Reports Apr 25, 2017 | 12:55 PMby Colin McGourty

7 conclusions from the GRENKE Chess Classic

Levon Aronian won the 2017 GRENKE Chess Classic by a full 1.5 points, but his triumph was tinged with regret after he managed to blow a position a full piece up against Fabiano Caruana in the last round – he was somewhat lucky even to draw. In this final look back at the tournament we draw some conclusions from a highly entertaining event that was only partly dominated by World Champion Magnus Carlsen’s glasses and ever-burgeoning haircut…

Aronian holds his trophy, flanked by Caruana (2nd), Carlsen (3rd), Tournament Director Sven Noppes and Baden-Baden Chess Centre Chairman Christian Bossert | photo: Georgios Souleidis, official website

You can replay all the games from the GRENKE Chess Classic using the selector below:

And here’s the final scoretable – note you can also click on a result here to open that game with computer analysis:

And for the sake of completeness, here’s the full final six hours of interviews and commentary with Peter Leko, Jan Gustafsson and Rustam Kasimdzhanov:

Now let’s get straight to our conclusions:

1) Levon did good…

Levon had won with a round to spare but couldn't prevend the last round turning into a painful ordeal | photo: Georgios Souleidis, official website

Guest commentator Rustam Kasimdzhanov at one point during the live broadcast from Baden-Baden quoted Garry Kasparov that, “the chess world is a better place when Aronian is playing well”. Garry made that remark at the 2015 Sinquefield Cup, the last supertournament Levon won. Back then the effervescent Armenian scored an unbeaten +3, while this time round it was an unbeaten +4, despite the tournament only lasting seven rounds (true, the opposition wasn’t as universally tough as in St. Louis!).

That had looked an unlikely outcome after Levon started shakily in Karlsruhe. In the first round he could have lost to Georg Meier after overlooking a simple attack on a weak pawn. Levon was also objectively lost in the second round, but there was nothing simple about that game against Magnus Carlsen, which Peter Leko described as “wonderful” and “pure art”. Perhaps that was the spark Levon needed, since he then went on a run of four near flawless games, where he gained an opening advantage against MVL, Bluebaum, Naiditsch and Hou Yifan and then converted that edge in silkily smooth fashion.

Levon afterwards explained that he’d taken two months away from chess before the event:

I was kind of taking some time off, hanging out with my friends, just enjoying life generally. I’ve been playing a lot and some tournaments didn’t go as I planned. It worked out…

There was, however, one “but” about Levon’s near perfect result…

2) …but it’ll take him a while to forget his final game!

The final round of the GRENKE Chess Classic was the only one to end with all four games drawn, but that bore little relation to the chess we witnessed. Caruana-Aronian alone featured two of the most incredible sights you’ll see. First, after Levon’s 23…c5, it turned out Fabiano Caruana’s intrepid knight was simply lost:

Fabi, unused to blundering pieces in the middlegame, admitted he wrestled with the temptation to resign, but then decided to play on for a few more moves... At first everything was still going Levon’s way. The computer evaluation of his advantage stayed constant, or grew, and he was heading to a 5th win in a row and a 2nd scalp of a 2800-player in the tournament. He was also doing it in some style, allowing Caruana to queen a pawn first, since there was no way to stop Black from queening his own pawn a move later. That gave White a tempo to try something, though, with Levon afterwards admitting that he’d expected only 42.Qh5 and a quick resignation from Fabiano. Instead we got 42.Rg8!, and a position that will haunt Aronian:

Black is a rook and knight up, but there are no checks and, as Levon soon realised to his horror, it was far from easy. He lamented, “I couldn’t believe my eyes that I couldn’t win it…” In fact, it was worse than that, as it was very possible to lose it as well, and Aronian sank into a 50-minute think during which he must have gone through all the stages of grief. He later confessed:

Of course I should have been more pragmatic – I should have thought for 10 minutes, walked around, refreshed myself and come back to the game.

The move he eventually came up with, 42…Qa5?, had the advantage of stopping a check on d8, but it allowed 43.Qh3+!, after which only White can win and Levon admitted he almost got mated.

Caruana was ready for a fight, but blundering away a piece probably wasn't part of the masterplan... | photo: Georgios Souleidis, official website 

What makes it worse for Levon, however, is that there were solutions! 42…Qe1! has the point that Black can block 43.Qh3+ with 43…Qe6, and although 44.Rd8+ Kxd8 45.Qxe6 wins material Black remains a piece up. In other lines the queen also makes it back to block a check, though it’s far from straightforward. Option 2 was 42…Qa7!, and if the black king is chased onto the a-file White no longer has a lethal check on a8. Again, Caruana could win the black queen but would lose the game.

So Levon couldn’t pretend to be happy in the immediately aftermath of his tournament victory, though at least he hadn’t fallen foul of the fate we mentioned in our previous report – when he won the 2014 Tata Steel Masters with a round to spare and then lost in the final round. Check out Levon’s post-tournament interview:

3) Magnus’ hair beat his glasses and chess as the event’s most memorable feature

From the moment Magnus Carlsen shuffled onto the stage in Karlsruhe it was clear that whatever happened on the chessboard this event would be remembered for a new look for the World Champion.

What a difference a couple of months make... | photos: Alina l'Ami, Tata Steel Facebook and Lennart Ootes

Having been advised by his optician to wear glasses, he combined those with a haircut that drew comparisons with Jon Ludvig Hammer, Peter Heine Nielsen, the Talented Mr. Ripley, Tyrion Lannister, tribbles and a werewolf… (Arkadij imitating Magnus suggests he may have been bitten!)  

