Category : Tournaments

Perfect Coincidence

Those are the words that GM Chuchelov used to describe Caruana’s performance in the Sinquefield Cup. Chuchelov is a long-time coach of Caruana and he could not have been more succinct.

In order to achieve such a result against opposition consisting exclusively of top-10 players a lot of things must fall into place: the openings, the mental set-up (both of the player himself and that of the opponents), the small (and big) decisions during the game.

Breaking it down on a game-to-game basis, Caruana had it look smooth from the very beginning. Topalov, who showed fine form at the Olympiad by winning gold medal on board 1, went too aggressive and Caruana’s solid position soaked up the pressure and busted the Bulgarian on the counterattack. In round 2 “things started to fall into place” as he won the game in his preparation when Vachier missed the best defence in a Caro Kann. Then it was Carlsen’s turn to make it look as if points were falling to Caruana from the sky – his odd opening led him to trouble, but then in the mess that followed Caruana showed that he also fully deserved those points: fantastic calculation and control won him the game. Another strong opening idea against Aronian (15 Na2!) followed by forceful play netted another point. Nakamura didn’t get anything as white in a Slav and Caruana outplayed him thoroughly – another sign that the quality of his moves was way above the others’. Then another strong opening idea against Topalov followed by forceful play – the same scenario as against Aronian. A surprise choice of the QGD against Vachier (instead of his usual Grunfeld) signified that he was happy to play it safe, but that didn’t mean he was ready to draw just yet – Vachier’s weird play at the beginning of the middlegame was duly punished and we got to the historical 7/7.

To generalise, Caruana’s play followed a pattern – excellent opening play (either obtaining advantage – Vachier from round 2, Aronian, Topalov from round 6, or simply a good and solid position – Topalov from round 1, Carlsen, Nakamura, Vachier from round 7) followed by accurate and aggressive play afterwards. A rather sensible game plan, easy to define, almost impossible to execute, the latter part especially. There is no secret behind Caruana’s result, we all know what should be done, it’s just that the doing part is so hard. And doing means playing moves of the highest quality, all the time. Every single move should be of the highest quality. Fantastic preparation plus moves of the highest quality plus, and here lies the difference, the opponent’s failure to keep it up with those moves (mind you, every day a different opponent, all of them incredibly strong players capable of coming up with moves of the highest quality, cracking on the exact day when they played Caruana – this is the ultimate luck in chess) led to this result.

Caruana continued with strong play against Carlsen in round 8 and was close to winning there as well, but his previous game with Vachier showed that he was already happy to slow things down, as if he subconsciously didn’t believe he can win more (he even said something similar in the press conference, that he would have been happy with a draw in that game). The missed elementary win against Nakamura further convinced me of this and he also drew with Aronian in the last round, making a no less historic 8.5/10. Caruana wrote history in this tournament and the expectations of his future results are even higher now.

I noted a difference between Carlsen now and one year ago. Back then he was focused, accurate and very technical, with solid openings and all ready to go at Anand in Chennai. This year, starting with the Olympiad he was choosing strange openings in some games: Scandinavian against Caruana and Bird’s Spanish against Saric with black and Closed Sicilian against Wojtaszek and a peculiar treatment of the Slav against Solak as white. Here his white opening against Caruana from round 3 was pretty bad while with black the Maroczy against the same Caruana and the Steinitz Deferred in the Spanish against Nakamura also raised my eyebrows. I suppose it is an attempt to get some training in different positions. I think that he expects Anand to go for sharper stuff in the match, so he uses these as a way to get more practice in complex positions. He is no stranger to this (remember the Chigorin against Kramnik in London 2010?) but he largely abandoned that practice in the last few years. Another thing I noticed is that he started making mistakes in technical positions – missing a win against Naiditsch at the Olympiad and Aronian in round 9 and allowing Vachier to escape with a draw in round 6. Until these two tournaments this was something unheard of, he was winning more drawn positions than the one he got against Vachier. He did, however, win a good technical game against Aronian with black, so things are not that terrible for him. Alekhine said that technique is nerves, so Carlsen probably needs to do some calming down before his match with Anand.

Of the rest of the field Topalov was a pleasant surprise. After starting with 0/2, with that horrible loss against Aronian in round 2 I expected him to collapse and he was on the verge of it – he was close to losing in round 3 against Nakamura! Luckily for him, Nakamura turned out to be in an even worse shape and Topalov went on to win the game – this obviously gave him a lot of positive energy and confidence and in spite of losing to Caruana again (due to a very strong novelty by the winner) he went on to beat Vachier and Nakamura in fine style. It’s obvious though that he stands no chance in the fight for the title (or for victory in tournaments of this kind), he’s way too unstable and this year’s Candidates clearly showed his weaknesses. He’s also noted this himself in recent interviews, but his play is always exciting and his openings always full with fresh ideas.

Aronian continues his freefall after the Candidates. I thought his +3 at the Olympiad got him out of the hole, but it happened to be just a happy interlude in an otherwise gloomy year. After the lucky win against Topalov in round 2 he lost 3 in a row, something so rare that I wonder if it’s not the first time that has happened to him. Another rare thing is seeing him below the 2800-mark – at the age of 31 (32 in October) Aronian enters a critical phase of his career – the young players (mainly Caruana, but don’t forget the likes of Giri, Rapport, Wei Yi…) are coming and his chances of a successful assault on the throne are diminishing. It has always been psychological with him, I just wonder why he hasn’t managed to resolve that issue by now.

Vachier finished on -2 and it was a mixed experience for him. He had his highs – beating Aronian, but he also had his lows – the white game against Caruana (14 Qa4, 15 g3), the evaluation mistake in the Najdorf against Topalov, the unlucky opening disaster in the black game against Caruana. Overall a useful experience for the Frenchman, one that he will try to build upon if he is to progress further up the ladder.

