Category : Openings

The London System: Essential Theory

What is the barest minimum a club player needs to know in order to play an opening?

Chessable’s course The London System: Essential Theory by IM John Bartholomew and FM Daniel Barrish aims to answer that question. Taking one of the most popular opening systems for White they attempted to create a repertoire that doesn’t require much memorisation and follows the “keep it simple” principle.

The London System as an opening has the major upside of White playing more or less the same moves against pretty much everything. It has however the downside of allowing Black to react in pretty much any way he likes.

The authors grouped the material based on Black’s set-ups. There are seven theoretical chapters, one chapter with model games and one chapter with tactics. The theoretical chapters are: …d5 without …c5, …d5 with …c5, Queen’s Indian Defence Setups (this basically means when Black fianchettoes the c8 bishop, as plans with and without …d5 are included here), King’s Indian Fianchetto Setups, Benoni Setups, the Dutch and Odds and Ends.

The London has the reputation of being a positional opening, but the authors took a different approach, trying to go for aggressive set-ups whenever possible. For example, against the Kingside Fianchetto set-ups for Black they recommend the move 3 Nc3 (after 1 d4 Nf6 2 Bf4 g6) and if Black plays 3…Bg7 they transpose to the Pirc by 4 e4. In this Pirc with a bishop already on f4 they go for the natural Qd2, 0-0-0 plan with kingside attack.

So the London can become a Pirc. It can also become other openings, as the authors do not remain contained in the typical Bf4, c3, e3 frame. In the Odds and Ends they also look at the Philidor Defence (via 1 d4 d6 2 e4 Nf6 3 Nc3 e5), some Benoni setups enter into Benko Gambit territory and so on. The London is so much more than only London.

But if it is so much more, how is the club player supposed to remember all that?

The authors solve this question by keeping the length of the lines up to approximately 10 moves. The longest variation I noticed was 17 moves long and it is the only forcing line in the repertoire. Naturally, keeping the lines short means that many things need to be left out, for example in the Philidor the line is 9 moves long and at that point theory only begins, but that is the point of the whole repertoire – it is supposed to be Essential and not In Depth.

Having learned the lines in this repertoire the club players can be confident when meeting any Black set-up against the London System. They will know how to develop their pieces and what their middlegame plans are. And that is all they need to know in order to obtain a good position before they start enjoying the process of playing.

The London System: Essential Theory is available on Chessable.

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Fight 1 e4 Like Caruana

One of the best things that happened with the rise of chess engines is that it is almost impossible to find a bad book on openings nowadays.

Every author knows all too well that his lines will be checked in great detail by his readers, who often will be equipped with better hardware than himself. This means that the level of quality of today’s books has risen as a result of the authors’ conscientiousness.

With the World Championship match under way it is no surprise that the repertoire of both participants is under the microscope of the chess public. The Challenger’s success with the Petroff Defence has been beyond all expectations, so it is only logical to try to emulate his choices.

IM Christof Sielecki has done just that. In his latest work for Chessable, he devised a repertoire based on Caruana’s choices facing 1 e4.

It is very interesting for me to see what other people think about lines where I have also done some work. Since I have also prepared and played 1…e5 (and the Petroff, for that matter!) I was curious to see what Christof had to offer in the repertore.

The first thing I discovered was a move I didn’t know existed. This was already a good sign – after all if a GM doesn’t know of an existence of a move, then certainly less experienced opposition has even less chances of knowing it! The discovery lay in the Central Gambit: after 1 e4 e5 2 d4 ed 3 c3, I have always considered the move 3…d5 to be the easiest and best way to deal with the gambit. That is what I had prepared, analysed and played. Christof acknowledges the strength of the move, but suggests another one: 3…Qe7 and goes on to prove that in fact Black is better in all the lines.

That was already an important discovery early on!

The second thing that struck me was the author’s honesty. In the King’s Gambit, after 1 e4 e5 2 f4 ef 3 Bc4 he gives the line 3…Qh4 4 Kf1 d6 and readily admits that he only adjusted some analysis already given by other authors – in this case GM Jan Gustafsson (in his DVD) and Nikolaos Ntirlis (in his book). He backs his decision with the logic that if something is good you simply recommend it, even if you haven’t come up with it yourself. No need to reinvent the wheel.

