Category : Tournaments

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.


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.


Candidates 2014 – Round 6

An incredible round today. Two decisive games and if yesterday there was nobody on 50%, now 50% of the players are on 50%.

The game of the day was of course Topalov-Kramnik. I have an impression that Kramnik has problems playing Topalov because of the open animosity the latter (and his manager) show toward him (although he denied this in his separate press conference). The game reminded me very much of their last encounter in Wijk aan Zee in 2008 where Topalov implemented Cheparinov’s aggressive and risky sacrificial idea of 12 Nf7 in the Anti-Moscow gambit, winning a good game. The position was objectively good for black, but Kramnik didn’t manage to cope with the problems and lost. Today Topalov didn’t sacrifice anything, but again he implemented a rare idea and again Kramnik didn’t manage to get a grip on the position (he said he missed something in his preparation of this side line). When asked to make a prediction for the tournament Grischuk noted that Kramnik is pretty weak with the black pieces, of course that was tongue-in-cheek, but today we saw what he meant – a deeply analysed side line that poses practical problems is Kramnik’s Achilles’ heel in the opening, especially with black and Topalov took advantage of it. And yet it was surprising to see Kramnik go down so easily, practically without a fight (the same happened in Wijk in 2008). In his press conference Kramnik said that he didn’t really have a chance in this game, as Topalov played the best moves all the time and he didn’t feel he played badly, so he had nothing to reproach himself about. But I think it seems that it all added up – yesterday’s missed chance, the animosity that prevents him from fully concentrating, the practical problems in the position, set out very early on in the game (8 Be5). Topalov clearly enjoyed the moment of his triumph, not-so-subtly rubbing it in in the press conference when he said that 8 Be5 was dubious (insinuating that he beat Kramnik with a dubious idea) and saying that the position was “probably too deep for him (Kramnik).” A perfect comeback for Topalov after yesterday’s confusion and a serious setback for Kramnik who is now back to 50% and a full point behind the leader Anand.

Mamedyarov is another player who came to 50%, bringing his opponent Svidler along. Svidler said that he planned to play the Dutch in this tournament and he decided to do that today. He got a great position after the opening as the game quickly started on an independent path (10 Ba3 was a new move). In Svidler’s own words, the game was decided when he went “braindead” at move 22 and lost the game in 3 moves: first missing 22…Qd7 which would have given him a better game, then blundering 23…Qc8?, when both 23…Qd7 or 23…c6 would have been satisfactory, and then the inexplicable 24…h6?? (which he said he wanted to “unsee”), when the position is difficult, but still he could have put up a stiffer resistance with 24…Ra2. It’s difficult to explain what happened to Svidler, but he seems to be the main man of action in this tournament, taking and giving points practically all by himself.

Anand decided to enter the Berlin endgame against Karjakin for the first time since the game 4 of the match with Carlsen. He tried to improve on the rapid game Karjakin-Grischuk, but Karjakin was careful and never in any real danger. Karjakin continues to do the same, to make dull draws, while Anand seems happy to sit on his lead and preserve his energy. He more or less explained it when he said that you have to wait for your chances and then take them. So far he’s taken his chances and now he’s waiting for new ones.

Aronian played a line which I was one of the first players to play, only with black. I won a nice game against Pantsulaia at the European Team Championship in Crete in 2007 in this sacrificial line in the Reti and I analysed the line both in my preparation for the game and afterwards. My conclusions were that the line was satisfactory for black. It leads, however, to an unconventional position (at the press conference he said he was analysing this a year ago with Arshak Petrosian) where black needs to solve some problems (he said he kept losing to Petrosian in the analysis, but I doubt it). With good preparation that is not so difficult, something I demonstrated against Pantsulaia, but I don’t think Andreikin expected it so it was tricky for him. He did obtain a good position, but the character of the position seems to have been more to the liking of Aronian – it’s easier to play white and there are always some tricks as black’s position is somewhat loose. After the complications (when he could have won in more than one way) he emerged a clear pawn up, but then I was very surprised he exchanged the Fischer Bishop for the Knight and went for a Rook endgame (he said he was frustrated by that point). Admittedly, by then he had allowed the black Rook to an active position behind the pawn and it looked difficult to make progress, but still we know what they say about Rook endgames! As it happened, Andreikin defended well and fully deserved the half point. A disappointment for Aronian, undoubtedly, who was winning in the middlegame (and most probably in the endgame too, for example he could have taken on e4 with the Bishop, something Aronian confirmed in the press conference, and put the Rook on a7, eyeing f7 and then pushed the a-pawn), but this is his first missed chance in the tournament, while he did have some close shaves (against Kramnik and Topalov). He’s still in second place, so nothing is lost for him, while this difficult draw should be motivating for Andreikin who is still in last place.