Nakamura finished on -4 and played badly. His Olympiad wasn’t great either and after the missed win against Topalov in round 2 his tournament went downhill. It’s curious how one game can send the players in totally opposite directions – Topalov went on to play well and finish 3rd, Nakamura went down and lost 3 more games. The worst of them was his black game with Carlsen, when he misplayed the opening and was losing on move 10. He could have lost one more game, if Caruana didn’t miss an easy win in round 9.

From my experience, there are four types of chessplayers:

1. those motivated by their problematic personal lives;
2. those depressed by their problematic personal lives;
3. those motivated by their calm and harmonious personal lives and
4. those whose calm and harmonious personal lives take away their competitive edge and make them mushy.

It’s known that Nakamura found his dolce vita in his private life in Naples, Italy. Judging from his latest results he seems to fall into category 4. And that is a problem.

Next up on the calendar is the European Club Cup in Bilbao, the Grand Prix events and the World Championship match in November. It will be an autumn to remember!

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Struga and Saint Louis

I have never been to Saint Louis, while I have been in Struga countless times, but I don’t think these two places have much in common. However, at the end of August both these places will host a chess tournament, albeit of quite a different kind.

Starting on Monday the Macedonia Open will start in Struga. Generally a local tournament with a modest prize fund (although with an increase from last year) this tournament rarely has more than 30-40 participants. Usually I play elsewhere in this period, Bratto in Italy being my preference in the last couple of years, but this year due to the Olympiad and the failure to agree conditions with other tournaments abroad (like Trieste, Cesenatico and Imperia) I decided to take part.

Saint Louis hosts a tournament of a different kind. It starts on Wednesday with only 6 participants, but their names are pretty familiar – Carlsen, Aronian, Caruana, Nakamura, Topalov and Vachier-Lagrave. A double round-robin with a serious prize fund of $315 000. It’s one of those tournament that we all look forward to. It will be tricky to blog about it while playing myself, but I will definitely be paying attention to the games played.

The World Champion is a hot favourite in every event he participates and this time even more so, after his shaky play in the second half of the Olympiad. Aronian and especially Caruana will try to cause an upset, while I expect Topalov and Vachier to be the tail enders. The local player Nakamura should be somewhere in between – the expectations of his nation are high but his dolce vita in Italy is yet to produce good chess results.

You can follow the Struga tournament on the chess results page http://www.chess-results.com/tnr142153.aspx?lan=1 currently with an updated list of players, while the Saint Louis tournament’s home page is http://www.uschesschamps.com/node/499

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Dortmund 2014 – Rounds 5-7

Back from the Macedonian League, where my team won the title (while my result was mediocre, I compensated for that by drawing the crucial game that secured the title) I can now take a look at the last 3 rounds of the Dortmund tournament.

Caruana easily survived his clash with Kramnik without too many problems and then cruised on to win the tournament after winning one more game, against Adams in round 6. An impressive result for Caruana, who scored 100% with white, won a 7-round tournament with 1.5 point margin, crossed the 2800-mark on the live list and reached number 3 in the world!

In his game with Kramnik, he chose Smyslov’s move 6…b6 in the Fianchetto Grunfeld (almost never played nowadays) and solved his opening problems easily. The structure resembled the Exchange Slav and with patient play Caruana exchanged almost all pieces and drew, something he definitely welcomed after 2 losses in a row with black against Kramnik.

Leko beat Naiditsch in a structure with fixed centre where white had the better bishop. A very smooth and impressive performance by Leko and a game that wasn’t decided by a direct blunder – quite a rarity these days! The game reminded me of the Botvinnik-Petrosian, 14th game from their 1963 match, even though there white had a knight vs bishop, but the manner of slowly improving the position was very similar.

Ponomariov got some advantage in the popular (in this tournament) Breyer against Baramidze (they followed Spassky-Karpov, 10th game of their 1974 Candidates match until move 20) and after the latter’s inexplicable 22…Re7 won the pawn on e5. I’m pretty sure the Ponomariov of old would have wrapped things up from that moment, but what followed was a game full of missed opportunities for Ponomariov. Eventually the German saved the game, something the Germans really enjoy doing!

Meier must have been surprised by the first-ever Slav by Adams and he got outplayed in the middlegame as when the position opened up the king safety and pawn weaknesses were more important than the bishop pair. Adams missed a good chance before the time control (36…Rd4 would have been strong) and after that the German managed to save the game. Nothing surprising there.

In round 6 Caruana secured his victory in the tournament by beating last year’s winner Adams with white in the Berlin. A white win in the Berlin is a rare occurence in modern play (a black win even rarer), but it’s interesting to note that the structure and the piece arrangement (knight and bishop vs a pair of bishops) was very similar to Caruana’s win against Carlsen from the Gashimov Memorial. It’s obvious that this is the type of position black Berlin players must try to avoid, yet Adams was somehow tricked into it! Far from it being lost, it’s just unpleasant, as Adams had better ways of playing, but the fact that he didn’t find them and ended up losing convincingly shows the dangers the position holds for black.

Baramidze and Meier played a well-known drawing line in the Catalan. Nothing much to add there.

Naiditsch beat Ponomariov, who tried to improve upon his rapid game with Karjakin from 2013. His improvement of 18…Nh5 brought him acceptable play, however the game was decided by a blunder by Ponomariov on move 28, when he should have retaken with the other knight on c5, keeping control of the e5-square. Games are almost always lost because of blunders (that’s why I was impressed by Leko’s win against Naiditsch from the previous round) and this one was no exception. After missing a win in the previous round the punishment came swiftly for Ponomariov.

Kramnik tried his latest pet-move 4 e3 move against Leko’s Queen’s Indian, but got nowhere with it. (He also used 4 e3 against Aronian’s Queen’s Gambit in the Candidates.) In a symmetrical position pieces were exchanged systematically, leading to an expected draw.

