Category : Tournaments

Shankland’s Shockers

The World Cup in Baku is well under way and I have already shared my preview and analysis on my Youtube channel, which you can check here.

There are many interesting games already, but I was drawn to one episode in particular, because it is something that I can connect to what has happened before.

I don’t really know Sam Shankland, we have barely exchanged a few words the one or two times we’ve met. He gave me the impression of being very (in)tense, and I think that these two characteristics have something to do with what I will show you below. I realise that what follows may be entirely wrong, as I don’t know the player, but I will still share my impressions and thoughts.

Shankland seems to have been an author of inexplicable decisions more than anyone else in the top 30 in the world. We are talking about classical games here. The first example that struck me as inexplicably shocking came at the end of his game with Giri at the Wijk aan Zee tournament in 2019.

The position is a fortress for Black, who only needs to walk his king back to c8. However, what happened is that Shankland resigned! Giri was so shocked that he had to ask him to confirm that the stretched hand was in fact resignation and not an agreement to a draw.

The next example came at the Olympiad in Chennai last year.

With his last move 90.b3 Shankland made sure to exchange the last black pawn and ensure a draw in the game and a victory for his team. What happened next is more applicable to online chess than classical – Shankland noticed that his opponent took the queen and expecting the check on h1 he automatically grabbed his king and played Kc2, only to see the black queen land on g2 instead of h1!! It’s clear to see that the only legal move then, 91.Kc1, loses instantly to 91…Qb2 followed by …Qxb3. Shankland had nothing better than to resign, which also led to his team drawing the match.

The third shocker came yesterday.

Shankland was pressing for the whole game, but eventually didn’t manage to make more of it so it was time to accept that the position is a draw. However…

Black has enough counterplay and moving the king back to c2 should draw, but Shankland boldly went ahead with 57.Kxc4??? only to be mated after 57…Rc8 58.Kd4 Rbc3 with the inevitable …R8c3 mate.

So why are these inexplicable things happening to a world-class player?

My impression is that at the end of tough games the intensity and tension that Shankland brings to the game become too much for him to handle and this leads to blackouts when things like the ones above happen. The excessive force and effort that he uses during his games at the end become a burden that he can no longer carry and the brain just shuts down.

With this loss Shankland is now in a must-win situation with the black pieces. A very difficult, but not impossible task. His opponent is the young Moldovan Grandmaster Ivan Shitco, who will also have a lot of nerves to deal with, as drawing with White on demand is more difficult than it may sound. The game will definitely be interesting, as long as Shankland doesn’t push himself over the limit one more time.

Upd. Shankland didn’t manage to equal the score and lost the match.


Rating Is The Enemy

Some time ago, I remember a young and promising GM crying on social media, in all seriousness, how the public cannot possibly understand the agonising pain of losing 20 rating points and dropping below 2600.

I wasn’t sure whether to laugh or cry from such deification of the rating numbers. And yet, they control us.

Everybody is an addict to those numbers, to a bigger or lesser extent. Even Carlsen, who recently said he would like to remain number one with a solid advantage over the rest.

We are all trapped inside our own small circles, from the beginners who want to cross 1100 to the elite who want to cross 2800. Let’s mention again Carlsen, who not so long ago set himself the aim to cross 2900.

This slavery doesn’t bring anything good. I remember I played my best when I didn’t care about rating. And yet, nowadays, it’s all about the rating.

Perhaps the worst thing about the rating is that we are judged by it. People see those numbers and immediately they think they know you’re a patzer or a strong player. They “know” whether you deserve respect or not. Which is definitely not how it should be. 

When checking the results of the players I encountered frequently in the past, I noticed that without exception, they all lose or have already lost, a lot of rating. There are several reasons for this.

The first one is the broken rating system. FIDE, in their worldly wisdom, decreased the rating gain to zero (!) when playing players who have more than 400 rating points. So, an IM of 2400 can score 9/9 against players rated 1900 and he will keep her rating. But God forbid should he make a draw – then she immediately loses around 5 points!

The second problem is that due to various factors, there are a lot of underrated players, especially the young ones. So again, God forbid you have the bad luck of playing them in a tournament – once you may win, but they will definitely get you in the next games and you can start posting agonising cries on social media like the GM mentioned at the beginning.

