Monthly Archives: Aug 2016

Before the Olympiad

Playing for my country has always served as a great motivator for me. The Olympiad in Baku will only be my third Olympiad, and although I would have preferred more, at least I know what to expect there.

In view of my recent performances I feel vulnerable. I did some work to prepare, but this is no guarantee that things will not continue down the same road. I found things very difficult this year, even though I think that I have actually improved. Inexplicable things have started to happen, like leaving pieces en prise, something I wasn’t doing even when I was starting to play chess. I found it impossible to beat considerably weaker players and this happens on a constant basis.

When there were no computers I was very good at sensing my opponent’s state and I knew how to play against him. The computer helped me improve my opening preparation and learn so much, but I lost that feeling for the opponent. I have become too academical in my approach, too much “playing against the pieces” and too little “playing against the opponent.” I remember seeing my (much weaker) opponents so motivated when they play against me, it was written on their faces. I expected to win just by “playing against the pieces” but it didn’t work. And after such a long time I don’t know whether I can get my lost feeling back – during the games I am so immersed in the game that I forget about my opponent and this takes a considerable sting out of my approach.

The Olympiad is a very tough tournament. The level of resistance is much higher, no easy games, everybody is very motivated. And I will play stronger players than the open-tournament opposition I failed to beat. I am usually optimistic but this time I am not so sure.

Confidence is the key. And at the moment I don’t have it. How to get it? I don’t know, it’s a fickle thing. I thought my work will give me confidence, but in reality it’s the results that give (or take away) confidence. Good results – big confidence, bad results – no confidence. Unfortunately, now I find myself in the latter category.

Sometimes life helps. A lucky break, a positive event, a good coincidence. But I cannot rely on that, can I?


Sinquefield Cup 2016 – Round 9 – So Wins!

“Slow and steady” were the words used by Kasparov to describe the winner’s result of this year’s edition of the Sinquefield Cup. Indeed, only +2, with 5.5/9, no losses and no excessive risks took clear first in a very even field where pragmatism was the order of the day.

In the last round So chose the the most reliable of all weapons, the Berlin, to draw against Vachier. This draw secured him at least a tie break, had one (or more) of his immediate followers won. Vachier went for the endgame and in spite of his optimism during the game So was never really in any danger. In a tournament where wins were at a premium the dry pragmatic approach was by far the best strategy.

Of the immediate followers only Topalov had a chance to catch him, and he had a big one. He applied pressure on Aronian, who was uncharacteristically wobbly in defence. Topalov missed several winning chances and eventually had to concede the draw. I already wrote about Topalov’s algorithm for finding and playing moves and as I predicted this cannot get you far against the elite – you need to be precise, direct and forceful to win a winning position. Unfortunately for Topalov this happened in the most important game of the tournament for him. But he seemed well aware of all this, as he admitted that he missed tournament victory not only in this game, but also in some previous games. This is all result of his approach not to try to play the best move at all times, so being a conscious decision he cannot really blame anyone but himself.

Nakamura seemed to overcome his illness quickly as he dispatched of Ding Liren in a spectacular fashion. A sweet ending of the tournament for him, although finishing on 50% is nothing to write home about. Worth noting though is his mental toughness as he managed to score wins immediately after his losses.

As for the Chinese, finishing on -1 probably means that he won’t be invited again. Wei Yi is the exciting new prospect and I expect to see him to become the regular Chinese guy at these supertournaments.

Anish Giri. Second last place in a row. The guy talks too much and even though I enjoy his nonsense immensely I think that perhaps he should be reminded that silence is golden. He was trolling Caruana for making 8 draws in a row, but the 9th game was between them and guess what – Caruana beat Giri, shutting him up both literally and figuratively. Giri won’t suffer the fate of the Chinese, he will still get a lot of invitations to elite events (the advantage of being a western star), so I expect him to be back, sooner or later. As for Caruana, he’s been inconspicuous lately, but always near the top, never a disastrous tournament (like Giri, for example), always keeping at least the minimum level. That is a sign of true class and I expect him to come to a new level in the near future.

Svidler and Anand drew a Spanish with d3 (Svidler has never been too fond of the Berlin endgame) to mutual satisfaction. Anand finished on shared second, another great result for him, while Svidler finished his mission in this tournament in the previous round, when he finally won a game.