He did the same for the line with 3 Nf3, recommending the Schallopp Defence 3…Nf6, again basing his choice on analysis by other authors. All this suggests that Christof is up to date with the latest theoretical developments and published material and he was able to filter and adapt them best for his students’ needs.

One of the good things about playing the Petroff Defence is that it is practical. You get your opening only after 2 moves, which means that White’s deviations are only on move 2. Against all these deviations, as we’ve seen with the King’s and Central Gambit, the suggested lines are well-covered and explained. I liked the fact that against the Vienna after 1 e4 e5 2 Nc3 Nf6 3 g3 he recommended the line with 3…d5, leading to easy development for Black.

Since the repertoire is based on Caruana’s games, against the Bishop’s Opening the author follows the game Carlsen-Caruana from this year’s Norway Chess tournament. He offers an interesting improvement over Caruana’s play based on a correspondence game from 2016. I had a brief look and it appears that Black is indeed OK there.

I found it somewhat surprising that the choice after 1 e4 e5 2 Nf3 Nf6 3 Nc3 was the move 3…Nc6, giving White the option of the Four Knights and the Scotch. I have always considered the move 3…Bb4 to be the more practical choice as it cuts down on the theory you are required to know after the above-mentioned openings.

Still, the suggested line after the Four Knights is the move 4…Bc5 (a bit more dynamic than the traditional 4…Bb4 or the simplifying 4…Nd4) while in the Scotch the author recommends the latest wrinkle after 1 e4 e4 2 Nf3 Nf6 3 Nc3 Nc6 4 d4 ed 5 Nd4 Bb4 6 Nc6 bc 7 Bd3 0-0 8 0-0 d5 9 ed Bg4!?, a move very recently employed by a lot of top players.

The core of the repertoire is of course the Petroff, and here he follows the reliable paths. It was interesting that against 3 d4 Ne4 4 de d5 5 Nbd2 he prefers to follow Caruana’s game with Grischuk from the last round of the Candidates tournament in Berlin, where he played 5…Nd2, rather than his later game with Vitiugov from Grenke where he introduced the stunning 5…Qd7. I assume this was done because the former move is easier to play conceptually.

In the Main Line the author again follows Caruana with 6…Bd6, a move he single-handedly revived. Theory is well-established there and Black doesn’t have problems.

In the currently most popular line with 5 Nc3 the author proposes a very interesting improvement over Caruana’s play in his game with Carlsen from this year’s Sinquefield Cup where Carlsen introduced the rarely played 8 Bc4.

Theoretically speaking the Petroff is one of the most solid openings and in spite of its reputation it is not boring at all. The authors shows many exciting and aggressive lines for Black which can make for a very entertaining time spent behind the Black pieces. The Petroff is also a highly theoretical opening, so as long as all is well with the student’s memory, this opening can serve a player for a lifetime.

The full course is available on Chessable and you can also check out the free promo just in case you need to see what’s in store first.

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On The Way To The QGD – A Video Course

The third and final part of my repertoire based on the QGD is out and this concludes the whole series. This means that now there is a video course to complement the analysis for “everything except 1 e4.”

This part is divided in 4 chapters, The London System, the Trompowsky, The Rest and the Catalan. Theoretically speaking the London and the Catalan are the most important ones; the Tromp without a knight on f6 (1 d4 d5 2 Bg5) isn’t very threatening, while The Rest deals with obviously the rest plus the innovations of some of the world’s most original players Jobava and Rapport (mainly 1 d4 d5 2 Nc3 Nf6 3 Bf4).

The London System and the Catalan are among the most popular openings today, so it is crucial to be well-prepared against them. Even though the book was published last year, I re-checked everything and I can confirm that I am still perfectly happy with my proposed lines.

As theory doesn’t stand still I also made sure to provide updates where it was required. These were added to the analysis and also feature on the video.

