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    Tuesday
    Mar202018

    2018 Candidates, Round 8: Three Draws and Another Kramnik Loss

    The second cycle of the Candidates got underway in round 8, and the outcome was more peaceful than in round 1. In that round, with the same pairings (with colors reversed), three games finished with a decisive result. Not this time: three games were drawn, and the one decisive result should have been the fourth draw.

    The leader coming in was Fabiano Caruana, who defeated Wesley So with White in round 1. He came reasonably close with Black, too, as for the second time in this event the lame 5.Qe2 against Caruana's Petroff resulted in a very poor middlegame position for White. To So's credit, he defended exceptionally well and saved the game, using an endgame trick famously discovered by Emanuel Lasker in 1924.

    Shakhriyar Mamedaryov also defeated his opponent, Sergey Karjakin, in their first round game - and that was with the black pieces - but like Caruana, he only drew in the rematch. He obtained a small advantage in a Catalan sideline, and a slight inaccuracy enabled Karjakin to achieve full equality. Wisely shepherding his strength, Mamedyarov decided to call it a day after just 30 moves.

    Ding Liren and Levon Aronian drew their game in the first cycle, and drew this one, too. Their first game was a short draw, but Aronian was much better, even winning had he chosen not to repeat. This time it was Ding who failed to maximize his chances, misplaying an ending with a clean extra pawn.

    Finally, Vladimir Kramnik's bizarre self-destruction continued. He defeated Alexander Grischuk in round 1, but this time nothing more than a draw was on the cards. The simplest way to achieve it was with 31...Bxc3, when the pin after 32.Bxc3 Rxc3 was of no consequence. Instead Kramnik let Grischuk keep his extra pawn, and found himself lost after the first time control. Both players were tired, however, and the evaluation kept switching between equality and a serious advantage for Grischuk. After playing one long game after another - something which was entirely Kramnik's fault the past three rounds - he was tired and by his own admission "couldn't see anything". The result was another loss, in 91 moves. It was better to spend a few extra minutes making sure 31...Bxc3 worked, and then he'd have saved himself 3+ hours of play and half a point in the tournament table. As for Grischuk, he's at +1 now and in the running for first place.

    The games, with my comments, are here; here's what coming up in round 9:

     

    • So (3) - Grischuk (4.5)
    • Caruana (5.5) - Ding (4)
    • Aronian (3) - Mamedyarov (5)
    • Karjakin (3.5) - Kramnik (3.5)

     

    Monday
    Mar192018

    2018 Candidates, Round 7: Caruana Back in Clear First at the Halfway Point

    It was another adventure-filled round at the Candidates, and for the third time in the last four rounds there were two winners on the day.

    The most important win belonged to Fabiano Caruana, who withstood a kitchen sink attack from Levon Aronian. Aronian came up with a fascinating idea on the white side of a Vienna Variation, throwing caution and pawns to the winds. Caruana was up to the challenge though, and while Caruana made some inaccuracies he was never worse - the game see-sawed between equality and an advantage for Caruana. Aronian made the final mistake on move 32, and Caruana finished the job before the first time control. He is now at a very healthy and impressive +3, good for a half-point lead over Shakhriyar Mamedyarov.

    Mamedyarov had Black against Alexander Grischuk, and the opening seemed to promise some excitement. Indeed, it seemed to promise it all the way to the end on move 16, when the players called it a day thanks to a repetition. (One which had been played before, sadly.)

    That was a dud, but the other draw wasn't. Vladimir Kramnik tried for a long time to win against Ding Liren, and although he was never better he thought he was. In fact, he even claimed to have a winning advantage at one point, but neither the engine, the commentators, nor Ding himself bought any of it. In the post-game press conference Kramnik would claim he was better here, better there, had a simple win, and on and on and on. Whenever Anastasiya Karlovich asked Ding would he thought about Kramnik's assessments, he'd always start with a laugh and express his disagreement. Kramnik sometimes replied with a guilty little laugh in response and a slight retraction, but not always. Regardless of the postgame performance art, it was an interesting game, and the interesting question is whether Kramnik's hours-long attempts to squeeze something out of nothing against Wesley So, Mamedyarov (when he could have repeated moves right out of the opening and made a draw), and now Ding will cost him later in the event if and when he runs out of gas.

