With Fabiano Caruana, Maxime Vachier-Lagrave and Levon Aronian on top boards it surprised nobody that Baden-Baden clinched a 14th German League title in 15 years, but they were pushed all the way by Shakhriyar Mamedyarov’s Viernheim. Both teams went into their last round clash on 100%, and it went right down to the wire before wins for Paco Vallejo and Arkadiy Naiditsch sealed a 4.5:3.5 match win and the title. There were memorable performances by Erwin l’Ami (who beat Fabi), Richard Rapport and 15-year-old Vincent Keymer.
You can replay all the games from the 2020 Chess Bundesliga Championship using the selector below:
The 2019-20 German League was interrupted by the virus situation in March and is still hoped to be resumed in Spring 2021, but 8 of the 16 teams agreed to play a 7-round tournament in Karlsruhe to decide a champion for 2020. There were plexiglass screens between the players and a requirement to wear masks while walking around the venue, but over-the-board chess was back!
For many star names this was their return to over-the-board chess, and for those playing the Candidates Tournament, expected to resume on November 1st, it was particularly significant. Maxime Vachier-Lagrave, who won his first three games and briefly overtook Ian Nepomniachtchi to move to 4th on the live rating list, commented on playing again:
It’s a very good feeling. I’ve had a break of 6 months, I’ve never done this before in my life, but it’s quite difficult to readjust, and that’s why of course I wanted to play this tournament to get back some feeling for over-the-board chess before the Candidates resumes.
He was happy with the measures in Karlsruhe and also that the Candidates would be played out, with Round 8 currently planned to take place in Yekaterinburg, Russia on November 1st, though Tbilisi, Georgia was announced as a back-up option.
I’m ready to play anytime. I knew that there was a possibility that we would resume as soon as the situation permitted. I think in other sports like tennis, basketball, everything else started resuming, so with the proper sanitary conditions I don’t see why we shouldn’t resume this event.
Fabiano Caruana, who joined Jan Gustafsson during Round 2 after beating Gata Kamsky in Round 1, talked about the lockdown months.
They were a bit strange. I played a lot of chess, and then at some point I lost all my motivation to even look at chess.
He was glad to be back, and also that he’d get the chance to play a “normal” over-the-board tournament, Altibox Norway Chess, before the Candidates. That event starts on October 5th and also features Magnus Carlsen, Levon Aronian, Jan-Krzysztof Duda, Alireza Firouzja and Aryan Tari. The non-Norwegians already need to travel to Stavanger this week to complete a 10-day quarantine, but Fabi isn’t too bothered about that!
I think it’s a quarantine that will basically feel like a normal tournament routine. We’re allowed to go out, which is the main thing, we can actually go on walks, so we’re not stuck in the hotel all day, and besides that it’s not like we go to a tournament and we go clubbing right away! So it’ll pretty much feel normal – go on walks and work on chess. For me it didn’t seem like a major issue.
Levon Aronian will also be in Norway, and he combined playing in the Bundesliga with playing in the St. Louis Rapid & Blitz at night. He admitted it didn’t exactly go well, pointing out his blunder of a queen against Hikaru Nakamura – the US star wasn’t in the mood to offer a draw as Ian Nepomniachtchi did against Harikrishna and simply picked up the piece and the point.
Levon’s four draws in four games didn’t set the world on fire, but all would be well that ended well for the Armenian star!
When Baden-Baden lined up for Round 1 with seven 2700+ players (plus Etienne Bacrot, with a peak rating of 2749), while none of the other teams played a single 2700+ player, it looked like we might witness a walkover. That impression was strengthened by a 6.5:1.5 win over a team expected to be rivals, Schachfreunde Deizisau, with Caruana 1-0 Kamsky and Adams 1-0 Keymer among the notable games.
The fears proved unfounded, however. Viernheim, who played Anton Korobov on top board in Round 1 and had a 2395 player on board 8, unleashed Shakhriyar Mamedyarov in Round 3 and had strong 2600+ players on all the remaining boards. They duly matched Baden-Baden’s six wins in the first six rounds.
For most of those first six rounds the interest was in individual games or performances. For instance, Baden-Baden ultimately cruised to a 6:2 win against their long-term rivals Solingen (the only team to stop them winning the league in the last 15 years), but on top board Erwin l’Ami beat Fabiano Caruana.
It was a remarkable game, starting with an unusual opening by Fabi that Magnus offered to repeat later that day!
Erwin, who had drawn a spectacular game against Shakhriyar Mamedyarov the evening before, was in the mood for adventure, and suddenly launched a kingside assault out of nowhere.
