Monthly Archives: Apr 2018

Gashimov Memorial 2018 – Draw Fest

All draws so far in Shamkir, but not for the lack of the players’ trying.

Sometimes tournaments go like that. Everybody wants to win, but everbody also wants to avoid losing. And if the tendency to avoid losing is dominant, you get a lot of draws. It happens.

Ding Liren was winning in Round 1 against Wojtaszek. Topalov was winning in Round 2 against Giri and in Round 3 against Ding Liren. Conversely, Carlsen wasn’t even close to a win in any of his games.

The World Champion would very much want to win every tournament he plays in. He must have been very disappointed not to obtain winning chances against the relative outsiders Navara and Mamedov. He was very effectively neutralised in both of these games. That hurts.

On a more positive side, he demonstrated a very convincing way to solve all opening problems with Black in the Fianchetto Variation in the Grunfeld Defence. The line was introduced in practice by Dubov (quite a fertile opening innovator!) and this time it got the stamp of approval of the World Champion. The psychological background of the opening moves is also highly instructive and illustrative of Carlsen’s approach to preparation.

As you can see, even from a superficially “boring” theoretical draw one can learn quite a lot!

On the other side of the ocean, the US Championship is under way. At the time of writing three games of Round 4 have finished – Shankland beat Robson with Black, Zherbukh and Onischuk drew and Nakamura scored his 4th draw, this time against Liang. The leaders Caruana, So and Akobian are still playing.

I wanted to note what is happening to Nakamura. He started with 2 Whites, drew both (against Robson and Zherebukh) without a single chance for even an advantage. Then he was lost with Black against Onischuk with Black in Round 3 and again had nothing at all against Liang in Round 4.

This is a worrying tendency for one of the “big 3” of American chess. He is getting nothing from the openings and is not even getting close to outplaying his on-paper weaker opponents. My impression is that he has lost the energy and aggression in his play.

I see this change as a result of his loss of ambition. He realised he will never become a World Champion. He will not be the one who will “deal with Sauron.” Once the ambition had gone, he comfortably settled in his current situation of a Top-10 player who makes excellent living from playing chess and travelling the world. His Twitter profile says “Professional Chess Player and Investor/Trader.” Yes, he is not only a chess player and he seems to be very good at investing/trading. That is another excellent source of income for him. These changes are his choice, of course, but the player who was once an epitome of energy, aggression and courage is now gone.

Both tournaments have a lot of rounds to play, so things can get very exciting in Shamkir (once Carlsen starts winning!) and the US Championships never fail to entertain.


Caruana Marches On

Tired and without energy, Caruana won another super-tournament, the Grenke Chess Classic, a full point ahead of the World Champion. The good form continued after Berlin, an important factor was that there was no pause between the tournaments to break his rhythm.

What is notable is that out of his 4 victories 3 were with Black. Plus the Petroff scored another last-round win.

The difference with Berlin was that here he had the World Champion as the main competitor. But even Carlsen couldn’t match the consistency of Caruana’s play. The World Champion had a typical tournament when not in very good form – sole second with 5.5/9 and no losses.

A few words about the other players: Anand had a very bad tournament and dropped way below the Top 10 on the rating list. Next for him is Norway Chess. Can he bounce back? He’s taught us never to write him off, but each time it’s more and more difficult to come back!

Aronian is probably still in shock after Berlin, his +1 score is probably good enough for wound-licking but nothing more. He’s also out of the Top 10.

Vitiugov was the surprise of the tournament. He was invited because he earned it – he won the open last year and was guaranteed a place. He led for most of the tournament with a solid +2 (starting 2/2) and only his last round loss to Caruana spoilt his result somewhat, delegating him to shared 3rd place with Aronian and Vachier.

The Frenchman has had better tournaments, Hou Yifan was winning against Caruana, while the locals did what the locals usually do. The exception was Bluebaum, who beat Anand and scored more than respectable 50%.

Back to Caruana and his 3 wins with Black. Winning with Black is a sign of White overpressing or messing up his preparation badly. Caruana didn’t expect to win these games, but he was ready to take his chances when they were presented. Take the following game as a typical example.

His last-round win against Vitiugov has been compared to his last-round win against Grischuk in Berlin: again the Petroff, again the fxe6 structure, again in a situation when a draw would have sufficed. In fact, the difference is huge in the actual importance of the game – in Berlin what was at stake was a career-changing achievement; in Grenke, a win in a tournament. Consequently, the pressure was incomparably bigger in Berlin.

The novelty 5…Qd7 Caruana introduced against Vitiugov was a result of an engine being left to work and reaching depth that normal laptops cannot reach. This information was confirmed by Leko, who also discovered the move on his own. These guys are not just the best players, they also have the best hardware.

