Opinion Jan 13, 2016 | 1:22 PMby WIM Fiona Steil-Antoni

10 chess highlights of 2015

It was an extremely exciting and eventful year of chess and a lot has been said and written about it already, including this Best of 2015 article and Shipov’s Review. My ten points come in no particular order, seeing as I’ve mixed it all: players, teams, events and games.

1. Magnus Carlsen — player of the year (yet again!)

Last year, Magnus Carlsen achieved the incredible feat of collecting all three World Championship titles. In 2015 he lost his blitz title, but that didn’t stop him from winning no less than 5 classical supertournaments: Tata Steel Chess, Grenke Classic, Shamkir Chess, London Chess Classic and the Qatar Masters Open.

After overcoming a few obstacles mid-year, Magnus was back at his best in December | photo: Fiona Steil-Antoni

As if that was not enough, he was also crowned World Rapid Champion and won the Grand Chess Tour at the last hour (quite literally). A lot has been written about Magnus’ slump in form at a few events (most notably on home turf at Norway Chess and at the European Team Chess Championship), but to put it in the words of the World Champion:

2. Other outstanding players

  • Hikaru Nakamura: The American came close to Carlsen’s record, as he won four tournaments: Gibraltar, Zurich, the US Championship and the Millionaire Open. Besides that he also crossed 2800 for the first time in his career and qualified for the 2016 Candidates Tournament by virtue of finishing second in the FIDE Grand Prix.
  • Sergey Karjakin: The former child prodigy won what was probably the most exciting World Cup ever after a thrilling final (where, out of 10 games, not a single one was drawn!) against Peter Svidler. In August, Sergey also single-handedly dispatched the entire Chinese team in a friendly China-Russia match.
  • Pavel Eljanov: Another World Cup hero, Pavel eliminated the likes of Jakovenko, Grischuk and Nakamura, before being stopped by the eventual winner Karjakin in a dramatic semi-final match. In case you missed it, catch up with this interview with the likeable Ukrainian grandmaster.
  • Anish Giri: The Dutch wunderkind is still to win his first major tournament, but in 2015 he achieved the exceptional feat of remaining unbeaten throughout the three legs of the Grand Chess Tour and scoring more combined points than anyone else. Anish will also start 2016 as the world number 3, with a rating of 2798.

Who is your pick for the 2015 player of the year?

3. Double Gold for Russia at the European Team Chess Championship

After a drought of 8 years in this event for the men’s team (who also famously haven’t won an Olympiad since 2002), the Russians will have been delighted to take a historical double in Reykjavik. One player who seemed to be particularly happy with the teams’ successes was Alexander Grischuk:

If you missed it, you should read Peter Svidler’s account of the Russian’s way to victory. As an aside, after retiring from professional chess the previous summer, Judit Polgar had her captain's debut in Iceland and led the Hungarian team to a bronze medal.

While Alexandra Kosteniuk concentrates before the game, Valentina Gunina and Aleksandra Goryachkina share a few jokes with the coaches of the women’s team, Riazantsev and Rublevsky | photo: Fiona Steil-Antoni

4. Gold for China at the World Team Chess Championship

After surprisingly winning the 2014 Olympiad in Tromso, the Chinese team confirmed their success by winning the 2015 World Team Chess Championship in Armenia. China was also fielding the youngest team of the event, with Ding Liren, Yu Yangyi, Bu Xiangzhi, Wei Yi and Wang Chen. It will be interesting to follow how the Chinese fare in the next Olympiad in Baku.

5. The ‘Comeback kids’

In my opinion there are three players who stood out in terms of slumps of form and impressive comebacks: Levon Aronian, Maxime Vachier-Lagrave and Vladimir Kramnik. In August 2015, Levon had fallen out of the world top ten for the first time since January 2009. A rating drop to 2765 left him in 11th place in the August 2015 rating list. In the very same list, the Frenchman also known as MVL had dropped to a shocking 24th place with a rating of 2731. Meanwhile, former World Champion Kramnik had started 2015 in 8th position with a rating of 2783. However, as of 1 January 2016, all three players are back up where they belong, with Kramnik in 2nd at 2801 (the Russian is also the only player besides Carlsen to be rated above 2800), Aronian in 4th at 2792 and Vachier-Lagrave in 7th at 2785. This is Maxime’s highest ever position in the rating list, and I very much look forward to seeing how these three players will do in 2016.

