Levon Aronian played more star moves and missed more chances than in all the other games combined as he failed to complete what should have been a minor masterpiece against Shakhriyar Mamedyarov. Instead it was Ding Liren who scored the only win of Round 5 of the Croatia Grand Chess Tour after gradually outplaying Anish Giri from an innocuous position. Sergey Karjakin quipped “Nepomniachtchi and Magnus just don’t know openings very well” as he built up another good position only to let the World Champion off the hook almost immediately.
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Up to a point this was looking like a model game by Levon Aronian in the Ragozin, and who better to model your play on than the man it’s named after, Viacheslav Ragozin (1908-1962), a top Soviet player and sparring partner for Mikhail Botvinnik? By the time Mamedyarov played 13.Bg2 the only game in this position in our database was a 1930 Leningrad Championship encounter between Alexander Budo and Ragozin:
Here Ragozin castled long, went on to refute a sacrificial attack and scored an easy win, while Levon Aronian went for another plausible move, 13…Nb3. Mamedyarov’s 14.Rd1?! was already a mistake, that he belatedly corrected by moving the same rook to b1 three moves later, though by that point he was another pawn down and the position was critical.
Mamedyarov was not just down material but had no active moves, with Garry Kasparov later commenting:
You don’t need a computer to understand that White was dead lost and Aronian had to work hard not to win the game.
Shak took what he felt was his only chance to evict the knight with 19.Nd2?!:
This is where Levon really began to have fun, sacrificing the knight with 19…Nxd4! 20.cxd4 Rxd4, and Black had four connected passed pawns for the piece. White’s woes continued with 21.Ra1 Qb2 22.Rab1 c3 (not yet a queen sacrifice), 23.Qf3 Rxd2! (now it is):
White had no choice but to accept with 24.Rxb2 cxb2 and here 25.Bf1 could have been game over:
The relatively simple 25…Be2! wins on the spot, since after 26.Qxf6 Bxd1! 27.Qxh8 Kd7 there are no checks and the b-pawn queens. With 28.Qc3 White can win back a rook, but the black pawns will win the game. Why didn’t Levon play that? He explained he’d been expecting the line 25.Rb1 Rhd8 26.Bf1 and treated the earlier bishop move simply as a transposition. While you might call that gross negligence, it was understandable, but stranger things would follow. After 26.Rb1 there was still time to jinx Levon!
But it shouldn’t really have mattered. After 26…Bxf1 27.Kxf1 all he needed to do was play 27…R8d3 (28.Qxf6? loses to 28…Rd1+), push the a-pawn and win. Instead 27…Rc2? allowed Shak to wriggle his way out with 28.Kg2 Rdd2 29.Qxf6 a4 30.Kh3!. Suddenly White was fine, but it seems Shak gave Levon one last chance to redeem himself when he responded to 30…Rxf2 with 31.Qh8+?! (31.Qe7!) 31…Kc7 32.Qd4:
32…b5!, as pointed out by Kasparov, Mamedyarov and your local computer, would still have left White balancing on the edge. Shak commented, “I think again it’s a winning position for Black”, but instead 32…f6? 33.Qxa4 followed, and when it turned out Black had no mating net the game ended in a draw.
Spanish Grandmaster Pepe Cuenca looks at the game move-by-move:
What on earth had gone wrong with Levon? Well, the watching Garry Kasparov felt only exhaustion could explain it:
It always happens in these tournaments, but probably to the end of the tournament, and it just seems that to have so many mistakes in the beginning probably tells us that maybe these best players of the world just play too much, so there’s simply too much pressure, preparation and going from one tournament to another. I don’t see any other explanation, because some of the games you couldn’t explain from a pure chess point of view, the mistakes they made, and definitely they don’t show what they are capable of.
Garry was asked how many games he usually played:
There’s no ideal recipe – all players are different. I played fewer games than other top players, but that’s from the influence of Botvinnik, and also I needed more time for preparation, just to feel hunger for the games, to push my adrenaline back. I think that I was just at the range of maybe 60-70 games a year, so now they easily double it, with all the rapid and blitz, and especially this year is a totally crazy schedule, because all of a sudden FIDE came back with these four Grand Prix. You look at the calendar this year and you can’t find probably a day without a big chess event being played somewhere.
Is that good for the fans?
I’m not sure it’s great for the fans, because fans are not just here to watch Magnus and Aronian and MVL and Caruana playing, they want them to play good chess… I can applaud their fighting spirit, and we talked about Magnus trying really hard to push his luck, but still we want them to be fresh, we want them to play brilliant games. That’s why we’re watching this tournament.
When Levon was asked about his mistakes he commented, “there is no excuse for playing so badly”, but when asked about Garry’s comments he was triggered to talk about a subject you imagine has been a major issue behind the scenes:
I think generally you expect to have a supertournament at least with one rest day each 3 games, or 4 games. Here we get to play 6 games without a rest day, so obviously that will affect it, but I guess that’s what the fans like – they like to see mistakes!
Maurice repeated Garry’s statement about fans wanting to see the best chess as well:
Unfortunately it’s impossible in the present conditions we have. Otherwise, of course, we’re always ready to play, and we’re always willing to play, as long as we live!
