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    Entries in 2018 Grand Chess Tour (9)

    Sunday
    Dec162018

    London Chess "Classic", Days 4 and 5 (Days 1 & 2 of the Finals): Draw, Draw, Draw, Draw

    Three of the four games weren't so bad, though none of them are likely to be particularly memorable. But the fourth one was pretty awful, as Levon Aronian reacted to a slight opening surprise by Fabiano Caruana by heading for a quick repetition to kill the game, self-confessedly happy to head for the rapid & blitz part of the match. It's a reasonable strategy, especially since Aronian slaughtered Caruana 20.5-6.5 in their online blitz and bullet match this past July. It may be a lousy state of affairs, but Caruana needs to dedicate himself in a major way the next couple of years to bringing his rapid and especially his blitz game up to snuff. There are just too many places where rapid and blitz play a role in "classical" events (or events with a classical component).

    Just off the top of my head, there's the World Championship (with rapid and then blitz, as necessary), the World Cup (same procedure), the Grand Chess Tour (both the finals and the events in Leuven and Paris, plus blitz tournaments for pairings here and in other events), and the U.S. Championship (I think - in case of a tie for first). And of course rapid and blitz events are a commonplace, including the World Championships for both disciplines coming up between Christmas and the new year.

    Getting up to speed - pun intended - has to be a major priority for Caruana. Can he do it? I hope so for his sake.

    Thursday
    Dec132018

    London Chess "Classic", Day 3: Slapstick Chess

    I'm still not completely sold on the draw problem, but I am sure that blitz chess is garbage chess, and it should have as little place as possible - preferably none - in events with a classical component. Don't get me wrong: I enjoy playing blitz chess as much as the next person, even bullet chess. It's fun to play and fun to watch. But it's garbage chess, or to coin a phrase here, it's slapstick chess. The ideas are shallow, and blunders and wild swings of fortune are commonplace. (This isn't the rant of a curmudgeon who wants three hours per move. I've always been a very good blitz player - certainly compared to my classical rating, and back when ICC was THE chess server I made it onto almost every one of their "best" lists.)

    The latest confirmation of this obvious fact was today's play in the London Chess Classic. Both semis were tied 1-1 after draws on days 1 and 2 (but for those who say, "Seeeeeeeeeeeee? Draws are a problem!", I say the "problem" was great defense: three of the four games could have been decisive), so today's agenda was a pair of rapid games followed by four blitz slapstick games.

    The rapid games made sense. Starting with the Fabiano Caruana vs. Hikaru Nakamura match, game 1 was well-played. Nakamura pressed with White, Caruana defended well, and it was a long draw. Game 2 was a little odd: Caruana had some deep prep and had an advantage and a nice lead on the clock after 22 moves. Unfortunately for Caruana, he blitzed out his 23rd move as well, and it was inaccurate. (Maybe he forgot his prep, or misremembered, or just thought it was a good move.) Perhaps out of psychological inertia he kept playing as if he had the advantage when he went for 25.Nd4, but 25...Bf6 was a cold shower. Nakamura played well after that, and gradually brought home the full point.

    The first rapid game between Aronian and MVL was a repeat of the two classical games: Aronian had excellent preparation and obtained a serious advantage, but at some point let the advantage slip and Vachier-Lagrave escaped with another draw. Finally, in game 4, the first part of the script was repeated - but with the roles reversed: MVL won the theoretical battle; not to the point where he was winning, but enough to have some play. Aronian didn't play the defender's role as well as his opponent had, however, and eventually lost the game.

    On the scoring system in play, both Nakamura and MVL led by four points, with four blitz games - each worth two points for a win and one for a draw - to go. In a heartening surprise, Caruana managed to win the first game against Nakamura, with Black, taking advantage of a rare tactical oversight by Nakamura. (That's blitz slapstick chess!) Game 2 was wonderful. The position was equal after the opening, but Nakamura's 16...Qe8 was an error, and White would have been clearly better after 17.Nxd7 Nxd7 18.b4. Instead, he played 18.Ne4??, and after 18...Rxc1 19.Rxc1 Black could win a piece with 19...e5 (20.Bg3 f5 21.Nd2 f4 is the basic idea). But he missed it (blitz slapstick chess) and the game was equal again. Both sides played well after that, with Nakamura pressing for the win until Caruana blundered with 43.Kf1; 43.Kg1 would have kept the result in doubt.

    In the post-match interview Nakamura called games 3 and 4 "routine", and he's right about game 3. Needing to win twice to force a playoff Caruana took some excessive risks in the opening, and was duly punished. But game 4 wasn't routine at all: Nakamura was worse from the get-go, losing for a while, and stone cold absolutely busted for a few moves. The win was quite nice, and Caruana would have found it in classical or even in rapid. It was a big ask for a blitz slapstick game though, and he didn't manage.

