Category : Psychology

Fischer’s Opening Strategy in Reykjavik

To mark the 50-year anniversary of Fischer’s triumph in Reykjavik, I am publishing the full text of my analysis of his openings in the “Match of the Century.” It was first published in the September issue of British Chess Magazine and it was based on my previous writing of my weekly newsletter.

Let’s start with his openings with the black pieces.

Fischer started the match with the Ragozin, a surprising choice as he dropped that opening in 1961, but I am convinced that he was counting on Spassky transposing to a Rubinstein Nimzo-Indian. I am also convinced that he was sure that Spassky, faced with a surprise, would follow his own old game with Krogius from 1958, which he duly did. And in an obscure side-line following the game Spassky-Krogius, Fischer improved on move 14 to reach an equal endgame. The very first game showed that Fischer studied Spassky to the tiniest detail and could read his choices easily.

Then came the Benoni in Game 3. An epic game undoubtedly, but as the book “Russians vs Fischer” showed Fischer was walking on thin ice here. The book discovers that Spassky knew the best way to react to the incredible 11…Nh5, yet he spent masses of time (23 minutes on 12.Bh5) and chose an alternative plan which gave Black excellent play. It is quite perplexing that the World Champion wouldn’t trust his preparation in a match for the title!

The fact that Fischer chose the Benoni in Game 3, after trailing 0-2, shows his infinite belief that he was the stronger player. Many sources state that he was visibly nervous before the game, but he still played for a win with Black against the man who until that moment was beating him 4-0 with White, without draws!

The surprises continued in Game 5, when in another Rubinstein Nimzo-Indian Fischer employed the plan made popular by Portisch and Huebner. Fischer’s usual preference in the Rubinstein Nimzo was the move 4…b6 (for which Spassky probably prepared the lines with 5 Bg5, hence his move order of 4 Nf3 instead of the direct 4 e3), but for the match he prepared both the main line as in Game 1 and also the relatively unexplored Portisch/Huebner plan. After only 3 Black games it was apparent that Fischer prepared a lot of new lines and he kept on surprising Spassky by playing variations he’s never played before.

The use of a recently developed plan was not new for Fischer. In the second game of his semi-final match with Petrosian he used Hort’s move 7…Ne4 in the Grunfeld with 4.Bf4, introduced in the Palma Interzonal where he played. Fischer misplayed the opening later on, but subsequent games showed the viability of Hort’s idea.

In the cases when he played variations he had played before he encountered problems. The only exception was Game 7, where Spassky seemed to botch up his preparation in the Poisoned Pawn. The repeat of the Poisoned Pawn led to a disaster in Game 11 and even the main line with 7…Be7 led him to a lost position in view of Spassky’s superior preparation.

In contrast to his responses to 1 d4, Fischer started the match confident in his usual Najdorf and didn’t try to surprise Spassky, but the problems he faced forced him to apply the same surprise-based strategy against 1.e4 in the second half of the match when Spassky moved to 1.e4 exclusively.

Game 9 saw Spassky’s last attempt at 1.d4 and again he was met with a surprise. Fischer successfully used the Semi-Tarrasch in Game 8 of his semi-final match against Petrosian and this time he again introduced a novelty. The time spent on the moves is also curious: after 1.d4 Nf6 2.c4 e6 3.Nf3 d5 4.Nc3 Fischer spent 8 minutes on 4…c5 (perhaps wondering whether to repeat the Ragozin/Nimzo from Game 1 with 4…Bb4) and after 5.cxd5 Nxd5 6.e4 Nxc3 7.bxc3 cxd4 8.cxd4 spent 1 minute on 8…Nc6 (instead of the more usual 8…Bb4) and after 9.Bc4 (8 minutes by Spassky) whole 20 minutes on his innovation 9…b5. Later analysis showed that this is dubious and the modern treatment of the Semi-Tarrasch, as played by Kramnik, sees the development of the knight to d7 rather than c6. Still, Fischer’s surprise worked and the game was the shortest draw of the match (29 moves).

We see now that Spassky generally played 1.d4 in the first half of the match and he was met with continuous changes of openings and lines by Fischer, often never played by him before. This meant that the opening initiative was almost always with Fischer. 

As a result of this Spassky switched completely to 1.e4 in the second half of the match.

The change of strategy led to an immediate success in Game 11, Fischer’s only catastrophy in the match. This was the first time he repeated an opening, the Poisoned Pawn from Game 7, but this time Spassky was ready and the punishment was severe.

This serious setback forced Fischer to implement the same strategy of changing his openings after 1.e4 as well. But this was more problematic for him because playing almost only the Najdorf since the US Championship in 1963 he had less solid openings at his disposal.

Fischer’s choices of the Alekhine and the Pirc in games 13, 17 and 19 were the most puzzling for me in the whole match, due to several reasons. Even though Fischer played the Alekhine on several occassions in 1970, the opening is far from being solid enough for a World Championship match. And the Pirc even less so! Yet he still played them in 3 games.

I remember reading an interesting observation that Fischer didn’t know how to play solidly for equality, that he always needed dynamism and activity. Thinking along these lines, this was the only reasonable explanation I could find to explain his choices of those openings. 

The Alekhine Defence in Game 13 saw a very poor reaction by Spassky. His improvisation on move 7 in a very-well know theoretical position (7.Nbd2 on which he spent 17 minutes) was of low quality. It is surprising that on both first occassions with an opening (the Poisoned Pawn in Games 7 and 11 and the Alekhine in Games 13 and 19) Spassky reacted badly! And as “Russians vs Fischer” tells us, he was excellently prepared for all the openings! Puzzling indeed.

In Game 15 Fischer returned to the Najdorf and didn’t venture again in the Poisoned Pawn, choosing the line with 7…Be7. In view of Spassky’s superior preparation he was close to losing after the opening. This was another surprising choice because later Fischer would say that approximately after Game 13 he started to play safe, stopped looking for chances and was leaving it to Spassky to beat him. No reason not to trust him, but how does that go along with his opening choices with Black?

Game 17 and the Pirc Defence was perhaps the strangest choice. First about the move-order. After 1 e4 d6 2 d4 Fischer went 2…g6. This begs several questions to be asked: why did he allow the King’s Indian that would have most probably arisen after 3 c4 (and he didn’t play it in the first half of the match when Spassky was playing 1.d4)? Since Spassky was sticking to 1.e4 did he really know Spassky so well that he trusted him he wouldn’t switch to a 1.d4 opening once he abandoned them? And what was he trying to achieve by playing 2…g6 instead of 2…Nf6? The only explanation I could come up with for the last question was that he was avoiding 2…Nf6 3.f3, as Spassky played against Jansson in 1971.