The last round saw Leko draw Caruana in one of the most fashionable Berlin deviations, not a very exciting game where the result suited both players perfectly.

Adams repetead the line Ponomariov used against Baramidze and the latter deviated on move 18 by playing 18…h6. Once more he allowed the exchange on c5, only this time he didn’t blunder a pawn. I don’t know what positives he saw after this exchange as I really don’t like the look of those doubled pawns on c4 and c5, plus white’s protected passed pawn on d5, plus white’s initiative on the queenside. The comp finds an amazing resource for black on move 25, 25…h4 26 Nf1 and now 26…Bd5, sacrificing a piece for 2 pawns. A very tricky thing to see and decide upon in a practical game where you don’t think drastic measures are necessary. But on that very move Baramidze sacrificed a pawn (or perhaps just gave it away, as there wasn’t any compensation for it) and went down unceremoniously. The win brought Adams his first win and a 50% score, while this was Baramidze’s 3rd loss.

Naiditsch chose a dubious line (14…dc) in the KID against Meier and as it’s usually the case he backed it up with some computer analysis. But that didn’t change the verdict that the position was dubious! Meier got a big advantage and yet in a complicated and unknown position he let it slip several times. A fluctuating complex endgame came down to a position with a rook and 3 pawns each plus opposite coloured bishops. Naiditsch was still the one who had to look for the draw and he was very close, but on move 50, instead of 50…c3 he chose 50…Rd4 and after 51 Kc3 white got a blockading king with a strong passed pawn on the a-file. He put both to good use and there were no more chances for Naiditsch. This win brought Meier to shared 2nd, possibly the biggest success in his career.

Ponomariov chose the same Berlin deviation Leko chose against Caruana, but instead of the usual drawing lines Kramnik chose the more complex 7…Nf5, something he chose against Kobalia in the World Cup. They followed the recent Guseinov-Malakhov game from the World Rapid Championship and Kramnik introduced the new 11…Nce7. He got a good game, as he usually does after the opening and his play in the middlegame was also quite strong, managing to put pressure on Ponomariov. But somewhere around move 25 he lost the plot and suddenly lost the pawn on e4. This time Ponomariov wrapped things up (perhaps after 6 games he finally got the necessary practice?!), leaving Kramnik with a miserable -2 score.

After the tournament I read a tweet by Eljanov, who said he was sorry for Kramnik and this is an alarming sign for Big Vlad. The strong never evoke pity, they evoke fear. And if Kramnik starts to evoke pity, that means that people don’t fear him as he’s not strong anymore… And coming down to 2760 and number 10 on the live list plus a third (Candidates and Stavanger being the other 2) bad tournament in a row – something is definitely going on with the former world champion! All this makes me eager to see how he reacts to all these setbacks at the Olympiad, where I don’t expect his undisputed status of number 1 player in the Russian team will be affected.

The Dortmund tournament is another one in the string of recent tournaments where a young player wins it without giving a chance to the older participants. From the supertournaments this year only the Candidates was won by a player from another generation, everything else was won by Aronian (Wijk) Carlsen (Zurich, Gashimov Memorial), Karjakin (Stavanger) and Caruana (Dortmund) and if you count the ACP Bergamo, Wesley So. The domination of these players is already obvious and So is firmly on his way to the Top 10. We’re witnessing a change of generations and these are the players who will dominate in the foreseeable future. Since their chess is very exciting, I don’t really mind that!

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Dortmund 2014 – Rounds 3&4

I couldn’t write in the previous days due to my own (long) games in the Macedonian league. But today I finally won (and quickly at that) so I can take a look at what happened in Dortmund.

In my last post I wrote “Tomorrow Kramnik plays Baramidze…” without realising that the relaxed people of Dortmund gave the players a free day after only 2 rounds! And it’s a 7-round event! And they have another free day after the 4th round! Some people really have it easy… but at least they will play 3 games in a row in the last 3 rounds. That should tire them and push them to the limit!

So Kramnik eventually did play Baramidze a day after my prediction and again failed to win from a winning position. He outplayed a 2600-rated player in a nice fashion, but didn’t win. A lot of things happening to Kramnik which I cannot recall happening to him before – not winning with two pawns up, not winning against a 2600-rated player, losing (with white!) after being utterly outplayed by a 2630-rated player. It’s obvious this is something psychological and only the man himself knows what exactly it is. What’s more worrying is that at the live ratings he’s at number 10, probably his lowest ever since he entered the elite in the mid-90s. This puts him at risk of missing qualification to the next Candidates based on rating, but maybe he doesn’t care about the Candidates any longer?!

The other 3 games of Round 3 were all tranquil affairs. Two Berlins, Naiditsch-Caruana and Leko-Adams were typical of the opening, white trying, not achieving anything and agreeing to a draw. In Ponomariov-Meier white didn’t even try to test the Rubinstein French and after mutually correct play it was drawn in a rook endgame.

Round 4 saw Caruana continue his stomping. His game with Meier was what in my mind constitutes a difference in preparation of an elite player and a solid professional of 2630 who knows his openings very well. Meier is very predictable when playing with black, against 1 e4 it’s always the French and Caruana could prepare very deeply. They followed the recent Karjakin-Goganov game from 2013 when Meier introduced a novelty on move 21, a move that didn’t change the position as it was rather static – bishops of opposite colours and heavy pieces without immediate break-throughs for either side. Both players prepared this far and at first sight it was black who had the initiative on the queenside as white was forced to put his rooks on d1 and d2 to cover all the entry points. But once they were covered, it was white who started to advance on the kingside, but without the help of the rooks it was difficult to see how to achieve anything. This was all seen in the Karjakin game and here comes the difference – in order white to try something he has to push f6 and then black has to decide how to react. When preparing you analyse this type of typical moves and reactions to them. It seems that Caruana did analyse them while Meier didn’t. Or perhaps there’s another reason – in the Karjakin-Goganov game, when white pushed f6 black took on f6 and created counterplay after subsequent Qe2 because he managed to exchange one rook before that. Caruana was more precise (by putting the rooks on d2 and d1) as he didn’t allow that exchange. So maybe Meier remembered that Goganov took on f6 and was OK and he did the same without noting the difference? As it was, he took on f6 in a different position and this led him to difficulties and he lost in further 4 moves. A very instructive game from the point of view of deep opening preparation!

