Shamkir, Round 9 + Tiebreaks: Mamedyarov Wins, Caruana Collapses
Saturday, June 4, 2016 at 5:37PM
Dennis Monokroussos in Fabiano Caruana, Shakhriyar Mamedyarov, Shamkir 2016

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:

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