Tomorrow’s a rest day and the timing is always right for a rest day in a tough tournament like this one.


Candidates 2014 – Round 5

We had another treat today at the Candidates.  The game of the day was Kramnik-Aronian, but what I found most surprising was the only decisive game of the day.

It’s funny how quickly my prediction from yesterday came true when I said that usually a series of draws ends in a loss and that is exactly what happened to Topalov today. He managed to get his preparation in and he got a great position, but all of a sudden he started to play very badly. It has happened way to many times to me too, and I always found it difficult to explain why. Svidler was his usual dramatic self when he proclaimed he was very lucky, but his luck was more than deserved – he played very well! This game puts him firmly among the favourites of the tournament, not only because of the points he has, but more importantly because of the play he’s showing. I don’t know if it’s a coincidence that Topalov lost an endgame, even though a favourable one – he generally prefers positions with queens on board. A disappointing turn of events for Topalov, whose tomorrow’s game is against Kramnik, but maybe this is a reward for Svidler, who showed courage yesterday and is now back on track only half a point behind the leader Anand. There’s another twist of Fate for you!
Anand didn’t have problems in the opening against Andreikin and even outplayed him on the black side in the fashionable 4 d3 line against the Berlin move order. Again his extensive preparation of these lines for the Carlsen match showed in his superior understanding and smooth play. What was perplexing though, as Sutovsky pointed out on Facebook, is why he didn’t continue the game in the final position. Yes, it should be a draw, but why not try to squeeze something out of it? I can also understand Anand, who probably thought more about preserving his energy in a long event, but still you need every chance in this kind of a tournament. Usually when you don’t take a chance like this, it comes back to you when somebody else takes it against you and you’re forced to suffer in an unpleasant position. It is bound to happen to Anand, sooner or later, as he cannot expect to go through the whole event without a difficult position. And then we will see if he still has what it made him one of the toughest defenders in the history of modern chess.
Karjakin continued to make uneventful draws. He tried, unsuccessfully, to emulate Carlsen and get a position with the most minimal of edges, but that seems to work only for Carlsen. As it was, he did get the most minimal of edges against Mamedyarov’s Sicilian (he even played Carlsen’s favourite 3 Bb5+), only to agree to a draw some 10 moves later. I don’t know if the loss to Kramnik in round 2 disturbed something in his psyche, but I suppose both players were happy with the draw today.
Kramnik introduced another one of his new concepts, this time in the Queen’s Indian structures when white plays 4 e3, even though the game started as a Queen’s Gambit. Those structures were considered harmless for black, but Aronian allowed white to play 12 Ne5 (he could have prevented it with 11…Bd6 – in this case check out the game Fressinet-Ivanchuk, from the Paris GP last year – Fressinet is well known to have worked with Kramnik before) and then develop dangerous initiative on the kingside. He was winning at some point, but it was never “elementary” (as Kramnik said in the press conference) and Aronian was resilient as always. Kramnik wasn’t too disappointed after the game as he said that it’s the quality of the game that matters to him most and this game was certainly of a very high quality (from human perspective!) as it can be expected of these two players. Tomorrow’s games could be defining for them: Aronian is white against tail ender Andreikin and will surely try to capitalise on that, while Kramnik has black against his old nemesis Topalov, who will need no further motivation, especially after today’s bad loss. I just wonder whether there will be a handshake…

Candidates 2014 – Round 4

It’s been pretty hectic since I returned from Iceland, I cannot seem to find the time to enjoy the games properly as they deserve.

Today’s games were again very interesting. The least interesting, however, from a point of view of independent play, was the duel of the former World Champions. In a Vienna, it was all preparation, from beginning to end. The only difference was that Kramnik refreshed his memory before the game so he was more confident, while Anand had to dig into his memory a bit more in order to remember how the line went. But it was an important theoretical game, one of the many the pair has had in the past. Their press conference was much more interesting, especially when they got to the philosophical themes. I particularly liked Kramnik’s comment of not needing to understand chess too much! Understanding it a little bit better than the opponent is all you need, according to the Russian and he knows what he’s talking about. I can actually relate to that, because once you get in too deep (in any area, for that matter, not only chess) you start to become too philosophical, you start to think about the meaning of it all and that takes away the competitiveness, the sharpness and the aggression, all of which are needed for a successful outcome of the game.

