Category : Tournaments

Going Passive Magnus?

Magnus Carlsen’s domination in online chess continued with yet another win at the Chessable Masters. The win was convincing, beating everybody 2-0 in matches, but only because the other players couldn’t use the chances they were given.

The one thing I noticed during these matches was that it appeared that Carlsen was affected more than necessary by the result in the match. In other words, when he was leading he would often play for a draw, which is fine as long as it’s done properly.

A good case for a proper playing for a draw is the 4th game of the tie-break of his World Championship match with Karjakin in 2016. He played a solid opening and kept control throughout the game.

A bad way to play for a draw is to go passive and “hope for the best.” Surprisingly, that is exactly what Carlsen was doing in his final match with Giri.

In the first match, needing a draw with White to win it, Carlsen played a very passive opening:

This tendency towards passivity was also shown in his choices of openings when he played with Black. For example, in the first game of the first match he went for a solid, yet passive Slav set-up a-la Tiviakov:

In the second match the tendency continued. After winning the first game in great style Carlsen switched to bunker-style in the others.

In the third game he went for the English Opening and after 16 moves he was already slightly worse.

To his credit, Carlsen successfully managed to defend the passive position by setting up a fortress in the end.

The worst case was the last game of the match. Again needing a draw to win the match and the tournament Carlsen went for a very passive choice. It was his preparation until this point at least (he said that the move 18…a5 was in his files), but what puzzles me is why would he voluntarily go for this position?

Black’s last move was 18…a5

Even if Black is objectively fine here (which I doubt, though I’m sure Peter Heine did his work), why would anybody want to play in this manner, giving White all he wants and needs. Even more so, why play this when needing a draw?

Carlsen was outplayed and dead lost in this game, but thanks to a 1-move blunder by Giri he saved the game and won the match and the tournament.

It is quite possible that Carlsen is testing various strategies in these matches to see if he can get away with them. I am also pretty certain that he would never play like this in a high-stakes OTB game. Still, seeing him go passive like is a strange sight.

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Oversaturation

Too much of a good thing is still too much.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The Curse Of The Premove

I sincerely envy the people who have the time to follow all the chess that is happening now. There are so many events, commentaries, streams, webinars, banter-blitzes, courses, books, that it feels overwhelming.

Perhaps that is just me, with my work taking all the time and making it impossible to even watch a single event or listen to a commentary. And yet the sheer amount of chess content appears to have increased manifold.

Chess has moved online and this makes it akin to the e-sports. The rules of the game are still the same, but some of the abilities to do well online are quite different from the ones to do well over-the-board.

Online it is all about speed. Even when there is some increment per move, speed is what counts. Speed wins games, often in spite of quality.

One of the new habits of the “online generation” is the so-called premove. The art of the premove (I wonder how Botvinnik would understand this phrase) is to foresee with certain degree of probability what the opponent will play and then premove your own move, with the sole aim of not losing even a millisecond of your own time.

Here are two extreme examples that show to which length the advocates of the premove will go in order to take maximum advantage of this feature.

The starting moves of the Reti Opening, Black has many options at his disposal. But can you guess which move has the highest score for Black (I wouldn’t dare call it “the best”) in online chess?

The move 2…Bh3. This is online chess, with its own bluffs and probabilities. The move shows that Black expects White to premove 3 Bg2 so he wants to take immediate advantage of that by winning a piece on the spot. Of course, in case White doesn’t premove, then Black loses a piece. Is the risk worth it? Every online player should decide for himself.

The second example is from a short video clip I saw on Twitter. The World Champion is playing Black and he is completely winning.

But Carlsen, who is also part of the “online generation” and uses all the “tricks of the trade,” fell victim to these tricks. He clicked (that’s more precise than to say “played”) on the move …Ka4, which is a perfectly reasonable move, as it wins. That was not the mistake, the mistake was that immediately after making the move he premoved the next one, namely …Kxa3. And White, probably a shrewd online player himself, paused for a 1-2 seconds before cunningly playing Kc5! A fantastic move, banking on the “premove effect”. In OTB chess this means nothing, but online… Upon seeing this Carlsen immediately started to laugh, as the system executed his premoved …Kxa3 when White took on b5 with a draw.