Magnus made sure his chess didn’t provide too much distraction. He somehow failed to win a position with a huge time and positional edge against Bluebaum in Round 1, missed a win against Aronian in Round 2 and flirted with disaster against Hou Yifan in Round 3, until something approaching normal service was restored. As is usual for Magnus when he doesn’t win an event he finished joint second, though he was knocked down to third on the tiebreak of most wins – after all, he only won a single game, against Georg Meier after the German grandmaster went astray on move 5.

Let’s get back to what really matters, though, since although initially attention focussed on the glasses it was the hair that won the tournament. The penultimate round saw a spectacularly bad hair day that Magnus blamed on a trip to the Baden-Baden spa. Would things have improved for the final round? Well, that depends on what you mean by improvement…

It could only end in one way…

We’re likely to see Magnus next for Altibox Norway Chess in June, when we’ll see if he looks more like the poster!

4) The chess world needs more Peter Leko

Our commentary featured the seasoned talents of Lawrence Trent and Jan Gustafsson, and some cameos from Fabiano Caruana’s second and former FIDE World Champion Rustam Kasimdzhanov, but it’s fair to say the show was stolen by Peter Leko. The Hungarian Grandmaster has played many roles in his time – a prodigy who was the youngest grandmaster ever when he gained the title at 14 years old in 1994, a World Championship challenger who came within a few moves of becoming the 15th World Chess Champion and a player who gained the kind of reputation for draws that Anish Giri has today.

Lawrence Trent and Peter Leko have fun with Carlsen and Aronian after their game | photo: Lennart Ootes

He proved a revelation in the relatively new role of commentator, though, sharing not just his chess knowledge but insight after insight into the psychology behind playing chess at the very highest level (including a memorable commentary on what it’s like to be in Giri’s position). You can check out his thoughts on the final round, including what happened to Aronian (“he wanted to show off a bit…”), in this interview with Eric van Reem produced by the tournament’s impressive video team:

It’s not only that we would obviously like to have Peter Leko back commentating on top events – he should be playing in them! Still only 37, he revealed that he continues to work on chess almost as hard as before and has an opening repertoire built to work at the highest level rather than in games against less ambitious players in opens. Peter seems immune from some of the distractions of modern life, noting he doesn’t have his own mobile phone (he can usually rely on his wife’s but admitted that’s of limited use when you find yourself alone in the wrong Russian airport in the middle of the night on the way to a team event!), doesn’t use social media (he asked if Skype counted) and doesn’t drink beer or even coffee. But what he does have is deep knowledge, enthusiasm and a 2700 rating.

5) It was almost Hou Yifan’s event

For three rounds, the 2017 GRENKE Chess Classic looked like being all about women’s no. 1 Hou Yifan. She beat world no. 2 Fabiano Caruana as if swatting a fly in Round 1, kept her cool to counterattack and beat Georg Meier in Round 2 and then had world no. 1 Magnus Carlsen on the ropes in Round 3:

Magnus admitted he was "busted" after 24.Rd5!

Magnus was allowed to escape, though, and while that still constituted a stellar performance in Karlsruhe the second half of the event in Baden-Baden didn’t live up to the early promise. Hou Yifan was disappointed to lose difficult endings she thought were drawable against both Maxime Vachier-Lagrave and Levon Aronian, though perhaps the real issue was getting those endings in the first place. Hou Yifan’s opening repertoire is understandably not quite on the level of the elite, and is an area she may still need to improve if she wants to push back towards her peak rating of 2686 and onwards into the 2700 club.

She described her performance as being “like two different players” and talked about how she felt after scoring 50%:

6) It’s tough at the top

Levon Aronian aside, it was a difficult 7 rounds for some of the world’s top players. They were under pressure to beat the lower-rated players both to preserve rating points and compete in a fast tournament with little margin for error. That perhaps explains why Caruana and Maxime Vachier-Lagrave started so badly, with losses to Hou Yifan and Arkadij Naiditsch knocking them out of the 2800 club. For Fabiano in particular it was a tough loss – his third to sub-2650 players in 10 days.

Things could have ended worse for Maxime, who had to find his best chess to hold a difficult position vs. Magnus | photo: Georgios Souleidis, official website

Both entered damage limitation mode, though, and Fabiano in particular hit straight back with two wins for a +1 that he maintained to the end. Maxime had to settle for 50%, since his loss to Aronian was the only decisive game between the four Top 10 players (though Aronian should, of course, also have beaten Fabi).

The rating damage after the event looked as follows:

Fabiano forced his way back into the 2800 club, though MVL is out and was almost caught by Aronian | source: 2700chess

7) The GRENKE Chess Classic format was a success

The struggles of the elite players were great news for chess fans, who got seven rounds of attacking chess in which almost all the draws were very hard-fought. The four lower-rated players all had something to celebrate, with 19-year-old Matthias Bluebaum’s simply surviving his first game against the World Champion a sufficient achievement for an inaugural supertournament, while joint last-placed Georg Meier got to demonstrate an important novelty against MVL and could look back with regret on squandering two won positions in his first two games.

The GRENKE Chess Classic against the backdrop of the GRENKE Open in Karlsruhe | photo: Lennart Ootes

The other feature of the 2017 GRENKE Chess Classic was holding the first three days alongside the massive GRENKE Chess Open, with the 1200 players getting the chance to rub shoulders with the world elite. It provided a great spectacle and seemed to inspire the Classic players. 

Of course there was also no cause for complaint about the smaller venue in Baden-Baden for the final four days. Here's the last short "impressions" video for the final round and closing ceremony:

The good news is that both tournaments are set to return next year!

See also:

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