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Reports Mar 11, 2018 | 11:52 AMby Colin McGourty

Berlin Candidates 1: A stunning start

Vladimir Kramnik, Shakhriyar Mamedyarov and Fabiano Caruana all won as fears of a cautious start to the 2018 Candidates Tournament in Berlin proved utterly unfounded. Kramnik pounced in Alexander Grischuk’s time trouble, Mamedyarov proved that even Sergey Karjakin can’t defend every miserable ending and Caruana blew Wesley So away with startling ease. Aronian-Ding Liren was the one draw, but got Garry Kasparov’s vote as Game of the Day. The only negative note came from the organisers, who failed to do the bare minimum both online and at the venue.

Well, it was top seed vs. bottom seed, but it was still hard to predict that Mamedyarov would start by beating 2016 Candidates Tournament winner Karjakin with Black! | photo: Vladimir Barsky, Russian Chess Federation

You can replay all the games using the selector below – simply click on a result to open that game with computer analysis:

You can also replay six hours of live commentary from Jan Gustafsson and Sopiko Guramishvili:

On paper you might have expected a peaceful start to the Candidates Tournament, since the regulations specified that players from the same federation would play each other in Rounds 1 and 8, in order to prevent any potential collusion at the end of the tournament when it’s clear who needs what to succeed. That meant we got Russian and US derbies, Kramnik-Grischuk and Caruana-So, while Karjakin-Mamedyarov pitted two good friends together, with Shakhriyar Mamedyarov being credited by Karjakin for helping him win the last Candidates Tournament in 2016. It turned out, though, that there are no friends or countrymen in the Candidates!

Caruana 1-0 So: Candidates Fabi

The white e5-pawn was willing to lay down its life to win the American Civil War! 

Jan Gustafsson commented during the live broadcast, “This is Candidates Fabi! We haven’t seen that version of Fabi for two years”. That may have been a slight exaggeration, but it was certainly vintage Caruana on display in Berlin. He surprised his opponent in the opening with a line that had gone out of fashion, and though he wasn’t entirely convinced by his own middlegame play he didn’t put a foot wrong when the game opened up. Wesley So’s 18…Bxc5?! (18…Nxc5!) was made to look like the losing mistake:

Caruana said he took his time over 19.Ng5!, since it “leads to a very sharp position – I had to make sure I wasn’t losing in the complications”. He wasn’t, and though he suggested 23…Ra2 as a way for Black to put up more resistance, his attack flowed smoothly until his opponent cracked under the pressure and fell to defeat in 33 moves.

Jan takes us through the game:

It was a tough start for Wesley So, while his former coach Vladimir Tukmakov’s suggestion that Caruana, Mamedyarov, Kramnik and Aronian are the four players who have the “right” approach to the Candidates - they’ll try to win at all costs and only first place matters - got some early vindication. They were close to all winning in the first round, with only Levon Aronian falling short.

Aronian ½-½ Ding Liren: h4 (almost) does it again

There was déjà vu as Armenian President Serzh Sargsyan once again made the first move in the 2018 Candidates Tournament, just as he had in Moscow in 2016, though back then an Armenian-owned company had paid a lot of money to ensure Aronian got the wild card. This time, it seems, he was there purely because of how much an Aronian-Carlsen World Championship match would mean to his chess-mad nation. If that put extra pressure on Levon, it didn’t stop him going for it, as he unleashed some more of his famed preparation.

The unusual layout meant the ceremonial first move only took place in one cramped area, invisible to the other players

Aronian had quipped, “You have to play h4 whenever you can!” last year in St. Louis, he’d won the crucial game of the 2017 World Cup final against Ding Liren with an early h4-h5, and this time 8.h4!? had the Chinese no. 1 commenting, “I just sank into shock”:

A certain Garry Kasparov was also impressed:

Levon commented, “it’s an interesting position, and nowadays you don’t get to get many interesting positions”, and everything seemed to be going smoothly…

…though when he combined h4 with the offer of a pawn with 11.Kf1 Jan’s inner Radio Jan couldn’t help but break through:

Ding Liren is tougher than he looks, though, and approached the game in a manner typical of Chinese players – if he couldn’t see a tactical refutation of a move he was willing to go for it, even if your average “inner sense of danger” would be screaming out against it. So Liren picked up a pawn with 15…Bxc5!, though it meant his queen getting pushed to an only square which was targeted by a white bishop:

17…Bxd4!! was the star move of the game, and one Levon admitted to underestimating. It turns out discovered attacks on the black queen give White less than nothing (18.Rd5 Rxd5!, 18.Rb2 or 18.Rb1 Bxc3!), while after 18.cxd4 Rxd4 Black not only manages to free his queen but ends up with four pawns for a piece.

