Category : Psychology

Sinquefield Cup 2017 Ends With French Glory

Vachier-Lagrave achieved his biggest success to date with the triumph in the Sinquefield Cup. The play Vachier demonstrated, especially his last round win against Nepomniachtchi and the stubborn defence against Carlsen made him a deserved winner.

Vachier’s main strengths are his excellent opening preparation and his calculational abilities. In dynamic positions, whether better or worse, he feels at home and frequently outplays his opponents. The above-mentioned game with Carlsen (which eventually decided the winner) is a typical example. When facing problems he creates a mess on the board and manages to get the better of his opponents. What I found impressive though was his last-round win against Nepomniachtchi. The Russian was obviously out of form, but the way Vachier approached the game was exemplary. No sharp Najdorf lines, a controlled 6 Be2 e5 7 Nf3 and a firm positional squeeze. To create a positional masterpiece in a last-round game with so much at stake requires strong nerves and Vachier showed he possesses them.



Carlsen finally played a good tournament. He didn’t win, but he played good chess and missed too many chances. He should have beaten Vachier and Nakamura. The endgame with the latter was very instructive, but also very insightful about how Carlsen thinks and uses his intuition. About the first winning move, 41 Kg5, he said that he considered it, but “intuitively felt” that Black gets counterplay there so he went on to look in another direction. This is a crucial insight – it shows that he doesn’t always verify his intuition by calculating deeply! The second moment, choosing between the winning 43 h5 and the drawing 43 g5, showed a similarity with his “I don’t believe in fortresses.” He believes in the almost infinite possibilities of chess and believes that there will always be one that will lead to a win. Again he doesn’t verify this by calculation, but relies on his intuition to “tell” him that there will be a way. In the Nakamura game he thought the endgame was won in more than one way and consequently he didn’t realise that the path to victory was narrow.



These insights about Carlsen’s intuition were an eye-opener for me. It turns out even the World Champion doesn’t have everything thought through and relies heavily on intuition, even in positions where I would be inclined to calculate everything as far as possible. Lesson taken, rely on intuition more, but verify!

Aronian continued with his fine form, even though his tournament was somewhat spoiled by his last-round loss to Carlsen. I think Aronian was too optimistic going into that game, he thought he could beat Carlsen with Black and win the tournament. That’s what happens to him when he’s on fire – he gets over-optimistic. He was duly punished for it by Carlsen, but I am sure he got a lot of positives from the tournament. It is a good period for Aronian and I am curious to see how it will affect his play in the upcoming World Cup.

The revelation of the tournament was Vishy Anand, as strange as it may sound. He had the perfect tournament: his preparation was going in regularly and he was never in trouble in the openings. Later on he picked up everything that was offered. The combination he played against Caruana was magnificent and showed that he can still out-calculate the younger generation.



Karjakin finished on +1 together with Aronian, but he was mostly inconspicuous. He beat Svidler and the struggling So while losing the principled game with Carlsen. The result will probably give him the false impression that all is well and he won’t change his ways.

The Americans had an awful tournament. The worst one was So, who after losing a very promising position to Carlsen mysteriously collapsed. He will be back, though falling for 18 rating points from world’s number 2 to world’s number 8 is a big loss to handle. Caruana still suffers from his inability to win promising positions and his last-round loss to Svidler slumped him to -1. Nakamura’s solidity showed its ugly side – when out of form blunders creep in and it is next to impossible to adjust and be more active. Nakamura kept on toiling, but wasn’t even close to winning a game.

The Russians ended up where expected. As I said in my previous post Nepo is too unstable and Svidler never wins in such a company. It is amusing to listen to his constant whining about his openings and the positions he gets, though I don’t believe a word he says!

Next up is Garry K. himself! How will he fare against the new generation we will soon find out. I am looking forward to his opening ideas and I don’t expect him to win.


Lasker’s Psychology

Quite a controversial idea probably, but I really believe it is true. This text is from my newsletter, to which you can subscribe using the yellow form on the right. The next newsletter is due on Saturday.


Lasker’s Psychology

I will start immediately with the shocker – there wasn’t any.

As many books have often repeated, I’ll paraphrase here, Lasker played the opening in a dubious manner in order to lure the opponent into unfamiliar territory and then outplay them. Nothing can be further from the truth.