Yes, online chess is often absurd with its own rules, tricks and speed demons. Whether we like it or not, we’re going into this territory now. Some of us will adapt, others will decide to wait until the next OTB tournament. In the meantime, expect more of the above-mentioned excitement.

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The Online Threat

Ever since the lockdowns started I kept hearing and reading how chess was so fortunate because it can easily be played online. Everybody was saying it, starting from the World Champion, Garry Kasparov, many Grandmasters, FIDE… It sounded logical, so without giving it much thought I concluded the same.

After a while the famous quote by Mark Twain resurfaced in my consciousness: “Whenever you find yourself on the side of the majority, it is time to pause and reflect.” And so I did.

The current situation in the world and how it is developing mean that there will be no over-the-board tournaments in the near (or even mid-term) future. Simply nobody will allow (or want to be part of) big gatherings like the usual open tournaments. But even when the measures are finally lifted, how many organisers will still have the funds and the enthusiasm to organise tournaments again? Not many.

(Please note that I’m not talking about the elite players. For them there will always be an OTB tournament to play, for understandable reasons.)

With no OTB tournaments in sight, the temptation is big to make everything online. Official tournaments, rating, norms, long-control games, all goes online. We adapt to the current situation.

While it is true that chess can easily played online, we must understand that in the majority of cases this play is purely for fun or entertainment. In such cases nothing matters so much. The problems start if we start to take online chess seriously.

There are two major problems when it comes to taking online chess seriously: cheating and “divine intervention”, i.e. disconnecting.

A lot has been written about prevention of online cheating. The chess platforms have their own systems and algorithms they wield with little mercy. The principle is “decision without explanation” as no proof is ever given when somebody is “caught cheating.”

Then there are cosmetic methods like cameras showing the faces of the players and their screens from front, from back, from side. I guess better something than nothing.

The bottom line is that cheating online cannot be prevented, it can only be punished. So if the punishment is draconian perhaps the potential cheaters will think twice before attempting it. Perhaps. This will depend on what they have to lose. Of course, a few innocents will die in the process, but that is the price of progress.

What to do with the second aspect, the force majeure called “disconnect” is unclear. Not everybody in the world has stable internet and even though gens una sumus, not all connections have been created equal. The repercussions of this aspect can be far-fetched and sometimes life-changing for the players (imagine winning a big prize or qualification and then a disconnect happens two moves before mate).

So let’s imagine now all official tournaments go online. The games are rated with FIDE ratings, norms can be achieved. Cheating is punished severely, (innocent?!) people complain but they are forced to accept the decisions, it will be in the regulations. Players from all over the world get their ratings, make norms, become Grandmasters, earn prizes. Everybody is happy.

The question now is, will anybody want to play OTB chess again? How many players will want to fork out airfares, hotels and other expenses to travel to play tournaments when they can do it for free from home?

Is going online completely really such a blessing for chess? Or is it the end of it?

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Now What?

As I wrote in my Preview, the Candidates unfortunately did not finish. Or is it perhaps fortunately?

In this post I will give my thoughts on the whole mess that started before the tournament and is still ongoing after its postponement.

In a world that was rapidly shutting down FIDE decided to go ahead with its flagship tournament. It ran against common sense yet they insisted. The mantra they kept repeating “it’s only a 8-player tournament” was simply not true, if not insulting – it implied that there were only 8 people that needed to be protected. What about all the other persons who were present and working there to make sure the tournament was running “smoothly”?

Why did FIDE insist against common sense and strong opinions from the public and recommendations of institutions like the WHO? Why it didn’t mind that one of the participants withdrew and another publicly stated that the tournament should not have taken place? They said they couldn’t postpone the tournament “legally or practically.” Again, this turned out to be untrue, especially after the Russian government issued a statement to stop all international events from the 16 of March and FIDE’s reply that that didn’t apply to the Candidates because they started on the 15 of March (which was arrivals day, with Round 1 on the 17 of March).

