In round 1 of Dortmund Maxime Vachier-Lagrave got off to a great start by defeating one of his main rivals, Fabiano Caruana, and did it with the black pieces. There was a period 2-3 years ago when Caruana lost practically every game with white against the Najdorf Sicilian, but while his score against this variation isn't very good today's loss can't be attributed to the opening. His position entering the middlegame was fine, and when he went wrong it wasn't due to any typical Najdorf motifs. If anything, his position was rather pleasant, and it's possible that he overestimated his chances. It appears that Caruana missed 39...Rxg5, but even with a different 39th move he would still have been in trouble, while even if Vachier-Lagrave missed that little tactic he would still have had a much better position. Perhaps time trouble was to blame? At any rate, it was a painful and fundamentally unnecessary loss for Caruana, while for Vachier-Lagrave it was a great start and a welcome to the 2800 club (at least on the live list).
The other 2800 player (aside from MVL and Caruana) in the tournament, Vladimir Kramnik, drew comfortably with Black in a boring 5.Re1 Anti-Berlin (but I repeat myself) against Leinier Dominguez. Occasionally White finds a way to get a little nibble in that variation, and Kramnik has lost to it at least twice. Not today; if anything, it was Kramnik who was playing with house money for most of the game as he tried to squeeze blood from a stone for teh last 30 moves of the game.
The draw between Liviu-Dieter Nisipeanu and Ruslan Ponomariov had much more life to it. White did most of the running, but despite that there was a period where the engine at least thinks that Black was better, believing more in his extra pawn than in White's better development, space advantage and attacking chances. Once the queens came off Ponomariov's winning chances looked more realistic, but 34...b5 (rather than te patient if somewhat passive 34...b6 35.Bf1 Ra8) allowed White to liquidate the queenside and escape with a draw.
Finally, in the game between the tournament's biggest underdogs, Evgeniy Najer and Rainer Buhmann, a very interesting and mostly level battle was spoiled when Buhmann missed a simple tactic (time trouble?). 26...b6?? missed the point of White's previous move, and after 27.Nxe6 Black was completely lost and resigned a few moves later. In fact Black's 25th move could also have been a decisive error, but its refutation was more subtle. Instead of 26.Rh2 Najer had 26.Kd1!, forcing Black to either allow White's rook to use the c-file (winning), or if Black retreats his attacked rook on the c-file White plays 27.Kd2 and then Rah1. This forces a quick mate; the mechanism is this: Rh8+, R1h7+, Rh6+, R8h7+, and then either Rg6+ followed by Rf7+ or the reverse, depending on which way Black's king goes. Either way, White will give mate next move.
Here's what round 2 looks like:
- Vachier-Lagrave (1) - Kramnik (.5)
- Buhmann (0) - Dominguez (.5)
- Ponomariov (.5) - Najer (1)
- Caruana (0) - Nisipeanu (.5)
If Vachier-Lagrave wins this next game too it's an exaggeration to say he's clinched first place, but not much of an exaggeration to say he'll be the prohibitive favorite to take the title. There's also a pretty good chance he'll spring to #2 on the live rating list, though Caruana might retain a tiny lead if he beats Nisipeanu.