To continue with the questions, did he intend something else after 3.c4 instead of a normal KID transposition, by leaving the knight on g8? And after Spassky’s 3.Nc3 (on which he spent 4 minutes, probably thinking to KID or not to KID) Fischer spent 4 minutes on 3…Nf6. Why? The only obvious alternative is 3…Bg7, so again, what was he trying to avoid?

The following few moves and the times spent on them continue to be mysterious. Being faced with an obvious surprise by Fischer, Spassky again, as in Game 1, chose a line from his youth, one he played only once in his life, in 1960 in Mar del Plata (incidentally a tournament where Fischer also played) – Fischer’s own pet line, the Austrian Attack. After 4.f4 Bg7 5.Nf3 Fischer sank into a 15-minute think before choosing 5…c5. When playing the Austrian Attack with White Fischer convincingly demonstrated the strength of the line 5…0-0 6 Bd3, winning several good games with it. So it is perhaps understandable that he wanted to avoid it with Black, but why spend 15 minutes on that decision?

The game was very important theoretically and it established the best way to play for Black in that line of the Pirc (namely to play …Bg4 before White can prevent it by h3) and it was also notable for Spassky’s original middlegame plan of 11.Rad1 and 12.Bc4.

Game 19 saw the return of the Alekhine, with Fischer varying with 4…Bg4 instead of the 4…g6 from Game 13. Another first-ever by Fischer, but Spassky was prepared. I find an interesting parallel between this game and Game 5. Had Spassky taken 12.gxf3 (he took 20 minutes on that decision) the blocked character of the position would have resembled the one from Game 5. Why was Fischer luring Spassky in such closed positions, did he learn in his preparation that Spassky didn’t like them and played them less well? It was considered that Fischer didn’t like closed and blocked positions, but here he was actively pursuing them!

Fischer’s choice for what turned out to be the last game of the match was excellent and I wonder why he didn’t come up with it earlier. Again a first-ever, this time in the Sicilian, 2…e6 instead of the “automatic” 2…d6. (Curiously enough, in Game 20 of their match in 1992, the first game of that match where Spassky played 1.e4, after 1…c5 2.Ne2 Nf6 3.Nbc3 Fischer again played 3…e6, signalling that he wanted to play something else than the Najdorf. Here the most probable is the Scheveningen after 4.d4 cxd4 5.Nxd4 d6, but Spassky played 4.g3).

After 3.d4 cxd4 4.Nxd4 there came 4…a6, a move he so convincingly dismantled with White in Game 7 of his match with Petrosian. So the first question, what did he have in mind against his own choice of 5.Bd3? My guess is 5…Nc6, as Petrosian played, and after 6.Nxc6 dxc6, instead of Petrosian’s inferior 6…bxc6. The positions after 6…dxc6 are much calmer and more solid, quite in line with Fischer’s admission that he wasn’t trying to look for chances in the second half of the match. And being a Sicilian, it still offers more dynamism and activity than other openings. Still, this is why I think his choice was good, because he finally found a solid and safe line for Black.

But Spassky stayed in line with his established way to reacting to surprises, he chose a line he played before. The system with Be3 and Bd3 brought him the title with a draw from a winning position in Game 23 of his match with Petrosian in 1969, but Fischer played an important novelty after 5.Nc3 Nc6 6.Be3 Nf6 7.Bd3 d5 (the game Spassky-Petrosian went via a different move order 7…Qc7 8.0-0 Ne5) 8.exd5 exd5! and Black was already equal. Fischer’s love for old games was crowned by employing a move played by Adolf Anderssen in 1877!

Fischer’s strategy with Black turned out to be very efficient. His frequent changes of openings and sub-lines coupled with Spassky’s predictability and bad first-time reactions enabled him to have the opening initiative in most of the games. The only opening disaster he had was when he himself was predictable, but he didn’t let that happen again.

Now let’s take a look at Fischer’s openings with White.

Fischer’s first White was Game 4 when he immediately felt the might of the Soviet preparation team. The Sozin served Fischer so well throughout his career, but the Soviet camp wasn’t wasting their time. Fischer has always been absolutely convinced in his preparation and he confidently repeated the Sozin, but Spassky played a line that is considered one of the best today. Even Kasparov played it against Short in their match in 1993! It is notable that Fischer didn’t sense the dynamics of the position and played the tame 12.a3 (spending 7 minutes on it) instead of the natural 12.e5, the only move to offer White chances for an advantage. Spassky’s analysis was very deep and he was close to winning, but Fischer escaped.

This first game was a very important lesson to Fischer. Starting from Game 6 he invariably changed his openings after a setback. What is curious though is that he didn’t immediately apply the same recipe with Black. Perhaps he was lulled by his successful Game 7 where Spassky’s first take at the Poisoned Pawn was rather meek.

Game 6 is one of the best known in chess history, Fischer opening with 1.c4 for only a second time in his life (the first one was at the Palma Interzonal against Polugaevsky, a famous Najdorf player himself; I am not counting the last-round forfeit win against Panno, again at Palma, when he knew Panno wasn’t going to play) but from an opening perspective and knowing the inside information from the invaluable “Russians vs Fischer” Spassky was well-prepared there as well. The only problem was that he didn’t play what he knew was good. As in Game 3 with the Benoni, Spassky again showed mistrust in his preparation. In both cases he gave Fischer an easy ride through the opening and lost convincingly.

I wondered why Fischer decided to play 1.c4 and not 1.d4. Words aside (“I have never opened with 1.d4 on principle”) I think he was trying to get Spassky into a reversed Sicilian, i.e. 1…e5, as the latter had repeatedly played in his match with Larsen in 1968. Another point was made with his move-order. After 1.c4 e6 Fischer played 2.Nf3 d5 3.d4 and I think this was particularly aimed against Spassky’s Tarrasch Defence, which he successfully played in his title-winning match with Petrosian in 1969. By keeping the knight on b1 White has more options against the Tarrasch and Fischer must have prepared them well.

In Game 8 Fischer didn’t see a reason not to repeat the successful 1.c4 but he was met with a surprise. Spassky went for the Symmetrical English, a variation he’d never played before. The opening gave Spassky a good game, but he was in awful form in this period and just blundered the game away soon enough.

Even though he was twice successful with 1.c4 Fischer was nevertheless surprised in Game 8 so for Game 10 he returned to 1.e4. He had enough time to prepare something against the Classical Sicilian from Game 4 but it was only in Game 18 that it was revealed what that was. Spassky chose the Breyer Variation in the Ruy Lopez for Game 10 and Fischer used the rare (at that time) plan with queenside expansion with 13.b4. Coincidence or not, this plan was frequently used by Kavalek in the late 1960s, and Kavalek was in Reykjavik and helped Fischer with analysis of adjourned games. Still, Spassky reacted well and the game was of high quality. Spassky didn’t play badly, but Fischer played better and won deservedly.

