Reports Dec 12, 2017 | 5:37 PMby Colin McGourty

9 Conclusions from the 2017 London Chess Classic

Fabiano Caruana claimed the 2017 London Chess Classic after a heroic day’s play in which he first squeezed out a 6-hour victory against Mickey Adams and then emerged victorious in the 4th game of a playoff against a well-rested Ian Nepomniachtchi. For Nepo the consolation was that although he got no trophy he took the same $62,500 prize money as Fabi, while Magnus Carlsen’s rollercoaster event ended on a high after he bamboozled Levon Aronian in a dubious position to take the $100,000 first prize for winning the Grand Chess Tour. We draw some conclusions from the event.

Magnus Carlsen won the tour for a second time while Fabiano Caruana won his first London Chess Classic | photos: Lennart Ootes, Grand Chess Tour

You can replay all the games from the 2017 London Chess Classic using the selector below – click a result to open the game with computer analysis or hover over a player’s name to see all his results:

Rewatch the 9 hours of coverage of the final day of the London Chess Classic:

1. Sometimes you should just take the draw…

Seldom can a final day of a major chess tournament have left more players with more to regret. Levon Aronian is a cool customer…

…but his final round game against Magnus Carlsen ended as a train wreck. Magnus confessed afterwards that he’d come to the game worse informed about the Grand Chess Tour standings than the average chess fan:

I didn’t check the standing but I just assumed I needed to win. Then I found out just before the game that wasn’t necessarily so, though that didn’t change my approach… Both of us just wanted to steer away from the trodden path, but I went terribly astray very quickly.

You might not guess it, but Levon was dead lost here... | photo: Lennart Ootes, Grand Chess Tour

White was close to winning and Magnus eventually sacrificed two pawns to get some squares for his pieces. Levon was frustrated at not finding an instant killer blow and was then thrown off balance when he missed both 37…Nfe8! and 38…Raa5!

It was time for Levon to abandon heroic plans of avenging his last-round loss to Magnus in the 2017 Sinquefield Cup and take on d6 - the powerful white bishop and pawns should ensure a draw. Instead, after 39.b4? Rad5!, Magnus never looked back. Aronian commented:

I don’t know what happened with me. I thought I cannot be worse, but of course I am worse. It’s a really impractical decision not to take on d6 – embarrassing.

While Levon bares his soul, Magnus retells some of the funnier moments to his second Peter Heine Nielsen | photo: Lennart Ootes, Grand Chess Tour

Mickey Adams fell into the same trap in his game as Black against Fabiano Caruana. He was, if anything, better, but the players had started to repeat moves here:

Fabiano admitted afterwards that despite how crucial the game was to him he’d accepted his fate and was going to repeat. Mickey, however, decided to play on with 32…Rd5, objectively not a bad decision, but one which led to hours of miserable defence and perhaps some damage to Ian Nepomniachtchi’s hotel room! (a draw would have made the Russian the sole champion of the London Chess Classic without any need for a playoff) 

At least it was finally over... | photo: Lennart Ootes, Grand Chess Tour

Mickey commented:

I was doing quite well and then I just did something stupid like usual. I could maybe have claimed a 3-fold repetition, and then I moved my rook to d5… It’s a great tournament, but I gave away too many early Christmas presents!

A game which would have been remembered, if at all, for Caruana’s tripled e-pawns (“the Irish pawn centre”) instead saw Caruana sacrifice an exchange to leave the black rook on g3 a subject of mockery and bemusement:

When the rook had to give itself up for the bishop White was a pawn up and - not without adventures - Fabiano went on to convert his advantage and force a playoff.

2. …although taking the draw doesn’t always work out

The day had begun with a typical last-round anti-climax. Ian Nepomniachtchi and Maxime Vachier-Lagrave drew by repetition in 19 moves, with neither player having spent as much as 2 minutes on a single move. 

It seems the photographers knew what was about to happen... | photo: Lennart Ootes, Grand Chess Tour

Maxime spoke about the difficulty of avoiding forced draws with the black pieces and blamed missed chances in previous rounds, though the draw ensured he finished at least 2nd in the Grand Chess Tour – picking up $50,000 – while he still had some chances of taking 1st. It didn’t work out, of course, though he’d earned a very healthy $207,917 in total:

Magnus, MVL and Aronian automatically qualify for next year's event

The French no. 1 isn’t in the 2018 Candidates Tournament, but he's still looking forward to the year ahead:

Meanwhile all he had left to do on Monday was crush Lawrence Trent’s soul!

Ian Nepomniachtchi was apologetic:

When you’re half a point ahead the best strategy is not to lose, at least. Of course I’m not very happy with what I did today… I think no-one really liked it, me neither, but at some point it could be a long game which would end in a draw anyway. Then in case Fabi wins at least I will have some rest before the tiebreak – a little bit more rest than him. It’s not perhaps the most brilliant strategy, but I didn’t have any other.

