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    Tuesday
    Jan312017

    Happy Birthday, Boris Spassky

    He is 80 today; or rather, turned 80 yesterday - Monday - for most of you reading this at the time of posting. He is the oldest currently living world champion, with Anatoly Karpov a distant second at the age of 65. (Which seems unbelievable to me, having followed him since he was in his 20s. The years fly by.)

    A strange interview with Spassky can be read here (as I've noted before, just about every recent interview with Spassky is a strange one); it's in Russian, but it's relatively intelligible by means of Google Translate.

    Sunday
    Jan292017

    Wijk aan Zee 2017: So Wins!

    With Black in the last round and three players only half a point behind, chances looked pretty good that Wesley So would be caught by at least one player and the winner of the Masters Group in the Tata Steel Chess Tournament would be decided by a rapid playoff. Would we experience a thrilling, nail-biting finish?

    Not even close, as it turned out. Ian Nepomniachtchi played an insane opening against So and was lost - really lost! - after just nine moves (remember, this is with White!), and could have resigned in around 14 moves rather than 28. His attempt to battle on was in vain: So was playing too well in the tournament, and his position was so good that he didn't even need to be especially precise (though by and large he was).

    Worse, for those hoping for a close finish, the chase pack of Magnus Carlsen, Levon Aronian, and Wei Yi managed a grand total of half a point between them. Carlsen had some troubles with Sergey Karjakin but drew, Aronian played terribly in the opening against Dmitry Andreikin and was outplayed pretty much from start to finish (though Andreikin made a couple of significant inaccuracies along the way), while Wei Yi did enjoy excellent winning chances against Radoslaw Wojtaszek before giving them away and then even losing in a long game.

    So thereby finished in clear first with 9/13. This was his third consecutive super-tournament victory, and that doesn't count his exceptional performance in last year's Olympiad. He has gone 56 games without a defeat, gained a pile of rating points, and when Fabiano Caruana lost a few hours later in Gibraltar So could include #2 in the world rankings to his ever-growing resume. Pretty amazing.

    So finished a point ahead of Carlsen and a point and a half ahead of Aronian, Wei Yi, and tournament surprise Baskaran Adhiban, who defeated Richard Rapport in the last round. Karjakin and Pavel Eljanov were a further half a point back to round out the players with plus scores in the tournament. Eljanov must have been extremely disappointed with his result, as he drew and even lost three or four games where he was winning or nearly so. As for Karjakin, it wasn't a great result, but he probably didn't feel too disappointed - he pleaded exhaustion afterwards from the match with Carlsen.

    Today's annotated games are here; the final standings follow.

    • 1. So 9
    • 2. Carlsen 8
    • 3-5. Adhiban, Aronian, Wei Yi 7.5
    • 6-7. Karjakin, Eljanov 7
    • 8. Giri 6.5
    • 9-11. Harikrishna, Andreikin, Wojtaszek 6
    • 12. Nepomniachtchi 5
    • 13. Rapport 4.5
    • 14. van Wely 3.5

    In the Challengers Group the most important games ended peacefully, leaving Gawain Jones and Markus Ragger tied for first with 9 points apiece, half a point ahead of Jeffery Xiong. Jones had the better tiebreak score, so he has qualified for next year's Masters Group. Congratulations to him and especially to So!

    Sunday
    Jan292017

    Wijk aan Zee 2017, Round 12: So Still Leads Entering the Last Round

    But barely. Wesley So entered the last round with a half-point lead over Wei Yi and more against everyone else, and with White against Wei Yi decided to play it safe. Black went for a well-known line of the Queen's Gambit Declined called the Peruvian Variation (I think) that results in Black's having a structure that appears as ugly as sin but which turns out to be very difficult to beat. In the game Wei Yi had no trouble keeping the draw, which meant that he remained half a point behind So, who guaranteed himself of a clear lead heading into the last round.

    Unfortunately for So - and for Wei Yi too, for that matter - both Magnus Carlsen and Levon Aronian won and also came to within half a point of So. Carlsen was in serious trouble against Pavel Eljanov, who played a great game for 28 moves. Eljanov has played a very good tournament so far, but he has failed to convert several better-to-winning positions, and this one he even managed to lose. His 29th move was a serious error, giving away the advantage, and his 37th to 39th moves left him lost. Carlsen played the ensuing rook endgame just about perfectly to stay within striking range of the leader.

    As for Aronian, his opponent, Loek van Wely, like Eljanov managed to play very well the first half of the game but not the second. Van Wely's queen moves from 22...Qd8 through 27...Qxe4 left him with a lost position, and Aronian did a fine job of navigating the complications to near perfection.

