The opening was rich in psychology. First we should remember that a draw was enough to Carlsen to win the tournament. He offered Caruana to play the Fianchetto Grunfeld on move 4, but Caruana, needing to win, went for 4…c5 instead, offering a transposition to a Benoni, Benko Gambit or possibly an English. Then Magnus persisted, and went 5 c3, again offering the Fianchetto Grunfeld, but this time the exchange variation (after 5…cd 6 cd d5) where the probability of draw is extremely high. But Caruana again showed fighting spirit and went for 5…d5, sacrificing the pawn on c5, which Carlsen took. And now what we got was a reversed Grunfeld, white a tempo up, obviously! In the normal Grunfeld, when white sacrifices the pawn in this manner, it is considered to be good for black to defend the pawn when white gets the usual compensation with the strong centre, but now white took the pawn and was a tempo up. Caruana did obtain compensation for the pawn, but objectively speaking it was an uphill task from there. That is not to say that the game wasn’t complicated and demanding on both players. But Carlsen showed himself to be the better player on the day, the quality of his moves was higher, especially as the onus was on Caruana to find compensation and create play in the centre and the kingside. Caruana went into time trouble, but the feeling was that Carlsen was always in control anyway and he wrapped up the game nicely.
I doubt he needed any, but this was definitely a confidence-booster for Carlsen – winning a decisive game in a last round, avenging his previous loss to the same, very serious opponent (potentially even a challenger in the future), winning another very strong tournament and showing character and determination after his crisis at the end of the first half. Like I wrote back then, the great Magnus performed another feat!
The rest of the games weren’t very notable, perhaps Mamedyarov preparation against Karjakin’s already played line in the double fianchetto English (against Nakamura in round 5) was a bit shallow, as soon after he introduced his novelty on move 18 (18 g5) he spent more than 1 hour (!) on his next move. There were obviously many lines to calculate, but in fact they were following the first line of the engine until the perpetual check. So it’s unclear whether he knew everything and was resting for 1 hour at the board, or he was calculating his way to the draw. This draw must have made Karjakin very happy, as he managed to fulfill his dream of drawing all his games.
Nakamura must have been surprised by Radjabov’s first ever Berlin and it showed. White got nothing out of the opening and by move 20 black got everything one wants from a Berlin. The game could have ended there and then in fact, as I’m sure the players knew it was a dead draw, but they still decided to play 57 moves more.
Carlsen won another super tournament. What was different this time was that he showed weakness and lost 2 games and then showed strength of character and resolve to win 3 more games after that. What he did was in fact regain his usual peace of mind and with it came the quality of his moves. Now how did he do that, is really something I’d like to know! He attributed his success to some luck, but let’s not forget that the strong players are always lucky! That usually means that they play strong moves and the opponents crack under the pressure – later this is called luck, as in, “I was lucky he blundered”. But that “luck” is fully deserved by the strong moves played and the pressure put on the opponent. It’s not in vain when they say there’s no luck in chess!
It’s been a great tournament, but more are on our way, with the Norway supertournament scheduled for the beginning of June. The show goes on!
The only game that was drawn was the game Carlsen-Karjakin. Carlsen finds it difficult to get a position when he plays Karjakin, especially with white – the last time he beat him, last year in Wijk, was that long 92-move Reti and he won in spite of the opening, not because of it. You might say it’s the same as with the other players, but it isn’t, with Karjakin it is different. The reason is that Karjakin is wonderfully prepared and when he doesn’t experiment he manages to achieve rock-solid positions that are almost impossible to lose. And another thing is that Karjakin is happy with playing for a draw. In yesterday’s game Carlsen tried to surprise him with an extremely rare line in the Queen’s Indian, but that led to nothing and soon enough he had to be a little careful (as he said in the press conference) to secure the draw. An uneventful game, but a food for thought for future encounters – how to create problems to Karjakin when playing with white. This game continued Karjakin’s drawing streak and he didn’t seem to mind.
The other two games were much more dynamic. Caruana beat Radjabov after the latter missed something in time trouble. In King’s Indian Caruana, like Carlsen, also sacrificed an exchange and the position was dynamically balanced. The game should have been a draw, but it was spoiled by Radjabov’s mistake on move 38. Mamedyarov-Nakamura was a Slav that quickly became sharp and it was black who took over the initiative. This line with 4 g3 against the Slav seems to be getting some popularity, it’s interesting to observe how white players are willing to part with material in order to just get a game – not to everyone’s taste, of course, to sacrifice material that early in the game, but this shows the tendency in elite chess – black is so well prepared that if white wants to play for more than a draw then more drastic measures are needed. In the game though, Nakamura didn’t take the pawn on c4 and soon enough it was white who was doing the sacrificing again. In mutual time-trouble and complications Nakamura managed to keep his advantage and win.
