Category : Personal

A Beautiful Zugzwang

Solving studies is never easy, but it is very beneficial.

It develops the good habits of disciplined and structured thinking and often demands self-control in a situation where it appears that one side has a lot of options. In such cases it is of primary concern to control the feeling of overwhelm and tackle all options one by one.

The following position is a late favourite of mine. I have written before of my fascination when it comes to the theme of domination and this study by Rinck from 1922 is a beautiful illustration.

White’s last move was 1 Ng7-e6. On an empty board with seemingly a huge number of possible moves Black can simply resign as he is losing the rook in all the variations. Try to figure out the lines, it’s a simple exercise and the lines are maximum 2 moves long.

On Monday I start the European Individual Championship and these tournaments have always been very difficult for me. I think this one will be the last one I ever play, so my only hope it to improve on my previous (horrendous) results. Soon enough we’ll see how that will pan out.

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Square Off – World’s Smartest Chessboard

When I was a kid my father bought me the computer Mephisto Munchen. A multiple-world champion on a heavy wooden board, Staunton pieces and a strong opponent were a good substitute for practical play when I couldn’t play tournaments (and that was most of the time during school years).

Some days ago I received another chess-playing board. It definitely brought back some childhood memories. Heavy wooden board, Staunton pieces, strong sparring partner. This time it came in a big box.

Inside this box, there was another box, a white one.

The World’s Smartest Chessboard, Kingdom Set. That definitely sounded royal when I read it to myself. So I continued to unwrap the package.

I wondered what was in the envelope.

As it turned out, instructions how to start the whole process. The Square Off app is used to connect the mobile phone with the board so that it is used for pretty much everything – playing the game, challenging other people on the internet and choosing the strength of the engine. But I am getting ahead of myself.

I was curious to see the pieces. I have a soft spot for nice pieces and they didn’t dissapoint.

I guess it wasn’t called Kingdom Set for nothing. Next to the pieces is the adapter, with the conveniently provided plug for European sockets, as you can see below.

When everything was out of the box, I finally I set up the pieces and moved them around, just to get a feeling for the board and how the pieces glide over it.

After taking my time to enjoy the aesthetics, I eventually connected the phone with the board (via the Square Off app) and started a game against Level 16, rated at 2205. There are 20 levels, rated from 800 to 3380. The last three levels (20, 19 and 18) are rated 3380, 3185 and 2606 respectively, while already Level 17 is rated 2295. Quite a lot of variety for any type of user, from a professional to the casual player.

Naturally, for the world’s smartest chessboard the actual movement of the pieces was the real spectacle. For somebody who was used to moving Mephisto’s moves on the board, this was quite impressive. This is how that looked.

After checking Stockfish (no need to ask about the result) I tried challenging other people online (always via the app). I managed to play one game against a user. It all went smoothly (pun intended) and my only quibble was that I couldn’t see the clock and the time left during the game.

If you ever wanted to play chess with somebody (human or engine) but there was no one around and you didn’t want to use a laptop or phone and wanted the real feeling of actually touching and moving the pieces instead, the world’s smartest chess is made for you. And the best part about it, you even won’t have to move your opponent’s pieces, something that bothered me when I was playing the Mephisto.

With all of the above, it is understandable that the world’s smartest chessboard doesn’t come cheap. But my readers can use the promo code ALEX10 for a 10% discount on the official prices. I would also like to know how others find the experience of playing against an “invisible opponent”. My advice would be just to make sure not to choose too high a level. After all, why not enhance the joy of playing “real” chess with some pretty sacrificial and winning attacks?

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Kramnik

I am not sure how I felt the moment I read that Vladimir Kramnik was retiring. But I am sure that the next day I was sad.

If I could condense into one single word what I feel and think about the man that word would be respect. He earned it when he beat The Unbeatable in 2000 without losing a game. Nobody else could do that, it had to be him. Smyslov’s theory that World Champions are born immediately came to mind and it definitely applies to Kramnik.

Whenever I would check games from a tournament I would always check Kramnik’s games first. Because of the openings. If you want to see the state of theory, not the present, but also the future, you should look at Kramnik. What he does, everybody else does next.

Two things – beating Kasparov and enriching theory. That’s Kramnik for me in a nutshell.

