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    Sunday
    Apr192015

    Colin Crouch (1956-2015), R.I.P.

    The English International Master and well-known chess author Colin Crouch died on Saturday (yesterday as I write this) at the age of 58. Crouch had a number of health problems over the years, including a stroke some years ago that he himself mentioned in more than one of his chess books. Whether his death was in some way related to that particular problem, I don't know; readers with more information are asked to include more details if they have them.

    I was not well acquainted with his chess, but have a number of his books and have looked at several more. I was struck by the humanness of his work - humanness in a good sense. At least or especially after his stroke, Crouch very clearly worked with the computer last, trying very hard to work out his analyses on his own, all the while admitting his limitations - general human limitations, yes, and also those unfortunately imposed upon him by his illness. The header on his blog (last updated just a week ago) strikes me as characteristic: "Mainly on the evolution of top level chess, or at least to the limited extent that I am able to understand what is going on."

    I hope those who did know him will offer their reminiscences in the comments. For those who aren't familiar with his work, I would suggest having a look at one or more of his recent books (e.g. on the "Great Attackers" or Modern Chess: Move by Move are the two I know best, along with his older book on defense). They're not indispensable, but they are worthy contributions to chess literature. There's also his blog, mentioned above. There's also a thread on his passing on the English Chess Forum, and on that thread are a couple of his notable victories, which can be replayed here and here.

    Rest in peace.

    Sunday
    Apr192015

    Shamkir, Round 2: Carlsen Wins to Catch Kramnik & So in the Lead

    Today's round at the Gashimov Memorial in Shamkir was a relatively sedate one. Unlike yesterday, when two of the three drawn games could easily have been won by one of the players, all four of today's draws looked like the right result. The only game where one player obtained a serious advantage was the one between Magnus Carlsen and Shakhriyar Mamedyarov, and the world champion went on to win in crushing style.

    The games, with my light notes, are here; the round 3 pairings follow:

    • So (1.5) - Adams (.5)
    • Mamedov (1) - Kramnik (1.5)
    • Anand (1) - Giri (.5)
    • Mamedyarov (.5) - Vachier-Lagrave (1)
    • Caruana (1) - Carlsen (1.5)

    Friday
    Apr172015

    Shamkir, Round 1: Kramnik, So Win; Carlsen Barely Draws Against Anand

    The Gashimov Memorial in Shamkir got off to an exciting start with two victories in five games and two other games that very nearly had a winner. The first decisive game was Wesley So's crushing win over Anish Giri. So quickly dragged Giri out of theory, and as great as he is Giri looked like the proverbial fish out of water. I was reminded of a game I played against Anna Sharevich in 2014, where shortly after the opening ended I managed to do just about everything wrong. There was a famous model game in the opening line we played that I knew very well and had taught various students and shown in videos, and yet I was allowing my opponent to execute practically every idea from that earlier game. Fortunately, my play improved at a certain point and I scraped out a draw, but the first part of the game was almost a horror as I watched myself walk into every kind of trouble. I imagine Giri felt something like that, and in his case he wasn't given a chance to climb off the canvas.

    The second won game also featured surprisingly soft defense by the conquered player. Vladimir Kramnik enjoyed some pull with White in a Catalan against Michael Adams, and through move 23 that's all it was. A slip on that move (23...Rab8 instead of 23...Rdb8, allowing 24.Rfd1!) made Kramnik's advantage a serious one, and then further errors on moves 28 and 30 put the game out of reach.

    Those games would have been minor stories, however, had Viswanathan Anand managed to convert a winning advantage against Magnus Carlsen. Somewhat shockingly, Carlsen played the Marshall Gambit against Anand, entering the sort of theoretical discussion where Anand typically shines and which Carlsen tends to avoid. Anand played well and had an edge, but the big moment occurred when Carlsen blundered with 19...Qd7? After 20.Nd5! Carlsen was fortunate not to lose on the spot, yet even the resulting pawn-down endgame should have been losing for him in the long run. For a while Anand showed excellent technique, and was well on the way to the win. Unfortunately for him, he missed a possible winner on move 43 and definitely miscalculated on move 47, either missing 49...g5! or 51...Kh7, after which the game finished in a draw.

    Shakhriyar Mamedyarov pushed hard against Fabiano Caruana and may have been close to a win. In the end, after 90 long moves, the players called it a day.

    Finally, Rauf Mamedov and Maxime Vachier-Lagrave also drew, and for the only time in the round no one was close to a win. Mamedov had an edge throughout, and thanks to MVL's good defense that's all he ever got, and the players agreed to a draw right after making the time control on move 40.

