Category : Understanding Chess

The Importance of Being Monotonous

This was published in the latest Informator 120, the Maracana edition. Soon I’ll also post my other article from the same book.

The Importance of Being Monotonous by GM Aleksandar Colovic

Anand’s victory at the Candidates was a surprise for many, yours truly included. How could a player who struggled for several years, lost a World Championship match without winning a single game (following Lasker and Kasparov) and was generally considered way past his prime, stage such a convincing come-back?

The answer can be summed up in two words, quite popular in the world of tennis – unforced errors.

Anand showed that he learned quite a lot from his lost match to Carlsen. What he learned was the meaning of the word ‘monotonous’.

Back in the 1950s Smyslov used to say that he would play 40 good moves and if his opponent would match them then the game would be a draw. In the 1970s Spassky said that Fischer’s play was “solid and monotonous” while Taimanov described Fischer’s play as “a wall coming at you.” They were talking of a style of play that puts you under pressure throughout the whole game, of moves of high quality whose level never drops. Today this style of play is known as computer style, but you can see that there’s nothing new under the sun.

Carlsen beat Anand because his play was solid and monotonous. Anand’s play was also solid, but not as monotonous – he committed errors in positions where they weren’t really forced, the endgames he lost in games 5 and 6 were pretty equal for most of the time. He simply couldn’t withstand the pressure of Carlsen’s solid and monotonous play.

But Anand learned and he showed it in Siberia. There were four other players who won the same number of games as him, three, but all of them also lost at least three games, while he didn’t lose a single one. He played solid moves on a constant, regular basis throughout the whole game, round after round. Add to this his excellent opening preparation – he didn’t have a single bad position after the opening in the whole tournament – and you have the recipe for a victory.

Anand had another advantage in Khanty. He didn’t have the Monomakh’s cap with him this time, the burden of the title (remember Spassky words that his championship years had been the most unhappy in his life), the pressure of the public. After Chennai, nobody was expecting anything of him, but most important, he wasn’t expecting anything from himself. As he said it, he was hoping to do well, but that was all. Compare this attitude to the attitude of the other players, especially the favourites Aronian and Kramnik. They came to Siberia to win. Nothing wrong with that, of course, but they put so much importance on that, so much pressure on themselves, that eventually they cracked. They also played good, solid chess, but they lacked the monotonous part, exactly because of the pressure they were feeling. They couldn’t concentrate completely on the task at hand and while they could still cope with the pressure at the beginning of the tournament, when they were still fresh and had energy, as the tension increased they started to lose control and break down.

Going back to the unforced errors from the beginning, we can see that they weren’t exactly unforced. From a purely chess perspective they were, as Kramnik, for example, wasn’t forced to blunder on move 7 against Karjakin, but he was “forced” in another way – he was forced by the pressure he put on himself, the burden of the role of the favourite, the importance the event had for him. The same was for Aronian, Svidler, Topalov, Mamedyarov. Anand didn’t have any of those problems. That’s why he won.

Botvinnik was 49 when he lost convincingly to 23-year old Tal in 1960. Tal was “a genius” and Botvinnik was written off after the match as “too old”. The whole world was expecting the new and young king to rule for many years ahead. We all know what happened only one year later and the situation certainly does sound familiar. Anand is 5 years younger than the Patriarch and the rematch will definitely be more interesting and hard-fought – and if history is considered, anything is possible!

On Some Recent Events

I haven’t commented on the blitz and rapid world championships mostly because I prefer classical chess, but Carlsen’s achievement cannot be overlooked. I think Carlsen will be successful in defending his classical title, probably more than once, but I am not so sure about his rapid and blitz titles. The reason is obvious, it’s much more difficult to win these events (let alone that they’re played one after the other) as they are swiss events and the element of luck is rather big. This makes it even more incredible that he has managed to unite all 3 titles, it’s difficult we will see again. As a tidbit, I noticed that in the blitz event, playing black, Carlsen castled long in 3 games (Fedoseev, Nepomniachtchi and Lu Shanglei) and made an artificial long castle in 1 (against Meier). Just a coincidence probably and not a new element of playing for a win with black.

