Three rounds passed in Tbilisi and I found it increasingly difficult to write about separate matches since so much was going on there. So I thought I will share my impressions here in random order.
The first thing to note is the huge cleanse of the favourites. Carlsen, Kramnik, Anand, Karjakin, Nakamura, Gelfand, Andreikin, Ponomariov, Radjabov, Mamedyarov, Adams, Wei Yi are all out. An impressive list, but in fact this is not very surprising. And it is not so much because of the format, simply the players who beat them are exceptionally strong players as well. In two-game matches (and subsequent tie-breaks) several hundred points of Elo difference are easily compensated with better nerves or even a bit of luck.
Of those who remain I quite like how the young Russian stars Fedoseev and Dubov are playing. Dubov’s elimination of Karjakin in Round 2 was impressive. He beat Karjakin in a theoretical battle where the latter knew the correct move yet chose the wrong one. Fedoseev eliminated Nakamura by winning the second game of their match and the shocking thing was that he was almost winning on move 8!
The pre-event favourites So and Caruana are looking solid and unassuming for now, So has already qualified for the next round and awaits the winner of Nepomniachtchi-Jobava. Caruana still needs to win the tie-break against Najer. If they win their tie-breaks, there will be great match-up in Round 4 between Vachier and Grischuk. That would be a fantastic match!
From a chess perspective I noticed the return of the Petroff Defence. Hence it came as no surprise that Carlsen, Grischuk, Wang Hao, Artemiev all switched to 2 Bc4 in their games when facing the prospect of playing against the Petroff. The Petroff came back thanks to the Chinese players who have recently been employing a relatively unexplored line:
Caruana’s Black repertoire seems aimed at drawing. Against 1 d4 – the QGA, an opening he has been playing for a while and where he has suffered in the endgame after 7 dc5, but he seems confident that he can hold those endgames. Against 1 e4 – the Petroff, as we saw in the above game. There you have it, a bullet-proof repertoire with Black without the need to study the Berlin!
Kramnik lost to Ivanchuk by losing the second game with White. He repeated the same mistake as in some of his previous tournaments – overconfidence. He thinks he can take bigger risks and oversteps the limit. It is curious that this is his second loss as White in the Caro-Kann, definitely not the scariest opening White can face! His first loss was against Fedoseev in Dortmund, barely 2 months ago. In both games he used the seemingly innocuous Exchange Variation but both times he treated it in an unreasonably aggressive manner. Now Kramnik’s only chance to qualify for the Candidates is by rating (with two sub-lines: he either manages to have one of the two highest averages or So or Caruana make it to the final).
Anand’s loss to Kovalyov in Round 2 marks an end of an era. Not Anand’s era in general, but Anand’s era of presence in the World Championship cycle. He has been in it continually since 1991, except the brief period of 2002-2004 where he was ousted of it politically with the Prague Agreement. I wonder how (and if) this will affect the great Indian.
Nakamura’s loss is probably a good sign for him to reconsider his ambitions. He bursted into the elite as the hyper-aggressive player who showed no respect, but in the last several years he appears much more settled down and solid, losing that edge that made all the difference for him. He still has an outside chance to qualify for the Candidates if he gets very lucky (particularly with the other players’ results) in the last Grand Prix event in November, so he has it clear now what to play for, but being eliminated at this stage is definitely a disappointment for him.
I noticed a very surprising case of two players not knowing chess history and a classical game:
I have always thought that elite players must have excellent chess culture, but perhaps I am overestimating their knowledge.
I must also mention the outrageous scandal concerning Anton Kovalyov and Zurab Azmaiparashvili. Since I am a General Secretary of the ACP I would ask you to read our letter and if you agree with it, sign it. Chess players have been treated disrespectfully for way too long while all the power has gone to the officials. While I think that chess players should dress properly, what happened in Tbilisi is not a way to treat a Grandmaster.