General Jul 14, 2017 | 7:53 PMby Colin McGourty

Dortmund 2017: Can Kramnik catch Carlsen?

The 2017 Dortmund Sparkassen Chess Meeting is also officially being known us the Vladimir Kramnik Tournament, with the current world no. 2 celebrating 25 years since he first appeared in a Dortmund event in 1992. Since then he’s won the main title 10 times, but this year – with Magnus Carlsen not in action until the Sinquefield Cup next month – he has a chance not just to win but to become world no. 1 at the age of 42. Of course that won’t be easy. His opponents in the 7-round tournament include reigning champion Maxime Vachier-Lagrave.

Wang Yue, Vladimir Kramnik, Maxime Vachier-Lagrave, Dieter-Liviu Nisipeanu, Dmitry Andreikin, Radek Wojtaszek, Vladimir Fedoseev and Matthias Bluebaum at Friday's Opening Ceremony | photo: Georgios Souleidis, official website

As always in Dortmund, the pairings for all rounds were published long in advance, meaning the players have had a long time to ponder how to surprise their opponents:

The 2017 field for the 7-round classical tournament taking place in the Orchesterzentrum NRW in Dortmund is full of surprises, so let’s take the players one by one:

1. Vladimir Kramnik, 42, Russia, 2812, world no. 2

Mr. Dortmund first played in the German city in 1992, when he featured in the open tournament and not the main event won by a certain Garry Kasparov. He finished second, and since then he’s been terrorising the tournament, winning the elite section in 1995, 1996, 1997, 1998, 2000, 2001, 2006, 2007, 2009 and 2011. He’s only missed two years – 1994 and 2002 – and he could hardly play in 2002 since it was then the Candidates Tournament that selected Peter Leko to play him in a World Championship match.

This is the 6th tournament where Vladimir has been a 10-time winner of Dortmund - he'd no doubt like to move that counter to 11! | photo: Georgios Souleidis

Kramnik beat Carlsen in Round 7 of Altibox Norway Chess exactly a month before Dortmund begins, and after that result the gap to no. 1 was a mere 6.4 points. The last two rounds of the tournament saw the gap grow to 10 points, meaning that Vladimir needs to have a very good event to end Dortmund as world no. 1, but it’s certainly not beyond the bounds of possibility. He recently talked about the no. 1 spot: Kramnik on Carlsen’s slump & the Candidates race

After the tournament the gap isn’t big at all, but I don’t pay any attention to that. First or second in the world… Of course it would be nice to be first at some point. No doubt that’s very important for the young guys who have never yet in their lives been first, but I was World Champion, and no. 1 on the rating list. It’s another matter that the rating reflects some kind of objective reality, and if you glance at the rating list then you’ll see that there are a few people who are now in direct proximity to Magnus, including myself. In principle you can see that if Carlsen continues to play how he’s been playing recently then someone will soon overtake him. I don’t know if that will be So, Aronian or myself. It’s clear that it’s time for him to come to his senses and get out of the crisis, as otherwise by the end of the year he’ll have lost first place on the rating list.

The more pressing incentive for Kramnik to do well may be to boost his chances of qualifying for the 2017 Candidates Tournament on rating, with himself, Fabiano Caruana and Wesley So vying for two spots (though as he mentioned in the interview, if any of them make the final of the World Cup that frees up another rating spot for the others). Of course it would also be nice to win an 11th title, but on that score the historical trend hasn’t been in Kramnik’s favour. Yes, he’s won 10 titles, but he last triumphed in "his” tournament back in 2011, finishing 4th, 2nd, 7th (!), 4th and 2nd since. Last year the event was utterly dominated by a man who returns in 2017…

2. Maxime Vachier-Lagrave, 26, French, 2791, world no. 8

Dortmund 2016 was a dream debut for Maxime Vachier-Lagrave. In Round 1 he beat Fabiano Caruana with the Najdorf to cross 2800 for the first time. 

A win in Round 5 made him world no. 2 for the first time, while a win in the next round gave him the title with a round to spare. He ended on a live rating of 2810.8 and was in the middle of a 67-game unbeaten streak (Wesley So would later match but not improve on that) – though back then that meant he was still almost 50 points behind the World Champion.