    The remaining games were drawn, several of them quietly, and in any case none of them left the protagonists with a shot at first place. So after the customary link to the day's wins, with my notes, here are the pairings for the final round:

    • Andreikin (5) - Aronian (7.5)
    • Wei Yi (7.5) - Wojtaszek (5)
    • Nepomniachtchi (5) - So (8)
    • Carlsen (7.5) - Karjakin (6.5) - !
    • Giri (6) - Eljanov (6.5)
    • Rapport (4.5) - Adhiban (6.5)
    • Van Wely (2.5) - Harikrishna (6)

    I don't know what the tiebreak situations will be in case two or more players wind up sharing first, so if some enterprising reader (we all know who that is) wants to inform us, he's welcome to do so. Hopefully for the sake of my patriotic prognostication So will make it simple by winning in the last round.

    As for the Challengers Group, the chances of the U.S. national anthem (probably metaphorically) playing took a bit hit as Jeffery Xiong went from clear first to a tie for third after losing to Tari while all his closest rivals - Markus Ragger, Gawain Jones, and Ilia Smirin all won. Ragger and Jones are tied for first, while Smirin and Xiong are tied for third-fourth half a point behind. But the good news for Xiong is that he's the only one of the four with White in the last round, and his opponent has the lowest score of the leaders' four opponents. Here are the critical pairings:

    • L'Ami (6.5) - Ragger (8.5)
    • Lu Shanglei (7.5) - Jones (8.5)
    • Hansen (7) - Smirin (8)
    • Xiong (8) - Bok (5)

    Saturday
    Jan282017

    Wijk aan Zee 2017, Rounds 10 and 11: So and Xiong Lead Their Groups

    With two rounds to go, it's looking good for a USA sweep of the gold medals. Wesley So won (convincingly, against Radoslaw Wojtaszek) in round 10 to put himself a full point clear of the field in the Masters group, and while Wei Yi closed the gap to half a point after defeating Sergey Karjakin in round 11 (Karjakin completely misplayed the opening and was losing after his 15th move) So is still looking good to win yet another super-tournament on his current hot streak.

    Wei Yi was the only winner in round 11, but several other players came close. Tournament surprise Baskaran Adhiban was pressing with Black against Magnus Carlsen, and had a one-move chance to obtain a winning advantage. Had he played 34...Qg4!, intending ...Re3 or ...Ne3, he probably would have won to join the big tie for third. Anish Giri was completely winning from early on against Penteala Harikrishna, but he not only lost his advantage but even wound up with a losing position near the end. Richard Rapport was better against Loek van Wely early on, but near the end would have been lost had van Wely played 34...Bd7.

    The other three draws were smoother for everyone involved. So drew Dmitry Andreikin without a speck of trouble on the Black side of a 4.0-0 Nxe4 5.Re1 Berlin; Ian Nepomniachtchi and Pavel Eljanov played a relatively long and hard fought game, but one that never got out of hand for either player; finally, Wojtaszek did have a pull against Levon Aronian, but didn't seem to miss any clear chances for a full point.

    As for round 10, So's victory over Wojtaszek was already mentioned, and there were two other winners in the round. Karjakin beat Andreikin in an Italian game taking advantage of one inaccuracy at a time, while Levon crushed Rapport in a beautiful attacking game. The most noteworthy game among the draws was Eljanov-Wei Yi, which saw Black have a serious advantage before the time control and Eljanov a similarly large one after it before everything finished peacefully.

    The decisive games from the last two rounds are here (with my annotations), and this is what the pairings look like for round 12:

    • Aronian (6.5) - van Wely (2.5)
    • Harikrishna (5.5) - Rapport (4)
    • Adhiban (6) - Giri (5.5)
    • Eljanov (6.5) - Carlsen (6.5)
    • Karjakin (6) - Nepomniachtchi (4.5)
    • So (7.5) - Wei Yi (7)
    • Wojtaszek (4.5) - Andreikin (4.5)

    Nice pairings on boards 4 and 6!

    To the Challengers Group: Entering round 10 Markus Ragger and Ilia Smirin shared the lead with 6.5 points each, half a point ahead of Xiong and Gawain Jones. Ragger and Smirin only managed to draw (against Benjamin Bok and Erwin L'Ami, respectively), and they were caught by Xiong (who like almost everyone else in the tournament so far defeated Sopiko Guramishvili). Jones drew his game (with Lei Tingjie) to remain half a point behind, along with the surging Eric Hansen (who crushed Lu Shanglei in a great game that was the subject of my World Chess column this week).