I think there are two main reasons for FIDE’s behaviour: financial and moral.

The financial reason is that FIDE needs the money from the World Championship cycle. The cherry on the cake is the World Championship match. FIDE announced that they agreed to hold the match in Dubai in December. But you need two players for a match and one of them is the winner of the Candidates. No Candidates, no match. No match, no money.

The moral reason is “we promised, we delivered”. Even some heroics is implied, “we delivered against all odds.” Fair enough, they kept their word (if we accept that 50% of the tournament is indeed “delivered”), but to insist in times of a black swan force majeure where some flexibility would have been much more prudent would have sent a much better message to the public. And would have done wonders for their reputation.

There are world-class Grandmasters and very intelligent people in FIDE and I don’t think that they failed to “calculate” the development of the world’s events that led to what we are seeing now. They were running out of time, so they took their chance with the event, pushed through and hoped they get at least to half of the tournament. The risk paid off.

With half the tournament played FIDE now is safe. They insist that the Candidates will be resumed but I don’t think that matters anymore. If it’s impossible to resume, due to the world situation or any other reason, they can still proclaim a winner from these 7 rounds (Vachier) and the match is on. Of course, there will be outrage, but legally everything will be right: the tournament results are valid as long as 50% of the games have been played. They will have delivered the cycle and the match.

(I don’t want to go into discussing the implications when a tournament is split in 2 parts with unknown time between them, disrupting the whole dynamics of the tournament. It’s a different story altogether, again not ending well for FIDE).

If what I say above is true, then it’s evident that all this has been about FIDE’s interests and nothing else. I for one love to see orderly World Championship cycle and calendar of events, but if the Olympiad, with its decades of history could be postponed, I don’t see why the World Championship cycle could not. The explanation that at the time the tournament started the situation was different is pure demagogy. It’s the same as a Grandmaster evaluating a position without calculating a few moves ahead.

The situation with the players is also an interesting one. There were two, Radjabov and Wang Hao, who expressed their concerns before the event – Radjabov even acted upon them and withdrew. There was Grischuk who openly said during the tournament that he didn’t want to be there and play, the atmosphere being “sick”. There was Caruana who in an interview said that it’s impossible not to follow what’s happening in the world. There was Nepomniachtchi who really got sick (though not from corona). There was Ding Liren who played awfully and didn’t say a word about his quarantines. There was Alekseenko, who is sponsored by a Russian company and couldn’t say anything. And there were Giri and Vachier who basically said they didn’t care and were concentrated solely on themselves. It’s interesting that even Magnus Carlsen expressed a similar view – the world may be falling apart, but you’re there to play and win, so do that. Get rich or die trying I suppose.

This is nothing new in the chess world. Every man for himself. I wonder what would have happened had they coordinated before the tournament. Perhaps finally we would have had “power to the players”? But we will never have that.

Radjabov’s decision to withdraw was justified in hindsight, but that is a different can of worms with no solution that is acceptable for all. I wonder how FIDE and the public will handle that one.

Chess, as the whole world, is now on hold. There will be no Olympiad this year and it’s hard to say whether there will be anything really. Perhaps the World Championship match in December? Let’s see. As the Chinese would say, we are truly living in interesting times.

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Candidates 2020 – A Preview

The Candidates Tournament is my favourite one. It’s not just another super-strong round-robin, here everything is at stake and the pressure is sky high. The players try to rise to their best and show what they are capable of when it matters most.

I wanted to write this preview for quite some time but then life happened – the world suffered a huge disruption and other things became more important than chess. Even more so, I wasn’t even sure the tournament will take place.

Now we can see that the tournament will start. Will it finish? Nobody knows. The whole atmosphere of fear, uncertainty, increased tension (as it wasn’t enough) makes me much less enthusiastic about it. That includes writing this preview.

There are so many unknowns. How will the world situation affect the players (it’s already known how it affected two of them – Radjabov withdrew, Wang Hao publicly said he would rather not be there), will they think of their families in Paris or China, what if they receive news that one of them got sick, how will they handle the new situation, what if somebody gets sick in the hotel, what if one of the players gets sick, what if one or more of the players start coughing and sneezing (deliberately or not)…?