No strong player plays the opening dubiously on purpose. The fact that Lasker often ended up in dubious positions after the opening doesn’t mean that he intended it. As I have already written about this, and I advise you to read the part on Vukovic’s books for better understanding, I will just say that like anybody else he preferred to have a good position after the opening.

If there was any psychology in Lasker’s play, it was almost entirely his own. He didn’t care about the opponent so much. He was primarily concerned with his own safety.

Don’t let this confuse you. Popular literature leads you to believe that Lasker was the risk-taker, the gambler, the great fighter. Yes, he could be all these things once the game was under way, but before the game he was very cautious and often insecure. I would like to discuss two very famous games of his to demonstrate my point. In both he used the Exchange Variation of the Ruy Lopez.

The first one is the first game of the match with Tarrasch in 1908. Here’s the game without comments.



We know that Tarrasch was a fierce critic of Lasker and often publicly stated that he wasn’t a worthy World Champion. They finally met in a match in 1908. It is not widely known, but before the first game Lasker was nervous and this showed in his comment to his brother. I don’t recall the exact words, but he said something along the lines, if I play the Exchange Variation, how can I possibly lose?

Note that he was primarily seeking a safe haven, he wanted to avoid losing in the first place!

The fact that he won shows that once the game started Lasker was just playing chess, trying to find the best moves. If an opportunity presented itself he would grab it and win the game, even if before it he was content with a draw. The game with Tarrasch was around equal most of the time, but Tarrasch erred and Lasker took his chance.

The second game is even more famous. In St. Petersburg in 1914 Capablanca was having a dream tournament. He was leading comfortably and playing excellent chess. He won the preliminary tournament with 8/10, a full point and a half ahead of Lasker and Tarrasch. These points counted toward the final standings and in the final he continued to play well. So what chances did Lasker have when they met in Round 7 in the final? He was trailing by a full point and he was playing a dangerous young opponent against whom he suffered for 100 moves in Round 2 of the final and who was openly intent on claiming his title.

Losing that game would have been a disaster for Lasker in the eyes of the public. Not winning the tournament and coming second behind the Cuban genius, much less so. How does then Lasker approach the game? No experiments, keep it safe and play the trusted Exchange Variation!



Just like in the game with Tarrasch, once the game started and he was safe out of the opening, knowing that he cannot possibly lose from that position, he started playing chess. And he outplayed Capablanca, who was probably somewhat confused: he became more relaxed after the innocuous opening choice but also concerned about what Lasker was trying to achieve.

These two games were the most striking examples I found of Lasker’s psychology. I was very surprised that even Kasparov, in his Predecessors book, fell for this myth of “Lasker the Psychologist” who played the Exchange Variation in the Ruy Lopez for a win.

“Lasker was a great man,” Capablanca said on more that one occasion. And great men are often misunderstood.



Inspirational Quotes

While still at University I started a file where I collected memorable lines, quotes, ideas and sometimes even whole paragraphs that made a deep impression on me. It started with Benjamin Franklin’s The Way to Wealth (“God helps them that help themselves”) and Ralph Waldo Emerson’s Self-Reliance (“It needs a divine man to exhibit anything divine”) then continued with Shakespeare (everybody knows “All’s well that ends well (yet)” but very few know the follow-up “Though time seems so adverse and means unfit”) and from there I started collecting memorable lines from every book I read.

The chess-related inspirational quotes came much later. Mostly because I rarely found really insightful things said about chess! Not that there weren’t any, but because I’ve known them for so long that they had become part of my understanding and I didn’t find them insightful, just part of my understanding.

Here I would like to present some of the more recent ones. They are precise verbalisations of something I had vaguely sensed but never came to defining and putting into words myself. Enjoy!


The secret of succeeding in such [dead-drawn] positions in a practical game is to create the impression of momentum and progress. That automatically puts pressure on the opponent, and once an opponent feels pressure, mistakes are never far behind. – from M. Sadler’s “Chess for Life”


Those who calculate well – it’s bad for them. That means they won’t be successful for long. You have to be able to play with the hand, not only with the head.

