Reports Mar 24, 2018 | 11:00 AMby Colin McGourty

Berlin Candidates 11: Karjakin back in the hunt

Sergey Karjakin is back in contention for a rematch against Magnus Carlsen after defeating Levon Aronian in Round 11 to move within a point of leader Fabiano Caruana, who he plays in Round 12. Alexander Grischuk is level with Karjakin in what has become a four-horse race, after pulling off a great escape against Ding Liren, with the Chinese player now on 11 draws out of 11. Fabiano Caruana and Shakhriyar Mamedyarov drew against Vladimir Kramnik and Wesley So to remain the players to beat.

Sergey Karjakin has momentum on his side - can he repeat his 2016 triumph? | photo: Niki Riga

You can replay all the action from the 2018 Candidates Tournament in Berlin using the selector below – click a result to open that game with computer analysis or hover over a player’s name to see all his results and pairings:

The English live commentary on Friday was hit by a malfunctioning keyboard and mouse, but that wasn’t enough to stop our dynamic duo from showing the moves!

Replay the full day’s commentary:

Aronian 0-1 Karjakin: A repeat of New York?

It looked as though it would be a day of wins for Sergey Karjakin and Ding Liren | photo: Niki Riga

After a thoroughly uninspired 2017 Sergey Karjakin went into the 2018 Candidates Tournament as the bottom seed, and after two losses with the white pieces in the first four rounds it seemed as though the ratings didn’t lie – few gave him a chance of fighting for a rematch against Magnus Carlsen. We should have known better, though, since in the 2014 Candidates Tournament Karjakin had also started with two losses, the last of which was to Levon Aronian with the black pieces. Then in both cases Karjakin went on to win three games, including beating Kramnik with White and Aronian with Black:

Karjakin's comebacks in 2014 and 2018

In 2014 that +1 was enough for clear second place, though Karjakin also came very close to beating the winner Vishy Anand in the penultimate game. Anything can still happen this year with three rounds to go.

Let’s get to the game, though, which was another horror show for Levon Aronian. The Armenian no. 1 has now lost five games, including four of his last six, and plummeted out of the live Top 10. The blow has been hard to take, and he’s yet to switch to damage limitation mode. In Round 11 he was absolutely fine with White in a Catalan against Sergey Karjakin, and though Sergey suggested improvements (e.g. 26.Qg4 instead of 26.Qb2 and 33.Qc2 instead of 33.g4) the game was still in the balance all the way up to move 42:


Levon took just 1 minute and 36 seconds to play 42.Bc3?, “protecting” the d6-pawn but giving up the a4-pawn. Instead 42.a5! still appears to be equal, with 42…Kxd6 leading to a forced draw after 43.Bb4+. In the game there was no way back after 42…Qxa4, with the white d-pawn falling six moves later. Although the queen ending was trickier than Sergey originally expected, he didn’t put a foot wrong as he went about converting it, until in the final stages Levon was playing on four pawns down:

That told you all you needed to know about his mood, with the usually ebullient Armenian barely uttering a word in the shortest press conference of the 2018 Candidates Tournament so far:

It was more than understandable, of course. After years spent as world no. 2, a wonderful 2017 and coming into the tournament as many people’s favourite, Levon is now even mathematically out of contention to become the challenger with three rounds to go. If he won them all he’d still be half a point short of Caruana’s current score:


The emotions were completely the opposite for Karjakin, of course, who has recovered the form and belief that saw him win the last Candidates Tournament. He explained:

I think after I lost to Levon in the first half of the tournament I felt like I had to improve my chess, and I’m very happy that I started to play better and I won a few games. The most important was not to start losing the games, but somehow I made a few draws with Black and I managed to win a few with White. It started for me like a new tournament.


So ½-½ Mamedyarov: Cruise control

Peter Svidler quoted Welsh poet Dylan Thomas’s “rage against the dying of the light” to describe Levon Aronian’s approach to his failure in a sixth Candidates Tournament in a row. He used that line to contrast Levon to Wesley So, who seems to have come to terms with his fate since a loss to Karjakin in Round 7 put a shuddering stop to his hopes of a comeback.

It was all smiles afterwards in the press conference | photo: Niki Riga

This game followed the pattern of previous rounds for Wesley. There was a moderately interesting opening – it’s curious that in one tournament Shakhriyar Mamedyarov has managed to play 7…a6, 7…b6 and now 7…c6 in this topical Catalan!


