Reports Sep 17, 2014 | 7:10 AMby Colin McGourty

Bilbao Masters 3: Ponomariov shows he can play

Ruslan Ponomariov put two losses behind him to beat Paco Vallejo with a sparkling combination in Round 3 of the Bilbao Masters. Afterwards the Ukrainian commented that he “wanted to show my friends and people that support me here that I can play”. 

The heavyweight clash between Vishy Anand and Levon Aronian was a tense draw in a Ruy Lopez variation that’s the height of fashion among the world elite. Vishy is no longer on course for a Caruana-like winning streak, but remains in control going into the rest day.

Freshmen Media captured the atmosphere perfectly as the players came to compete in Round 3:

Ponomariov 1-0 Vallejo: One slip, one loss

Top-level chess can be an excruciatingly painful game. In Round 2 a single bad move turned the tables in Vallejo’s game against Anand, and in Round 3 history repeated itself. 

The "local" Ukrainian is finally off the mark! | photo: Manu de Alba

This time, however, the crucial mistake came as early as move 11 in a razor-sharp Sicilian. The Ukrainian former World Champion went on to exploit his advantage flawlessly and extend his lifetime score against Vallejo to 9 wins, 3 draws and 1 loss. Most of that “damage”, however, was done back in 2002/3, when Ponomariov was yet to turn 20 but was already World Champion. 

Spanish IM David Martínez analyses the spectacular game:

1. e4 c5 2. ♘f3 d6 3. d4 cxd4 4. ♘xd4 ♘f6 5. ♘c3 a6 6. h3 e6 7. g4 ♗e7 8. ♗g2 ♘fd7 9. ♘ce2 An idea that's rare in this system, but as Ponomariov pointed out after the game, common in similar positions of the Paulsen - with the white pawn still on g3!

9... ♘c6 10. c3 Continuing the previous idea. Ruslan aims to establish a very solid centre in order to be able to push his pawns on the kingside later on.

10... h5 And Paco, in his dynamic style, fights directly against White's plan. The move is natural, but as Ponomariov goes on to demonstrate, the delayed development can prove very costly. Paco had various interesting ways he could have continued, such as:

10... ♘ce5 11. 0-0 g5 , securing the e5-square.

11. gxh5 ♖xh5? The genuine error, since the sequence that follows is forced, although the position already strikes me as a little better for White, who can hold on to his h5-pawn. Of course any other move would have left the game wide open.

12. ♘xc6 bxc6 13. ♘d4 ♖c5 14. b4! ♖xc3

14... ♖c4 was a way to give up the exchange. 15. ♗f1 ♖xd4 (15... ♖xc3 loses now to 16. ♗b2 and there's no square for the rook.) 16. cxd4 d5 17. exd5 ♘f6 A nice way to bring out the pieces. After 18. ♗g2 ♗xb4+ 19. ♗d2 ♗xd2+ 20. ♕xd2 cxd5 Black would have a pawn for the exchange and it wouldn't be easy to break down his position, but the white edge is appreciable and Paco wanted to avoid giving this type of technical advantage to a player like Ponomariov.

15. ♗b2 ♖c4 16. ♘xe6! The key to the whole combination and the reason why the plan of 10...h5 followed by 11...Rxh5 is flawed.

Whaddya gonna do? | photo: Bilbao Masters

16... ♕b6

16... fxe6 leads to a quick mate: 17. ♕h5+ ♔f8 18. ♕h8+ ♔f7 19. ♕xg7+ ♔e8 20. ♕g6+ ♔f8 21. ♗g7+ ♔g8 22. ♗h6+ ♔h8 23. ♕g7#

17. ♘xg7+ ♔f8 18. 0-0 Black's position is very difficult since he has absolutely nothing in return for the awful position of his king - in fact, he's even temporarily down a pawn!

18... ♘e5 19. ♘h5 ♕xb4 20. ♖b1 ♕c5 21. ♔h1 Preparing f4.