The main update concerns the Catalan, as the line suggested in the repertoire (4…dc 5 Bg2 Bd7) has become one of the most popular choices against it. Last year at the FIDE World Cup in Tbilisi Maxim Rodshtein introduced the very strong novelty 10 Qc2 in the main line. He obtained very promising positions in his match against Hovhannisyan and even won the match thanks to that novelty. Since Black was suffering there I had to find an antidote and hopefully I managed to do so.

Recording the video was again a process that gave me both pleasure and anxiety. There is something about being in front of a camera and while I cannot call my videos “a performance” there is something of a thrill in the fact that quite a lot of people will be watching you. That same fact gave me also a lot of anxiety, a result of my desire to provide the best quality for the audience. In fact I would appreciate some feedback on it, so thanks for your time if you decide to give one.

On the Way to the QGD is out on Chessable.

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The Reti, KIA and Others – A Video Course

You probably know by now that I created a repertoire for Black based on the QGD for the chess-learning site Chessable. The links to the repertoire can be found on the right under My Chessable Books.

The video format is becoming increasingly popular. In spite of my reservations about it, I also joined the hype and decided to upgrade my course with a corresponding video course. The first part of it, on the QGD, has already been published and it is receiving excellent reviews. There is also link to it on the right, just below the first banner.

Recording video is a tough process. I already have some experience with it and I can honestly say that I now understand the film stars when they say how difficult filming is. Not that I feel like a film star, but I do not have re-takes of my recordings, which means that when you watch a clip bear in mind that it was recorded in one take – me sitting there and talking for hours.

Yesterday Chessable released the second part of the full repertoire where I discuss the Reti, the KIA, the Nimzo-Larsen 1 b3, the Bird’s Opening and the other various first moves.

Some time passed since the publication of the repertoire, so for this course I wanted to provide updates of several important variations. These are all included in both the video and the files. I think my suggested shortcuts and improvements will make the student’s task much easier when learning the intricacies of the Reti Opening.

From what students tell me, the video format is very good for internalising the material. This is probably due to the fact that the student both watches the chess board and listens to the audio explanations, thus being exposed to the same material twice and at the same time. I hope I managed to continue in the same vein as with the first part on the QGD and this video course with the updates makes your repertoire even better and of higher quality.

I invite you to take a look at my latest video course here.

A Grandmaster Guide: The Reti, King’s Indian Attack and others, based on the QGD

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Dubov’s Ideas

Daniil Dubov is one of the more original thinkers in modern chess. If you look at it at face value it is very easy to be original, just do something nobody has done before. The trick is to be original and good at the same time.

Dubov is one of the rare breed of very talented and strong young players who is also quite original. I am primarily speaking of his opening ideas, who cannot but catch your attention.

In my newsletter (use the friendly yellow box on the right to subscribe if you wish) I already noted some of his new ideas in the Grunfeld (he is a Grunfeld player with Black) and here I would like to draw your attention to his latest novelties. Currently he is playing the Russian Superfinal (just finished today), where in spite of the good start and leading the tournament he lost the rhythm and dropped to a minus score in the end. Curiously enough, he first won 2 games with Black before losing the next 3 with the same colour.

I am sure he will learn to deal with the pressure of being a leader, but in the meantime we can look at and perhaps pick up some of his ideas from the tournament.

In Round 2 Dubov introduced a true novelty on move 8 (it hasn’t even been played in games between computers or online!):

Even though he didn’t win the game this looks like an interesting way to steer the game clear of the usual paths. Black can probably neutralise this novelty, but that is difficult to do during the game as a GM as strong as Oparin failed to do so.

In Round 5 Dubov played a shocker (at least for me) on move 6!

Objectively speaking, Vitiugov reacted very well to Dubov’s 6 Nd2 and obtained a good position. But perhaps White’s play can be improved upon?

In Round 7 playing White against Fedoseev, Dubov continued in similar vein with the already-established aggressive treatment in the trendy …a6 lines in the QGD. Only this time the move e4 turned out to be a new one.

It is my impression that these lines with …a6 in the QGD work better when the White knight is already on f3!

Dubov’s ideas are very interesting and exciting, sometimes even shocking, so I always make sure to take a look at this games, wherever he plays. I would suggest doing the same if you are looking for ways to spice up your opening play, you won’t regret it!