The most certain way not to lose rating is not to play. The once feared GM Korneev, who outrated me between 150-200 points for most of the time since the mid-90s, now is within 20 points of my rating. You play, you lose.

There is one group of players, though, who manage to play and not lose rating. It’s the elite, who play among themselves. They draw most of the time, win some, lose some, but when playing players with similar rating and you are around 50% most of the time, you don’t lose rating. 

The elite is definitely stronger than the rest, but the case of the online tournaments where they often play lower rated opposition shows what a lot of us have known – they cannot, consistently, maintain their rating when playing lower-rated players on a regular basis. There are countless examples of players like Carlsen, Nakamura, Caruana, Kramnik etc. losing or drawing players rated 2100 or lower. If those games were actually rated, they would have been writing agonising tweets mourning their ratings a long time ago. Or they would have stopped playing these events.

I can also give you an example from over-the-board play. While still a top 3 player, Kramnik played the Qatar Masters open in 2014. He played as expected, leading the event and only a loss in the last round to Yu Yangyi cost him first place. His next open was the same Qatar Masters the following year, when he played equally well, sharing third place.

But already in 2017, when playing in the Isle of Man open, Kramnik (rated 2803 at the time) struggled, failing to beat Lawrence Trent (2427) and losing to James Tarjan (2412). The following year was similar, as he drew with Sundararajan (2445) and Kashlinskaya (2447).

This is a known phenomenon – when a stronger player plays a weaker player on a regular basis, the strength of the stronger player decreases while the strength of the weaker player increases. This is why the elite prefer to play among themselves – it keeps their rating and their status in the chess world intact.

These problems with the rating kills the enthusiasm of many players. They want to play, but they cannot win (rating). And this leads to a lot of older players stopping active play, leaving only the young ones to massacre each other.

I outlined several issues with the rating, which I have observed, but I don’t know the solution to these issues. FIDE recently announced that they are coming up with something, and pretty soon at that. I am not too optimistic, though.

Perhaps, there is no general solution, only an individual one. Each one of us should find the most appropriate way for him/herself not to be affected by the “magical” numbers so that (s)he can give their best on the chessboard. Eventually, that should be all that matters.


Controversy in 1984

I grew up watching the Karpov-Kasparov matches in the 1980s. As a kid, I was rooting for Kasparov and I remember the joy I felt when I heard the news that he won the last game in Seville and kept his title.

When I started playing opens around Europe in the 1990s I encountered several players who were part of Karpov and Kasparov’s camps. Being fascinated by those matches, I never tired of listening to their stories. It was inside information I was craving for and I couldn’t get enough of it.

Some of that inside information was controversial.

Over the years I picked up bits and pieces of information and connected some dots. When Kasparov’s books on his Predecessors and the matches with Karpov came out, I considered that information in a new light.

In this post I will take an in-depth look at their first match in 1984-85.

The match started with a disaster for Kasparov. After game 9 he was already 0-4 down. Luckily for him, in an unlimited match, he could make draws and stay in the match, almost infinitely.

Kasparov started making draws. And some of these draws leave a strange impression. (In what follows I used the information from Kasparov’s own book on his match with Karpov. I have the book in Russian, so any quotations are translated from Russian.)

Being 0-4 down and having lost two games in his beloved Tarrasch Defence, Kasparov wrote that he intended to use the Grunfeld Defence that he prepared with his second Adorjan. I find this very strange, as he wrote that he prepared the Queen’s Gambit Declined as his back-up defence against 1.d4. Going for a sharp Grunfeld while obviously out of form and 0-4 down didn’t sound too sensible to me.

Implying an information leak, Kasparov believed that Karpov knew of his intentions and that was the reason he chose 1.Nf3 starting from game 11 and avoiding 1.d4 (that he played in games 7 and 9 and featured the Tarrasch Defence) for the remainder of the match.

Instead of going for the QGD, Kasparov dabbled with the double fianchetto in the English Opening and the Queen’s Indian in games 11, 13 and 15. He was under pressure in those games but he managed to draw them. From game 17 onwards he relied on the QGD and starting from that game we got a very strange series of draws.

One of the most shocking inside information I got to know from the seconds in both camps was that during the match there were strange phone calls happening. The player (Karpov or Kasparov) would pick the phone up and there would be no words spoken and then they would hang up. What the seconds thought was that these were draw offers and they came in couples, i.e. to draw the next two games.

