Gashimov Memorial 2016
It was a very eventful tournament. As I was following it I thought that this will be a 2-horse race between the recent Candidates Caruana and Giri whose hard work prior to Moscow started to bear fruit. I expected Karjakin to be underwhelming again (after his 1 out of 3 at the Russian team championship) as I think he now feels he doesn’t have to show good results (or play) since his main deed was done in the Candidates, but that is usually a bad practice – getting used to mediocre results and play is dangerous (although I am sure he will be completely different in the match).
My expectations were confirmed until the 7th round. The derby Caruana (5/6) – Giri (4.5/6) seemed headed to a draw in a long theoretical Open Spanish and the rest of the field looked unambitious (once Karjakin came to +1 he simply started making draws) and were on 50% or less.
And then Caruana suddenly got a chance. A very concealed and difficult chance, but a chance nevertheless. In the comments I say that Kasparov probably would have found this difficult move Kh2, he used to play this move twice in his matches with Karpov (and incidentally both times it was move 31): in game 16 in 1986 (analysed in great depth in Kasparov on Modern Chess Part 2) and game 20 in 1990 (Kasparov on Modern Chess Part 3).
It was an understandable decision by Caruana, he was leading by half a point ahead of Giri and with 2 rounds to go it seemed like a smooth sailing. But life has a way of punishing us when we don’t take our chances (even the concealed like this one). However, I think Caruana wasn’t punished because he didn’t find the move, but rather because he didn’t try to play for more. He had a lot of time on the clock and had he dared to continue, trusting his instincts (as Kasparov liked to say) I don’t have a doubt that he would have found the moves. But dry pragmatism prevailed and he took the draw.
In the meantime Mamedyarov won his second game of the tournament and moved to +1 by beating his fellow countryman Safarli. It’s curious to note that this was the only decisive game from all the games played between the Azeri players.
The next round saw something that rarely happens. Caruana lost with white (the last time this happened was in 2015 when he lost to Carlsen at the Sinquefield Cup). What surprised me was that he allowed an Open Sicilian, something he successfully avoided in Round 5 when he demolished Radjabov (the main proponent of the Sveshnikov Sicilian nowadays). And what did Mamedyarov choose? The Sveshnikov, of course! The reason for the declining popularity of the Sveshnikov (a great book was written on the subject recently by GM Kotronias, a very conscientious analyst) is the line Caruana chose. White establishes a strong grip in the centre and obtains an extremely solid position with a slight plus – the exact opposite of what the Sveshnikov players aspire to. In the positional battle that ensued Caruana could have tried to repeat moves, at least to see what Mamedyarov’s ambitions were, but he didn’t do it.
Perhaps too many missed chances by Caruana? First against Giri and now two chances to save the game. Life is usually unforgiving in such cases.
Giri had a chance to catch Caruana but he only managed to draw with white against Hou Yifan, a good result for the Dutchman who has a score of -2 (and no wins) against the Women’s World Champion.
And then came the final round. Karjakin didn’t try to pose Caruana any problems with white in the Open Spanish (the opening is gaining in popularity by the minute) while Mamedyarov chose Kramnik’s exciting recipe against Giri.
After this win, meaning a finish of 3/3, Mamedyarov tied for first with Caruana! An incredible feat, bearing in mind that he was trailing Caruana by 2 points after round 6 and in addition to that he managed to beat both Caruana and Giri in direct duels!
Such feats are rewarded and Mamedyarov deservedly won the playoff for first place (and by deservedly I mean “even though he was lost in games 1 and 2”). In my opinion this is Mamedyarov’s best result in his career, especially because of the way he did it, a finish spurt that included wins against both his direct rivals.
The Gashimov Memorial showed that a tournament can be exciting even when Carlsen isn’t playing. It only takes a lot of fighting spirit and a bit of luck.