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QGD Video Course

The video course for my Chessable book Queen’s Gambit Declined: A Grandmaster Explains is out (and the link offers you a free 1 hour 20 minute lesson on it!)

It was hard work, but eventually I think it was worth it. In more than 8 hours of video I go through every single line of my proposed repertoire and explain all the subtleties of the move orders and typical plans and ideas. I paid particular attention to the tactical motifs I didn’t mention in the comments and also to the so-called problem moves that the readers found difficult while studying the repertoire on the platform.

The course consists of an Overview, which you can see on my YouTube Channel, and  5 videos, one for every chapter of the book. These are The Exchange Variation, the Main Line 5 Bg5 h6 6 Bh4, the Main Line 5 Bg5 h6 6 Bf6, the Main Line 5 Bf4 and the 5th Various moves by White.

What I liked about the recording of the videos is that we managed to do it in a really professional manner. I would like to thank David (the Chessable CEO) for his dedication and attention to detail – if it wasn’t for his professionalism the final product wouldn’t have looked that good!

I have limited experience when it comes to recording, but I also cannot deny that I liked the process. It was tough, yes, we filmed more than 8 hours of video in a day and a half, but there was something special being seated in front of a camera and addressing an invisible audience that I knew was listening and paying attention!

I already wrote that the repertoire is based on my own analysis and preparation. In the videos I tried to add a new dimension by providing explanations that I didn’t include in my written commentary. My readers have also played a big role in improving the repertoire as during the course of its use they have come up with various questions and I hope that my answers helped clarify their doubts.

Chessable is launching the video course today and you can even see a whole chapter as a free sample. The chapter on the Main Line 5 Bg5 h6 6 Bf6 is 1 hour and 20 minutes long – please take a look and see the work we’d done:

Queen’s Gambit Declined: A Grandmaster Explains

The link to the full course is here.
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An Idea from Cuba

More than 10 years ago I was really looking forward to May and spring. It meant going to Cuba to play the Capablanca Memorial.

I played in Cuba in 2005 and 2007. I freely admit that big part of the Cuban attraction lay in the exotic nightlife and the great fun to be had in the surreal atmosphere of Havana. What great times they were!

This year’s Capablanca Memorial has again an open tournament and a double-round robin elite event alongside. While browsing through the games I noticed this very interesting idea in the Rossolimo Sicilian. It was played by my friend GM Yuri Gonzalez.

Ideas come easily in surroundings that are susceptible to their creation. For me Cuba was an attack on all my senses and understanding of how things should be done. It took me some time to get used to it, but once I did, it was just going with the flow. Here’s an exciting game from 2005, played after meeting Ozyris the previous night.

Thinking of Cuba always makes me smile. For me it was indeed Cuba Libre, in all possible senses. And I suppose spring will always remind me of Cuba.

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Opening Tendencies

At the beginning of my career I modelled my repertoire to Bobby Fischer’s. Not too original, I must admit, but I was so in love with his 6-0s, complete domination and uncompromising attitude that I couldn’t help myself!

While studying his repertoire I noticed an important distinction between his white and black repertoire. When he was White he was more likely to vary his lines, for example against 1…e5 he could choose the King’s Gambit, 3 Bc4 and the Ruy Lopez, where he could further choose to play the main lines or the Exchange Variation.

Against the Caro-Kann he was notoriously undecided – from the main lines with 3 Nc3, to the Exchange with 3 ed, to the KIA with 2 d3 and his old favourite Two Knights with 2 Nc3 and 3 Nf3.

In the Sicilian, apart from the trusted Sozin with Bc4 in various modifications, he also used the Rauzer (in the match with Spassky) and also the Keres Attack against the Scheveningen, the Fianchetto against the Taimanov, even the sharpest 6 Bg5 against the Najdorf (famously against Geller, a game he lost).

Things were different when he was Black, but only against 1 e4. There it was the Najdorf and little else. There was a brief flirting with 1…e5 in the early 60s, but from then on, and until the match with Spassky, it was Najdorf only (with a few Alekhine Defences sparkled in).

