London Chess Classic 2016 – Rounds 8-9 – So Wins (Again)

I jinxed the Americans. Both So and Caruana beat Nakamura in convincing fashion so I expected a good fight in their decisive encounter in Round 8. But no, So once again confirmed what I wrote before – the guy knows how to make a draw.

So varied from his usual choice of 6…d6 in the Spanish with d3 in favour of 6…d5 and this probably surprised Caruana as after only 15 moves it was apparent the game would end in a draw. Not a good preparation by Caruana, but a very satisfying result for So, not only the final result, but also the course the game followed – not a single problem for him.

The only decisive game of the round involved Topalov (again!). He was faced by a very strong novelty by Anand and couldn’t defend against black’s continuous initiative. This means that Topalov lost all his white games in London, an unbelievable 0/4! On the other hand, it was a very important theoretical game and a good victory for Anand, somewhat resembling the last game of their match in 2010 (you can find the game in the comments).

The surprise of the round for me was Kramnik’s choice of playing 6 g3 in the Najdorf against Giri. Too many unexpectedly connected things in the previous sentence: Kramnik, Najdorf, g3, Giri. (OK, I admit that I put Giri in there just for the alliteration sake.) Giri chose a strange line, 7…Be6 followed by 8…h5, but strangely enough he didn’t encounter problems. Giri being Giri, even his enterprising piece sacrifice on move 29, when there was absolutely no need for it, didn’t disturb the equilibrium and the game still ended in a draw. Maybe the guy is cursed.

Nakamura and Aronian drew in a drawish theoretical line in the Ragozin, while Vachier didn’t get anything against Adams in the Spanish with d3 (I’m still waiting for those spectacular ideas he must have discovered when analysing this line for Carlsen).

The last round again saw only one decisive game and again it was Topalov’s. But it’s not what you expected – he actually won! Finally the luck changed for the Bulgarian, but a little too late. He took risks against Aronian and probably didn’t have enough for the sacrificed piece, but eventually it was his opponent who cracked and not him (for a change!).

So again showed his excellent preparation, he chose a simplifying line he had already played against the same opponent (Vachier) earlier in the year and one that offered zero chances for him to even risk losing. When I praise his preparation I don’t mean only the deep analysis of the lines, which goes without saying, I primarily mean his choice of lines and knowledge what to play against which opponent in a given situation. Making draws and being solid has been effortless for him so far and this is indeed impressive as it makes it impossible to catch him when he’s ahead – he simply won’t lose a game and he seems to be able to draw as he pleases. This is a second win for So after St. Louis in a tournament that comprises of only Top 10 players. In St. Louis he won with +2, in London with +3, never losing a game. This speaks volumes of his stability. In his own words, he has “the Lord” to thank for his successes. I think his faith is a key factor because it gives him the inner peace that is necessary for stable play on this level. This year has definitely established So as one of the main contenders in any event he’s playing and it will be interesting to see how he performs next year, when everybody will be expecting much more from him.

Giri didn’t allow many chances to Caruana, but it also seemed that Caruana didn’t believe Giri would be welcoming – hence the QGA, a solid and unambitious opening choice from Caruana. Giri went for 7 b3, leading to a symmetrical position with few winning chances for either player. But then Caruana played a careless move in a dead-drawn position and Giri suddenly got a chance. Which he successfully botched to achieve his perfect score or 9/9 draws.

I really don’t know what to think of Giri. He reminds me of Leko, not only because of the draws, but of many other factors as well – he’s young, talented, has infinite resources, even physically they are similar, both tall and thin. Things clicked for Leko in 2002 (at the age of 23; Giri is 22 now), when he won the Dortmund Candidates matches after successfully managing to blend the Sveshnikov Sicilian (back then still a sharp weapon) with his distinctly positional style. Giri is trying to do something similar by playing the Najdorf all the time, but for the time being things are not working. I am curious to see what will be the further development of his style.

Adams and Nakamura drew in the symmetrical line with 5 Re1 in the Berlin while Anand and Kramnik drew in a QGD, a surprise from Anand to open 1 d4 after a longer period of time. He did beat Kramnik in their match in 2008 thanks to his switch to 1 d4, but after losing the second match against Carlsen in 2014, when he also played 1 d4, he has almost exclusively played the move of his youth 1 e4 and never looked back. Another curiousity is that the followed a game by Emmanuel Lasker from Hastings 1895, when it’s unclear whether Kramnik’s 11th move was better than Lasker’s.

This was the last elite tournament of the year. The year end marks the rise of Wesley So and the decline of Veselin Topalov. I think Topalov is out of the elite for good and we only have Anand (47) and Kramnik (41) and to a certain extent Aronian (34) from the “older” guys to still remain at the very top. The question is: for how long?

Alex Colovic
A professional player, coach and blogger. Grandmaster since 2013.
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