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Reports Mar 13, 2018 | 11:41 AMby Colin McGourty

Berlin Candidates 3: A Kramnik immortal

Levon Aronian sprung a huge surprise in Round 3 of the Berlin Candidates by playing 1.e4, only to fall into some lethal preparation that Vladimir Kramnik had been waiting two years to unleash. Peter Svidler, who analyses the game for us, felt Levon was on the road to disaster by move 9, and by move 18 it was all about Kramnik finding the most Morphy-esque finish. Vlad is the sole leader after Karjakin-Grischuk and So-Ding Liren were quiet draws, while Caruana-Mamedyarov was a Najdorf thriller that also ended peacefully.

42-year-old Vladimir Kramnik is still producing masterpieces | photo: FIDE

Replay all the games 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:

Peter Svidler joined Jan Gustafsson for commentary on Round 3, and you can rewatch it all below:

We can’t start anywhere but…

Aronian 0-1 Kramnik: The Berlin immortal

Alexander Grischuk described this game as, “one of the best games I have ever seen” and “amazing from start to finish”. If you haven’t watched it yet, check out Peter Svidler’s analysis below:

Seldom has the opening of a chess game been more remarkable and, as Svidler says, you have to start from move one. The pianist Francesco Tristano made the opening move, choosing 1.e4. The expectation was that Levon would take that move back and play 1.d4, 1.c4 or another of his regular openings, but no, he let it stand!

To gauge the magnitude of that surprise you can 1) go to the game on chess24, 2) return to the starting position, 3) click the Database tab under the board, 4) type “Aronian” in the “Search a player” field and click “Aronian, Levon”, 5) choose “Colour” and pick “White”, 6) then the magic bit, click “As Opening Tree” and you now see a specialised opening tree of Levon’s games:

As you can see, 1.e4 is Levon’s 4th most popular choice, but he hasn’t played it since a London Classic game against Mickey Adams in December 2016, while he only played a handful of games with 1.e4 in that year. (Correction: as Eyal01 points out in the comments below, Aronian also played the move against Adams a few months later in the Sharjah Grand Prix.) Feel free to make the move 1.e4 on the board and check out the games from the Database tab (click a game to open it in the notation above).

One of the few comparable shocks came in Game 2 of the 2008 World Championship match in Bonn, when Vishy Anand shocked Vladimir Kramnik by switching the other way from his usual 1.e4 to 1.d4, rendering huge swathes of Kramnik’s match preparation useless. That’s looked back upon as a cunning decision that played a huge role in Vishy winning the match, and Levon was maybe hoping to pull off something similar in Berlin. He may still, but the 1.e4 launch party soon turned into a train wreck, with Bobby Fischer’s best-by-test move coming in for rare criticism:

Kramnik had faced the Berlin Defence in his own previous game with White, but now played it from the side he’s more used to, with Black. As Svidler remarked, “Kramnik is an interesting person to start your Berlin refutation days on”. The Armenian didn’t go for the endgame, but the 4.d3 Anti-Berlin, though if he had some brilliant idea up his sleeve he never got to show it. 6…Qe7 seems to have knocked him off track, while 7.h3?! saw Kramnik pause only for dramatic effect before unleashing 7…Rg8!

The idea behind it wasn’t exactly subtle…

…but just imagine the shock value:

That wasn’t fair to Anish, who pointed out he’s tried this approach himself with White:

Svidler commented on Kramnik choosing Giri as a second:   

My original reaction was shock, and then it kind of made sense. I think stylistically they should work well together.

This was evidence for that, since the move in Berlin wasn’t an idea cooked up by Giri but one Kramnik had come up with a couple of years ago and was hoping to use against a 1.e4 player like Vishy Anand or Magnus Carlsen. He explained:

I always considered 7.h3 as a very serious move and actually spent a long time analysing it, and it was not so easy, but then a couple of years ago I found this very strong resource 7…Rg8. I think it’s just a killer! Black’s just better probably after 7…Rg8, and I was waiting for my moment to use it, and of course it came at a most unexpected moment: in the Candidates, against Levon, who doesn’t play 1.e4. But 7…Rg8 is a very strong move, because g5 is a big threat, in fact. The computer doesn’t show it at the beginning, but then once you put it in he starts to like it a lot.

