Category : Tournaments

Gashimov Memorial 2014 Rounds 8&9 – 14 f3?!?

Round 8 of the Gashimov Memorial saw two decisive games, for the first time since Round 5, the round when Carlsen lost to Radjabov.

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!

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Gashimov Memorial 2014 – Rounds 6&7: 10-0

The power of football. Or the magic of the ball. It seems that was all it took to get Carlsen back to his old routine.

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.

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Gashimov Memorial 2014 – Rounds 3-5: Carlsen Castles Short

It’s an unpredictable place, this (chess) world of ours. Just when everybody was expecting the usual Carlsen dominance, things started to go terribly awry for the World Champion.

It all seemed to go so well – in Round 3 he first got Karjakin out of his preparation, then outplayed him and put him in severe time pressure. Just when you expected the inevitable, Karjakin started to defend with only moves while Carlsen started to waver. Definitely not what he had got us used to! The game ended in a draw. (I noticed that Karjakin was smart to say after the game that he was happy not because he drew with Carlsen, but because he saved a difficult position – saying the former would have been a grave psychological mistake, it would have implied he had an inferiority complex).
I think this draw disturbed Carlsen’s inner peace – he was doing what he usually does and yet couldn’t finish the process, he couldn’t clinch the game, something that simply doesn’t happen with him. After all, he built all his reputation on mercilessly clinching games! He wasn’t his usual self the next day against Caruana, even though he played his usual Berlin. In the press conference he said he wasn’t feeling very well that day, it was just “one of those days” that we all have, when everything that can go wrong, goes wrong. This was indirectly confirmed by Chuchelov, Caruana’s second and coach, when he said that before the game they looked at the exact line that happened in the game – that’s how it goes, when things go wrong for you, they go right for your opponent. The Berlin structure they got in the game, with white’s pawns on h3, g4, f3 and e5, with a Ne4 and Bf4 is uncomfortable for black, this was also noted by Svidler during the online commentary (he even went on to explain that this was the reason for the popularity of the Berlin lines with Ke8 and h5, as they prevent white from establishing this structure). Carlsen was unhappy with his position and just as any other mortal would when under pressure, blundered and lost. What I found insightful was his confession after the game that he misjudged the position several times – this usually means that his positional calculation wasn’t precise (I invented the term “positional calculation” for my own purposes – something similar was mentioned already by Kotov – it refers to the calculation of lines “when nothing is going on in the position”. It usually consists of calculating many candidate moves 2-3 moves ahead both for yourself and the opponent and is more difficult than it sounds). When your calculation isn’t clear and precise, you cannot have good judgement.
Caruana was his usual confident self in converting the advantage (his slip on move 40 only would have prolonged the game, had Carlsen taken advantage of it, which he didn’t). During the game, while observing him, I noticed that he reminds me of the young Karpov from the early 70s (from the photographs I’ve seen). The same fragile constitution and gentle disposition outwardly, but with infinite self-confidence in their ability and will to win.

Not exactly look-a-likes, but they won’t pass the chance to beat you.

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.

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Gashimov Memorial 2014 – Rounds 1&2

I met Vugar Gashimov in 2007, in Havana, during the Capablanca Memorial. He seemed a very likeable and approachable guy, I remember we chatted in the lobby of the Triton Hotel about the best way to get convertible pesos and avoid being tricked by the locals in the process (those who have been to Cuba will understand).

I also saw him at the subsequent European Club Cups and European Team Championships and in the meantime I was following with great interest his games in the Benoni, as he was the only elite player to play that opening on a more or less regular basis (and quite successfully too). His games with Gelfand from Linares 2010 and Aronian from Wijk 2012 still serve as a starting point of analysis of the popular line with Bf4.

It is quite rare that players get to have their memorial tournaments nowadays. A more common picture is to see those memorial tournaments disappear, due to financial issues. It is a grand gesture by the Azerbaijan government to establish a Gashimov Memorial and I really hope this one is just a start of a wonderful tradition in memory of a great player.

The tournament started in an expected fashion. Carlsen is winning, the others aren’t. It certainly did help him that he got two whites at the start, but at the time of writing he’s pressing for his third win, this time with black, against Karjakin.

