Grischuk’s Shoes

Continuing the story from the first leg of the Berlin Grand Prix, this is a text from my newsletter.

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At the recently finished Grand Prix event in Berlin I served as a Fair Play Officer and as such I was sharing the same stage as the players. It was a very exciting experience for me as I could follow the games and try to understand what was happening from a player’s perspective, as I had no access to a computer while the games were in progress.

The following game left a very strange impression on me. It was played in the second round and it was played mere two meters from where I was sitting. I could observe both players carefully. What I tried to do during the game was try to undestand Grischuk’s play and psychology, primarily connected with his time-trouble issues.

The first surprise happened on move one. After Bacrot’s 1.e4 Grischuk replied 1…d6. Grischuk can play many things with Black but the Pirc has not been part of his repertoire. After the usual moves 2.d4 Nf6 3.Nc3 g6 4.Nf3 Bg7 5.Be2 0-0 6.0-0, which are the standard moves of the Classical Variation against the Pirc, Grischuk stopped for more than 15 minutes.

Since it’s impossible that he wasn’t prepared I started wondering what was he thinking about. But as I observed him I noticed that perhaps he wasn’t thinking per se. At times he appeared to be thinking, but at other times he would be looking at the monitor displaying the other games and would make facial expressions.

What the hell was going on in his head?

There was no way for me to tell, so I assumed that he was warming up his head for the battle ahead.

Eventually he played 6…a6, one of the many moves at Black’s disposal here.

(While he was thinking, a curious thought crossed my mind – I realised that this opening never brought good luck to anybody at that elite level – starting with Korchnoi (losing the decisive, 32nd, game in Baguio to Karpov in 1978), Kramnik (losing the decisive, last-round game at the London Candidates in 2013 to Ivanchuk, incidentally playing the same move 6…a6), and now Grischuk – like a premonition, even though the game was still at the beginning, so I couldn’t know how it would finish.)

Bacrot also started to think, but was faster than his opponent and he played the natural 7.a4. Then another 15 minutes passed before Grischuk replied with 7…b6, the second most common move in the position and, perhaps more importantly, played several times in the past by his very good friend (and possibly helper for this tournament) Peter Svidler.

Bacrot played the main move in the position, 8.Re1 and almost 20 minutes passed before the third pawn move was played, 8…e6, still a highly theoretical move (and played twice by Svidler).

Bacrot played the main move in this position, 9.e5 and Grischuk replied immediately with 9…dxe5 10.Nxe5 Bb7 11.Bf3 Qc8 (a motif known from one of Svidler’s games) and went for a smoke.

If we look at the previous moves it’s clear that he must have been still in preparation – he chose the opening, his opponent was following one of the main lines so everything was known. Why then spend masses of time?

Bacrot replied with 12.Bg5, a natural move that must be analysed in one’s preparation, yet Grischuk spent 20 minutes on his next move 12…Nfd7, another known motif from Svidler’s games.

By here he had only 20 minutes left to reach move 40.

White played 13.Bf4, a move he spent half an hour on, to which Grischuk replied with the dubious 13…Rd8 and after White’s next 14.Ng4 he was in deep trouble.

Imagine the problems he faced when the best he could do was go back with the rook 14…Rf8, after which he had mere 5 (!) minutes to reach move 40.

I was observing all this and couldn’t help but think, what the hell happened here?? How could an elite player who prepared for this game where his opponent played theoretical and natural moves, end up lost in 14 moves?

The more I thought about this, trying to undestand what could have possibly happened, I suddenly realised that I would never understand it, simply because this type of thinking and playing was too alien to me. I am just more practical and my mindset is completely different to the one Grischuk normally displays in his games. In spite of my best attempts to put myself in Grischuk’s shoes, I couldn’t – they were too big, not my style and I didn’t even like them!

Another idea that crossed my mind during this game was a connection I made observing Grischuk before the game. He took his Covid tests immediately before the games, running the risk of being late for the game and arriving at the last possible moment. The way he smokes is rushed and doesn’t seem like he’s enjoying it – it seems more like he is satiating some thirst. So maybe he was just an adrenaline junkie? Add to this the eternal time troubles and the rush he is probably getting from playing with seconds left of the clock and who knows, maybe he’s happy then.

In the game Grischuk was hopelessly lost in more than one way but Bacrot couldn’t finish him off and he managed to save the game.

As much as I admire him as a player and personality, I am now pretty certain that I can never fully understand the inner works of Grischuk’s mind. And perhaps it is better like that.

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