Ian Nepomniachtchi crashed through against Georg Meier to win the 2018 Sparkassen Chess Meeting in Dortmund by a full point. It was a thriller of a last round, with the four other players in contention for first place all fighting hard for the wins they needed to have a chance. Anish Giri achieved a huge advantage against Jan-Krzysztof Duda’s Pirc only to bungle the attack, while Vladislav Kovalev almost made it three losses in a row for Vladimir Kramnik before their game ended in bare kings on move 104.
In the end there was only one decisive result in the final round of Dortmund 2018, and it was the one that made all the complicated tiebreak calculations unnecessary:
For the first time since 2011 a Russian player has won the Dortmund tournament, and for the first time since 1993 (Anatoly Karpov) that Russian player isn’t called Vladimir Kramnik. Ian Nepomniachtchi went into the final round with a half-point lead, but knowing that there was a good chance he had to win, since if he was only tied for first he was likely to lose out on the first tiebreak of the number of games with Black. He’d been given the luxury of playing four of the seven games with the white pieces, and he made good use of it, beating Liviu-Dieter Nisipeanu and Kramnik before facing Georg Meier in the final game.
It was predictable that Meier would play the French Defence, and that the game would reach the position after 6…Nxf6 as it had in 80 previous games with Meier as Black (according to the chess24 database). Here, though, Nepo credited his second Vladimir Potkin with showing him the relatively rare line 7.Ne5, one that had never been played against the German grandmaster. Meier initially responded fast, but he already took 20 minutes over the risky 11…Qa5+!?, the move that took Ian out of his home preparation:
Nepo had some immediate concrete issues to solve, but ultimately the fact that he was able to weaken Black’s king position by taking on f6 and inflicting doubled pawns would prove the crucial factor. It was the ideal situation for the Russian in a game he really wanted to win, and the losing move seems to have been made on move 19:
19…Kh7! would have been a horrible move to make – walking into the path of the d3-bishop and leaving no hopes of evacuating the king from the kingside – but it would have offered much better chances of survival. Objectively that position even seems to be equal, though the variations aren’t for the faint-hearted. Instead after 19…Kg7?! 20.g4! f4 21.Rg1! the pressure on the g-file was just too great, though 21…Bd7 forced a moment of brilliance:
The problem with the immediate 22.g5? here is 22…h5!, and Black would even be better after 23.Qxh5 Rh8! How can you deal with that issue? By physically occupying the h5-square with the queen! 22.Qh5! left Black defenceless, and after 22…Rh8 23.g5! hxg5 24.Qxg5+ Kf8 25.Qf6 Rxh2 26.Rg7 Be8 White needed to find one more precise move to claim the full point:
27.Bh7! and there’s no longer a defence against mate on g8 (or h8 if Black takes the bishop). Black could harass the white king for a few moves, but instead resigned immediately, making Ian Nepomniachtchi the winner of the 46th Sparkassen Chess Meeting in Dortmund.
He commented on Twitter:
The luck was mainly that Duda hadn’t spotted the winning line in the previous game, but over the course of the tournament things had balanced out, with Nepo also missing a clear win against Anish Giri in the first game. Nepo told Georgios Souleidis:
I had two positions against Kovalev and Duda that were bad. Against Kovalev in the second round I was constantly thinking of the World Cup final. The game against Duda was a good example of a ridiculous Najdorf game with Black. “I'll never play like that again”, I told Vachier-Lagrave last year when I lost in a similar fashion, and now it was the same as it was then, only this time I was lucky to draw. I also missed a direct win against Giri, though. I was disappointed, but of course we’re not machines and we make mistakes. It was a strong field, of course, although Liviu-Dieter Nisipeanu was out of shape. In general, I like the tournament a lot, even if it's funny that in the front row visitors sometimes fall asleep and snore.
It was a richly deserved supertournament triumph:
For Meier it had been a very solid event, with five draws followed by a penultimate round win over Nisipeanu that made it possible to dream of first place. Beating Nepomniachtchi with Black was never going to be easy, though.
The remaining games were drawn, but not for the want of trying! Jan-Krzysztof Duda shrugged off his missed chance against Nepomniachtchi in the previous round and went for the Pirc/Modern (1.e4 d6), an opening that top players try almost exclusively against much weaker opposition or in a must-win situation with Black. This was the latter case, and the reason it’s not tried more often was clear as Anish Giri went on to play simple, powerful chess and achieve an overwhelming advantage. He knew that a win would give him tournament victory unless Nepo won his own game.