    Finally, Sergey Karjakin won a weird game against So. The game seemed to be headed for a very routine draw, especially when it reached an ending where both players had a rook, a knight, and four kingside pawns. So only needed to solve what looked like a very minor problem or two, and then they could call it a day. To Karjakin's credit, he managed to create some problems, and a single mistake by So proved fatal.

    The tournament is halfway over, and now the players repeat the first cycle with colors reversed. Caruana has 5/7, Mamedyarov 4.5, and then there are three players on 50% (i.e. with 3.5 points). The round 7 games (with my notes - heavy notes to Aronian-Caruana) are here, and this is what round 8 looks like:

    • Grischuk (3.5) - Kramnik (3.5)
    • Mamedyarov (4.5) - Karjakin (3)
    • Ding Liren (3.5) - Aronian (2.5)
    • So (2.5) - Caruana (5)

    Friday
    Mar162018

    2018 Candidates, Round 6: Shakh Catches the Car; Aronian, Kramnik Look on in the Distance

    Please excuse the overly informal subject line, offered for the sake of painting a picture. As Shakhriyar Mamedyarov and Fabiano "Car"uana drive away, two of the pre-tournament favorites, Vladimir Kramnik and Levon Aronian, are left behind as their hopes vanish in the distance. It's still not too late - there are eight rounds remaining - but it's not looking good for them, and they're going in the wrong direction.

    The game of the day, at least in the race for first, was Mamedyarov-Kramnik. For the second straight day Kramnik played the Semi-Tarrasch with Black, and for the second straight day managed to equalize. Also for the second straight day, Kramnik was unsatisfied with an easy draw with the Black pieces, and decided to play on. At this point the script diverged. Again Wesley So in round 5 Kramnik never overstepped the bounds of acceptable risk, but against Mamedyarov in round 6 he did so, repeatedly, as if he was still "on tilt" from the loss to Caruana in round 4. A poor mini-plan on moves 23 and 24 could have been punished by 25.f4, with a big advantage for White, but Kramnik got away with that one. A further mistake on 31 could have been punished by 32.Rbc1, with a winning advantage for White...but Kramnik got away with that one, too. On move 34 he went too far, and instead of enjoying full equality and even some small chances of playing for a win after 34...Rxc1 35.Rxc1 Bc6, he uncorked 34...Rdc8?? Three strikes and you're out: Mamedyarov played 35.Rxc7+ Rxc7 36.Rh1, winning the h-pawn for nothing, with a vastly superior position to boot. Kramnik tried valiantly to save the game, coming up with some nice tricks at the end, but they were too simple for an alert Mamedyarov.

    With the win, Mamedyarov caught up Caruana in first place, a point ahead of their closest competitors. Caruana was doubtlessly hoping for more with White against Alexander Grischuk, and he seemed to be better most of the way. The position was tricky though, and in the end Caruana decided that it was better to play it safe and allow a repetition than to take big risks.

    Ding Liren and Sergey Karjakin avoided serious risks; in fact, they avoided almost all risks. Ding played something new on move 11, varying from what had been played by a number of super-GMs - himself included. But after just two more moves, he decided that it was time to allow (and semi-force) a repetition, which was accomplished after 18 moves in total.

    Levon Aronian's event had been disappointing so far, with a bad loss to Kramnik that was mostly an opening disaster and a couple of winning positions he had failed to convert. Despite this, he was still on 50%, and although he was Black in the round his opponent was Wesley So, who was still on -2 and tied for last place. So deserves a lot of credit, though. He lost his first two games, but has rebuilt his confidence and proved that he can compete here. In round 3 he took a safety draw with White, and in rounds 4 and 5 he drew "real" games. Now in round 6, he played an excellent game, showing good preparation and good play after the preparation as well to convincingly outplay his very experienced opponent. Both players are now on -1, but So must feel a lot better about his standing in the event than Aronian does about his own.