Karjakin probably surprised Topalov with 1 c4, but that was all he achieved. Topalov has a lot of experience in the Reversed Dragon in the English so he didn’t have too many problems throughout the game. A solid draw, but that means different things for the players. Karjakin so far continues in line with my prediction that he will be solid and not push too hard, while Topalov might get nervous if he doesn’t win a game soon. He still hasn’t had a chance to win a game and usually a long drawing series ends with a loss. Tomorrow he’s black against the disappointed Svidler, so anything is possible…

Aronian beat Svidler and they changed places in the standings. Svidler was principled and went for the Grunfeld (compare this decision with the one from London when he surprised Aronian with a rare line in the QGA and drew without problems), but I warned about this in my Preview – the Grunfeld is a risky opening, no matter how well prepared you are. Here again we saw a very deep preparation from both players (just remember that “These People Cannot Be Trusted” when Aronian says he didn’t know the line) – it was preparation at least until move 27 (and almost certainly much deeper), the first critical moment when Svidler had a big thing whether to draw (by taking on d4 – I’m sure he knew this was a draw even before the game) or continue the game, which he did. This decision speaks volumes of Svidler’s psychological disposition: he showed great courage and self-confidence by continuing the game in a position which is easier to play for white against one of the favourites of the tournament, against whom a draw with black is a great result. Eventually he regretted this decision and Aronian won a good game, but this courage shows that Svidler has matured. But on the other hand, he repeated the same scenario from London when he was completely winning against Gelfand in round 5 (a win would have brought him to +2, just like the win against Kramnik would have two days ago) and after the disappointment with the draw in that game he lost to Carlsen the next day – this time he lost to Aronian (is Svidler losing to the eventual winners?). Svidler showed character, but Fate has her own ways and maybe this showing of characted was in fact a good omen for Aronian, who won a point from a brave Svidler while he may have only achieved a draw had Svidler been the old one. Such twists of Fate usually favour the chosen ones. Whether Aronian is the chosen one in this tournament we will see, but this game, for me at least, makes Aronian the main favourite to win the tournament (even though he’s still half a point behind Anand at this point). Until the next twist of Fate, of course.

Mamedyarov and Andreikin also switched places in the standings after the former’s victory. It was a topsy-turvy game, showing that both players aren’t in very good form. I found it interesting watching Mamedyarov in the press conference when he showed a line where he thought he couldn’t take the pawn on f6 with his queen from f3 because he thought he was losing the queen after Bg7, only to realise that he could go back to f3! The horror on his face made it obvious that in that moment he realised that this was not the usual way he calculates variations and that if it continues like this it will soon get much worse. Andreikin was more collected, but he too was disappointed as he was also trying to win. Neither of the players was happy with the quality of their moves, the only difference being that Mamedyarov got the point. I am curious to see how they try to get over these lapses in their thinking (a situation way too familiar from personal experience! I’ve always found it almost impossible to improve the quality of my brain work during a tournament).

Tomorrow’s big game is Kramnik-Aronian. Let’s see what they come up with this time!


Candidates 2014 – Rounds 2&3

Since I flew over Round 2 (I was in a plane somewhere between London and Skopje while they played) and slept through Round 3 (after barely sleeping for two nights in a row, I had a really refreshing 17-hour sleep) I didn’t have much time to analyse the games deeply, but I did get certain impressions that I will write about here.

Anand is leading after 3 rounds, with two very nice wins. Honestly, I am not surprised by this, because, like I said in my Round 1 analysis, his preparation and training for the Carlsen match, which didn’t work against Carlsen, is working against the other players. In Round 2 against Topalov he got his preparation in and I wouldn’t be surprised if the whole game was preparation for him. In Round 3 he didn’t have any problems in the opening and took advantage of Mamedyarov’s over-ambitious play with precise play on his part.

Kramnik’s saved draw with Svidler is no less important for him than the win against Karjakin. He introduced a conceptual novelty (and a new direction in the whole line – something I said I was looking forward to in my Preview) against Karjakin’s QGA already on move 9 and went on to win a good game. In the press conference he even said he tried to play unpleasant moves, which shows that he tries to learn from Carlsen! He was lost against Svidler in Round 3, but he kept on fighting and took his chance when it was presented to him. Making difficult draws is usually a good sign for a successful tournament!

Svidler was undoubtedly surprised by Andreikin’s choice of the Labourdonnais Sicilian in Round 2 and didn’t achieve much in the opening, but his subsequent play was very powerful. He simply made moves of higher quality than his opponent and won the game because of that. This is a very encouraging sign for him, but he must be disappointed by his draw against Kramnik as he outplayed him and was winning. Luckily, he has a day off to recover from that disappointment.