On the first moves you should see wide, not deep. And calculate only when it’s necessary. Calculate only two moves ahead, so as not to blunder something. – Alexey Dreev (my translation from an interview in Russian)


Up to a point I’m maintaining my level and then when the pressure increases I can’t keep it up. Someone who’s in bad shape usually blunders something at some point. Often people are in bad shape and get away with it. If a guy like Magnus is in bad shape it’s very rare someone spots it. – Anish Giri


Keep the pressure on them every second. They all crack.

Don’t “turn off” your mind when it’s your opponent’s turn to move. Use this time to think ahead to your next possible move. And when he does move, always ask yourself, “Why did he make this particular move?” before you do anything else.

Don’t give up in the middle of the game if you don’t think you’re doing well – or even if you’re in big trouble. There’s always a chance that you’ll have a flash of brilliance or that your opponent might slip up. Chess is a kaleidoscope – it’s ever changing – and opportunities suddenly appear. – Bobby Fischer


The point is not to always try to and make the best move. – Veselin Topalov


In his time Robert Fischer achieved a new level of tactical precision […] Fischer didn’t allow mistakes that his contemporaries, for example Boris Spassky, thought to be acceptable inaccuracies. And he didn’t pardon them.

Carlsen, as it seems to me, reached the next level of tactical precision. When they say that Carlsen plays until the end, that he keeps the tension […] that is correct. But it’s necessary to understand why that happens. And why the others cannot do it.

Any other player from the top 20 will try to squeeze water from stone in an equal position, but he will make an inaccuracy in his calculation, then again he will miss something and will realise that it’s better not to risk and just make a draw. Carlsen, while doing the same, somehow manages not to make mistakes.  – Dmitry Jakovenko (my translation from an interview in Russian)


I think it’s an important trait of a good player to be able to have the same level of focus and creativity in simple positions as well as more complicated ones and thus create chances at any point in the game. I don’t think making few mistakes and playing very accurately for a long time should be a negative.

Kasparov told me many years ago not to play tournaments with amateur conditions, because then you will play amateur chess.

In this sense I have that in common with Karpov in his heyday: he believed deeply in his abilities, he was very combative and won a lot of games in tournaments because even when he was not in a good position, he felt he could still win and played all the way. I’m somewhat similar in spirit: during a competition, I always believe in myself.

…if my opponent is not playing for a win, then regardless of the position I should be able to do it myself. – Magnus Carlsen


We were born to succeed, not to fail. – Henry David Thoreau (he didn’t write it about chess, but I’m sure you can see the connection.)


Hard work is talent. – Garry Kasparov



This is my first post on my new blog and I am very happy the process pf migration was quick and efficient. There are still some things that need polishing, but the most imporatant thing is that the blog is working well!

There are some design changes and the main one is the friendly orange sign-up box on the right, inviting you to join my Inner Circle. I think I should give you an idea what that means. I have envisioned the Circle as a place where more direct communiation will take place among its members. My intention is to share more personal stories and often give my opinions on various openings, ideas and concepts. As an illustration, please read below for an example of what that means in practice:



“When you hear hoof beats, think of a zebra.” – Sufi Saying

I love this saying. I first encountered it in the book of my favourite contemporary chess author, GM Jonathan Rowson, Chess for Zebras. It reminds me not to be on the side of majority (“Whenever you find yourself on the side of the majority, it is time to pause and reflect” – Mark Twain) because the majority would think of a horse. And I try to think of a zebra.

I first got acquainted with Jonathan Rowson’s work in the previous century (that was a long time ago, wasn’t it) when his first book, Understanding the Grunfeld inspired me to seriously study and play the opening. I was always platonically in love with the Grunfeld, I was attracted to the sole bishop on g7, which both defended the king and attacked white’s centre. My results with the Grunfeld weren’t spectacular, but I always felt the thrill to push the pawn on d5 on move 3. Rowson devised a repertoire for black but from a completely different perspective – he told stories and explained concepts and then wrapped them up in some theory. It was exactly the kind of opening book that I wanted to read!