Against 1 d4 he was keen to change more. From the King’s Indian and the Grunfeld to the Nimzo and QGD/Semi-Tarrasch. Even the sharp Benoni when required. With this outline in mind let us now take a look at how the modern players are approaching the choice of openings.

Surprisingly (or not, if you like to view Fischer as decades ahead of his time!), their approach is almost identical to Fischer’s. The only difference is their preference of 1…e5 to the Najdorf, although the brave French knight with two surnames is the honorable exception. In fact, he has an almost Fischer-like (or perhaps Kasparov-like) repertoire, with the Najdorf against 1 e4, the Grunfeld against 1 d4 and with White 1 e4 (and then varying his approach in the sub-lines).

Kramnik, Aronian and Carlsen (who settled into this approach after having his tries with other openings earlier in his career and who is more prone to change than the other two) are exclusive devotees to 1…e5 while against 1 d4 they do vary a bit, even though this variation is all within the most solid openings: the QGD/Semi-Tarrasch (re-introduced in  modern practice by Kramnik at the London Candidates in 2013 and popular ever since), the Slav and the Nimzo.

With White they are more flexible, Carlsen choosing both open and closed games while Kramnik and Aronian sticking to closed systems but changing their approach quite often. You could extend this analysis to other players like Anand, Nakamura, Karjakin, Caruana and others, where you will see modifications, but the main strategy is almost always the same.

This short analysis paints a clear picture of how the majority of modern players construct their repertoires: with Black against 1 e4 they rely on one opening, which they have studied well and are not afraid to use against any preparation their opponents might throw at them. Against 1 d4 they do vary a bit more (or stick to the Grunfeld, as in Vachier’s case) but always within the limits of the most solid openings.

With the state of modern theory being such that it is impossible to obtain an advantage with White, when they play White they are mainly going for the hit-and-run approach, choosing a line or idea suitable for one game, with the hope to surprise their opponents. Hence the need for frequent change in their openings and lines.

With Black, using the achievements of modern theory that shows no advantage for White, they are sticking to one solid opening as if tauting white to go forward and give them a chance from a counterattack.

Limiting your opening choices with Black has also the practical advantage of not scattering your attention because even within that one opening you choose there is so much to study. In this case it is a case of depth over width.

With White is the other way round – width over depth – more openings are studied but with less depth since the aim is to use an idea or variation in only one game.

This is modern chess, it requires constant work and stream of ideas!

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Candidates 2018 Preview

With all the players deeply immersed in preparation for the most important tournament of the year, and with Wijk and Gibraltar behind us, it is time to take a look at each player’s chances and prospects.

Of the 8 players only Ding Liren and Grischuk didn’t play anything in the new year. So let’s start with them.

I am very much looking forward to Alexander Grischuk’s participation. He is one of the deepest and most original thinkers, especially in the openings. I will only mention two of his latest ideas that had a big impact on modern theory – one is the move …Bc5 in the English Opening after 1 c4 e5 2 Nc3 Nf6 3 Nf3 Nc6 4 g3 d5 5 cd Nd5 6 Bg2:

and the other, again in the English, and as early as move 2 (!) 1 c4 e5 2 d3, which he used to beat Anand in 2015. He also expressed his desire for the latter to be called by his name – after all, you don’t get to invent new ways as early as move 2 nowadays! I am curious what he will come up with in the openings this time. With White, he mixed the theoretical approach of going for the main lines with the non-theoretical (London System, Reti etc.). It is likely that he (like everybody else!) will tailor his approach to every opponent so we may see again a mixture of both. With Black against 1 e4, apart from the inevitable Berlin when wanting to play safe, he will undoubtedly come up with something else. In the last few years he was successful with the Sveshnikov Sicilian, but his latest Sicilian games have been in the Taimanov with transpositions to the Scheveningen. Against 1 d4 he has been experimenting lately, but the Grunfeld, an integral part of his repertoire since the Candidates matches in 2011, is definitely a possibility. All of these choices (and this applies for every player) will depend on his strategy for the tournament and also on the people he will work with (his decision to play the Grunfeld in 2011 was a result of him having Peter Svidler as a second). Apart from his opening originality, Grischuk is a player who is notorious for his time-troubles and this will both add to the excitement and harm his chances. Even though I am a big fan of Grischuk, I don’t see him winning the tournament, mostly because of his time-troubles. In order to stand a chance he will need to be in the form of his life, like in the Petrosian Memorial in 2014 which he won with 5.5/7 and crossed 2800. Let’s see if he manages – if he does, I for one won’t complain!