I have followed Kramnik from the very beginning. Not surprising if you take into consideration that he is only half a year older than me. I remember the orange cover of the Russian 64 magazine with the report from the junior match Yugoslavia-USSR in 1991. Kramnik played in that one. The next year he scored 8.5/9 at the Manila Olympiad, won gold medal, both individual and team, and became a star.

In 2015 the European Club Cup was held in Skopje. A very good friend of mine managed to arrange an interview with Kramnik. But he couldn’t do it while in Skopje and told us to contact him in a few days when he would be home. Our thoughts – no chance he’s taking that call.

But he did! He didn’t know us, yet he spent several hours (!!) talking to us on all possible subjects. His kids were running in the background, but Big Vlad with big headphones on his head was having a video call with some guys he saw for the first (or second, in the case of my friend who arranged the interview) time in his life. RESPECT!

One of the things he didn’t know, and something we informed him about during the interview, was the existence of Kramnik humour. He loved it. In case you haven’t heard of it, here’s a glimpse:

  • When Kramnik was invited to the Melody Amber blindfold tournament for the first time he couldn’t understand what the difference was.
  • In 1991 Kramnik was surprised to learn that the Berlin wall has fallen and promised he will fix it soon.
  • Kramnik was named the best painter of all times since no one can match his drawing technique.
  • Russia is working on a new supercomputer with an exceptional hard drive since no other machine can store Kramnik’s analyses.
  • Houdini managed to beat Rybka after studying Kramnik’s games.
  • Magnus Carlsen is so popular in Norway he even got an invitation to the TV show “Who Wants to be Vladimir Kramnik”.
  • Even God is afraid of playing Kramnik. The games always end in a draw, but Kramnik still knows how to put pressure on his opponent.
  • While Kramnik’s classmates were busy proving the Pythagorean theorem, little Vova proved that chess is a draw.

I’ve often been critical of Kramnik’s play in the last period, especially at the Berlin Candidates and since, but now it all has a different meaning.

Kramnik said he came to this decision a few months ago. So Wijk must have felt like a last round on the merry-go-round. Like a kid, he wanted it to last as long as possible. He knew that when the music stops he will come down never to go back again. He wanted to make it memorable, he wanted to squeeze the last single drop of joy out of it. Because it was the last one.

It is a pity to finish a stellar career with a last place in a tournament, but that doesn’t matter anymore. Vladimir Kramnik did it his way, from start to finish.

Kasparov said that only the player knows when it’s time to go. And Vladimir Kramnik always knew what he was doing.

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Playing Well and Blundering

This is in fact possible, as I recently discovered, much to my regret.

I discuss this topic in my latest video on my Youtube Channel.

On my recent trip to the UK and the 4NCL league I played two games where I was feeling good, my head was working well, my calculations were clear and yet in both games I blundered horribly.

In the video I try to explain why that happened.

I would also be curious to know if anything of the sort has happened to you, so feel welcome to share your thoughts.

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Happy New Year

Less than an hour before this year is over, so a few final words from me.

It was a good year. It was a busy year. There were mostly ups, not so many downs.

Just today I learned the news that I have been appointed a Councillor at the FIDE Fair Play Commission (formerly known as Anti-Cheating). A lot of work lies ahead for one of the most important commissions in modern chess. I have always said that the end of chess will not happen when the computer calculates the game until a final result, it will happen when the humans install chips inside their heads. So our work now is to prevent that from happening.

I tried to take a more laid-back December, but it wasn’t meant to be. A lot of work somehow kept coming and I never got to the long-awaited rest. I am still unsure I’ll have it in the next few days, though I do crave it.

From the chess events in December, the World Rapid and Blitz saw some exciting chess and surprising results. In the end, Team Carlsen was victorious. Isn’t it always?

For me the end of year is always a time for putting things into perspective. I have discovered that whenever I think I have problems and I feel anxious or upset about something “important,” a video like the following one immediately helps me put them right there, into perspective. And then I calm down. Enjoy and happy holidays!

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Individual European Rapid and Blitz Championship 2018

The tournament took place in my city of Skopje from 6-9 December and I was eagerly waiting for it. I did some preparation for it and was curious to see how things will work out.

In short, they didn’t. I was forced to leave the tournament (the second day of the rapid) due to a bad stomach bug.