Wesley knew what he was doing, though, and in a jovial post-game press conference he again showed some sharp and interesting lines… which of course didn’t occur over the board:

Mamedyarov revealed he'd offered a draw after the game liquidated into an opposite-coloured bishop ending and wondered why his opponent didn't accept. Perhaps it was a faux pas for Shak to offer it while a pawn down with the black pieces, and Wesley decided to play on, saying, “the spectators might wonder why it’s a draw,” though the remainder of the game had little to offer them, and the final times – 1hr 50 for So and 1hr 33 for Mamedyarov – told you all you needed to know.

Caruana ½-½ Kramnik: “It’s a pretty bad move!”

Deutsche Bahn Chairman Richard Lutz set the game in motion | photo: Niki Riga

On paper this looked like a real chance for Fabiano Caruana to increase his lead, since Vladimir Kramnik came into the encounter after losing his last three games with the black pieces. It was clear Big Vlad was firmly in the “rage against the dying of the light” camp, and this was really his last chance to fight for a World Championship match, at least in 2018.

That all changed, though, on move 5. Kramnik took a leaf out of the playbook of his second Anish Giri’s wife Sopiko Guramishvili by playing the Triangle Slav1.c4 e6 2.Nc3 d5 3.d4 c6. Fabiano showed he was ready to go for the sharpest lines by playing the Marshall Gambit with 4.e4 dxe4 5.Nxe4


…and then a shocker, 5…c5!?, a move that had barely been played, and never at the top level. Fabi took five minutes over 6.Nxc5 and Kramnik’s instant replay 6…Nc6 was the point, bringing the game into virgin territory. Caruana sank into a 20-minute think.

Kramnik follows the modern chess approach of getting your surprise in as early as possible | photo: Niki Riga

When the US grandmaster said in the press conference, “I guess it has some problem”, Vladimir cheerfully replied:

It’s a pretty bad move, yeah! I fully agree. A little bluff, why not? But it worked, yeah?

Fabiano spotted that the point of the move was that the natural 7.Nb3 runs into 7…a5, while he was also looking at 7.Be3, which seems to be well met by 7…e5! Kramnik knew that 7.Ne2 was the computer’s top line, but had dismissed it since it was, “such an unnatural move”. His opponent agreed, calling it, “pretty much the last option I would consider”. It could have been fun, though, with Kramnik spotting 7.Ne2 Nxd4 8.Nxb7!? Nf3+!? while he waited for a move:


Instead the game followed what Kramnik considered the main line: 7.Nf3 Nxd4 8.Qxd4 Qxd4 9.Nxd4 Bxc5 10.Nb5 Ke7:


Here Caruana opted for 11.Bd2?!, saying he was already burning up time and wanted to get his opponent thinking on his own. That was probably a wise choice. Kramnik commented that since everyone had computers, “it wouldn’t be a big revelation to say that 11.Nc7 gives White an advantage here in this position,” but it’s also clear that he knew exactly what to do.

The post-game press conference was inevitably fun, though Kramnik conceded that while he was playing for a win he wasn't objectively playing for a win :) | photo: Niki Riga

In the game Black was at first perhaps slightly better, but when Kramnik was unwilling to play drawish lines (Caruana was almost chuckling when he inquired, “You’re afraid of the draw?”) White was at the very least comfortable. Both players agreed 19.f4 was a mistake, though, and for once Kramnik pushing his h-pawn was fully justified. After 21…h4 things could have got very interesting:


22.g4 would have been critical, with the position after 22…Bxf4 23.gxf5 Bxc1 24.Rxc1 exf5 extremely unbalanced. On this occasion, though, even Vlad thought that might be too risky, and was planning 22…Nh6 23.Kf3 Nf7 instead, with g5 likely to follow. In the game it remained sharp after 22.Kf3 hxg3 23.hxg3 Rxh1 24.Rxh1 but for once Kramnik didn’t overpress and the game fizzled out into a draw.

The post-game press conference was also a draw, with Caruana giving as good as he got!

That leaves us with the game of the day:

Ding Liren ½-½ Grischuk: “There is only one Giri in the world”

Alexander Grischuk was one relatively straightforward move away from winning the first game between these two players, but since he was barely out of his opening preparation, and remembered the move didn’t work in the main line, he didn’t look at it in any detail. This time there was another tale of woe related to opening preparation, but it was Grischuk who escaped what looked like certain death!

Grischuk is still in the hunt to become Carlsen's next challenger | photo: Niki Riga

Grischuk thought he was following his opening preparation for the first 15 moves, but it’s hard to imagine 15…Na5? actually featured there (perhaps 15…0-0 was the move):


He explained the point is that 16.Bb1 can be met by 16…f5!, and 17.exf6 is impossible due to 17…Bxf3! and White can only stop mate on h2 by giving up his queen.