If it were up to me, I would have erred on the side of caution. When I play chess I want to be at peace. Botvinnik couldn’t play without inner peace. And what inner peace are we talking about when the whole world is in turmoil? Why even put the players in such a situation, to play under those conditions? Even if you can isolate the tournament hall, you cannot isolate the people as long as they live on this planet.

So this preview is not going to be the same as the previous ones (Moscow 2016 and Berlin 2018), which I must admit I loved writing. This time I will limit myself to some observations about the players and what I think is interesting about them.

I won’t be very original in saying that I think that the winner be either Caruana or Ding Liren. They are a bit higher than the rest in class.

Caruana is a regular winner of elite events, he won 2 years ago in Berlin. He has a good chance to become the fifth player in history to win the candidates cycle two times, joining Smyslov, Spassky, Korchnoi and Anand in that feat. What I am curious about Caruana is whether he will go back to his trusted Petroff Defence. After it served him perfectly in Berlin and in the match with Carlsen, Caruana practically abandoned his trusted weapon, for no apparent reason. But perhaps that was all part of the plan – he wanted to keep it for Yekaterinburg, not showing the ideas he still had in store. He meddled with the Sveshnikov and the French among the other openings he chose against 1 e4, but a trusted opening with Black you can rely on is a must in such an event. Berlin showed it (where he won two games in it, against Kramnik and Grischuk). So, will we see the return of the Petroff in Russia?

Ding Liren rose to the current stature last year. He added tournament victories to his already established consistency. The win in the Sinquefield Cup where he beat Carlsen in the play-off showed that he can win any tournament. He also won the Grand Chess Tour, by beating Vachier in the final. In Berlin 2018 he won 1 game and drew the rest, his unbeaten streak of 100 games is a clear indication how difficult is to beat him. With the work he did in the preparation for the tournament he will definitely add more punch to his repertoire and if he takes advantage of these opening ideas he can win a few games and if he remains unbeaten he can easily win the tournament.

I put Vachier, Grischuk and Giri in the same category. I don’t think they can win it, but they do have an outside chance.

Vachier is the wild card (if you remember the letter to Alekseenko you will understand the pun) and wild cards usually do well. Karpov and Goryachkina won the cycles after being unexpectedly included in them. After failing to qualify by all possible criteria (finishing eternally second) Vachier was given a gift. He must be out-of-his-mind happy and this will compensate for the lack of preparation. In my opinion if he is to stand a chance he has to do what I have kept writing about him – to add another opening to his trusted Najdorf and Grunfeld. Has he worked on that problem in the meantime? If yes, this is the perfect chance to show it. We will soon find out.

Grischuk will be my favourite player in the field. I cannot wait to see his opening ideas and press-conferences (if they happen). Always entertaining on and off the board if everything really falls in place for him he can just arrive first at the finish line. It’s a tournament in peculiar conditions and I have a feeling he can adapt to these well. What can be a problem for him is that if he stays long enough in the pack he can push too hard like he did against Mamedyarov in the penultimate round in Berlin and drop out. This means he will give his best and this is something to look forward to.

Giri is too social-media oriented and this hurts his chess, whether he acknowledges this or not. Draws, jokes, this is affecting him because the ego can easily be hurt on social media. And he hurts, even though he doesn’t admit it. Perhaps one day he understands this, shuts down his accounts and shows what he’s capable of. Because he’s a great talent, works extremely hard, his preparation is fantastic as is his technique. His play has become sharper since the infamous 14-draw Moscow Candidates and I don’t see him repeating the result. Still, I feel there is something missing in his psyche to win, not only here, but elite tournaments in general. Perhaps Shakespeare was right, “What’s in a name?” Giri in Japanese means “duty, obligation, burden of obligation, to serve one’s superiors with a self-sacrificing devotion” and with such a surname it is impossible to imagine him a winner.

The remaining players are Nepomniachtchi, Alekseenko and Wang Hao.