However, I won’t dwell here on my health issues. I think there were other, more serious ones, that were at play and led to me having an unimaginably horrible tournament.

Looking at the statistics, I lost only 2 matches in the blitz section. Not bad, at first sight. But from the total of 11 I also won the same number. Not good at all.

There was another thing that was bothering me more and that was the fact that I was constantly playing players below my rating. I have written about this before, being stuck “in the mud” of lower-rated players who you cannot beat and you keep being paired against them. To make it worse, I was “lucky” enough to continuously be paired with players whose classical ratings were several hundred points above their blitz or rapid ratings.

So what was my problem then? Why I couldn’t peform on at least a satisfactory level? The following may read a bit like a stream of consciousness prose, but since these things are still fresh in my mind I write them as they come.

I always prefer to concentrate on my own play. External factors are important, but if anything they would mean that I couldn’t adapt to them in an optimal manner, hence again making myself responsible for what affected me.

The strangest thing was that in fact I was quite happy with how I was playing and feeling (until the last day, when I simply couldn’t get out of bed and didn’t go to the playing hall). My head was working fine, my time management was good and I was regularly getting winning positions.

Only that I wasn’t winning them. Something was missing in the last step, I couldn’t wrap things up. (I will explore an aspect of this “missing link” in a bit more detail in my Saturday newsletter, so if you’re intrigued use the yellow box on the right to sign up for it.) Coupled with my opponents’ resilience this led to a lot of missed points.

The missed points only piled up the frustration. With each round I was growing more frustrated and this feeling is not one you want to be feeling when needing to win. In fact, you need patience and frustration is very closely related to the opposite trait, impatience.

Usually I manage to keep myself under control and this time it wasn’t different. This was the case because I felt the reason was a mix of chess-related and psychological aspects.

From a chess aspect I was lacking the ability to clearly see the final blow with little time on the clock. Usually when in good form (and this is a good indicator of good form) the correct move suggests itself and you manage to calculate it properly. Then everything goes smoothly.

Apparently I wasn’t in good form, and it was a revelation for me to realise that I can feel good, my brain can work well, I can have all the desire to play and enjoy myself and yet the good form can pass me by.

So I was getting stuck in the winning positions. Not at all an uncommon problem of chess players of all strengths. I have noticed it happens to me when not in optimal condition, but as I wrote, I thought I was in optimal condition!

The psychological aspect was a tricky one to pinpoint. I had a few ideas, but the main problem was actually doing something while the tournament was in progress to change the tendency for the better. I have very rarely been successful at this, changing the bad tendency while it’s happening, and this time I failed again.

In fact, I never quite learned how to effectively do that. And I have tried what not. There never seems to be a one-size-fits-all solution that would work every time and in-between rounds there isn’t much time for experimenting.

In short, I bombed.

There was another very important aspect that a simple look at the results shows. I finished 7 matches in a draw. Of these 2 were comprised of two draws while the others were win/loss.

This tendency shows a clear lack of consistency. I would either win the first game and then play the next one badly, or I would lose the first one and then spring back and win in order to save the match.

There are two opposing psychological moments here: inability to hold a lead and the ability to motivate myself to come back from behind.

While the latter is commendable, the former is far from it. I have never played matches in my life (these being the first ones in probably more than a couple of decades) so I never thought about these aspects. I still haven’t, after all the tournament for me finished yesterday, but I will, as this introspection can unearth additional characteristics of my internal “set-up.”

As you can see, this is all still very raw. I wanted to get it out “on paper” while it is still fresh so I can start thinking about it without forgetting the important things. Let’s see now if I manage to come up with something constructive.

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Batumi Impressions

I am finally back home after a gruelling 14h-trip. Another sleepless night filled with bus rides and a flight. It reminded me of those times when I was tournament-hopping with no end in sight, just that this time it was no fun at all.

The results of the Olympiad are already known, the Macedonian teams didn’t do so well and for this I blame the pre-game travel of some 40 minutes. It is impossible to play well throughout the whole distance of such a demanding tournament as an Olympiad if your energy is drained before each game by a road trip and traffic jam. From what I’ve been told in Khanty it will be better.

Here I would like to share my view of the Olympiad as a whole and also of the most impressive (for me) event there – the FIDE General Assembly.

This was a first Olympiad where I wasn’t a player. This allowed me to see things from the outside – when I play I am completely focused on my own regime, preparation and play so I deliberately block out everything that it outside of my primary focus. Now things were different.