Years passed and in 2006 I played in Dos Hermanas. I was there with my very good friend, the Indian GM Neelotpal Das. During the tournament he gave me a book to read, imagine my surprise when it was Rowson’s second book, The Seven Deadly Chess Sins. I was completely immersed into the book that I read it in several hours during the night (yes, I can read pretty fast)! I also took notes from the book on a piece of paper – the size of the piece of paper was one from a notebook. It’s hard to believe, but somehow I managed to squeeze all the important information on that one piece of paper. I still have it, when I find it I will take a picture of it and I will send it to you (UPD: see below for this)! The book is about the shortcomings all chess players have (to a bigger or lesser extent) and what to do about them. As usual, Rowson discusses these topics in his usual educated and precise style, I would always catch myself thinking how he managed to put into exact words what I have only vaguely sensed. Needless to say my admiration of him only grew.

And then came the Zebras, his last book to date. The subtitle is telling, Thinking Differently about Black and White. I am sure we all somehow feel that there are subtle differences when playing white and black. And it’s not only the advantage of the first move or the choice of opening or variation. It’s much more subtle than that, it’s an inner dynamic that is difficult to put into words, yet Rowson succeeds to pinpoint all the nuances – it took him some 250 pages to do it, but he did it and I doubt any other author would have done a better job.

Next weekend I will go to the UK to play at the 4NCL for my team Cheddleton. I started playing for Cheddleton in 2012 and have been a regular ever since. Several years ago (it was in November 2013) the league was played in Hinckley and after finishing my game rather late I was in a hurry to catch the train to London. I ran to the reception in a desperate need for taxi when I noticed none other but Jonathan waiting for his! I asked him if we could share the taxi since I was running late for my train. He didn’t mind and soon enough I found myself sharing the taxi with my favourite author! It was only in the taxi that we introduced each other, and then he introduced himself I told him, “Yes, I know, you’re my favourite author!” and he seemed to be a little embarrased by that. We had a very pleasant chat during the ride and on the train station and I remember that there were so many things I wanted to ask him (and I was already a GM by that time!) but time was short… We discussed a lot of things, some variations as well, and I remember one thing he told me, he considered it a mistake – he told me that he should have tried to go as far as possible with the Najdorf (he was a Najdorf player) instead of changing to the Spanish. Changing his main opening against 1 e4 took him time and energy to adjust to the new positions and he felt that this slowed down his progress. These kinds of observations are what have always attracted me to his style. He looks at chess from a higher perspective and this is extremely rare nowadays. And, coincidentally, I am now at the same point, incorporating 1…e5 into my own repertoire and playing it more often, after a lifetime of Sicilians.

During that taxi ride I asked him if he planned to write another book. He was hesitant, he had too many other obligations outside of chess and they were taking his time. But he didn’t say a direct no. Well, for sure I will be waiting for that next book when it comes out, whenever that may be!


My notes from Zebras


Carlsen-Karjakin, WCh 2016: A Preview

I thought long and hard about this match, what I expected of it, what openings they would play, what strategy they would apply. Surprisingly, I didn’t find satisfactory answers to these questions.

This match is a big unknown. For the first time we get two players from the new generation, both born in 1990, raised and educated by the mighty computer. They have been rivals since their childhood years, they know each other very well, they have been looking what the other is doing all their lives. And now they get to play for the highest title.

Let me start with my expectations. I expect a highly technical match with a lot of draws. I wouldn’t be surprised if all 12 games end in a draw. My impression is that Karjakin will be cynical in playing openly for a draw (and I hope I’m very much wrong about this). His idea – to put pressure on Carlsen by getting the match to the later stages when Carlsen might lose patience and try something harsh and then Karjakin would strike from the counterattack. And if that doesn’t happen then obtain the boasting rights of having drawn a World Championship match against Carlsen (at least the classical part).

The openings are another murky territory. It’s clear that both will go for the Berlin with black, the safest weapon black has against 1 e4. Carlsen has been successful with the 4 d3 lines against it, always managing to pose some problems to the black players. A fine example of this was his win in the second game of his match against Anand in Sochi. A more recent example was his demolition of So in the Bilbao Masters in July. That is a possibility for both players, to try to pose small problems here and there in the 4 d3 lines, but perhaps there is more fruitful territory after other first moves. Bear in mind that all this means that playing for a draw 1 e4 is the best move!