What I found very amusing is how Nakamura’s big mouth is making him look foolish. I can’t easily forget his “Sauron” comments, him being the  “biggest threat” to Carlsen and yet he cannot win a single game against “Sauron” and with every loss these statements sound more and more hilarious and absurd. He is fast turning to what Shirov was to Kasparov, just to remind you, Kasparov had an all time score against Shirov of 15-0 (in classical). Carlsen for now leads Nakamura by “only” 9-0. Just before the tournament Nakamura signed a sponsorship deal with Red Bull. He also put the can of the drink on the table when he played Carlsen. But whatever wings it may have given him, they didn’t help him avoid losing yet another game to the stomping Norwegian. It was another typical Carlsen game, where he “just” outplays the opponent from an equal position. I don’t know if his idea to lose a tempo in the opening (6 Be2 h6 7 Bd3?!?!) was intended to taunt Nakamura or not, but the position was equal all the time until the quality of black’s moves started to drop. And then it was the same old story: strong moves that put pressure, the opponent feels the pressure, but for the time being responds with good moves; this goes on, the opponent spends more time and energy to counter Carlsen’s strong moves, this leads to fatigue and time trouble; the pressure piles up, time runs down; the opponent commits mistakes; Carlsen continues with his strong moves and wins. The process is easy to describe, what I find fascinating is observe it as it happens before my eyes!

From the other players, I can see that Radjabov has done some work to rejuvenate his opening repertoire, at least with black. He dug up his old favourite, the French (remember that he beat Kasparov with it Linares in 2003!) and against 1 d4 he used the Slav to draw comfortably against Mamedyarov. As for the rest, it’s still early to tell.

It certaily looks like it’s going to be an interesting tournament, all eyes will be on Carlsen, but let’s see if the likes of Caruana and Karjakin point to some spots on the sun.

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Candidates 2014 – Round 14 and Karposh Open Rounds 2&3

It was a double-round day today at the Karposh Open, so I’m really tired after two complicated games (won one and drew the other). Hence, I’ll keep it brief again.

Anand drew easily today so as not to leave himself with a sour aftertaste. The general impression was that the tournament was won by a player who didn’t make unforced errors. That was Anand, and all the rest were making them quite a lot. The reason for every player was different, but again, generally speaking, it was the pressure they put on themselves (Aronian a typical example), the lack of nervous energy (Kramnik, in his own words) and the pressure of the occassion. Anand didn’t suffer from any of those because he had nothing to lose.

The double-round days are always hell and today at the Karposh Open was no different, especially with the morning round starting at 9.30am (and the one hour less sleep due to the daylight saving time change). I played a long game and I misplayed a winning knight endgame. In the afternoon I played a rather nice and complicated combination against a Croatian IM, which gave me some pleasure in executing.

There were also some upsets on the top boards, the most prominent being Stanojoski beating Granda Zuniga and Donchenko beating Ivanisevic.

Starting from tomorrow the games will start at the usual time of 5.30pm. The top boards can be followed live here: http://www.chessdom.com/karpos-open-2014-live/ and also on the playchess server.

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Candidates 2014 – Round 13: Anand! (& Karposh Open Starts)

This is just a short post, summing up the decisive round at the Candidates, as my own tournament, the Karposh Open in my home city of Skopje also started today. I will do a more detailed round up of this and the final, 14th round of the Candidates when the open finishes (and tomorrow is a double-round day!)

So Anand finally got under pressure, but even though he wasn’t always precise, he managed to draw and coupled with Aronian’s loss to Andreikin, won the tournament with a round to spare. The man who was thinking whether to play at all and who was written off by all the experts, managed to pull one of the most incredible upsets in modern sport! I will write about my opinion why this happened, for now I’ll just say that he thoroughly deserved it!

The Karposh Open started today, with over 50 GMs participating among the total of more than 260 players, a monster tournament! I won my game today against a WIM from South Africa (a revenge for my loss to a South African in Reykjavik). Tomorrow’s morning round starts at 9.30am (after the tournament I will look up and have a chat with the sadistic bastard who came up with this idea) and to add insult to injury, this night the clock is moved one hour forward – meaning one hour less sleep…

So time to rest (but still no pairings for tomorrow, so I guess I’ll just browse the web and read the reactions to Anand’s victory).

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Candidates 2014 – Round 12

Another rather calm round. The only decisive game decided nothing in the upper echelons of the standings.