    In round 11 some stratification occurred. Ragger drew again, with Nils Grandelius, and for the first time all tournament was out of first place after one co-leader - Xiong - defeated the third - Smirin. Interestingly, the two players were half a point back also played each other, and Jones defeated Hansen (with Black) to join Ragger in second, half a point behind Xiong.

    Here are the leading pairings for round 12:

    • Tari (5.5) - Xiong (8)
    • Ragger (7.5) - Van Foreest (3.5)
    • Jones (7.5) - Dobrov (3.5)
    • Smirin (7) - Lei Tingjie (3.5)

    Xiong has his work cut out for him this round, but on the flip side he's the only one of the four with seven or more points to have White in the last round, and he also has the easiest opponent by far - at least in terms of the tournament scoretable - in that last game.

    Friday
    Jan272017

    Performance-Enhancing Drugs in Chess?

    Maybe. Perhaps a reader with access to the journal article and a willingness to work through the material can attempt to assess the study's value, but based solely on what's in the first link the conclusion is dubious.

    These are the reported results: modafinil (sold as Alertec, Modavigil, and Provigil) improved players' performances by an average of 15%, while methylphenidate (sold as Ritalin) improved players' performance by 13%. Not to be missed: caffeine intake resulted in a 9% increase. (What exactly that means isn't spelled out: is it in terms of IPRs? Percentage scores in a player's results? Something else?)

    Was the methodology good? Is it ethical to ingest these substances (at least those which are prescription-only) for these purposes? Is it safe? These are all important questions to be asked before anyone considers taking modafinil and/or methylphenidate for performance-enhancing purposes, and as FIDE and national chess federations decide whether or not to ban such substances and test for them.

    There is an apparent problem with the study, however, and it's very odd that it is swept under the statistical rug - at least in the publicly available material. Apparently those taking either modafinil or methylphenidate played more slowly, and games lost on time were thrown out. Since tournament play always involves time controls, such an exclusion is an absurdity if the aim is to evaluate the effect on performance in competitive play.

    But maybe I'm missing something; if so, I count on my savvier readers to set me straight here.

    Friday
    Jan272017

    This Week's World Chess Column: Lu vs. Hansen from the Challengers Group at Wijk aan Zee

    It's not every day that a 2600-level GM loses with White in just 20 moves, especially without making an outright blunder, but that's just what happened in the round 10 game between Lu Shanglei and Eric Hansen in the Challengers Group in the Tata Steel Chess Tournament. For all the gory details, have a look here.

    Friday
    Jan272017

    So's Coach: Tukmakov

    For the last seven months or so, though apparently only on an occasional basis until recently, current world #3 Wesley So has been working with Ukranian GM and trainer Vladimir Tukmakov. Tukmakov had previous enjoyed a successful stint with Anish Giri; if he enjoys comparable results with So (obviously not a given, as So is starting from a higher rating and is a couple of years older than Giri was when he started working with Tukmakov) Carlsen's all-time rating record will be in danger. Regardless, So is in his quiet way becoming a bigger and bigger star practically by the month. Just a few months ago I thought that Fabiano Caruana was the clear early favorite for the next Candidates tournament; now, who knows?

    Wednesday
    Jan252017

    Gibraltar 2017 Underway

    The Tradewise Gibraltar Chess Festival (henceforth just "Gibraltar") has become increasingly popular and strong, and now it's a kind of super-open. World #2 Fabiano Caruana is the top name on the marquee, and then there are another 11 players over 2700, including Maxime Vachier-Lagrave, Hikaru Nakamura, Vassily Ivanchuk, Michael Adams, Peter Svidler, Veselin Topalov, and Boris Gelfand. There are some players in the upper 2600s as well, including several who have been over 2700 in the not too distant past.

    There were some upsets in round 1, and some games that should have finished in an upset. Ivanchuk's game with WGM Petra Papp was very level for a very long time, but someone he pulled it out. Yu Yangyi was even lost against IM Sahl Bjarke, but he too managed to win. But while they escaped against their much lower-rated opposition, Gelfand, Nigel Short, Surya Ganguly, and Romain Edouard were all nicked for draws, to talk only about 2600+ players. And two 2600+ players lost: Abhijeet Gupta and Grigoriy Oparin.

    It's an enjoyable 10-round tournament for the spectators, and I'd recommend checking out their website. There's live, on-scene commentary, player interviews, and master classes to boot. Wijk may be the headliner for a few more days, but don't forget about Gibraltar!