Wang Hao already said he’d rather not play now. This is a double-edged statement. Sometimes it works wonders when you give your heart and soul and want to win and be nowhere else; sometimes it’s the other way round – by playing through obligation and not by your own will you take away all the tension and pressure and you’re free to play your best. The key question with Wang Hao will be to see which way it will go for him. If things click and he plays his best in spite of not wanting to be there, he can be a big surprise, especially as very few people expect him to be one.

Nepomniachtchi is a true dark horse. He can score big in both directions. Consistency has always been the key for him, the problem being that it has never lasted for too long. He is also prone to getting pissed off (to go on a tilt as it is popular to say nowadays) and there will be plenty of reasons to be pissed off in Yekaterinburg, both on and off the board. In a long tournament it will be difficult to keep composure at all times, but let’s see if he’s matured. It will be interesting to see his ideas in the Najdorf and Grunfeld, just like Vachier.

Alekseenko is the player with the least pressure to perform. A very likeable fellow (I met him in Gibraltar this year) he is composed and very much aware of his ability. The rumour has it that he has Svidler as his second and this will be huge for him, to have somebody as experienced as Svidler to guide him through a long and difficult tournament. The openings will be important for him as his opening repertoire isn’t as reliable as the one of the other players, but he prepared so I am actually looking forward to seeing new ideas from him like the a4-a5 idea in the Giuoco Piano he introduced at the World Cup where he beat Harikrishna and put Ding Liren under severe pressure.

The tournament starts tomorrow. Let’s wish everybody good luck.

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The Draws in Jerusalem

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Choice of Openings

I like to think about chess. All aspects of it, whether they are psychology, plans in a certain type of position, openings, endgames, ways to study.

I have written before about certain puzzling moments from chess history that I will probably never know the reason for, like why Fischer chose 1 e4 d6 2 d4 g6 in Game 17 of his match with Spassky in 1972, allowing a King’s Indian. He didn’t play a King’s Indian in the first half of the match when Spassky played 1 d4, so why did he allow it in the late phase of the match (and why did Spassky not take that opportunity)?

These opening choices in the matches have always been fascinating to me, especially when they were out of the ordinary repertoires of the players. I have always wanted to know the reasons why the players chose those openings.

While I have my own opinions on these choices, no matter how deeply-thought they may be, only the players themselves can give the complete answer. From the recent chess history, two questions have been on my mind for quite some time:

  1. Why did Nigel Short play the QGA in his match against Karpov in 1992? He never played the QGA before that and very rarely after that match.
  2. Why did Garry Kasparov think the Dragon was a good choice against Anand in 1995? Similarly, why did he think the QGA was a good choice against Kramnik in 2000?

Luckily, the protagonists of these matches are still alive and well, and even more fortunately I had a chance to meet them and ask them these questions.

A bit more than a year ago, in the VIP room of the Carlsen-Caruana match I had a chance to ask Nigel Short about his match with Karpov. There were other GMs present and they were also curious to know Nigel’s reasons.

I was expecting a reply based on deep analysis of the QGA and the positions arising from them, resulting in understanding that these do not suit Karpov’s style. However, the answer was much simpler and a lot more practical.

Nigel said that he chose the QGA because that was the only opening that did not feature in any of Karpov’s previous World Championship matches. As simple as that!

He said that Karpov probably hadn’t analysed the QGA in the same depth as the QGD (which was Short’s main opening back then) and the others that were at his disposal. This answer was illuminating of sorts, as it showed how Nigel approached one of the most important matches in his career – in a practical way, yet armed with excellent novelties in all the QGA games in that match!

[On a sidenote, I didn’t ask him about the choice of the Budapest Gambit in Game 1 of that match. The next time I see him I will.]

A bit more than a week ago I was in Monaco for the European Women Rapid and Blitz tournament and during the event the first European Chess Awards ceremony took place. One of the winners was Garry Kasparov.

During the gala there was a lot of socialising and Garry was in the centre of attention all the time. I didn’t think I would get a chance to talk to him.

But suddenly, at one point later in the evening I noticed him outside of the hall posing for a selfie. I recognised my chance and approached him. He didn’t seem too happy to be bothered, but when I asked my chess-related question he sort of showed interest.

