Reports Sep 15, 2018 | 4:56 PMby Colin McGourty

Chess960 Showdown 4: Svidler the nearly man

On a final day with little intrigue in most of the matches, Peter Svidler came closest – both to beating Hikaru Nakamura, and to getting the chess960 position correct before analysing it for 29 minutes with Garry Kasparov! The former World Champion’s shock when he realised the mistake saw him resign in 15 moves against Veselin Topalov, and though he later scored some memorable wins it was too little too late. MVL and Levon Aronian racked up the biggest wins, with 17.5:8.5 scores over Sam Shankland and Leinier Dominguez.

Svidler-Nakamura was the most exciting match to watch | photo: Lennart Ootes, official website

You can replay all the Champions Showdown Chess960 action using the selector below:

And here’s the final day’s commentary:

Let’s first take a look at the scores, with Veselin Topalov, Hikaru Nakamura, Wesley So, Maxime Vachier-Lagrave and Levon Aronian all winning their matches and $30,000:

Those players had all been leading at the end of the previous day’s play, meaning in many cases the question was just how long it would take them to close out their matches. Let’s take them in order of the speed at which they did it:

1. MVL 17.5 – Shankland 8.5 | Maxime wins with 6 rounds to spare

Maxime Vachier-Lagrave later commented that his three wins in a row on the previous day “virtually meant the match was over”, and added, “today I was just able to play my best.” His best is frightening to behold, and what started as an extremely tight match on the first two days ended in a massacre, with Maxime going on to make it 7 wins in a row before conceding a draw. Watching US star Sam Shankland face MVL at the end was like watching Kevin the Flag face the might of Hurricane Florence…

How the match ended could be summed up by two games. In the first of the day, Maxime pointed out that both players had forgotten that Black could “castle long”, with the b8-rook here jumping over the king to d8:

18…0-0-0! on this move, a few previous moves, or even the next move after 18…c6?! 19.Bxc6 would have given Black a big advantage. The chess960 castling rules can puzzle the best of us though…

…and instead after 19…Bxc6?! 20.Qxc6+ White took over until eventually Maxime won in brilliant style with a piece sacrifice to weave a mating net. He never looked back, winning the next to clinch the match, and getting to have a lot of fun. Sam did eventually grab one win, but that probably won’t have been enough to erase the pain of the previous game, when he allowed a fairly decisive zwischenzug:

Actually he didn’t quite allow it, resigning before 13.Qa8# appeared on the board!

2. Aronian 17.5 – Dominguez 8.5 | Levon won with 5 rounds to spare

Levon was a fountain of chess960 opening ideas | photo: Lennart Ootes, official website

It took Levon one more game to seal victory, but he ended up with the same totally dominant scoreline as Maxime. In fact they’d been working together – Levon explained his victory as follows:

I think I was playing faster, and I think we were managing to find some interesting, surprising ideas with Maxime!

Veselin Topalov would later agree:

He had some touch, some understanding of what to do in the opening - so I was copying him!

Aronian’s winning score could have been even bigger, if he’d been a little more careful in a study-like but not so difficult position:

After 63.Kxh5?? Kc2 it turned out Black was just in time to deal with the white g-pawn. Instead 63.Kh6! and taking the h7-pawn before the h5-pawn is an easy win.

3. So 15.5 – Giri 10.5 | Wesley won with 4 rounds to spare

The results didn’t always entirely reflect what had happened in the games, but this was all about “doing enough”, with Wesley admitting afterwards that he saw he needed to score 2.5/8 to win the match and set out to do just that. He drew the first three games of the day and then sealed the match before the break by scoring a nice attacking win with the black pieces. It did seem, however, to have been a case of “the wrong castles”:

“Short castles” with 16.0-0?!, with the king jumping from c1 to g1, is a visually appealing thing to do, but it was also heading straight into downtown Dodge, and the king soon fell under a mating attack. 16.0-0-0, with the king standing still as the rook jumps over it from b1 to d1, is no panacea, but it gave more chance of prolonging the match.

When Wesley's in form he's one of the world's toughest players to beat | photo: Lennart Ootes, official website

The game ended in four draws, and though it wasn’t quite trash-talk, you could say both players somewhat stereotyped the other in their comments around the match. When Wesley was asked why he’d won he noted, “Some players are very good at research… in chess960 all that preparation went into the wind [and] the more creative unbalanced players have an advantage”. The day before Anish had mentioned he’d done better as the position had been more tactical, implying Wesley was more at home in dry, technical positions.