Adams missed several wins against Ponomariov and they eventually drew. What puzzles me is Ponomariov’s play – he’s far from his usual standard. It went unnoticed, but for quite some time Ponomariov is no longer part of the elite players who travel from one supertournament to another and this lack of practice with opponents of the highest caliber makes it difficult for him to adjust when he gets the rare chance like now in Dortmund. In the last 2 years (classical chess only) he played the FIDE Grand Prix events, the Ukranian championship, the World Cup, the King’s tournament and the recent Chinese closed tournament – all these events field players of a lower level than the various Wijks, Dortmunds, Bilbaos and Stavangers and even his results in those were +1 in two of the Grand Prix, +4 in the Ukranian championships, -1 in the Paris Grand Prix, -2 at the King’s and +2 in China – not the kind of results I’d expect from him. Constant practice at the highest level is an essential prerequisite for elite chess – just take a look at Caruana, but in order to get it you either need to be a young and exciting new prospect or to have good ties with the organisers. Ponomariov used to be the former some 10 years ago, but as things stand now his time seems to have passed.

Baramidze tested Leko in a Catalan, introducing the new 16 Ne4 instead of the 16 Rac1 from Carlsen-Aronian, Candidates 2013. The new move is the comp’s choice (aren’t they all?) in an equal position and Leko professionally held the draw without many problems.

Naiditsch went into the Berlin against Kramnik, something not many people try these days. Naiditsch’s 13 g3 was new (the comp’s suggestion, again) but as usual in these positions when black’s king is undisturbed on e7 (and later e6) black never had any problems – in fact sometimes he can even try to play for more. White was careful though and they drew on move 47.

My prediction of Caruana winning it are becoming more substantial now that he has a whole point advantage over second-placed Naiditsch. Tomorrow (this time I’m right, it is indeed tomorrow) will be the stiffest test when he’s black against Kramnik. Kramnik won their last two classical encounters, both with white, but which Kramnik will we see tomorrow? The world-beater or the Kramnik from Round 1?
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Dortmund 2014 – Round 2

So Germany always wins. At least in football. And Kramnik doesn’t always win when two pawns up. This more or less sums up today’s day for me as I arrived in Struga for the Macedonian team championship that starts tomorrow.

I noticed that Kramnik’s treatment of the Trompowsky is very different from his usual approach to his black openings (which are very solid and classical). I remember his game with Morozevich from Astana 2001 when he won a classical game (which started with 1 d4 d5 2 Bg5) and that game is in big contrast to his games with Carlsen from the Tal Memorial 2013 and today’s game with Adams. In both these games he went for atypical, double-edged positions with unclear positional imbalances. He deviated from his game with Carlsen with 6…Bc5 and managed to outplay Adams in the complex middlegame. And when he won two pawns I thought he’d just wrap things up, in spite of Adams’s stubborn defence, after all Kramnik has won many less winning positions against the world’s best players. But the Kramnik machine (unlike the German) broke down and he failed to win. It puzzles me what factors are behind the bad play Kramnik showed in the second half of the Stavanger tournament and in the first game here in Dortmund, plus his far-from perfect technique against Adams (he did play well in the middlegame and early endgame to reach a winning position though!) After a disappointment, like the one in the Candidates in Khanty, it’s understandable that a player suffers a dip in form and this is probably a time when Kramnik is considering his future career as a chess player. These thoughts are probably always in the back of his head and prevent him from concentrating fully – this is only my assumption, of course. We won’t know for sure until he gives an interview. However, I have also noticed that there seems to be some sort of silent consensus among the chess journalists not to ask Kramnik questions when he plays badly! So perhaps we can hope that Russia wins the Olympiad and then somebody just remembers to ask him about the first rounds in Dortmund?!
In the meantime Caruana showed that he may have some German origin. He went about his business and in an unassuming yet impressive fashion pushed Ponomariov out of the board in the Petroff, an opening that lost some of its popularity in the last years. In a symmetrical position he slowly outplayed Ponomariov and won with a nice combination. He’s at 2/2 and at the moment I don’t see who can prevent him from winning the tournament – this is both based on his play and the play of the others. It’s still early though, but the tournament has only 7 rounds so not so many games left for the others!
Meier-Leko was a game we see when both players want to draw. In a Catalan and in a very professional manner they reached a dead drawn endgame on move 27.
In the battle of the Germans, Naiditsch won with black against Baramidze. So at least one German lost today! I had the impression that Baramidze started the game with the intention to draw and then possibly got a bit ambitious, by ruining his structure but trying to play with a good knight against a bad bishop. A bishop is a bishop though and Naiditsch created counterplay against white’s weak pawns. It seems that on move 27 Baramidze miscalculated something as he lost a piece 8 moves later, after a forced line. It’s tough to adjust to the level of play of the elite when you’re used to playing people rated 2500-2600 or even lower. That’s why it’s essential for young and upcoming players to enter the elite as soon as possible, so as to get accustomed to this level and it becomes their inherent way of playing. This is one of the factors of Carlsen’s success, but very few get that chance.
Tomorrow Kramnik plays Baramidze and I’m really curious to see what opening he chooses! I’m also playing tomorrow, so it will be business as usual.

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Dortmund 2014 (& ACP Bergamo)

Today was the first round of the Dortmund tournament and it caught me packing for tomorrow’s trip to Struga, where the national team champiohship starts on Monday. Since tonight is the match for 3rd place in the World Cup, I’ll be brief with my comments on the games.

