Category : Tournaments

Stavanger 2014 – Round 5

A change of leader and 3 decisive games, all won by white.

Kramnik again showed excellent preparation. As white in the English Opening against Caruana he went for a somewhat rare line, 8 Qd3, seen in Bocharov-Shomoev, 2009, followed by the novelty 12 Nd5. Caruana went for the complicated 11…Ne4 – while it is commendable that he went for probably the best move, it is also impractical to go for the complicated line that your opponent had analysed deeply. But this decision also showed the self-confidence Caruana has in his own calculations, not being put off even by Kramnik’s famous preparation. As expected, they followed Kramnik’s preparation well until move 17-20 (my estimate.) In a sense, Caruana was right in choosing 11…Ne4 – it gave him acceptable play, but on the other hand it wasn’t completely equal and he spent masses of time and energy to get there. Typical modern preparation – nothing much is obtained on the board, but time advantage, psychological pressure and energy investment are all in favour of the better prepared player. Kramnik continued to press for a very long time but Caruana defended well and when it seemed that a draw would be agreed he decided to try one last chance, and as it usually happens, it worked! Instead of the drawing with 43…Kf8 Caruana chose the losing 43…Ke8, quite an unexpected oversight for him. Again we see a game decided by a big blunder, this time after a long and successful defence, only succumbing at the last hurdle. Chess is a merciless sport.

Carlsen finally won. Yesterday I said I didn’t expect too much of his game with Aronian, but how wrong I was! It was a fantastic game – it started with the anti-positional novelty 11 fg3 in the Ragozin. Everybody analyses the first line of the engine, so novelties nowadays are the second, third, forth, nth line of the engine, or, if someone gets lucky, a purely human idea that doesn’t fail tactically. Carlsen’s 11 fg3 is the only other possible recapture, but I’m sure nobody analysed it! It has the advantage of discouraging short castling by black and this led to a very unbalanced position. I was impressed by Aronian’s idea of domination on the queenside, starting with 16…Bd7 and 17…Na4 and then 20…Nc3 and 21…Qb4 – a very successful concept of defence, simply by dominating white’s queenside he defended against possible attack! This was followed by domination in the centre by 23…f5 and the doubling on the f-file. I would feel uncomfortable with white there as there’s nothing constructive to do! Worth mentioning is Carlsen’s idea to activate his rook on a1 by 24 Ra5 and 25 Rc5 and then his plan to get rid of the annoying knight on c3 by 27 Nh2, liberating the f1-square for the queen, 28 Qf1 with the idea of Rc1. Very good defensive play! The comp points out that his 29 Re2 was a mistake, but it was also part of the plan – to liberate e1 for the queen after the f-file is opened. But Aronian kept the dominating position and could have maintained the grip by 32…h5, shutting the knight on h2. Instead his decision to exchange queens turned the tables completely! Without the queens it was white who overtook the queenside and black’s bishop, with all the pawns on white squares from the dominating force it was turned into the typical bad bishop. From then onwards it was one way street, in spite of Aronian’s heroic defence. An impressive game!

Svidler and Karjakin played an English Opening (pretty popular in Norway) and Svidler was the better prepared of the two – it showed on move 15 when the right move was 15…Nd5, as played in one correspondence game, instead of Karjakin’s 15…Na6. This gave white an advantage that he increased with straight-forward play. The key moment was on move 23 when Svidler didn’t find a way how to improve his position even further – with hindsight (or, rather, computer help) it is easy to logically explain the correct move: you should improve the piece that doesn’t perform optimally, in the position from the game it’s the bishop on g2 – hence the solution 23 Nh4 (which at the same time improves the scope of the knight, threatening to come to f5.) After the meek 23 h3 was followed by 23…h6, the same idea again was the best chance, but he didn’t take it. It’s curious to know what he missed. Soon after the game liquidated in a drawn queen endgame and ended with perpetual check.

Grischuk repeated the same line in the French Karjakin used against Agdestein. This time however the Norwegian was the first to deviate with the novelty 16…Rb8, Houdini’s first choice. Agdestein’s way to combat the elite with black is worth noting – against 1 d4 he chose the solid Queen’s Indian, thus avoiding forced surprises, while against 1 e4 he himself choses deeply analysed lines. Against Karjakin it could have led him in trouble, as Karjakin introduced a good novelty, but this time it was him to introduce a novelty and he didn’t have any problems in the opening. It was apparent that Grischuk, just like Karjakin before him, was trying to win at all costs – some of his decisions cannot be explained otherwise. 23 a3 was interesting, sacrificing a pawn to enter a position with opposite coloured bishops. These can be very dangerous in the French, they usually favour the side with the better king and in this case it seemed it was the white one. But white couldn’t get his pieces to cooperate optimally and black was successful to parry the threats. 32 c4 was a reckless move, it reminds me of a man who cannot break down a wall and eventually uses his head to do it. Probably white could still have drawn after it (35 Rd8), but he wasn’t playing for a draw and it should have cost him dearly had black found 39…Rg2 winning on the spot. After 41…Be6, another imprecision, Grischuk played the best moves to escape with a draw. A game with almost identical pattern with the Karjakin-Agdestein game: the favourites try too hard to win, end up lost, but eventually escape unpunished. Had Agdestein won those two games he would have been leading this tournament…