Game 12 saw the return to 1.c4. Probably Fischer again needed some time to prepare something against the Symmetrical English from Game 8, but Spassky returned to the Queen’s Gambit, only this time opting for the Orthodox Variation instead of the Tartakower. This game was a rare case of Fischer trailing behind on the clock throughout the game. An evenly played game where Fischer didn’t get much out of the opening.

The repeat of 1.c4 in Game 14 saw Fischer vary again after the surprise with the Orthodox from Game 12. This time he changed the variation and chose 5.Bf4 instead of the 5.Bg5 in the QGD. Spassky was fine after the opening and this game finally convinced Fischer that he cannot hope for much in the QGD. From the next game he went back to 1.e4 (or perhaps he considered 1.e4 easier to play when he didn’t look for winning chances himself).

Game 16 saw another Ruy Lopez but Fischer showed his pragmatic side and played the Exchange Variation. The variation brought Fischer an almost 100% until then (only Smyslov managing a draw in Monaco in 1967) but he couldn’t hope for much against Spassky’s preparation. But this was the Fischer who stopped looking for chances and didn’t mind the draw. This game convinced Spassky that he must go back to 1…c5 if he were to try to play for a win with Black.

Games 18 and 20 revealed what Fischer prepared against the Classical Sicilian and it was the Richter-Rauzer Attack. Small detail in the move-order of Game 18. After 1.e4 c5 2.Nf3 d6 Fischer played 3.Nc3. He played 3.d4 in Game 4, so why the change? In the blitz tournament in Herceg Novi in 1970 Tal played that same move-order against Fischer and then Fischer played 3…e5. If Black wants to play the Najdorf after 3.Nc3 he has two options: 3…Nf6 and 3…a6. Fischer played 3…a6 on three occassions and never 3…Nf6. He probably didn’t like the possibility of 3…Nf6 4.e5, a line which Larsen and Keres used in the 1960s and, perhaps more importantly, Huebner used in his match with Petrosian in 1971 (though the game was quickly drawn). Was he trying to trick Spassky with the 3.Nc3 move-order? We will never know since Spassky played 3…Nc6 and after 4 d4 soon there was a Rauzer on the board. (In Game 20 Spassky played 2…Nc6.) The complicater Rauzer saw a fascinating struggle, perhaps too complicated for Fischer’s taste with so few games remaining. 

In Game 20 Fischer employed another move used by Kavalek, 10.Be2 instead of the main line 10.Nf3 as played in Game 18. Spassky introduced a novelty immediately, 10…0-0, and by Kavalek’s admission this was something they hadn’t analysed! Fischer spent 17 minutes on his next move and soon allowed a simplifying combination by Spassky that brought about an equal endgame. It was a passive endgame for White and Fischer drifted into an uncomfortable position, but he held it confidently.

Fischer scored his White wins in Games 6, 8 and 10, in the first half of the match when Spassky was playing badly. He scored his Black wins in Games 3, 5, 13 and 21 – the first two when Spassky was playing badly, the third in the most complex game of the whole match and the last one when Spassky probably already gave up. It is a rare case that in a World Championship match one player has more wins with Black than with White, but recent history has seen two more cases: Anand in his match with Kramnik in 2008, winning two with Black and one with White and Carlsen against Anand in 2013 with the same ratio.

To sum up this lengthy analysis of Fischer’s openings we can conclude that his strategy to change his lines after a surprise or setback was an outright success. There were moments in the openings when a certain move or move-order prompted a deeper investigation or thinking on my part and I found that captivating, to try to enter the mind of the great player and understand why he made that decision or what his intention might have been. As mentioned in the beginning, I have thought about the match in Reykjavik so much and I hope you will find this kind of analysis as fascinating as I did.

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The Candidates 2022 – Impressions from Behind the Scene

It is good that my Candidates prediction is the post preceding this one. This makes it easier to see that my predictions were mostly wrong! Indeed, of the first four finishers in Madrid, I placed three of them as the most unlikely to win.

I had the priviledge to share the same stage with the players. Working as a Fair Play Officer I spent my time in the same areas where the players were – the playing hall and the refreshment area. This allowed me a unique opportunity to observe them during the whole duration of the games.

Their behaviour while in the refreshment area, when hidden from the public eye, were particularly telling and while I cannot disclose some of them, in order to protect their privacy, they did contribute to the general impressions I formed.

This is what I think of the players and their performance in Madrid.

Nepomniachtchi – the winner had an event where everything went his way. From the starting victory over one of the favourites Ding Liren, to the pointed preparation against Duda, to the “gift” by Rapport, to the lucky, but deserved escape against Caruana (twice!) and the ideal set of circumstances against Firouzja.

He was in good practical form, playing fast and with confidence, his massive World Championship preparation bringing enormous dividends in every game. I think the secret of his success, which made him only the second player in history after Smyslov to win two Candidates in a row, was the ideal combination of good form and detachment.

The last word probably needs a bit of explanation. Nepomniachtchi repeatedly stated in press conferences, and he also told me several times before and after the games, that he just wanted the event to finish and to go home. To paraphrase Nakamura, he “literally didn’t care,” but at the same time he was fully focused and played great chess. It has long been observed that the state of flow, when everything goes your way, is best achieved like this, with full focus and detachment from results. Nepomniachtchi did it perfectly and nobody could come close to matching that combination. The final result speaks for itself.

Speculation aside whether Carlsen will play him in a match or no, I think this victory is a true sign of maturity for Nepomniachtchi and in the next match, against whomever he plays, he will be a much better player than in Dubai.

Ding Liren – the pre-tournament favourite for many, myself included, had a very uneven event. I still cannot grasp how could the Chinese Federation, so capable and efficient to organise the necessary games for Ding to qualify, couldn’t organise his trip to Madrid in time so that he arrives at least a week earlier and doesn’t suffer from jet lag. Also, how is it possible not to send a second with him, leaving him all alone in the most important tournament of his career.

These major organisational blunders cost Ding Liren a better shot at first place. The jet leg led to a loss to Nepomniachtchi in round one and this was followed by missed wins in rounds three and five against Rapport and Radjabov, respectively. When he finally hit top form, he won three games in a row, but then this was followed by an abysmal loss with White to Radjabov in mere 26 moves.

What impressed me most from his games was his ability to squeeze water from stone. Three games stand out: against Duda in round nine, when I expected a quick draw in a symmetrical and simplified position only to see the game turn very exciting thanks to Ding’s persistence and Duda’s mistakes; against Firouzja in the penultimate round, when faced with a theoretical drawing line (the same one Nepomniachtchi used against him in round eight) he sacrificed a pawn in the endgame only to keep the game going. He succeeded to put so much pressure on Firouzja that the prodigy was forced to find the only way to save the draw by sacrificing a piece; against Nakamura in the last round – in a must win situation Ding entered an equal endgame and managed to pose problems and eventually outplay the American and claim second place.