By different I mean the social aspect. The busiest place in the playing venue was the so-called EXPO, where there were several stands: of the both presidential candidates, of the 2022 Minsk Olympiad (they didn’t have an opponent so it will be organised there) and of the ECU presidential candidate Azmaiparashvili (who also didn’t have an opponent and was elected again). An hour into the round the EXPO was bustling with all sorts of people (both Dvorkovich and Makropoulos were there almost every day) and if you needed somebody you could be certain that he or she would be there. In the informal atmosphere that ruled the place it was very easy to approach anybody (including the candidates) and start a conversation.

In spite of living some 30km from Batumi, I also managed to see a lot of people in the city. This meant quite a few extra taxi rides from my hotel in Kobuleti to Batumi, but it was worth it. In the wake of the FIDE elections meeting people was even more interesting. I talked to several high-level officers in FIDE and some very rich and powerful people and learned a lot in the process.

A very important place to be were the parties organised by the candidates. I went to both and just by observing who’s talking to whom and their body language I could see a lot. The most telling moment for me happened during the organiser’s party which also doubled as Makropoulos’s. At one point there were speeches and I could clearly see both candidates standing relatively close to each other. In that moment I realised that Makro was losing – he was uneasy while Dvorkovich was calm, in spite of the speeches being angled to favour Makro. He was even given a chance to talk and he turned it into a propaganda for his campaign, but even that didn’t help. He was nervous.

The main event was the General Assembly. It started at 9am and it ended at some time after 6pm when the winner of the elections was announced. During the assembly I was amazed to see how well-oiled Makropoulos’s team was. Whenever a negative comment from the delegates was aired, he would either cut it down or turn it to his favour. Very often a member of his team would add something that would make the accuser inadequate and would bolster Makro’s image. There were also several comments that were aimed at showing the Makro team in better light. At times he would just not discuss the question and that would be it. It was clear that the experienced politician was controlling everything from his chairman position.

The speeches of the three candidates were very telling. Dvorkovich spoke first and even though he stammered a few times he basically elaborated his future plans. He received a big applause. Short spoke second. He attacked FIDE and Makro and ended with a withdrawal of his candidacy and endorsing Dvorkovich. And then came Makro. I remember that Kasparov said that he was wrong to talk first in Tromso in 2014 because when he finished Ilyumzhinov came out and said he’d give 20 million USD to chess, mocking Kasparov’s figure of 10. This was met with laughter and approval and Kasparov felt that this was the final straw convincing him that he had lost. So I thought this was Makro’s last chance to try to sway things in his favour.

But Makro didn’t take it. His speech was weak, a mixture of attacks on his opponents and mentions of his past glory. Nothing about the future. He also lacked energy while speaking. It was clear to me that he already knew it was over. He received a meek applause.

The lobbying part that took place outside the hall was a separate show to observe. The voting had barely started (185 countries had to vote and it took around 2h to finish. It goes in alphabetical order and while waiting the delegates go outside the hall for a drink or snack) and the delegates were already discussing and negotiating, all of them already knowing the final results. Deals were made literally every minute.

The final result wasn’t a surprise for anybody. There was a wild ovation when it was read aloud and it did feel as if people were really eager for this change to happen. There was an air of hope present and I saw a lot of happy smiles.

When I finally left the Sheraton Hotel and took a taxi back to my hotel I felt completely drained. It was a first time that I felt such fatigue, as if all my energy had been squeezed out of me. Later I realised that this shouldn’t have surprised me. In a hall full of people from the whole planet engaged in historical elections the energy is easily zapped. Politics is a high-energy endeavour.

Dvorkovich won. He brings change and he brings hope. After decades of the same thing the world needed this. So the start is promising. The next 4 years will quickly pass and Minsk will hold the next elections. At least now I know how they will look like.

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A Spoilt Masterpiece

The first time I met GM Neelotpal Das was in 2005 when he burst into my hotel room in Sort. Actually I had a brief conversation with him earlier that day, at the Barcelona bus station, when he asked me whether he was in the right bus going to Sort. I didn’t know who he was nor that he would become a very good friend barely a few hours later.

