Reports Mar 19, 2018 | 7:53 AMby Colin McGourty

Berlin Candidates 7: Caruana beats Aronian to lead

Fabiano Caruana leads the chase to become Magnus Carlsen’s next challenger after ending the first half of the Berlin Candidates by landing a knockout blow against Levon Aronian. Wesley So is keeping Levon company in last place after Sergey Karjakin fashioned a win out of nowhere to move above them, while the other two games were drawn. Shakhriyar Mamedyarov never left his preparation against Alexander Grischuk, while Kramnik-Ding Liren was a missed chance for both players, at least if you believe Big Vlad!

Aronian-Caruana was a heavyweight struggle between two pre-tournament favourites | photo: Niki Riga

Replay all the Berlin Candidates games so far using the selector below. Click on a result to open the game with computer analysis or hover over a player’s name to see all his results and pairings:

Jan and Peter were once more tested to the bitter end by Vladimir Kramnik, but they were up to the challenge:

Caruana 1-0 Aronian: Good fighting chess

Lev's next move would set the board on fire | photo: Niki Riga

Levon Aronian’s World Championship dreams once again lie in tatters after he lost a third game in Berlin on Sunday, with questions raised about the Armenian’s ability to function under extreme pressure:

He wasn’t happy to hear people trying to get into his head afterwards:

Nothing’s really affecting me - I’m not 12 years old! I’ve been losing games before and having disastrous tournaments. I just try to play, try to fight. Probably I’m not in the best shape to do so because the results probably suggest that, but I can’t really change my nature. I’m going to try and win a game despite not really playing my best chess. I hope to bring the luck back.

The game saw Fabiano play the Vienna Variation where 1.d4 Nf6 2.c4 e6 3.Nf3 d5 4.Nc3 is met by 4…dxc4. As Jan Gustafsson explains in his chess24 video series on The Vienna, “It puts a lot of pressure on White because in order to fight for an opening advantage he has to enter very sharp lines, often sacrificing some pawns”. Levon has never had a problem with that, and had already sacrificed one pawn when he unleashed the shocking 16.g4!?

It was never clarified in the post-game press conference whether this was a home-brewed idea or not, but it certainly got Fabiano’s attention:

Levon played a very interesting move. I had checked various moves in this position, but g4 was a complete surprise, and at first I couldn’t believe that White would have enough compensation, but it wasn’t easy to find a way to consolidate after.

Who better than Peter Svidler to take us through the mayhem that ensued:

The last moves of the game were played in mutual time trouble, but the positions had been so complex that even after the game, knowing the evaluation, the players struggled to find the moves. It had been a typical game for Caruana’s tournament, and he commented:

Overall I’m happy with my play so far. The games have been tough with a lot of mistakes, but despite the mistakes I’ve played good fighting chess and I feel like I’m in good form, so I approach the second half with confidence, although I don’t think it will be easy.

He’s now on +3, a score that might well be enough to win the event if he could maintain it, but Fabiano pointed out that Kramnik had gone into the final round of the 2013 Candidates in London on +4 but still feeling he had to win with Black to finish above Carlsen (both players ended up losing so that +3 turned out to be enough after all).

Mixed fortunes in Berlin

Levon was left 2.5 points behind his opponent in last place and described it as one of his worst tournaments, but he still managed to maintain his humour in the press conference. Asked if he’d been annoyed by a spectator taking a photo with a mobile phone during time trouble, he responded:

When you play badly then your play is affected by everything, but when you play well it’s not!

The agony and the ecstasy in one press conference | photo: Niki Riga

Watch the post-game press conference:

Grischuk ½-½ Mamedyarov: Chess is not my life

Job done for Mamedyarov and his team | photo: Niki Riga

Fabiano is now the sole leader after Shakhriyar Mamedyarov could only draw, but Shak was more than happy to score that effortless draw with the black pieces. The omens were bad for Alexander right from the start:

Mamedyarov sprung a small surprise with 5…h6 rather than 5…Nbd7, as he’d played in all his previous games, and though Alexander Grischuk’s 6.Bh4 might be considered a surprise in return at no point in what followed did Shak need to start thinking for himself. By the end of the game Grischuk had spent 50 minutes to his opponent’s 5, with Black forcing a repetition by attacking the weak pawns on g3 and c3:

Grischuk wasn’t thrilled:

Of course with White you don’t want to make such draws. It’s not the draw itself, but when your opponent spends zero time for the game it’s always disappointing.