While eventually the second place can be regarded as a success (especially if that gives him the match in case of Carlsen’s withdrawal) in view of Nepomniachtchi’s dominance, I still think that Ding Liren didn’t manage to play at the maximum of his ability in Madrid.

Radjabov – he turned out to be my favourite player of the event! By far the friendliest of them all, with light banter both before and after the games, he always seemed to be in a good mood. What impressed me was something that I never thought was possible – that he could come back after starting and staying on -2 for a long time. But his London 2013 experience was crucial – there he went from 50% in round two to finish on -6 at the end, so this gave him perspective and, most importantly, patience. He kept grinding, taking it game by game and kept waiting for his chances.

They came, first thanks to his good preparation against Nakamura in round nine and Ding Liren in round 12 and a good defensive effort against Rapport’s over-optimistic sacrifice in the last round.

When talking to Radjabov at the closing ceremony, I asked him about his transition, from a dynamic player to a solid one, particularly when it came to the openings: the KID and Sveshnikov were replaced by QGD and Berlin. He said that he started losing games in the former ones, claiming that players like Anand, Kramnik, Leko, were very good at putting him under pressure there, so he was forced to evolve. He also predicted that Firouzja will also evolve in this direction, opining that it’s impossible to play and stay on the highest level playing constantly that type of dynamic chess that he used to play.

Radjabov benefited from his relaxed attitude, not putting too much pressure on himself to get a result. He knew that the tournament was tough and tiring so he took the games as they came. I think his result was the most surprising one, at least for me it was, and I am glad I was so wrong about Radjabov. I have criticised him in the past for boring play, but observing him in action for weeks on I realised the reason for this “boring” play – it is all about keeping the probability of loss to the minimum and waiting for one’s chances. When in good shape, like Radjabov in the second half of the event, this strategy can bring great results!

Nakamura – I found his games the easiest to follow. Possibly because his body language and facial expressions when seeing his opponent’s move while looking at the screen in the refreshment area were so telling!

There are several things I noticed in Nakamura’s games.

First, if he managed to get his opening preparation in, he would play with double energy and more likely than not would win the game – examples of this are all his wins, where he managed to surprise his opponents in the opening. He also had other opening surprises, like against Nepomniachtchi in round five when he misplayed a very favourable middlegame position and against Ding in the last round – even though he lost that game his opening was a great success and he should have drawn that without too much trouble.

It has to be said that the above is true for more or less everybody in the top nowadays – the importance of a good opening. If they don’t get anything out of it, not necessarily an advantage or a new move, but even a pleasant position that they have analysed, it’s almost impossible for them to outplay each other under normal conditions. As an example we can observe the game Nakamura-Rapport from round 11 when Nakamura didn’t expect the Sveshnikov, chose a harmless line and tried in vain to get more than a draw for 96 moves.

The above games were all played by Nakamura with White. When he was playing with Black he stuck to his usual repertoire (except in the last round game with Ding when he chose the Semi-Tarrasch instead of his usual QGD, but even there he transposed to a QGA, an opening he’s been playing lately as well), but he was under pressure in all of his games.

Here comes the second point I noticed – he was extremely resilient when in trouble. A characteristic example is his game with Firouzja, when he fould a fortress when it seemed that he was dead lost. He used dynamic defence, with his games against Caruana (round one), Ding (round six, when he was White) and Duda (round seven) being typical.

Third thing I noticed was his abitlity to play with utmost precision when playing with an advantage or converting it. I know the others are also quite capable of it, but in his games I noticed this more clearly. For example, in his game against Duda in the penultimate round, when his opponent left him off the hook, Nakamura started to play very aggressive and powerful moves and his conversion of the advantage in the endgame was exemplary.

Outside the board Nakamura was less exemplary, but his dedication to produce daily video analysis of his games was both a blessing and a curse. A blessing for the millions of viewers who got instant view into his understanding after the games finished, but a curse for himself, because these recaps took even more energy and eventually this took its toll: in the last round, when he had to avoid a loss to take second place, in spite of obtaining what should have been easily holdable endgame, he failed to show his usual level and the more professional player won. Caissa is a jealous goddess and rewards the ones dedicated to the game, not the ones dedicated to activities built around the game.

Caruana – the other American had a heaven and hell in Madrid. What started like a dream tournament with three wins achieved in powerful style, turned into a hellish nightmare.

In the first half of the event Caruana was magnificent. Starting from his great opening round win over Nakamura he displayed excellent preparation (the game with Duda the only exception) and his wins over Firouzja and especially Radjabov were impressive.

During that game with Radjabov I witnessed what it seems to me the turning point of the whole event.

Caruana was playing for a win against Radjabov and the game Rapport-Nepomniachtchi was following a well-known theoretical draw. Caruana was watching that game and logically expected it to end in a draw so with a win he would catch Nepomniachtchi.

And then Rapport struck. Coming down a full hour down on the clock he decided to avoid a draw and enter an objectively worse (the engine says lost!) position. When Caruana saw that, he couldn’t contain his disappointment. He started shaking his head, as if he couldn’t believe how his main opponent is being given free gifts while he has to work so hard for his points. While he did manage to win the game against Radjabov after a gigantic effort, and stay within half a point behind Nepomniachtchi, it appeared that his energy was spent.

The next game was another titanic battle where Caruana defended to the best of his ability against Nakamura, but eventually lost. Then he had a chance to catch Nepomniachtchi with a win in the direct duel. He employed a very interesting early novelty in the Petroff, obtained a winning advantage, but the character of the position was such that there was so much calculation involved that in spite of his excellent abilities in that department Caruana was not able to overcome all the complexity and only drew that game. Then, exhausted, he tried to play for a win against Duda with Black, but did so very poorly and basically forced Duda to beat him. In the next round he obtained a promising middlegame position after Ding Liren missed a small trick and was playing safely for a win, but he could no longer keep his level constant during long games – he misplayed it badly and lost again. The last round loss against Firouzja was similar – he had a safe advantage but let it all turn around on its head and was lost. Then he defended well to achieve a drawn position only to blunder and lose.

When I spoke to his coach Chuchelov at the closing ceremony I shared my view that it must have felt as if Fate was leading his main rival to victory while blocking Caruana’s way at the same time. He basically agreed, confirming my impression that lack of energy in the second half of the event was a major factor.