6. Qatar Masters Open — tournament of the year

I was lucky enough to be part of the media team for this fantastic event, but I don’t think that makes me biased in dubbing the Qatar Masters Open one of the most extraordinary tournaments ever to be organised. The top seed was none other than World Champion Magnus Carlsen (on a side note, the last time a reigning World Champion participated in an open tournament was Boris Spassky in the Canadian Open in 1971) and world number 14 Peter Svidler was doing commentary, thus cementing his title of best commentator in the world: 

Peter Svidler running the live commentary with Alejandro Ramirez | photo: Fiona Steil-Antoni

The playing conditions were perfect and Tournament Director Mohamed Al-Modiahki managed to invite football great Xavi (a World Cup winner and FC Barcelona legend) to make the opening move of round 3.

Despite Anish Giri pointing to the e2 pawn, Xavi wanted to open the game with 1.Ke3 | photo: Fiona Steil-Antoni

The tournament was also the strongest ‘open’ (well, open to players above 2300 anyway) tournament ever, with the field of 132 players averaging a 2529 rating. More than half of the players were GMs and 17 out of these 71 were rated above 2700. For all the numbers and statistics, you can check out this summary video. A stunning final video was also released, including all tournament highlights.

The winners of the Qatar Masters Open 2015 | photo: Fiona Steil-Antoni

 7. Catching a cheater red-handed

I had initially included the Gaioz Nigalidze cheating scandal in my list of worst moments, but after some reflection and listening to the advice of a couple of friends, I decided that catching a cheater red-handed for the first time ever probably had to go into the highlights after all. It is indeed the first time a cheater is caught in the act, judged by the FIDE Ethics Commission and punished accordingly. But let’s go back to the beginning: in the 6th round of the Dubai Open 2015, GM Gaioz Nigalidze — the reigning Georgian Champion — was caught using his phone, which he was hiding in the toilet, during his game against Tigran Petrosian. You can read all about the incident, as well as Vlad Tkachiev’s very interesting take on cheating matters on chess24. On 24 December 2015, the FIDE Ethics Commission announced Nigalidze would be banned for 3 years as well as being stripped of his GM title.

8. Mariya Muzychuk — female player of the year

Despite Hou Yifan having another solid year and leading the women’s rating list by a 90-point margin (following Judit Polgar’s retirement), the unofficial title of women's player of the year surely has to go to Mariya Muzychuk. The younger of the two Muzychuk sisters had a very impressive showing at the World Cup in Sochi and was crowned World Champion after beating Natalia Pogonina in the final, aged only 22. On the January 2016 women’s rating list she sits in 3rd position and is going to defend her title against none other than Hou Yifan in a match to be held in Lviv in March. While Hou Yifan keeps very busy in the run-up to this event, one oddity of the year 2015 was the fact Mariya Muzychuk’s games from the Ukrainian Championship (which was held at the beginning of December) were kept secret.

Maria Muzychuk flanked by her sister Anna at the ETCC in Reykjavik | photo: Fiona Steil-Antoni

 9. King hunts — games of the year

A lot has been said and written about these games and I am going to refrain from going into any chess detail, but if you haven’t already, make sure you play through the following three masterpieces:

  • Khismatullin - Eljanov: Khismatullin’s 44.Kg1! was hailed by many as the move of the year and when Eljanov resigned, his own king was standing on h4.

Position after 44.Kg1!
  • Navara - Wojtaszek: By move 30, Navara’s (white) king had made it all the way to h8! 

Position after 30.Kh8
  • Wei Yi - Bruzon: A tactical gem - when Bruzon threw in the towel he was a rook up, but his king found itself under slightly too many threats on h3.

Final position after 36.Be1

10. Peter Svidler — combining both the best and worst at the World Cup

Last but not least, our very own Peter Svidler. The Russian managed the impressive feat of combining both the very best and worst in one single tournament. Indeed, at the Baku World Cup Peter surprised a fair few people by making it all the way to the final, thus qualifying for the 2016 Candidates Tournament. However, he subsequently failed to convert a commanding 2-0 lead in his final match against Sergey Karjakin. After Karjakin managed to level the score in the classical games, the two players faced off in what must be one of the most thrilling tie-breaks in history and my personal chess highlight (in terms of excitement) of 2015. Incredibly, the players didn’t draw a single game out of the 10 that made up this memorable final. However, Peter is not one to be lost for words and he couldn’t have been more gracious in defeat:

Next up, the lowlights!

That's it for my personal highlights of the year 2015! If you think I missed out on anything or if you would like to share your views on the topic, you can do all of that in the comments section below.
Read the follow-up to this piece, with my 10 lowlights of the year.

Fiona Steil-Antoni

Fiona is currently a contributor for chess24. She started playing chess at age nine, earned the WIM title in 2010 and won a gold medal on board two at the 2006 Olympiad. She has worked as a press officer, commentator or interviewer at the Reykjavik Open, the PokerStars Isle of Man International Tournament, the 2015 European Team Chess Championship, the London Chess Classic and the Qatar Masters Open.

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