Monthly Archives: Apr 2017

Grenke Chess Classic 2017 – Aronian Wins

It turned out Carlsen didn’t stand a chance to win the tournament. In retrospect, the decisive game was in Round 2, when Carlsen missed a win against Aronian. After that their paths diverged – Carlsen got stuck and kept on drawing while Aronian rode the proverbial winner’s luck and won 4 games in a row. To make things even more unbelievable, he failed to win in the last round against Caruana being a knight up. Have a look at what he didn’t win:


I don’t know what is more amazing – his 4 wins in a 7-round tournament, scoring 5.5/7 and winning by a 1.5 point-margin or a missed win with a knight up. Aronian’s wins followed a pattern – he would be better prepared in the opening and pose problems to his opponents; they would fail to solve them and he would wrap things up, whether in smooth positional style (against Vachier, Bluebaum and Hou Yifan) or in an aggressive sacrifical way (against Naiditsch, which eventually ended as an endgame with opposite-coloured bishops). It is still early to say whether the dominant Aronian is back, but this victory will surely boost his confidence. Confident Aronian is a player who can beat anybody and in the wake of So’s rise, Carlsen’s unsteadiness and Caruana’s slump we surely get another exciting player in the mix to stir things up!

Both Carlsen and Caruana lost some Elo points with their result of +1 and this reflects their tournament. It was the first round that set things up for both – Caruana lost to Hou Yifan for the first time in his life and even though he won the next two games he never had another chance to win. His last round’s howler against Aronian (see above) just confirms my opinion that he is going through a slump – his play in Gibraltar, US Championship and now here shows too many ups and downs for a player of his caliber.

Carlsen’s tournament would have been completely different had he converted the winning positions in Rounds 1 and 2 against Bluebaum and Aronian respectively. A confident Carlsen is no less fearsome than a confident Aronian and most probably we would have seen a clean sweep by the World Champion in case he started with 2/2. His subsequent games showed lapses in his calculations and this has happened to him before. Whether it is lack of practice (no classical games since Tata Steel in January), the new girlfriend (this time it’s official), or something else, a second tournament in a row where he is not in contention for first place must be a worrying sign for the World Champion. He needs to re-establish his dominance or the chasing pack will smell blood and then it may become even more difficult for him.

Hou Yifan had a great start and she should have put Carlsen under bigger pressure after her fantastic start of 2/2. From that point onwards things started going downhill even though her eventual 50% can be considered a relative success for her. I would say that the value of her victory against Caruana lies in the fact that she proved to herself that she can beat the best in the world. It has the potential to be a game changer for the best female player.

Vachier paid the price for his over-confidence. He lost in Round 1 against Naiditsch because he risked too much. I think this must have been a shock to him. He has firmly established himself as a Top 10 player and this gave him confidence, but sometimes this confidence can lead you to forget that you can lose against “lesser folk.” And when it happens, it feels like falling from grace. He beat Bluebaum in Round 2 but then lost to Aronian in Round 3. Then he beat Hou Yifan and drew the rest for a 50% score. A challenging period for the Frenchman lies ahead – people got used to him and now he needs to find new resources to remain at the top.

The local boys probably enjoyed the tournament and the opportunity to play the big sharks. The most ambitious of them was Naiditsch, who shared 1st place in 2015 with Carlsen, but his losses to Caruana and Aronian were due to inferior opening preparation. You cannot hope to do well when you end up much worse from the opening against these guys – they do not allow many chances afterwards.