The real shocker was the Kramnik-Meier game. Kramnik won all their 4 previous encounters and there was nothing to suspect that this won’t continue. But Kramnik’s opening choice was rather odd and it all went from bad to worse from there. If I saw the position after move 10, without knowing the names of the players, I would have thought that white was a die-hard King’s Indian player who’s playing a stronger opponent and tries to steer the game to positions he knows. And as it usually happens in these cases, when a weaker player tries to play a closed position against a stronger one, the weaker player got utterly outplayed. Just that in this case the “weaker” player was a former world champion, none other than Kramnik himself, while the “stronger” player had 145 rating points less than the “weaker” one. I cannot recall a case when Kramnik was outplayed so thoroughly! Meier didn’t have to do anything special, he used the standard methods of playing in these KID positions and he won. Something’s happening to Big Vlad and I’m just hoping this is not the beginning of the end of his playing career.

Two of the other three games saw the Leningrad Dutch. It has been popular lately, even I faced it several times in the last year (for an instructive play from white’s perspective I refer you to Colovic-Sowray,4NCL 2014). Leko-Ponomariov saw a repeat of the recent games Gelfand-Caruana, Zurich 2014 and Tomashevsky-Anton, Gibraltar 2014 (and also the Radjabov-Ringoir from the world blitz championship 2014) and Ponomariov introduced the rare 10…Qd1. I had the impression the endgame was better for white, but soon enough it was Ponomariov who was pressing. Luckily for Leko, the opposite-coloured bishops helped him secure the draw.

The other Leningrad Dutch was Baramidze-Caruana. I played Baramidze in 2007, at the European Team Championship in Crete. I caught him in a long theoretical line in the Rauzer and obtained a winning position, but with typical German tenacity he saved the draw. Today he played a rare line and by move 10 they were on the outskirts of modern theory. The game seemed to be heading to an uneventful draw as pieces were traded en masse, but then with some imprecisions before the time control white lost a pawn. The game is still in progress at the time of writing, but the chances Caruana has are at their highest from the beginning of the game!

Naiditsch-Adams was a Berlin and white introduced the computer move 11 c4 as a novelty (11 Nc3 was Anand-Carlsen, game 4 from their match and 11 g4 was Karjakin-Carlsen from Stavanger 2014). Black reacted in solid Berlin fashion and was never in trouble. He even won a pawn later on, but white managed to keep things under control and draw.

Today was also Round 1 at the Bergamo tournament, organised by the ACP and the only tournament that I know of that still has adjournments after move 40 and has the time control of 2.5 hours for 40 moves. This strikes a nostalgic note for the “good old times,” even though I never played with 2.5 hours for 40 moves. I did have adjournments in my early career and I usually had good results in those games! The tournaments started with 3 draws but I didn’t have the time to take a closer look. I’m curious to see if these old rules will have impact on the quality of play and the results.

A few words about the upcoming Macedonian Team Championship. It should serve as a good preparation for the Olympiad, in a sense of getting into playing mode, after almost two months without a serious tournament game. Usually it’s complicated to write about tournaments while playing my own, but I’ll try to keep an eye on the Dortmund event.

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Stavanger 2014 – Round 9

I have said it several times before, but this tournament not only reminded me of the famous St. Petersburg tournament 100 years ago, but it also ended like that one. Apart from being the strongest tournaments of their times, the comparison primarily concerns their winners.

Lasker had his fair share of dubious positions in 1914 but once he got going, there was no stopping him. Karjakin won 4 games in Stavanger, but only the last game was more or less decent, even though even there he had a dubious position at some point. But just like Lasker, he kept fighting, posing difficult problems for his opponents and taking even the slightest chance offered to him. The difference lies in the fact that Karjakin, unlike Lasker, didn’t have a single convincing win throughout the tournament and that is why I am still suspicious of his future prospects.

The situation was clear for Caruana – he had to beat Karjakin in the last round in order to win the tournament (or play a play off in case Carlsen also won). So he went for the all-popular (at this tournament) English Opening to obtain a position where he could try and outplay his opponent. Black had a good position after the opening and early middlegame, but after the tempting 25…a5 he gave Caruana a weakness on b6 to latch onto. The Italian played very well after that and obtained an advantage and after Karjakin’s imprecision 31…Qd6 he could have taken full advantage of it by changing his plan and playing 32 Ne4 Qe7 33 Bd7 and Rc6 with total domination. He followed with his plan instead and after the mistaken 32 Na4 the tables were turned in an incredible way that suddenly there was no saving for white (after missing his last chance with 34 Nc3)! In yet another twist of fate Karjakin won again and this victory led to him winning the tournament for a second year in a row. An incredible feat!

Carlsen beat Agdestein, something which was expected. But it wasn’t easy at all. Agdestein was a tough nut to crack until the end and fought valiantly against Carlsen. The game should have been drawn, but Carlsen did what he does best – he won from a drawn position after maneuvering better than his opponent. It was yesterday’s game against Svidler that prevented Carlsen from winning the tournament, but it was entirely his fault and it should give him something to think about. It just shows how good Carlsen is and what the expectations are when a second place is considered a disappointment.

Topalov and Aronian played an interesting Ruy Lopez. Topalov’s plan of a4-a5 put black under pressure but he spoilt his advantage on move 24 when he should have taken on b5. His 24 h4 let Aronian simplify the position and draw. A bad tournament for Aronian, while Topalov’s tournament was saved with his win against Kramnik – after that he beat Agdestein and came to 50%.

Giri and Svidler found a way to repeat in a complex hedgehog when the game should have started instead of ended. Both finished on -1 and probably Giri has more to be happy about, only because he seems to be a happy character.

