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    Saturday
    Jun042016

    Shamkir, Round 9 + Tiebreaks: Mamedyarov Wins, Caruana Collapses

    Chess is a tough, sometimes cruel game. 40, 50 excellent moves can all be for nought after a single mistake, and likewise tournament victory can slip away after a lapse or two. Something like that was the case for Fabiano Caruana in this tournament, except that tournament victory slipped away after leaving points on the table in no fewer than six games. Such lapses may be something of a habit for Caruana - off the top of my head I can think of rounds 8 and 9 from the 2014 Sinquefield Cup, the last two rounds of this year's Candidates tournament, and now rounds 6-8 of this tournament plus the first three games in the tiebreak with Shakhriyar Mamedyarov. Maybe this is why Magnus Carlsen is #1 and Caruana is still in the peleton, and why Sergey Karjakin will be playing for the world championship this November and Caruana won't be.

    If the foregoing is correct - and maybe a more thorough comparison of Caruana's results will show that it isn't - then it is a problem in need of a solution. Improved stamina? A stronger killer instinct at the board, or at least a more assertive presence at the board? He's still young enough to work on and correct the problem; again, assuming that there really is a problem.

    Let's get back to objective matters and recap the round and the subsequent tiebreak. Caruana entered the round tied for first with Anish Giri, half a point ahead of Shakhriyar Mamedyarov. Caruana drew comfortably with Black against Karjakin, who chose an innocuous line against Caruana's Open Ruy. Mamedyarov was much less peacably inclined against Giri, and ground out an impressive win against the hitherto undefeated Dutchman. It was Mamedyarov's third win in a row (he beat his countryman Eltaj Safarli in round 7 and then Caruana in round 8), and it earned him a playoff against Caruana for the title.

    Before getting to the tiebreaks, a review of the other games. Pavel Eljanov had an advantage against Teimour Radjabov, but didn't manage to convert it: a draw. Pentala Harikrishna had a winning advantage against Safarli after playing an excellent first part of the game, but a string of inaccurate-to-awful moves from move 30 to move 36 resulted in a loss in the second time control. Finally, Hou Yifan's efforts to escape the cellar backfired. She overextended with the white pieces against Rauf Mamedov, and eventually her positional weaknesses cost her the game.

    On to the tiebreaks. First there were a pair of rapid games, and in both of them Caruana had a large, even winning advantage. The result: two draws. It was on then to a pair of blitz games, and here the tournament's outcome was finally decided. The first blitz game was a nervy affair that generally trended in Mamedyarov's favor, but Caruana had a chance to win this one too. Afterwards Caruana had several chances to draw the rook ending (some easy, some less easy), but at the end of a very long day at the end of a long tournament it's understandable that he didn't manage to save a blitz game. Mamedaryov won that game, and then needed only a draw in the rematch - with White - to secure tournament victory. In fact he could have won that game in the opening. He found a great tactical shot, but missed a key follow-up that would have left him a piece ahead. His decision to take the cynical route a few moves later with 21.Bxd4 could have backfired against an in-form Caruana, who did outplay him for a while in an endgame with rooks and opposite-colored bishops. Caruana couldn't quite squeeze enough from the position, and then a moment of carelessness left him lost (or nearly lost) again. Mamedyarov was happy to coast in with a draw though, and that was how that game finished, leaving Mamedyarov the winner of the third Vugar Gashimov memorial tournament in Shamkir, Azerbaijan.

    All the games from the final round and the tiebreaks are here, with my comments.

    Final Standings:

    • 1. Mamedyarov 6
    • 2. Caruana 6
    • 3. Giri 5.5
    • 4. Karjakin 5
    • 5. Mamedov 4.5
    • 6-8. Harikrishna, Radjabov, Safarli 4
    • 9. Eljanov 3.5
    • 10. Hou 2.5

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    Reader Comments (4)

    [third tiebreak game] "at the end of a very long day at the end of a long tournament it's understandable that he [Caruana] didn't manage to save a blitz game". It was a normal-length tournament for both (not as long as Wijk aan Zee or candidates),

    [DM: Agreed: one "long" too many.]

    and a very long day at the board for Mamedyarov but not really for Caruana - unless you mean to imply that idly waiting for a likely tiebreak (unclear for hours only whether Caruana would face Mamedyarov or Giri) is as energy-draining and stressful as having to work hard to secure a spot in the tiebreak? The tiebreak initially seemed to follow a rather familiar scenario - an exhausted player has no chance against a relatively rested opponent - and then went the other way.

