Bilbao Masters 2016 – Cynical Chess

I reached Paleochora safely and even had a swim this morning. It always feels great to come back to this place of peace and beauty.
In the meantime two rounds were played in Bilbao. What amazed me most was the type of cynical (you can call it practical or pragmatical if you wish, although to my mind these two cases deserve the harsher attribute) chess played by Giri and Karjakin.
Let’s start with Giri’s game against the World Champion. Never shy of self-promotion, bravado and emphasis on his plus score against Carlsen on social media, over the board Giri is a personification of a scared rabbit. At the first glance of surprise in the opening (that is the most important issue – fear!) he starts chopping wood and runs for the draw. Take a look at the following typical decision:

White to play

Giri was surprised in the opening and played conservatively, so now black is fine. But white has a space advantage and can try to put some pressure with a move like 13 Na4. Against anybody else I am sure Giri would have tried it. And against Carlsen? He boldly went for the simplifying 13 Ne5, basically a draw offer (on move 13. With white. No shame.). Now taking on e2 followed by massive exchanges after taking on c6, d1, e7 and d1 again, leads to a draw. But Carlsen wants to play (and not draw in 13 moves) and that’s why we respect him so much. He took on e5 and then went Ng6. Then we have another typical decision for Giri – when a piece can be taken, take it! Off to chopping that knight, who cares about pair of bishops! Objectively black is OK after 15 Bf3 c5, but pair of bishops must account for something – after taking on g6 black is even more OK! Offer trade, take, offer trade, take, that was Giri’s plan from then on and it should come as no surprise that he drifted to an almost lost position. The fact that he didn’t lose only shows that he is a strong player once his back has been put against the wall. He didn’t succumb and that is what very few manage against Carlsen. But the way he played the game until that point is a disgrace. Most probably Giri has ambitions to become World Champion, but with the attitude shown here it will never happen. He will either change (like Leko did when he managed to qualify to play Kramnik) or will remain forever known as The Drawmaster. (A thought has just occurred – is it a coincidence that Leko, Giri and draw all have 4 letters?)
Moving on to the game Karjakin-Nakamura we have a similar situation. White is surprised in the opening and immediately forces a draw. Pragmatic, surely. Shameful, definitely. But the core of the matter is that these players do not care about public opinion or whether they look like scared rabbits and have no self-respect. The play for a result and the main objective is not to lose. At first sight of danger they play it safe. So that’s what Karjakin did. On that level of play and preparation it is fairly easy to make a draw (especially with white), either thanks to opening knowledge or excellent technique of playing sound moves that lead to draw. Karjakin has the perennial excuses of “I showed everything at the Candidates, now I can do whatever I please” and “I need to hide my preparation” but not playing has always been detrimental to future successes. The pattern of surprise-fear-draw can become ingrained in the player’s subconscious and if let alone can become impossible to change.


Giri wasn’t punished against Carlsen, but even though justice is sometimes slow it always arrives. He lost to Wei Yi in the next round, a game he would normally draw being awaken in the middle of the night by a bunch of screaming kids wearing Carlsen masks. Fear is never rewarded, only courage is.
Dortmund finished with the Frenchman Vachier dominating the field and winning with a round to spare, with 5.5/7. This propelled him to the number 2 spot on the live rating list, but as people have noted, this spot seems to be rather volatile – Aronian, Caruana, Nakamura, Kramnik, Topalov, Anand, all have been there and yet nobody managed to make it permanent the way Carlsen did with the number 1 spot. Let’s see what the Frenchman does with it.
In Salobrena my student Angel Luis Cubas Cabrera managed to finish on a high by winning the last round game and sharing 6th place overall with 6.5/9. A great result especially taking into account that he was in contention and played on the top boards all the time. We will work to improve and better that score next year in the under-16 tournament!
My tournament starts today, so most probably I won’t be writing a lot in the next days. It’s time for me to concentrate on my own game and preparations. I hope it goes well!
Alex Colovic
A professional player, coach and blogger. Grandmaster since 2013.
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2 Comments
  • Jul 22,2016 at 9:15 am

    You are absolutely right, but I'm afraid we'll have to put up with Giri and Karjakin in the foreseable future…

  • Jul 21,2016 at 12:43 am

    If I am not wrong,my complains of "cynical chess" at this level has long history on this site,but it is up to organizers to realise whom they called and what impact certain invitation will have on tournament.Thus,do not make mistake with one player twice!

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