It was a very high tempo that Caruana imposed on himself, but that is how he plays chess. This time, faced with Nepomniachtchi’s “easiness” it was impossible to compete, but the quality of chess he displayed in the first half of the event was impressive. I only have one question, which I forgot to ask Chuchelov: why did he gave up on the Petroff? It seems like the winner’s opening in the last three Candidates!

Firouzja – the prodigy showed that he was clearly not ready to win this type of event. Not even that, but he was lingering in last place for most of it.

The tournament showed several huge problems in Firouzja’s play. First of all were his problems in preparation. He had several opening fiascos, starting from his almost forcing loss to Nepomniachtchi in the Najdorf in round four all the way to his round 11 loss to Nepomniachtchi when he couldn’t remember that he had to insert a4 before playing g4. He misplayed the opening against Nakamura in round 10 and also against Duda in round 12.

The second big problem was endgame play. His level was far from a desired one for an event of this caliber – he went from drawn to losing against Rapport in round two, he missed Nakamura’s defence in round three and even in the last round he misplayed a technically winning endgame to a drawn one, only to win thanks to a blunder by Caruana.

The third problem was psychological. He didn’t seem prepared for the level of resistance and couldn’t maintain his level. The total breakdown was his reaction to his loss to Nakamura in round 10. He spent the whole night playing bullet games on the internet until 6am. Needless to say that he couldn’t remember his preparation and lost brutally to Nepomniachtchi the next day.

There were just too many problems in Firouzja’s play that prevented him to show his true talent. I hope he learns from the experience and comes back much stronger the next time.

Duda – to my mind, he was the least impressive participant. I was surprised how quickly he collapsed psychologically, after his first loss, in round six against Nepomniachtchi. After that game he was no longer the same, his body language gave away a disappointed and disillusioned player who didn’t have the strength to come back. As if he gave up on the tournament after that loss.

His next two losses were apathetic, Rapport mated him from a harmless position, Ding beat him in an endgame that should have been a relatively problem-free draw. The game Duda won, against Caruana, was more because Caruana was “playing for a win” by playing very badly rather than Duda winning. Even in that game he missed some moves and couldn’t believe his luck when he discovered he was winning after the time control – he couldn’t contain his smile and that was the happiest I saw him throughout the whole event!

Duda is a great player, but he turned out to be rather “soft”. He couldn’t pull himself together when things started to go wrong and that was the main reason why he failed at this event.

Rapport – was another favourite player of mine. I’ve known him since the tournament in Reykjavik in 2014 and he has remained very friendly and nice ever since. He complained that he was playing worse every day (like he told me after the game with Nakamura in round 11) but I don’t think he was in bad shape in Madrid.

I think the main reason for his bad result was the incompatibility of his fighting spirit and his preparation. He had the worst opening preparation from the whole field and his opening improvisations were rarely successful. This meant that he didn’t get very promising positions from the openings and as I stated above, without at least something to play for it’s impossible to outplay an opponent on this level from an equal position if he plays decently.

This incompatibility was possibly decisive for the eventual winner – his decision not to take the draw and play on against Nepomniachtchi in round seven led to his first loss and it gave Nepomniachtchi a valuable point.

What I liked a lot were two games where he employed a slow-burning attack. The first one was his win against Duda, when a harmless position transformed into a winning attack very quickly (not without Duda’s help, though) and the second one was his last-round game with Radjabov. After maneuvering for some time in an Anti-Berlin he started to build up a very promising attack on the kingside. Alas, by the end of the tournament his patience had also gone thin, so instead of continuing to build up he lashed out with an incorrect sacrifice that was refuted. In any case, that first phase where he was building up the attack was very nicely played.

Rapport was widely recognised for his fighting spirit and special approach to openings, but he will definitely have to raise the quality of his opening preparation. If he does that, his special approach will become an advantage rather than a disadvantage as it is now. Then he will become a mighty force to be reckoned with.

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The Candidates 2022 – A Preview

With Karjakin’s appeal to FIDE’s Ethics and Disciplinary Commission rejected, we now safely know the eight participants in the upcoming Candidates Tournament in Madrid.

I always like to think about what can happen and what can be expected of the participants, even though I fully realise I will be completely mistaken about some of my predictions. Nevertheless, here’s what I think.

The Experienced

Ding Liren and Fabiano Caruana have seen it all, having been world’s number two and three for many years now. Caruana convincingly won the Berlin Candidates in 2018 and only lost the World Championship match with Carlsen that same year on tie-break.
Ding Liren didn’t have a good first part in Yekaterinburg in 2020, but won the second leg of the ill-fated Candidates in 2021. He suffered the most due to the pandemic, but after a frantic run of games in April he is all set to have another go in normal conditions in Madrid.

Both of them are the natural favourites to win.

Caruana had a topsy-turvy period in the last few years. The most significant event was his separation from his long-time second Rustam Kasimdzhanov, which affected his results so that he even dropped from the standard top-3 on the rating list. But in 2022 his immense work to perform better on faster time controls is finally showing, with his results quite consistent in rapid and blitz, and his win at the American Cup (in classical) in April seems to suggest that he is hitting top form. But then, in the same topsy-turvy style, he was sub-par in the Superbet Chess Classic where he finished on 50%. He experimented with his openings, playing everything with White (1.e4, 1.d4, 1.c4) and quite a bit of mixture with Black (even playing the Sveshnikov!) so it’s quite clear that he is keeping his opponents guessing and keeping his best preparation for Madrid. At 29 he has the perfect mix of ambition and experience and coupled with his high class and powerful play he can easily win another Candidates Tournament. He only needs to be in good form and it will be difficult to stop him. The only thing that bothers me is the question: can he repeat Smyslov’s feat? I don’t quite see him on par with Smyslov, but I definitely rate his chances higher than Nepomniachtchi’s (see also the part where I discuss Nepomniachtchi below).

Ding Liren is a bit of an unknown at this point because he’s played the least from the rest. The recent events in China that he needed to play in order to comply with FIDE’s requirements are not exactly telling and they do leave a strange impression. We know that he is fully capable of winning events like the Candidates, but we don’t know much about his form and work leading to it. He is of the same age as Caruana and perhaps his motivation will be bigger to win the right to challenge the World Champion for the first time.

The New Wave

The new kids on the block are Alireza Firouzja, Richard Rapport and Jan-Krzysztof Duda. They represent the new wave, players that belong to a new generation debuting at this level.

All eyes will be on Firouzja. At 18, he is among the youngest in history to play a Candidates Tournament, putting him in the same category as Fischer at 16 in Bled/Zagreb/Belgrade in 1959 and Spassky at 19 in Amsterdam in 1956.