The game Kramnik-Grischuk marked another important event. For the first time in his career Kramnik lost in the Be3, Qd2 system against the Grunfeld, blitz and rapid included. Grischuk repeated the side-line he used against Karjakin and obtained a dynamically balanced position, but white’s powerful centre and centralised queen and rooks made it easier to play with white. Kramnik launched an all-out attack in the centre and the kingside and put Grischuk under severe pressure. Just like against Karjakin, Kramnik refused to repeat moves and played for more. And just like against Karjakin, it backfired on him. He missed his best chance on move 31, when he should have taken on g6 first – it wasn’t easy, but he should have found it. And to make things worse, on his next move Kramnik missed the draw too. After the loss to Topalov, Kramnik scored 0.5/3, losing his last two games. A very disappointing tournament for Kramnik, one that started so well and promised to be one of his best ones. 

But there’s another question that I’m curious about – does this event perhaps mark the change of guard, the old generation of Topalov and Kramnik making way for the next generation of Karjakin and Caruana as Carlsen’s main contenders (with Aronian somewhere in the middle)?
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Stavanger 2014 – Round 8

Karjakin continues to amaze me. Not in a positive way though. Against Kramnik, after being caught once again in the opening by Kramnik’s rare line in the QGD Exchange, he quickly retorted to his Candidates plan and went for mass exchanges and a draw. And if Kramnik didn’t become ambitious himself, they would have repeated moves around move 28 when Karjakin made it clear he wanted to draw, by playing Rg4-f4. But Kramnik did get ambitious and thought he could outplay his opponent from an equal and safe position – after all that’s his forte. But slowly things started to change and the position became easier to play for white, probably quite unexpected for Kramnik. This led to some inaccuracies before the time control and Kramnik found himself in difficulties and couldn’t cope with them. So Karjakin won inexplicably again (this does amaze me in a positive way), thus finding himself in sole lead before the last round. The question I posed some posts ago, whether Lasker (Karjakin) will win again by coming from behind or whether Capablanca (Carlsen) will snatch it with a last round win is now very much to the point!

Carlsen should have won quickly. But he didn’t and this was another amazing thing in round 8. Svidler played the English Opening atrociously and on move 10 was probably worse. Then things followed just like in the Grand Prix Attack in the Sicilian and black should have wrapped things up by move 25. But strangely enough, Carlsen failed to pounce, his 24…Rff4 letting the win slip, in a position where a lot of moves were winning. A curious miscalculation by Carlsen, something that doesn’t happen to him. Svidler didn’t miss his chance, once presented to him, and found the best moves, leading to a very complicated position when anything could happen. In the midst of the chaos the players found a way to a perpetual check. A very disappointing result for Carlsen who should have been leading with Karjakin before the last round.

Grischuk found a way to avoid Giri’s Grunfeld by transposing to a Benoni with a pawn on e3 and his bishop stuck on c1. I don’t know if that’s a good price to pay for avoiding the Grunfeld, but it turned out Giri overestimated his position when he sacrificed a pawn on move 15. But by then he probably didn’t like his position very much as 15…Nfh6 16 Nc4 Ne5 17 b3 didn’t give much counterplay either. This means that black’s plan to play automatically with Nbd7 probably wasn’t best – personally, as a life-long Benoni player, I would have preferred Na6-c7 and Rb8 on move 10, as this also wins a tempo against the pawn on d5, not being defended by e4. Giri did have some compensation after the pawn sac, but white’s position was solid and he managed to regroup. I’m not sure about his decision to double his pawns on the d-file though – this left him with an ineffective bishop on c1 (24 Bb2 was a natural alternative). Even that should have won for white, but the endgame was a bit tricky and Giri’s counterplay confused Grischuk who missed a win on move 36, when 36 Re8 would have been strong, the idea is to give check on g8 when the king defends the pawn on f5 and then go to b8, thus attacking both pawns on f5 and b4. Pretty depressing for Grischuk I suppose, who played interesting chess throughout the tournament, spoilt by unexpected turbulences in his play.

Aronian contined to show that he’s in poor form here. A nice opening idea (8 e4) followed by good play led him to win a pawn against Caruana, only to fail in the technical phase. Caruana did what he had to do to save the game, but it all depended on Aronian and he botched it. Thanks to this Caruana is still in the hunt for first place, but he will need to beat Karjakin with white in order to make it.

Agdestein lost to Topalov making my prediction that he will tire by the end of the tournament true. They followed a game by his second, Romanov, when Topalov introduced a novelty on move 14. White had the pair of bishops but black had good central control and blockade on e4. 18 d3 seems over-ambitious as it weakens e3, brings black’s Ba7 to life and gives the knight a wonderful square on e4. Then probably Agdestein miscalculated something as when he pushed 23 e4 both that pawn and the rook on g1 were hanging and white’s compensation in view of the strong black-squared bishop didn’t seem enough. Topalov was precise in the technical phase – quite a decent game from Topalov, who appears to have sprung back to life after the win against Kramnik. And whether Agdestein’s fatigue is too much to handle we will see in the last round when he will have to withstand Carlsen’s assault with the black pieces.