The Gashimov Memorial in Shamkir saw 2 rounds played already. The early leader is Eljanov with 2/2 and the intrigue in the tournament is spiced by the fact that So’s invincible streak finished already in Round 1 when he lost to Mamedyarov after a big one-move blunder. Let us see how he reacts when the tournament doesn’t go his way from the start! Kramnik’s games were a 83-move draw against Wojtaszek and a 73-move draw against Radjabov. And it is good to see Topalov win in his trademark style:



The tournament has just begun and all the fun lies ahead. I’m most curious about So and Kramnik because together with Caruana they are actually fighting for two direct qualification spots to next year’s Candidates based on rating and every rated game for them counts a lot. Caruana is barely hanging above 2800 after his bleak US Championship and Grenke Classic while So’s loss to Mamedyarov cost him quite a lot and he’s basically tied with Kramnik on the live list with 2808. True, the average rating over a longer period will be taken into consideration, but obviously it will be a case of an odd man out. Who will that be?


Grenke Chess Classic 2017

All eyes are on the World Champion! With his new image (and short-sightedness) Carlsen joins the order of the bespectacled World Champions of the 21st century – Kramnik and Anand. It is interesting that before Kramnik we have to go as far as Botvinnik for another World Champion who wore glasses during his reign! Some funny trivia!

But before going to Baden-Baden let me wrap up the Zurich Experiment. The last two rounds of the “neo-classical” saw a strong finish by Nepomniachtchi, who scored two wins, and this enabled him to catch Nakamura, who “only” managed 1.5/2. Third came Anand, who beat his customer Svidler and drew Nakamura in the last round. The game Anand-Svidler looked as if it was played in the mid 90s – we rarely get to see full-blooded Sicilian games nowadays, especially in the Scheveningen structure.

In the blitz Nakamura again emerged victorious (5/7, no losses), but everything was decided in the last round when a Nepomniachtchi win against Oparin would have meant a shared first for him. Alas, he overpressed and lost, which was nicely used by Anand, who came second, half a point behind the American. So the overall winner was Nakamura for a third year in a row, a remarkable achievement! The tournament produced exciting chess and I suppose that was its main aim. The last two years show that Zurich can keep the “neo” but should drop the “classical” from its time-control.

Moving to Germany we can find a World Champion leading the field, but not the one you would expect. (Yes, I know that Hou Yifan is not a de jure World Champion, but she is by far the stronger female player in the world. And I liked how my sentence sounded.) Hou Yifan demolished Caruana (his first ever loss to her after 6 previous wins) in Round 1 in what turned out to be a very strange game by the American. He played the Berlin (for win? for a draw? just to get a game?) and he got a game with a lot of pieces on the board, but then he became impatient and was duly busted by the Chinese. In Round 2 Hou was under pressure against Meier but it was he who succumbed and she was merciless again. And then came Round 3.



A real pity for Hou Yifan, while Carlsen still seems to be finding his way into the tournament – he missed an almost win and a win in Rounds 1 and 2 (against Bluebaum and Aronian respectively).

The loss to Hou Yifan woke Caruana up. He won his next two games and is sharing second together with Aronian (who beat Vachier and drew the rest) and Naiditsch (who beat Bluebaum and Vachier and lost to Caruana). The tournament is a slaughterhouse for now (4 draws and 8 decisive games so far!) and the most peaceful participant is Carlsen with 3 draws out of the total 4! After failing to win Wijk aan Zee at the beginning of the year he is in danger of not winning another tournament. That would not bode well for his self-confidence (especially having in mind the rise of Wesley So), but in a short tournament like this one (only 7 rounds) he doesn’t have much time. Should be exciting to the end!


Zurich Chess Challenge 2017

As a way of introduction to the tournament (so that I don’t repeat myself) I would refer you to my post on last year’s edition. The only difference this year is the change of the time control to 45’+30” instead of last year’s 40’+10” and making it a round robin instead of a double-round robin.

I think Nakamura’s words that he wasn’t sure whether he was playing rapid or classical are very much to the point. In fact, it’s neither. The players have some time to think, but not too much; even worse, when the game is decided (moves 30-40) usually they are very low on time and they start to play blitz. And the quality suffers, making it the worst of both (classical and rapid) worlds.

A few examples proving my point: can you imagine Kramnik failing to win with a clear piece up against Nepomniachtchi?