Hou Yifan closes the rating gap between her and Judit Polgar. She seems to be completely dominating the female players and after winning her last 2 Grand Prix events with 1.5 and 2 points advantage respectively, the gap is down to less than 30 points. In fact, I’d dare say that in a direct match Hou Yifan would have the better chances! Judit has practically left the elite and plays only occasionally, but what’s worse she doesn’t seem to do much work in between events. This shows in her poor openings and the problems she faces in this phase (a loss in 11 moves against Mamedyarov, even though a blitz, is not something a player of her caliber would allow herself!) I’d love to see a match between these two and I’m sure it won’t be too difficult to find a sponsor for that one. But I doubt Polgar would accept, she would have all to lose (the prestige, the image of best female player of all time, sponsorhip deals etc.) and very little to win in that match.
The political battle for the FIDE presidency looks like a future election of a President of the World. I imagine that one day the world will be united and then the election would be just like today’s battle for FIDE – the presidential candidates will be travelling the whole world (in private jets, of course) lobbying for their cause. It’s difficult to say whether it will be less dirty than now, but at least for once the chess world is ahead of time! Back to the present, I don’t know whether the FIDE Rules address a situation when in the best interest of the game of chess both candidates are disqualified. This thought occurred to me just now, as I write this, as I’m watching the France-Germany match in the World Cup and as an England fan the thought of disqualification of both teams arose very naturally.
And speaking of football, on a chess blog, is something not to be encouraged. I’ll try to disguise it by making a chess-related parallel. The underdogs in the tournament (Mexico, Chile, Switzerland, USA) played fantastic and high-quality game, only to lose to the favourites in the same way an underdog loses to an experienced GM – eventually they cracked. They couldn’t keep their level up infinitely and the fatigue coupled with the pressure of the opponent led to their demise. Here we can see why the favourites are better – they have more experience in playing high-tension matches with opponents of the same caliber, thus they are used to keeping their level up for very long periods of time. I addressed this issue in my post about the monotony in a game of chess ( and I will soon post here my article from the latest Informator 120 that discusses the same idea.
And I really still cannot decide which team (France or Germany) I like less…

Positional Calculation

I introduced this term a few posts ago when I was trying to explain Carlsen’s dip in form at the Gashimov Memorial. It is a term I invented for my own purposes and it is about the calculation that is done in quiet positions, when there is no tactics and general plans and principles come to the fore. In the last round of the 4NCL I played a game that illustrates this concept very astutely, so I’ll present the complete game here. Bear in mind that all the lines in the notes are the lines I calculated during the game, unless otherwise stated (which is only once, in the note to black’s 17th move).

Colovic,A (2479) – Sowray,P (2348) [A89]
4NCL, 2014

1.d4 f5 2.g3 Nf6 3.Bg2 g6 4.Nf3 Bg7 5.0-0 0-0 6.b3 d6 7.Bb2 Ne4 

 8.c4 [8.Nfd2 was an alternative, but eventually I decided to go for the more central approach. The reason was that I already saw the line leading to the endgame from the game] 8…Nc6 9.Nc3 Nxc3 10.Bxc3 Kh8 not really necessary, as black has no choice but to push …e5 [I was expecting 10…e5 11.dxe5 dxe5 12.Qd5+ Kh8 13.Qxd8 Rxd8 14.Ng5

which is very similar to the game, here white’s rook is still on a1. This was the endgame I was aiming for. I reached this position when analysing my game against Rendle, from the previous 4NCL weekend and I considered it quite favourable for white as after taking on c6 white will have a very easy game against black’s weaknesses] 11.Rc1 e5 12.dxe5 dxe5 13.Qxd8 Rxd8 14.Ng5! Rf8 15.Bxc6 bxc6 16.Ba5 

From this moment the game is a good illustration of the concept of positional calculation. All that was necessary was to calculate lines a few moves ahead and to be aware of black’s ideas. [16.Rfd1 a5 was what I wanted to avoid] 16…Bf6 I thought this was the only move. [16…Bh6 17.h4+/- with the idea of Bc3,f4; 16…h6 17.Nf3 e4 18.Nh4 with a tempo 18…Kh7 19.Bxc7] 17.Nf3 [I wasn’t sure whether to insert 17.h4 h6 as in some lines it was useful for me, and in others it was useful for him. Eventually I decided against it, as it gave him the opportunity to reduce the material on the kingside and gain space there with …g5]