10.g4!? was followed a few moves later by g5, and soon White was crashing through!
21.Nxf7! Qxf7 22.Bxg6! Qxf2 23.Bf7+! Kh8 (23…Kxf7 24.Qh7+ is mate-in-5) 24.Qg6! and we were looking at a miniature. Fabi managed to dig in and only lose an ending in 49 moves, but Erwin at no point lost control.
Meanwhile Richard Rapport was providing the entertainment on the Baden-Baden team, with an incredible sacrificial attack against Noel Struder in Round 2. Black had already given up a knight for three pawns, and now he threw in a rook with 23…e5!!
Can White take on a8? Fabi was sorely tempted!
I know it’s greedy, and probably no-one would ever want to do it, but I do wonder about 24.Nxa8… My first feeling is the attack shouldn’t be totally devastating.
But it turns out 24.Nxa8? Bh2+! 25.Kf1 f4! really does give Black an overwhelming attack. Noel instead began sacrificing material himself with 24.Nxd5!?, but couldn’t avoid going down in flames.
Richard’s next trick, in Round 4, was to find a spectacular win against Loek van Wely.
30…Nxe3! seems just to be trading down into a roughly equal ending after 31.Qc3, but Rapport followed up with 31…Rxh2!! and, one way or another, White is getting mated. Jan looked at both of those games in his mid-way summary of the Bundesliga.
Another story was the rise of 15-year-old Vincent Keymer. It’s been a tough period for prodigies, with no tournaments in which to climb the rating ladder, but it looks as though Vincent has been working hard on his chess. After losing to Mickey Adams in Round 1 he only conceded one draw in the remaining six games, picking up 20 rating points.
That helped Schachfreunde Deizisau to finish in clear 3rd place.
When it came to drama, we couldn’t have asked for more. The two runaway leaders met in the final round and played their strongest possible teams – though as Radek Wojtaszek was feeling unwell a place opened up for Arkadij Naiditsch. Baden-Baden had the advantage that after scoring more board points in the previous rounds a 4:4 tie would be enough, but what followed was still nail-biting to the very end!
The top boards balanced each other out, while it was actually Viernheim who took the lead after Sergey Fedorchuk won a convincing game against Etienne Bacrot.
That was less of a blow since Spanish no. 1 Paco Vallejo, who at 2720.5 is back to almost his peak rating, had managed to trap Egypt’s Bassem Amin's queen.
After 24…Bf5! there was no good way to parry the threat of Bd7, and the game continued 25.Rc5 Bd7 26.Qh4 g5 27.Qxh6 Ne4! and White had to give up the queen with 28.Qxb6. Vallejo made no mistake.
By that stage, however, nothing was yet clear. Spanish no. 2 David Anton was outplaying Baden-Baden’s Mickey Adams, who up to this point had scored 5.5/6. There was a chance to clinch the game on move 23.
23…Nf3+! was winning after 24.Bxf3 Rxe1+ 25.Qxe1 Qxf3 and the threats of Bh3 and mate on g2 or capturing with the queen on f2 are impossible to handle. David instead played 23…Qxd1, entering an ending a pawn up, where he again played some brilliant chess until finally missing a win (mate-in-10!) in a rook ending. What mattered, though, was that at no moment until the end could Baden-Baden be confident they would hold a draw on that board.
That meant everything rested on the shoulders of Arkadij Naiditsch, who needed to convert a winning position against Igor Kovalenko. As mentioned, Arkadij hadn’t expected to play until the last moment, but he was relishing the chance. He said the lockdown may have actually not been bad for him, since he’d lost 100 rating points in 2019 to drop to a level he hadn’t been at since he was 17. He came back hungry in Biel, as a late replacement, and was excited both to play chess and a high stakes game (you can also check out Arkadij’s full commentary on the decisive game) in Karlsruhe.
I really enjoy playing chess - I think I enjoy playing chess more than most of the guys that are here! … It’s great when you play for the first place, when you know you have to fight for something. I really enjoy these moments!
The issue was that he built up a winning position quickly, but there was no clear-cut way to finish his opponent off. Then time ran down and it was nerve-racking even to watch. An example is the position after 56…h6.
There’s only one winning move here, 57.Rgg7!, and though Arkadij eventually played it he did so after thinking for 54 seconds and making his move with 5 seconds on the clock. Our entirely unbiased commentary team of Baden-Baden players Jan and Rustam were by turns excited and deeply concerned.
That was perhaps the moment of peak tension, however, as Arkadij then went on to confidently bring home the full point. Baden-Baden were the champions once again, and it was all the sweeter for having been so close!
Check out some impressions of the final day:
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