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    Thursday
    Jun252015

    Norway Chess 2015, Final Round: Topalov Draws, Wins the Tournament; Hammer Beats Carlsen

    Another exciting super-tournament is now history, and the winner of the Norway Chess tournament of 2015 is the resurgent Veselin Topalov. Coming into the round he only needed a draw with Viswanathan Anand to clinch clear first, and he got it with ease as they played a known variation resulting in a draw by repetition.

    As Anand could have taken (clear) first place with a win, it would be easy to criticize this choice. But this was not a match and he was not in a zero-sum game situation. If he lost - and he had the black pieces - he would slip from at worst a three-way tie for second to potentially fourth place. Moreover, Anand's style and repertoire with black is generally classical and not based on strategically risky lines against 1.d4 like the King's Indian or the Modern Benoni. So while it would have been entertaining for us as spectators to see him go for broke in the last round, it's hard to criticize his decision to bring a successful tournament to a conclusion and to see if anyone would join him in a tie for second, half a point behind the winner.

    Two players had their chances, and one succeeded. If Hikaru Nakamura could defeat Levon Aronian with black, he'd catch Anand; likewise if Anish Giri could upend Fabiano Caruana with the black pieces. Remarkably, both had their chances, but only Nakamura reeled in the full point. Giri drew and finished in clear fourth, a point and a half ahead of Caruana and Maxime Vachier-Lagrave. (Vachier-Lagrave drew with Alexander Grischuk.)

    The fifth game featured two players having bad tournaments, but bad in different ways and for different reasons. The player with the white pieces, Jon Ludwig Hammer, was alone in last place coming into the last round with just two points out of eight. This wasn't really a shock, as he was the lowest-rated player by a considerable margin, but as he had squandered many opportunities along the way he still had serious grounds for regret. The other player was the world champion, Magnus Carlsen. His score of 3.5/8 was terrible by his standards, but it seemed that he was playing his way into form after the catastrophe in round 1 and his getting clobbered in rounds 2 and 4. He had won convincingly in rounds 5 and 8, and looked good in round 6 as well even though that game only finished in a draw. With a win over his countryman and regular second, Carlsen could at least end the tournament with an even score and +3 over the last five rounds.

    But Hammer had his own ambitions. Before and during the tournament he offered two statements about what a good tournament would look like. The (probably) more serious statement was that he wanted to score at least three points; more jocularly, he said he'd be willing to lose every game as long as he beat Carlsen. In the end, then, it was a success: he got exactly three points out of nine and beat Carlsen - without having to lose the remaining games. He didn't even come in clear last place, but finished tied for last with Aronian, only half a point behind Carlsen and Grischuk.

    The games, with my notes, are here, and these are the final standings (the player listed first in case of a tie had the better tiebreak score):

    • 1. Topalov 6.5 (of 9)
    • 2-3. Anand, Nakamura 6
    • 4. Giri 5.5
    • 5-6. Caruana, Vachier-Lagrave 4
    • 7-8. Carlsen, Grischuk 3.5
    • 9-10. Aronian, Hammer 3

    Next stop: Dortmund, which starts on Saturday.

    Thursday
    Jun252015

    A Kramnik Interview on his 40th Birthday

    Vladimir Kramnik turned 40 today, and recently gave an interview to the Russian site ChessPro in anticipation of that milestone. (Long English-language excerpts here.) Worth a look.

    Thursday
    Jun252015

    The Polgar Variant

    That's the name of a documentary film on the Polgar sisters that came out last year. More here, including a trailer. That makes two chess documentary films in the last year from Israel (the other was on Boris Gelfand, called "Album 61"), both very respectful of their subjects. Hopefully the result will be a chess boom in that country, or at least some positive growth for our great game. (I'm inclined to wish that U.S. filmmakers would do the same thing, but apparently the lure of the cheap, formulaic presentation of the mentally unstable chess nerd is too strong.)

    Thursday
    Jun252015

    Caruana Now Representing the U.S.

    I didn't think it was supposed to kick in this soon, but Fabiano Caruana is now officially representing the United States again.

    HT: "ploy" and Live Chess Ratings.

    Wednesday
    Jun242015

    Walter Browne, 1949-2015, RIP

    Walter Browne was one of the strongest players in the United States in the 1970s and 1980s, a remarkable personality and a great fighter at the board. He was still battling in chess and had been making a bit of a comeback after some years with indifferent results. He hadn't looked particularly well in recent years, but it was still a shock to learn today that he had died this afternoon in Las Vegas at the age of 66.

    In the early 1970s Browne was one of the youngest grandmasters in the world (perhaps the second youngest, after Anatoly Karpov) and seemed to be headed for world-class status. He did reach 2590 at one point in his career (but not the 2682 erroneously given on the Wikipedia page) and did so at a time when that was something special, though he never got too close to the absolute summit. Nevertheless, his accomplishments were considerable, including six U.S. championship titles and numerous victories in international and major U.S. open events.