    Instead of the clearly bad 25.Qc1, the right way was 25.g5(!). Here's the point: 25.Qxg7+ almost works, but the Black king can escape to e8 if White keeps checking. For the attack to work, White needs to get the bishop to h5 (and ideally, g6). That gives rise to the idea of playing Nf5. But 25.Nf5 won't work, because 25...gxf5 26.gxf5 is illegal. Therefore 25.g5!, and after 25...fxg5 then 26.Nf5! gxf5 27.Bh5!, and it's mate in no more than four more moves. Beautiful, but hey, it's better to watch the players step on rakes repeatedly if the alternative is a time control that could result in a draw, right?

    Caruana didn't find it, lost the thread of the game, and lost badly. On to the other match.

    It wasn't completely clear who the favorite would be between Aronian and Vachier-Lagrave in the blitz. Yes, MVL came into the competition as #2 on the rating list in blitz, just two points behind Carlsen, but Aronian is a former world blitz champion who was #4 on the list and whose recent results in online blitz were as good as MVL's. (Plus, he won their rapid & blitz playoff in the 2017 World Cup, in an Armageddon game.) It didn't work out for Aronian: Vachier-Lagrave won games 1, 2, and 4 (and lost game 3) to win the match and take over the top spot on the blitz list. MVL is 2948.2 there, Carlsen "only" 2939. (Nakamura is third at 2895.4, and Aronian is #4 at 2846.8. And Caruana...#16. Go here and click on the blitz tab.))

    The question, though, is how good the games were. Game 1: MVL was outplaying Aronian, but the game was far from decided until 31.Rf3?, blundering a second pawn. Game 2: MVL missed a pretty win in the early middlegame (it's blitz) and the game was equal for 23 moves or so, and then Aronian walked into a one-move knight fork. Blitz Slapstick chess. Game 3 was a normal blitz game: Vachier-Lagrave had no time to work things out at a critical moment, and his position immediately collapsed. Game 4 was another comedy: what was a good, clean win by MVL turned into a shambles in the time scramble. Aronian was two pawns down and completely busted, but soon had managed to win a pawn back and achieve objective equality. No matter: it was Aronian's turn to err - repeatedly - and Vachier-Lagrave again obtained a winning position. This time, he cashed in.

    The blitz games weren't terrible. We can always see glimpses of what makes the great players great, their deep preparation, and their outstanding knowledge of the game. But they are blitz games, and so along with the glimpses of greatness we see moments of utter foolishness, too - not to mention countless missed opportunities and spoiled brilliancies. Again, don't get me wrong: I enjoy blitz, and after Christmas I'll spend as much time as I can watching the World Blitz Championship. But blitz is its own thing; it's weird to tack it on to a classical event, even a classical and rapid tournament.

    Rant over - for now. The players are off tomorrow, and then on Saturday they'll do it all over again: Nakamura and Vachier-Lagrave will play for first, and Aronian and Caruana will play for third. The format is the same: a classical game on day 1, another classical game on day, and then two rapid and four blitz games on day three, with a two-game blitz tiebreaker followed by Armageddon if necessary. There's the drama of the event, and the rating drama remains, too: it's possible that the event will end with Caruana rated #1 in the world in classical chess and Vachier-Lagrave #1 in blitz. Carlsen will have a chance to fix the latter at the end of the year, but won't be in action in classical chess until Wijk aan Zee starting January 12.

    Event website here.

    Wednesday
    Dec122018

    London Chess Classic, Day 2: Two More Draws

    Today's games were again drawn, so we'll have to rely on the faster games tomorrow to see some blood. Levon Aronian did have his chances today against Maxime Vachier-Lagrave, but the combination of MVL's fine defense and Aronian's hasty play allowed the Frenchman to survive. In particular, Aronian missed 28.Rc2!, with the idea 28...Kxe6 29.b3 and White picks up the knight without allowing as much counterplay as Black got in the game. Even after that Aronian had good chances, but didn't make the most of his chances.

    In the game between Hikaru Nakamura and Fabiano Caruana, there were no chances. Nakamura took a page out of Magnus Carlsen's book and played a speedy and absolutely bloodless draw with White, counting on his chances against Caruana in the faster games. Nakamura is a great rapid and blitz player, and Caruana is going to have work hard to bring his rapid and blitz play closer to his classical level. The number of rapid and blitz events is increasing, not to mention the number of hybrid events, so Caruana has to do something about this. Being almost the co-number 1 in the world in classical chess doesn't matter if players like Carlsen, Nakamura, and Aronian can pummel him in rapid and blitz.

    Today's games - sans annotations - are here.

    Wednesday
    Dec122018

    London Chess Classic, Day 1: Two Draws

    The Caruana-Nakamura and Vachier-Lagrave - Aronian matches both started with draws, but both games were interesting and close to finishing with a winner. Caruana went for an enterprising attack against Nakamura, and the latter's one slip in a very complicated position gave Caruana one chance to cash in. He missed his unobvious chance, and an otherwise very well played game by both sides finished in a draw. In the other semi, MVL was outplayed in the opening and early middlegame, and while Aronian may have been winning at one point his opportunity was also well-hidden, and Vachier-Lagrave managed his own Houdini act to escape.