Anand has returned to his old love 1 e4 on a constant basis, it seems, and Andreikin’s choice to repeat Carlsen’s Caro Kann from the game 2 of the Chennai match didn’t seem very wise. When Anand deviated from that game on move 15 they followed theory for a bit more but it seems that white’s position is easier to play (or perhaps Anand was better prepared). Andreikin got into trouble very quickly and soon was lost. He showed his usual resilience but it was really up to Anand to win it. Surprisingly, he didn’t, as he missed several wins along the way. The last one was after the time control when he took the repetition instead of playing on. People were all going crazy as to why he didn’t go on, but Anand said he was too tired by then and didn’t see a clear win. And it is easy to yell 41 Rc4 (especially when you see it suggested by your engine), but in a situation when tournament victory is so close, when your nearest rivals have already drawn and when you don’t see a clear win, it’s perfectly understandable to take the safe way. Anand doesn’t seem to mind to crawl to the finish line as the other players also seem to be crawling behind him.

What many expected to be the tournament’s decisive game, turned out to be a game of two tired players who would rather go home than play the remaining games. I was somewhat surprised by Kramnik’s choice in the Queen’s Gambit, allowing the Exchange Variation with a knight already on f6, something which on elite level is not considered the most exact. Aronian went along the normal lines and even here Kramnik showed how the position should be treated from black’s perspective. After the “strategically very risky decision ” (Aronian) of 27 e4, it was Kramnik who could have tried to play for a win, but he chose to repeat the moves instead, another confirmation that he’s despondent and disappointed.

Svidler 2.0 ran out of steam. Or you could say Santa Claus is on fire, giving away presents in most generous manner. Today the “good kid” was Topalov, in a way getting back what he gave away in their first game. I was surprised Svidler went for a line in the Sicilian which is considered to be good for white and from then onwards he just “started missing stuff” (Svidler) leading to a “result [which] is perfectly deserved” (Svidler). A very one-sided game, something that is only possible when the players are tired and have lost their ambitions and motivation.

Mamedyarov-Karjakin was a wild Nimzo Indian with 4 f3 and it was black who turned out to be better prepared. It was messy and stressful, especially for Karjakin who had 1 minute for 8 moves and 13 seconds for 6 moves, but still managed to make the time control. He then played on in a drawn double-rook endgame. It’s absurd that Karjakin, with his wimpish strategy, is now considered the biggest threat to Anand, but it has been a rather unusual tournament, at a very slow pace and tension that cracked the pre-tournament favourites. So the people who haven’t forced matters are the ones up in front – Anand and Karjakin (I don’t count Aronian and Mamedyarov as they lose the tie-break to Anand). I sincerely doubt that Karjakin will even try to beat Anand, but we may still be in for some excitement before the end.

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Candidates 2014 – Round 11

A rather calm round today with all the games ending in a draw. The players must be tired by now and none of them seems very confident of catching Anand.

The principled game was Kramnik-Anand. Kramnik went for the Catalan and the rare 11 Na3. Anand reacted well and sacrificed a pawn for excellent compensation, Kramnik even said he started to be careful not to end up worse. The game finished in an uneventful draw and Kramnik admitted that yesterday’s game against Svidler was the nail in his coffin – he couldn’t sleep until 6am and lost all hope of winning the tournament. He called that game “the ultimate game” and it must have been very painful for him – after the tournament he will probably go through some soul-searching and decide on the future of his career, possibly even outside chess. The rest of the tournament does have another principled encounter in store for him, the game against Topalov, but whether that will be enough to motivate him, we are yet to see. The draw brought Anand even closer to his goal. In the remaining 3 rounds he has 2 whites, so everything is in his own hands. I was predicting that he will also start to feel the pressure as the tournament draws to a close, but the way the others are playing, it’s getting doubtful whether they will be interested in playing at all.

The gift-collector Karjakin was very close to receiving yet another present, this time from Topalov. He admitted that he played for a draw the whole game (I’d say the whole tournament) and didn’t find that he could actually win in one moment (45…a3 46 Kc2 Be3). It was Topalov who unnecessarily risked a bit too much and got in danger of losing. It would have been absurd if Karjakin had won this game, it would have got him to second place and within striking distance of Anand – this would have justified his cynical strategy of playing for a draw and taking whatever was given to him. Even Petrosian in Curacao was more aggressive than that! But he’s still in contention, having his white game against Anand in the penultimate round.