He had an amazing end of 2021 when he won the Grand Swiss, thus qualifying for the Candidates, and continued with excellent form at the European Team Championship. This run brought him above 2800 and made him a world number two. He stopped playing for several months, living his life and preparing for the Candidates, as he put it. The return to chess practice at the Superbet wasn’t great – he ended up on a minus score and lost rating points which saw him drop below 2800.

A notable details is that in Romania he was seen together with Ivan Cheparinov, Topalov’s long time second and the main generator of ideas for the Bulgarian champion. This indicates that he will be extremely well prepared in the openings, especially if this cooperation started months ago.

It’s difficult to predict his performance. In the past he’s been way too susceptible to pressure and cracking under it and the Candidates is a high-tension event from start to finish. Chess-wise he is not inferior to anybody, but psychology will be the key for the teenager in Madrid. My personal opinion is that while possible, I still think he is too raw to win it.

I observed Rapport (26) very closely during the Grand Prix in Berlin. I was impressed by his ability to find ideas and pose problems even in the driest positions, while his decision to risk and play for a win in the final game of the match with Andreikin in Belgrade won him the event and gained him qualification – the man has the courage of champions!

However, there are a couple of problems with his chances in Madrid. The first one is that he is a loner. He works alone and likes it like that. I am all for going at it alone, a-la Fischer, but in modern chess this has proven to be impossible. Therefore I really hope that he has managed to find somebody he can trust and work together with in the period after the Belgrade Grand Prix.

The second problem is that he didn’t believe he could qualify for the Candidates! With this in mind, he just accepted all invitations to events, thus clogging his calendar. Now he’s stuck with a lot of commitments and this prevents him from properly organising preparation and play. Playing in the Superbet saw him dip in form, finishing on -2 and losing 12 points. He also has the Norway Chess scheduled, a tournament that finishes six days (!) before Madrid. In a recent interview he said that he will just take the Candidates as another tournament, but this doesn’t bode well for his chances there – in order to win the Candidates, a player needs dedicated preparation and strong will to win, something that Rapport doesn’t seem to be able to provide for himself. And to think of it, the reason for all this was his lack of confidence before the start of the Grand Prix in Belgrade! As much as I like him personally, with the issues outlined above, it’s difficult to see him win.

Duda (24) won the World Cup in 2021 and this secured his spot in the Candidates. The only classical event he played this year was in Wijk aan Zee, where he finished on a minus score. Everything else was online and rapid, where he has no problems holding his own against the very best. Even more so, before Madrid he is scheduled to play only in two events in Poland, one rapid and one blitz, which are part of the Grand Chess Tour. So no classical before Madrid for him.

The lack of practice can mean only one thing – Duda is very serious about the Canddates and is preparing heavily for it. One glimpse from that preparation is that in the last event he played, the Olso Esports Cup, he introduced the Grunfeld and the Berlin in his black repertoire. Players usually like to test their new openings in real-life events against the best players, so we can expect to see Duda play these openings in Madrid.

Armed with heavy preparation, it remains to be seen how (and if) the lack of practice will affect the young Pole. If he manages to get comfortable in the event then he can be a major surprise.

The Unlikely

I consider the remaining three players Ian Nepomniachtchi, Hikaru Nakamura and Teimour Radjabov, with the least chances to win.

There has been only one player in history to win two Candidate Tournaments (and he did it in a row) and that is Vassily Smyslov – he managed this feat in Zurich 1953 and Amsterdam 1956. (note that I am talking about Candidate Tournaments, not a qualification cycle). Is Nepomniachtchi (31) of the same caliber?

With all due respect, I don’t think he is. I was happy to see him play well after the debacle in Dubai, even though it was mostly rapid and online events. He is using his match preparation and his results in these disciplines were rather good. However, returning to classical chess he immediately suffered a setback: in the last event he played in – the Superbet Classic, he ended on a minus score. He can take some consolation from that result because he won a psychologically important game with Black against Firouzja, but playing classical is perhaps not too kind on his nerves.

Nerves remain his main issue. Keeping and not succumbing to the tension for many hours for a duration of 14 rounds will not be an easy task. Note that he won in Yekaterinburg not in one go of 14 rounds, but rather in two, as the event was stopped after seven rounds and resumed one year later. He is wiser and more experienced now, he still has leftovers from his match preparation, but I don’t think he will overcome everybody else and reach the status of a Smyslov.

The streamer-turned-unexpected-Grand-Prix-winner Nakamura (34) showed that he is a very strong player. The main ingredient in his success was lack of nerves – his earnings do not depend on his results, so he can play without fear. I am certain he will continue with the same attitude in Madrid and this will be his main strength.

Nakamura has a well-established opening repertoire – the Berlin and the QGD with Black, with a hit-and-run approach with White (where he prepares in a very concrete manner against the given opponent), which demands constant influx of fresh ideas. I also expect him to continue with the same strategy, most likely refreshed with new ideas within those realms.

The problem I see with Nakamura is that he doesn’t really have the ambition to win the event. There is no perspective for him there – a match with Carlsen won’t mean much to him financially (he is comforably set for life and a million doesn’t make much of a difference) and it will require a lot of time and effort in preparation and traning. Not to mention that playing Carlsen (against whom he has an awful score in classical chess of 1 win and 14 losses) in a World Championship match is as gruesome as it gets and he won’t be able to stream it.

The wild card for the event is the player who qualified to play in Yekaterinburg, but declined to do so because of the pandemic. As some sort of compensation, FIDE seeded Radjabov (35) directly in the next Candidates.

Radjabov’s last Candidates Tournament was in 2013, when he finished last with the awful score of -6. He qualified for Yekaterinburg by winning the World Cup in 2019. The last event he played in was the European Team Championship in November last year.

This scarcity of active play, coupled with his propensity to draws (his last classical win was against Ding Liren in the final of the World Cup in 2019!) makes him the least likely player to win the event. I can see him repeat Giri’s record of 14 draws, but I cannot see him win many (if any!) games. The reason for this is that I can easily see him continue doing what he has been doing for many years now, basically playing for draw with both colours, and I cannot fathom a return to the exciting player of his youth who played the King’s Indian and the Sveshnikov and who beat Kasparov with Black when he was 15. I would be delighted (and would like) to be proven wrong, but this is how things look to me now.

Like Rapport, Radjabov is scheduled to play in Norway Chess. Unlike Rapport, I think this will be good for him – after a way too long absence of classical practice, he will get a chance to get into some shape before Madrid. If and how much this will help, we will see in about a month.

For me, the Candidates Tournament is a the tournament I cannot wait to follow. I cannot wait to see the opening ideas, the high-quality chess and the eventual result, where the winner indeed takes it all.

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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.

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My First Book

I was sure that I would never write a book. I always felt that it was too much work and not worth the effort. And yet here I am talking about my first book.