Kramnik didn’t win this with White!


And that same Nepomniachtchi failing to win a position with a crushing attack against Svidler. Or Anand failing to calculate the lines and find an escape against Nepomniachtchi:



Both players missing crucial moves in time-trouble isn’t something new, but it is more typical for faster time controls. The misleading term “neo-classical” used for the time-control used in Zurich is just that – misleading – it is far from classical because these players do not commit such mistakes in classical chess.

To continue with the examples of poor quality: Gelfand misplayed a technically winning position against Kramnik, Nakamura commited a one-move blunder against Svidler in an advantageous position, both Kramnik and Nakamura made a lot of bad moves in an endgame after move 40 (when they were probably playing on increment time). My point is that this quality of chess is perhaps acceptable for rapid time-controls, but if these players played like this with classical time-controls they would probably have some hundred (or more) rating points less. So if the quality of the games points towards rapids, why bother and increase the thinking time and increments and pretend to have anything to do with classical? Some serious ego tripping happening in Zurich.

A few remarks about the openings played so far. Anand came with a refreshed reperoire against the English. After his suffering in the English Opening in the Moscow Candidates he prepared the curious 1 c4 e5 2 Nc3 Bb4 and had excellent results with it last year, winning 3 and drawing 5 (in all time controls). But for Zurich he prepared 1 c4 c5 and in spite of the good positions he was getting he only scored 1/3 with it (losing to Kramnik and Nepomniachtchi and beating Gelfand). It is worth noting that the English Opening was the only opening that took place in all his Black games!

Nothing new with Kramnik, who used 1 d4 Nf6 2 Nf3 g6 3 Bg5 (against Nepomniachtchi) and 1 d4 Nf6 2 Nf3 d5 3 e3 (against Nakamura), continuing the trend of making theory where no theory is required.

Oparin used the odd 6 h4 against the Najdorf (and lost to Svidler). The same move was used by Nepomniachtchi in the opening blitz to beat Gelfand. It is a very fresh position after 6 h4 – a natural move like 6…e6 would be a novelty!!

The final two rounds of the “neo-classical” will be played tomorrow and then a blitz will follow. Let’s see if some other opening ideas appear.



I recently found out about a new chess site called Chessgraphs. It does exactly what it says in the name: it allows you to see a graphic progress of the rating of any rated player for any given period of time.

It is strange that this obvious idea hasn’t been put into practice earlier. Nowadays we have graphs of pretty much anything, but chess ratings haven’t been given the proper graphic exposure they deserve. OK, you can actually have a rating graph on FIDE’s website, but first of all they have started requiring a registration for that (insert expletive here) and second, their graphs aren’t really nice.

The website also allows you to look up the ratings and compare multiple-players’ rating histories on the same graph. Unlike FIDE, there is no registration required and it works with all ratings: classical, standard and blitz. It is a “one-man project for the love of chess” by John McNeil. I don’t know John personally, but I think he has done a great job. The next time you need to lookup chess rating you know where to go.


US Championship 2017 – So Good!

Even though he wasn’t very happy with his play, So won yet another tournament! Winning when not in top form is a sign of extra class, but we didn’t need that proof from So. This win is So’s first US Championship title.

The last two rounds saw wins by the rating favourites, Caruana and Nakamura, who as if woken up from a nightmare proceeded with “business as usual” and from 50% rose to +2, enough to share 3rd place. The only other player to win was Onischuk, who secured shared first with his penultimate round win against Xiong.

When the pressure to win was removed Caruana and Nakamura showed their usual standard and easily disposed of Shabalov and Robson (Caruana) and Zherebukh and Akobian (Nakamura). The game Nakamura-Akobian was especially important as it directly influenced the final standings – before the round Akobian was on shared first, had he drawn the game he would have been involved in the tie-break with So and Onischuk.