Aronian recovered quickly after his loss in Round 2, but this was thanks to a horrible blunder on Mamedyarov’s part. He played a wild game against Topalov in Round 3, but some of his decisions weren’t up to his usual standards (19…Re8?!). However, when it came to calculation and saving his skin, he was his usual self and defended accurately. He still needs to produce a game of quality on par with his level.

Topalov is the king of draws so far. In Round 2 against Anand he didn’t really have a chance for anything more because of Anand’s superb preparation, while in Round 3 he got a nice attacking position against Aronian, but couldn’t break through because of the latter’s precise defence. He may be in good shape (I attribute his shaky play in Round 1 to the initial nervousness), but he also needs to win a game or two soon if he wants to fight for victory in the tournament.

Karjakin lost the only game he actually played, against Kramnik, even though in his own words he “played well.” In Round 3 both he and Andreikin wanted to make a draw after their losses in the previous rounds. It is yet to be seen in what form he is in.

The same more or less applies to Andreikin. He was outplayed by Svidler in Round 2, after surprising him in the opening and achieving a comfortable position. I’d say that game showed a difference in class. So, pragmatic as he is, he made a draw in the next round and has a day off to think things through.

Mamedyarov is in grave danger of being labeled the outsider in this tournament, repeating the role of his compatriot Radjabov from last year. Even he seems confused by his atrocious play (repeating Radjabov’s explanation in the press conference that possibly it’s his lack of practice the reason for his blunders). Practically a one-move blunder against Aronian in Round 2 and a typically open-tournament style of play against Anand show that he really must pull himself together. The free day comes just in time for him.

After 3 rounds 3 players have shown that they are in good form, Anand, Kramnik and Svidler, Topalov and Aronian still seem to need time to get into the tournament while the others will have to show their character and will to overcome the first setbacks.


Candidates 2014 – First Impressions (Round 1)

I barely slept in the last 24h and had a very early start this morning at 4am when I was picked up at my Icelandair Marina Hotel in Reykjavik for a transfer to the Keflavik airport. I then boarded a WOW Airlines flight to London which took 3 hours.

So when I arrived in London, the games of the first round of the Candidates had already finished. Honestly speaking, thinking of chess when seriously lacking sleep sends the brain in a completely different dimension. Let’s see what my brain came up with when I looked at the games and the statements of the players.

Andreikin-Kramnik was the first game to finish. The moves of this game weren’t particularly interesting, as they were following the Mamedyarov-Kramnik game from the last Tal Memorial for a long time and the line is practically a forced draw. Andreikin deviated just to draw in 32 moves instead of Mamedyarov’s 26. What I found interesting were the statements of the players after the game: Andreikin said that he expected “almost anything” against his 1 d4 (really? Kramnik is known for his consistency, especially with black, and even though he could have prepared “almost anything” during the 3 months or preparation, the Nimzo is one of the things that he’s been playing since the 90s). Then he said that he had a “special philosophy when preparing for Kramnik” but he didn’t want to go into details, to which Kramnik responded that he already knew what this “special philosophy” meant, but he also didn’t want to elaborate. But for the careful observer this is pretty obvious – Andreikin goes for drawing lines against Kramnik, and if the latter forgets his theory (like in the drawing line in the Berlin from the Russian Championship last year) then he gets an advantage. The same was applicable today, but I don’t think he expected he would get something – he said he had a “safe line” prepared for the Nimzo and that’s what happened. As it transpired, neither of them minded starting the event with a quiet draw, something Kramnik confirmed in the press conference.

Karjakin-Svidler showed that both players suffered from the usual nerves in Round 1. Svidler went for the Taimanov Sicilian, unusual for him, as he primarily opts for the Kan or the Najdorf. He did play the Taimanov against Caruana last year at the European Club Cup, but to say that it was the “very likely” choice (like Karjakin said) it’s just a plain lie. This just goes against the following statement of Karjakin when he said that he couldn’t remember his analysis after 9…Ng4 – if it was that likely, how come he couldn’t remember the first move after the branch he chose (9 f4)? So we are led to believe that Karjakin expected the Taimanov, so he was prepared, went for the English Attack, 6 Be2 a6 7 Qd2 Nf6, then chose 8 f4 (instead of 8 0-0-0) and after 8…b5 9 e5 Ng4, he couldn’t remember his analysis??? Oh please… Svidler’s statement that he “forgot to repeat” the lines after 9 f4 also shouldn’t be taken seriously as Svidler is famous for this kind of misleading comments. The game itself was interesting, but I have the impression both players were just looking for the first opportunity to start repeating moves – the tension was starting to tell.

To sum up statements of the Russian players, I’ll quote one political slogan that can be seen on the streets of Skopje: “These people cannot be trusted!”