    Among his scalps you'll find a veritable who's who of chess in the '70s and '80s: Enrique Mecking, Samuel Reshevsky, Svetozar Gligoric, Lubomir Kavalek, Andras Adorjan, Jan Timman, Pal Benko, Bent Larsen, Vasily Smyslov, Zoltan Ribli, Mikhail Tal, Yasser Seirawan, Robert Byrne, Ljubomir Ljubojevic, Anthony Miles, Miguel Najdorf, Eugenio Torre, Vlastimil Hort, Viktor Korchnoi, Lajos Portisch, Ulf Andersson, Nigel Short, Lev Polugaevsky, Sergey Dolmatov, Gata Kamsky...the list goes on and on. For those unfamiliar with some or all of the foregoing, the list includes two world champions and 19 players who were "only" Candidates, including three (losing) world championship finalists. He also drew all five games he played against Boris Spassky and the only game he played against Bobby Fischer - and Fischer only drew that game by a hair.

    Going down several levels, he also faced a far less notable player - yours truly - in a couple of games, winning the first and drawing the second. Though he was an extremely competitive person, as anyone who ever watched him play can attest, I was treated with respect, and equal respect, in both games. He wasn't arrogant when he beat me and wasn't a bad sport when I drew. It was an honor for me to have the chance to play him, a player I had read about and looked up to from when I was a young boy, years before I entered my first tournament.

    He deserves a fuller tribute on here, and I'm sure he'll receive many laudatory articles around the web and in chess magazines in the days and weeks to come. For now, here are a couple of links, to the first announcement of his passing and to his ChessGames.com page.

    To his family and friends I offer my condolences. Rest in peace, Walter Shawn Browne.

    Wednesday
    Jun242015

    Norway Chess, Round 8: Giri Beats Topalov, Setting Up A Last-Round Showdown with Anand for First

    Veselin Topalov had been riding high through the first seven rounds of the Norway Chess tournament, scoring an undefeated 6-1 that was a combination of strong play (against non-Norwegians) and good fortune (against Norwegians). He led by 1.5 points with just two rounds to go, but in round 8 he finally received his comeuppance at the hands of the youngest player in the tournament, Anish Giri. Topalov played an uncharacteristically passive line of the Queen's Indian/Catalan with Black, hoping to draw the resulting technical position. This really isn't Topalov's forte, however, and Giri simply outplayed him, step by step.

    As a result tournament victory is still up for grabs, but Topalov is still in good shape. He is half a point ahead of Viswanathan Anand and a point or more ahead of everyone else, and he has White against Anand in the final round. If he can draw with White (or win), he wins the tournament; if he loses, then Anand wins. Anand obtained this opportunity by beating Jon Ludwig Hammer. Hammer was fine out of the opening and into the early middlegame, but drifted into a bit of pressure and then blundered a pawn on move 27 and some more material a few moves after that.

    Hikaru Nakamura could have been in the running as well, had he managed to convert an extra pawn against Maxime Vachier-Lagrave. The Frenchman was slippery though, and Nakamura couldn't manage to neutralize his opponent's counterplay and keep his extra pawn at the same time. With the draw Nakamura is a point out of first, tied for third with Giri half a point behind Anand.

    The other games had no implications for first place (surprisingly). Fabiano Caruana slightly outplayed Alexander Grischuk with Black, but it wasn't enough to win the game. Finally, what would normally be one of the absolute highlights of any chess tournament, a battle between Magnus Carlsen and Levon Aronian, was almost an afterthought with both players near the bottom of the tournament table. Aronian played a terrific opening with Black and was somewhat better, only to go wrong with 21...Qb6. This gave Carlsen a very slight edge, which was neutralized, and then Aronian went awry again with 31...Nd3? and 34...Qxb2? Now he was losing, but when Carlsen with 36.Rc2?? Aronian had the chance to be better with 36...Qb8! Both players missed it, but a kibitzing Anand spotted it right away. (If only he had spotted ...Nxe5 in some game played in 2014....) Instead, Aronian blundered back and resigned on his 40th move, down a rook with no counterplay and the queens coming off.

    The games, with my notes (except to Grischuk-Caruana), are here. These are the last-round pairings:

    • Vachier-Lagrave (3.5) - Grischuk (3)
    • Aronian (3) - Nakamura (5)
    • Hammer (2) - Carlsen (3.5)
    • Topalov (6) - Anand (5.5)
    • Caruana (3.5) - Giri (5)

    Tuesday
    Jun232015

    Norway Chess 2015, Round 7: Five Draws

    It wasn't the most interesting round of the Norway Chess tournament, but given all the blood we've seen so far there's not much to complain about. Besides, most of the draws had their interesting moments as well.

