Things got weird in St. Louis before they calmed down. In Round 2 there was a lot of erratic play and decisive games before the inevitable all-drawn Round 3 arrived.
The surprise of the round was Anand’s black win over the Frenchman from a very dubious position. The last time Vachier lost a classical game before this one was on 25 September 2015 against Giri in FIDE World Cup in Baku. After that loss he went on for 65 classical games undefeated. Then it is no surprise he climbed to the stratospheric rating of 2819 and number 2 spot on the rating list. But all good things come to an end and against Anand he wasn’t his usual tactically alert self:
It’s worth noting that Anand chose the Caro-Kann for this game instead of his usual choice of the Berlin. But let’s not jump to conclusion that there is a change of fashion in the elite circles – after all Kramnik is is not playing and we know that what Kramnik does in the openings, everybody follows.
Giri’s freefall continues and now he’s out of the Top 10 on the live list. He lost to Nakamura in a game when he was fine after the opening, played passively and was strategically lost, pulled himself together and threw the kitchen sink at Nakamura, managed to confuse him and obtain excellent drawing chances, only to spoil them in 1 move after the time control. His troubles remind me of the old chess adage, that a long series of draws ends in a loss, only in his case a small modification is necessary: a long period of mostly drawn games ends with a period of mostly lost games.
And then we have Svidler again who like in the first round played well up to a point when he stopped to play well.
It’s difficult to explain these things, why they happen. They happen to me too, when I find it difficult to explain why I played horribly in an otherwise simple situations. I remember reading somewhere that when inexplicable things and bad games happen more often, when things are not getting better for prolonged periods of time, then it’s time to reconsider many things and adapt. And for every player this adaptation means a different thing.
Caruana was lucky not to lose to Topalov after blundering a nice tactic (too many blunders, don’t you think?):
I have read it before too, Topalov stating that he’s not trying to make the best moves all the time. This goes contrary to what Botvinnik (and others after him) used to say, that you must always try to find the most precise, the most direct, the most forcing, the sharpest move. Conformity leads to lowering of the playing strength and develops the habit of not straining yourself, but I am convinced Topalov knows all this – he no longer has any ambition and doesn’t really care about these changes. He prefers to sacrifice these things in the name of being practical, even if that means missing wins like the one above. But these things will happen more and more often to him – you cannot expect to beat the elite players playing “normal” moves.
Ding Liren improved on his first round game against Aronian in the QGD and had pressure against So, but he blundered (even the Chinese blunder!) an elementary combination that helped So draw.
Things calmed down in Round 3 at least result-wise. All drawn, but there was no lack of excitement. So and Aronian drew a strange game in the Giuoco Piano that was not even close to Piano – black sacrificed material on move 9 already! All preparation for the Armenian while So had to figure things out for himself. He spent masses of time but things weren’t easy. Then he made a very ugly-looking bad move and this saved him!
Topalov blundered against Vachier when the long theory of the Najdorf English Attack ended on move 27, just like Aronian failing to get the brain working immediately when it had to produce moves on its own. Luckily for him, he managed to save the game.
Svidler tortured Caruana in a 4 vs 3 on the kingside double-rook endgame, but with little success. Nakamura’s Najdorf against Anand after the initial flurry simplified to a drawn double-rook endgame with equal material. No torture there for either player.
Giri, with the reckless abandon of a parachute trooper whose parachute isn’t working, continued to play with fire against Ding Liren. In a dynamically balanced position he seemed to lose his nerves and sacrificed an exchange:
After smooth-sailing to the elite this is Giri’s first serious crisis. I will be curious to see how he deals with it.
I remember when I followed the NBA in the mid-90s I used to stay up all night just to watch the play-offs and root against the Bulls. But the time difference with America got more difficult as time passed – I learned to value sleep more. Which means that it’s high time I posted this and went to bed!