While it’s true that Norway Chess had rest days every 3 rounds, and Wijk aan Zee, an even longer tournament than Zagreb, had rest days after 3, 6, 9 and 11 games, having 9 rounds with one rest day after 5 games is common for supertournaments (for instance, the GRENKE Chess Classic this year, or the previous GCT classical events). You could even point out, as the tour commentators did, that Levon won the Gibraltar Masters after playing 10 games in a row – though there 1) you could take a half-point bye if you wanted to, and 2) the level of opposition was much weaker, requiring less intense preparation.
You could say it’s been a quadruple whammy in Zagreb. The players face not just the unusual test of having 6 supertournament games in a row, but a heatwave with insufficient air conditioning, a complete ban on draw offers…
…and a time control with no extra time at move 40 and only a delay (not increment) that’s designed to put more pressure on the players. It’s often suggested that if they manage their clocks well they’ll have no trouble, but complex, well-played games that don’t simplify like Caruana-Carlsen or Carlsen-Mamedyarov are always likely to end in permanent time trouble for at least one of the players.
This first 11-round classical event on the Grand Chess Tour feels like the first run of the Rapid and Blitz format, where an absolutely gruelling two days of 5 and then 4 long rapid games was changed, after player complaints, to a much more humane 3 days of 3 games each. It would be great if we could see an extra rest day in the Sinquefield Cup later this year, with the day set aside for a possible playoff the obvious one to use during the tournament, if an extra day can’t be added to the calendar.
We’ve focussed so much on the possible reasons for lethargic play from the players, since the action was frankly underwhelming in Round 5. Anand-MVL was a closed battle with a first pawn exchange on move 27, while the other games were scruffy. Fabiano Caruana found a strategically risky way to unbalance his position against Wesley So (accepting isolated doubled pawns), but wasn’t punished.
Hikaru Nakamura’s early 5.Na4!? in the Grünfeld had tournament leader Ian Nepomniachtchi thinking very early on…
…but a few moves later Nakamura was kicking himself for being surprised by the natural 10…0-0. The game looked to be fizzling out into a draw and would have got there sooner if not for some inaccuracies from Black – as Nepo put it, “of course the game wouldn’t be complete without some idiotic moves!”
Karjakin-Carlsen was a re-run of the 2016 World Championship match, with Magnus making the “don’t try this at home” move 5…h6 after putting a pawn on a6 two moves earlier. Karjakin later commented:
Actually I would like to say my thanks to Anish Giri, because in the opening of course I would never have known that this line exists, but he wrote in his Twitter something about this line and that it was played by some Magnus second, so at least I knew that this line exists and I looked a little bit before the game, so I came up with [6.Bf4 Nf6 7.e3 Bd6] 8.Be5. At least I knew that I should play Be5. What next, I didn’t know, but Be5 I knew…
That was referring to the following tweet (and the Chess Bundesliga game is here):
Though since Magnus played 5…h6 himself against Sam Shankland in Wijk aan Zee this year you’d think Sergey’s team of helpers might have spotted that anyway!
Sergey was arguably in better form in the post-game interview than in the game itself, beginning:
I think that these top chess players like Nepomniachtchi and Magnus they just don’t know openings very well, and they just get very bad positions out of the opening.
Karjakin was joking, at least in part, though he did feel that Magnus had blundered that 13…Nxe5 14.fxe5 Ng4 runs into 15.Nd1. That seems somewhat unlikely, but in any case, the position after 13…c5 was the critical moment of the game:
Kasparov said he wouldn’t even have considered Sergey’s 14.f5!? here, since after 14…c4 15.Qa3 cxd3 16.fxe6 fxe6 17.Nxd3 White has just exchanged off a good bishop for a bad bishop. White’s last move in particular made a draw all but inevitable, but Sergey revealed afterwards that he’d gone for f5 because he was tempted by the lines after 17.Ng6 Rf7 18.Nb5?!...
…only to realise that Black was doing very well after sacrificing the exchange with 18…axb5! 19.Qxa7 and 19…Ng4!.
That game ended in a repetition on move 42, but we were saved from a second day of all 6 games ending drawn by Giri-Ding Liren. It was one of those games where White was doing well until he suddenly wasn’t, and the moment things changed was almost imperceptible, though the Chinese no. 1 pointed out the position after 21.Rd2:
White’s threats include Nd6, based on the little trick that you can’t take the knight due to Bxh7+. Here, however, Ding Liren found a critical move:
I think he missed 21…f6! - it’s a very good move. Otherwise I would just be worse, but after f6 he has to be careful.
The move restricts the white knights and shores up the e5-square, with 22.Nd6? now running into 22…Nde5! 23.Nxb7 Rxd3!. After 22.Bb1 Nde5 Ding soon had good squares for his pieces and the white structure was looking fragile. Giri did well to hold things together, but 41.Nd6!? didn’t work out well:
That was a pawn sacrifice (41…Nxd6 42.exd6 Rc6 43.Ne4 Rxd6) and may objectively have been a decent move, but with no extra time or increments the subsequent position proved tough to hold. Ding Liren went on to show that not all rook endgames are drawn!
That was an important result for Ding, shoring up both his world no. 3 spot and his position as frontrunner to qualify for the 2020 Candidates Tournament by rating, but did little to affect the race for first place in Zagreb:
Ding could have much more impact on that in Round 6, since he has the white pieces against 1st placed Nepomniachtchi, while 2nd placed Carlsen and So are White against Nakamura and Mamedyarov. Those games, and e.g. MVL-Caruana, promise to provide some entertainment before we finally do get that rest day!
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