    Veselin Topalov came into (and left) the round with a one and a half point lead, and it looked like his game with Fabiano Caruana would be a dull draw. Caruana played the ...c6+...d5 line of the Fianchetto Gruenfeld, a line that tends to be pretty dry even on the best of days. When the game looked like it was about to terminate in a handshake, Topalov shook things up on the board with 28.Qa1 and a series of very risky moves. The geometry involved in some of the lines was pretty remarkable, and while most of the risk was objectively Topalov's the position definitely held some dangers for Caruana. Still, he defended alertly, and the game concluded with a Topalov piece sac followed by perpetual check.

    With a win Hikaru Nakamura could have come to within a point of Topalov, but he didn't manage to get anything with White against Alexander Grischuk in an English. Likewise for Viswanathan Anand, who was also slugging things out in an English, but with Black against Levon Aronian. Anand equalized easily and drew quickly, while Nakamura's game made it to the end of the first time control.

    Maxime Vachier-Lagrave and Magnus Carlsen had an even shorter draw - just 17 moves - but theirs was a wild and almost completely uncharted opening. In the Semi-Slav with 5.Bg5 h6 6.Bh4 g5 7.Bg3 Carlsen came up with 7...Ne4, a very unusual and provocative move. Vachier-Lagrave's reply was even more remarkable: he sacrificed two pawns for unclear compensation. Unfortunately, the game didn't get much further, ending in a repetition that commenced just four moves after the second pawn sac. Hopefully the line will get played again soon, as it has the potential for great entertainment.

    The longest game of the round was Jon Ludwig Hammer's. He had a chance for a huge attack against Anish Giri while the game was still in the opening, but instead of 12.0-0-0 he went for a slightly better queenless middlegame with 12.Be4. Although he retained some advantage after that, it wasn't nearly enough to push Giri over the edge.

    The games (with my notes) are here. The round 8 pairings are as follows:

    • Grischuk (2.5) - Caruana (3)
    • Giri (4) - Topalov (6)
    • Anand (4.5) - Hammer (2)
    • Carlsen (2.5) - Aronian (3)
    • Nakamura (4.5) - Vachier-Lagrave (3)

    Monday
    Jun222015

    Norway Chess 2015, Round 6: Topalov Wins Again!

    The score (5.5/6!) and the all-time high rating suggest that the Veselin Topalov of the mid-2000s is back. Is he? I have my doubts, but he's still playing at a very high level and showing his best chess in at least the past five years. In today's round 6 action he won, though with an undue amount of help from Alexander Grischuk. Not all the "credit" goes to Grischuk, however. Topalov obtained an edge with Black, but 16.Nb5 was a gift horse without any hidden soldiers inside. (Perhaps next Grischuk could have offered a large wooden badger...) Topalov accepted the gift and won the game, though it took the further error (which should not be thought of as a gift) 28.Rxg3 to turn Black's advantage into a decisive one.

    There was one other winner on the day, and that was Viswanathan Anand. The ex-champ is looking like he could be headed for a third match with Carlsen, with his convincing victory over Maxime Vachier-Lagrave being only the latest bit of evidence. It seemed that Vachier-Lagrave was poorly prepared for Anand's opening choice, There was an earlier game between David Navara and the aforementioned Grischuk in the same line and in which the same Bxh6 sac occurred, and there too White won. Maybe MVL was overly trusting of his computer's evaluation (see my notes for more details) and maybe he missed the earlier game because it came about through a slightly different move order. Whatever the story, Black had to be ready for Anand's 19.Bxh6, and he wasn't. The result was a smooth victory for White.

    Magnus Carlsen needed a win to remain mathematically alive in the race for first, and with the white pieces against Hikaru Nakamura he couldn't have picked a more convenient opponent - at least in theory, based on their lopsided score in classical chess. (It's something like 11-0 in Carlsen's favor, not counting draws.) Carlsen was slightly careless in the opening, allowing Nakamura to equalize fully, but as as is usually the case in Carlsen's games that wasn't the end of the story. Carlsen managed to win a pawn and get his fans (and the engines) revved up about his chances. This was only an illusion, however. Nakamura was able to reach a rook and three vs. rook and four scenario with all the pawns on the same side and the defender's pawns arranged in the ideal f7/g6/h5 formation. The game went 95 moves, of which the last 50 or so were unnecessary. (Carlsen was right to try; I'm merely noting that he never came close to posing Black any real problems.)