    The games, with my (light) comments are here; round 2 pairings follow:

    • Adams (0) - Caruana (.5)
    • Carlsen (.5) - Mamedyarov (.5)
    • Vachier-Lagrave (.5) - Anand (.5)
    • Giri (0) - Mamedov (.5)
    • Kramnik (1) - So (1)

    Friday
    Apr172015

    Shamkir Starts Today (Friday)!

    The second memorial tournament in honor of Vugar Gashimov starts in just a few hours in Shamkir, Azerbaijan (at 3 p.m. local time = 11 a.m. CET = 6 a.m. ET - ugh), and has a fantastic lineup. Here are the pairings for round 1 of this round-robin event, with live ratings (rounded up) and world rankings given in parentheses:

    • Vladimir Kramnik (2783, #8) - Michael Adams (2747, #17)
    • Wesley So (2776, #9) - Anish Giri (2788, #7)
    • Rauf Mamedov (2651, 3 points outside the top 100) - Maxime Vachier-Lagrave (2762, #11)
    • Viswanathan Anand (2791, #6) - Magnus Carlsen (2863, #1)
    • Shakhriyar Mamedyarov (2738, #22) - Fabiano Caruana (2802, #2)

    Carlsen is obviously the favorite, but with five black games, including black against both Anand and Kramnik, he'll have his hands full. Fabiano Caruana lost a lot of ground after St. Louis, possibly due to his non-stop playing schedule. He has had a couple of months off, and is likely to have refreshed both his physical resources and his stock of dangerous opening ideas. Anand has continued to play well since his last match with Carlsen, and there's no reason to think he can't contend here as well. Giri and So are both young and climbing, and if either gets off to a good start they could be dangerous. Kramnik has been a feast-or-famine player for several years now: either he contends for first or bombs; we'll have to see which Kramnik shows up. Vachier-Lagrave, Adams and Mamedyarov seem less likely to contend for first, but nothing is impossible for them - especially Adams, who has beaten everyone (well, not Kasparov, but he's long retired) and won plenty of top tournaments. Finally, Mamedov is probably too big an underdog to contend for first, but he's a tricky player who might ruin someone else's tournament at a key moment.

    The fun begins in five and a hours; tournament site here.

    Sunday
    Apr122015

    Two More (and Hopefully Final) Links on the So Affair

    First, a rather disturbing interview with Wesley So's mother; second, a more general (regarding So) and wide-ranging article detailing another odd recent forfeit and a case of cheating.

    Whatever is going on in So's life isn't our business and should be handled by him with his friends, loved ones and confidants outside of the public eye. I wish him all wisdom as he works through this personal crisis, and will now leave this topic behind.

    Sunday
    Apr122015

    U.S. Championships, Round 11: Nakamura and Krush are the Champions

    Congratulations to both Hikaru Nakamura and Irina Krush are in order. They won the U.S. Championship and the U.S. Women's Championship, respectively, and pocketed some nice coin along the way as well - $45k for Nakamura and $20k for Krush.

    Nakamura entered the last round half a point ahead of Ray Robson, and that's how he ended it too. Robson's game finished after Nakamura's, but that Robson would win was clear early on. He faced Timur Gareev, who has been playing somewhat eccentric chess throughout the tournament; today, he went completely out of orbit and left the solar system. Gareev is a great player whose FIDE rating reached a high of 2682 a couple of years ago, so his managing to achieve a lost position with white in just nine moves should be chalked up his having too much talent rather than too little. The game lasted 31 moves, but the final result was seldom if ever in doubt.

    In the meantime, Alexander Onischuk managed to equalize against Nakamura pretty comfortably, and was probably just a few precise moves away from making a draw. Had he done so, Nakamura would have had a rapid playoff against Robson on Monday. Instead, Onischuk made a few little inaccuracies, got in trouble, and then was lost - all within a space of six or seven moves. The fatal moment came for Black when he played 27...Nxf2, which was a tactical blunder. Instead, 27...Rb6 would have led to a double rook ending where White's extra pawn would give him the ability to torture Black for many moves to come, but not probably not win against correct defense. After 27...Nxf2 28.Nd4 Nh3+ Onischuk probably missed Nakamura's 29.Kh1!, winning (at least) an exchange, and he resigned two moves later.

    Nakamura thus finished in clear first with 8/11, Robson in clear second with 7.5 points, and in clear third was Wesley So with 6.5 after another strong win, this time against Kayden Troff. It's to So's credit that he finished so well, and it's to his relief (I hope) that the final margin was such that even if So had defeated Akobian he still would have finished half a point behind Nakamura.