The state of the live ratings a year ago after Dortmund 2016 was over | source: 2700chess

As you can see, since then Maxime has dropped back a bit again, and it’s significant that he’s not in the race mentioned above to qualify for the Candidates Tournament on rating. He’ll have to fish in the murky waters of the FIDE Grand Prix series and the World Cup, but as we saw on the final day of the Paris Grand Chess Tour especially, he’s a formidable player. Plus, he can always switch to a career as a commentator:

It’s unlikely he’ll give up his Dortmund title without a fight!

3. Radoslaw Wojtaszek, 30, Polish, 2736, world no. 23

Polish no. 1 Radek Wojtaszek has emerged from the shadow of working as Vishy Anand’s second to make himself a fixture near the top of world chess. He’s never quite broken through into the world elite, but his Dortmund debut will already be his third supertournament of the year. He began 2016 with a -1 score in the Tata Steel Masters, though his last round win over Wei Yi ensured he left on a high. Then in Shamkir Chess he was the only player to beat the tournament winner Shakhriyar Mamedyarov, though a loss to Veselin Topalov saw him end on 50%.

Radek Wojtaszek celebrated Poland's best result in a team event since 1939 - bronze medals at the 2017 World Team Championship | photo: official website

He’s renowned as an openings specialist, but admitted in a Q&A session after Shamkir that he’d been having some issues recently that were behind a failure to achieve anything with the white pieces (except when Mamedyarov misplayed a critical line):

Another issue is that I’m expanding my black repertoire. Lately I’ve started to play far more openings after 1.e4 and that’s partly why I have less time for White in comparison. I need a little time to balance everything out. There’s no hiding the fact that I’m not such a chess virtuoso as Carlsen or Mamedyarov that I can play anything and create lots of chances during a game. I suspected that before the tournament, and the way it went only confirmed my impression. If I’m going to have a chance of beating the best then of course I have to develop my all-round game, but in opening preparation I simply have to be better than them.

With guys like Vladimir Kramnik around, though, that may be tough!

4. Vladimir Fedoseev, 22, Russian, 2726, world no. 29

You could say Vladimir Fedoseev has been the man of the year so far. When he sat down to play in the Aeroflot Open in Moscow in January he’d just turned 22 and was rated 2658, with it seeming as though Russia would probably have to look to its younger recruits for a new elite player. The rest, as they say, is history. 

He won clear first with 7/9, gaining 18 rating points and qualifying for Dortmund. He quickly set about justifying his inclusion with a string of good results – with only late losses seeing him fail to win the St. Louis Winter Classic and the GRENKE Open before he scored 6/7 in the Russian Team Championship and crossed 2700 for the first time.

In an interview with Dorsa Derakhshani after that he revealed a little about how he developed as a player:

When I started playing chess, I loved playing blindfold, at a good level. I used to read books without a chessboard and it was a little strange for my parents. I was looking for new ideas in the games all the time. I was trying to teach myself from the books.

Who is your coach now?

I’ve been training with Alexander Khalifman since 2011.

Do you have any seconds? Or are you anyone’s second?

No, I have many friends who I analyse with sometimes, but not a second.

He didn’t slow down, tying for first place in the European Championship but taking bronze on tiebreaks. That result saw him and Maxim Matlakov added as late inclusions in the Russian squad for the World Team Championship (Ernesto Inarkiev and Dmitry Jakovenko had to make way), where he ended with 4 wins in 5 games, though he was unfortunate that his one loss in that sequence saw China claim gold medals.

Will Fedoseev dare to repeat the Berlin against Kramnik?

What he doesn’t have much experience of is elite round-robins, with his inventive tactical style seemingly built to score wins on demand in open tournaments. Dortmund may be something of a baptism of fire, therefore, and it couldn’t start more dramatically: on Saturday he has the black pieces against Vladimir Kramnik!

5. Dmitry Andreikin, 27, Russian, 2712, world no. 37

We now get to some perhaps surprise inclusions in the tournament. Dmitry Andreikin is clearly a very talented guy, but he hasn’t had the most dramatic of years. He finished the Tata Steel Masters on -1 and then more or less vanished from sight. He lost to Nils Grandelius on the way to 20th place in the Reykjavik Open, lost to Fedoseev in an unremarkable Russian Team Championship and finished 45th in the European Championship, though he did that without losing a game.