Some people are not born to play the Open Sicilian and one of those people is Giri. He probably tried to catch Topalov in some prepared line in the Najdorf, but when Topalov unexpectedly chose the Rauzer Giri was like lost at sea. 14 h4 on paper seems like a good, Sicilian, attacking move, but in Giri’s case it was connected with the idea of Rh3-d3 (and later to d2) to defend his queenside! The typical move for these structures, f5, without which white cannot achieve anything, was played on move 30! This cautious play may be good for the Catalan, but it’s the most inappropriate thing white can do in the Sicilian. It should have been a scholarly game for Topalov, he outplayed Giri very easily (I’d even say typically, as it usually happens when white is passive in the Sicilian) and it would have been a great example had Topalov found 25…Qa6 with the idea of Qa8 – curiously enough white cannot defend the e4-pawn. He got a second chance when the typical Sicilian break in the centre 31…d5 would have given him a winning position. Instead of winning Topalov blundered in 1 move by 31…Kh8 as after 32 Nf3 his rook on e5 and pawn on d6 are both under attack. Giri mopped things up after that. I’m afraid that what I said about Topalov is becoming true and the blunders definitely do not help his cause. Giri was lucky this time, but maybe this game marks a change of generations in the top echelons of the elite.

There is one thing that will be intriguing tomorrow and that is the clash between the leader and the tail-ender. Something similar happened in the Candidates – before round 6 in Khanty Kramnik was on +1, trailing Anand by half a point and playing good chess. But then he played Topalov with black (who at that time was on -1) and he famously lost that game. From then on his play was never the same and he dropped out of contention. Tomorrow Topalov is again white and it will be very interesting to see what they prepare this time, especially in view of Kramnik’s lost theoretical battle in Khanty. A lot of unknowns, but one thing is certain – they won’t shake hands.
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Stavanger 2014 – Round 4

Something happens when Karjakin plays. Today he went for 1 d4 against Grischuk and against the expected Grunfeld he chose the Be3, Qd2 set-up. Grischuk deviated a bit from the mainstream theory and Karjakin seemed to be caught unprepared. Incidentally, I have played this line before with black (in 2001 and 2002) and after having analysed it I came to the conclusion that the only way for white is to play 11 d5. After Karjakin’s 11 Ng5 black has good play. Soon enough, strange things started to happen – first instead of 16 0-0 Karjakin played 16 Bd4, which allowed 16…Bh6, but even after Grischuk’s 16…Bd4 black seems to be taking over the initiative. Now how is this possible for a player who has a whole brigade of coaches working for him (I read somewhere that there were 9 of them), to be worse with white after 16 moves in an opening he was expecting? And it’s not even his first time, just remember the most recent examples Karjakin-Nakamura, Shamkir (the 14 f3?? in the King’s Indian) and Karjakin-Carlsen, Shamkir, both games in openings he was expecting and yet coming out of the opening with a worse position. Back to the game, after the expected 17 Qd4 when black can play 17…Nd3 immediately or prepare it with 17…Bb5, black is already a bit better, but instead of this Karjakin decided just to give the exchange by taking 17 cd4. I don’t know what he missed, but after the forced sequence on move 21 he was in a technically lost position. It’s not easily winning, far from it, but for players of this caliber it should be a technical win. And then Karjakin started to find the best possible chances while Grischuk seemed to relax prematurely. 22…b6 (instead of his 22…b5) not weakening c5 is one suggestion, 24…a5 is another weakening move, probably missing 25 Rc3 with the idea of Rc5. Grischuk continued to push his queenside pawns, but without the proper support they were harmless – after taking on e7 and establishing strong passed pawns in the centre Karjakin was out of danger. And as it usually goes in such situations, the player with the advantage cannot readjust and eventually loses. Amazing win for Karjakin – you cannot say it’s undeserved, but also on the other hand what kind of play is that for an alleged challenger for the world title? And a pity for Grischuk who seemed to be on his way to 3/4 and a hattrick of wins, but alas, he only has himself to blame.

Nothing much to comment about Aronian-Svidler. They played a long theoretical line in the Grunfeld that ends in an equal endgame. They drew just after the control. Strange choice by Aronian, to say the least.

Topalov introduced a novelty on move 10 against Carlsen’s Ragozin and it seemed that white had a slight edge. Carlsen was obviously eager to complicate things as he went for the a2-pawn, but this gave white ample play with his pair of bishops. White had full compensation for the pawn when he decided to repeat the moves – Topalov has a horrible score against Carlsen, so maybe it’s understandable why the usually pugnacious Bulgarian decided to end the game so soon. I wonder whether Carlsen is getting impatient because he cannot win a game.