Grischuk was again on form in the post-game press conference, answering a question on how long he’d prepared for the game with, “for my whole life!” He provided two comparisons for why it’s strange to ask chess players to assess how things are going during an event:

I cannot do it – it’s like asking a boxer to make conclusions after Round 3 of the fight, Round 4. You can only do it after somebody’s knocked out, or Round 12. It’s also like in war. The separate battles don’t matter too much - it’s the result of the whole war.

And on motivation for the event:

I try to convince myself before any tournament that it’s my most important tournament, but of course before this tournament it’s somewhat easier to do than usual… I played too much chess last year and actually I was even quite upset when I qualified! I thought I had to play one more tournament, but then this feeling disappeared, and of course it’s always very interesting to play this Candidates.

An enjoyable press conference with Mamedyarov, Grischuk and Anastasia Karlovich | photo: Niki Riga

Mamedyarov, meanwhile, has been trying to downplay the importance of the event:

When I played the first time in a Candidates Tournament it was the knockout system, and I played against Gelfand, and I go to rent some big villa, only chess for six months, and I played against Gelfand four games and I couldn’t give him one check! I play a match without check… I think it’s much better if I don’t think it’s the most important tournament in my life. I think it’s a supertournament, a very, very strong tournament, but not my life tournament. Maybe in the future I will think not like it, but now I think it’s not my life tournament. Also chess is not my life! I like everything. If I play good it is very good, if I play bad it is ok. I will play the next tournament.

How easy will it be for Mamedyarov to maintain that attitude, though, if he finds himself still in contention going into the final rounds?

Replay the post-game press conference:

Karjakin 1-0 So: Out of nowhere

Both players specialise in technical positions, but this was to be Karjakin's day | photo: Niki Riga

Wesley So’s recovery lasted just one game, as Sergey Karjakin climbed out of the basement with a remarkable win in Round 7. The strange events began in the opening, a Nimzo-Indian where Karjakin’s 6.Bd2 seemed to catch Wesley off-guard, but then after 6…c5 7.a3 Sergey was knocked out of his preparation by 7…cxd4!? rather than 7…Bxc3. White soon had a highly promising endgame, but he didn’t know what to do, and after letting the chance to play Ne5 slip on moves 12 and 13 he soon found all his advantage had gone:

“I’m not happy with how I played in the opening,” commented Karjakin, but soon it was his opponent’s turn to play inaccurately. The equalising 21…Bb5! was missed, and then when the position had simplified to the point when it seemed it had to end in a draw both our commentary team and Karjakin felt Wesley made a serious mistake on move 26:

26…Rb6!, keeping the rook active, was the practical decision, while after 26…Re8?! “it’s already much easier to play with White” (Karjakin). Sergey began to squeeze his opponent, until the decisive mistake finally came on move 35:

The position is suddenly critical, with dual threats of Rf2, winning the knight, or the king advancing to trap the rook. It turns out only 35…Rc7!, leaving the option of meeting 36.Rf2 with 36…Rf7 could hold the balance, while after 35…Ke8 36.Kb6 the only thing stopping Kb7 winning the rook next move is that Black still has Kd7, since the f3-knight covers the d2-square and stops a check from the white rook. That was too fragile a setup to last, though, and after 36…g5 37.h3 Wesley gave up his knight for the e5-pawn with 37…Nxe5 to at least pose his opponent some practical problems.

Wesley's loss cancelled out the fine win over Aronian the day before | photo: Niki Riga

Alas, that failed since Wesley then compounded a very bad day at the office by losing on time as he tried to make his 40th move:

I kind of forgot that I had to make one more move before move 40, because Sergey’s clock already added 50 minutes.

It meant that Karjakin had scored the “one win in a row” he was hoping for to kickstart his tournament, as he climbed out of last place and above So and Aronian. He commented, “I was very unlucky in some previous games, so finally the luck came to my side”. In a tweet he put it down to voting for Vladimir Putin earlier in the day and wished there was an election every day:

Replay the post-game press conference:

Kramnik ½-½ Ding Liren: “Nice wins, painful losses – good, it’s life, emotions!”

It turns out Kramnik's passed pawns don't always queen after all | photo: Niki Riga

Vladimir Kramnik continues to be the bane of commentators everywhere, as he insists on playing on seemingly in any position. The surprise of his Round 7 press conference was perhaps that he was willing to admit that he’d spoilt a promising opening position by committing the “terrible blunder” of allowing 19…d5!