In view of the positive atmosphere of the ceremony I decided to skip the part on the Kramnik match, not to bring unpleasant memories back and I just asked about the Dragon and Anand.

Surprisingly, the answer was very similar to Short’s. Kasparov said that while checking Anand’s games he noticed that he wasn’t very comfortable playing against the Dragon and that his results there weren’t very good. Therefore he took the practical decision to prepare this opening. Again, a very practical approach!

My own take on the use of the Dragon was a bit different. I thought that since Kasparov expected Anand to limit him a-la Karpov, which he did rather successfully in the 6 Be2 lines of the Najdorf that transposed to the Scheveningen after 6…e6, just like in the first two matches with Karpov, he needed a weapon to break the grip. In the Dragon the only theoretical way for White to play for an advantage are the lines with long castle where a super-sharp battle ensues. (This is especially true for the mid-90s when the lines with 9 0-0-0 instead of the Yugoslav attack with 9 Bc4 weren’t that prominent yet. Nowadays White successfully curbs Black’s attack after 9 0-0-0 d5 10 Qe1.) Anand would be surprised and unwilling to enter the sharp territory knowing that Kasparov would be excellently prepared and this would give Kasparov a tremendous practical advantage. The match proved that my thoughts were not far from the truth, which did feel satisfying.

Kasparov also mentioned that once he got “wind” in Game 10 he decided it was time to use the secret weapon in Game 11 and the rest, as they say, is history. He turned the match around and never looked back.

It was great to talk to the legends and ask these questions. It broadens my chess understanding when discussing chess with these players who have been the best in the world ever since I started playing the game! I was happy to have my curiosity satisfied, but I still have a few more questions prepared, just waiting for the next occasion!

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Match Strategy

I write this in the deserted Holiday Village Hotel where yesterday the European Club Cup finished. I am the last man standing as all the participants have left and the whole hotel resort looks like a ghost town.

I was the captain of the women team Caissa Pentole Agnelli. Unfortunately we didn’t have a good tournament. We missed our big chance in the penultimate round, when playing the lower-rated team from Maribor we had superior or just winning positions on all 4 boards and yet managed only 2-2. Had we won we would have shared 2nd place going into the last round with everything to play for. But it wasn’t meant to be.

In this post I would like to explain my reasoning and strategy I had for one of the clutch matches that happened as early as Round 2. We played last-year’s champions and this year runner-ups, the team from Monaco. Last year they destroyed us, in spite of having good positions on all boards, so this year I wanted us to be more cautious.

On Board 1 we had Sarasadat Khademalsharieh, the Iranian superstar, facing Humpy Koneru. Sara is a sound positional player who prefers technical positions so we thought that simply playing her lines and the positions she obtains from them would suit her well. Bearing in mind that in team competitions it is usually considered that a draw with Black is good, we didn’t expect that Koneru would try for more, so I felt safe on that board – some pressure if it happens, if not, then a draw without a risk. And that is exactly what happened.

On Board 2 we had Pia Cramling against Elisabeth Paehtz. The board pairings from Board 2 to 4 were exactly the same as the previous year, when we lost all 3. I didn’t mind that, since I knew that our players were good and what happened last year was a mid-match collapse that will not happen again.

Lisa again played the Slav against Cramling and this time it wasn’t an Exchange, but the line with 4 Qb3. We expected it, and Lisa was well-prepared to obtain a solid and safe position. This year I wanted her to keep it solid, as last year she went for complications when the match started going wrong and lost. After a lucky blunder by Lisa on move 18, meaning that taking the exchange led to some positional compensation, which Cramling declined to take advantage of, the game was uneventful and we drew safely.

On Board 3 Olga Zimina was facing Monika Socko. Olga lost an atrocious game last year with White, being ouplayed in an equal endgame from the English Opening, so this year I wanted something more “central.” We decided upon the Catalan, with the fresh idea of 7 Be3, as in the game Caruana-Anand and also some others as our opening surprise. But Socko avoided it by playing 6…c5 before 6…a6, so it transposed back to the usual lines. We didn’t get anything out of the opening there, but I was happy with the resulting position as I knew Olga wouldn’t get in any danger. She pressed a little, but Socko defended well and the game was drawn.