Kramnik said he couldn’t remember what to do after 8.Kh1 Nh5, but he never put a foot wrong in what followed, correctly rejecting a queen exchange and finishing things off to perfection. At the opening press conference he’d been asked if we’d see him playing strictly for tournament victory or he’d let his artistic side shine through, and he responded:

I wish it will be a Kramnik who wants to win the Candidates and who is trying his best pragmatically to do it, but most likely it will be the artist!

In the end, as you can see in Svidler’s analysis above, he managed to combine the two to make an instant classic, even if Levon didn’t quite oblige by allowing the most beautiful conclusion to the game:

The perfectly calculated finish is perhaps what lifts the game onto another level, even if Kramnik himself was downplaying his achievement:

Frankly the game was flashy, but it was not extremely difficult. It was just too bad, White’s position. This kind of thing when from one side it’s beautiful, maybe it will be published in many magazines and books, but in reality it was not an incredible achievement.

Others reset the balance:

Watch the players themselves in the post-game press conference:

A second win in three games is a perfect start for Kramnik, who has White against another key rival, Fabiano Caruana, in Round 4. A win there and even with ten rounds to go you could start talking about a very real chance of a Carlsen-Kramnik World Championship match:

For Aronian, meanwhile, it was a bitter blow, and it will be hard to chase away thoughts of his previous Candidates Tournament disappointments. On the other hand, most of those disappointments have featured late collapses, while Levon has talked about himself in the past as a player like Mikhail Tal, who often needs an early loss to inspire him to play better in subsequent rounds. For instance, when he lost in Round 1 of the 2014 Candidates to Vishy Anand he then went on to win three of the following six games and end the first half of the tournament in the lead with Vishy – three losses and no wins would follow in the second half.

Taking on the Berlin mastermind in Berlin proved a bad idea for Levon Aronian | photo: FIDE

So ½-½ Ding Liren: Stopping the bleeding

Wesley So is the one player in a worse situation than Aronian at this stage, but at least he’s now on the scoreboard, after an uneventful Marshall against Ding Liren. The Chinese player followed a Maxim Matlakov novelty from the recent Aeroflot Open (18…Rfd8), though he said he’d come up with it himself some time ago, while So’s 20.h4 appears to be the first new move. 

Wesley So is off the mark in Berlin | photo: FIDE

The game ended the way Marshall Gambit games are traditionally expected to – Black’ s activity and bishop pair comfortably compensated for White’s extra pawn, and a draw was agreed on move 37. Wesley admitted afterwards that it was hard to motivate himself to take risks:

After my first two losses it’s quite difficult to have the mindset for an all-out game, and I have to take what I can.

He commented earlier on his start:

I’m not sure why I played very bad. There’s a lot more pressure here in this tournament than in others - also I really badly wanted to win this tournament, as second place is worth peanuts.

Karjakin ½-½ Grischuk: Nothing to see here

The last all-Russian clash for a while | photo: FIDE

Alexander Grischuk was full of praise for Aronian-Kramnik and Caruana-Mamedyarov, and concluded, “I don’t think we should even speak about our game!” Karjakin came prepared with an idea in the Italian Game (Giuoco Piano), but all it seemed to give him was a slightly worse position:

Here White is even at risk of ending up seriously worse, but 18.d4! led more or less by force to a position that soon fizzled out into a draw.  