Kramnik played the very rare 11…h6 against Agdestein in a very topical line of the Nimzo Indian. Agdestein is very solid in this tournament and he continued to be so – as soon as he got the chance, he pushed 13 d5 and liquidated into a symmetrical position where he had a slight press but where the draw was the likely result after the expected mass exchanges down the d-file. That is what happened and I thought Agdestein would play the simplest 27 b3, just taking away the pawns from the dark squares. He went for the more active 27 Qd8 and after the exchanges of pawns black had a passed a-pawn, but white’s activity allowed him to control it. They drew after the bishops were exchanged and black held a perpetual check.

Caruana-Giri was the round’s most complicated game. The opening reminded me of Botvinnik-Portisch, Monaco 1968, one of Botvinnik’s most beautiful games, only there black didn’t allow b4 by playing 10…a5 (after a slight transposition of moves), while Giri decided to allow it. So just like in Svidler-Kramnik from round 1, the Reversed Sicilian a tempo up (also known as the English Opening) didn’t give white anything. But they don’t play that to get an advantage, they play it to get a position. And they did get a position, a complex maneuvering position with a lot of ideas to think about – white could push e4 or d4, he could try to play along the b-file; black could try to push f4 himself or just stay solid and react to white’s ideas. I was surprised by Giri’s 19…g5, not a move you’d expect from a cautious player like him. He could have gone 19…Nde7, something he did on the next move. Maybe he was worried about 20 f4 then as after the exchange of queens white retakes with the g-pawn and establishes a pawn mass in the centre. It’s difficult to move it though, but perhaps Giri was just worried and wanted to avoid it. In the subsequent maneuvering Caruana outplayed Giri, I have the impression that he was psychologically uneasy because of his weakened king. But Caruana missed his chance after the time-control and they transposed to a heavy-piece endgame, which was equal.

A very tight tournament and +2 might as well win it. Wins are very hard to come by and as we have seen so far they happen only when a big mistake occurs, otherwise the players’ defensive skills, technique and opening preparation do not allow for winning chances.

Tomorrow the world number 1 plays the world number 2, but somehow I don’t expect much from that game. I hope I’m wrong though.
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Stavanger 2014 – Round 3

Today we found out that Carlsen knows how to prepare topical lines. I read it somewhere that he’s consciously going for complex positions, on one hand to enrich his playing style, and on the other, and this is my opinion, to prepare for the match with Anand – after all, he can’t expect Anand to do the same and play the boring chess he played in Chennai; surely Anand should try to play more active and dynamic chess and this is exactly what Carlsen has been doing in the tournaments this year (the games Nakamura-Carlsen, Zurich, Karjakin-Carlsen, Shamkir, Carlsen-Radjabov, Shamkir, Nakamura-Carlsen, Shamkir are all good examples.) Curiously enough, a week ago I was browsing through Kaufman’s book “Sabotaging the Grunfeld” where the line with 3 f3 is recommended for white. And quite unexpectedly, Carlsen goes for it! In the book Kaufman suggested the novelty 15 Bh6 and up to move 17 they followed his analysis when Caruana played 17…Qe7 instead of Kaufman’s 17…Qf8. Probably Caruana’s move is worse than Kaufman’s, who used a very powerful hardware for the book, as Carlsen managed to get an edge – after black’s 18…e5 white is better on both wings. But then it seems to me that Carlsen miscalculated something. It’s obvious that black’s counterplay is based on the move …c6 and on move 26 he could have prevented it with 26 Qe3 and if Rb8 renewing the threat, then 27 Qc5 with domination. Instead, he allowed it and suddenly it was white who had to be careful – a clear indication that he missed something in his calculations. Realising this, he made another debatable decision – instead of keeping equal material and defending against black’s initiative (30 Nd5 Nd5 31 ed and now black can choose between 31…a4 and 31…b4), he went for an endgame – a piece down. This decision clearly shows his preferences! True, he got two pawns for the piece, and they should have stayed only two, if it wasn’t for Caruana’s miscalculation on move 34 – he should have inserted the zwischenzug 34…gf4, the idea is that white cannot take on d7 in view of 35…f3 and black wins! Good technique often relies on such “details.” Instead he allowed Carlsen to get a third pawn for the piece and increase his drawing chances. The position was difficult to play for both – Carlsen had to be careful not to lose the pawns for nothing, and Caruana wanted to avoid too much simplification. Probably both players missed better ways of handling the position (as the comp suggests) but this only shows the level of complexity. Eventually Carlsen managed to save the draw. It’s not the first time that Carlsen gets into trouble with Caruana with white (see for example their games from Wijk aan Zee in 2010 and the Tal Memorial in 2013 – the latter particularly typical as he blundered in an equal position) but what is surprising is that he got into trouble after achieving an advantage from the opening – usually at this level it’s a rare sight to see an advantage turn into a fight for a draw. When it happens though, it’s always as a result of a miscalulation. Both players can be equally unhappy with the result, but Caruana still leads with 2.5/3 while Carlsen is yet to win a game.