The following analysis of the games, taking into consideration their content and time spent by the players, does seem to support those claims.

In game 17 they drew in 23 moves, with White (Karpov – he was White in all the odd games) spending 1.28 and Black 1.01.

In game 18 the draw was agreed in 22 moves with White spending 1.58 and Black 1.03.

Game 19 was the only one that lasted longer, 44 moves, but in view of Kasparov’s excellent preparation the draw was obvious already around move 20.

Game 20 saw a draw in 15 moves, White spending 0.34 and Black 1.03.

Game 21, draw in 31 moves, White 1.56, Black 1.38.

Game 22, draw in 20 moves, White 1.36, Black 1.24.

Game 23, draw in 22 moves, White 1.43, Black 1.22.

Game 24, draw in 17 moves, White 1.56, Black 1.38.

Game 25, draw in 21 moves, White 2.05, Black 1.34.

Game 26, draw in 23 moves, White 1.23, Black 1.10.

As you can notice, the games lasted around 3 hours, more or less, and the number of moves was around 20.

Then Karpov won game 27 and the score became 5-0 in his favour.

After the uneventful draw in game 28, more strange things started to happen.

In his book, Kasparov starts to contradict himself. He wrote that he started to feel safe in the QGD when playing Black, because in spite of the loss of game 27 he didn’t really have problems in the opening. So where is the logic of venturing a new opening when one step away from losing the match with the embarrassing score 0-6?

Yet, that is exactly what Kasparov started doing in the next games.

He wrote that he wanted to take advantage of the fact that Karpov wasn’t always confident when meeting a new opening, so he played the sharp Meran in game 29. He wanted to “sharpen the situation in the match” by playing the Meran with Black and playing 1.e4 with White. 

Sharpening the situation in the match when being 0-5 down sounds suicidal to me, but game 29 fell into the category of the above draws, lasting only 13 moves with White spending 1.39 and Black 0.51.

Game 30 saw the Petroff, with a draw in 20 moves, White 1.02, Black 1.19.

Game 31 saw a return go the QGD for Kasparov (he writes that he decided to postpone the use of the Meran after seeing the “fighting look of his opponent.” All this makes very little sense to me – it implies he got scared of some preparation, so he switched to the QGD, and yet in the next games he returned to the Meran!). The game gave Karpov excellent winning chances, but he spoilt them and there was another draw.

Game 32 was Kasparov’s first win. In spite of his decision to start playing 1.e4 (“to sharpen the situation in the match”) he chose 1.d4 and in the Queen’s Indian he won a very nice game.

Game 33 saw a return to the Meran (Karpov chose the Semi-Slav development) and a draw in 20 moves, White 1.37, Black 1.10.

Game 34, draw in 20 moves, White 1.20, Black 0.59.

In game 35 Karpov decided to return to the move 1.e4.

Kasparov writes that they prepared the Classical Sicilian already for game 7, strangely not going for his back-up the Najdorf, that served him well for an easy draw in game 5. Again we get a new opening for Kasparov and again, miraculously, the Classical Sicilian (with the Rauzer chosen by Karpov) giving him easy draws in the two games he used it.

Game 35 was drawn in 17 moves, White 1.45, Black 1.22.

Game 36 saw a big fight, where both players could win.

Game 37 was another Rauzer with another quick draw, 15 moves, White 1.36, Black 0.37.

These were amazing results with both the Slav and the Classical Sicilian, easy and quick draws with new openings that he didn’t prepare for the match. So why didn’t Kasparov continue to use them?

Game 38 and 39 saw identical play until move 22 but didn’t offer any chances to either player.

Game 40 gave Kasparov winning chances, but he missed them.

Game 41 was a special one. 

Kasparov writes that he lost confidence in the Rauzer (why?) and was in panic about what to play against 1.e4. He writes that he didn’t “fully trust” the Najdorf (strange admission coming from Kasparov – the only time he used it was in game 5 which was an easy draw for him, so no reasons to really complain about it)  so he decided to go for his opponent’s favourite defence, the Petroff. He toyed with the idea of playing the Ruy Lopez (something that he looked at from the black side in his pre-match preparation) but he writes “with the score 1-5 playing a complex opening without proper preparation was scary.”

This is an obvious contradiction in Kasparov’s writing. He did prepare the Ruy Lopez before the match, unlike the Classical Sicilian and the Slav, but he never mentions being scary playing those two openings while being one loss away from losing the match. But now, all of a sudden it was scary to play the Lopez.