Sort was part of Catalunya’s chess circuit of open tournaments that was very popular back in the pre-crisis days when the prizes and conditions were good and the competition was less stiff. In fact, 2005 marked the first year of a huge Indian invasion of young, unknown and largely under-rated players coming to Spain. Apart from Paul (as he quickly told me to call him) there were Tania Sachdev, Abhijeet Gupta, Parimarjan Negi, Soumya Swaminathan, Shardul Gagare, to name only the most famous ones today. With each passing year the Indian contingent grew only bigger, making winning prizes at the Spanish opens increasingly tougher.

As it turned out I brought Paul some luck. In Sort he scored his first GM norm. Next year in San Sebastian, where we again shared a room, he scored his last GM norm and became a GM.

Paul is a very talented tactial player and when in good form he can beat anybody (just ask Nigel Short, who was obliterated and mated with White in 26 moves!). His openings were his weakest spot, but with experience he learned to take care of that aspect as well.

Paul sent me the following game with his comments some time ago. I also noticed it while browsing the database and was sorry to see him spoil such a wonderfully played game. It wasn’t just the nice attack he conducted, I quite liked the gradual build-up of the attack, so typical for White in this line of the Scheveningen. I present the game with my comments in [brackets] while I leave Paul’s as they are.

Such a pity! Games like this can be really hard on the soul… Yet, it is our duty to be able to pick ourselves up and continue, no matter of the setbacks. I am sure Paul already managed to do so!

From the chess news from around the world, GM Tiviakov became a champion of the Netherlands with an impressive 5.5/7, a full point and a half ahead of the field! In his usual unassuming, yet technically perfect style Tiviakov breezed through the field including Sokolov, L’Ami and van Wely. He scored 4/4 with White and made 3 draws with Black. Here’s his demolition of Ivan Sokolov.

Soon enough we will see the World Champion back in play in Biel. I am quite curious how my friend Nico Georgiadis will fare in the field that also includes Svidler, Mamedyarov, Vachier and Navara, as last year he had an amazing 5/9, sharing 4th with such legends as Leko, Ponomariov and Morozevich and behind winner Hou Yifan (to whom he lost in the last round!), Bacrot and Harikrishna. Keeping fingers crossed!

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From Russia With Love

I returned from Russia safely. And it was quite a challenge.

Watching the World Cup was a great experience. The game I saw was Spain-Morocco and the city of Kaliningrad was uncharacteristically Russian. The “Russian” spirit in Kaliningrad was mixed with the rich vegetation and remnants of the German times. The result was surprisingly pleasant.

Everything went smoothly on our way there. We (myself and two friends) drove the 2000km without problems and arrived relatively quickly. Our stay there was nice and the game was one of the most interesting ones from the World Cup. We witnessed 4 goals and also a bit of VAR controversy.

It was the way back that turned out to be tricky. First we were held up on the Russian-Polish border for almost 2 hours. Routine checks, but it set the course of what was to come. Then we started hearing noises from the engine. Nothing could be seen when we opened the hood, so we continued driving.

Some 700km later, near Ostrava in the Czech Republic, the car broke down. Multiple failures in the engine and we could barely get off the motorway and reach the nearest village. The locals weren’t helpful. They didn’t want to talk to us and a couple of them even ran away when we approached them for help!

We stared calling various numbers for help and, to cut the story short, after more than 3 hours a tow service came and took us and the car to the Mercedes car repair garage.

More bad news came when they informed us that they would need at least 1 week to fix the car. Now we were really stuck. We booked a hotel, still without a clear idea what to do.

My friends don’t have the same travelling experience as I have. This meant that it had to be me who would find a way out of the situation. While watching Argentina qualify I was thinking of various ways to get us back home. My first idea was to take the train to Prague and then fly back to Skopje. But one of my friends has such a fear of flying that he basically blackmailed us into not considering that option.

This made things more complicated and problematic. Eventually I discovered that we can reach Budapest by train if we left in a few hours, at 2.36am. Then I arranged a friend of mine to pick us up from Budapest and drive us to Skopje.

The night train… It brought vivid memories of my decades of tournament-hopping. Impossible to sleep in fear of robbers. Usually I would take the night train either before a tournament, trying to reach it for Round 1, or after it, when I’d be on my way to the next one. It was profoundly excruciating experience, lack of sleep at its worst. It was often preceeded by trying to stay awake at the station, often in the mid-winter cold, waiting for the train to come.