Winning the Candidates is a huge confidence booster. Caruana has always been confident in his own ability and with the victories in Berlin and Karlsruhe he is definitely the best player in the world at the moment. There is a lot of time until November, but this time I think we definitely have the best two players in the world playing a match for the title.


The Canary Islands

During the last 5 rounds of the Candidates I was playing myself on the very beautiful island of La Palma. It was a small tournament, excellently organised by “El Grande” Isidro Cruz, whom I’d like to thank for all the effort he put in.

Honestly speaking, I was worried how I would play after a prolongued period of inactivity. My main concern was how my head would be working. In order to decrease the chances of “malfunction” I did some training before the tournament. Eventually it didn’t amount to much, but I did string several days in a row when I was doing some calculational work for at least one hour.

I have often written how this type of work is the hardest for me. The brain has grown out of the habit of continuous analytical work and protests when it is forced back again. The secret is to persevere, in spite of all the uncomfortable hours spent trying to visualise a position or solve a study. An embarassing truth: on more than one occassion I have spent almost an hour on a position unable to solve it.

So with some trepidations in my heart I set out on a long journey. When I arrived, this is what welcomed me. A majestic ocean sunset.

Additionally, I arrived two days before the tournament. This was very important, primarily to rest, because the tournament had a very tough schedule of 7 rounds in 5 days. This meant 2 double-round days and a very early last round game (at 9am).

Double-round days and morning rounds have always been some sort of a curse for me. I don’t remember winning two games in a day, ever. It never mattered who I played or the position I got – the maximum has always been 1.5/2, though in the vast majority of cases it was less.

I think the reason for this is the fact that I grew up in times when it was unthinkable to play more than 1 game per day. So I got used to giving it all during that one game. With the introduction of shorter time controls and 2 rounds per day I didn’t manage to adjust so I often would lack the energy for the two rounds. Often a problem can be the previous round when I wouldn’t be able to rest before the morning game.

With all these factors still present, it is no surprise that I scored 1.5/2 on the double-round days and coupled with a draw in the last (morning) round my total of 5.5/7 only sufficed for second place (shared, but second on tie-break). You can see the final standings here.

Generally speaking I was pretty happy with my performance and how my head worked. I was seeing the small tactics quickly and clearly and was feeling comfortable at the board. My best game was from Round 4, not surprisingly a single-round day. Playing with Black was a young local FM.

In retrospect, the tournament was just ideal. The place (Canary Islands!), the result, the atmosphere, my state of mind, all the pieces of the puzzle fit in just perfectly. I wish I have more tournaments like this one in the future!


Berlin Candidates 2018 – Rounds 10-14

My tournament ended and not too bad at that, I finished 2nd. I will write a separate post on it, now it’s time to round-up the remaining rounds of the Candidates. I will go round by round and give my impressions also with the benefit of hindsight.

In Round 10 the only player to win was Kramnik. It is very important to note when he won a game – in the exact moment when he lost ambition and his over-confidence. This was quite apparent in the press-conference, when instead of his “winning” refrain he was using “I don’t know,” a certain sign of objectivity in chess players. When a chess player is not certain about a position this means that he is careful and caution is objectivity’s best friend. This was Kramnik’s second win against Aronian, who, by his own admission, still hadn’t realised that he had to switch to damage-control mode. He tried to be ambitious in his game against Kramnik, but when in bad form whatever a player does will backfire.

The derby of the round was the clash of the leaders, Mamedyarov and Caruana. It produced a sharp Catalan where Caruana wasn’t in any great danger of losing and relinquishing the lead.

The other two games, Ding-So and Grischuk-Karjakin were tame draws.

Round 11 saw the start of the emergence of Sergey Karjakin. It was again Aronian who paid the price for the only decisive game of the round. He tried to press and play for a win until the end and again it backfired. The position was balanced for a very long time, but it was Aronian who blundered after the time control, on move 42, and the rest was a superb realisation by Karjakin.

The miss of the round was Ding Liren’s draw from +15 against Grischuk. In a way it was a compensation for Grischuk’s missed win against the same opponent in Round 4. But please be aware that if the strongest players on the planet cannot find a clear-cut win in spite of the engine pointing to +15, it simply means that the position was complicated and not at all easy to play. This was Ding’s 11th draw in as many rounds.

This round also saw a very important opening innovation as early as move 5. The innovator was Kramnik in his game against Caruana.

The game So-Mamedyarov didn’t produce much excitement. By now it became clear that So was just trying to make draws as easily as possible and Mamedyarov, playing with Black, didn’t object.