Both players are able and willing to venture into the territory of closed openings. Ever since Carlsen’s 1 Nf3 against Anand in Chennai in 2013 (and although not very successful with it in that match), the move has become white’s way of saying “let’s play without an advantage for me, but I’ll try to get you to a position where I know more”. Karjakin successfully used this strategy in his excellent win against Anand in the Moscow Candidates. It is a possible way to go for both players, to “just get a game,” but I think Carlsen is stronger in pure chess terms, so I expect Karjakin to use his preparation to defuse Carlsen’s attempts at “getting a game.”

Of the other first moves, 1 d4 has the problem that black has several theoretically very solid openings to counter it – the Nimzo, the QGD, the Slav, the Grunfeld. Both players have spent enormous masses of time on preparation and it is possible to prepare well against them all – Karjakin may have done it, but Carlsen is usually more practical in the openings so perhaps he aimed his preparation in another direction. An important point to note is that Karjakin had problems in the Queen’s Indian in the Moscow Candidates (although he didn’t lose a game in it) but I am pretty sure he won’t be repeating it in New York.

The English Opening after 1 c4, at one point seen as an escape from the Berlin and the openings mentioned above after 1 d4, has already been next to exhausted. After either 1…e5, with the Reversed Sicilian doing excellently for black, or 1…c5, black is in excellent shape. And here I’m not mentioning the various transpositions after 1…e6 or 1…Nf6. But it is quite possible that both teams have found new ways in these already well-trodden paths.

After this short analysis you can now understand why I have trouble expecting (or predicting) the openings in the match. This makes me even more curious to see what they thought of, in which direction they will go, where they will choose to pose problems. After all, the World Championship matches are the trend-setters and are always breaking new ground in the openings.

As for the match strategy, I mentioned above that I fear Karjakin will be draw-oriented (again, I hope I’m wrong and he essays the Sicilian, preferably the Najdorf). Carlsen will most probably stay true to himself, doing what he does best – put pressure on his opponent and keep playing excellent moves consistently. Karjakin is a wonderful defender and sooner or later he will end up in a position when he will have to suffer against Carlsen’s methodical play, but he will be ready for this and may not necessarily crumble, which is what usually happens to Carlsen’s opponents.

I will finish this preview with a prediction. Everybody’s doing it so I might as well do it myself. My prediction: 1-0 for Carlsen with 11 draws.


Karpov and Old Age

There is no need to introduce Karpov. It is probably the only name, together with Kasparov’s, that people far from chess can still recognise.

I would like to touch upon the subject of playing on after certain age. Karpov recently played in two events and played one Bundesliga game in between.

At the beginning of October in Murmansk there was a match between Karpov and Timman. Karpov has beaten Timman throughout their careers mercilessly. The Candidates final in 1990 (6.5-2.5) and their World Championship match in 1993 (12.5-8.5) showed Karpov’s dominance. Timman always seemed to have problems playing Karpov and the match in Murmansk looked to be one more match victory for Karpov – even though both players are past their prime (both were born in 1951) I thought that Timman being Karpov’s “customer” will play the decisive role.

Karpov is very busy nowadays, among other things he is also a member of the Russian Parliament. He never quit chess officially, but he plays very rarely and doesn’t prepare or work on chess at all. Unlike Kasparov, who after officially retiring in 2005 kept working on chess and preserved his strength, as shown in his rare outings, Karpov just loves the process of playing and cannot seem to resist the urge to sit at the board from time to time for an official game or two.

Timman is more active than Karpov, he plays often, writes for New In Chess and composes studies. I am sure he prepared for the match in Murmansk.

The course of the match showed the dangers of relying only on one’s talent even if that talent is enormous. Karpov was rusty and lack of training and practice cost him the match – in the only decisive game Karpov blundered badly:

In the last game of the match Karpov couldn’t do anything with black and he lost the match – for the first time in his life he lost to Timman in an official match.

I don’t know how it feels for such a great champion to fall so low and lose games like the one above. Spassky once said that he realised it was time to stop when he looked at his old games and saw how strong he was, while his last games had been very bad and he just couldn’t play on his usual level anymore. The realisation that you cannot do the same things you used to do before is probably one of the major disappointments of old age.

After the match Karpov played in the Bundesliga against GM Kempinski. Karpov always needed time to warm up and the match with Timman at least served that purpose. The game was a vintage Karpov win.