A very exciting finish of the tournament is ahead, Caruana-Karjakin and Carlsen-Agdestein the decisive games for the tournament victory. I’d say that Carlsen will win and Karjakin will draw and there’ll be a blitz play-off for the title! Always rooting for more top level chess, even if it’s blitz!
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Stavanger 2014 – Round 7

Did I say that Karjakin is the modern Lasker? As if against his will, he’s among the leaders, winning today against Giri who pushed and pushed and pushed and blundered in the end when he should have repeated and agreed a draw after more than 7 hours of play and 131 moves. If you bear in mind that the other game Karjakin won was against Grischuk when he was practically lost after the opening, there you have the typical Lasker – people say that it is (or was, in Lasker’s case) psychology, but it’s much simpler than that. It’s true grit (John Wayne would be proud), complete concentration throughout the whole game, setting your opponent constant problems and never ever giving up. The psychology only comes into play in the moment when the opponent already has an advantage (or is winning) and is expecting the point, thus either relaxing prematurely, or not wanting to work hard until the end – then the above components gain further strength and the concentrated and determined defender becomes a ferocious attacker when the opportunity presents itself. The game itself was rather quiet and long. Black got himself in a bit of a tangle and saw it necessary to play 17…Bc6, allowing the doubling of his pawns on the c-file. This gave white a long-term advantage and he took it literally. From move 19, when the pawns were doubled, Giri pushed a pawn on move 63 and then when on move 73 all the pawns were blocked, another round of maneuvering ensued. Giri finally took the stranded rook on b5 on move 76 and then went back to shuffling until move 116 when he finally decided to push g4. It was the only way to create something and it almost worked – had he played 120 Qd7, preventing the activation of black’s queen his efforts would have probably been rewarded and I wouldn’t have been calling Karjakin a Lasker. But he missed that and then it was a draw, only for Giri to blunder in 1 and allow mate on move 131. This is probably the worst thing that can happen in chess – you play an extremely long game, trying to win for more than 100 moves and when you’re given a chance you miss it and to make things awfully unbearable, you blunder and you lose. No comfort there.

Caruana seemed surprised by Topalov’s choice in the English Attack of the Najdorf – Topalov went for a line that was popular some years ago, only to be abandoned as too theoretical and problematic for black. But too theoretical can go against the player who is supposed to have theoretical advantage if he doesn’t remember that theory! This is what happened with Caruana, 14 Kb1 is the main move, while his 14 b5 doesn’t give much to white. Furthermore, his 19 Qd4 was a new move (19 e5 led to several correspondence draws) and not particularly good one – white had 3 pawns for a piece but with black’s pieces active and aimed at white’s king it was white who was already thinking how to escape – not what you usually strive for when playing white! Topalov missed his best chance on move 23, he should have gone with his knight to the other side, on b6, covering d5. He went in the centre on e5 and after the forced 24 Nd5 Rd5 25 Qd5 Rc8 26 c4 white could breathe more easily as he exchanged a pair of pieces and his king was in no immediate danger. Then some strange play by Topalov ensused, rather passive and aimless like 26…Bc5 (instead of this 26…Kf8 would have maintained the initiative) and 28…Ke8 and 29…Ne7 provoking the exchange of queens which looked to me to be in white’s interest as without queens he would be in no danger and could even try to push his passed pawns on the queenside. But Topalov managed to establish a blockade on c5 and b4 and held the position.

Another forgotten line was seen in Carlsen-Grischuk, this time in a Grunfeld. This line was supposed to be innocuous after the game Gelfand-Kasparov, Astana 2001. Carlsen deviated from that game by taking on a5 (Gelfand played 14 Qb3) and then allowed mass exchanges down the c-file (it should be noted that Anand, back in 1994, against Hertneck, put the a-rook on c8, 15…Rac8 and after 16 Nd2 avoided the exchanges and went 16…Nc6 and 17…e5. That is definitely a more dynamic way to treat the position.) At first I didn’t understand what Carlsen was aiming for, but once he put the bishop on c7 and the knight on c5 I saw that things are far from simple for black – he lacks the usual Grunfeld counterplay in the centre and he cannot approach the centre with his king. After the further exchange on c6, black did get the pair of bishops, but I’m sure he’d have rather not – the bishop on c8 was a sorry sight and white was dominating. I liked Grischuk’s Bf6-d8-b6, the only way to get rid of the knight and then his decision to sacrifice a pawn (30…Kd7) in order to activate the sorry sod on c8 (staying passive with 30…Bd8 was possible, but nobody likes staying passive, and especially not against Carlsen). It was a decision in true Grunfeld spirit and Grischuk kept the compensation for the pawn deficit in view of activity until the end of the game. A good defence for Grischuk and a note to Carlsen that he probably needs a bit more from the position in order to beat the best players in the world.

The great thing about these guys is that they keep their high level irrelevant of their mood. You won’t see them lose without a fight or play feebly just because they are disappointed from the previous game. Kramnik-Aronian was a game to illustrate this. Kramnik must have been furious after his loss to Topalov yesterday while Aronian’s loss to Carlsen and meek play against Giri weren’t the best examples of his art. And when I saw the opening of the game, one of the drawish lines in the Ragozin I thought Kramnik (since he was the one to choose the line) just wanted to make a draw. But then I remembered that Kramnik with white usually goes for extremely solid positions against Aronian (the Exchange Slav at the Olympiad in 2012, the Four Knights Scotch in the Tal Memorial 2012, the Reti in the Candidates 2013, the 4 e3 line against the Queen’s Gambit at the Candidates 2014) but at the same time always finds a way to press, even a bit. He probably found this to be the most unpleasant way for Aronian and he sticks to this strategy. The same happened today – white does have some slight pull. So Kramnik didn’t want to make a draw and Aronian was forced to defend a passive position (something that probably didn’t improve his mood during the game). But whatever the mood, the moves they play are always of high quality – Aronian’s 16…Ra7 was a very nice prophylactic idea against white’s plan to play a4 and b5, as then black would control the a-file, with the idea to double the rooks there. Black’s problem was that his bishop on f8 was out of play and white was practically playing with a piece more on the queenside. When the knights were exchanged and white pushed b5 the opposite-coloured bishops didn’t make black’s life easier as his pawns were all on white squares, suitable for attack by white’s light-squared bishop, especially the pawn on c6. With the nice 30 Bh3 white provoked 30…f5, further weakening black’s position. I had the impression there that white will eventually break through somehow. Kramnik methodically increased the pressure and obtained the ideal set-up on move 49, finally threatening to play Ba4 and take the pawn on c6. The comp says his strongest move was 50 Qb1 (instead of the tempting 50 Qb2 from the game), the idea is to have the Bc2 motif if black plays as in the game, hitting g6. Pretty difficult to see this, especially on move 50. Kramnik’s imprecision, followed by 55 Kh2 (55 Bc2 allowed white to continued the game) allowed Aronian to pull yet another swindle (55…Bg3) and save the difficult position he had. An amazing fight and another example how difficult it is to win against an opponent who always finds the most resilient ways.