    [DM: I didn't say that it wasn't also a long day for Mamedyarov, whose performance was exceptional. But still, Caruana had to prep for Karjakin, then play him (and it did involve some work), then wait and almost definitely prep some more, then play two tough rapid games before the blitz. That is a lot, especially coming at the end of a tournament.]

    On your general point - Caruana's proposed/supposed problem: A "more thorough comparison of Caruana's results" should probably include comparisons with other world-top players. Everyone (Carlsen included) will sometimes fail to win a favorable, even an objectively winning position - so the question would be whether Caruana's 'conversion rate' is (significantly) worse than for his peers/competitors.

    [DM: Obviously. That's pretty much what I said, so I'm not sure why you brought that up. My impression, which could and should be checked, is that Caruana has a bigger problem with this than especially Carlsen, maybe even most of the players who float around 2800 (e.g. Kramnik, Anand, sometimes Topalov).]

    On specific tournaments you mention: Sinquefield Cup 2014 - somewhat harsh to criticize him for playing "not perfectly"!? Candidates 2016: Failing to win rook and bishop against rook when the opportunity existed (penultimate round against Svidler) was "at the end of a very long day towards the end of a long tournament (with more at stake than for average supertournaments)", and came together with a miracle escape against Giri earlier in the tournament. The last round against Karjakin was - given that tiebreaks favored Karjakin and there would be no playoff - a must-win game with black; "all or nothing" sometimes means all, and sometimes nothing. Shamkir 2016: On round 6, you wrote "Caruana had a big advantage against Eltaj Safarli and, in his best form, would almost surely have converted it into a full point" - what does 'best form' refer to? Sinquefield Cup 2014 probably wasn't "just "best tournament of the year" but "once in a lifetime".

    [DM: Converting a serious advantage against a considerably lower-rated player doesn't require "once in a lifetime" form.]

    In the next rounds against Giri and Mamedyarov, the issue was whether to accept a draw or to play on - Caruana got it wrong twice. The tiebreak was, as tiebreaks go, a matter of nerves and resourcefulness. Such situations can hardly be practiced in training session - one would need to accurately simulate both the stakes and the exhaustion from the main tournament .... .

    Sure, if Caruana could overcome the suggested problem, while his peers/competitors keep such problems, he would be at least world #2 and an even more serious threat to Carlsen.

    [DM: Never mind #2; I'm not even sure who would be #1 if Carlsen and Caruana converted at the same clip.]

    June 5, 2016 | Unregistered CommenterThomas

    When I started reading this column I felt like Dennis had been reading my mind. Caruana is truly a World Champion waiting to happen. Unfortunately he will never make it by letting so many wins slip by him. At first it seemed to be time pressure but now it seems he stops looking for a win when he sees a draw in a tough game. In one sense he is a bit like Karpov who often settled for draws when he felt he had things wrapped up. The difference is Karpov also rarely did not lose games at the end of an event that cost him the victory.
    While it seems more mental than physical, often the two are strongly linked. I am a fan of Caruana and hopes he works his way through this.
    It should also be noted that Giri has similar problems as well. He was only +1 (and it was a bit of a gift) against three players whose ratings were 100+ points less than his.There is no reason he should be losing to Mamedyarov with white and first place on the line.

    June 5, 2016 | Unregistered CommenterLarry L.

    I believe the first paragraph of your commentary regarding Caruana's relative failures is spot on, but what should/can he do to develop the mental toughness, stamina, and unbridled drive to win necessary to become the World Champion and number one rated chess player on the planet?

    June 5, 2016 | Unregistered CommenterTrill

    As far as I know, Caruanas physical condition is extremly well. He is running 5 to 10 km every day.. In comparison with Carlsen I would definitely rule out stamina as an advantage for the Norwaigian worldchampion.
    If there is something like the so called killer-instinct, Carlsen seems to be in a league with Lasker, and Kasparov, putting the most pressure on your opponent, given the concrete situation in a game or mach. I don't see Caruana at the same level there. But he has his own qualities.
    After a missed chance, or a loss Carlsen (like Kasparov in his prime) cannot hide beeing extremely pissed off, whereas Caruana seems much more controlled and even relaxed. I like this mentality. He seems to be a man who knows, that his chance for the real big thing will come sooner or later, no matter what happens in between. And when it comes, he will be fearless. He has plenty of years to work and improve.

    June 6, 2016 | Unregistered CommenterRalph

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