To conclude I can only say what I already wrote about in my post on Round 5 – the players are incredibly strong and the elite is tightly packed with no one a clear favourite when Carlsen isn’t playing. In such events wins are very hard to get so people play conservatively, first and foremost trying to avoid a loss. Hence a lot of draws and solid play. When a player is out of form, like Giri and Svidler in this tournament, the other players try to pounce and take advantage of that. Before the tournament starts we have 10 favourites and the race being “slow and steady” the winner is usually decided in the last round (or a tie break). At least that is a positive for the spectators, keeping the intrigue until the end. Although, to be honest, I prefer a tournament where Carlsen is playing and wins with 2 rounds to spare!


Sinquefield Cup 2016 – Round 8

Against all odds, Svidler won. And the only player he could win against was another player suffering from bad form, none other than Giri.

Svidler learned from his loss to Ding Liren in Round 6 and in the same position after move 3 he went for the more solid 3…c6. In the comments to the game with Ding I also recommended a more solid approach when things don’t go well, and Svidler seems to have come to the same conlcusion. However, it was Giri who decided to be bold and, as expected and seen from Svidler’s example, it backfired. This is just another proof of what I was saying earlier – when in bad form optimism and confidence are not your best friends. Here’s the first half of the game:

Another player who won was Aronian. And guess what his opponent, Nakamura, said after the game – the he got sick the previous night!!! Excuses again, sickness, food poisoning, laptops, cats, preparation… Tartakower always comes to mind when I hear excuses (“I have never defeated a healthy opponent.”) Be that as it may, I am 100% certain that these excuses are 100% valid and true, just making them public looks a bit lame. Anyway, Nakamura at least tried to play solid when not feeling too well, but when things go against you, there’s nothing you can do. I admit this sounds fatalistic, but my own experience and the experience of the players we are following now in Saint Louis point to that conclusion.

The derby of the round So-Caruana ended with an uneventful draw, the players repeating several games played in the same way before them, the drawing line first introduced in the game Svidler-Topalov from the Candidates in Moscow.

The old rivals Anand and Topalov played a very exciting Berlin endgame. Like I have said before, it is not the opening, it is the players who make it interesting or dull. I cannot recall a dull game between these two, so it is no surprise they found ways to stir it up yet again.

Ding Liren played it safe against Vachier, didn’t take a sacrificed pawn in the opening, rightfully fearing the Frenchman’s preparation, and calmly steered the game towards a draw. It is tough for newcomers in these elite events – in order to be invited again (and remain in the elite) they need two things: a good result and exciting play. But this combination is almost impossible to achieve, so usually they limit themselves to the first part of the equation. You can’t blame them.

The last round is under way and So secured himself a share of first. Now all hangs on Topalov, if he can catch him by beating Aronian (good chances for the Bulgarian as I write this). I’ll look into the final round tomorrow!

And a reminder of the still unsolved monthly puzzle at Goldchess, worth $200 (see the site for detailed instructions).


Sinquefield Cup 2016 – Rounds 6&7

There were decisive games again in St. Louis because, yes, you guessed it, Svidler starting losing again.
In Round 6 he lost to Ding Liren. I found it revealing to read his comments after the game when he said that he started thinking on move 3 whether to play very solid and something he had played many times before (the Fianchetto Grunfeld with c6 and d5) or to play something sharper (transposing to a Benoni). He went for the latter and guessed wrong as he was faced with difficulties from the start.

Opening choices are always tricky to navigate when out of form. On one hand you want to minimise the damage and play as solid as possible, but on the other hand you still have that feeling (and hope) that perhaps, if you play more boldly, fortune will favour you and you will turn the tournament around. From my experience the latter never happens and this is one of those rare cases when optimism and confidence are actually hurting you. It takes really strong self-control and character to curb your optimism and keep it real and play something safe and dull. A good example of this is Anand, when his tournament is going badly he just wants to finish it and makes a draw after a draw without any hope of turning it around.