17…Rf7? after this it’s really difficult to pinpoint where black could have played better as the remaining of the game seems to be a smooth ride for white [I was expecting 17…e4 18.Ne1 Rf7 19.Nc2 with Nb4 or Rfd1 and Nd4 to come and I thought I was doing quite alright, but after 19…f4!

black seems to be able to activate his bishops. I saw the move, but underestimated its strength. What follows is the computer analysis of the position 20.gxf4 (20.Nb4 fxg3 21.hxg3 Bb7; 20.e3 Bh3 21.Rfd1 Bg4 22.Rd2 fxg3 23.hxg3 c5 24.Rd5 Raf8 25.Rxc5 Bb2 26.Rf1 Bh3 with counterplay; 20.Kg2 g5 21.Rfd1 Kg7 22.Nd4 fxg3 23.hxg3 Bg4 with counterplay) 20…g5! 21.fxg5 Bxg5 22.Bc3+ Kg8 23.Ra1 (23.Rcd1? Bh3 24.Rfe1 Bh4-/+)23…Bh3 24.Rfd1 Bh4 with counterplay] 18.Rfd1 [18.Bc3 forces 18…Re7 19.Rfd1 Bb7 20.Bb4 Rf7 but I couldn’t see why this was better than the game continuation] 18…Bb7 [18…e4?! 19.Nd4] 19.Ne1 with ideas like Nd3-c5 or Nc2-b4

19…Re8 [19…e4 again this was what I expected 20.Nc2 (20.c5 Ba6 21.e3 with the idea of Bc3 was my alternative, leaving him only with a white-squared bishop and the knight is coming to d4)20…c5 21.Ne3+/-] 20.Nd3 Bc8 

21.Bc3! preventing possible …Be6 and preparing to play f4, which is the ideal for white here – the dark-squared bishops will be exchanged and black will be stuck with horrible pawn weaknesses and a bad bishop on c8 [21.Nc5 threatens nothing 21…Kg8; 21.Nb4 Bb7 and the bishop is stuck on a5] 21…Kg7 22.e3 with f4 to come and black cannot prevent it [the immediate 22.f4 wasn’t very good 22…exf4 23.Nxf4 Rfe7 here I realised that I’d prefer to take on f4 with a pawn, hence the game move] 22…g5 

23.f4+- this is already strategically winning for white 23…exf4 24.Bxf6+ Rxf6 25.exf4 Re2?! after so much suffering, he finally decides to go active, but as usual, it only hastens the end [25…gxf4 26.Nxf4 was pretty grim too 26…Rd6 27.Kf2] 26.fxg5 Rf8 

27.Nf4 after some thought I continued to play for domination [27.a4 was my alternative, and I couldn’t decide between this and the game move 27…c5 28.Re1+- (28.Nxc5?! f4! 

and things start to get messy – this was the reason I went for the game move, even though I saw the better moves 28 Re1 and 28 Nf4; 28.Nf4+-) 27…Rxa2 28.Ra1 Rxa1 29.Rxa1 black is completely paralysed 29…a6 30.Rd1 Kf7 31.Kf2 Be6 

32.Re1 forcing him back to go back immediately 32…Bc8 [32…Bd7? 33.Nd3; 32…Re8? 33.Rxe6 Rxe6 34.Nxe6 Kxe6 35.Ke3+-] 33.Nd3 Rd8 34.Ne5+ Kf8 [34…Kg7 35.Nxc6 Rd2+ 36.Re2 Rd3 37.Re7+]

35.Ke3 again not allowing him any counterplay [35.Nxc6 Rd2+ 36.Re2 Rd3 was what I was trying to prevent, even though I saw it’s winning after 37.Re7+-] 35…Rd6 36.h4 h6 

37.gxh6! [37.g6 was very tempting, but after 37…Kg7 38.h5 Kf6 39.Nf7 Re6+ 40.Kf2 Rxe1 41.Kxe1 f4! 42.gxf4 Bg4 all of a sudden B draws!