Ding Liren is the biggest mystery to me from all the 8 participants. A player with fantastic technique, excellent opening preparation and quite a resilient nervous system – his last round wins in the Sharjah Grand Prix over Aronian and in the Moscow Grand Prix over Gelfand were major factors in his qualification for the Candidates. On the other hand, he lost matches to So and Grischuk in 2016and Giri in 2017, so perhaps he needs to work to improve in situations with prolongued tension. He will have all the resources of China to aid him in his preparations. His opening preparation seems to be more limited than that of the others, his mainstay with Black is the Marshall against 1 e4 and the Semi-Slav with the Nimzo against 1 d4, while with White he is mostly a 1 d4 player. It can be expected that he will expand or change his openings, though I don’t expect him to change his manner of play. But only with great technique it will be impossible to win games in this field and for now I cannot see what can that extra spark be that will help him introduce something novel and give him a playing edge in the games. I don’t see him winning the tournament, but I do expect to have a better understanding of Ding Liren as a player.

All the other players had some practice in January so there is fresh information about them to be analysed.

One of my favourite players on the circuit is Vladimir Kramnik. Big Vlad had a very exciting Wijk, winning 6 games, more than anyone else, but also losing 2. Kramnik will undoubtedly come with fantastic preparation and I can only guess what novel concepts he will introduce. The only thing I think he will keep is the Berlin against 1e4. Against 1 d4 I think he will introduce new ideas within the already well-established openings in his repertoire as I don’t see him taking up the Grunfeld! I am more interested to see what he will do with White. He has been a proponent of the non-theoretical approach, like starting with 1 Nf3 and doing a double-fianchetto, and even though he still analyses these “offbeat” lines deeply, I am not sure this is the way to go in every game of the tournament. So I expect to see him mix it up, after all he has amassed such a big amount of opening analysis over the years! But Kramnik’s problems won’t be the openings, it will be his ambition. With Carlsen’s emergence and his insistence on playing until the end and looking for the tiniest chances, Kramnik successfully adapted and adopted this approach himself, becoming one of the most uncompromising players. His infinite belief in his abilities that he can beat anybody is perhaps natural for somebody who has been a World Champion and beaten Kasparov, but there is only one problem with it – he cannot keep that level of play, concentration and determination in every single game. There are too many ups and downs in his play and Wijk was an excellent example – he had two very bad games, the ones he lost to Giri and Karjakin and he had a few (just) bad games, the ones he didn’t win against Jones and Hou Yifan and the last round game he won against Adhiban (from a losing position). These are 5 games out of 13! In his desire to win he also made mistakes and dubious sacrifices in his games with Matlakov and So. With these two it is half the tournament! This kind of instability will not go unpunished in Berlin. I think that the Big Vlad of old, the stable and solid player who dethroned Kasparov would have more chances. But can he change his approach and adapt after years of “living dangerously”? If anybody can, it is Kramnik. But I am not entirely sure that he will see the need for it. And therein lies the core issue that will impede his chances of winning. This time his over-confidence and ambition will work against him. As much as I would like to see him win the tournament, I am afraid I have to say that he won’t. Though I can still hope…