I have to blame some friends (Josip, Dusan, looking at you guys!) for tricking me into it. I have to admit I liked the idea to write something that nobody has written about. You know the old saying, write the book you’d like to read.

And I always liked to read about the psychology and the preferences of the players and how they translated to the moves on the board. Nobody seemed to provide the proof when they say something like “Anand plays well with knights”, fine, but do the work and find those examples and convince me! Also, don’t stop with the knights, how about a complete analysis of Anand’s (or any other player’s) style and preferences, corroborated with concrete examples that show the correctness of the statements?

Botvinnik did that. But we only learned about it when his secret notebooks were published. I was fascinated reading those “characteristics” about the players. He dissected their styles based on their games with concrete examples.

I have desperately looked for something similar ever since reading those notebooks. An occasional glimpse here or there was not enough to satisfy my curiosity. I wanted the full picture but nobody would provide it.

I also understood why. It’s hard work! Looking back, I still find it hard to believe why I accepted to do that type of hard work… Going over hundreds of games of the player, trying to understand him, looking for patterns and preferences, avoiding false ones, while picking up the correct ones to form a complete “portrait”. Not easy, I assure you.

And yet somehow I did it. I enjoyed the hard work in fact, as this type of work fulfills me and I only wish I didn’t have a million of other things to do while doing this work. I remember envying guys like Hemingway who only wrote and had fun when not.

Still, I wish players like Kramnik or Anand (or maybe Peter Heine Nielsen!) wrote something like that. I am sure they have done this type of work for their most important tournaments and matches, as they had to know their opponents inside out. But for now their work remains hidden though I am hopeful that one day we will get to see the secret notebooks (in electronic form this time) of these great players.

But before that, the world is stuck with my work on the brightest American talents. I feel honoured to continue Botvinnik’s tradition and to have done something that nobody has done before, to analyse players in such detail and publish that work. Whether I have done a good job it’s on the world to judge.

The Sinquefield Chess Generation is out now.

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Lag

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As I already wrote on my blog, the hybrid event went fine for me, in spite of losing the match. I already complained in the previous posts of my head not working properly in the preparation process, but when I started playing it worked really well, so I can conclude that the preparation served its purpose.

What I noticed is that when my brain works well there is either no, or very little, lag. By lag I mean the time between seeing a position and the moment the brain starts coming up with moves.

So when the brain is slow and sluggish there is a lot of lag. It usually manifests as mere staring at a position in the same way I stare at a wall. Just staring, the brain is blank, there is no connection between what I see (the position) and the brain, no moves are being produced.

An ideal visual motivation for me is the sight of what happenes when I press Alt+F2 (start engine) in Chessbase. The engine immediately starts coming up with moves and changes them as it calculates the position more deeply. This is how I want my brain to work during a game, not to waste time staring but to continuously come up with moves and improve the quality of those moves.

I have noticed that the best players, apart from having no lag whatsoever, have another extremely important quality of their mental work. This quality is relevance.

I had the good fortune to comment online with players like Svidler and Harikrishna and I noticed how they immediately come up with moves the moment a move is made on the board, but more importantly they always come up with relevant moves. They never propose moves that are out of touch with the position.

I remember seeing a video of Nakamura and some IM when they both solve the same puzzles and then they share the thoughts they had while solving them. It was incredible how Nakamura was always, without a single exception, so much to the point while the IM was often meandering and “lagging” in his thought process. He would often see the same move like Nakamura but then would just “lag” instead of continuing to come up with moves. Nakamura, on the other hand, was like an engine switched on, relentlessly going forward with the moves, and coming to conclusions.

From my own experience, lag can be reduced significantly by constant practice. The key, as always, is in the word constant.

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Oversaturation

Too much of a good thing is still too much.

I love chess, looking at it, analysing, playing, working on it. I love to watch the best players play, the commentary is excellent nowadays and it adds value to the experience. I sometimes learn something new while watching.

The pandemic forced everybody to stay at home and chess content exploded as result. Incessant tournaments, one following another, streams, publications, webinars, coaching, all you can imagine is coming out on a daily basis, often a lot of them at the same time.

While it is better to have than have not, I think that currently there is an oversaturation of chess content. It feels like an insane schedule where everybody feels compelled to produce, produce, produce. I cannot keep up, but can anybody? Unless it’s somebody’s job to keep up with everything and they dedicate their whole day to it, I sincerely doubt it.

I feel overwhelmed by the bombardment of chess content and in view of my own commitments I gave up on even trying to keep up.

I follow the news and the games, but not live. When the day (or the tournament) finishes I’d download the games and check them quickly, mostly for opening information. If I had read somewhere that a game had been interesting for some reason, I’d check that one in more detail. Otherwise, it’s mostly browsing.

That is my best effort to try to stay afloat, yet there is this constant feeling of fear of missing out. I haven’t watched a second of any of the streams out there, though I’d like to, I’m sure Nakamura or Kovalenko have curious things to say. I would like to watch the events live, to spend hours following the games, as Svidler, Leko and co. have those rare insights that I’m after. But, no time for that, I have things to do instead of just observe.

For how long will this continue? Personally, I don’t see it stopping any time soon. Even when chess returns to the playing halls the online content will continue to blossom. Chess is moving in the direction of e-sports and I expect it to establish its place there. It may be different from the chess we are used to playing, with its premoves and disconnects, but that is the “new reality,” whether we like it or not.

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Karpov’s Ruy Lopez

Anatoly Karpov always had a classical opening repertoire. Against 1.e4 it was either 1…e5 or 1…c6, while against 1.d4 the Nimzo/QID complex or the QGD. The deviations from these choices were rare.

The Ruy Lopez is an opening Karpov played all his life. It served him tremendously until his matches with Garry Kasparov.

As I wrote in a previous post about both Kasparov’s and Short’s motivations for choosing certain openings, one may wonder why Karpov persisted with the Ruy Lopez when things stopped being favourable.

When facing Kasparov, Karpov was constantly under pressure in the games when the Ruy Lopez was played. He won just one, Game 5 of the match in 1985, and lost 4, two in each of the next two matches – the London/Leningrad in 1986 and New York/Lyon in 1990. It was not only about the losses of these games, they also turned out to be the decisive ones for Kasparov’s victory in both matches.

I had a chance to speak to one of Karpov’s seconds for the New York/Lyon match and he told me that in preparation for that match they worked very hard and prepared the Caro-Kann. Karpov worked independently on the Ruy Lopez with Portisch. He was surprised why Karpov didn’t play the Caro-Kann in the match even once.