21... ♘g6 22. ♘f6 ♖b8

22... ♖c3 Aronian's suggestion after his own game in the press conference. The refutation is pretty: 23. ♗xc3 ♕xc3 24. ♘d5! and 24... cxd5 would be met by 25. ♕xd5 ♖a7 26. ♖fc1 capturing on c8. A rule of thumb is that pieces that are discoordinated also tend to be weak - and provide targets for your opponent's pieces.

23. ♕d2 Missing a very aesthetic finish, but the position is still desperate for Black.

23. ♗c1! ♖xc1 (23... ♖xb1 24. ♗h6# Not the most common of mating nets!) 24. ♘d7+! ♗xd7 25. ♖xb8+ ♔g7 26. ♕xc1 Winning.

23... ♗xf6 24. ♗xf6 This bishop is a nightmare for Black, who has no way to eliminate it.

24... ♖b5 25. ♖bd1 d5 26. ♕h6+ ♔e8 27. exd5 The position opens up, meaning the end is nigh for the black king.

27... cxd5 28. ♖fe1+ ♔d7 29. ♕g7 ♕f8 30. ♗xd5 ♖xd5 31. ♖xd5+ ♔c7 32. ♗e5+ ♔c6 33. ♕xf8 And Vallejo resigned. A game decided right in the opening, since after snatching the initiative Ruslan never gave the black king the slightest opportunity to find a safe haven.


After the game Ponomariov talked about his frustration at his poor start, the moment he realised Paco had blundered and his football plans for the rest day:

Anand 1/2-1/2 Aronian: Not quite following in Fabiano’s footsteps

Until move 11 former World Champion Anand was following Caruana’s play from his win against Aronian in Round 4 of the recent tournament in St. Louis – an encounter where Aronian was slowly put to the sword after ending up in a totally passive position. Peter Svidler, who analysed that game brilliantly for chess24, commented: “We have courtside seats for a Fabiano clinic on how to exploit this advantage”.

Real Sociedad footballer Esteban Granero started things off | photo: Bilbao Masters

Anand was the first to deviate in Bilbao, but although he managed to ratchet up the tension there was no repeat of events in St. Louis. The Armenian no. 1 sacrificed a pawn for active defence and managed both to hold the draw and hold on to his no. 3 spot on the live rating list.

We take a look at the game, including the players' own analysis from the post-game press conference:

1. e4 e5 2. ♘f3 ♘c6 3. ♗b5 Two specialists face to face. Vishy has scored great wins in the Ruy Lopez but Aronian is also known for his mastery of various lines.

3... a6 4. ♗a4 ♘f6 5. 0-0 ♗e7 6. d3 The more closed options, once considered secondary, have for years now been considered just as critical as the old main lines - above all in order to avoid the Marshall.

6... b5 7. ♗b3 0-0 8. ♘c3 One of the many paths in the Ruy Lopez. Anand is retracing the steps of Caruana, who beat Levon here a couple of weeks ago in St. Louis.

8... d6 9. a3 ♘a5 10. ♗a2 ♗e6 11. b4 Deviating from the game mentioned. Anand felt Aronian had various ways of improving on his play on that occasion.

11. ♗xe6 fxe6 12. b4 ♘c6 was seen in Caruana - Aronian, Saint Louis 2014. I'm not going to go into any more detail here since you can enjoy it with the wonderful analysis of Peter Svidler.

11... ♗xa2 12. ♖xa2 ♘c6 13. ♗g5 This was Vishy's idea. Curiously, the manoeuvre Bg5 followed by Bxf6 is considered the "hallmark" of Magnus. After playing through so many of his games something has stuck!

13... ♕d7 14. ♗xf6 It was also possible to delay the exchange and play

14. ♕b1 , in order to play a4, or

14. ♕d2 , awaiting developments.

14... ♗xf6 15. ♘d5 ♗d8 16. a4 Anand begins to apply pressure to the queenside. Levon has to reply with precision in order not to end up worse.