Mamedyarov-Topalov was another case of nerves, but it’s interesting to observe how these fighting players, who don’t (or can’t) go for drawing lines resolved this issue. Mamedyarov went for the innocuous 4 Nbd2 in the Slav, something he played in one game at the European Team Championship last year (against Erdos) and in 4 rapid and blitz games at the Sportaccord rapid/blitz event, also last year. Topalov introduced a novelty as early as move 6 and equalised comfortably. And here the nerves started to show, these fighting players with dynamic styles started to allow innacuracies which are not typical of them. Topalov’s 19…a5 was a miscalculation (in his own words) and then Mamedyarov started missing his opponent’s moves. Eventually it all ended in a perpetual check, but the notable difference between the other two drawn games is that when uncompromising players (or, perhaps, characters) play, they almost never draw timidly or search for the first opportunity to repeat moves and their nervousness is shown not in the premature end of the game, but in the oversights that happen in their calculations.

The only player who seemed not to suffer from nerves was Anand. In spite of Aronian’s novelty in the Anti-Marshall on move 11, he continued to play sound chess and it was the latter that showed signs of nerves. This doesn’t bode well for the Armenian, as many (myself included) have pointed out that it is his nerves that prevent him from winning tournaments of this type, where the stakes are high. He even said it in the press conference, that his calculations “weren’t serious.” He even got into time-trouble, something that doesn’t happen with him. Maybe it’s understandable that Anand was so carefree, the burden of the world title is off his shoulders so he can just play chess and enjoy it. And he played a great technical game, probably the training he did for the Carlsen match finally starts to show (he did say that he trained with the idea of matching Carlsen in his endgame and technical skills). This win undoubtedly gives him confidence while it dents Aronian’s. It will be interesting to see how both adapt in their new situations.

Tomorrow is Round 2 and I will be up in the air flying from London to Skopje when they start at 10am EST. Another sleepless night awaits me…


The Candidates 2014: Analysis – Part II

In this second part of the analysis I will focus on the children of the (computer) revolution. Again, in order of probability of winning the tournament.

1. Aronian is the player on fire this year. He played in both Wijk and Zurich and was in great shape, winning Wijk and sharing second in Zurich. The curious thing in both tournaments was that in both he lost in the last round. Probably a coincidence, but last rounds do have their own peculiarities. Together with Kramnik and Anand, Aronian is the world’s best prepared player. His white repertoire is incredibly well studied and sharp – in 2014 his score with white in classical games is 6.5/8, the only loss being to Van Wely in the last round in Wijk, when he already secured 1st place. Like Kramnik he is a player who tries to win with white as his black repertoire, especially against 1 e4, is rather conservative, focusing on the various lines in the Spanish (but even here if white overpresses black can win – see for example his game with Dominguez from Wijk, but that is not very likely to happen in the Candidates). I expect everything to be OK with Aronian chess-wise, but it will be interesting to see if he finally managed to overcome the problem of his nerves. The collapse in the second half in London left a mark on his subsequent play throughout the year, something which he finally overcame when he played for his beloved Armenia in the European Team Championship and the World Team Championship. Will the pressure again turn out to be too much for him or has he matured and learned how to keep himself under control? This is the key question that will determine whether Aronian will win and earn the right to face Carlsen later this year.

2. Karjakin was the lucky loser in the World Cup and thanks to Kramnik’s fantastic performance got his ticket to Khanty. Players who get into tournaments thanks to luck are usually a safe bet for a good showing, but this is a different tournament than most. Karjakin is a classical all-round player, with excellent preparation and support team (working on a permament basis with Dokhoian, Kasparov’s former coach, and Motylev, a fantastic analyst, plus the usual logistical support from the Russian Federation specifically for this tournament). But this former child prodigy seems to have failed somewhat to live up to his alleged potential. True, in the last few years he is in Carlsen’s shadow (who isn’t?), but I think more was expected of Karjakin by this time. He is a solid Top 10 player, no doubt about it, but now it is high time he showed what he’s capable of and what his ambitions are. A good showing in the Candidates will solidify his status as a potential challenger and justify his luck of getting in the tournament. This tournament is his chance to make a leap from a Top 10 player to a Top 2 or 3 player and from there he can think of more. Karjakin already has a lot of experience playing the elite players and sooner rather than later he will have to step things up. But I still think he will play it safe in this tournament as he probably lacks the self-confidence necessary to play for 1st place in this company. He will be very solid with both white and black and will wait for his chance in case somebody overpushes against him or in case somebody turns out to be completely out of shape. I don’t expect anything spectacular from him, but I am looking forward to see his preparation.