In any case, Giri’s most notable contribution to the day may have involved Garry Kasparov…

4. Topalov 14.5 – 11.5 Kasparov | Veselin won with 3 rounds to spare

Once again Garry Kasparov and Peter Svidler analysed together when the latest chess960 position was chosen half an hour before the start of the day’s play, but this time disaster struck! Here was the position:

The commentary team immediately identified the position's most interesting feature as being the queen on g1... | photo: Lennart Ootes, official website

And here are our heroes hard at work…

Spot the difference! | photo: Lennart Ootes, official website

Alas, the position they had on the board has the queens and rooks on the f and g-files reversed! Garry told the sorry tale afterwards:

We spent 29 minutes with Peter analysing a different position! And then Giri showed up and said, “Wait a second, guys, are you sure it’s the right position?!” I don’t want to spread blame, but actually Peter looked at the position. It’s my fault, you actually have to just look yourself…

Peter was still crestfallen a day later:

Funnily enough, that’s not even the worst thing to happen while Peter was preparing with a World Champion. Game 8 of the Kramnik-Leko 2004 World Championship match saw Vladimir reel off some super-sharp Marshall Attack theory only for Peter Leko to dig deep and find the hole in the analysis at the board. Svidler has admitted he was far from blameless when it came to checking the idea as part of Team Kramnik, though once again, the player has the final responsibility for what he plays.

That incident could have transformed chess history, but Kramnik managed to win the final game, tie the match and retain his title. In St. Louis the stakes were much, much lower, but it was a blow Kasparov failed to recover from. He lamented:

If I hadn’t looked at all, if I’d come from the hotel straight to the game it would have been better!

In the first game with Black he was so disgusted with his opening play that he resigned on move 15 in a position where it was at least still possible to put up a fight. The second game of the day might have been an even bigger blow to his confidence, except he didn’t know about the win he’d missed until his aide-de-camp Mig Greengard pointed it out later in the day!

Topalov scored a crushing 19-move win in the third game…

…leaving Garry needing to win all five of his remaining games to tie the match. That was a tough ask, even for a man who came back from 0:5 (in wins) against Anatoly Karpov in a World Championship match. To Garry’s credit, however, he did manage to win the next game, so both he and Peter had at least something to play for when they analysed the presumably very carefully checked chess960 position for the final four games - ironically only two pieces were swapped around from the earlier position, but not the two Peter had inadvertently flipped!

Garry’s win on demand featured a very nice combination, even if the subsequent path to conversion was strewn with blunders:

13.Nxf5!! Qxg1 (13...Nxf5 14.Bc4!! Qxg1 15.Be6#) 14.Nxd6+! 14…Nxd6 15.Rxg1

There was no stopping Topalov, however, who sealed victory with an 18-move win with the black pieces in the next game. He was very happy, perhaps especially given he’d been crushed by Hikaru Nakamura in the same event a year ago. Veselin admitted a lot was down to his opponent underperforming, but summed up, “in general I believe I was dominating the match”.

The chessboard humbles even the greatest | photo: Lennart Ootes, official website 

It wasn’t quite over yet, and Garry got to end with a couple of fine consolation victories. Black’s queen was nicely snared in the first…

…before the 13th World Champion felt he saved the best for last:

He began with the exchange sacrifice 14…c4!! and went on to win in style in a game where he noted his opponent didn’t make any real blunder.

5. Nakamura 14 – 12 Svidler | Hikaru won with 2 rounds to spare

Peter Svidler himself fared better after the analysis mix-up, although he did have to fight hard to draw the first game of the day after blundering an exchange in a good position. Like Garry, he missed something huge in the next game…

Yes, the bishop on b8 was there for the taking, but fortunately for Peter’s sanity he went on to win in the end and tie the match score with six games to go. It looked as though at least one match was going to go down to the wire, but then suddenly Hikaru put together a run of four wins in a row to take him over the winning line.

How's your analysis going, guys? | photo: Lennart Ootes, official website

Svidler “did a Garry” and won the final two games as a consolation, meaning that if all the games had been weighted equally the match would have been a tie:

Rapid games were worth two points for a win, though, and Hikaru won the match by two points. When asked later why it had been so close, he explained:

It was a good match, in large part because we both had a lot of experience in Fischer Random. In the other matches there was more of a discrepancy. Some of the players had a lot of experience and the others didn’t, so it seems like our match was the closest.

The fact that the final two rounds of the tournament would decide nothing in any of the matches was a somewhat freak occurrence, but it did provoke discussion about how the format could be improved. One obvious improvement might be to have some kind of knockout format, so that players didn’t only face the same opponent for four days. A USA vs. the World Scheveningen match (each player on one team faces each player on the opposing team) was suggested, while you could also question the wisdom of having multiple rapid or blitz games at the same time:

We’ve often mentioned that Vlad Tkachiev, perhaps the biggest advocate of blitz chess, insists there should only be one game live on a stage at a time.

The other question is the success of chess960. For the players it’s clearly a refreshing change to have new positions with no need to prepare and nothing much at stake in terms of ratings (even if the Universal Rating System plans to include chess960 games). Veselin Topalov noted it wasn’t necessarily the same for non-professionals:

The problem is still, I guess, chess fans don’t understand the point of changing from normal chess. Somehow they don’t have our problems, they don’t get bored like we do with the theory that already exists!

Chess is a tough game to watch and understand as it is, and it’s questionable whether making it tougher is the road to success, but as Svidler and some others also pointed out – there’s plenty of space on the chess schedule to try out different formats. 

Garry still managed to keep us all entertained! | photo: Lennart Ootes, official website

Garry Kasparov is a believer, and summed up:

I’m quite happy that we did something I believe historical.

Frankly, anything that gets the chess legend back behind a chessboard is good by us!

See also:

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