After seeing all this it was easy to decide to take on h6] 37…Rxh6 38.Rd1! Ke7 39.Kf4 Re6 40.h5 a move on general basis, but in fact I saw that I transpose to a winning rook endgame 40…Kf6 [40…Rd6 41.Rxd6 Kxd6 42.h6]

41.Rd8! the point 41…Rxe5 42.Rf8+ Kg7 43.Rxc8 Rc5 44.Rxc7+ Kh6 45.Rf7 Ra5 46.Rxf5 [46.Rxf5 Ra3 47.Rf6+! Kg7 (47…Kxh5 48.g4+ Kh4 49.Rh6# was the point behind the check on move 4748.Rxc6 Rxb3 49.Rxa6 was the final calculation I had to do in this game] 1-0

As you can see I didn’t calculate a lot in this game and what I calculated wasn’t very complex. The required state of mind in these types of position is the harmony of intuition and calculation. The intuition “suggests” a move and then, provided the calculation is precise (and when it is, it is a sign of good form), it is justified by the calculation. Additionally, the precise calculation leads to clarity of the evaluation, as seeing clearly what lies in every position allows you to evaluate it correctly – the typical example was the line after 37 g6 and the position when white is two pawns up but black draws. In my opinion this is the thought algorithm used by the great intuitive technical players such as Capablanca, Karpov and Carlsen: their intuition would “tell” them the correct move and then they would proceed to verify it with precise calculation. As long as their calculations stay precise they never make mistakes and stay on top of their game. But I don’t see a reason why a player of any strength shouldn’t try to play in the same manner. In my experience following your own intuition brings you much more inner comfort and satisfaction during the game so even if only for that it is a path worth following.


How to Win Opens

Except for the elite, the rest of us are confined to playing in open tournaments. So it is natural to ask yourself the above question, especially if you have some healthy ambition to win and improve.

Many years ago, when starting my extensive participation in opens, I figured out a very useful rule of thumb: in a 9-round swiss, only 10% of the participants (or less) will score +4. For example, in a 100-player open tournament, a result of 6.5/9 practically guarantees you a place in the top 10. This is very useful when trying to figure out at the beginning of the tournament how many points you would need in order to get a prize.

Bearing in mind my rule of thumb, a mathematical answer to the question in the title would be +5 (7/9) or +6 (7.5/9), which in the vast majority of cases should give you the winner’s trophy. However, apart from good chess, which goes without saying, there are other factors that contribute to the overall victory.

In the mid-90s, when I started to play in open tournaments around Europe, the undisputed king of the circuit was the Russian GM Oleg Korneev. He dispatched me with ease when I played him for the first time in Sitges in Spain in 1996. He was a 1 e4 player, playing all the main lines against everything, and with black he played the Open Spanish against 1 e4 and the Semi-Slav against 1 d4. A very active player with excellent technique and great self-confidence, he would even go to tournaments two days late, starting with 0/2, then go on to win the rest of the games and win the tournament! In those days he didn’t have a permanent place to stay so he travelled from tournament to tournament and winning almost all of them! I was amazed at his ability to keep on playing without rest, practically throughout the whole year.

At the beginning of the 00s, I was in the migrating group of players travelling from one tournament to the other together with the Bulgarian GM Alexander Delchev. He had an amazing run of open victories in this period – having just met his current wife in the summer of 2000, he was playing with great enthusiasm and power. He played 1 c4 with white (basing his repertoire on Tony Kosten’s book on the English – The Dynamic English, published in 1999) and with black the Taimanov Sicilian against 1 e4 (basing it on the Burgess’s book with the same name from 2000). In 2001 he also qualified for the World Championship (which was a knock-out at that time) from the Individual European Championship in Ohrid and his rating went well beyond 2600.

In the late 00s and in the past few years there is another GM that’s quite successful in the open circuit and I played him in 2012 in Le Touquet, France, in the decisive game for the tournament victory – Ukranian GM Sergey Fedorchuk. In a Nimzo-Indian I put some pressure on him with a dubious move and to my surprise he didn’t manage to find the correct way. Unfortunately I erred a few moves later and even though he gave me another unexpected chance to escape, I didn’t find it in my time-trouble and lost. As a result of this he won the tournament alone, with 7/9, while I shared 2nd place half a point behind. Fedorchuk is a player with wider repertoire, but that is a demand of modern chess. He isn’t as theoretical as the above two, his main aim is to get a game (with both colours) and then outplay his opponents (which he does quite well).