    The games, with my comments, are here. Tomorrow is a rest day (the pattern, which continues throughout the event, is to have a rest day every three rounds), and the pairings for round 7 - the last round of the first cycle - are as follows:

    • Grischuk (3) - Mamedyarov (4)
    • Kramnik (3) - Ding Liren (3)
    • Karjakin (2) - So (2.5)
    • Aronian (2.5) - Caruana (4)

    Thursday
    Mar152018

    2018 Candidates, Round 5: The Calm After the Storm

    After being spoiled for the first four rounds, today's "action" was something of an unofficial rest day for six of the eight players. Ding Liren got nothing on the white side of a Catalan against Shakhriyar Mamedyarov, and they called it a day after 31 moves. Fabiano Caruana and Sergey Karjakin was also a Catalan of sorts, but after Karjakin's near-novelty 10...c5 (it pays to look at correspondence games) it was a dead draw after 14 moves, but for the sake of appearances (and maybe the Sofia rules, if they're in force here) they too pretended to play chess through White's 31st move, and they too shook hands.

    The game between Wesley So and Vladimir Kramnik went 57 moves in a Semi-Tarrasch, and it wouldn't have been out of the question for it to be a semi-57 mover as well. The game could have been agreed drawn around move 28 or so, or move 30 or 31 in acknowledgement of the Sofia policy. Perhaps Kramnik was still exorcising his demons from yesterday, and felt that more time at the board would help him feel like himself again.

    The fourth game (but the third to finish) was the only exciting game of the round, and it was a wild one. Levon Aronian should have beaten Alexander Grischuk, as he enjoyed a winning advantage on the board and a colossal plus on the clock, too. But the position was just complicated enough that spotting 90% of the right moves in a variation or a tree of variations could make the difference between a win and a draw, and Aronian missed just enough moves that Grischuk was able to escape. Grischuk stays in the hunt, while Aronian has now failed twice to convert on winning positions (the other was against Ding in round 1). (On the bright side, it means that he's getting lots of good positions, so he's generally in good form and his openings are working well - the Kramnik game excepted.)

    The games (with my comments) are here, and these are the pairings for tomorrow's round 6 action:

    • Caruana (3.5) - Grischuk (2.5)
    • So (1.5) - Aronian (2.5)
    • Ding Liren (2.5) - Karjakin (1.5)
    • Mamedyarov (3) - Kramnik (3)

    The last pairing is huge, and Mamedyarov has an excellent score against Kramnik. Caruana is in good form, and should have his chances against Grischuk in the battle of time-trouble addicts.

    Thursday
    Mar152018

    2018 Candidates, Round 4: Kramnik Loses a Soul-Crusher to Caruana

    Wow, what an amazing round! In a normal tournament, the game between Alexander Grischuk and Ding Liren would be talked about for days. It was a razor-sharp Anti-Moscow Gambit, and on top of that Grischuk trotted out the fascinating 12.Nxf7 piece sac Veselin Topalov used against Vladimir Kramnik in Wijk aan Zee 2008 to win a huge grudge-match game. Both sides had winning chances, there were crazy tactics and material imbalances practically from start to finish, there was time pressure - practically everything a fan could want in a game. Yet this spectacular draw was completely overshadowed by the war between Vladimir Kramnik and Fabiano Caruana.

    Nothing presaged what was to come. Caruana played the Petroff (yawn), and Kramnik played 5.Qe2 (triple yawn). The game looked dull and was dull, and then Kramnik came up with a plan that didn't work out very well. Soon he was worse, then losing. Unfortunately for Kramnik, he started playing very well at this point, from move 24. Despite his growing time trouble, Caruana played very well too until his 33rd move, and from there to the end of the time control he not only squandered his advantage, but wound up worse. His 41st move was a further mistake, and now Kramnik's advantage was decisive.

    This was no ordinary position, however. Caruana was a piece up, with two (split) passed pawns on the kingside. Kramnik, however, had four, count 'em, four passed pawns on the queenside, and both sides had some troubles with their king. This time it was Kramnik's turn to falter, and once he realized that what he probably thought was winning wasn't, he started burning a lot of time. Now he had to survive until the third and final time control, and while he hung on very well from move 46 until move 58, he finally cracked on move 59, the next-to-last move of the control. He made the time control, but there was no saving the game at this point. He played a few more moves, mainly to collect himself and his composure, to resign and face the press conference.