    In the remaining games, Shankland drew with Akobian, Naroditsky drew with Kamsky and, perplexingly, Sam Sevian beat Conrad Holt. It's difficult to be certain about this, in part because the live commentary ended shortly after Nakamura's win and most of what we have to go by is the very fallible result (probably) generated by the DGT boards. Here's the data I have: the tournament website's crosstable and the broadcast board on Chess24 both give the result as a win for Sevian. Moreover, the broadcast board shows Black (Holt) having no time, which offers a reasonable explanation. But look at the game itself: absolutely nothing happened from move 52 until move 99, when Holt finally decided to push his a-pawn up a square to avoid a coming 50-move rule claim, and a move later he lost on time in an absolutely safe position two pawns ahead. If they had been playing without an increment then sure, things like this can happen, but with 30 seconds added after every move Holt must have just lost track of the clock. This is possible, but it's also possible that he just decided that playing the position out was pointless and agreed to a draw, and they didn't bother to stop the clock afterward and/or the kings were put on the wrong squares in the center, at least momentarily.

    We're in rich tangent territory here, and I'll indulge a bit before turning briefly to the women's championship. If it turns out that this is just another DGT error, it might be time to hire some unemployed people to picket that company's headquarters until they make some sort of design fix. But rather than beat that dead horse, here's a new topic: why did the English-language commentators, who were on site, quit their broadcast so early? I'm not sure if the culprit is the St. Louis club or Yasser Seirawan, but this happened all tournament long. I'm sure the Sinquefields are paying him well; is it too much to ask that he (and Jennifer Shahade & Maurice Ashley) actually stay for the entire time? It is frankly incredible to me that the Spanish-language commentary coming from a Chess24 studio in Europe more than once outlasted the on site English-language commentary team based at the tournament site itself. Even if Yaz & crew didn't stick around for all 100 moves of Sevian-Holt, they didn't have to pack their bags when just two of the six games in the open section had finished. The St. Louis club is doing some great things for chess in the United States, but there are some things they could do better - and this is one of them.

    Turning back to the game itself, I should note one especially interesting moment, which would have preempted all of this discussion. Holt was better almost all the way, but a big slip on move 26 gave Sevian the chance to finish in style. 27.Nf5! would have won, threatening 28.Qh8+ followed by 29.Rh7#. The main variation runs 27...exf5 (creating a flight square on e6) 28.e6! (preventing the king from running, after 28...Qxe6 the flight square is gone) 28...Qg7 29.Kf2 (threatening Rh1 followed by Rh8+, mating) and wins. Black must play either 29...Nd8, when after 30.e7! he's going to lose practically everything (30...Qe7 31.Rh8+ followed by 32.Rh7+, 33.Rxe7(+) and 34.Qxb7), or he plays 29...Bf/d7 30.Rh1! Bxe6 31.Rh8+ Kf7 32.Qc7+! Ne7 33.R8h7, when one funny finale is 33...Rbe8 34.Qe5! with mate in three.

    As for the strange way Holt lost - if he lost - it reminds me of one of my luckiest wins ever. After making a huge error in a game where I was clearly better, I had to go into a bad ending a pawn down against a strong expert (approximately 2140 USCF). There were many further adventures in the game, but I somehow reached an ending with king and rook against my opponent's king and queen. This is a theoretical win for the queen, of course, but finishing off the rook isn't trivial against good defense. (Walter Browne initially failed to defeat a computer in that ending in a specially arranged challenge, and years later Peter Svidler once famously failed to win this ending against Boris Gelfand in a crucial FIDE knockout world championship match, in a rapid playoff.) Unfortunately for my opponent, he had only seven seconds to win it, but with a five second time delay every move. (That is, there was a five second grace period each move before the seven seconds would start ticking off.) He made most of his moves without losing any of his time, but at one point he burned five of his "real" seconds, and then around 25 moves into the endgame he spent his last two seconds, and lost. It was a difficult situation for my opponent: just making moves would have been easy, but to make progress against good defense one must concentrate. And once one really concentrates, how does one remember to move?

    So perhaps something like that happened to Holt. Another topic for discussion: should he have kept playing that ending against Sevian, after not making a shred of progress for 48 moves? Normally I'd say that he had carried out the appropriate desire to fight for a win a bit too far, but something important was at stake: a place in the World Cup this September. I'm not sure what the tiebreak situation was in case of a draw: Troff, Holt and Sevian would have all had 5 points and only one last spot was available. (Shankland also had 5 points, but had already qualified from another event.) If Holt had won, the spot would have been his; instead, it's the 14-year-old Sevian who has qualified, along with Nakamura and So (by rating), Shankland (from the American Continental Championship), and Robson, Onischuk, Akobian, and Kamsky from this event.