Andreikin-Mamedyarov was the second Catalan of the day and it was another quiet game. White did have some chances to try for an advantage (Andreikin mentioned 19 Nc7) but all those improvements are engine-generated and even if they had been played, they would have required further ultra-precise play, something only computers are capable of (and perhaps Carlsen). As it was, for the humans in Siberia, the position always offered too little.

Svidler ruined Aronian’s tournament in London by beating him in Round 11 there. This time he went for the much calmer Reti (just compare to the Saemisch Nimzo from London). Aronian had some problems in this in London against Kramnik and he wasn’t very convincing this time either. But again as with the game Andreikin-Mamedyarov, the position was too solid and the margin of error too big for the tired humans. The computers suggest a few improvements, but again, these have to be followed up with computer-like precision and this is too much to expect from the players, especially at this stage.

As the tournament nears its end it’s noticeable that the players choose safe openings and play very carefully. As they are tired and more prone to blunders (Kramnik the worst offender) they prefer to just sit and wait for the opponent’s mistakes. Even the energetic and dynamic Svidler chose the Reti today! The most “experienced” in this strategy is Karjakin, who employed it from the very start (that’s why I think he may have the best chances)! If we are to judge from last year’s London drama, then the “sit-and-wait” players (have they all become such after today’s round?) have good chances as things will start happening, but I think this time it’s different. Last year there were 3 players who fought for first place and they were very close throughout the tournament, increasing the pressure with evey round, while here it was only Anand who has been leading from the start. I think they are already tired of seeing him in first and trying to catch him. That only adds to the psychological pressure of trying to win games and maintaining decent level (even Kramnik didn’t cope). I don’t think much will happen in the last 3 rounds, but I really hope I’m wrong…

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Candidates 2014 – Round 10

Another exciting round at the Candidates, with the unusual score of black winning the round 2.5-1.5.

The first game to finish was Anand-Mamedyarov. Anand made another small step toward final victory and it was obvious in the press conference he was happy with the draw. He actually got into some deep preparation by Mamedyarov in the Najdorf which objectively should have led to a draw with repetition, as Mamedyarov pointed out in the press conference. Kudos to Mamedyarov for continuing the game when he could have repeated, but Anand played well and reached a good position which was “dynamically balanced” as he said after the game. Mamedyarov was playing a-tempo until Anand’s 19 Bf1, which is rare, but it was praised by both players. As it was, Mamedyarov tried to play for a win, but Anand was solid and he didn’t want to risk it one more time and continue in the final position.

Karjakin didn’t try to push his luck after two consecutive wins and introduced a minor improvement (10 g4) in the Sicilian against Andreikin. It got him into an endgame which was balanced throughout as Andreikin was careful not to fall into any sort of bind. So Karjakin continues with the same strategy and hopes for more gifts from his opponents while Andreikin is just “enjoying the event”, like he said in the press conference.

Kramnik committed yet another one-move blunder. It seems he didn’t manage to recover from his loss against Karjakin, even though he had a free day to recuperate. He was actually playing quite well and got an advantage against Svidler’s Dutch (employing a rather rare setup with 3 e3). But he repeated the same mistake as in the game with Mamedyarov, he started to look for a forced win before the position was ripe for it. Like I said it then, this impatience is a sign of nerves, inability to endure the stress and keep the tension as long as it’s necessary. So this time it was the Santa Claus who received a gift! This result took Svidler to 50% and Kramnik to -1. Kramnik looked utterly depressed in the press conference and tomorrow’s white game against Anand is somewhat resemblant to the game 10 of their match in Bonn in 2008 when Anand only needed a draw to win the match when Kramnik was in a must-win situation. Just to refresh your memory, Kramnik won that game (even though he lost the match in game 11 when Anand got the draw he needed).

Aronian tried to bore Topalov to death with his choice of opening variation in the Chebanenko Slav. He seemed to make some progress when Topalov invited him to push d5, but then it quickly turned against him when he didn’t play 21 Be5, as he said in the press conference. Then it was Topalov who started to push for more, only to ruin it all with his 30…g5, a move that drew a desperate sigh from him in the press conference. Then it was Aronian again who started to probe in the endgame, but Topalov managed to pull himself together and started to play solid moves, as he said in the press conference, and this sufficed for a draw in the end. Another up-and-down game for both players, with Topalov the unhappier of the two as he still sits in last place. He was really disappointed with his play in the tournament, lamenting his missed chances in good positions in his black games against Svidler, Andreikin and Anand (with a score of 0/3). At least he has one more game with Kramnik to look forward to, they seem to motivate him. But he will be black this time and black is not his favourite colour in this tournament.