It’s always a pleasure to see Kramnik go on the offensive, especially with black. This is such a rare sight and the examples I recall have mostly tended to backfire on him – against Naiditsch in Dortmund 2010, against Shirov in Shanghai in 2010, against Svidler at the Russian Championship in 2011 and most famously against Ivanchuk in the last round of last year’s Candidates. But today it went well for him, probably because they had a classical position on the board as Giri chose to play the Catalan against him. I very much liked 13…Qe8, the move that set the tone for the whole game. The idea is obvious: he wants to put the knight in the centre and play …f5. Giri seemed to play with fear, as if he didn’t expect such an open aggression from Kramnik. Kramnik’s 22nd continued his aggressive intent, he could have taken on b5 and played …b6, establishing something of a fortress, but he wasn’t interested in that – he sacrificed the pawn on a5 instead in order to plonk the knight on f3! When you’re under this sort of pressure, both psychological and chess-wise, it feels very uncomfortable and this makes it difficult to find the right moves – Giri chose to sit and wait while he could have tried to disturb Kramnik’s maneuvering by Ba5 at some point (on moves 34 and 35 for example.) Both players committed inaccuracies on move 40, as Giri’s 40 Qf1 allowed 40…Qf7 with the idea of Bb3, but they were both probably in time-trouble. But some mistakes are made on move 41 and that’s what Giri did – it seems that he completely missed that he had a weak back rank, after his 41 Rc2? Qe6 black threatens to take on h3 and mate with Rd1. It seems Giri just collapsed, but coupled with his missed 16…Rh4 yesterday, it doesn’t bode well for him at this tournament – missing tactics is the worst sin you can have in chess! On the other hand, a great game by Kramnik, it’s good to see him play liberated and aggressive chess, something he used to do in the late 1990s!

I admired Karjakin’s spirit today. Losing a game after 17 draws in a row must have pissed him off and he went out guns blazing against the rating outsider Agdestein. He was white and introduced a novelty on move 17 – it’s remarkable that Houdini doesn’t think much of it, while the move (17 g3) is actually recommended by the latest version of Stockfish! It’s obvious Karjakin (or his coaches) have used Stockfish to find this novelty – they followed Stockfish’s line until move 23 and here it seems Karjakin either forgot his preparation or didn’t leave Stockfish long enough to think. After 23 Bb4 white is almost winning! It takes Houdini quite a while to understand this – what an amazing discrepancy between the engines in this position (sometimes to crack a position you need to switch between the engines, usually one will suggest a way forward.) After his sacrifice 23 Nd5 he could maximum hope for a draw, but he kept pushing (he could have drawn with 26 ef6+ for example)! He didn’t risk losing, but to my eyes it seemed risking too much to play on in a position when the only side that had winning chances was black! As it usually happens, when you try too hard to win (and I suppose he was trying to win, even though there weren’t really any chances) the hunt becomes the hunter. 42 fg5 was the final drawing possibility as after 42 Qd3 black was already winning. Agdestein’s cleanest chance was on move 48, when the calm 48…Kf7 would collect the g7-pawn with the king, while after the game move it became messy again. Black’s last mistake was 55…f3 and after that white saved the draw. A hugely disappointing game and result for Karjakin – he blew a great novelty and then he spent most of the game trying to invent chances when there weren’t any, in defiance to the inevitable draw that should have happened. The only positive for him is that he didn’t lose, but I’m sure he was expecting to win against the lowest rated player in the tournament. But all sharks, big or small, have sharp teeth and Agdestein has definitely proven that he is one! It will be interesting to see if he manages to keep it up, even though I suspect that he will let his guard down when he tires, simply because he’s not used to this level of chess on a daily basis.

Svidler-Topalov started as a Najdorf, then transposed to a Scheveningen and after Topalov’s very rare 8…d5 (I must quote the only other game in the database: Gietl-Wuensch, Mittelfranken 1996) it transposed to a French with the superfluous a4 for white.This weakening gave black enough counterplay on the queenside. Topalov’s decision on move 17 (17…Qa5) is typical of the player’s character. A player with a calmer disposition and a liking for endgames would have taken on f2 and would have entered a well-known endgame that is slightly better for white, but drawable for black. Topalov chose to keep the queens on board in order to have more counter-attacking chances. In view of white’s weakening a4, I would tend to agree with him. But even with the queens on he was forced to patiently destroy white’s pawn centre, first with 22…f6 and then with 27…e5. This eventually allowed him to equalise. All in all a game that shows the kind of patience one must have when defending slightly worse positions.

Grischuk-Aronian was a strange game because it lasted only 12 moves. Something went awfully wrong with Aronian’s preparation, but usually that is not the end of the world in non-forced variations. To make things irreparable, he blundered badly with 12…e4 (losing a pawn, but he played this with his next in mind) and 13…Qf5, losing the queen. This reminds me of Mamedyarov’s blunder against Aronian at the Candidates, when he also lost the queen in the opening – what goes around, comes around you could say! The rest was not too difficult and Grischuk mopped things up. A nice comeback by Grischuk, who after the initial loss scored 2/2 and is now in shared second with Kramnik, half a point behind Caruana.