Levon wasn’t finished trying yet, though, and his 18.Be2! sent Ding Liren into a 30-minute think, before he came up with 18…Rd6!? (the computer’s suggestion was 18…Ba8, to give the queen a square on b7):

Aronian called this “a very good move”, and in human terms he was probably right, though the fearless computer claims White is close to winning after 19.Rb2! That wasn’t a move that Levon missed, but he explained that after the forced 19…Qa5 20.cxd4 Qd5 and e.g. 21.dxe5 Nd4, “if something goes wrong then it goes really wrong in this position”. The queen-bishop battery and all Black’s other pieces are ready for an assault on the white king. It was too much for the first day of such an important event, and instead a draw by repetition followed with 19.Rb1 Qa5 20.Rb5 Qa6 (20…Bxc3 21.Rd3! is fine for White) 21.Rb1 Qa5 22.Rb5.

Spanish GM Pepe Cuenca has now analysed the game:

The remaining games were long and bitter for the players on the defensive side:

Kramnik 1-0 Grischuk: “Mathematically my chances improved”

Vladimir Kramnik has Anish Giri working for him as a second in Berlin, though Anish has been more visible in Twitter combat. That didn’t entirely cease on the first day of the event 

There was only one way to respond to his wife…

We got a glimpse of the kind of thing Kramnik and Giri have been cooking up at the chessboard, though, when Big Vlad went for 1.d4 Nf6 2.Nf3 g6 3.b3!? Although over a thousand games have been played in that position, it’s enough to mention that the highest-rated player to have tried it was Vassily Smyslov against Boris Spassky back in the 1971 Alekhine Memorial. Kramnik played down the idea, claiming it turned out just to be a way to get back to playable but more standard positions, but it had another benefit – it got Grischuk thinking right from the start. Alexander’s well-known Achilles heel is time trouble, and when the position became critical his time was dangerously low. The black rook got stranded:

Kramnik said his first intention here was the computer’s suggestion of 26.g4, but in the end he decided that might weaken his king too much and went for 26.e4!?, when after sacrificing the exchange with 26…Rxf4 Grischuk was back in the game. 

The players' moods after the game were rather different | photo: Vladimir Barsky, Russian Chess Federation

Kramnik explained afterwards that he was fighting hard not to play his opponent’s clock, given how well Grischuk plays with seconds remaining:

I had some bad experiences already trying to complicate positions in his time trouble, and I got punished.

He was happy when he found a way to give back the exchange and achieve a safe and comfortable edge:

32.Rxe5! dxe5 33.Bxe5. Soon queens were exchanged, but while the tactical fires had burnt out the strategic danger remained, and after the later 37…Rb8? Kramnik was able to invade and create a passed pawn. Grischuk admitted to later missing 44.Kg1! (he’d only considered 44.Kg3, when knight checks give Black more chances), and the game was over very swiftly:

44…Ra4 45.Bc4 Bc6 46.Rc7 Be8 47.a6 Nh5 48.Nd5 Black resigns

It was a perfect start for Kramnik, who with White in three of his first four games before Black in four of his next five must have concluded that it’s important to start fast. Of course in the press conference he was taking it one game at a time, quipping:

I don’t really estimate my chances before the tournament, but as far as I understand it mathematically my chances improved a bit after today’s game…

By far the longest game of the day saw the winner of the last Candidates Tournament fall to a surprise loss with the white pieces:

Karjakin 0-1 Mamedyarov: The real deal?

At some point we’re going to have to start taking Shakhriyar Mamedyarov seriously! Despite being the top performing player of 2017 and the current world no. 2, the opinion has lingered that Shak doesn’t quite have what it takes to win the top events. He’s come behind the likes of Aronian, Kramnik and Caruana in predictions and people have dismissed statistical predictions based on rating as unhelpful:

There’s some truth in that, of course, but Mamedyarov’s rise doesn’t yet show signs of stopping.  Saturday in Berlin was a test, which he passed with flying colours. First, he demonstrated that his pre-Candidates approach of surprising his opponents in the opening wasn’t a bluff – he was doing it again, playing 3…g6 against the Ruy Lopez, something he’d tried just once before in a classical game. 