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Candidates 2014 – Rounds 7-9

A lot of things happened in the last 3 rounds of the Candidates. First, in Round 7, Anand’s closest rivals won and Aronian drew level with him and Kramnik came within half a point. Round 8 was the calm before the storm, in the bottom half only Karjakin scored his first win. Round 9 was the big one – Anand won while both Aronian and Kramnik lost, giving him a whole point lead over Aronian in second (but having beaten him 1.5-0.5 in their mini-match, that’s practically a 1.5 point lead, just like with Kramnik in third).

Before the tournament I remember seeing the odds for winning the tournament and the least probable winner was Andreikin, while the second least probable winner was Anand. The odds were somewhere in the region of 50, in other words, a total outsider (for comparison’s sake, the odds for Aronian were 2.7 while for Kramnik around 3). But as things are now, we’re maybe witnessing one of the largest upsets in the whole history of sport! So far Anand has shown perfect balance between enegy-saving mode and nailing it when possible. Yes, he could have tried to play on in the final position against Andreikin, but he thought it more important to save his energy. If he wins, all his decisions will be more than justified and his tournament strategy will be glorified. In my opinion the secret to his success so far has been the lack of pressure, the “just play” attitude he’s taken – after losing to Carlsen he ceased to be the favourite, something that hasn’t happened to him for decades. It must feel good to be able to play chess without pressure, without a goal of winning at all costs and Anand is proving it. All this helps him play very good chess and coupled with his excellent preparation took him where he is now. But even in his case the pressure will creep in as the tournament draws to a close, so I’m still curious to see how he responds to that in the remaining rounds.

Aronian failed to control his nerves for yet another time. He beat Karjakin in Round 7 in a wonderful game, showing excellent technique (which for some reason was missing in the previous game against Andreikin, which was much more easily won for a player like Aronian), but then it seems he pumped himself up way too much for the derby with Anand. First he allowed himself to be scared by Anand’s preparation (perhaps bearing in mind Anand’s brilliancy against him from Wijk in 2013), this led to a “heretical” (Kramnik) opening innovation on move 3 (at least on elite level). I’m still not sure of Anand’s decision to sacrifice the pawn and this led to a position where Aronian was pawn up but Anand had free development. And just when I thought that this was a position when Aronian might try to fend off Anand’s initiative and try to play for more, he started repeating moves – another show of fear, which was confirmed in the press conference by his statements (“the stress of the start [opening]”). Showing and playing with fear never goes unpunished and Aronian was punished the very next day when he managed to catch Mamedyarov in his preparation (although he admitted he forgot it, but again I’m not sure he can be trusted on this), only to be faced with excellent reaction and lose an unclear game. Unless he manages to pull himself together and finally play his “chess with confidence” until the end, barring a spectacular meltdown from Anand, Aronian seems to have lost his chances to challenge Carlsen.

Kramnik is another player who seems to have pumped himself up a bit too much. He has played uncharacteristically uneven chess for his standards. A typical example was his game with Mamedyarov – he achieved a dream position after the opening, he started to press in his trademark style and then something unexpected happened. He was looking for a forced win (when there wasn’t any – another sign of nervousness, looking for a win too early because you cannot stand the pressure of grinding it out and playing a long game) and miscalculated. Then it became murky and after further mistakes (and good play by Mamedyarov) he was lost. He was extremely lucky that Mamedyarov blundered and he even won the game. This was followed by another strange game with Andreikin when in a calm Chebanenko Slav he started sacrificing pawns left and right in yet another attempt to be over-aggressive. The culmination was in Round 9 when he blundered on move 7 (!) against Karjakin and lost. The biggest successes in life happen when you’re being yourself and you do things your way. Kramnik hasn’t been himself in this tournament, trying to be over-aggressive isn’t his style. And time is running out for him to reset himself and show his best, vintage Kramnik style.