This time at least I arrived at the train station by taxi and didn’t wait for too long. We also had the whole compartment for us so there was no need to fear being robbed. I still couldn’t sleep though, old habits die hard and the familiar surrounding turned on the forgotten switches.

I was severely sleep-depraved when we arrived. It all accumulated, each day of our trip we got up at 4.30am in order to have the whole day to drive. My friend picked us up soon after we arrived and then we set out to Skopje. I was falling in and out of sleep for the duration of the whole journey.

I didn’t have time to follow chess developments while away. The Grand Chess Tour finished in the meantime with the same players dominating both in Leuven and Paris. Caruana was still awful, his blunders becoming more shocking.

Karjakin-Caruana, the blitz in Paris. Of course this is easily winning, just don’t do what the Challenger did – he put the king on c4 and dropped the rook on a2.

The following one is equally unbelievable.

Caruana as Black is winning against Anand. The plan is to pick up the a-pawn with the king. What Caruana did follows the plan and loses the game in 1 move: 51…Kd7??? 52 Nxc5+.

I already posted the position that Caruana managed to lose to Nakamura in the rapid in Paris. Now take a look at the following transformation in the blitz:

Caruana is Black and is 3 pawns up. This is move 53 and White played 53 Bd3. Now take a deep breath and see the position that appeared on the board 45 moves later.

I won’t even try to explain this. Obviously Nakamura won the game.

The Paris leg of the Grand Chess Tour was won by Nakamura. It is good to have him back and win something, after a prolongued period of mediocrity (also see here). Still, it is “only” rapid and blitz and I would like to see him win a classical tournament for a change.

To finish with some good news, it was recently announced that the wild card for the Sinquefield Cup (with classical time controls) will go to Magnus Carlsen. This means that we will get to see another clash between the Champion and the Challenger before the match in November. I am certainly looking forward to that!

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On The Road Again

There are periods when it is impossible to slow down. Things and events just keep coming and you cannot get off the roller coaster.

Tomorrow I’m off to Russia. Surprisingly enough, it’s not chess-related. I am actually going there to watch a game from the World Cup. To make it even more adventurous, and not entirely to my liking, we (me and two friends) will drive all the way to there. It is more than 2000km one-way. For some this may be fun, for a seasoned traveller like me, who prefers to limit the travel time and arrive at the destination as soon as possible, this is way too much time spent in a car! We’ll see, hope it all goes well.

In the meantime in the chess world the Grand Chess Tour started with the rapid and blitz events in Leuven and Paris. It is interesting that with only a few days between the two events the same players who were in form in Leuven continued to dominate in Paris.

Wesley So dominated the rapid in Leuven. An undefeated 7/9, point and a half ahead of second-placed Aronian and Vachier. But he completely botched the blitz, with appaling 8/18, while Karjakin won it with 11.5/18. Still, the regulations stating that the rapid points are worth double, So emerged the winner of the event, half a point ahead of Karjakin and Vachier. That wasn’t without last-round excitement, when all three (!) lost their games.

Worth noting is Caruana’s catastrophe, pretty much everywhere. In the Leuven rapid he scored 3.5/9, in the blitz 6.5/18 and currently in the Paris rapid he’s winless on 1.5/6. This brings me to a thought I had recently. Since the results show that Carlsen is so much superior to Caruana at faster time-controls, it makes sense for Carlsen to actually play the match in a more constrained fashion, basically playing for 6-6. He will definitely feel very confident if it comes to a rapid tie-break. As for Caruana, he really needs to find a “cure” for his faster-control troubles. Perhaps these events are a result of his saturation with chess recently, playing practically non-stop, but in any case this aspect of his play is a serious concern before the match in November.

To illustrate the extent of his bad form, take a look at the following position after move 50 in his game against Nakamura.

And the following one is 31 moves later:

It is here that Caruana blundered horribly. He went 81…Ne5, missing that White can simply take the pawn on h5 thanks to the fork on f5 in case Black recaptures. While even now the position should be a draw, Nakamura went on to win the game on move 123.

These kinds of break-downs never happen to Carlsen. They are a glaring weakness of Caruana and something Carlsen will definitely try to take advantage of. The Challenger has some serious work to do in this respect!

Time to prepare that backpack now!

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