So blunders still lose games, let’s stick with yesterday’s motto!
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Stavanger 2014 – Round 2

Before examining the games from round 2, I’d like to explain why yesterday I called Agdestein’s exchange sacrifice a-la Botvinnik and not Petrosian, as everybody else. It is because it reminded me of a very old game of Botvinnik as black, somewhere from the 1940s, way before Petrosian became famous for his exchange sacrifices. So today I checked and the game in question was Luiblinsky-Botvinnik, Moscow 1943. Long time ago I was a serious student of Botvinnik’s games, thoroughly digesting his 3 tomes of selected games and not surpsingly something stuck in my memory.

Today was an exciting round. The main match-up of the day, Kramnik-Carlsen was a bit of a let-down because they chose to play it safe. It was a repeat of the Catalan they played back in 2011 in Wijk aan Zee. Kramnik blundered badly in that game and lost, but here it was Carlsen to introduce a novelty on move 11. It was within the boundaries of equality throughout and what I found interesting was to observe Carlsen (again!) try to squeeze something out of nothing in the symmetrical position starting from move 31. And, as we’ve grown accustomed by now, he managed to squeeze something! It was not enough for win, but he definitely made Kramnik suffer – he even won two pawns at one moment. Of course, Kramnik was never in any danger, but in games like this one it is no less important to establish a psychological initiative: Kramnik was pressing from the beginning and Carlsen defended patiently and when it was finally equal Carlsen started to play for more! Why? Because the trend shifted in his favour and he tried to capitalise on it. He didn’t manage this time, but players like Lasker, Karpov and Carlsen himself (to name just the most typical ones) have won immeasurable number of games after defending for long periods and when they finally equalised they started to play for a win, very often quite successfully. It is difficult for the side that had an advantage to shift gears and steer to a draw, they either continue playing under the impression of the old (and gone) advantage, or they just relax thinking that the position is an “easy draw.” In both cases they start to make mistakes and end up in trouble. This is the psychology behind the incredible victories of the great fighters.

Caruana made it 2/2. Svidler’s Paulsen quickly became very sharp and Caruana sacrificing, first a pawn and then a piece. My feeling is that these types of attacks in the Sicilian are won by white, in the vast majority, simply because it’s easier to play when attacking. It was far from straight-forward, of course – to illustrate, the comp gives 19…Rb8 as the only way to hold a draw! The idea is to play …Rb5 at some moment, defending the pinned knight on e5. Not an easy move to find! After 19…Bf6 Svidler gave his queen for a lot of material, but he probably missed that white recaptures one of the pieces by force. But even then I thought he had enough counterplay based on the passed f-pawn. Caruana’s 30thmove (30 Qf2) was strange to me – I thought it was natural to block the pawn with the rook, leaving the queen free to roam around. But he thought otherwise, he thought that the rook should roam around and the queen can jump out at the opportune moment. After looking at the position for a while I realise that it is actually difficult for black – white has many motifs to play for a win – he can use the h-pawn as a deflection in order to win the f-pawn, he can start attacking black’s queenside pawns with a3 and he can create threats against black’s king, while all black can do is wait. In such situations, when one side has ideas while the other one has to wait, it’s almost certain that the side with the ideas wins, as it is next to impossible to be very precise against anything that they throw at you. It also happened here, on move 38 (possibly in time-trouble) Svidler blundered (38…Bd7 would have continued the fight) and allowed a mating attack.

Topalov-Grischuk was an exciting Najdorf. By a curious transposition they found themselves in the old game Shirov-Gelfand from Greece 1993. Ever since then it was considered that black is quite comfortable and the current game didn’t change that verdict. Topalov varied with 17 Kb1, instead of Shirov’s 17 h4 (due to the …Ng4, Bc1 repetition in the opening the numbering of the moves is different from the Shirov game, there it was 15 h4) but black just proceeded with natural development of his pieces and it was him who actually started to create threats first. Topalov lunged forward on move 23 with Nf5, when he had a more solid alternative in 23 Bg5 and only then Nf5. The game move allowed …d5, but he probably thought that the pawn sacrifice gave him an attack – a typical decision by an aggressive player, trying to wrestle the initiative from the opponent by violent means. However, his 26 h5 allowed 26…Qf2, a kind of defensive move you know it’s good once you see it. Looking at the position with a comp, it suggests the check on h6 first (26 Nh6 Kg7 27 Bc1) and then it gets crazy and simply takes on b2 for black and after 28 Kb2 continues calmly with 28…Qc6. An amazing idea – the threat is Na4+ and the Nh6 is out of play. White can bring it back by 29 Nf5 Kg8 30 Nd4 and it seems it just wins, only to be countered by 30…Na4 31 Ka1 h5!! The line goes on 32 Qf3 Bd4 33 cd Rac8 and it’s “just” a draw (i.e. 0.00.) Unbelievable stuff, I mean it’s relatively easy to make sense of the moves, once you look at them with the help of the comp, but actually finding them over the board is impossible. After 26…Qf2 black took over the initiative as he managed to defend his kingside. I suspect that Grischuk was in time-trouble again, but it was Topalov who succumbed to the pressure with a gross blunder on move 33. I have the impression that Topalov is on his way out of the elite – he did win some Grand Prix tournaments last year, but his play was far from convincing and the disappointing result at the Candidates must have left him pretty depressed. I think he lacks motivation and, more importantly, energy to be able to play his trademark chess.