Eventually he decided to rely on the Petroff, another opening he didn’t prepare before the match, but he didn’t have any ideas against with with White, so he thought it was safe. The opening went well for Kasparov, but he misplayed it on move 15 and Karpov obtained great winning chances. However, he missed them on move 33 and Kasparov held the draw.

Game 42 was a draw in 26 moves, White 1.31, Black 1.21

Game 43 was a draw, notable that Kasparov (finally) played the Najdorf. It lasted 21 moves, White 1.43, Black 0.45.

Games 44-46 were real fights with mutual chances, game 45 featuring the Najdorf and games 44 and 46 were Ruy Lopezes, Karpov deviating from the Petroff.

Game 47 was another peculiar game.

Karpov returned to 1.Nf3 and Kasparov again played the Semi-Slav. He writes that he felt confident trying it again. Karpov went for the sharpest option 5.Bg5, inviting the Botvinnik Variation, but Kasparov, surprised by the sharp choice, dodged it by going for the Cambridge-Springs. On move 11 (!) Kasparov offered a draw, but Karpov refused even though Black already had no problems. Karpov’s refusal of “it’s too early” showed some insecurity and he played the game very badly, losing in 32 moves. 

Kasparov won a very good 48th game in the Petroff and the match was then stopped, with Karpov still leading 5-3.

The above analysis points out several questionable moments in the match. The first is the “coupling” of the draws, short both in the time spent and the number of moves played. Second is Kasparov’s choice of openings at different moments in the match. If it is true that such “coupling” of draws took place (as the seconds I spoke with thought) then it’s not really surprising that Kasparov chose different openings, as he knew the game would end in a draw and was risking nothing. At the same time he wasn’t showing his ideas in his main openings and was “testing” the ideas that he had in the Slav and the Rauzer. Third is Kasparov’s contradictory reasoning when choosing his opening for game 41, also going contrary to the logic of choosing the mentioned Slav and Classical Sicilian.

Only the main protagonists know the truth and I don’t think they will ever speak out about these questions. However, these questions certainly raise some doubts about some games of this historic match.

There are questions about their other matches as well.

I have heard that the match in Seville was “decided” to be drawn after Karpov equalised the score in game 16. 

Before that game there were two games that fell along the lines of the above draws.

Kasparov’s toothless treatment of the Caro-Kann in games 10 and 14, draws in 20 and 21 moves, 1.35-1.30 and 1.34-1.14, respectively. Even more strange is his choice to switch to 1.e4 in game 10 after winning a crushing game 8 with the English Opening when he himself writes that Karpov had obvious problems in the English. So why change the favourable opening and give away an easy draw and the match initiative?

Game 14 was agreed drawn in a position where Kasparov had a safe and stable advantage.

After a very bad game 16, which he lost with White, with the result in the match tied Kasparov chose the most surprising opening in his game 17. He writes that he was out of form in Seville and that he was lacking fighting spirit and just wanted to end the match. The Grunfeld was serving him well and I find his explanations to choose the King’s Indian (!) in such a delicate match situation – to mobilise his inner reserves – a bit far fetched. Karpov chose 1.Nf3 in an attempt to avoid the Grunfeld (for a first time in the match!) and instead of the rock-solid QGD  or a variation in the English he had prepared, Kasparov went for the sharpest Mar del Plata variation! A curious selection of firsts by both players.

Similar to the games in the first match mentioned above, Kasparov again showed “courage” with his opening choice in a critical match situation. 

The next two games, 18 and 19, were QGDs, Kasparov returning to 1.c4 and Karpov replying 1…e6 and Karpov repeating 1.Nf3 but Kasparov this time going for 1…d5.

In game 21 Karpov returned to 1.d4 and Kasparov writes that he “understood that returning to the Grunfeld in such a critical moment was risky.” I just wonder why he didn’t consider the KID risky earlier, in game 17. Additionally, he didn’t consider the Grunfeld risky for game 23, when he offered a transposition to it, but Karpov declined it.

The last two games entered history as the most exciting finish in a World Championship match. I have heard that they were also part of an agreed “double,” but I leave it to the readers to believe what they wish.