After 20.exd5 Rxe1 21.Rxe1 he confessed that he was very worried about 21…Bf5 22.Qd1 Nd3. Instead Ding Liren went for a different line that allowed Kramnik to give up his queen:

25.Qxc1 Nxc1 26.Rxc1 Ne4 27.Nf1 (an idea Ding Liren said he’d missed when going for this) 27…Bxd4 (27…Bd7!! turns out to be a refutation of White's play, but a very difficult one to spot) 28.Nxd4 Qb6 29.Bxe4! (also missed by Ding) 29…dxe4 30.Nxf5 gxf5 31.a4 Qe6:

The game has been turned on its head, and suddenly it’s only White who has any winning chances at all, but from this point onwards Kramnik’s assessment of the ensuing positions seems to diverge drastically from reality. He commented:

After 31.a4 I think it’s just basically lost for Black. It was so stupid to manage not to win this position.

Kramnik played 32.Ne3, allowing 32…Qxb3, and lamented:

It was stupid to give this b3-pawn. I was somehow overexcited about how things went from not great to so good, and I just thought it was already kind of gone. 32.Rc3 or 32.Rc4 and no chance for Black….

Kramnik continues the fight after the other warriors have left the stage | photo: Niki Riga

It wasn’t that simple, though, with Ding Liren quietly insisting that after 32.Rc4 he was planning 32…h5!, and White isn’t better. Kramnik backtracked to 32.Rc3, but even there 32…h5 and then a well-timed f4 seems likely to hold for Black. The evaluation certainly wasn’t Kramnik’s, “Black has absolutely no counterplay – not a chance for a perpetual. The b-pawn promotes”.

Kramnik’s conviction that he’d let a win slip meant that things just got weirder from there on out, and not only in the chess24 commentary…

Kramnik kept playing and playing, with Svidler concluding:

I honestly no longer really believe this can be described as trying to win... He is making moves because pieces still have squares they can be placed on.

On the other hand, it was a testimony to the resources that it’s possible to rustle up in the quietest of positions. Kramnik even got to set a trap with 63.Rg7:

Ding Liren hadn’t seen this in advance and described himself as “lucky” to have 63…f5, when if anything he was better, but even if he fell into the trap with 63…Qxh6 64.Re7+ Kxe7 65.Nf5+ it turns out the position is still a draw!

Finally in the game Kramnik did get to promote the h-pawn, but only to enter a queen ending a pawn down in which he had to force the draw by giving perpetual check. Afterwards, despite the questionable evaluations of the position, Vladimir did have the self-awareness to realise that what he’d been doing was potentially reckless:

I was sure that White was not risking anything - I was not sure that I wouldn’t blunder anything!

He realised that as the oldest player it probably wasn’t in his interests to prolong games at this stage and he should be ready simply to take draws, but…

I don’t want to play like this, I want to play serious chess… It was a strange tournament so far. I guess I should have more points, but it’s ok, it’s life. I’m happy with my games. A lot of things are going on, more than in anyone else’s games. I might pay for it in the second half of the tournament as it’s very energy-consuming… Nice wins, painful losses – good, it’s life, emotions!

It was enough to blow your mind…

Replay a memorable press conference:

Ding Liren is level with Kramnik and Grischuk after drawing all his games so far, while at the halfway point of the tournament Caruana is out in front on +3, with only Mamedyarov in close pursuit half a point behind. 

If Caruana can remain steady it’ll require a spectacular second half for the players at the bottom of the table to become Magnus Carlsen’s challenger, but stranger things have happened. We mentioned earlier that Kramnik had been at +4 before the final round in London 2013, which he did after reaching the halfway mark at 50%. Veselin Topalov scored 6.5/7 at the start of the San Luis FIDE World Championship in 2005, while Caruana of course scored 7/7 against a stronger field in the 2014 Sinquefield Cup. On second thoughts, though, that last fact might not help inspire Fabi's pursuers this time round!

The pairings now repeat with colours reversed, with Grischuk-Kramnik, Mamedyarov-Karjakin and So-Caruana having produced wins for Kramnik, Mamedyarov and Caruana in Round 1 of the event. The other pairing on Monday is Ding Liren-Aronian. Join our commentary team live here on chess24!

See also:

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