A long series of draws almost always finishes with a loss and this was proven again by Karjakin. He had 17 draws in a row until today and it seemed the series would continue as in a tame line of the Queen’s Indian Aronian only got a small advantage. But the advantage wouldn’t disappear in spite of the exchanges, making it more difficult to play with black. This structure, of 2 vs 1 pawns on the queenside and 3 vs 4 pawns on the kingside (from white’s point of view) can arise from many openings, like the French, the Sicilian and here from the Queen’s Indian. Usually it is pretty safe for black, provided he puts his knight on d5 and controls white’s queenside pawns. Here it was exactly this that was Karjakin’s problem – he couldn’t put a knight on d5: just watch how Aronian skillfully prevented it, first with 25 Qf3 (f7 is hanging) then 28 Re3, with the idea of retaking on f3 with a rook, again not letting the knight jump to d5. Hence Karjakin’s 28…Rf8, but then 29 Rc4, again preventing it – if black takes on f3, 29…Qf3 30 Rf3 Nd5, there comes 31 Nf7! It’s very difficult to play against this type of moves, you can’t play what you want, they are not letting you! And since you can’t play what you want, you play something you don’t want – nevertheless I’m still surprised by Karjakin’s 29…a4. Why give white a passed pawn for nothing? He should have kept still with something like 29…Qd6 and suffer some more. After 29…a4 30 b4 white’s advantage rose to almost decisive. Aronian even let black finally establish a knight on d5 as white’s domination was too much for black to handle. I was a surprised though by Aronian’s decision to put the wonderfully centralised knight on e5 on a6 (34 Nd7, 35 Nc5, 36 Na6), it just doesn’t look like “good technique.” The comp then suggests 36…Ra7 and says that black should hold – the idea is to prevent the exchange of black’s pride, the knight on d5. Karjakin missed that and went down quickly after the knights were exchanged.

Giri varied from his usual Grunfeld and went for the Ragozin against Agdestein, a rare occurrence in his repertoire. Agdestein in turn decided to turn back the clock and chose Capablanca’s move 7 Qa4 from his famous win against Spielmann in New York 1927. Giri decided not to follow Spielmann and chose the modern treatment of 7…c5 (incidentally, Spielmann played this in 1936). Agdestein’s 14 Be2 was new, but it didn’t change much in the position – black had good play in a typical position from the Ragozin. Something strange happened on move 16. The comp points out an amazing resource for black, namely 16…Rh4!! The idea is to come to e4 with the knight from f6 and then take on f2 as this knight cannot be taken by the king in view of Ne4+ and the queen on a3 is undefended. But otherwise white’s pawn on e3 also falls and white is just lost! This means that white’s 16 Rfd1 was a big mistake and that the players didn’t notice this hidden idea. Two moves later it was white’s turn to miss a tactic. By 18 c4 he could have got rid of the weak pawn and opened the position for his bishops. After 18…dc 19 Bd6 and Bxc5 black would have a difficult time to defend the doubled pawns on the c-file and his kingside. The same move c4 was a possibility again on move 20, but Agdestein decided to straighten up his structure by moving this pawn to d4 (after the exchange of the rooks on that square.) But this actually gave black a good square for the knight on e4 and from there it went to c3, completely paralysing white’s queenside. All white could do was give one of his bishops for the dominating knight and reach a drawn opposite-coloured bishop endgame. Curious missed chances by both opponents, especially the more positional c4 ideas, as the sacrifice on h4 really isn’t something you expect to work (and consequently you don’t look at it too deeply.)

If yesterday’s motto was “you don’t blunder, you don’t lose” today’s can quite appropriately be “you blunder, you lose!” Let’s see what tomorrow brings.
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Stavanger 2014 – Round 1

I am not able to follow the games live so I only take a look at them once they finish. I find this useful as I’m not clouded by the opinions of the commentators, the players, the GMs on Twitter and the rest of the world – I can draw my own conclusion and explain my own thoughts.

Before going on to the games, I noticed that even though Carlsen won the blitz, he didn’t get the number 1 starting number, as I expected, but he got number 4 instead. Whether it was his wish or there was something else, I don’t know.