The game was decided by an elementary blunder by Kempinski, Karpov’s merit was in keeping the pressure.

One of the tournaments Karpov plays every year is the rapid tournament that bears his name, played in Cap d’Agde, France. It’s a rapid tournament where 4 male and 4 female players play a double-round-robin and then the first 4 players play matches of two games (with tie-breakers if needed), a semi-final and then a final. Karpov won his own tournament in 2012, but has found the going tougher ever since.

He started with a win over GM Sebag and a loss to Bacrot. In Round 3 he faced the lowest rated player, WGM Sabrina Vega, rated 2414.

I have always felt uneasy witnessing great champions tarnish their reputation with ugly losses like this one.

Karpov seemed to pick up the pace after this loss and went on to score 9.5/14 and finish one point behind Bacrot, who scored 10.5/14. It seemed that he finally got his form back and could look with optimism to the semi-final against GM Edouard, who scored two full points less.

The semi-final turned out to be one-sided. The result between a great and unprepared champion against a young and heavily prepared GM was 0-2.

In game 1, playing with black Karpov lost a pawn on move 14 and went on to lose. Game 2 was the most telling.

A very painful (not to say humiliating) defeat with white in a must-win situation. Again, my feeling of uneasiness seeing Karpov play and lose like this was difficult to conceal.

The game with Kempinski showed that Karpov is still capable of an occasional glimpse of his former glory. But let us not forget that it was played against a 2600-rated player and Karpov’s own rating is somewhere in this range, meaning that his current strength is approximately of a 2600-rated player.

Chess has changed dramatically since Karpov’s heyday, the young players calculate like machines and are prepared excellently: the computers raised the level of human calculation and their help in the preparation process cannot be overstated. Karpov was never a very hard worker off the board (unlike Kasparov) as he relied on his playing strength and talent. With age the talent remains, but the strength diminishes, primarily because of the imprecise calculations. Karpov was famous for his precise calculation of short lines but that is not the case anymore, as the increased number of blunders in his games show. Chess is a concrete game and if you cannot calculate well you simply don’t play well.

I have learned a lot from Karpov’s games and I always admired him for his fighting abilities. Seeing him lose games because of elementary blunders makes me a bit sad. Karpov’s legacy is eternal, but his present-day games will not make it to his future best games collections.


The Magic of Mikhail Tal

I had the idea to write about Mikhail Tal for quite some time but I never found the time. What opened the richness of Tal’s play to me was Dvoretsky’s Secrets of Chess Tactics and in view of the famous coach’s recent passing perhaps this is a good time to write about Tal.

Tal was never my hero. Of course, I knew his games, but I was always more drawn to Capablanca for example, being fascinated by the ease and smoothness of his play. But then came Dvoretsky’s book. What I am about to describe took place in the mid-90s, when I first got to read Dvoretsky’s book. The second part of the book, called Attack and Defence features analyses of games of such attacking greats like Alekhine and Tal. The appetizer was the game Alekhine-Junge from Prague 1942, which introduced me to the concept of “slow attack” and the difficulties the defender faces in such situations. But the real shocker were Tal’s games. In the comments below I will give my own understanding of the games at that time while I will also quote Dvoretsky.

The first game was featured under the subtitle “Science Fiction!” and it did live up to the name of the subtitle!

A true eye-opener for me! I thought for a long time trying to understand what happened in this game. My “hows” and “whys” eventually led me to realise one very important truth about chess – it is possible to play like this. Tal’s talent and skills aside, it is possible to incorporate some of these elements into one’s game. Risk, pressure, aggression, both psychological and on the board, all these can work! There is no need to feel constrained in the positional dogma and always play by the rules. Yes, balance is required as this type of play can often backfire, but for me the most important lesson was that after realising this I felt liberated, I could let my fantasy roam free while I could still curb it, if necessary, with the “positional dogma”.

The second Tal game from the book was no less impressive. It is from the same year, 1965, and from the same Candidates cycle, when Tal made it to the final where he lost to Spassky. The game was played in a moment when Larsen was leading by one point.