At the recently finished Karposh Open, the surprising winner was the Bulgarian GM Kiril Georgiev. I don’t say surprising because he wasn’t among the favourites, but because of his poor start. In round 1 he drew with a 2194-player, and in round 3 with a FM with 2380, while in round 5 he drew with a player with 2416 – all of these are players which he would expect to beat on a regular basis, yet he failed to do so. Only his fantastic finish of 4/4 allowed him to finish sole first with 7.5/9. Georgiev has a very high class, being among the world elite since the mid-80s, having beaten Kasparov in blitz and Karpov in rapid. And yet he failed to beat such weak (for him) players.

I’ve presented here several players whom I know personally and who have been very successful in winning open tournaments and here are my thoughts why that has been the case.

If you see these players in person, you would notice that all of them have an enormous inner energy – you could see the deep calm in their eyes and if you’re attentive, maybe even you’ll feel the energetic field that emanates from them. The “type” of energy is different for every one of them, for example Korneev is more exuberant, while Delchev is more calm and introspective. But they all do have it and it’s one of the essential conditions for successful play in open tournaments: morning rounds, tough opponents, the stress of the shortened time-contols, not to mention the days with two rounds, all this accumulates during the tournament and the only way to maintain more or less equal quality of play is to have a high level of nervous energy.

The example of Georgiev in the recent Karposh Open highlights another characteristic of the present-day opens. If in the past a GM would expect to cruise to 3/3 or 4/4 almost blindfolded, today that is not the case. The general level of play has risen to new hights and today nobody can be sure that he or she will have an easy game, not even in round 1 – a player with 2100 can put up a very strong resistance to even such a strong GM like Georgiev and such cases are quite frequent and will become even more so. With the availability of computers, books and lessons with GMs the amateurs have become so much stronger that nobody is guaranteed an easy life. Georgiev might have been surprised by this, but he also showed the correct reaction in the second half of the tournament – every game should be considered a serious one and fought to the very end, irrespective if your opponent is a GM or an amateur with a low rating. Because you never know if the amateur won’t give you a harder time than the GM! And this is the second essential ingredient for successful play in open tournaments – fighting spirit, the willingness to sit there hour after hour and pose problems (or solve them) until your opponent yields and you win the game. Even a bad start can be compensated with an unwavering fighting spirit, as Georgiev showed. Do this on a daily basis 9 days in a row (and in order to do it you’ll need the essential ingredient number 1 – energy – you’ll need even more energy if there are two rounds per day) and you’re very likely that you will win the tournament.

I have played well over 300 open tournaments in my career and have won a few. In my case, the scenario was always the same – a good start, steady and solid play against the strongest players, normally drawing them, and then a good finish to clinch it. Of course, there are many scenarios and every tournament is a different one, but a successful tournament always has a good finish. I even say that it doesn’t matter what you’ve done in the first 7 games, if you win (or at least score 1.5/2) in the last two games, you will have a good tournament. My play in Reykjavik was of this kind, I couldn’t win against players rated in the region of 2300 and was feeling frustrated because of that, but then I got two whites in the last two rounds and I won them both and finished shared 11th. Not to mention that it’s a very satisfying feeling to go home with a win in the last round, no matter how it all went before that.

To sum up, if you want to be successful in the open tournaments, you will need a great amount of energy, powerful fighting spirit and a special emphasis on the final two rounds. Knowing all this, now the only other thing you need is to play good chess!


Why Anand Won

The dust after the Candidates has settled, the heroes have gone their separate ways and it’s time to take a better look at what happened in Siberia. These types of tournaments, with the best players in the world fighting for the highest prize are best suited to disclose the tendencies of the modern play.

The answer to the question why Anand won can be summed up in two words, quite popular in tennis – unforced errors. Here is what I mean by that.

The rise of Magnus Carlsen brought to the fore a new (or rather a bit forgotten) type of playing chess. Maybe you can call it computer chess, but it’s really nothing new. Back in the 1950s it was Smyslov who used to say something like, I’ll play 40 good moves, and if you can match them then it will be a draw. Then in the 1970s Spassky said that Fischer had a “solid monotonous play” [by ‘solid’ he meant ‘constantly good, of high quality’] and Taimanov felt that Fischer’s play was a “wall coming at you.” They were talking about solid, good moves that put you under pressure throughout the whole game. It is the quality of the moves that is winning the games, never lowering it, always keeping it a very high level. With Kasparov, this went a bit to the background, due to the general emphasis on his opening preparation and this lingered a bit on with Kramnik and Anand. Then, from the mid-2000s, the computers (or rather, the engines) started to make huge steps forward and they brought back the “solid, monotonous play” and the “wall coming at you.” If you’ve played an engine, you will know what I mean. And then came Carlsen.