    Time for a few words about the women's championship. Irina Krush led her closest rivals by a full point entering the last round, and needed only a draw with white against one of them - Katerina Nemcova - to seal the deal. This she managed to do in an efficient and expeditious manner, and she has now won her 7th U.S. Women's crown and fourth in a row. Very impressive! - but it's not the record. Gisela Kahn Gresser (1904-2000) won it nine times from 1944 to 1969; an especially impressive feat considering that she didn't even learn how to play until she was in her 30s! Krush, by contrast, only turned 31 in December, so the odds are very good she will exceed Gresser's mark and then some before she decides to call it a career.

    Saturday
    Apr112015

    U.S. Championships, Round 10: Nakamura and Krush Lead Entering the Final Round

    The open and women's events aren't over and the favorites (Hikaru Nakamura and Irina Krush, respectively) - who are also the leaders - haven't yet clinched. They are both in fine shape entering the final round on Sunday and look likely to finish as champions.

    Nakamura had an extremely important game today, taking on Ray Robson with the black pieces. Robson was, and is, only half a point behind, so this was a major opportunity for him. Alas, there wasn't much excitement in the game. Robson played 1.e4 and Nakamura decided to play solidly with 1...e5. Feeling relatively empty-handed against the Berlin, Robson opted instead for the Scotch Four Knights. That was probably even less successful than a Berlin would have been--if anyone was better after the opening it was Nakamura, and while Robson may have obtained the tiniest of edges later on it was a pretty routine and easy hold for the leader.

    Still, some drama remains. Robson is still only half a point behind, and if he can win against Timur Gareev in the final round (albeit with the black pieces) while Alexander Onischuk manages to hold Nakamura to a draw, there will be a playoff. In fact, a three-person playoff is possible. Onischuk beat Sam Sevian convincingly, and with the win moved to within a point of the leader. Thus if he beats Nakamura (not likely, at least/especially because he'll have black) and Robson draws his game, all three will move on to playoffs on Monday.

    The situation could have been even more interesting had Wesley So not been forfeited in round 9. Today So bounced back marvelously, winning a very impressive game with black against none other than Gata Kamsky. Had he drawn with Varuzhan Akobian yesterday he would have been tied with Onischuk for third, and of course if he had won he'd be tied with Robson. As things stand, however, he's out of the running. (It should be mentioned that if Kamsky had won, he'd have been tied with Onischuk.)

    In the women's championship, Krush is suddenly leading by a full point entering the last round. She had been trailing Katerina Nemcova all event long, only catching up to her after round 9, but now she has jumped ahead. Krush won pretty easily against Jennifer Yu, while Nemcova lost to Paikidze (who also beat Krush!) - albeit somewhat unnecessarily. Nemcova was better most of the way - at times seriously better - but got careless about her king's safety and went from clearly better to simply lost in the space of about four moves.

    Krush has 8/10, and both Nemcova and Paikidze have 7 points apiece. Krush will have white against Nemcova in the last round, while Paikidze has white against Foisor. Thus the women's championship could also finish in a two- or even three-person playoff on Monday, but only if the slumping and lower-rated Nemcova can defeat the surging Krush. Not likely, but you never know.

    Finally, an addendum to yesterday's post about So's forfeit. I cited an article that included allegations that Paul Truong played some role in creating an emotionally disturbing atmosphere around So. Truong has responded on his Facebook page (HT: Allen Becker), to which I link in the interest of fairness.

    Saturday
    Apr112015

    U.S. Championships, Round 9: A Shocking Forfeit

    I've been playing in and observing chess events of all sorts and levels for 35 years, and have read about dozens, probably even hundreds of other matches and tournaments from the present going back more than 100 years before my birth. In all that time and in all my experience, both firsthand and secondhand, I've never heard of anything like what happened in round 9 of the U.S. Championship.

    What happened? Wesley So was forfeited after just six moves of his game against Varuzhan Akobian for writing notes to himself on a separate piece of paper under his scoresheet. That this is forbidden is known to the overwhelming majority of amateur players; it's almost inconceivable that a professional wouldn't know this - especially a player (who was) in the world's top ten. Stranger yet, So had already been warned twice about this earlier in the tournament by Chief Arbiter Tony Rich, and his doing it a third time led to his forfeiting the game. Apparently he was only jotting down words of self-encouragement and advice, e.g. to double-check his variations, but it's against the rules of chess all the same.