It’s hard to criticise the strategy even in hindsight – after all, he might also have lost to Maxime and spoiled everything – but going to the tiebreak fresh didn’t work out as planned...

3. Caruana and Nepomniachtchi saved the London Chess Classic

It all came down to two players, Fabiano Caruana and Ian Nepomniachtchi | photo: Lennart Ootes, Grand Chess Tour

After three rounds and 19 draws in a row the old topic of the “death” of classical chess was dominating coverage of the London Chess Classic. It looked as though even +1 might be enough to win the event, but Fabiano Caruana finally broke through in Round 4 against Sergey Karjakin. He followed up by winning in Round 5, before Ian Nepomniachtchi took over and between them they scored 6 of the 10 wins, with only rounds 7 and 9 featuring wins for other players. It turned out +3 was only enough for a playoff!  

That playoff was a credit to both players. Fabiano’s tough day had at least one benefit:

After playing for 6 hours against Mickey I was too tired to feel any pressure!

The first two 10 minute + 5 second delay games were tense, well-played games in which neither player could find a decisive edge. Two draws meant they switched to 5 minute + 3 second delay blitz, and in the first of those Ian Nepomniachtchi missed a chance to get a better opening position (9.Ba3! as suggested by Yasser Seirawan) and then blundered a piece on move 13. From that point onwards, though, Nepo played fast and put up huge resistance. It might still not have been enough, but 64…Nd3? enabled Ian to save the game:

65.f5+! Ke5 66.g5! and the black pawn can’t be kept on the board.

The one that got away... | photo: Lennart Ootes, Grand Chess Tour

Game 4 wasn’t necessarily the last before Armageddon, as claimed during the live commentary, since in fact a draw would have led to one more pair of blitz games. We never got that far, though, since Fabiano took his chance with the white pieces to claim the title.

Nepomniachtchi sacrificed a pawn and seemed to have enough compensation until Caruana broke with 35.e6!. Objectively the game was then White’s to win, but again Ian put up heroic resistance until finally being beaten by a fittingly attractive finish:

The white queen and rook are both under attack and 64.Qa8 or 64.Qd7 would give Black a tempo to do damage with his e-pawn. Instead Fabiano played 64.Qf7! exf2+ (nothing else helps either) 65.Kxf2 Qb2+ and met a check with a check: 66.Rd2+!

It was tough on Nepomniachtchi:

Still, as we mentioned before, he shared the prize money and could look back on the tournament with pride. As he’d commented previously about the prospect of winning the event:

It would be a brilliant comeback for me this year, because the year was awful from the point of view of my general results and tournaments - I lost about 40 Elo points before this tournament. Here I got back some, but not everything. Of course it’s very inspiring because it shows that I can still play some decent chess and fight with the strongest and finest players in the world. I’m just looking forward to the next year to improve my play.

Not quite a fairytale ending for Ian Nepomniachtchi, but he's shown he can win supertournaments | photo: Lennart Ootes, Grand Chess Tour

4. Is Fabiano the clear world no. 2 again?

The final round meant that Caruana, who started the tournament as world no. 4, had opened up even more of a gap on his pursuers and ends the year (or starts the next) as the only 2800 player other than Magnus:

Source: 2700chess

It’s a good place to be going into a year with a Candidates Tournament in March, but you can apply the newspaper headline rule-of-thumb i.e. the answer to such rhetorical questions is almost always a resounding “no” - e.g. from today’s press, “Has an alien probe entered our solar system?” Perhaps, but probably not. 

Fabiano admitted himself that he’d had “a shaky year” and the last time he looked like the clear world no. 2 was after his stunning Sinquefield Cup triumph in 2014, when his 7-game winning streak saw his live rating hit the dizzy heights of 2851.3. Since then, although he’s had successes such as winning the US Championship, it seems Dortmund 2015 may have been his only super-tournament victory (he lost a playoff to Mamedyarov in Shamkir 2016), while it’s only now in London that he’s again won a super-tournament ahead of Carlsen.

Caruana receives the London Chess Classic trophy from Malcolm Pein | photo: Lennart Ootes, Grand Chess Tour

The candidates for world no. 2 are well-known, with Wesley So, Maxime Vachier-Lagrave and at times Vladimir Kramnik auditioning for the role, while 2017 has by and large belonged to Levon Aronian. Maxime and Levon may have been handicapped in London by the fatigue of playing both the Grand Chess Tour and the Grand Prix, while so far no-one has shown the consistency to make themselves the clear man to take on Magnus.

5. Even an unwell and out of form Magnus is dangerous

Magnus had a similar response to Caruana when asked if he’d been nervous in the final round:

I wasn’t nervous. I didn’t have any energy at this point or at any point during the tournament. I know I cannot play anyway, so there’s nothing to be nervous about!