16... ♘e7

16... ♖b8 allows White the additional option after 17. axb5 axb5 of 18. c4 , exploiting the fact that it's not possible to capture on b4. (18. c3 ♘e7 19. ♘e3 transposes to the game after 19. c3.)

a) 18... bxc4 is met by the nice trick 19. ♕a4! and if 19... cxd3 there's 20. ♖c1 , winning the knight.

b) 18... ♘d4 19. ♘xd4 exd4 20. ♖a7 is very good for White since Black can't easily relieve the pressure. Anand and Aronian showed the following variations in the press conference: 20... bxc4 (20... ♕c8? 21. ♖xc7! ) 21. dxc4 ♕e6 22. b5! (22. ♕xd4? runs into 22... c6 and Bb6.) 22... ♕xe4 23. ♖e1 ♕h4 24. g3 and White will capture on d4 with a dominant position.

c) 18... ♘e7 19. ♕b3 (19. ♖a7 is no longer possible due to 19... bxc4 20. dxc4 ♘xd5 21. ♕xd5 ♖xb4 ) 19... bxc4 20. ♘xe7+ (20. dxc4 ♘xd5 21. exd5 f5 and Black is even better.) 20... ♗xe7 21. ♕xc4 With equality.

17. ♘e3 ♖b8 18. axb5 axb5 19. c3 ♕e6

19... c6 , in order to play Bb6, was also an interesting possibility. As we'll see, Levon has a very direct idea.

20. ♕b1 "I wanted my queen to be able to get to b3 without blocking the rooks, since I also wanted to occupy the d-file with my rooks." - Anand

20. ♕c2 is the most natural move, but after 20... c6 21. d4 ♗b6 you can see what Vishy disliked. With the bishop on b6 the white rooks have no points of entry on the a-file.

20... d5 The rhythm of the game changes.

20... f5 is met by 21. ♘g5 ♕g6 22. ♕b3+ ♔h8 23. ♘e6 ♖f6 24. ♖fa1! ♖xe6 25. ♖a8 and Black has no way to deal with the mess on the back rank.

21. exd5

21. d4 dxe4 22. ♘g5 (22. ♕xe4 isn't an option due to 22... ♕xa2 ) 22... ♕g6 23. ♘xe4 exd4 24. cxd4 ♖e8 and Black once more has everything under control.

21. ♖e1 c6 and Black will once more locate his bishop on b6.

21... ♘xd5 22. ♘xd5 ♕xd5 23. ♖e1 ♗f6 24. ♖ae2 White has finally managed to put pressure on the e-pawn. Aronian, however, has correctly judged that he can sacrifice that pawn in exchange for good compensation.

24... c5! 25. ♘xe5 cxb4 26. ♕xb4 Anand heads straight for the draw.

26. cxb4 holds on to the pawn, but both players agreed in the press conference that Black has no problems since the d-pawn is weak and Black's bishop is good. Play might continue 26... g6 (26... h5 was the idea pointed out by Vishy, taking away all the good squares from the knight. 27. ♖e4 ♖a8 28. d4 ♖a4 and Black shouldn't suffer.) 27. ♖e4 ♖fd8 28. d4 ♗g7 and White has no way to make progress.

26... ♗xe5 27. ♖xe5 ♕xd3 28. h3 h6 29. ♖1e3 ♕d1+ 30. ♖e1 ♕a4 31. ♖b1 ♕xb4 32. ♖xb4 ♖fc8 33. ♖bxb5 ♖xb5 34. ♖xb5 ♖xc3 An interesting strategic game in which Aronian managed to defuse White's pressure with some precise play.


Current world nos. 3 and 4 Anand and Aronian discuss their game | photo: Bilbao Masters

So at the half-way stage in Bilbao Vishy Anand continues to lead, though Ruslan Ponomariov has now leapfrogged Paco Vallejo into third place:

1.Anand, Viswanathan278573017
2.Aronian, Levon280452863
3.Ponomariov, Ruslan271732642
4.Vallejo Pons, Francisco271212495

Wednesday is a rest day, with the second half of the Bilbao Masters commencing at 15:00 on Thursday 18 September, when Ponomariov and Anand have the white pieces against Aronian and Vallejo. You can again watch the action live here on chess24 with computer analysis and commentary by Jan Gustafsson and Lawrence Trent! (Round 3 can be replayed here)

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