3. Mamedyarov got his reward for the stability he showed in the last year by qualifying for the Candidates from the Grand Prix. He matured a lot and the groundwork set in the preparation for his match with Gelfand in Kazan 2011 (when he admitted that he changed a lot both in his preparation and style) finally bore the fruit last year. But in spite of this newly-acquired stability, Mamedyarov is a volatile player and prone to collapses which are difficult to explain (Mamedyarov-Nakamura, Zug 2013, loss in 22 moves, or the strange loss to Topalov at the European Team Championship). In an atmosphere full of tension and so much at stake I think we will see more of the old, erratic and explosive Mamedyarov, especially as things heat up and players fall back to what they feel most comfortable with. And Mamedyarov is most comfortable with playing sharp and exciting chess, throwing caution to the wind and going for the throat because that is his natural style. However, in such a company of experienced fighters this is more likely to backfire that not. It is unlikely that he will suffer a meltdown like Radjabov, but I also don’t see him fighting for the top honours either. What I’m looking forward to in the case of Mamedyarov is his exciting games and possibly a brilliance prize!

4. Andreikin fully deserved his place in the Candidates with his dogged performance in the World Cup. Winning only one classical game and eliminating everybody in the rapid playoffs he showed that everything is in order with his nervous system. After becoming a champion of Russia in 2012 he got more chances to play elite events and gain experience. Last year he shared 3rd in the Tal Memorial (thanks to a win against Kramnik with black!), but he was less successful in Dortmund (where he beat Kramnik again!). But in spite of this, he is the least experienced player in the field, which makes him something of a dark horse. His personal score with Kramnik is 3-1 with 3 draws so this shows he can fight with the big guys on equal terms, but whether he can sustain that in such a long event is a big question. He probably paid a lot of attention to his openings in his preparation (a rather weak point of his play so far) so I guess we won’t be seeing much of his Bg5 in various versions. But he has his own ideas (he dug out an interesting side line in the Berlin for his game against Kramnik in the Russian Superfinal) and coupled with serious preparation this can give him certain advantages. Just as Karjakin, I expect him to be solid and being an outsider he will try to use the burden of the favourites to beat him in order to strike from the counterattack. Being a natural counterattacking player this can work for him, but I don’t think he will get many chances to show his counterattacking skills. His presence adds spice to the tournament because being a relative newcomer on the elite stage (for example he has never played classical games against Topalov and Aronian and has played only one with Anand) he is more difficult to pinpoint, thus making him unpredictable and dangerous.

To sum things up from this long analysis, I’d say that any other player outside Kramnik and Aronian to win the tournament will be a major surprise. But every player will be prepared to the teeth and they will give their best, so I expect to see new trends in the openings (more concepts, less move-novelties) and hard-fought games. I hope there are no meltdowns like the ones of Radjabov and Ivanchuk so we see a tough, closely contested tournament. Probably a score of +3, like in London, should suffice for at least shared 1st, but unfortunately FIDE didn’t change the rules so again we might witness a tie-break agony (in case of a 1-1 score between the players sharing 1st place, it is the higher number of wins that decides the winner, just like in London) instead of a rapid playoff.

So may the best player win and for the rest of us let’s sit back and enjoy the show (preferably without engines running).


The Candidates 2014: Analysis – Part I

As the big event draws nearer it is time for a more detailed look at each participant’s chances and possible developments. In my Preview from 3rd of February I labeled the tournament a clash of the centuries, but now I think I might as well have called it T-Rex! Please bear with me as it’s really amusing – it’s 20th Century Boys versus the Children of the Revolution! (For those of you who still haven’t got it, the songs with these titles are two of the greatest hits of the famous British rock band T-Rex). I’m not implying that the 20th century boys are dinosaurs, but perhaps it’s time to end with the puns and start the analysis.

In this first part of the analysis I will focus on the older players in order of probability of winning the event. The second part will concentrate on the 21st century players.

1. Kramnik is obviously one of the main candidates to win and this is probably his last chance to do it. Kramnik has been one of the main innovators in the openings after he won the title in 2000, but what makes him special is that his innovations were not just some novelties here and there, but profound and new concepts that still drive the theory forward. I’ll mention just the main ones: the Berlin (practically winning him the title in 2000), whose effects are still affecting modern theory, the Petroff, starting from the late 90s well up until 2010 when he picked up the Berlin again (my guess is because of the vast amount of forced lines in the Petroff), the queenless endgames in the Grunfeld (just ask Kasparov and Svidler), the Catalan (starting with his match with Topalov in 2006), the Queen’s Gambit Declined in Kazan 2011 (which again started the talks about the death of chess), the Semi-Tarrasch in the London Candidates 2013 (curiously, an old favourite of mine!), the Reti and the fianchetto systems against the King’s Indian and the Grunfeld (again in London Candidates, especially the fantastic new concept 5 e3 in his game with Gelfand), the ideas in the Nimzo Indian (games with Radjabov and Gelfand in London Candidates) and the Pirc (in the footsteps of the Patriarch, when trying to win with black, famously backfired in the last round in London). So no wonder I can’t wait to see what new concepts Kramnik will think of for Khanty! This ability to come up with opening innovations coupled with his knowledge how to prepare for important tournaments makes Kramnik an irresistible force (and an immovable object at the same time)!