So’s last two games were typical of the modern understanding of chess and tournament strategy. Even though he wasn’t leading alone, he didn’t mind drawing and playing for a draw – the motto of “safety first” is the main one for many of today’s young players. I still remember the tournaments where Kasparov was trying hard to win last round games in order to win the tournament alone; more often than not he succeeded. Nowadays this is a very rare sight, the players usually choose to rely on the fact that it is so difficult to win in chess, the draw being the most probable result, especially in a last round when the stakes are high.

This reminds me of the last round of the Curacao Candidates Tournament in 1962. Keres blew his chance in the penultimate round by losing to Benko (against whom he had a score of 7-0 and no draws in the current and previous Candidates Touranment in 1959) and was trailing Petrosian by half a point going to the last round. He was playing Fischer with White while Petrosian was also White against outsider Filip. I would imagine a Kasparov going strongly against an outsider with White in order not to depend on anyone and win outright. Not so Petrosian – he drew in 14 moves and then watched Keres’s risky play rewarded when he built a big advantage against Fischer. But eventually Petrosian was right, Keres misplayed the position and the game ended in a draw, giving Petrosian a clear first.

That is what happened in the last round. So was Black against Naroditsky (a 176-point Elo difference) and they played a well-known repetition in the Berlin, ending the game in 14 moves (is it a coincidence that both Petrosian and So finished their games in 14 moves?). The co-leaders couldn’t do better – Akobian lost with Black from a perspective position against Nakamura while Onischuk couldn’t do much against Kamsky, also with Black.

I think the attitude towards these issues is deeply ingrained in the character of the player. Kasparov is an energetic character who likes to dominate not only in chess, but also in conversations (this is from personal experience), to impose his own style, ideas, thoughts. Petrosian and So are apparently different. They prefer to keep their energy, avoid conflict whenever possible and let things happen on their own accord. In the last period we have seen So being very pragmatic, not risking at all and it has bore tremendous fruits. Everybody must find their own way of doing things and So has apparently found his.

The tie-break proved him right. He was stronger than Onischuk and won deservedly, but it was far from easy. In the first game there were a couple of imprecisions and Onischuk missed his chances to keep the balance.



In the second game Onischuk went away from theory as soon as possible (and he said this was the only way to play for a win against So, who is excellently prepared) and it seemed to be working. He got the bishop pair against So’s knights, exactly the type of imbalance a player needs when forced to play for a win. Even though the position was equal, the fact that White had to win left trace on both players’ decisions. So was the first to err and he lost a pawn, then he made another mistake and Onischuk was winning.




A great fight by Onischuk, who has given up practical play for some time now. I liked how grounded he sounded after the tournament, realising that his chances weren’t great – he could do better than one, perhaps two, of the top trio, but to get the better of all three? Not very probable… And he was right. Eventually one of them claimed the title.

The So saga continues, as does his unbeaten streak. Soon enough (20 April) we will see him play in Shamkir, joined by Kramnik and Karjakin among others. And generally speaking quite a lot of elite chess coming up – Zurich starts tomorrow (Kramnik, Anand, Nakamura) and the Grenke Classic (starts 15 April) sees Carlsen, Caruana and Vachier as top seeds. Three top events overlapping is a bit too much I think, but at least we will be spoilt for choice.


US Championship 2017 – So or Who?

Things have happened since my last post but one thing remained constant – So still leads.

Let’s start with Caruana, arguably the strangest story in St. Louis. Immediately after beating Kamsky and going to +1 he was routed by Zherebukh in the next round. I must say that his choice of the Breyer Spanish didn’t inspire confidence – I somehow felt that the position didn’t suit him. And he was simply outplayed, a rare thing to see a 2600-rated player to outplay a 2800-rated player.