That was all well and good, but 16.Bf4! left Grischuk scratching his head:

It’s supposed to be quite good for Black, but I don’t know how… With Aronian and today, I was sort of in my preparation, and then in two moves I can resign.

Things went from bad to worse, and neither Grischuk nor the commentators saw much hope of Black surviving:

The computer suggests some improvements for Black in what followed, but Ding Liren conducted the attack in fine fashion, finding the brilliant 25.Bg6! and 26.Bb6! Ding Liren had correctly calculated a long winning line after Black’s best reply, 26...Bxg5, taking full advantage of the weak back rank – 27.Bxd8 Bxd8 28.Qxe6 Qxe6 29.Rxe6 Be7 30.Nxd5 Bxd5 31.Rxd7 Nf7 32.Rd7 Nc5 33.Rexe7 Nxd7 34.Rxd7 and Black is helpless:


That all proved for nothing, though, since with two seconds remaining on his clock Grischuk went for 26…Rc8. He admitted the move was “like resigning”, but strangely it may have been the saving move! Ding Liren, who still had six minutes, said he was “totally surprised”, and he failed to find a much simpler combination based on the back rank.

The Chinese no. 1 correctly went for 27.Nxe6+ Kg8 but then missed the killer blow:


28.Nd8! would end the game on the spot, with the threat of 29.Qe8+ Qxe8 30.Rxe8# impossible to parry without losing far too much material. 28.Nxd5 spoilt nothing yet, even if the introduction of the bishop into the game after 28…Bxd5 perhaps complicates the win after 29.Nd8! slightly (still, it’s mate-in-14!).

Objectively Ding Liren’s 29.Nf4?! still left him with an easily winning position, but Grischuk’s spirits had lifted:

I already was happy there was no Nd8. It’s also a brilliant loss after this - not only you lose, but in a brilliant style!

He was still thinking of resigning until he found 29…Nc1!, when Black was beginning to have real counterplay, while Liren also found himself down to his last minute. 

Ding Liren plays 31.Nxd5 - after 31...Nf7 his 32.Qe2 gave away much of his advantage | photo: Niki Riga

Mistakes were made in the run-up to the time control, with Grischuk admitting that he got excited about 38…Nxh3+ (forgetting for a moment that after 39.Kh2 Qxe4 White could take with the bishop instead of the rook) and therefore missing that 38…Ned3 would have solved all his problems:

Grischuk makes the time control with 40...Rxc6, but it looked like he would still lose the game | photo: Niki Riga

Instead it seemed as though White was going to win anyway, until move 42:


Grischuk commented:

I’m lost again. I thought after 42.Bc3 there is no hope - White will just win slowly.

Instead of working to pin Black down completely (43.Rd5 next), however, Ding here went for 42.Bxe5?! Nxe5 and Grischuk was gradually able to activate his pieces and set up a defence:

Basically what happened in the game is my dream. I don’t think Black can get anything better than this.

Eventually the black b-pawn queened to force a drawn ending, with Grischuk explaining why he played 75…Nc3 (and not Svidler’s suggestion of 75…Nd2 to leave the bishop with more than five squares):


Simple math – the rook can control two of those squares and the king two, so one will be empty!

It was an extraordinary escape that means that it’s Grischuk not Ding Liren who goes into the final three rounds of the Candidates Tournament with a realistic chance of qualifying for a match against Magnus Carlsen. 

Ding Liren would need a miracle to win the Candidates now, but he's shown he can operate at the top level | photo: Niki Riga

Liren, of course, is still on course for 14 draws in 14. When Grischuk was asked if he’d thought about that before the game he answered in the negative, before ending the press conference on a high by adding, “Because there is only one Giri in the world!”

Replay it in full:

So the standings with just three rounds of the 2018 Candidates Tournament to go are as follows:


Let’s look at the games ahead for the four players who look like realistic contenders for overall victory:

FABIANO CARUANA (7/11)


 SHAKHRIYAR MAMEDYAROV (6.5/11)


SERGEY KARJAKIN (6/11)


ALEXANDER GRISCHUK (6/11)


As you can see, you can make cases for all of them. Grischuk still faces the top two, Karjakin, Mamedyarov and Grischuk have two games with White, while after his comeback Karjakin would have the best "most wins" tiebreak if he tied for first (though on head-to-head he would finish behind Mamedyarov).

Karjakin-Caruana, a replay of the final game of the 2016 Candidates, is a huge clash now in Round 12, though this time Fabiano doesn’t need to play for a win. Players who will be playing for a win are Grischuk and Mamedyarov, as they take on Aronian and Ding Liren with the white pieces. Don't miss all the action live here on chess24!

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