So beat Topalov and took over the lead in the tournament. Another interesting opening battle, in a sense that So was better prepared, blitzed out his first 20 moves and achieved nothing. Why? Because Topalov played the best moves! You can get your opening preparation in, but that doesn’t guarantee that you will get an advantage. But Topalov became over-optimistic and missed something simple (not sure what, though):

If in his previous game Aronian declined the Benoni (and drew) with the excuse that he had eaten something bad the previous day, in Round 6 he explained his bad opening play with the evergreen excuse of “my cat ate my preparation.” Of course, in modern times this is verbalised differently, namely “my laptop broke down.” Again, no reason not to trust him (see the game for the explanation), but these excuses become rather conspicuous.

Giri-Anand showed the dangers of repeating a line more than once in a tournament. In Round 4 Anand remembered his 1995 game against Kramnik and drew easily against Ding Liren. So he tried the same line against Giri in Round 6. Anand is very profound in his preparations and checks everything, but the only thing he probably forgot to check was Giri’s year of birth – 1994! Giri was already 1 year old when Anand played Kramnik so he was well acquainted with the line and probably had an idea or two what to do against it. We got to see his preparation today:

And finally a Benoni. I am sure Nakamura and Caruana read my blog and decided to fulfill my wishes! It was a heavy theoretical fight with black emerging victorious – it warms my heart to see one of my favourite openings doing well theoretically!

Round 7 saw Svidler not lose and again all the other players followed suit. Against So he went 1 c4, the move he prepared and played at the Candidates, but he didn’t achieve much against the extremely well prepared American. At least in this tournament it looks impossible to beat So from a harmless or prospectless position after the opening!
Topalov is known for his excellent theoretical knowledge and sharp opening novelties, so it always surprises me when he chooses the Kramnik approach (well, even the name should be enough for him to go the other way…) and decides “just to play chess.” That’s what he did against Giri with 1 c4 e5 2 d3 and he got a slightly worse position with white by move 10. I understand that sometimes the players are tired of going over all those heavily prepared Najdorfs, Berlins and Grunfelds, but giving up one of your main assets is rarely a good idea.
Speaking of the Berlin, the brave Frenchman entered German territory against Nakamura. The American improved on Carlsen’s play and drew effortlessly. What I liked was his comment after the game that stated that all Berlin endgames are drawn, no matter how they look, so this gives you confidence and willingness to calculate and find the way to the draw. Nicely said!

Anand is heavily exploring the Giuoco Piano but without much success against Aronian who first missed (or chose not to play, depending on the state of his laptop) a great shot and then played one!

The longest game of the day was Caruana’s attempt to get the better of Ding Liren, but the Chinese are resilient folk. Ding never faltered and managed to survive after 95 moves.

Round 8 is underway with some results already known, but I’ll deal with that tomorrow. It’s time for bed in Europe!


Kasparov International Youth Festival 2016

I was contacted recently by GM Klaric, the tournament director of the International Youth Chess Festival Adriatic 2016, to be held in Split, Croatia, from 24 to 27 August. He asked me if I could share the information about the tournament on my blog.

The youth tournament is organised by the Kasparov Chess Foundation Adriatic and you can find all the details at the official page. There will be rapid and blitz tournaments and the age categories are U10, U12, U16 and U20. The Chess Festival promotes the Chess In Schools Project, which in my opinion is a very important project for every country.

I am happy to share this information of what seems to be a well-organised event and I hope it is a great success with many participants from all over the world.


Sinquefield Cup 2016 – Round 5

There is a strong tendency in these elite events, and chess in general for that matter, that it is almost impossible to win a game unless your opponent blunders. Winning positions are so difficult to convert because if the defender manages to put up resistance then the pressure is on the player with the advantage to find ways to advance and more often than not he falters in this.

The only decisive game of Round 5 is an excellent example of this. Topalov was a pawn up on move 16 against Ding Liren after the latter decided to jettison a pawn for some vague compensation. Vague soon become no and he was just lost, on move 34 he was two pawns down. But here comes the problematic part – he was not lost by force. And from that moment onwards he started to put up resistance and not allow white easy progress. It paid off – on move 47 he got one pawn back as Topalov decided to switch to a direct attack, but this was obviously not the best solution because the position transformed to a 3 vs 2 on the kingside, Topalov having a knight against Ding’s bishop and two pairs of rooks each. Objectively a draw, practically, still difficult for black. And the game went on and the players started missing things. You see, only when their level of resistance drops, due to fatigue in the later stages, can a game be won. But the pressing player also drops his level, so he may not take his chance! Hence missed chances for both sides. See for yourself:

Anand and So drew a correct game that started with the Giuoco Piano, with black precisely neutralising white’s material advantage, something akin to the Marshall Attack. Aronian could have tried for more against Giri’s English Opening, but decided to play it safe and draw.