    Had he won the game, he'd have been a huge favorite to win the event, even with ten rounds to go, but as it is he trails Caruana by half a point and must regain his psychological equilibrium. It would have been much easier on him had he just lost the first time he had a losing position, but let's stay tuned and see how he bounces back.

    Speaking of bouncing back, Levon Aronian overcame his shellacking by Kramnik in the previous round, and beat Sergey Karjakin with the black pieces. Karjakin got tricked or confused by Aronian's unusual move order in the Vienna Variation of the Ragozin, and came out of the opening down a couple of pawns for inadequate compensation. He recovered one of them, but the result was a winning endgame for Aronian. Though the game went 68 moves, it didn't take anywhere near as long as the 66-move Kramnik-Caruana game, and the technical task for Aronian was pretty easy.

    Finally, Shakhriyar Mamedyarov and Wesley So kept the commentators and the annotators from a complete overload by playing a short and unimpressive draw. Considering how poor So's tournament had been, it's a little surprising that Mamedyarov didn't go for a "position" rather than trying a relatively forcing, clear-cut theoretical line.

    Anyway, the games, with my notes, are here; this is what we have to look forward to in round 5:

    • Aronian (2) - Grischuk (2)
    • Caruana (3) - Karjakin (1)
    • So (1) - Kramnik (2.5)
    • Ding Liren (2) - Mamedyarov (2.5)

    Monday
    Mar122018

    2018 Candidates, Round 3: Kramnik Crushes Aronian, Leads

    The hot start to the Candidates continued today with a couple of very exciting games. That obviously includes the day's one win, though it must be said that Levon Aronian played very badly. Aronian had White against Vladimir Kramnik, and instead of his usual d4/c4 repertoire he trotted out 1.e4. Kramnik went into a Berlin, of course, and while 4.d3 was a very normal response 7.h3 was not. Kramnik was even ready for that semi-lemon, almost immediately playing 7...Rg8!!, and Aronian was already on his own in a dubious position. Kramnik soon enjoyed a clearly better, and after 18.Qa4? f5! it was over. The only question was which beautiful finish Aronian would allow, and with Kramnik finding all the right moves (19...Rxg5, 24...Bd5, and 26...Qe2) the massacre ended after just 27 moves. It was a disastrous game for Aronian, who was one of the pre-tournament favorites, and except for his comfortable draw with Black in round 2 the tournament has been a disappointment. Still, there are 11 rounds to go, so there's still time for him to right the ship and contend for first.

    The other crowd-pleaser involved the players who shared the lead with Kramnik coming into the day; namely, Fabiano Caruana and Shakhriyar Mamedyarov. Mamedyarov played a Najdorf, and Caruana went in for the Byrne Attack. The play was sharp and unclear throughout, and while Caruana had a significant advantage for a while it was never stable. Given his time trouble, it was hard to maintain the plus, and Mamedyarov fought his way back to objective equality and even tried for the win. Both players played perfectly from around move 35 on, both skating the precipice, and the game was agreed drawn after Mamedyarov's 49th move, with an equal king and pawn ending in sight.

    The other two draws were less interesting. Wesley So went for safety first against Ding Liren, taking the white side of a Marshall Gambit. As often happens, White obtained a minuscule edge in the ending, but Black's bishop pair held the day, especially after one of the bishops was exchanged for a knight, producing a dead drawn opposite-colored bishop ending. Sergey Karjakin's game with Alexander Grischuk was only slightly more interesting, a Giuoco Piano with an early 5.Nc3. Maybe Karjakin was counting on the line's rarity to surprise Grischuk, but Black knew what to do and even enjoyed a tiny edge before the game petered out to a draw after 30 moves. (All four games, with my comments, can be replayed here.)