Shakhriyar Mamedyarov had a wonderful year. His rise to the number 2 in the world with an impressive 2814 on the February list speaks for itself. Shakh has always been a very dynamic and aggressive player and while that gave him irresistible force, he was always susceptible to instability. This instability wasn’t only in his chess, it was also a psychological factor, when he couldn’t bring himself to defend for long periods and be resilient. But these things changed with certain important developments in his personal life. He got married (for a second time), quit alcohol and started playing “boring chess” (in his own words). These events brought Shakh what he needed most – stability. Now he is a much more complete player who won’t always go for a win at all costs. He has kept his aggression but this time it is a controlled one. He is also more relaxed and doesn’t consider the Candidates as a “must-win” tournament. This approach should alleviate the tension that will undoubtedly be felt by all participants. While the openings were never his main strength, he has introduced some novelties in his repertoire, like the Ragozin Defence with Black (in which he beat Svidler in 21 moves) and the Catalan with White. He also successfully used the element of surprise in his game with So, using the Nimzowitch Variation in the Sicilian (1 e4 c5 2 Nf3 Nf6) daring So enter wild complications in the main line. So, being unprepared for this, understandably declined and Mamaedyarov didn’t have problems to draw. Whereas Mamedyarov quickly fell out of contention in the previous Candidates tournament he played in 2014 due to instability at the start (he started with 0.5/3), the new Mamedyarov will not repeat the same mistake. If he can keep the same form as in Wijk, coupled with good preparation and wisely using the element of surprise Mamedyarov will be in serious contention. I still don’t think he will win, but it will be exciting to see him add another dimension to the tournament.

Wesley So on the other hand is an epitomy of stability. And stability will be a very important factor in Berlin. His tournament will depend on whether he manages to win a game or two. If he does he may as well win the tournament, but if he gets stuck and starts making draws he can easily replicate Giri’s 14 draws from Moscow 2016. The Candidates tournaments in 2013, 2014 and 2016 were all won with a result of +3 (8.5/14). Such “dense” tournaments work well for players who don’t win (and lose) a lot of games so even though being a newcomer in the field (all the others apart from Ding Liren have already played in a Candidates tournament) Wesley So shouldn’t find it any different from the usual tournaments he plays. In Wijk he introduced small changes to his repertoire: with Black he changed the line in the Catalan (instead of the main line he went for 4…dc 5 Bg2 Nc6 against Matlakov, though he did revert back to the main line against Kramnik) and surprised Anand with the Open Spanish while with White he tried the sideline 1 d4 Nf6 2 Nf3 g6 3 Nbd2 against Svidler in an attempt to avoid the Grunfeld. He is usually excellent in the opening and he will introduce some adjustments to his well-established repertoire. I expect him to be the same player as before – solid and not taking many risks. Can he win it? It is possible.

Sergey Karjakin had a relatively successful Wijk, winning two games, against Kramnik and Caruana, and drawing the rest. This was his first decent result in classical chess ever since the Sinquefield Cup last year where he scored 5/9, another decent result. His other results were far from decent, to put it mildly, but Karjakin’s focus since the match with Carlsen has been on promoting himself and milking out the maximum of his status and not on playing good chess. The result in Wijk may play a trick on Karjakin if he thinks that all is well because he managed to beat two of his competitors in Berlin. The main danger lies if he thinks that after a year of mediocrity he can rise to the occasion and perform at his best in Berlin. I would like to draw a parallel here. When preparing for his match with Spassky in 1972, after carefully analysing his games Fischer came to the conclusion that the level of Spassky’s play in the last year had deteriorated and he was now a weaker player than before. After the match Fischer said that Spassky played as he expected he would, i.e. on his lower level leading to the match. What I’m trying to say is that it is next to impossible for a player to drastically improve and raise his level after a prolongued period of mediocrity. Even though Karjakin will prepare very seriously I don’t see him as a candidate to win the tournament. His honeymoon period, which started with his win in the Moscow Candidates in 2016, will end in Berlin and he will have nowhere to hide – then we will see the true character of Sergey Karjakin. If he manages to get back to his best and return to the fight for the top places in the tournaments he is playing in or continues to freeload and just be one of the many.