A similar scenario to the Portisch game and another elite player succumbs quickly after Tal applied his trademark pressure. These two games consolidated my newly-discovered truth about the possible ways to play chess and with it came the inner freedom I felt – there was no need always to play the “positional” move, sometimes it was possible to play what one wanted to play and it could work perfectly. I grasped the true impact Tal had on the understanding of chess as a whole, he showed that chess can be played in a different way and successfully too. These insights significantly broadened my horizons and even though I didn’t start sacrificing in every game I felt that I became a better player at this mysterious game called chess.


Endgame Technique

The following game made a deep impression on me. We all know how strong Carlsen is, but how does he manage to beat the “common” 2700-rated GM with black in a smooth fashion always fascinated me. It is easy to understand it, but so difficult to do it yourself!

White plays a solid opening and openly for a draw, exchanging queens early. Then he even wins the bishop pair! Yet he goes down easily. I’ll try to explain the small inaccuracies and what they led to. Another instructive point is that when things have gone too far even if there is a saving way, it is so complicated that it’s impossible to find.

I learned a lot from this game and occasionally I replay it just to inspire myself and remind myself how chess should be played. I hope you can also draw valuable lessons from this exquisite masterclass by the World Champion.


Candidates 2016 – A Preview

Less than two weeks until the start of the first part of the exciting year 2016 promises to be. With the Olympiad and the World Championship match to follow we are looking at an exceptional year for chess.

The Candidates Tournament starts on 10 March in Moscow. There are three groups of players in the field: The Young, The Old and The Wild Card. Here is how I see the situation before the start.

The Young

Four players fall into this group: Caruana (23), Nakamura (28), Giri (21) and Karjakin (26).

Caruana is one of the favourites to win this tournament. He is well-established in the elite for quite some time now and, what is more important, has a record of winning elite events. History has shown that the player who earns his right to challenge the World Champion has always been the one who has had the best tournament record before the match. Ever since Caruana’s legendary 7/7 in Saint Louis in 2014 he is considered as the most likely challenger to Carlsen. He recently started playing 1 d4 as well, in an attempt to widen his opening repertoire (perhaps under the influence of his new coach Kasimdzhanov) and this will make him even more difficult to prepare against. The latest showing in Wijk aan Zee, where he shared second behind Carlsen, demonstrated that after some period of instability he is back his former self, even if a bit more polishing is needed.

Nakamura is my other favourite to win. I started to appreciate the American only when he evolved and started to win some excellent technical games against elite opposition. This universality has brought him more consistency and stability. Like Caruana, he has a record of winning elite events, but I still see him somewhat less stable psychologically – a few months ago in London, he was having a good event, but after yet another loss to Carlsen he played horribly and lost to Giri the next day. Maybe this was the Carlsen effect, his score against him is horrible, but there will be no Carlsen in Moscow. I see him as probably the best fighter in the field and this is his main trump.

Talking about Giri, I’d like to quote Johannes Hendrikus Donner, from his excellent book The King: “… but mostly as a natural result of the conviction – deeply rooted in the Netherlands – that no Dutchman can ever achieve anything worthwhile.” But then again Giri was born in St Petersburg. From all the eight participants Giri is the latest edition to the elite. However, I cannot get rid of the impression that Giri became an elite player not by winning, but by not losing. He hasn’t won an elite event and I cannot imagine that the first elite event he wins will be the Candidates. He is excellently prepared and it will be difficult to beat him, but that just means that he will make a lot of draws. If nobody goes mad against him I wouldn’t be surprised if he makes 14 draws.

Karjakin has too often been mediocre. Take the last Wijk aan Zee, a miserable -1 score with uneventful chess on display. He is a fighter, the World Cup clearly showed it, and I’m sure the memories of Khanty 2014 when he finished second are still fresh in his mind, giving him the hope that he can win it. But there is no edge in Karjakin, in spite of the tremendous support he enjoys in Russia, and unless he reinvents himself I cannot imagine him winning the event.
The Old

Here we have Anand (46), Topalov (41) and Svidler (39). I’ll say it immediately, I don’t think anyone from this group has a chance to win the tournament.

Anand’s win in Khanty 2014 was the final stand of the older generation before the young start to take over. Now that time has come. But the fact that these three are here after all those years shows what an exceptional and strong players they still are.