The critical moment came after 20…a5:
Best is the direct 21.h4!, with 22.f5! continuing the pawn storm against almost any move. Instead, though, Anish decided to end the direct attack and swap off queens with 21.Qh4!? h6 22.Nxe6+ fxe6 23.Qxd8 Rexd8 24.Rde1:
White was still on top, but perhaps Giri had underestimated Black’s practical chances after Duda went for 24…d4!, a striking move given it opens the path for the g2-bishop to the black rook on a8. Murky play followed, with Black soon an exchange up and even slightly better, though in the end Duda was willing to return the exchange to end the game in a dead-drawn rook endgame.
So in the end it wasn’t an entirely satisfactory outcome for either player, but both could look back on good tournaments. Giri managed to bounce back with two wins after a careless blunder and loss to Kovalev, and has reentered the world Top 5. That one of his victims was his previous torturer Vladimir Kramnik must have been sweet.
20-year-old Jan-Krzysztof Duda, meanwhile, didn’t look overawed in his first supertournament and might even have got more if he could have converted his chance against the leader in the penultimate round. He also ended the tournament in a notable position on the live rating list, moving up to world no. 20 after David Navara lost to Magnus Carlsen in Biel. There’s no time for Duda to rest on his laurels, though, since he’s about to fly to China for the Danzhou GM Tournament that starts this weekend with a powerful line-up of players from just below the level of the usual supertournament regulars.
24-year-old Vladislav Kovalev is another player who enhanced his reputation in Dortmund. He finished unbeaten and, needing a win in the final round, was willing to try playing some route one chess against former World Champion Vladimir Kramnik. When he took on f7 on move 6 Vladislav was following a game played 181 years ago!
It was only with Kramnik’s 12…Nxd4 that the game finally left the 19th century (his “Romantic” predecessors had played 12…Qxd4):
Kramnik had taken things in his stride, but Kovalev sacrificed a pawn and continued to apply pressure, until his fearsome opponent finally cracked with 30…Nb5?
31.Bf6! was a simple double attack that won an exchange on the spot, since Kramnik had to capture on f6 rather than see his king get hunted down after e.g. 31…Re1+? 32.Rxe1 Qxe1+ 33.Kh2 Qe3 34.Be5!
By this stage Kovalev knew that a win would give him clear 2nd place, while for Kramnik it would mean ending “his” tournament with an ignominious three losses in a row. In the end it was very close, since when a pair of pawns were exchanged to reduce material to 6 pieces we could check the tablebases… and White was winning:
It was very close to a fortress, though, and after 53.Ra8 the position was drawn – though it still needed Kramnik to find a lot of only moves to hold, starting 53…Kg6! 54.Ke3 Ng2+! 55.Ke4 Nh4! before he went on to walk the tightrope all the way up to move 104, when with bare kings left on the board it was finally time to shake hands.
So a fine unbeaten +1 for Vladislav (with that one win over none other than Giri), while for Vladimir it was a -1 to forget. The optimism of his smooth win over Duda evaporated in losses to Nepomniachtchi and Giri, with Kramnik no doubt now set to do some serious reflection before he plays for Russia in the Olympiad in Batumi. Russia has been starved of gold for the last 16 years and there’s no doubting Kramnik’s motivation to end that sequence before he retires, but in his current unpredictable form is he the player to lead the team? Or will he be invited to run amok on one of the lower boards?
That leaves just one game, Nisipeanu-Wojtaszek, which was the one encounter on the last day that could alter almost nothing. The players decided not to provide any distraction from events elsewhere and reached a quiet draw by repetition in 34 moves – ending a disappointing event for both players. The best that could be said of Liviu-Dieter Nisipeanu’s winless -4 is that he remains in the Top 100 and the German no. 1 after the event, though now only 16 points clear of Jan Gustafsson. Radek Wojtaszek’s hopes of defending his 2017 title faded early on, after he missed a couple of wins against Kramnik and then lost to his young compatriot Duda, again. It wasn’t a disaster, by any means, as that was the only game he lost, but it wasn’t a performance to boost his chances of an invite in 2019.
So the final standings for the 2018 Sparkassen Chess Meeting in Dortmund look as follows:
There’s no break in top level chess action, though, since the Biel Chess Festival is already underway, with wins for Magnus Carlsen and Shakhriyar Mamedyarov in Round 1.
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