Kramnik has previously played in two tournaments of this kind – in Mexico 2007 and in London 2013. Both times he finished second, in Mexico Anand was unstoppable, while in London Caissa favoured the younger Carlsen in that unforgettable last round. Will Khanty be Kramnik’s third time’s a charm? Or will he remind us of the great Keres by finishing second a third time in a row? Everything will depend on his form, stamina and nerves, but if these are alright then with a little bit of luck (as compensation for 2013) Kramnik will once again play a match for the title. And what a fascinating match that will be!

2. Topalov emerged from his “wilderness years” after losing to Anand in 2010 by winning the Grand Prix series and establishing himself once again as a force to be reckoned with. His psychological preparation for the Candidates already began when his manager started to employ Jose Mourinho’s favourite strategy – the whole world is against us! A few days ago Danailov announced that Topalov’s French second (probably Edouard, but don’t take my word for it – I only made a reasonable guess after looking at the best French players) had been denied a visa for Russia and that when they asked the organisers to stay at another hotel (not the official one), they were ignored and forced to arrange everything by themselves. This strategy creates a siege mentality and has two benefits: it helps the player concentrate better and it deflects all the pressure off him and onto the manager. It has worked for Jose’s teams and it will probably work for Topalov, but he will anyway have to show how good he is on the board. Topalov’s openings have lost their edge in the last years, mainly because his novelties were mostly move-novelties (unlike Kramnik’s concept-novelties) and the computers evened out the field in this respect. I am sure his team will provide him with fresh ideas, but I am not sure he will be able to repeat the play from San Luis in 2005. He doesn’t seem to have the same hunger and energy as before and his class never seemed to be on par with the class of Kramnik and Anand. When he was winning everything in the mid 2000s, he was winning because of his excellent openings, tremendous energy and great willpower. Now all these are diminished to a various degree and even in his Grand Prix tournaments he was showing certain instability, something that will not go unpunished in Khanty. For Topalov to be a serious contender, he will need a qualitative leap in his play, but whether that’s possible it’s questionable.

3. Anand is a bit of an enigma to me. In my Preview I even said that he may be the Ivanchuk of Khanty. I didn’t really expect that he will accept to play in Khanty after the long negative trend in his play culminating with the match with Carlsen. But he won a game in Zurich, with black against Gelfand, a nice game actually, and I think this gave him confidence that he still has what it takes. I don’t think he sees himself as a favourite to win, but rather he sees this as a chance to prove that he can still play at the highest level and in doing so to get rid of the torment he must be feeling. His openings will be in good shape as he has accumulated so much in those World Championship preparations. Anand said recently that from January he is working on changing his style and that he still enjoys the game, so I really hope to see at least glimpses of the old Anand as this will definitely add excitement to the tournament. If he manages to get to a plus score early on, then he will be more confident and confidence is all that he needs to be back to his true self.

4. Svidler will play in his 4th tournament of this kind – in San Luis he was 3rd (shared 2nd with Anand), in Mexico 2007 he was 5th (obviously a disappointment) and in London 2013 he was 3rd again. Last year Svidler showed that he is capable of changing a lot when he is motivated – a change in his diet led to a massive weight loss, he assembled a team to help him prepare and he learned how to prepare better (in an interview he said that he was incredibly well prepared in his openings for Mexico 2007, but his play was awful). He will undoubtedly try to improve on London as he seems to have found what works for him. And in order to have a successful tournament he will have to improve as he will need new surprises like the ones from London where he introduced 1 d4 in his repertoire with fundamental choices like the Saemisch against the King’s Indian (and the Nimzo, but that was only for one game), a very interesting idea against the Grunfeld (7 f4 in the Bd2 line), his black game against Aronian (great preparation in the Queen’s Gambit Accepted). As black, apart from the Aronian game, he was predictable and I think this time a lot will depend on his stubborness with the Grunfeld as it is the most vulnerable point (something that Kramnik exploited in London). Even though the Grunfeld has an excellent reputation at the moment and is causing a lot of headaches to white 1 d4 players, due to its character it is susceptible to one-game novelties and it requires an enormous amount of memorisation. Together with Kasparov, Svidler is the best Grunfeld player of modern times and he knows it inside out, but it is a double-edged opening and a risky one in a tournament where everybody will be expecting it. More surprises like the ones from the game with Aronian will help Svidler minimise the risk of being caught in some deep preparation and this will seriously increase his chances of a successful outcome. Svidler on good form is a dangerous opponent for anyone (ask Carlsen) and let’s just hope that he arrives in that form when the first round starts in Khanty Mansiysk.