    The games are here. I haven't annotated MVL-Aronian at all, but the notes to Caruana-Nakamura are substantial. Enjoy.

    Monday
    Dec102018

    The London Chess Classic Starts Tuesday (Tomorrow/Today), Starring Caruana

    Way back when, before the World Championship, there was the Grand Chess Tour. Four players qualified for the final of this year's new format, and starting Tuesday they'll fight for the title in a knockout format. Here's how it works.

    The final four consists of Hikaru Nakamura, Levon Aronian, Maxime Vachier-Lagrave, and Fabiano Caruana, in order of their qualifying scores. As usual in a knockout event, 1 plays 4 and 2 plays 3, so it's a battle of the Americans (Nakamura vs. Caruana) and of the friends (Aronian and MVL). They will play a pair of classical games - one each on Tuesday and Wednesday, scored on a 6-3-0 basis. On Thursday they'll play two rapid games, scored 4-2-0, followed by four blitz games that count on a 2-1-0 basis. (If that's insufficient, there will be another pair of blitz games followed by Armageddon.)

    For Caruana, there are (at least) two things to play for. There's victory in the Grand Chess Tour, and there's the possibility of finishing the year as the world's #1 player by rating. (It's possible he could achieve the latter even if he doesn't achieve the former.) We'll see how it goes tomorrow at 2 p.m. local time in London; 9 a.m. ET. The tournament website is here.

    Other events are going on alongside the main event, and there were some exhibition games beforehand as well. A report on the goings-on, together with a preview of the final four, can be read here.

    Sunday
    Jun242018

    Nakamura Wins Paris Grand Chess Tour Event

    Hikaru Nakamura had a very good last day at the 2018 Paris Grand Chess Tour tournament, and Sergey Karjakin did not. That made the difference, as Nakamura not only erased Karjakin's one-point lead but finished a point and a half ahead of him. Wesley So had a good day as well, and like Nakamura he went undefeated on day two of the blitz. Had he played this well yesterday he might have won the event; as it was, he finished in third, half a point behind Karjakin. That also keeps him (barely) in first place overall in the Grand Chess Tour standings.

    The U.S. has done very well, winning the first two events and enjoying the top two spots in the overall standings. However...this success does not include Fabiano Caruana, who once again finished next-to-last, only ahead of the wildcard. (That was Anish Giri in Leuven, and this time it was Vladimir Kramnik.) It might be bad form, but it may also be that he's a much weaker player - relatively speaking - at short time controls. If so, he's in effect giving Magnus Carlsen draw odds for their world championship match this coming November, as Caruana will be a heavy underdog in a rapid (& potentially blitz) playoff.

    Saturday
    Jun232018

    Grand Chess Tour in Paris: So Wins the Rapid (Again), But Karjakin Leads Overall after the First Day of Blitz

    Wesley So's rapid play has been outstanding in this year's Grand Chess Tour, but in Paris he wasn't as successful as in Leuven. He finished the rapid portion with a one point lead (a half point lead on traditional scoring, which comes to a full point here as the rapid games are weighted double compared to blitz games). He went 6-3 in the rapid round-robin for a score of 12 points, with Sergey Karjakin and Hikaru Nakamura a point behind.

    In the blitz he started out well with a couple of draws and a win, but consecutive losses to Karjakin and Alexander Grischuk pushed him into third place. Karjakin got off to a fantastic start, drawing with Nakamura in the first round and then reeling off five straight wins. He cooled off a bit, losing in rounds 7 and 9 (sandwiching another win in round 8), but it was still good enough to finish the day with 17.5/27, a point in front of Nakamura and a further half a point ahead of So. Maxime Vachier-Lagrave is another point behind So (he has 15 points), and Levon Aronian rounds out the top 5 with the only other plus score; he has 14 points.

    The action concludes tomorrow, and starts two hours earlier than usual, at 12 noon local time in Paris (6 a.m. ET).

    Monday
    Jun112018

    2018 Grand Chess Tour Starts in Leuven on Tuesday

    Preview here. Unfortunately, they're once again using the idiotic time delay rather than increments; I offer apologies for my country to people of good will and good sense everywhere. There's a slight justification for it as a time-saving device in U.S. Swiss system events with multiple rounds per day, but why Rex Sinquefield or whoever thinks it's a great idea to impose this on elite players in some of the most prestigious tournaments in the world is beyond me.

    Anyway...Magnus Carlsen isn't playing, so it's his challenger who will be leading the all-star field (live ratings, rounded off, are given in parentheses):

    • Fabiano Caruana (2822)
    • Shakhriyar Mamedyarov (2801)
    • Anish Giri (2782)
    • Wesley So (2780)
    • Maxime Vachier-Lagrave (2779)
    • Hikaru Nakamura (2777)
    • Sergey Karjakin (2773)
    • Viswanathan Anand (2768)
    • Levon Aronian (2767)
    • Alexander Grischuk (2766)

    Predictions? Since it's a rapid and blitz event, Caruana is an underdog, but as long as he's winning events I'll stick with him.

    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?