    So was not born in the U.S. and presumably isn't a native English speaker, but his grasp of the language is more than sufficient to understand the arbiter's earlier warnings. Clearly there's more to the story, and it is alleged in this article (HT: Allen Becker) that So has been suffering psychological pressure from his family and perhaps from Webster University's Paul Truong as well. Let's hope for his sake as a human being first and as a chess player second that he can work through those problems and find stability in his personal life. As for the rest of the championship, hopefully he can get through it without any further incidents and get his world back in order.

    As for the chess, Hikaru Nakamura maintained his half-point lead over Ray Robson leading into their head-to-head matchup on Saturday. Nakamura was surprised when Timur Gareev met 1.Nf3 with 1...b6, but despite having played Owen's Defense hundreds of times in blitz on the black side he didn't handle it very well with the white pieces. Nakamura was worse, and was a bit fortunate that Gareev grabbed a second pawn and allowed Nakamura to force a draw by repetition. Robson also drew, with Black in a Scheveningen Sicilian against Sam Sevian. In fact, all the players anywhere near the lead (except for So) drew their games; the only win involving chess moves occurred in the game Daniel Naroditsky vs. Conrad Holt. Naroditsky played very well, and won his first game of the event.

    In the women's section, Irina Krush has caught up to Katerina Nemcova with two rounds to go; they'll play in the last round. Krush had some enduring pressure against Tatev Abrahamyan, but the game was headed for a draw until Abrahamyan played 34...b3?, which lost. (Instead 34...Qc1, both allowing the queen to defend and to give some annoying checks, or 34...h6 to give Black's king a flight square, would have kept full equality.) Krush found a very nice and precise series of moves to win, including the easily missed 38.Qe5+. Meanwhile, Nemcova was better for much of her game with Viktorija Ni, but it never reached decisive proportions and the game was eventually drawn. Paikidze is a point back after beating Yu, and plays Nemcova in round 10. Nemcova will have White, while Krush will have Black against Yu. In the last round Krush has the white pieces vs. Nemcova, so since Krush is a huge favorite against Yu in round 10 Nemcova will have to push very hard for a win against Paikidze to maintain a reasonable chance of winning the tournament.

    Friday
    Apr102015

    U.S. Championships, Round 8: Nakamura Again Alone in First

    Hikaru Nakamura again leads the U.S. Championship by himself, but it's not yet a breakaway. He leads with 6/8, good for a half-point lead over Ray Robson and a point and a half advantage over the trio consisting of Gata Kamsky, Wesley So and Alexander Onischuk.

    Nakamura's win came with Black at Kayden Troff's expense, in convincing style in a Modern Benoni. I haven't looked at the theory of the Fianchetto System against the Modern Benoni in a while, but I don't recall seeing this play with 10.Re1 followed by 12.e4. Maybe it's not bad, but White is usually concerned to keep Black's knight from reaching the g4 square. Whatever the merits of Troff's plan, nothing too serious happened until Troff's 24th move. Unfortunately for the youngster, the move he chose gave him a lost position; Nakamura's pieces had too many squares available for the attack. Instead, the feistier 24.Nc4 was called for, after which the chances would be roughly level.

    Robson started the round level with Nakamura, and with the white pieces against Sam Shankland would presumably have a decent chance to end the round the same way. Alas, it was not to be, and he was probably losing in the middlegame. Shankland seemed to let Robson off the hook when he played 27...axb3, as Robson was better able to use the c-file than his oppponent. Black's advantage was minimal after that, and the game was drawn soon after the time control.

    The other really major game of the day so Conrad Holt beat Wesley So. As usual in Holt's games, the opening preparation went pretty deep, and it looked like both players were well-prepared. The game really turned on one move: So's 20...b5? This just gave up a pawn (and harmed his position) while not giving him any more play than he had before the pawn sac. Instead, the natural 20...Re8 (preparing to double rooks and/or play ...f4) would have resulted in a tactically rich but objectively equal position (so says the engine, anyway).

    In other games, Akobian and Kamsky drew a short, clean game, while Timur Gareev won with great ease against Sam Sevian. Sevian offered a very naive defense, and Gareev made him pay pretty badly. Finally, Onischuk won a nice positional game (praised by Anish Giri) against Daniel Naroditsky, who has been suffering mightily in this tournament. The fate of Black's light-squared bishop in this game was especially brutal, and the game is worth replaying if only to have a look at the finale.

    In the women's section, Irina Krush won against Alisa Melekhina to close to within half a point of the leader, Katerina Nemcova, who only managed to draw against Sabina Foisor.

    Friday
    Apr102015

    A Short Kasparov Interview with Harvard Business Review

    Here. (HT: Howard Sample)