The computers also increased the level of opening preparation, especially the quantity of chess analysis, hence leading to memorisation problems for the players. While Kramnik and Anand, used to heavy theoretical work since the times of Kasparov, continued in this direction, ploughing deep into popular lines, each one tackling the problem of memorisation in his own way, Carlsen went in another direction. He tries to sidestep mainstream theory and go for the lesser known paths. This doesn’t mean that he doesn’t analyse a lot, or that he needs to memorise less, it’s just that he does that in a lesser known territory, thus creating his own theory (something, by the way, that Botvinnik emphasized as an essential thing for a top player). Even he has said it himself, he tries to give mainstream theory and openings his own seal. This approach to opening preparation, coupled with the “solid monotonous play” led him to the title.

In Siberia, Anand showed that he learned something from his lost match. He learned the meaning of ‘monotonous.’ There were four other players, apart from Anand, who won the same number of games, three. But all of them, except for Anand, lost at least 3 games. Anand, as we know, didn’t lose a single game. He learned to play solid moves on a regular, constant basis, throughout the whole game. (This he didn’t manage with Carlsen, when at some point the quality of his moves would drop and he would either blunder, or allow Carlsen a way to improve the position.) And he did this in his own way, not pushing all the time like Carlsen does, giving an occassional draw in favourable positions (Andreikin, Karjakin) when he judged that it was more important to save energy than try to squeeze something more out of a drawn position. He continued with his usual approach in the openings, going for the popular and well-analysed lines in the Sicilian, the Berlin, the Slav, getting the positions he likes. From a pure chess perspective, these two factors, the “monotonous solid play” and the good opening preparation (different from Carlsen’s but very much his own) made Anand the deserved winner of the Candidates. From the psychological perspective, things were easier for Anand than for the other players (except maybe for Andreikin, who I think had a similar mindset coming to Khanty). He played liberated, without the burden of the title (remember Spassky’s words that the world championship years were the unhappiest of his life, or Botvinnik’s Monomakh’s cap) and without pressure to do anything special. A couple of months before the tournament he wasn’t even sure he was going to play! There is a series of books called Transurfing, by Vadim Zeland, in which the author proposes a method how to achieve a goal. One of the vital elements, he says, is to reduce the importance of the goal. In other words, to be emotionally detached from the goal, to be indifferent. This does sound counter-intuitive, especially if it’s a very important goal, but that is exactly the point – by reducing the importance, you can concentrate fully on the task at hand, without feeling the pressure of the importance of the goal. And this brings us to the others.

The other players also played good, solid chess, but they lacked the monotonous part. They played the way Anand played in Chennai, good, solid, chess for long periods, only to be ruined by a single bad move. It happened to all of them (except, perhaps, Andreikin, who, like I said, probably had a similar approach to Anand’s). And look at the final standings – the players who perceived themselves as favourites, Aronian and Kramnik, started pretty well, while they were still fresh and full of energy, but as the tournament progressed they couldn’t withstand the burden of the pressure, and collapsed. So who finished second? The player who had high ambitions before the start, thus feeling the pressure even before the tournament, which in my opinion is due to inexperience (Aronian and Kramnik could deal with that well, having played Candidate tournaments before). Karjakin couldn’t handle it, so he collapsed at the start. And this actually helped him! He forgot all about ambition and winning and could just play monotonous solid chess. And this he did, especially in the second half, when all the others still had ambitions left and were already cracking under the pressure – Karjakin beat Svidler because he tried a bit too much to win (and failed to draw when he could), beat Kramnik who cracked at exactly move 7 in their game, and beat Aronian in the last round, when he was completely out of sorts and totally demoralised since he couldn’t win the tournament anymore.

Going back to the beginning, when I said the reason for Anand’s win were the unforced errors he managed to avoid, while the others were making them quite a lot, we can actually see that they weren’t exactly unforced. From a purely chess perspective they were, Kramnik wasn’t forced at all to blunder on move 7 against Karjakin, but he was “forced” in another way – he was forced by the pressure he put on himself, the burden of the role of a favourite, the importance the event had for him. And it was the same for Aronian, Svidler, Mamedyarov, Topalov.