So as number 4 Carlsen played Giri with white. In the blitz he allowed the Grunfeld but this time he decided to avoid it with 1 c4. Giri is well-known for his excellent preparation and fully in line with Carlsen’s strategy in the opening he went for something less explored. It’s curious to note that in the 23rd game in Seville Karpov also went for this system against Kasparov and managed to pose some problems to black. The first important decision was on move 12 – white decided to abandon his strong centre that limited the bishop on g7 and went for piece activity and initiative. Personally I prefer structure, but in modern chess initiative is probably valued more. I get a feeling that white was forced to go forward all the game as a result of this decision. So after 12 dc5, 13 Qd5 and 14 Rfd1 white got pressure in the centre and the queenside, but after black calmly defended white had to find a way to somehow keep the initiative that was about to evaporate. He went 16 Ng5 and after the forced 16…e6 17 Qc6. Somehow from move 12 to move 17 all play seems forced. Giri wasn’t forced to take on c6 and allow white a dangerous passed pawn, but perhaps he thought he could just take it? 17…Rac8 was quite possible when black is fully developed and not even close to being worse. But he was also OK after the game continuation – he must have calculated pretty well that he can contain the c7-pawn – in fact both players must have calculated pretty well – white not to lose it without compensation and black to see that he is out of trouble. And again pretty forced play ensues: white strives to defend the c7-pawn by all cost and black trying to take it, leading to a forced exchange sacrifice by white only to head to a positional draw when neither side can improve. White’s last chance was in fact 25 Bc5 and now I’d prefer to play 25…a5 with black, as after 25…Bc5 26 Nc5 and Na6 black is completely tied down – his best is probably 26…Kf8 27 Na6 Re8 with the idea to put the other rook on c8 and after 28 Nb8 Rb8 it’s a drawn rook endgame. 25…a5 is more double-edged after 26 Bd4 a4 27 Nf6 Kh8 white also needs to be careful. It’s probably again a draw, but at least here black threatens something with his a-pawn. All in all a good game, well played by both players and a somewhat surprising forced play from moves 12 to 17 and then from 17 to 25.

Aronian-Agdestein saw a theoretical line that I analysed more than 10 years ago when I was preparing the Queen’s Indian. Eventually I decided that I didn’t quite like these positions for black – he has good control over the central white squares, but I was never comfortable in the training games I played as white somehow always managed to regroup by Bf1 or Bh3, Nd2 or Nh4 and then f3 and e4 while black’s plan is rather vague. What Agdestein did was to play …c6 and …b5, followed by taking on c4 and opening the b-file. It’s one of black’s possible plans, but I don’t like it very much (this may be my old aversion to these type of positions!) Aronian exerted some pressure by putting his rooks on c1 and d1 and putting the knight on e1, finally achieving white’s basic plan of restriction of the black bishop by playing f3 and e4. But I’m not so sure this was good. Usually the unopposed bishop is the one to be activated and by closing the centre he killed it. It was better to play 22 Bc3, putting the bishop on the long diagonal. After 22 f3 the idea behind black’s 17…Re8 was seen as after 22…e5 he threatens …e4, forcing white to play e4 himself, but then the knight comes to d4. White’s knight also comes to d5, but since both knights can be taken with a bishop it means that eventually white will be left with a bad white-squared bishop. Eventually that is what happened but before that black even took over the initiative with the typical Botvinnik exchange sacrifice on b4. White was happy to escape after that. It seems that white’s chance for an advantage in the early middlegame was to push c5 at some moment, most conveniently on move 19. A good start for Agdestein, whom I had the pleasure to watch at the Llucmajor open where he played pretty well.

Svidler-Kramnik followed Carlsen-Kramnik, London 2009 until move 18, and now Kramnik put the knight on f7 instead of 18…Ne8. I have always wondered how is it possible that black has good play in this particular line of the English – it’s basically a Dragon Sicilian with colours reversed and a tempo up for white and yet white cannot prove an iota of an advantage! The peculiarities of chess I suppose. The game was very complex, both players were enticing each other with pawn sacrifices – first white could take on c7 (but then black develops strong iniative on the queenside after exchanging queens and putting a knight on c4) and then black could have taken on d3 on move 23, but then white would have compensation with the pair of bishops (even though the comp prefers black there.) Black didn’t have difficulty in the game, he even could have tried for more had he taken on c4 on move 24 – Kramnik went for a forced line leading to an equal endgame instead (with an optical pull for black though, something which is important when playing a game, but Svidler neutralised this neatly.)

