding his usual 50% or +/- 1in super-tournaments. He understood that he needed to play sharper chess in order to score more. The reason for his failure in Khanty was his bad form. He learnt his lesson and now I expect him to know how to balance his form and preparation. If he manages that he will be one of the most exciting players in the field!
The Wild Card

Perhaps it is fair that a player of many ups and (lately) downs, like Aronian (33), received the wild card for the tournament. It is really difficult to expect anything of him! He failed miserably in all the previous World Championship cycles, while playing superb chess elsewhere. This finished in 2014-2015, when he was miserable elsewhere and even fell out of the Top 10 for a while. Things are different for him now, as for the first time he is not seen as a favourite. But on the other hand he is the nominate of the organiser, an Armenian millionaire, which perhaps will put some pressure. For me he is the enigma of the tournament, a dark horse. I still don’t think he’ll win, but I won’t be surprised if he does.