    Kramnik is the sole leader heading into the first rest day, with Caruana and Mamedyarov half a point behind. Kramnik will have White against Caruana in round 4 (on Wednesday), so he'll have a chance to put some ground between him and one of his most dangerous rivals); while at least on paper Mamedyarov will have a great chance to boost his score and increase his confidence, as he'll have White against tailender So. Here are the full pairings:

    • Grischuk (1.5) - Ding Liren (1.5)
    • Mamedyarov (2) - So (.5)
    • Kramnik (2.5) - Caruana (2)
    • Karjakin (1) - Aronian (1)

    Sunday
    Mar112018

    2018 Candidates, Round 2: Grischuk Beats So; Other Games Drawn

    It would have been hard for the players to match the excitement of round 1, and they didn't, but it was a perfectly entertaining round in its own right - except for Wesley So's fans. Alexander Grischuk lost in round 1, but got back to 50% by crushing So in a game that went 44 moves but could have been stopped after just 22. So made a mess of things in the opening and early middlegame of a 6.d3 Closed Ruy. His king was in so much trouble that he had to give up a piece for just one pawn and a (still) lousy position to keep the game going. It was an impressive game by Grischuk, but So the super-grandmaster was unrecognizable. (From an instructional point of view, note the way he activated his rooks into the attack. Rook lifts via the third rank are a commonplace, but Grischuk managed to bring them into play via the 4th and 5th ranks instead.)

    The other three games were drawn. Shakhriyar Mamedyarov's 10.g3 was something new in a 4.Qc2 Nimzo, but Aronian's accurate play led to an early draw by repetition.

    Vladimir Kramnik must have been confused, as he played the white side of a Berlin ending. Of course he brought something new to the table, but while he made Sergey Karjakin suffer into the second time control he never achieved anything tangible. There was perhaps one chance to make something happen, with 30.Bd8, but other than that, and Karjakin's inaccuracy on move 27 that created the opportunity, it looked like a well-played game from start to finish.

    The final game was more volatile than the other two draws. Ding Liren and Fabiano Caruana contested a sharp Catalan line where Black sacs the exchange for enduring pressure along the a8-h1 diagonal. Play remained balanced until 23...Qf5, after which White had the upper hand. 27.f5 allowed Black to equalize again, but Ding obtained even bigger opportunities after Caruana errors on moves 39 and 41. Unfortunately for him, but fortunately for Caruana, White immediately returned the favor on both occasions, and the game finished in a position where White was still the exchange ahead for a pawn but unable to make progress.

    The games (with my comments) are here; round 3's pairings are as follows:

    • Karjakin (.5) - Grischuk (1)
    • Aronian (1) - Kramnik (1.5)
    • Caruana (1.5) - Mamedyarov (1.5)
    • So (0) - Ding Liren (1)

    Saturday
    Mar102018

    2018 Grand Chess Tour: Events, (Some) Dates, and Participants are Set

    All the details are here. Magnus Carlsen declined his invitation this year, and Vladimir Kramnik did too (as usual). Six of the Candidates did sign up, however: Shakhriyar Mamedyarov, Fabiano Caruana, Levon Aronian, Wesley So, Alexander Grischuk, and Sergey Karjakin; additionally, Maxime Vachier-Lagrave, Viswanathan Anand, and Hikaru Nakamura are joining the party. Kramnik will be a wildcard in Paris, and Anish Giri will participate as a wildcard in Leuven. As for the two St. Louis events, the wildcard remains open. Maybe someone with the initials G.K. will perform an encore?

    Saturday
    Mar102018

    Hort on Fischer, Part 1

    Czech grandmaster Vlastimil Hort is a legend in his own right, a former Candidate (and nearly two-time Candidate) who was among the world's best players in the 1960s, '70s, and into the mid-'80s. Less than a year younger than Bobby Fischer, his career spanned the generations, and he played every world champion from Botvinnik through Anand, excepting Kramnik.

    Nevertheless, the focus of this article is not on Hort himself, but on Fischer, who would have turned 75 this past Friday. Even those of you who, like me, are very familiar with the usual Fischer stories will find something new here - have a look.