Karjakin continues to dream he’s Carlsen. He went for an unambitious set-up against Topalov just to get a game. And he did get a game just that he didn’t win. Topalov’s 7…g6 is a known motif in these structures, usually arising from the Queen’s Indian when white plays 4 e3. My first thought was to take advantage of this by 9 Ba3, but it doesn’t work – black plays 9…Nc6 and puts pressure on the d4-pawn. Then my second idea was to take advantage of the fact that black has already played …a6 and play c5 and b4. This is a typical idea in these structures and white could in fact have played 10 c5 followed by Nc3. It is more effective here than in the Queen’s Indian because there black already has a pawn on b6 and that makes the c5-push more difficult to achieve. So that was an interesting option for white. After the standard moves 10 Nbd2 Nc6 11 Ne5 black had an interesting tactical possibility, he could have taken 11…Nd4. It’s unclear after 12 Bg6 hg 13 Bd4 – white has a strong grip in the centre, but with the pair of bishops black can’t be worse. It’s curious to know whether the players missed this. After Topalov’s solid 11…Bd7 white seemed to get what he wants with this system: good centralisation and more space. But black is solid as a rock – the reason behind this is the fianchetto as usually white wishes to attack the king after a timely d5-break but here that’s impossible. This makes me wonder whether then white’s set-up loses its appeal – why put all the pieces aimed at the kingside when you can’t do anything there? So Karjakin started to play on the queenside 14 a4, 15 Qb3 and then mixed it up with 17 Rfd1 and 18 f4. All this makes an incoherent impression and it was no surprise that white had to defend after black started attacking the pawns on c4 and d4 (not hanging anymore as there was a pawn on e5, but targets nevertheless.) An interesting decision was to push 22 d5 and take the exchange – it wasn’t a way to get an advantage, but rather a way to change the dynamics of the position, to create an imbalance, as white was under pressure in the centre and even though nothing immediate was visible for black, nobody wants to just sit and wait. Hence the decision to lunge forward and stir things up. With the pawn weaknesses on a5 and e5 and the more vulnerable king white had to be a bit careful as black’s position was just too solid with the blockade on the white squares. But white did have a better try on move 27, 27 Rdd1 at least kept the queens and the tension on. Instead, Karjakin’s 27 Rf4 allowed black to reduce the material and draw comfortably.

The only decisive game was Grischuk-Caruana. In a fianchetto Benoni I was surprised by black’s 13…a5 – not a move you normally see in a Benoni! But it wasn’t the “horrible positional blunder that gives away b5” because white couldn’t prevent black’s …b5 on the next move. As black was dominating the queenside with his rook on b4 white’s only possible plan was to try to do something on the other wing. Using his knight and black-squared bishop Grischuk created some threats on the kingside and Caruana decided to sacrifice a pawn in order to get rid of white’s black-squared bishop, thus eliminating possible threats against his king and establishing a monster bishop on g7, which coupled with his passed a-pawn seemed very Grunfeld-like (don’t forget that Caruana is a Grunfeld player!) White wisely sacrificed an exchange for the dangerous a-pawn and it seemed the game would be a draw as white had no weaknesses. But then time-trouble happened and sadly enough Grischuk blundered on move 38 (38 Qa1 should draw instead.) An exciting game spoiled by a blunder and now we have a leader in the tournament.

Tomorrow’s big match-up is Kramnik-Carlsen, so I’m looking forward to that!
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Stavanger 2014 Starts With a Bang (On the Clock)

It’s an interesting idea to have a blitz tournament instead of drawing of lots and it seems it’s catching on. It is based on the premise that the players who finish in the first half of the standings in the blitz will have an extra white in the classical part. All well and logical, but what if the player who wins the blitz doesn’t wish to start with two whites in a row? That isn’t the case with Carlsen though, as he quite likes it – he started as number one in several tournaments and won them all!

He will also start as number 1 in Stavanger as he won the blitz convincingly with 7.5/9, full point ahead of Aronian, which means he will be white against the Armenian in round 2.

I was surprised to see Kramnik collapse – he started well with 2/2 and then drew two and lost 3 in a row, followed by a draw with Carlsen and yet another loss to Aronian in the last round.

The funniest game of the blitz was of course Carlsen-Caruana, which saw the Italian blunder a piece on move 11 and resign immediately. Anything is possible in blitz.

But these results don’t mean anything. My last tournament in Llucmajor also started with a blitz. I was too tired from the trip and the toils of the week before so my head wasn’t working too well – I was playing fast and very badly (which is still much better than playing slowly and badly.) But it did help me in a sense of getting “a fast hand” which was especially important as the tournament’s time control was 90 minutes plus 30 seconds to finish the game – in almost all my games I was ahead on the clock and had my opponents in time trouble. As for the head, once I got a good sleep it started to work as expected and I had a very good tournament.

As a sidenote, here at my training camp I also dedicate time to physical training. One of the things I do is this:


You can see a number on the bottom stair, that’s 214. I climb these stairs at least 5 times a week and I can assure you that the first week I had no eyes for a tiger nor I felt motivated by a punching bag – in fact I felt like one! But things improve with constant practice and now I can proudly say that I climb these 214 stairs without problems!

So after tomorrow’s climb I am looking forward to the games of the first round in Stavanger!
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Gashimov Memorial 2014 Round 10 – No Surprises

Everything ended as expected, but we were definitely enjoying the ride! Round 10 saw Carlsen win again, avenging his loss to Caruana from the first half of the tournament and winning the tournament a point ahead of the same Caruana.

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!

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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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