Caruana’s problems in the Najdorf are well documented, so against the Najdorf-inclined Vachier he went 5 f3. Not the scariest option, but it seemed to take the Frenchman by surprise. What we got was a position very similar to the Najdorf, even if somewhat more pleasant for white, and here the preferences showed again – Caruana not feeling completely at ease, as opposed to the Frenchman who swims in these waters like a French salmon in the Seine. Eventually Caruana’s advantage was neutralised.

Nakamura probably surprised Svidler with the KID (OK, in the not-so-scary Fianchetto version) and was worse at some point, but Nakamura being the toughest of nuts to crack, managed to draw.

There are four rounds remaining and it’s a very open tournament. These types of overtly solid and grinding tournaments have become the norm when Carlsen isn’t playing. This implies that the playing field is so even that the winner can be anyone really – it depends on the form the player is in at the given moment. So we have different winners and situations when Topalov wins one tournament but ends with a big minus in the next one. All this shows just how much Carlsen is ahead of the others! 


Sinquefield Cup 2016 – Round 4

Perhaps Svidler is right – the fact that all games were drawn again is because he stopped losing.

However, the main reason for me was Aronian. I remember a conversation between Aronian and Caruana some time ago, at the Candidates. Caruana played the Benoni against Aronian and the latter was thrilled to meet the opening. The game was exciting and Aronian was probably lost as he overpressed in the complications, but in time trouble Caruana agreed a draw. So after the game Aronian complained how nobody played the Benoni against him. That was in March.

Now in August, in St. Louis, Caruana essayed the Benoni again against Aronian! You would expect Aronian to be jumping up and down, full of joy and excited to crush the infidel who dared to repeat that dubious opening against him! Instead what we got was this:

This game was the major disappointment for me, after seeing the first 3 moves. Alas, at least I can hope Caruana continues to use the Benoni on future occasions as well.

An interesting creative moment was Topalov positional queen sacrifice in the opening against Nakamura. In a well-know position, theoretically good for black, he went for a sharp sacrifice instead of a calm pawn recapture.

The remaining games were tranquil affairs. Giri did try to get something more after So treated the position somewhat too passively, but he didn’t manage it. Anand chose an old favourite of his, a line that can be played both against the English (like in this game) and the Catalan.

The recent match opponents Vachier and Svidler drew a theoretical Spanish. The Frenchman destroyed Svidler in the match, but he couldn’t do much this time.

Next round today (in Europe) hopefully brings more bloodshed. Who doesn’t love bloodshed?


Sinquefield Cup 2016 – Rounds 2&3

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!


Sinquefield Cup 2016 Starts

The third tournament of the Grand Chess Tour, and the first one of the series with classical time control, started in Saint Louis. As I write this the second round is already under way.

The tournament rooster underwent an unexpected change only days before it began. One of the main crowd-pullers, former World Champion Vladimir Kramnik, had to withdraw due to problems with his back. Kramnik used to suffer from back problems during his crisis years of 2004-2005 but before his victory over Topalov in Elista in 2006 it seemed that he got it off his back. And now just a month before the Olympiad the back is backstabbing him again. Hopefully he recovers in time while the fellow Russian who got his (Kramnik’s) back covered in Saint Louis is Peter Svidler. Coming directly from his lost match to the Frenchman with two surnames in Biel he seemed to suffer from jet-lag (as suggested by his opponent Topalov):

Somewhat surprisingly the Frenchman didn’t suffer from the same jetlag even though he also came directly from Biel. There must be some secret hidden in the hyphen connecting his two surnames as he managed to escape from a dangerous position against the ever-combative Giri with a fine rook sacrifice:

Anand and Caruana drew an extremely complex Exchange French. Yes, I do know what I am talking about, it’s called an oxymoron. Probably surprised by Caruana’s choice of the Winawer (last time he did it was in 2012, while against Anand at the rapid in Dubai in 2014 he chose the Classical line with 3…Nf6) Anand went for 4 ed5. The game shows that if the players want to fight no opening is dull and no variation is a “drawing” variation. Keep this in mind the next time you curse the Berlin.