Fabiano Caruana had a nightmare in Wijk. Losing 4 games and winning only 1 (in which he was also losing) is not something we expect of a player of Caruana’s caliber. This is even more surprising as it comes only a few weeks after his triumph in the London Classic in December. How will this bad result affect his play in Berlin? I don’t think it will. After suffering a serious setback the intelligent player will draw very important conclusions from it and will adjust accordingly not to repeat the same mistakes again. Additionally, after a catastrophe like Caruana’s Wijk, a player is more likely to be more careful in his next tournaments. I see this as a very positive development for Caruana’s chances in Berlin because, as I noted above, stability will be key in winning the tournament. And extra care can only be welcome. There is also a historical parallel to Caruana’s situation. In 2008, a month before his match with Kramnik in Bonn, Anand played a very bad tournament in Bilbao, finishing last with a -2 score on 4/10. And we all know how he played in Bonn. To conclude, I don’t think Caruana’s disaster in Wijk will affect his chances. What may affect them though, is his lingering problem with realisation of an advantage. In 2016 in Moscow he ruined his chances of winning the tournament by failing to win from winning positions in Rounds 11 (against Topalov) and 13 (against Svidler). He also had problems with this aspect last year, but surely he must have worked on this very hard and will pay special attention to it in his preparations. Speaking of openings, last year Caruana introduced the Queen’s Gambit Accepted and the Petroff Defence to his repertoire. This is an obvious attempt to be more solid with Black and the results have been pretty good so far, even though he suffered in a few endgames in the QGA (the line with 7 dc) and lost to Anand in the Petroff in Wijk. But he also introduced the Taimanov Sicilian in which he won an important game against Karjakin in London. This shows that he has flexibility with Black and can adapt his choices based on the situation. With White, even though primarily a 1 e4 player, he has also been experimenting with 1 c4, 1d4 with then either taking the route of normal theory or playing an odd London System. Caruana is stable psychologically, but has a more incisive style than So. Can he win it? Yes.

Levon Aronian was another player, beside Mamedyarov, to have a wonderful 2017. Coming out of the shadows after a lousy period he had excellent results and firmly re-established himself as a formidable force. He played in Gibraltar instead of Wijk, but he needed no less grit to win an open than it is required to win a Wijk. In 2017 Aronian’s main strength turned out to be his psychological resilience, something that was severely lacking in his previous decisive moments, particularly notable in the Candidates of 2013, 2014 and 2016. Aronian qualified for Berlin by winning the World Cup, the only person to achieve the feat two times. In a tournament when practically every game is a decisive one Aronian’s new-found inner strength carried him all the way to the finish line. Aronian is the only player to have played in all the Candidates tournaments since 2013, but this time it will be different for him. Previously he always started well only to spoil it later on as the tension was rising. With the recent experience from the World Cup he will know how to play in such circumstances. While the ghosts from the past will come back to haunt him, this time he seems better equipped to deal with them. Aronian’s repertoire is limited, especially with Black, when he sticks to the Berlin and the Marshall against 1 e4 and the Nimzo/Slav/QGD complex against 1 d4. He varies more with White, choosing between 1 d4 and 1c4. I don’t expect him to change his openings, but I do expect him to introduce new ideas in them. Aronian’s chess talent is one of the brightest and coupled with his newly found inner peace that brings him stability when it matters most, he is definitely one of the main contenders. Can he win it? Yes.

These are my thoughts on the most important tournament of 2018. Please share your thoughts in the comments.

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The Macedonian Variation

A few days ago I received an email from Mr Paul Samson Topacio, a member of my Inner Circle, where he informed me of the existence of a Macedonian Variation in the English Opening.

I consider myself a well-educated and knowledgeable chess player, but this was a complete surprise as I didn’t know of such a thing. I knew that a long time ago the New In Chess Yearbook called the Macedonian Variation a line in the Taimanov Sicilian due to several victories by several Macedonian players, myself included:

 


But a Macedonian Variation in the English?

I asked him and Paul sent me the link where he discovered the name. In fact, it was chess.com’s German version that called the line Mazedonisch Variation! Check it out yourself. How they arrived at the name is a mystery to me. Perhaps the readers can help solve this enigma.

In the meantime I present short analysis of the Mazedonisch Variation. It is notable that the move 3 f4 was first played by the great Paul Keres in his match against Paul Schmidt in 1936. As I write in the comments, the move looks like it came from the King’s Gambit! Keres was famous for using the King’s Gambit, especially in his younger years, and this looks like an attempt to blend the English Opening and the King’s Gambit! Quite a brave and original idea…

After some analysis of the variation my conclusion is that the line is entirely playable, especially in faster time controls when Black doesn’t have the time to understand what’s going on!

 


 

 

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