Karjakin’s play has reeked of fear. After pompous statements that his mission is “to return the chess crown to Russia”, having personal manager and private sponsorhip that covers all his expenses and working on constant basis with Motylev (current European Champion) and Dokhoian (Kasparov’s second since the beginning of the 90s), I wonder whether all off that has been a bit too much for him. He proudly tweeted before the tournament that he prepared really well and was feeling in excellent shape, but then he says he was “surprised by 2…d6” (in his game with Mamedyarov from Round 5, after 1 e4 c5 2 Nf3) and “because Mamedyarov has 3 seconds here and must have been very well prepared, I decided to deviate [by playing 3 Bb5+]”.  Excuse me?? If you cannot trust your own preparation and you deviate at every hint of preparation on part of your opponent, then I’m sorry, but you have no future in elite chess. This was further confirmed by his appaling play with white against Aronian in Round 7, playing a meek opening and being outplayed by the Armenian. And then he got his lucky break, not because he deserved it, but because he was playing the tournament’s Santa Clause, Peter Svidler. Svidler 2.0 went for the kill and sacrificed a pawn for attack, but Karjakin defended well and it should have been a draw, but then Svidler started missing things and Karjakin was winning. Then Karjakin started missing things and it was draw again. Then Santa Claus stepped in and Karjakin won. On the next day he got another present, this time by Kramnik, who blundered on move 7 (in yet another “cowardly” opening, The London System – I wonder what these guys prepare for months on only to play the London System!). So Karjakin won two in a row and is back to 50%. This should give him a boost for the remaining games, unless he sees the presents as justification of his cowardly strategy!

Mamedyarov is definitely in good form in this tournament, it’s just that his style and character are not best suited for this type of tournaments. He plays well, but the pressure is too big that he also blunders. After Kramnik let him off the hook in Round 7 he played better than the Russian and got a winning position, only to blunder and lose – and he blundered in a position that required precise calculation, something he excels in. This just shows that when the stakes and the pressure are high, even your best qualities can desert you. He continued his enterprising play against Topalov in Round 8, but the Bulgarian decided to return the sacrificed piece and steered the game to a draw. His best effort so far came in Round 9 when he was faced with some sharp preparation by Aronian to which he responded in a great fashion and went on to win a complicated game. He will probably continue in the same way and finish somewhere in the middle, with some quality chess along the way!

Svidler tried to reinvent himself for this tournament, by playing aggressive and courageous chess. This worked well for him in the first half of the tournament, but quite openly against him when he started to tire. His game with Mamedyarov from Round 6 was the first warning sign when he started to blunder heavily (just to mention 24…h6??), but he continued in the same vein and was rewarded with a draw when Anand missed his best chance on move 20. The end of his ambitions was his game with Karjakin from Round 8 when again he sacrificed for initiative, but after nothing came out of it he failed to draw a drawable endgame. What I said above about being yourself applies to Svidler as well: it was a welcome change to see him play open and brave chess, but perhaps he should have kept some of his old self, the one who played in “energy-saving” (his words) mode and knew how and when to play for a draw. That mixture would have really given him better chances in a tournament like this one.

Andreikin beat Topalov in Round 7 when the latter went berserk. His King march e1-d1-c1-b1-a2 in the middlegame was a rare sight and he won a nice game. Apart from that he was his usual, safe and solid self. No reason why not to continue in the same fashion and wait for another chance like the one in the game with Topalov.

Surprisingly, Topalov is in last place.The principled game against Kramnik seems to have had a negative effect, as strange as it may sound. He probably thought he got positive wind from that and went all out against the solid Andreikin in the next round, only to be calmly dispatched. Then he was bit more careful and returned Mamedyarov’s sacrificed piece in Round 8 and steered it to a draw. In Round 9 he went for a Najdorf against Anand but his play was not up to his usual standards (and he missed things, as he said in the press conference) and didn’t really stand a chance. He usually loses to Anand in the Najdorf. It’s strange that his level went down after that win against Kramnik, but I read somewhere that it might affect him negatively. In his case, I think he overestimated that win and concluded that he was in good form and started to play carelessly, expecting to win his games just because he beat Kramnik in a nice game. Unfortunately, one good game is no guarantee for other good games – hard work is required in every game! He will undoubtedly try to improve his tournament position and he has another game with Kramnik coming soon, so maybe that will serve as motivation, now that he cannot win the tournament anymore.

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