The matches between Karpov and Kasparov had many situations that never made it to the public. In their last match in 1990, during the first part in New York, Karpov urgently had to fly back to Moscow. What could have been so important for Karpov to abandon a World Championship match and fly back to Moscow, changing time zones and completely messing up his regime and routine? The person who told me this didn’t know the answer.

Another curious information was that Karpov thoroughly prepared the Caro-Kann for the match in 1990, but he never used it then. The seconds and trainers working on it were puzzled by this choice. Karpov lost the match because of the sensitive losses in the Ruy Lopez in games 18 and 20. However, he used all that work on the Caro-Kann in his next tournaments and achieved great results in that opening. Does this mean that he saved all the work for after the match and didn’t consider the match “worthy” to show his preparation? Karpov was obviously under pressure in the Ruy Lopez, so it made perfect sense to change the opening, but the only time he did so was using the Petroff (giving him an easy draw!) in game 10. Why he didn’t repeat the Petroff, when it was such a success, is another question left unanswered.

In this lengthy analysis I posed the questions that I found logical and to which I couldn’t find the answers to. These were interspersed with bits of information that I have gathered throughout the years. I doubt that I will ever receive answers, but at least I put the questions out in the public. Who knows, maybe the truth will come out at some point.


Grandmasters Misevaluations

In the past few months I was going over Nigel Short’s games from his book “Winning.” I always liked Nigel and rooted for him in the 80s and 90s as he was the “best from the West” and I was curious to see how far he could go.

I find the games in the book very interesting and revealing. One aspect that I found surprising was how sometimes these great players could have bad days and how easily they could be affected by psychological factors. 

The following two games are good examples of both of these factors.

In the game Short-Timman from Reykjavik 1987, Black obtained a decent position in the French. However, instead of slower moves that improve his position (Short proposed …Kb8-a8) he lashed out with 14…f5??, which only gave him a hopeless position in exchange of a couple of tempi spent to bring the knight to e4, from where it was duly chased away.

Here’s the position after 7 moves, when Black is positionally lost. I found it really strange that a player of Timman’s strength, easily a top-5 player at the time, could commit such a bad positional mistake.

In the game Polugaevsky-Short from the same event, Short obtained a good position from the obscure opening 1.Nf3 d6. It resembles a Sicilian, where Black is very comfortable. Instead of simple play 17…a6 and b5, Short played 17…d5, which while not bad (though he criticises this decision in the book) shows a desire to force matters. In fact, Short admits to being rattled and feeling uncomfortable after the loss in the previous round. After 18.e5 Ne4 19.Bxe4 dxe4 20.Be3 he started to see ghosts and feared losing his e4-pawn.

So, instead of calmly doubling on the d-file, he lashed out with 20…f5? 21.exf6 Bxf6 22.Bf2 and what he feared he single-handedly made it happen – he lost the pawn on e4. He managed to draw the game, but it was not a good pair of decisions. In this case, the curious part is his confession of playing under the influence of his previous game.

This example shows that when GMs demonstrate clear misevaluations or play bad moves, there is always an underlying reason for that. It’s just that we rarely get to know it, like in Timman’s case, as honesty is rarely the best policy in the world of elite sport – revealing too much about oneself can easily help the opposition. Not everybody will be honest even after their career ends, which makes these glimpses even more valuable.


Are the Days of Classical Chess Numbered?

It’s a valid question that crops up more and more lately. The latest impetus for asking it was Carlsen’s statement from his recent interview with chesscom when they spoke about the purchase of his company Play Magnus Group.

Carlsen openly stated that he expects classical chess to be phased out at his level. This is different to what Kasparov predicted more than 10 years ago when he said that classical chess will be played only by the elite, while for everybody else it will be just entertainment.

First we have to realise that Carlsen spoke as a shareholder of his company that was bought, so he had to play to the tune – chesscom is all about faster time controls. However, I think there is a deeper issue here.

Chronologically, Carlsen has called for change of the format of the World Championship to matches with faster time controls. Then this year he officially withdrew from the classical championship, something I wrote about in my previous post, where the main reason was the gruelling hard work necessary to play these matches. Then in the interview with chesscom he openly said that he expects classical chess to be played less. He said the reason for this was the difficulty of finding new ideas in the opening at his level.

Another notable thing he said was that he would like to play Fischer Random at classical time controls.

If we connect the dots of all of the above, we can come to the logical conclusion that Carlsen doesn’t want to work hard anymore.