What surprised me most today was the game Karjakin-Nakamura and the post-game comments by Karjakin. It was a King’s Indian (Karjakin said he was “surprised” by this, as he was expecting the Slav – but surely the King’s Indian is one of Nakamura’s most frequent choices, so how can that be a surprise?!) and Karjakin went for the popular line with h3 (usually called the Makagonov line). The game followed the Ostenstad-Nakamura game from 2013 and then on move 14 a bomb dropped. Had a beginner played the move 14 f3, he would have politely been told not to come back for any more lessons, because he had no talent for chess. The move shows complete lack of understanding of the King’s Indian and is a big positional blunder. And yet Karjakin played exactly that. And to make things worse, they were following a game by his opponent, if he didn’t prepare that, then what the hell did he prepare? After the game he whined that he didn’t bring a second with him (implying that he cannot prepare without a second? Poor Karjakin) and said that he played the line for the first time in his life and he briefly looked at the lines, but surely he’s a top-10 player who should have a general positional understanding of the highest calibre, even though he’s never played the King’s Indian in his life? But no, and this is a comfort for the lesser mortals, that even elite players have blind spots and positions they understand nothing about and play them like patzers. To his credit, Karjakin then showed his usual grit at defending and saved the draw. But to me, the 14 f3 move was a bigger shock than a blunder of mate in one.
Caruana won again, his second win in a row with white. He beat Mamedyarov who again couldn’t (or wouldn’t) control his aggressive impulses in a relatively calm position. He set the table on fire with 22…e5 and in the complications he had his chances to draw, but he didn’t take them (I wonder if he didn’t because he was playing for a win) and then Caruana showed good technique to win the endgame an exchange up.
Carlsen was under pressure in the middlegame against Radjabov, but then for some reason the latter switched to defensive mode (as Svidler put it) on move 31 and had to defend for 70 more moves. He did that successfully and the game was drawn.
So tomorrow we have the decisive game of the tournament – the leaders play each other, Carlsen having the white. He did beat Caruana very nicely in Zurich with white, in a Spanish with 4 d3. But in this tournament he’s exclusively played 1 d4 and somehow I doubt it he’ll go for some topical Grunfeld line tomorrow. So I wouldn’t be surprised if he plays something else, just in order to avoid the Grunfeld. Carlsen has had problems with Caruana in the past and lost to him in the first half of the tournament, so we’re all set for an exciting battle tomorrow! The tie-breaks do favour Carlsen, though, so he may not try too hard, but that will also depend on Caruana. Stay tuned!
Usually a free day after a loss is an added torment, let alone two losses. The player keeps going back to the mistakes, analyses the games over and over again, cannot forget the agony of defeat. And this is where the football kicks in. In my last post I said that the recipe for coming back after loss(es) is forgetting what has happened and “just play.” For Carlsen the football match on the free day served as the perfect distraction from his brooding (as any chess player, he was definitely suffering after the two losses) and at the same time as a way of letting go of all the negative emotions that accumulate after a loss of a chess game.
Mamedyarov-Carlsen followed the game Capablanca-Nimzowitch from Bad Kissigen 1928 until move 8 – Capablanca preferred to take on f6 while Mamedyarov kept the pin and later used the bishop to attack the black queen on b6. It was the typical Catalan-type compensation, double-edged and complicated. It’s a tendency I noticed that the players are trying to get this type of position against Carlsen: starting with Anand’s Nimzo with 4 f3 in Chennai, then Nakamura in Zurich (the same Nimzo with 4 f3, he repeated the line today as well, but more on that below), then also Karjakin used the same Nimzo line in round 3 here and Radjabov went for the King’s Indian. All these choices lead to complex positions with not-so-clear positional guidelines and the players obviously think that it is here that Carlsen’s potential weakness lies. They may be on to something, as he doesn’t feel very comfortable in these positions, even though he still manages to win. The game with Mamedyarov followed the same pattern, Carlsen may not have been too comfortable, but he still found good squares for his pieces (I liked 20…Rf7 with the idea of Nf8). Mamedyarov blundered soon afterwards, but black was already clearly better by then.
The other two games of the round were no less interesting, though they both finished in a draw. The funny thing in the Caruana-Nakamura game was that they both played that line of the Open Spanish with black! Nakamura played this line last year against Safarli, while Caruana played it way back in 2010 against Shirov. As it happened, he improved on Shirov’s play and won a pawn, but somehow with active play Nakamura held the draw. Radjabov-Karjakin was interesting because of the endgame that arose: a rook endgame with 3 vs 3 on the kingside and a passed b-pawn with white’s rook in front of the pawn. Fairly typical stuff and the usual defensive method with a passed a-pawn is to put the pawns on f7, g6 and h5 and keep the king around the e6-square. But here white had a b-pawn and the king is closer to it, so Karjakin played 32…g5!? and I found that very instructive – the idea is to reduce the material and in case of h5, like Radjabov played, to play 34…g4 in order to isolate the pawn on h5 and take it with the king. This is exactly what happened and black saved the draw. A valuable defensive idea!