In the duel of the Americans So beat Nakamura in a Catalan. Gone seem to be the days (or perhaps So has gained the respect of his fellow colleagues) when Nakamura played the KID and mated So on move 39. It was only 2 years ago, but the final position is worth posting again:

So Nakamura went for the Catalan and So went slightly offbeat with his choice of lines on move 8. Perhaps the fact that Kramnik wasn’t around gave him courage not to follow the Catalan guru and go his own way:

Ding Liren and Aronian drew a rather unexciting game in the QGD.

To finish this post and go to bed I am showing again the Goldchess problem for August (worth $200 and still unsolved) with the detailed instructions: “victory on move 33, the last brilliant move by rook.”

Good night!


The Move 5 g4 in the Philidor Defence

As I wrote in my post about the modern developments in the openings the move g2-g4 shouldn’t surprise anybody anymore. Here I will tell the story of the origins of the move 5 g4 in the Philidor Defence.

If you check your database you will see that the first time the move was played was in the game Shirov-Azmaiparashvili in 2003. Shirov was lauded at the time for his creativity in the opening and aggressive approach. But nobody knew the real origins of the move, not even Shirov himself!

The story began in 1990 in a place called Fond-du-Lac in Wisconsin, USA. I was playing the World Championship Under-14 and as usual at tournaments there were a lot of books and magazines on sale. The first book I bought would revolutionise my black opening repertoire, The Najdorf for the Tournament Player by John Nunn, still one of my favourite books (a month after the World Championship I finished third in the Yugoslav Under-15 championship mainly thanks to some excellent Najdorf victories)! I bought a lot of other stuff, among other things this issue of Inside Chess (this is the only image I could find on the internet):

Yasser Seirawan won in Haninge in 1989

I no longer have the magazine, but I vividly remember reading and absorbing everything inside. Somewhere near the end of the magazine there was a game from 1970 by a certain Karpenko who played the move we are talking about:

5 g4! A shocking move!

Now that was something I immediately liked! There was no analysis of the game, just the moves, so I did the digging myself. This had the added benefit of the shocking nature of the move (back in 1990!) and it cut off large masses of Philidor theory. I analysed various options, but the opportunity to play it didn’t present itself for quite some time. In 1994 I played the qualifications for the individual championship of Macedonia, a swiss event where I managed to finish on shared 1st. In Round 5 I finally got the chance to play my surprise:

Far from a great game, and a disastrous opening, but I won! As Capablanca said, one should always play the openings and variations that bring good results. That same year during the summer I played a couple of open tournaments on the Bulgarian coast. In the first one I scored my first ever win against a grandmaster (GM Kirov from Bulgaria) and in Round 5 (again!) I got to play my move one more time. This time things went much better in the opening:

I won again! I started to believe in the good omen the move brought… The third time I played the move was in 2000 at the European rapid championship held in Neum, immediately after the European Club Cup. I played it against the very strong Grandmaster from Kazakhstan Pavel Kotsur. The opening was a great success and I won a good game. But that was the last time I played it, as people didn’t play the Philidor against me in the following years.

In 2002 I played the famous Corsican tournament in Bastia. In Round 1 I was paired on board 3 against Shirov. To my left there was Anand on board 1 and to my right there was Karpov on board 3. I was white, Shirov went for the Najdorf and I played the move 6 h3. I played that move a lot in 2002-2003 and it brought me good results, that is at least 6 years before it became fashionable! The game with Shirov was complicated but eventually I lost. After the game was had a friendly chat and we established good relations.

In 2003 Shirov played his game with Azmaiparashvili and the move 5 g4 became famous. That game was played at the European Team Championship in Plovdiv. I was visiting the tournament and as it happened I ran into Shirov some days after his game with Azmaiparashvili. I immediately asked him about the move 5 g4, whether he knew it from before, perhaps he knew some games with it. To my surprise he said that he didn’t know of any games and that he invented the move himself. Now imagine his surprise when I told him of the Inside Chess game and that I had already played the move 3 times!

There are many such stories with opening novelties and ideas and most of them never see the light of day. I was lucky to be part of at least one of such stories and the history of opening theory. Perhaps the move 5 g4 will always be remembered as Shirov’s move, but I will know that even though I wasn’t the first one, I was there before everybody else!