With Kasparov’s emergence the treatment of the Ruy Lopez from the white side evolved in a more dynamic direction. I think this is the main reason why Karpov started having problems with his favourite opening. However, when playing his great rival Karpov realised that he couldn’t hope to win only with White, as Kasparov’s opening preparation rarely allowed him promising positions. Therefore he willingly entered the complications from the Zaitsev Variation in order to create winning chances with Black as well. Unfortunately for him, after that Game 5 he never managed to win a game, even though he was winning on more than one ocassion. That just wasn’t his type of game.

After the matches with Kasparov, Karpov slowly started to move away from the Ruy Lopez and switched to the Caro-Kann. In the 1990s he was playing the Caro-Kann on a regular basis.

Even though Karpov never abandoned the Ruy Lopez completely, the effect of increased dynamism in the Lopez that started with the matches with Kasparov forced Karpov to change his primary opening against 1.e4 in favour of the Caro-Kann. This was a positive change and it helped him maintain his competitiveness for almost another decade.

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Wrong Mentality

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I have written before about the character of openings, how different openings require different treatment. Getting into the right mentality for the opening isn’t always easy.

As a lifelong Najdorf player I have got accustomed to always seeking counterplay, with the moves being aggressive and counter-attacking. So when in 2006 I played my first Petroff, I was far from ready from it (and I am not talking about the theoretical part).

My opponent, a strong GM, was surprised by my choice and chose a sideline, for which I was prepared, and I got a great position.

Black has a great position – smooth development and no weaknesses. But this position is different from the typical Najdorf middlegames. Here calm play is required, solid moves are the norm. A move like 14…Ne7 with the idea of …Nf5 is a good idea. But I remember I was kind of at a loss here – I knew I was doing more than alright, but I didn’t know how to continue. I simply didn’t know how to think in this type of position.

What I did was to treat the position in Sicilian style! Completely wrong mentality, of course, but it was so characteristic: I thought I saw a concrete line that gave me good play. This is common in the Sicilian, but here and in similar positions it is not necessary; in fact it is often counter-productive.

Take a look at my next moves. I went for 14…Bh4. The first incursion. Even looking at it it appears so out of place… After 15 Bf3 it came 15…Bd3. The calm 15…Rb8 with …Ne7 was still OK. My bishops are now scattered around, but I had an idea…

He went 16 Bd5. The bishop is annoying here, though my idea was to continue in aggressive style with 16…Qf6. This is actually a blunder, as after 17 Nf3 my bishops are hanging loose. See how easy it is to spoil a perfectly safe position in 3 moves when your play doesn’t correspond to the requirements of the position?

My opponent didn’t play 17 Nf3, he went for 17 g3, which was also good enough. After 17…Qg6 18 Qf3 Na5 a simple comparison between the previous diagram and the next one tells the whole story. Black’s pieces are all over the board, definitely not a way to play!

This is not the way to play the Petroff! I learned my lesson the hard way.

The point of this example is to draw attention to this important, but rarely mentioned aspect of opening play – the mentality the opening requires. And also, how and if the mentality of the player is suitable for the given opening. In the example above I definitely wasn’t suited for the Petroff and that showed immediately.

It pays to think about this aspect when you think about your openings, both your current ones and also the ones you would like to take up. A careful consideration beforehand will save you a lot of effort (and suffering) afterwards.

In my case, I learned. My next outings with the Petroff and 1…e5 in general were more successful, at least when it came to my mentality and approach. Though, to be honest, I am still unsure whether I am suited for 1…e5…

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The Draws in Jerusalem

The final leg of the FIDE Grand Prix is underway in Jerusalem. As I write this the first game of the final between Wei Yi and Nepomniachtchi is being played.

The intrigue of the tournament consists in who will get the final spot for the Candidates and here the Chinese is playing for the French – in case Wei Yi wins the final Vachier Lagrave gets the spot.

The Frenchman once again failed to secure that spot himself. In the semi-final he lost to Nepomniachtchi, his direct competitor for that final spot.

Final for the non-Russians, that is. Nepo still has a back-up plan in case he loses the final – he will play a match with Kirill Alekseenko (the third finisher of the Grand Swiss) for the wild card spot.

Vachier’s continuous failures at the last hurdle to qualify for the Candidates are truly only comparable to Aronian’s failures at the actual Candidates – they both falter when it matters most. What’s worse for the Frenchman is that he doesn’t have a strong sponsor behind him to buy him the wild card, as it happened for Aronian in Moscow in 2016. (At the time of writing he is still hopeful Nepo loses the final and somebody else does the work for him.)

Apart from the drama, there was one other thing that made the Jerusalem Grand Prix stand out for me. It was these two draws.

After suffering in the first game of the match against Wei Yi but eventually saving a draw, Anish Giri thought it was a good idea to play like this with White in the second game:

What to say? Giri living up to his reputation? A mockery of the system (or of himself?) The fact that Giri felt compelled to justify his decision by posting on social media (now already removed) something along the lines of, Carlsen is my friend so I copy him and do what he did in his World Championship matches, only shows that he was feeling the pressure from the public and knew it wasn’t the right thing to do. Otherwise why would he bother to explain (and excuse) himself?

True, Carlsen drew quickly against Karjakin in New York and then won the tie-break convincingly. But here the Latin wisdom is very much to the point – Quod licet Iovi, non licet bovi. What worked for Carlsen, failed miserably for Giri.

Therefore it wasn’t a surprise that Giri lost the tie-break. The usual rules of “you don’t (try to) take your chances, your opponent will” may not apply to Carlsen, but they certainly apply to Giri.

The next player to go down the same road was Karjakin in the next round, again against Wei Yi. After drawing 9 (!) consecutive games against Harikrishna in Round 1, thus qualifying by drawing the Armageddon game with Black, Karjakin played this is the first classical game against Wei Yi.

That is even two moves shorter than Giri! Need I say Karjakin lost the tie-break? At least he had a bit of self-respect left not to try to convince the public of copying his “friend” Carlsen.

I read somewhere that this behaviour by the players is some sort of “feedback” to the organisers, showing dissatisfaction with the conditions or something else they may not like. I can relate to that, but these players are millionaires who are playing in the cycle for a World Championship. I think showing respect to the institution of World Championship cycle would be appropriate. After all, they are using that institution to try to qualify and become a World Champion.

Giri already qualified by rating and probably thought it would be too much to copy his other friends Radjabov and Aronian, call in sick and withdraw from the tournament. Playing a tournament with nothing (he got 5000 euros for being eliminated in the first round) in it for him was perhaps a waste of time.

As for Karjakin, unless there is an unexpected development in Russia and he is given a chance, the Candidates in Yekaterinburg will be without him. The tendency that started after his match with Carlsen of him being more interested in his public persona than in his chess finally caught up with him.

On a personal note, I would like to see Kirill Alekseenko in the Candidates. I would be curious to find out how far this lad can go.

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