After more than 20 years Anand played an open earlier this year, in Gibraltar, and played like a regular open player, losing to guys rated 2500 and drawing solid IMs rated around 2400. The rating losses meant that he is now out of the Top 10, something unheard of. Then he went to Zurich, back to his usual company (albeit for a rapid/blitz event) and shared first with Nakamura, undefeated. A huge boost for his confidence, which is good for him, but as in Khanty, all will depend on his start – if he starts well then he will be in contention, but if not, then he’ll just try to draw and finish the tournament as soon as possible.

Topalov’s last tournament was in December, a last place in London, with 2.5/9, winless. Never an epitomy of stability, he will be somewhat of a loose cannon in Moscow. For him only the first place exists so he will take risks and go for broke. This approach can bring victory, but only if in good form. He did that when in bad form in Khanty in 2014 and finished last. It’s always extremes with him and I expect the same approach in Moscow. But a repeat of Khanty is quite probable in this field.

Svidler reinvented himself in the Candidates in London 2013 (finishing third) and continued along the same lines in Khanty in 2014. But while in London it worked, it backfired in Khanty. The reinvention meant playing sharper chess, avoiding his usual 50% or +/- 1in super-tournaments. He understood that he needed to play sharper chess in order to score more. The reason for his failure in Khanty was his bad form. He learnt his lesson and now I expect him to know how to balance his form and preparation. If he manages that he will be one of the most exciting players in the field!
The Wild Card

Perhaps it is fair that a player of many ups and (lately) downs, like Aronian (33), received the wild card for the tournament. It is really difficult to expect anything of him! He failed miserably in all the previous World Championship cycles, while playing superb chess elsewhere. This finished in 2014-2015, when he was miserable elsewhere and even fell out of the Top 10 for a while. Things are different for him now, as for the first time he is not seen as a favourite. But on the other hand he is the nominate of the organiser, an Armenian millionaire, which perhaps will put some pressure. For me he is the enigma of the tournament, a dark horse. I still don’t think he’ll win, but I won’t be surprised if he does.


Carlsen KO

In view of the recently published opinion by World Champion Magnus Carlsen, where he suggests going back to the knock-out format for the World Championship cycle (you can read it in full here), I would like to share a few ideas that came to mind while reading it.

In a nutshell, I think it’s idiotic. To suggest something new I can understand, but to suggest something that has already been tried and condemned doesn’t make much sense. So probably there are deeper reasons behind his suggestion. One of the first ideas that came to mind was that this was actually clever. Just imagine if the KO was implemented: unless won by a Top-5 player, the respect for the new World Champion would be non-existent. Hence the world will not recognise it as such and would still consider Carlsen (who would still have the highest rating) as the best player in the world. So Carlsen will assure himself of never losing the title in a match. Additionally he will cement his legacy as the last of “The Legendary 16,” “The Great Champions,” “The True Giants” etc. Not bad, eh?

Another point is that if Carlsen is so much in favour of democratisation then why he doesn’t practice what he preaches and plays the World Cup? Of course he won’t, for understandable reasons. I will quiote him: “Kasparov told me many years ago not to play tournaments with amateur conditions, because then you will play amateur chess.” He was referring to the Olympiad, but a big KO event is not that much different. 

The World Championship match for me is the cherry on the top of elite chess. And I am eagerly awaiting it, even though it takes 2 years to get to it. I am very excited at the prospect of a great Candidates tournament and then I imagine what the winner of the Candidates and the Champion will prepare, what their strategies will be and so on. Carlsen proposes an annual knock-out as a World Championship, but that is a degradation of the highest title – the longer you wait for something, the rarer its occurrence, the higher its value. Somebody said that the World Champion in chess has the highest value in the eyes of the public of all the world champions in the world. Carlsen probably doesn’t feel it so he doesn’t mind the degradation. I wouldn’t want our beloved game and its king degraded. Young people usually do not care much about tradition, but chess is one of the rare sports which has managed to keep the process of finding out the best player more or less intact since 1886. Why meddle with something that has worked well for 129 years?

Carlsen is scheduled to play very soon, in St. Loius at the Sinquefield Cup, which starts on the 23rd of August. I’m looking forward to his great chess, I very much prefer it to his public statements.
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