The interest in the press conference was elsewhere, with Grischuk saying it makes no difference for him if he’s playing a Russian opponent or not, while Karjakin had the opposite view, pointing out that as he’s worked and discussed things with Grischuk and Kramnik it’s much more difficult for him to surprise them. He also revealed that Vladimir Potkin is now working not with him but with Grischuk, meaning we now know two of Grischuk’s seconds – the other is Vlad Tkachiev. Peter Svidler explained on the live show that he’s not in that camp - he offered to help out if needed, but Alexander is yet to “phone a friend”.

The other curiosity was a continuation of the chess watergate… Karjakin commented on the situation with the toilets at the venue:

As I said, now we have water, but at the same time, the water is very strange. It’s not normal water - seriously, it’s like water with some soap. I’m not risking to (indicates splashing his face with water).

Caruana ½-½ Mamedyarov: Najdorf adventures

It has often seemed as though Caruana has a built-in computer! | photo: FIDE

If those games were instantly forgettable the final game to finish was an absolute thriller, with both players demonstrating ambition, calculation and resilience under pressure. Shakhriyar Mamedyarov went for the Najdorf Sicilian, Fabiano Caruana chose the 6.f3 variation and then with 9…Nbd7 Shak deviated from games Caruana had played before, going instead for lines that were popular a decade ago. In fact, by the time 13.Nd5 was on the board (Caruana later said, “I don’t know why I played Nd5”) the highest rated predecessor game was Svidler 1-0 Ponomariov from the 2006 MTel Masters in Sofia:

Caruana said he was struggling with each move as he’d only chosen this line at the board and hadn’t looked at it for four years. Mamedyarov went on a pawn grabbing escapade with his queen, but allowed the white queen and knight to penetrate his own position. This was a critical moment:

World no. 2 Shakhriyar Mamedyarov | photo: FIDE

Caruana was in time trouble at this point and Mamedyarov thought that he had good winning chances, since he could pick up another pawn with 27…bxa4, only to then spot that it would be a horrible blunder: 28.Qe7! Qb5 is good for Black, if not for…

…29.Qxf6!! gxf6 30.Nf7#

Shak commented:

I want to play this line and I want to miss mate-in-1, but when I saw this I was happy with a draw!

In fact it seems that after 27…Nxe4 28.fxe4 Rf8 in the game 29.Rde1! would have given White good winning chances, either getting the same as he got in the game without losing the e4-pawn or perhaps getting more after 29…Qh5 30.Ne6!. Instead after 29.Nf7+ Caruana was happy just to survive time trouble, but he had no illusions whatsoever about the position that followed:

If White’s surviving it’s by a tempo!

In the end Fabiano was happy to see 46…Kg7, even though that was probably objectively the strongest move:

After 46…Kh6 Caruana feared he’d have to start a pawn race with 47.b4, which he was scared to do with little time on his clock, while after the move in the game he saw a way to liquidate to a drawn ending: 47.Qxf5 gxf5 48.c4! Bg3! (an only move) 49.Rg1! (also an only move) and after 49…h4 the players agreed a draw, both having seen that after 50.Kc2 the kings are just in time to stop the pawns.

Watch the post-game press conference:

Of course that’s another mindboggling Caruana game that requires much more serious analysis to comprehend what was really going on, though it seems both players are in good form in Berlin:

The only worrying sign for Fabi fans, though, is his time management, which could easily become a liability.

That means that after three rounds of the Candidates Tournament we now have a sole leader:

We also have the first rest day, though it’s doubtful how much rest the players will get. Kramnik was asked how he’d spend the day and, in an anti-advert for the career of a modern chess professional, responded:

The same manner as any other day, repeating my notes.

For chess fans, meanwhile, there’s going to be no better way to spend it than playing or watching Banter Blitz with our commentary team of Peter Svidler and Jan Gustafsson! 

The action starts at the same time the games in Berlin usually begin: 

Then on Wednesday the battle will resume in Berlin, with Kramnik-Caruana the stand-out encounter, while Mamedyarov-So might see Shak himself make a bid to take the lead in the tournament. Grischuk-Ding Liren and Karjakin-Aronian are the other games. As always you can watch live here on chess24!

See also:

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