Andreikin's last major success was to win the European Blitz Championship in December last year | photo: Oleg Hartsenko,

He seems, in many ways, to be the antithesis of his compatriot Sergey Karjakin. Sergey moved to Moscow, hired a string of coaches and has a manager, Kirillos Zangalis, who ensures maximum publicity. Both Kirillos and Sergey have always said the “right” things politically in Russia, and have been richly rewarded, all the way to Sergey recently meeting one-on-one with Vladimir Putin:

Dmitry Andreikin, meanwhile, works alone, lives away from the Russian metropolises and attracts almost no publicity. He also tends to give straightforward answers when pushed on political topics:

I never took a particular interest in politics, but now the times are such that it’s hard to entirely avoid it. It’s clear that bad things are happening all around the world, but nevertheless I’m more worried by what’s taking place in Russia. If you compare the economic situation in our country before Crimea joined and now, I think the assessment is obvious…

It’s unlikely to increase his chances of funding in the current political climate in Russia, but Dmitry and his young family have always shown a willingness to go their own way. Plus, he obviously has huge chess talent. No-one will be expecting to notch up easy points against him in Dortmund.

6. Wang Yue, 30, Chinese, 2699, world no. 49

Normally it would be hard to find anyone who’s played less chess in a given year than Dmitry Andreikin, but the great surprise inclusion in the tournament, Wang Yue, beats him with ease. His only classical games this year seem to have been 7 draws in the Chinese League, while his main appearance before that was to lead China in the Baku Olympiad in September 2016, when he scored 4 wins, 3 draws and 2 painful losses in a row to Sandro Mareco and Mickey Adams in a tournament that didn’t go well for China.

A great achievement for Argentina's Sandro Mareco

The 30-year-old’s heyday was 7-8 years ago, when he was a trailblazer for Chinese chess and reached the Top 10. He was famous for his slow grinding style and how willing he was to defend dull, passive positions – a legend that hasn’t entirely gone away!

How did he end up being picked for this year’s Dortmund? Well, we’re not entirely sure (rumours that a message to Wei Yi got lost in translation seem only that!), but the official website does refer to another 25th anniversary this year – that of cooperation between Dortmund and the Chinese city of Xi’an, best known for its Terra Cotta Army. It also notes that Wang Yue was born in Taiyuan, which is in a neighbouring province. True, the cities are 600 km apart, but so far it’s the best explanation we have! And having said all that... he's a class player, so puzzling as his selection at this moment is, no-one would expect him to look out of place in the field.    

7. Liviu-Dieter Nisipeanu, 40, German, 2683, world no. 60

There’s no mystery about the German no. 1 playing, and this year Liviu-Dieter Nisipeanu can also point to being the reigning German Champion after winning the strongest German Championship in many years with an unbeaten 7/9. The former Romanian no. 1 has always been known for a creative approach to chess, though he’ll be hoping to make a few more waves than he did last year, when he drew all seven of his games!

We didn't follow all the details, but should Nisipeanu's opponents be worried? | image:

8. Matthias Bluebaum, 20, German, 2642, world no. 123

And finally we have the youngest player in the field, 20-year-old Matthias Bluebaum. He’s currently the world’s no. 4 junior and the German no. 3 and got his first taste of an elite supertournament in the GRENKE Chess Classic earlier this year. Few will forget how he survived the diciest of positions on the board and on the clock against Magnus Carlsen in Round 1, though after that things took a turn for the worse with three losses in a row. He ended with three draws, though, for a respectable outing, and later ended the European Championship with four wins in a row to ensure World Cup qualification.

Matthias got a chance to see what it's like at the centre of attention | photo: Lennart Ootes

It’s likely Dortmund will be another steep learning curve for the youngster, but he’s previously shown evidence that he takes such things in his stride.

One thing Matthias will have to look out for is that he’s currently rated only two points higher than a certain Jan Gustafsson, who will be providing commentary on all seven rounds of the tournament here on chess24 (though he has to leave early in Round 1 for a birthday celebration). From Round 3 onwards Jan will be joined by Lawrence Trent, while we hear rumours that Peter Svidler will also be connecting to the show! Advance warning: though Rounds 1-2 will be open to all, the video commentary on Rounds 3-7 will be exclusively for chess24 Premium Members

So all that remains to say is tune in for all the action from around 15:30 on Saturday (an anti-cheat delay will be added to the moves) here on chess24! You can also follow the games in our free mobile apps:


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