Svidler decided that the French cannot be refuted and went for the reverse Torre against Agdestein. He has tried this before, against Kramnik at ther Russian Superfinal in 2011, a game he won. Incidentally, I have actually played this idea of c4 before, with colours reversed. It was a Torre Attack and I was black against IM Mantovani, at a rapid tournament in an obscure Italian town called Sandigliano in 2000. In that game I didn’t put my queen on e7 and played c5 after taking on g3 first (and I still had my knight on b8). It worked out pretty well. It’s funny because it turns out that the knight on d2 actually hurts white if he wants to play this idea of c4 as the queen from d1 doesn’t defend the pawn on d3 and allows black to play Nc5 with tempo. It should be noted that Botvinnik always put the knight on c6 (with black) in these position, as in the games with Petrosian in 1951 and Levitt in 1967. And in Svidler’s game his problem was that he didn’t have time to play 11 a3 (to prevent the check from b4 that happened) as then black regroups with Nc5 and Nfd7. White got the pair of bishops but black had excellent development and Svidler saw it fit to repeat the moves, admitting that he had nothing. Another impressive black game by Agdestein!

With two rounds to go the tournament is still wide open. Will Lasker triumph again, coming from behind like in 1914 (coincidence or not, 100 years after his famous St. Petersburg triumph) or shall Capablanca (Carlsen?) nail it with a last round win?
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Stavanger 2014 – Round 6

A deja-vu for Kramnik, he lost again to Topalov. Even though he didn’t lose the opening battle like in Khanty, soon enough he made a rash decision to sacrifice an exchange and play with a dominating knight on d4 as compensation. Whatever he may say, he doesn’t seem to be his usual composed self in the games with Topalov. He had decent, quiet alternatives on move 10 (10…ed5) and 12 (12…Bc3 13 Qc3 Bd7) but he went for the risky sacrifice 12…Rd4 instead. At first sight this looks like an understandable exchange sacrifice for obvious positional compensation, but it reminds me of Carlsen’s “obvious” exchange sacrifice against Radjabov in Shamkir: in both cases “the obvious” turned out to be a shallow evaluation. In my opinion with this decision Kramnik wanted to demostrate some sort of disrespect to Topalov, in a sense that he could play “even that” and still have no problems. But Topalov could play around the dominating knight and soon it transpired that black has tough time as white can create threats both along the c-file and on the kingside, threatening f4. Kramnik couldn’t cope with the growing problems and was lost after the strong 26 b3, but then he got a lucky chance he didn’t take – it was a well-concealed shot, 31…Nh3 (Topalov could have avoided this with practically any other move 30) and after 32 gh3 Be2 33 Qc6 Qd3 34 Bd5 Qd5 35 Qd5 Rd5 black should be able to draw! Usually you don’t get these kind of chances, maybe that’s why Kramnik didn’t expect there would be one! As it was he lost quickly afterwards. After Elista these two have played 5 games (including today’s game), in 4 of which Topalov was white, and the score stands at +3-1=1 for Topalov. Only the first game after Elista (in Wijk aan Zee in 2007) was a draw, after that the white player always won the game. I now hope that Russia plays Bulgaria at the Olympiad…

Aronian probably wanted to go home after yesterday’s loss – at least his play today suggests so. He achieved nothing from the Semi-Tarrasch (after a transposition, avoiding the Grunfeld) against Giri and by move 20 he was already worse. He lost a pawn but liquidated into an endgame with opposite-coloured bishops and a pair of rooks where he threatened to exchange the remaining rooks and transpose to a drawn endgame. Giri managed to avoid this only at the cost of a very awkward position of his bishop. After some maneuvering he saw that it was impossible to avoid the exchange of rooks and agreed to draw. Aronian is usually slow to recover after serious set-backs like the Candidates and yesterday’s loss was another difficult blow to take. I reckon he’ll be back to his usual self for the Olympiad, playing for his country has an envigorating effect on him. Before that though, there are still 3 rounds to go in Norway.

Another elite player tried too hard to win against Agdestein and another failed attempt it was. Caruana’s 1…d6 was a clear indication of his ambitions, but he never got to anything even remotely close to winning against Agdestein’s solid play. Even the exchange sacrifice to liven things up didn’t bring much as Agdestein was careful to keep things under control. Unlike Karjakin and Grischuk, Caruana didn’t push things too far so all in all was a well-played game that was dynamically balanced throughout.

The remaining two games were nothing to write home about. In both the players demonstrated their preparation from start to finish and the games ended in correct draws. Carlsen’s preparation in the Berlin was probably intended for Anand, as Karjakin decided to follow the 4th game of the match until move 11 and then his 11 g4 was played by Dominguez against Navara and Caruana against Grischuk, both games from 2013. They followed Dominguez-Navara until move 18 when Carlsen played 18…Be6 instead of Navara’s 18…Rf8. They reached a rook endgame that Carlsen drew comfortably, in all probability back in October last year.

Grischuk and Svidler played a rare line in the English Opening and they followed the computer recommendations from the moment they left theory on move 11 until the end on move 31. A high-quality game, undoubtedly, but alas, just a demonstration of the players’ good memory.

There is now a triumvirate at the top with +1, Carlsen, Kramnik and Caruana. Carlsen still needs to play Agdestein and in view of what I said that I expect Agdestein to tire and lower his level, I’d go with the World Champion to win the event. Not too original a prediction, admittedly, but a very probable one…
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