The first round set the tone for the tournament, with Magnus failing to grind out a win against Caruana, before quick draws, missed chances and some difficult positions followed. He also contracted a heavy cold, which can't have helped (though some chess trivia is that Nigel Short only finally won a game against Garry Kasparov in their 1993 World Championship match when he got a cold and decided to play something less challenging with White).

Things didn't quite go to plan for Magnus | photo: Lennart Ootes, Grand Chess Tour

Despite that, though, we still saw glimpses of class and abundant fighting spirit. Carlsen pulled off a miraculous escape against Nakamura, turned round a losing position to beat Adams and was lethal as soon as he was given the chance in the final game against Aronian. He performed at 2815 and was only a couple of bad choices against Nepomniachtchi away from getting more. There was also some consolation:

Magnus still hasn’t won a classical super-tournament since July 2016 in Bilbao, though, something he’ll no doubt want to put right in Wijk aan Zee in January!

6. Nakamura won the Anish Giri Cup

The last-round results meant that despite the drawish start only one player pulled off the feat of drawing all nine games in the 2017 London Chess Classic - Hikaru Nakamura!

The man himself wasn't there in person to hand out an award, but he was there in spirit (unless he really meant Caruana here ):

Is a sponsorship contract in danger?

Of course, joking aside, a draw in chess is “a pretty logical result”, as Nakamura said afterwards, and it’s enough to cite again the Carlsen game for how things might have ended up differently. Plus, scoring 50% was a distant dream for some players in the event.

7. It wasn’t a tournament for old men… or some young men

At least Vishy finished the last game quickly enough to get in some Christmas shopping | photo: Lennart Ootes, Grand Chess Tour

Vishy Anand scored fine 2nd place finishes in the recent Sinquefield Cup and Isle of Man Open, but nothing went right for the 5-time World Champion in London. He suffered tough defeats against Caruana and Nepomniachtchi and went into the final round on his 48th birthday with nothing to play for. He had the white pieces against Wesley So, who had drawn all eight games so far, so the odds of another draw looked high. Then a position arose with four knights, which might have appealed to a player known for a preference for knights over bishops…

This one was tough, though, and the move Vishy needed to find here was 28.Nxb6!! The point is that if you take the knight immediately with 28.Qxc3 then after 28…Qe2+ 29.Kg1 Qd1+ 30.Kh2 Ne2 White has to give back the piece to prevent mate and is down a pawn in a tough position. Instead after 28…Nxb6! cxb6 the same line is only a draw, since White gives perpetual check with 32.Qc8+ and 33.Qf5+. That was tough to find, though, and Vishy went down without a fight after 28.N4e3 Ne4!.

Wesley said afterwards:

I didn’t know it was his birthday and also I play well against my opponents’ birthdays! Last year I beat Nakamura and someone else... 

How could Vishy forget about such a tournament? Look at the world through the eyes of a child!

We’ve already noted that 46-year-old Mickey Adams also suffered, though he could plausibly have scored 3/4 rather than 0.5/4 from his final four games. Perhaps the biggest disappointment was a younger man, though, since 27-year-old Sergey Karjakin lost two games, won none, and could perhaps have fought harder at times. 

Karjakin & Nepomniachtchi had very different London Classic debuts | photo: Lennart Ootes, Grand Chess Tour

He concluded:

I guess I’m happy that the tournament is over.

Is he just fooling us all with indifferent play before he suddenly reveals his claws again in the Candidates Tournament?

8. Can the spread of facial hair among the chess elite be stopped?

Again, that rhetorical question, which probably means it can’t be stopped  The London Chess Classic field was a feast for fans of beards:

It's like an epidemic... | photos: Lennart Ootes, Grand Chess Tour

Levon has work to do...

9. There’s a great chess year ahead

As far as we know those were the last classical games of 2017 for the top players in London, though many of them will be playing in the World Rapid and Blitz Championships in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia at the turn of the year. That’s not to say there’s no other chess before Christmas, with the World Mind Games just now in China, the Russian Championship Superfinals in St. Petersburg and the European Rapid and Blitz Championships coming this weekend in Katowice, Poland. There’s also the traditional Nutcracker Christmas Tournament in Moscow from 18-24 December, with Gelfand, Mamedyarov, Shirov and Rublevsky taking on young talents Oparin, Artemiev, Esipenko and Yuffa.

2018 promises to be a great year. It starts with a bang as Tata Steel Chess has pulled out all the stops for its 80th edition to invite six of the world’s Top 10 (Carlsen, Caruana, Mamedyarov, So, Kramnik and Anand) while Gibraltar has invited almost all the rest (Aronian, MVL, Nakamura) – only Ding Liren seems to be playing neither.

Check out the full list on the new official website

Then, of course, we have the Candidates, the World Championship match itself and, as if that wasn’t enough, the Olympiad – plus all the regular tournaments that pack the calendar. What a time to be alive  

See also:

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