In the next round, as if nothing happened, Caruana destroyed Naroditsky, whose French didn’t survive until move 15. He was back in contention and he produced a fine effort with Black to outplay one of the leaders, Akobian. It is notable that against players he tried to beat with Black Caruana’s reply to 1 d4 was 1…d6. He did it against Onischuk in Round 5 (when he didn’t take his chances in a favourable rook endgame), but now things looked quite good for a long time.



It is possible to explain what happened in this game, I tried to do it in the comments, but I find it impossible to understand how such a thing can happen to a world-class player like Caruana. Slight inaccuracies and bigger mistakes in a position that is technically winning for such a long time is not what I would expect of a 2800-rated player. It has plagued Caruana before too (his missed wins at the Candidates being the most painful ones), he seems not to be able to overcome desperate resistance. It is definitely something he needs to work on seriously as it appears to be his only glaring weakness.

Another favourite to blow his chances was Nakamura. If Caruana can regret his missed winning chances then Nakamura can regret his failure to create them. In the 7 draws in a row that preceeded his loss he never got any winning chances, an unbelievable occurrence for a player of his stature. In the derby against So in Round 8 play was balanced throughout, as So couldn’t create anything in the Closed System of the Catalan that Nakamura chose. Against Onischuk’s rock-solid QGD Nakamura quickly started going forward. But the QGD is an opening that can successfully absorb White’s pressure and give chances to Black on the counterattack, which is what happened in the game. But it was Nakamura’s fault because he finally created winning chances with his aggressive play. Move 32 was critical.



All this favoured So – he basically got rid of the most direct rivals. While it is true that Akobian’s win over Caruana made him equal first with So, I still find it difficult to see him win the tournament – one of his last 2 opponents is Nakamura.

So added one more win in the last 3 games. It was a brilliant combination against the youngest participant Xiong, who now has 0.5/4 with White in this tournament!



A wonderful game by So, showing a difference in class. Beating strong players with such confidence and dare I say, easily, is a mark that only the world-beaters have.

With two rounds to go So has Naroditsky and Kamsky to play while Akobian has Nakamura and Robson. Anything is possible, but I would still bet on So.



US Championship 2017

“If I don’t practice one day, I know it; two days, the critics know it; three days, the public knows it.” These were the words of famous violinist Jascha Heifetz and they perfectly describe how an elite performer feels about his daily routine and its connection to results.

From what we see at the US Championship it seems that Gata Kamsky hasn’t practiced in years. A chess prodigy and a workaholic in the late 1980s until his retirement in 1996, nowadays he relies only on his talent. This is seen not only in the approach to the openings (all sorts of London Systems, O’Kelly Sicilians (2…a6) and bunker Slavs) but also in the general strategy he employs, typical of “retired” strong players: get away from theory and try to outplay the young and inexperienced in the middlegame and endgame. If that strategy had a chance of working in the past, nowadays it is a different story. First, the young are not inexperienced (thanks to computers they can quickly gain knowledge) and second, the young are strong in all phases of the game, mostly because of their superior calculation. And calculation is the first thing that suffers when you stop practicing.

The cracks started to appear as early as Round 2. A one-move blunder for a former World number 2 is a shocking thing to see (and also perhaps a bit comforting for the rest of us).



In Round 3 Kamsky’s preparation was far from impressive, but he got a decent position against Robson. Then he miscalculated and his queen was in danger, so he had to give up a pawn. He then got drawing chances which he didn’t take. Definitely not the character of play of the old Kamsky I admired in the 90s! He was merciless then: he beat Salov, Anand, Kramnik and Short in matches, to mention only the strongest ones.

Then perhaps a small revival happened, he played well to draw with Nakamura and beat US’s brightest hope Jeffery Xiong in a very long game. And then this happened:



This was Caruana’s first win after 5 draws in the first 5 rounds. He had the better of it in both games against his main rivals, Nakamura and So, but couldn’t convert. In Round 1 he was close to losing to Shankland and he was first winning then close to losing against Xiong. In Round 5 he couldn’t make the better rook endgame count against Onischuk. A bit unstable tournament for Caruna so far, but he got going and is only half a point behind the leader So.