    The other two games were drawn. Fabiano Caruana had a huge advantage early in the game against Jon Ludwig Hammer, but slipped up and let his opponent escape. Anish Giri tested Levon Aronian in the razor-sharp Vienna Variation (an important sub-line within the Ragozin), and Aronian had done his homework. As often happens in such openings, a series of complications suddenly resolves after a series of exchanges, resulting in a drawn, playless ending.

    The games, with my notes to the first three games, are here. The tournament website is here, and these are the pairings for round 7:

    • Nakamura (4) - Grischuk (2)
    • Vachier-Lagrave (2.5) - Carlsen (2)
    • Aronian (2.5) - Anand (4)
    • Hammer (1.5) - Giri (3.5)
    • Topalov (5.5) - Caruana (2.5)

    Monday
    Jun222015

    Norway Chess 2015, Round 5: Topalov Wins Again; Carlsen, Aronian Win Their First

    The Norway Chess tournament has passed the halfway point, and Veselin Topalov continues his success. When he's not playing Norwegians, he wins cleanly; when he does, he hangs in there and waits for miracles to happen. And that's what happened in round 5. Topalov was in all kinds of trouble with Black against Jon Ludwig Hammer. Maybe he was never flat out lost, but it was close! Topalov finally took over the advantage from move 42 on, yet Hammer defended well and was on the verge of a draw after 73 moves. All he needed to do was play 74.f5, a move that any club player could find and that requires calculating a grand total of two moves ahead. Instead, Hammer played 74.Kc6?? and had to resign after the obvious 74...Ke6. A blind spot for Hammer?

    Yes, but perhaps it was a literal blind spot. It was suggested, very plausibly, that Hammer didn't really look up when Topalov played 73...Ke7 and assumed that Black had played 73...Bb8 instead. In that case, 74.Kc6 would have been the only move. Hammer's haste cost him the game, and completely unnecessarily, especially since he had 15 minutes left on his clock when that happened.

    With the win Topalov leads the second-placed Hikaru Nakamura by a point with an impressive score of 4.5/5. Nakamura started the round half a point behind, but after a draw with Viswanathan Anand the gap doubled. Anand is a further half a point back, tied for 3rd-4th with Anish Giri, who in turn drew comfortably with Maxime Vachier-Lagrave.

    The other two games finished with a winner, and like Hammer-Topalov those victories had a tinge of the accidental to them. In fact, all three games were decided by hasty moves, though in the two games we haven't yet described that haste was due to time trouble. Levon Aronian had an opening edge against Fabiano Caruana, but Caruana had equalized and the game was headed for a draw as the first time control neared its end. 39...Qg6 would have sealed the deal, giving Caruana full, safe equality and the ability to reach the second time control without any big worries. Instead, he thought he spotted an opportunity and quickly played 39...Qxg3+. It's a nice little tactic, and...it loses. Black wins a pawn for the moment, but White's king achieves maximum activity and ransacks all of Black's queenside pawns. Caruana fought on to move 60, but there was no saving the game.

    Finally, Magnus Carlsen had been having a dreadful tournament with only half a point out of four, and despite this he showed his resilience by winning in classic Carlsen style. Alexander Grischuk had managed to equalize, though as usual with Grischuk he didn't manage to do this without getting into time trouble. With the game about to reach the point where a club player could hold Grischuk's position Carlsen tried one last idea: 26.c5! Grischuk could and should have held this, but without time it was far from trivial. Carlsen obtained a very usable edge, though perhaps not yet enough to win the game. On move 40, it was time for another trick: 40.f4. This may not have been the very best move, and had Grischuk replied correctly he probably would have saved the game. Time trouble killed him, though, and 40...exf4?? made it easy for the world champion. (The games, with my notes, are here.)

    Carlsen has awakened, and while it's almost impossible for him to contend for first it's not too late for him to do some damage. Next up, he has the white pieces against one of his usual "customers", Hikaru Nakamura. If Nakamura had White it might be a great opportunity for the American to get a '1', but with Black it may be another story. We'll see; meanwhile, here are the pairings for round 6:

    • Grischuk (2) - Topalov (4.5)
    • Caruana (2) - Hammer (1)
    • Giri (3) - Aronian (2)
    • Anand (3) - Vachier-Lagrave (2.5)
    • Carlsen (1.5) - Nakamura (3.5)

    Saturday
    Jun202015

    Capablanca Memorial: Yu Yangyi Running Away At the Halfway Point

    The Capablanca Memorial is a six player, double round robin tournament in Havana, Cuba, and after the first cycle Chinese grandmaster Yu Yangyi leads with a blistering 4.5/5, two points ahead of Pavel Eljanov, Dmitry and Andreikin and Cuban #1 Leinier Dominguez. It's a great performance so far and has netted him more than 21 rating points thus far, but to be fair he was quite lost to Ian Nepomniachtchi in round 5 before winning a wild game. As they say, it's better to be lucky and good!

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