Today Carlsen increased his lifetime score against Nakamura to 10-0. It’s curious how the game followed similar pattern to their game from Zurich: Nakamura again went for the 4 f3 line in the Nimzo and again got a very good position. And again he misplayed it. I am sure that he would never misplay that position (not to talk about the winning one in Zurich) against any other player in the world; yet in happens against Carlsen and on a pretty regular basis at that. Psychology is the only possible explanation, but what exactly does that mean? My guess is that Nakamura places too much importance on these games against Carlsen. With his statements and behaviour he tries to show the public that he’s “the one” who will dethrone Carlsen and all this brouhaha he creates impedes his own chess ability and consequently he plays below his level in these games. He creates the tension, he puts too much significance on the games and then he can’t withstand them. What serves him pretty poorly is the typically American need for self-promotion – it seems that it doesn’t bode well with his character. For some people it works well and gives them extra strength, they feed on their own words, but that doesn’t seem to be the case with Nakamura. If he would just shut up and play, he’ll do much better against Carlsen. However, I doubt he’ll shut up.
I’m starting to think that what I said some posts ago about Karjakin getting the wrong impression from the Candidates, that he can do well by playing for draws, is becoming true. Another non-game against Caruana today, repeating the game Giri-Caruana from Zug 2013 until move 29 and then 5 moves later it was a “dead draw” (as Karjakin said in the press conference). His statement from the press conference that “chess is a draw” seems like a lame attempt to excuse his shameful approach.
Radjabov-Mamedyarov was another friendly draw and not really worth mentioning.
We now have the same situation as at the start of the tournament – Carlsen is winning, the others aren’t. I just don’t think that this time he will crack – I am pretty convinced that he will clinch it.
Unfortunately, Carlsen’s state of mind didn’t change much today. He tried to go back to what he usually does, going for a fight and outplaying his opponent, but Radjabov was very much up to it. He took too many risks, the positional exchange sacrifice did look good at first sight, but this is again proof of his problems with the positional calculation – your eyes are telling you it’s OK, but you should back that up with calculation, and he couldn’t because, as he said, he was missing and misjudging things. A deserved loss, but all credit should go to Radjabov, who played really well and found all the best moves, and rather surprisingly, finds himself in sole first before the rest day. Carlsen also admitted that he was out of energy, I think this is the first time I hear him say that. From a person who pays so much attention to physical exercise it can only mean that he’s deflated emotionally and definitely needs the rest day tomorrow. This is his first serious crisis in a very long time (people have noted that this is his first short castle (two losses in a row) since Bilbao 2010 when he lost to Kramnik and Anand in rounds 1 and 2), so it will be interesting to see how he responds to it.
The other Azeri player also struck today and showed that Caruana still isn’t Karpov. He got very good compensation in the Grunfeld as black, but then strangely enough started to play somewhat loosely and allowed Mamedyarov to untangle and later on to try to play for a win. But even then it seemed that he could draw with the opposite-coloured bishops (plus queens). And just when one more precise move was needed, he blundered. I don’t think Karpov (from any period!) would have missed this chance.
Karjakin continues to surprise me. After the difficult draw with Carlsen, he didn’t even try to win against Mamedyarov, as they rattled out their preparation which ended in a perpetual check (was he naively hoping that the cat ate Mamedyarov’s preparation?) Today he showed another interesting opening idea in the English double fianchetto against Nakamura. In the online commentary Svidler said it may have been preparation until well over move 30 and he may be right – all Karjakin’s moves are the first line of the engine, except 29…Qf2 when the engine prefers h4 or Rc8 and gives zeros. I think that maybe the second place in the Candidates gave Karjakin the wrong impression that he can do well with playing for a draw. You never win tournaments when playing for a draw, but perhaps he still lacks the confidence that he can actually win elite tournaments (in spite of Stavanger 2013)?!
Before the rest day we have a situation when the first and the last are divided by only a point. This means that any player can win the tournament and we’re in for an exciting second half. For me the most interesting will be to see how Carlsen responds to the situation he has found himself in, as I have encountered this situation many times in my practice. The key to recovery is the ability to detach from the previous events and “just play”, but as you probably sensed it, that’s easier said that done. Great champions make the difficult things seem easy so let’s see if the Great Magnus will perform one more feat.