So is leading with +2, but he was in danger of losing on more than one occasion, which is twice as more than we’re used to seeing him. He effectively dispatched of Shabalov in Round 1 and his best game so far was his win against Onischuk in Round 4.



So’s risk-taking could have turned sour had Akobian been more precise in their Round 6 encounter, but he could only find the draw.



So’s unbeaten run continues, but for how long?

The third favourite Nakamura seems a bit subdued. He started with a fine Black win in Round 1 against Robson but from then on he made only draws. He couldn’t obtain any chances against Naroditsky and Shabalov, people he is expected to beat. I found his following comment quite revealing: “If you have chances that’s all you can ask for in modern chess… If I was expected to beat 2650s every day I should be 2900.” These words show that Nakamura doesn’t put pressure on himself to beat the weaker players, something he was an expert in when coming through the ranks (remember 1 e4 e5 2 Qh5?) Is this a lack of ambition, energy, perspective? I have the impression that Nakamura used to feel like the king of the USA before So and Caruana arrived. After their arrival he kind of withdrew and doesn’t seem to show the same hunger to win and beat everybody as before. Maybe he’s wary of their presence, he knows that he’s not the king anymore. He tried to give Caruana a fight at last year’s US Championship and was beaten badly. He also lost a crucial game to Caruana at the Candidates. Their last game before this year’s championship was a spectacular win for Caruana after a queen sacrifice in the Najdorf. Against So it is a similar story – he hasn’t beaten him since 2015 and he only made one draw out of their last 3 games, their last game was practically a miniature, with Nakamura blundering on move 13. Still, he is in contention and if given a chance I am sure he will take it.

There are still 5 more rounds to play and with only half a point difference between So and the rest (Caruana, Nakamura, Naroditsky, Akobian and Zherebukh) the tournament is wide open. Round 7 is currently under way and at the moment of writing Shabalov destroyed Xiong with black in 26 moves while Caruana seems to be in trouble against Zherebukh. Should be exciting until the end!


Shenzhen Masters 2017 – Ding Liren Wins

As I wrote at the end of my previous post on the Shenzhen Masters, the tournament did turn out to be a close one. Do not let the final standings confuse you – Ding Liren secured his victory by a full point only in the last round.

In my opinion this is Ding Liren’s best ever result. Even though there were no Top 10 players in the tournament (Giri is number 10 now after the tournament, where he won a couple of points) the participants were tough and experienced GMs who are difficult to beat – there were only 8 decisive games out of 30.

This doesn’t mean that the draws were dull. Quite the contrary, there were so many missed wins that had the players been more precise in converting their chances the tournament would have been a bloodbath!

The most unfortunate player in this respect was Michael Adams. He had winning positions in Rounds 5, 6, 7, yet he only scored 1/3 from these games! The most painful was of course the game he lost:



Ding had his fair share of luck, as the winners usually do, escaping with draws from a lost position against Adams and an unpleasant one against Giri (which he could accidentally win in the exact moment when he decided to give a perpetual check!). But he seemed in control for the whole tournament, being excellently prepared and playing solid and technical chess – two of the games he won were excellent demonstration of the power of the two bishops. I already showed the first one against Svidler in my previous post while the second one was probably his best game in Shenzhen.



Having in mind that Ding Liren scored a very good +1 at the recently finished Grand Prix in Sharjah, I think that he is a serious candidate to qualify for next year’s Candidates.

Of the other players, worth noting is Svidler’s last round win against the despondent Adams (who sacrificed a pawn for nothing in an equal position) that took him to a shared second – after sinking to -1 after 3 rounds Svidler won two games to achieve a plus score. Giri’s +1 was perhaps a disappointment for him because he missed several winning chances. It is still an improvement over his usual 100% draw scores.

I will now start following the US Championships, so stay tuned for more posts!