Now we can see that it was the player best accustomed to the modern demands of the game who won the tournament. Good opening preparation, good moves on a constant basis and strong nervous system is what it takes today to be one of the best. This is the essence of modern chess, these are the qualities that are required to excel. And from looking at the pinnacle of the chess pyramid, these tendencies are here to stay for quite some time.


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.


On Short, Stalemates and Sofia

There have been many discussions in recent years about the draws in chess. To me the draw is an integral part of the game of chess: after all there are two armies which are equal in size and quality and if their respective commanders deploy them well, it is very probable that there won’t be a winner.

There are many types of draws, a drawn game can be of high quality (Carlsen-Aronian from the Zurich tournament comes to mind as the lastest example), but I understand that it is the short and not-played-out draws that bother the people. (Short draws can also be entertaining, see Ivanchuk-Vachier from Gibraltar, even though it wasn’t that short. But I’ll talk about Short further on). So they went to Sofia (a nice city, but personally I prefer Plovdiv) and started prohibiting the draw offer. This does solve the problem of not-played-out draws to a certain extent, and it is a drastic solution, but it takes away one important aspect of the psychological warfare – the exact draw offer they are trying to get rid of. Very often a player will offer a draw for various reasons: as a bluff, as an attempt to get the opponent thinking more or distract him, in time-trouble or as a sign of bravado. The psychology behind the draw offer makes chess a much richer game so this is all well and nice, the only problem is that the opponent may actually accept the offer and then we have the not-played-out draw which was the problem in the first place. I suppose you cannot have it all, you need to give something to get something and obviously we’re in an experimental phase, trying various things out (banning draw offers entirely, or before move 30, or 40. I still haven’t heard of the idea of introducing fees for each draw offer during a game – an idea that needs further examination, but I’m sure they’ll come to this in the future).

The draw exists because if the game is played out until the very end there will be a stalemate. Doctor Short (Nigel is a Doctor, in case you didn’t know already) is the most vocal adherent of banning the stalemate as a draw and proclaiming it a win for the stronger side. I don’t know how serious the venerable Doctor is in his claim, but I find it difficult to accept that he cannot see the idea of the Creator of the game when the stalemate was made to be a draw. How many times has it happened to you when you’re trying to teach a beginner to give a mate with a queen and he or she keeps stalemating you? How annoying was that? Here lies the ultimate finesse of chess (thanks to Walter Browne for the beautiful syntagm) – you need to be precise until the very end! Sloppiness cannot and shoudn’t be rewarded, how much chess would lose if we reduced it just to banging moves irrelevant if they end up in mate or stalemate? There is never a “doesn’t matter” in chess, just as in life and that is why chess is so attractive to people. Precision is the name of our game and it requires mental effort that is very rewarding when executed accurately. If precision and accuracy didn’t matter then chess wouldn’t be in harmony with Nature (where everything is precise and exact) and would stop being the wisest game ever invented. And I don’t want that.


The Candidates 2014: Clash of the Centuries

When Anand finally confirmed his participation, the final line-up for the upcoming Candidates tournament was official. But even before that I noticed that this tournament will be a clash of players from different centuries: Anand, Kramnik, Topalov and Svidler all made their names and established thelmselves as elite players in the 20th century; Aronian, Mamedyarov, Karjakin and Andreikin did the same in the 21st. So it promises to be an interesting struggle between two generations of players!

I won’t be very original by saying that it will be either Kramnik or Aronian who wins it. But in Carlsen’s absence, it’s really difficult to see anyone else coming close – Anand has won similar tournaments in the past (Mexico 2007), but he’s no longer the same player; Topalov did it in San Luis in 2005, but not being the same player applies to him as well, even though he does seem a bit more motivated than Anand at the moment. Svidler did very well in London last year, but was never really in contention for first place. Kramnik is the only hope of the guys from the 20th century!

Aronian was in contention in London, but he broke down under pressure – if he manages to keep calm, like recently in Wijk and Zurich (though surprisingly he lost the last games in both tournaments), he’s a strong favourite. The other guys of the 21st century are all dark horses – they might win, but it’s very unlikely. Of the three, I’d say Karjakin has the most chances, as he’s shown more consistency and has more experience playing top level chess (especially when compared to Andreikin).

I will try to do a more detailed analysis of each player’s characteristics and chances as the tournament draws closer.

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