On Board 4 Deimante Daulyte-Cornette was playing Marina Brunello. This was the board where I expected a more dynamic fight, as it fits Marina’s style. In an expected Najdorf we thought that the resulting positions would be to Marina’s liking where we fancied our chances. I was influenced by last year’s game where Marina got a great position in the Najdorf and outplayed her opponent, only to lose after trying to win too hard and blundering once the match turned bad for us.

However, on this board we ran into some preparation by our opponents. White played the fresh idea by Vachier-Lagrave, the move 8 Bg5 in the fianchetto Najdorf that he used to beat Wei Yi in the recent FIDE Grand Prix in Hamburg. We didn’t particularly prepare for it, so it was a surprise, but I thought that since Marina plays the Najdorf all her life she would find a good reaction to it. It turned out this wasn’t so easy.

We practically lost without a fight after Marina couldn’t find an appropriate reaction to the dangeous threats. This game decided the match and we lost 2.5-1.5.

We lost because we got caught in the opening and our own opening surprise didn’t materialise. After the match I was thinking whether our strategy was sound. In view of last year’s encounter it was definitely an improvement and we didn’t collapse, the match was under control except for Board 4. Perhaps we could have prepared better there, but it is difficult to prepare everything (and on 4 boards too!).

Eventually the match strategy to keep it solid on the first three boards, having in mind our players’ stylistic preferences and the opponents we were facing, and have a dynamic fight on the last one, where we had an excellent Sicilian player, backfired. Normally we are always well-prepared in the openings, but this time we got caught and that caused us the match. If that didn’t happen perhaps the strategy would have justified itself, who knows. For me, the lesson to learn is to prepare better when more is at stake on a single board.

The second ECC where I am coaching the same team was another great learning experience. Every match and the preparation for it is a valuable insight into the nuances of team competitions. I enjoy this type of work, devising a strategy for the match, starting with who plays, analysing our and our opponents’ repertoires, deciding what to play and then seeing it all unravel in the playing hall is very exciting. I do get frustrated because of the fact that I am only an observer once the match starts, but that is the nature of the captain’s work.

In the end, I would like to thank my players Sara, Lisa, Olga, Marina and Elena for their efforts. We did what we could and hopefully the third attempt, next year in Austria, will be a charm!

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Snapshots from the European Club Cup 2019

As I already said in my last post, I am currently in Ulcinj, Montenegro, for the European Club Cup. I am coaching the Italian women team of Caissa Pentole Agnelli, just like last year.

So far the tournament is going turbulently for us, we have won 3 matches and lost 2. With two rounds to go there is everything to play for, though it has to be admitted that the first place is almost certainly out of reach.

In today’s Round 5 I noticed quite a few crazy games that I wanted to share. I don’t know if it’s the constant storms with strong winds and rain that (finally) affected the players so they started to play in stormy ways, but the fact remains – today’s games were quite crazy. You can see for yourselves below.

Saric-Suleymanly, after 51 Bg8.

The engine displays 0.00 in this totally irrational position with 5 pawns for the rook. It reminds me of the famous Game 13 of the match Spassky-Fischer. In both games the side with the pawns won after the side with the rook missed a draw.

Zimina-Djukic, here White played 28 g4!

The above position was from our match. In a crazy game White took on g7 with the queen and continued to play for mate before taking back the material. Eventually Black resigned before being mated.

Velikic-Pogonina, after 27 f4

Another position where White is a rook down for some vague compensation. In fact here Black took on f4 and proved that the compensation was non-existent.

My time here is very restricted: after waking up in the morning the board pairings come out, after which we start preparation; then lunch, after lunch there is approximately one hour before we go to play; after the match it’s dinner time, then the team pairings come out after which we have a short team meeting to discuss the next match. When all this is finished, it’s already time for a short stroll or bed.

I even wonder how I found the time to write this post!

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