    Tuesday
    Jan242017

    Wijk aan Zee 2017, Round 9: So Still Leads After Almost All the Games End in Draws

    It was a quiet round in terms of results, with six draws in seven games, but there was plenty of turbulence within the games themselves. Magnus Carlsen defeated Loek van Wely pretty easily (clearly better out of the opening, a pawn up 10 moves later, in a clearly winning rook ending about another 10 moves after that followed by a smooth conversion). That brought him back where he was before his loss to Richard Rapport in the previous round; namely, within half a point of the leader, Wesley So.

    So had White in a Vienna Variation of the Queen's Gambit against Levon Aronian, and as the latter was well-prepared it was soon obvious that the game would finish in a draw. So remained in clear first with 6/9, while Aronian was a point behind.

    Two players had an excellent chance to catch up with So. Pavel Eljanov was clearly winning against Dmitry Andreikin in a fantastically complicated game, but couldn't put him away and the game finished in a perpetual. Wei Yi's game with Baskaran Adhiban was quieter (to be fair, most of Tal's games would have been quieter than the Eljanov-Andreikin adventure), but in this game too the player nipping at So's heels should have won, but didn't.

    Of the remaining draws, Ian Nepomniachtchi also failed to convert a winning advantage, though unlike Eljanov and Wei Yi he is nowhere near the top of the tournament table. His fortunate opponent, Penteala Harikrishna, isn't quite in the leading group, but is still close enough to make a run in the last four rounds. As for Anish Giri vs. Richard Rapport and Radoslaw Wojtaszek vs. Sergey Karjakin, those were correct draws.

    My analysis of Carlsen-van Wely is here, and these are the pairings for round 10 (which won't be in Wijk aan Zee, in an implicit rebuke to my labeling this tournament in the traditional way rather than after its current sponsor, Tata Steel):

    • Aronian (5) - Rapport (3.5)
    • van Wely (1.5) - Giri (4.5)
    • Harikrishna (4.5) - Carlsen (5.5)
    • Adhiban (5) - Nepomniachtchi (3.5)
    • Eljanov (5.5) - Wei Yi (5.5)
    • Karjakin (5) - Andreikin (4)
    • So (6) - Wojtaszek (4)

    Things are tightening in the Challengers Group after the co-leaders scored .5/2 between them. Ragger only drew with White against Tari, while Jones was mated by Xiong. Smirin defeated Van Foreest with Black, so now he and Ragger share first with 6.5/9, half a point ahead of Xiong and Jones, a further half a point ahead of Hansen and Lu Shanglei.

    Sunday
    Jan222017

    Wijk aan Zee 2017, Round 8: So Still Leads, Rapport Beats Carlsen

    There wasn't much excitement in Wesley So's game. Sergey Karjakin played a slow system with White against the leader, and by move 22 they were already content to shake hands and call it a day. That meant that Wei Yi, Pavel Eljanov, and of course world champion Magnus Carlsen could catch So with a win.

    Wei Yi's game with Pentala Harikrishna was a short draw with Black in a Petroff, so nothing doing there. Eljanov, however, was winning against Radoslaw Wojtaszek, and at two different points in the game. Unfortunately for the early leader of the tournament, he failed to convert his advantage, and also drew. Still, that's better than what happened to Carlsen. Carlsen more or less equalized against Richard Rapport, but chose a very bad play with 22...d3 23.e3 Ne5. Perhaps this was due to a surfeit of ambition; whatever the case, he was losing two moves later, and Rapport finished with a nice little combination starting with 29.Rb6. It had been a bad tournament for Rapport and a good one for Carlsen, but even so Rapport is too strong a player for even Carlsen to take such liberties against.

    In other games: Levon Aronian demonstrated an interesting new idea in the Catalan and won a terrific game against Anish Giri, and Baskaran Adhiban also won in crushing style against Dmitry Andreikin. Finally, in a battle between players at and near the bottom of the crosstable, Loek van Wely failed to convert a winning advantage against Ian Nepomniachtchi, and they eventually drew the longest game of the round.

    The decisive games, with my comments, are here, and here are the pairings for round 9 (on Tuesday):

    • So (5.5) - Aronian (4.5)
    • Wojtaszek (3.5) - Karjakin (4.5)
    • Andreikin (3.5) - Eljanov (5)
    • Wei Yi (5) - Adhiban (4.5)
    • Nepomniachtchi (3) - Harikrishna (4)
    • Carlsen (4.5) - van Wely (1.5)
    • Giri (4) - Rapport (3)

    In the Challengers section, six of the seven games were drawn, which is very unusual - all the prior rounds had at least three decisive games (and that low number only occurred once, in round 1) and one round even saw seven decisive games out of seven. The only non-draw featured players near the bottom of the table, so the relative standings are the same: Jones and Ragger lead, half a point ahead of Smirin and a full point in front of Lu Shanglei and Xiong.

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