    Saturday
    Mar102018

    2018 Candidates, Round 1: Three Wins! **UPDATED**

    No warm-up round today! Three of the four games finished with a winner, and it should have been four out of four. Interestingly, all three of the wins came in the "collusion pairings": one Russian beat another Russian, an American beat another American, and one very good friend beat another. Only in the game with "unrelated" opponents was there a draw.

    The first win was quick and painful, as Fabiano Caruana won with a kingside attack against Wesley So. The game was initially a rather dry-looking Closed Catalan, but after 15...e5 it livened up. A key moment came on move 18, when So chose 18...Bxc5 rather than 18...Nxc5. In case of the knight capture, White would have a small, persistent edge, but nothing dramatic. After 18...Bxc5 White had no advantage, but Black had no margin for error. Had So played 23...Ra2 and about a dozen only-moves after that, he'd have achieved equality. (Assuming my analysis is correct.) Instead, he played 23...Ba6, and after that he was losing. White's pieces broke through to Black's king, while most of Black's forces were stuck on spectator duty on the queenside.

    Levon Aronian's game finished quickly, especially in the number of moves (22), but with the wrong result. Aronian's 8.h4 was an interesting near-novelty in the Mikenas Variation of the English, and Ding Liren didn't find the best answer to White's idea. Despite missing opportunities on moves 12 and 15 to obtain a winning advantage, Ding was also unable to perfectly navigate the crazy middlegame they created. After 18...Rd6? (instead of 18...Ba8) Aronian was winning, but needed to play 19.Rb2. Or 21.Rb2. Or...well, he didn't get the chance to play 23.Rb2, because the players repeated the position. A big missed opportunity by Aronian.

    The day's next winner was Vladimir Kramnik, who gradually outplayed Alexander Grischuk in a...hmm. 1.d4 Nf6 2.Nf3 g6 3.b3 is what? Eventually it turned into a sort of English, one in which Black was just fine. This remained the case until around move 21, when Grischuk started making inaccuracies. Kramnik's play wasn't perfect, but he kept an advantage and the pressure on, and by the time the players made the time control White had a winning advantage. Kramnik showed good technique the rest of the way, and shares the lead.

    Finally, Sergey Karjakin and Shakhriyar Mamedyarov played a long game that went almost six and a half hours, and in the end the world's #2 came away with a win, with Black, over the winner of the last Candidates event. Mamedyarov played a dubious line of the Ruy, but Karjakin's unenterprising 12.Bxd4 let Black off the hook. 14.Qxc7 was a further inaccuracy, but Karjakin still managed to reach a drawish queen & rook ending. Mamedyarov had a passed c-pawn, with all the remaining pawns on the kingside, so what winning chances existed were on Black's side. Nevertheless, the position was equal, and normally Karjakin would hold the draw without too much trouble. Unfortunately for Karjakin, his plan of 26.Ra5 followed by 27.Qc8+ and 28.Qg4 was a sort of extended blunder; he must have missed 28...Rb5, forcing a trade of rooks and leaving him with a much worse, possibly lost queen ending. The play was back and forth, as you'll see in the notes, but in the end Karjakin made the last mistake and was ground down in 71 moves.

    The games, with my notes, are here; here are tomorrow's pairings:

     

    • Grischuk (0) - So (0)
    • Ding Liren (.5) - Caruana (1)
    • Mamedyarov (1) - Aronian (.5)
    • Kramnik (1) - Karjakin (0)

     

    Aronian and Karjakin will have to show some resilience after their unforced errors cost them each half a point, especially playing Black against confident opponents who won in round 1.

    **UPDATE**

    I watched the post-game press conferences on World Chess's Facebook page, and have incorporated players' comments into a revised analysis file, which you can access here. Also of note is that most of the players complained about the noise in the playing hall, which was pretty severe. Even worse: Mamedyarov reported that at one point he could see Judit Polgar's analysis of his game on a monitor from his seat at the board!! (I guess there was a monitor that would allow the spectators and players to see the game positions, and somehow the commentary feed suddenly showed up instead.) Karjakin also complained about the hotel, so it looks like the organizers haven't exactly covered themselves in glory so far.

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