Surprise! | photo: Vladimir Barsky, Russian Chess Federation

Sergey wasn’t shaken by that move, of course, but he was already slightly worse after going for 12.Bxd4!?, while after 14.Qxc7 it was another moment of truth for Shak:

Here he had the sharp option 14…Nd5!?, which may objectively be the best move, but with accurate play from White is likely to fizzle out to a draw fast. In the past such an active option might have proved irresistible to Mamedyarov, while with Black against a friend such as Karjakin he might have had no issue with a draw, but instead after 28 minutes of thought he played 14…Rab8, forcing White to play accurately with no immediate way to force a draw.

The game ended up in a queen ending where Black had a passed b-pawn, but it looked like the kind of position Sergey has built his reputation on – passive, miserable but ultimately holdable. Hikaru Nakamura, in the chess24 chat, correctly predicted a win for Kramnik, but also expected an easy draw for Karjakin. What followed, therefore, was surprising, since just when it seemed Karjakin had things under control he kept giving his opponent chances, with his decision on move 58 the last straw:

58.f4 still looked to be in the Minister of Defence’s drawing realm, but the strange 58.Kg3 Qxg5+ just gave up a pawn for a position the tablebases tell us is lost. It still had to be won, though, and Mamedyarov once again demonstrated that he’s now an excellent technician as well as a ferocious attacking player. It’s potentially a potent combination, with a big game coming up for Shak as he plays Aronian with White in Round 2.

Karjakin’s only comfort was that he’s been here before, when he started the 2014 Candidates Tournament with two defeats in the first half before coming back to be Anand’s closest challenger by the end of the tournament. That event might not be perfect for inspiration, though, since Karjakin now plays Kramnik with Black, a game he lost in Round 2 back in 2014! The other Round 2 pairings are Ding Liren-Caruana and Grischuk-So, with that latter match pitting two players who lost in Round 1 against each other.

Agony in Berlin

On the eve of the tournament World Chess/Agon CEO Ilya Merenzon put on his usual public performance. As a professional PR man he was aware that there was nothing to be gained by troubling non-chess journalists with hard facts, so he gave some fantasy figures instead:

In a way it was harmless, but as with so much else the company does, the main purpose was to conceal a simple truth – since 2012 Agon has largely failed in its one job, to bring commercial sponsorship to chess. This time round there were again no significant new sponsors, and from the 88th FIDE Congress we learnt that costs were going to be cut:

AGON presented their plans for the Candidates Tournament 2018 in Berlin and the World Championship Match later that year. The business model used for these two events will involve cost effective savings compared to 2016 and at the same time produce the same top quality events.   

Still, it was hard to expect the shambles that followed. The official website, which essentially needed only to have the bare facts about the tournament (little details such as when the games start) and show four games plus video, proved completely unready for the event. The moves were nowhere, the pairings were nowhere, the countdown was buggy, there was no news and people couldn’t log in, despite having purchased subscriptions. You also needed to stumble across the live feeds, which they resorted to offering for free on Facebook, though even then only around 300 people at any time tuned in.

While in a way it was flattering that a day or two before the event the World Chess games page was still showing evidence of copying chess24 to the extent of copying text that had no meaning on their site, you did wonder if they would manage even to show the four games... and they didn't

That was only a problem for fans, though – what about the players? 

Well, for almost the first top tournament in living memory the players openly expressed their dissatisfaction with the conditions. It started off mildly, with Aronian mentioning it was noisy (“hopefully some measures will be taken”), while Ding Liren noted there could be more toilets. Then came Grischuk:

It’s a bad day for me for this question, because I think the playing conditions are absolutely terrible, but now that I lost it will sound like an excuse or something, but believe me it’s not. There is not even water in the toilet…

Kramnik added that he’d mentioned in the players’ meeting that noise would be an issue, given the building layout, but had wrongly been assured it wouldn’t be.

Karjakin went further:

Actually I don’t like almost anything in the organisation of the tournament. I don’t like the hotel, I don’t like the venue and also it was a few times very noisy during the game, but I don’t want to say that I lost because of all these things, but basically I don’t like anything.

Mamedyarov responded:

I agree with Sergey half to half. I think the hotel is ok but in the tournament hall sometimes really it is not easy to think.

Then, however, he revealed an organisational blunder that might have altered chess history, since the official broadcast was being shown on a screen visible to the players:

Of course many of these issues will be fixed or ameliorated in the coming days, though the underlying problem will remain.

In any case, the good news is that in a purely chess sense the 2018 Candidates Tournament has got off to the best possible start! We already have three players who need to play catch-up if they want to play a World Championship match against Magnus Carlsen. Round 2 starts at 15:00 CET and Jan and Sopiko will again be commentating live here on chess24!

See also:

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