Chess has always been very hard at the highest level. There was no World Champion who complained about that while they were still in their prime. They knew they had to work extremely hard to overcome their competition and come up with “new ideas in the opening.”

The comment about Fischer Random serves as proof of the above. Carlsen isn’t against classical chess per se, he likes to delve deeply in a position if he can just play from the beginning, not being burdened by preparation and memorisation.

But at 31 Carlsen became tired. He’s been working extremely hard for almost 20 years and doesn’t want to do that anymore. He wants to have fun, play on fast chess on chesscom and entertain himself and the world. He knows that his theoretical baggage from his matches is more than sufficient to keep him afloat, especially at faster time controls when even sub-optimal opening ideas can be tried without being punished.

I have to add that this doesn’t bide well for the still reigning World Champion. The moment you stop working hard you start going down. He is still head and shoulders above the rest, but that won’t last for long. That goal of 2900 will never happen.

After Carlsen other players also came out with the same preferences for faster time controls. With chesscom injecting vast amounts of money in their events, it’s easy to foresee a never-ending string of online tournaments which are financially more beneficial than any classical over-the-board event.

Who will care about classical chess then?

I care about classical chess and I know FIDE does too. But can anything be done to stop the tide?


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.


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.


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.


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.


Impressions from the Berlin Grand Prix

The recently finished Grand Prix in Berlin produced a lot of fighting chess. I was very lucky to be able to observe the players on the stage, literally sitting next to them, as I was serving as a Fair Play Officer (FPO) for the event.

Apart from my duties as FPO I also followed the games as a fan and player. It is very different when you follow the games at home, even without an engine, and on the stage with the players. When I was there on the stage, I could more easily “plug in” and feel the position and the players. I tried to calculate lines myself and I had much higher respect for the moves the players were coming up with.

This last issue needs special mention. Since I am guilty of it myself I assume others are too. When I follow the games with an engine at home, I am so easy to dismiss the moves that are played if they don’t follow one of the engine’s top choices. This habit takes over very quickly and I soon find myself thinking the players are not very good. Yes, I understand they are very strong, 2750 rating is nothing to smirk at, but I easily forget the hard mental work and the calculations they had to do in order to come up with the move that I am so quick to dismiss just because the engine doesn’t rate it in its top 3 (or 5, 6…) choices. In other words, if a strong player calculates and thinks for a while and then comes up with a move that isn’t a clear blunder, then certainly there must be good reasons and definite advantages for that move to be played. I need to be reminded of this aspect when I am at home!

I didn’t fall into this trap when I was in Berlin. Simply because I was alone there, no engine, just the players and the positions. There I got to admire and respect their decisions again.

What I found to be an interesting exercise was to imagine the scenario of the games. There were two exceptional players who posed problems to each other and tried to overcome them. And then there was an engine, rated several hundred rating points higher, which would easily solve those problems and pose unsolvable ones to them. I imagined that it must be the same when I play opposition at my level, at higher level and at lower level, when I would be considered the engine!

This exercise helped me understand the need for consistency. Every single move had to be precise. At their level a single mishap is fatal. Connected to this is their constant creation of problems. Every single move poses a problem. I found some players easier to follow in this respect, for example I found Rapport’s moves easier to understand when it came to constant problem-posing.

By trying to get into the players’ minds I tried to understand their decisions from a psychological point of view. I tried to understand their approaches. For example both finalists, Nakamura and Aronian, had similar serve-and-volley approach when playing with White: the serve was the targeted preparation, often by entering a forced variation, aimed at catching the opponents unprepared and gaining time on the clock; if successful the rest would be the volley – converting the advantage.

With Black they were also very similar. They play solid openings against both 1.e4 and 1.d4 and don’t fear preparation in their trusted defences. If they change something it is usually a sideline within their repertoire, not the whole opening.

The experience in Berlin helped me greatly understand chess and the best players in the world much better. Unfortunately, most likely it won’t make me a better chess player because better understanding doesn’t directly transfer to better decision-making at the board. The latter requires practice of decision-making and that type of work is the actual calculation of variations. I did some calculation in Berlin, but that was far from enough to make me better at it.

They usually say that with time our understanding of chess improves, but our practical strength declines. I will try to fight that process, but for how long that will work I don’t know. In any case, I am grateful for every opportunity that I get to understand this game even a little bit better. May there be many more.

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