Zurich Chess Challenge 2014

The world was waiting to see Carlsen’s first showing after winning the title. Botvinnik was probably turning in his grave watching Carlsen’s “preparation” for the Zurich Chess Challenge – yes, he did play training games, like the Patriarch preached, but Bill Gates doesn’t sound like the opponent he would have approved of. I remember back in 2011 when Kasparov was criticising Carlsen for neglecting chess in between tournaments (remember Carlsen-Giri from Wijk 2011?) but it seems Carlsen learned his lesson.

We live in modern times and things have changed since the time of the Patriarch. And we have a modern champion who epitomizes these times. Photo shoots, promotions, talk shows, advertising obligations, this is our modern world and Carlsen the superstar is very busy when not playing chess. I am sure he did some preparation before Zurich, but I think he was mostly relying on his baggage from the match with Anand. Nevertheless he was rusty at the beginning, as the blitz preview showed, but kudos to him for getting a grip and winning the last 2 games. I am sure he got an incredible psychological boost from his miniature against Anand, after all mating an ex-World Champion in some 20 moves is no small feat.

The real chess started with the classical part and for me the game with Gelfand from the first round was very impressive. Gelfand introduced a very interesting idea in the Fianchetto Grunfeld which equalised (I remember seeing a photo of Carlsen in his room in Chennai, with his laptop and cashews and a lot of books on the table, one of which was Avrukh’s 1. d4 volume 2). It was obvious that Carlsen was rusty (as he admitted in the press conference) but he spent some time in the opening and activated his myelin (check out The Talent Code by Daniel Coyle for this term) and from that moment it was vintage Carlsen. 15 g4! was the star move and even though he tried, Gelfand couldn’t handle the pressure.

After the high-quality draw with Aronian, the tournament was decided in the round 3 game with Nakamura. Carlsen was outplayed (he probably wrongly assessed these positions in his preparation) and was lost, but in spite of the +9 engine evaluation, things weren’t simple in a real game against a World Champion with the clock running down. Nakamura missed several wins and he couldn’t even draw afterwards. Nakamura has a score of 0-8 against Carlsen in classical chess and his arrogance and self-promotion (“I do feel that at the moment I am the biggest threat to Carlsen” on the cover of the latest NIC Magazine) only does him harm. More humility and modesty will make him more likeable and his results will improve, but that’s entirely up to him.

The game with Caruana was probably Carlsen’s smoothest game. Caruana got a bit ambitious (not trying to win, but trying to kill off the game immediately) with his plan of 16…b6 and 17…d5 and it was amazing to see that it was all Carlsen needed to take over the initiative. The rest was deja vu – relentless pressure and victory.

A few words about the others. Aronian was the other outstanding player, but again as in Wijk he lost in the last round and that spoiled it a bit for him. His game with Nakamura was his best effort, even though the American was in knock-down after his Carlsen shock (and a bit unwise opening choice – why go for the King’s Indian when you’re still reeling after such a loss?). Aronian was well-prepared as always and this result only confirmed his status as number 1 (or 2, for the Kramnik fans) candidate to win Khanty Mansiysk.

Anand still seems to be rather shaken, if not stirred. The impression is that he cannot really handle the pressure when put to him (the Nakamura game) and cannot handle his nerves (the Aronian game, there was no need to sacrifice the piece). His starting 3 losses in a row in the rapid were no consolation either. I wonder if he’s going to be the Ivanchuk of Khanty Mansiysk.

Caruana showed his resilience once again. I quite like it that he manages to keep his level very high even when not in top form. This is a sign of the highest class. His last round win against Aronian was huge for his self confidence and he showed this by destroying the field in the rapids. Gelfand had two lousy tournaments in a row and I attribute it to the instability that comes with age. You simply cannot maintain the same high level all the time and with age the downs are especially painful (Kramnik also has started to suffer from this, even though not to that extent). I already mentioned Nakamura and it will be interesting to see how he reacts to these setbacks.

Zurich showed that for the time being Carlsen is a class above the rest (with the exception of Aronian and probably Kramnik). Let’s see how far he can go.

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