Round 12 saw Karjakin take over the lead in the tournament.  An amazing comeback by the player who started the tournament with two White losses! In the derby of the round he beat Caruana with White in a Petroff. It is very instructive to note what Karjakin’s “secret” was. After losing in the beginning he didn’t set out to make-or-break the tournament like Aronian and Kramnik did, with super-aggressive play and single-minded “play for a win”. No, he tried to improve little by little. First, stop losing games. Second, try to get your preparation in for increase in confidence. Third, keep the level of your play at a constant level. And when the tension in the tournament began to rise, Karjakin’s gradual improvement started to bear fruit. In the previous round he took advantage of Aronian’s stubbornness (of playing for a win at all costs) and in this round he took advantage of Caruana’s burden as a leader. As you can see, he didn’t “go for it”, he was patient and waited for the chances to come and was ready to take them when they did. The game with Caruana was his finest, especially when taken into consideration at what point in the tournament it was played.

An impressive game by Karjakin! On the other hand, as Caruana admitted afterwards, this loss liberated him from the burden of playing too conservatively to hang onto his lead. Now he had to go for it again and he did it in spectacular fashion.

This round also saw Mamedyarov’s first loss. Perhaps he thought that a long series of draws must end in a loss (as it usually is the case), but then again maybe they haven’t heard of this saying in China. The decision to play for a win in a position that didn’t allow it was also uncharacteristic for Mamedyarov’s tournament strategy, which can be summed up by his often-repeated in the press-conferences “draw is good”. Not surprisingly, such an abrupt change in the strategy backfired. In a balanced position Mamedyarov went sharply forward but Ding’s superb counter-attack refuted his attack. This win brought Ding Liren on +1, now together with Mamedyarov and Grischuk only half a point behind the leaders Karjakin and Caruana on 7/12. With 2 rounds to go 5 (!) players had a realistic chance of winning the tournament.

Grischuk introduced a very interesting early novelty against Aronian’s attempted Marshall Gambit but failed to make the most of it. Curiously enough, it will be another player who will make the maximum profit from Grischuk’s innovation in the next round!

Kramnik also introduced a very important idea in the Exchange Variation of the QGD against So. He was winning (this time objectively!) but didn’t manage to convert.

The penultimate, Round 13, saw both Caruana and Mamedyarov bounce back from their defeats with wins over Aronian and Grischuk respectively. Caruana made good use of Grischuk’s innovation in the previous round and took full advantage of Aronian’s disturbed state.

Another game where Caruana was superior to his opponents when it came to calculation.

The game Mamedyarov-Grischuk was headed for a draw, but Grischuk wanted to keep the tension for a tad too long and when he decided to force a draw he blundered and was swiftly punished.

Ding was on the verge of losing to Kramnik, but Big Vlad again failed to keep the level of his play constant throughout the game. After outplaying the Chinese, just like he outplayed So the previous day, he faltered in the phase of realisation of the advantage.

So didn’t give Karjakin any chance as he quickly dried up the game in a forcing line in the 4 Qc2 Nimzo.

Before the last round Caruana was again alone in the lead with 8/13, but he had a worse tie-break than most of the other players. The practice of the last years shows that the players in such situations mostly bank on the games finishing in a draw. After all, wins are so hard to come by!

The last round saw all the candidates for first place adopt the safety-first strategy. Caruana chose his usual Petroff against Grischuk, Karjakin against Ding Liren went for an even more simplified position than in his game against Caruana and only Mamedyarov, playing Black, was forced to go for some risky play against Kramnik’s Catalan. Aronian and So, understandably, quickly drew.

Karjakin tried to repeat his winning strategy from the game with Caruana. He went for the variation in the Spanish that was heavily disputed in his match with Carlsen and Ding chose a line where most of the light pieces are exchanged. Ding also needed a win, yet he chose to sit passively and wait for a possible counterattack. Karjakin was slightly better with a position easier to play, as he was the only one with an active plan, but his plan was marred by a tactical oversight that immediately cancelled any chance to play for a win for either side. A draw.

Kramnik openly went for Mamedyarov’s throat, at the same time allowing Mamedyarov to try his luck in the complications. Unfortunately, he was never in a chance to turn things around, it was rather Kramnik who again missed a few opportunities. Another draw.

These results meant that a draw also suited Caruana. But he played a perfect game. In yet another Petroff he obtained a solid yet playable position, one that can be played for a long time in case he needed to play for more. By the time he discovered that Mamedyarov had also made a draw (as Karjakin’s game finished earlier) he was already winning. His decision to go on and win the game was quite admirable and reminded me of Carlsen’s decision to play for a win against Aronian in the last round in St. Louis even though a draw would have sufficed to win the tournament. This was prior to his match with Anand in 2013 and it showed Carlsen’s supreme confidence going into the match. Carlsen made a similar decision to play for a win in the last game in that same match when a draw would have given him the title. This sole decision by Caruana makes him more than a worthy opponent for Carlsen.

With the highest score in the history of the modern Candidates, 9/14, Caruana displayed the best chess under the conditions of immense stress and tension. He was excellently prepared, mostly playing 1 d4, and generally calculated better than his opponents. This time Carlsen will meet a younger opponent and also one that will not go down Karjakin’s way of playing defensively. It will be an excellent match in November!