Elo isn't everything! Maxime Vachier-Lagrave and Vishy Anand topped the Baden-Baden line-up for their crucial Bundesliga match against co-leaders Solingen in Aachen, Germany on Sunday, but it wasn't enough. Solingen, the only team to stop Baden-Baden winning the title in the last 12 years, were rating underdogs on all boards but still managed to win 4.5-3.5. Erwin l'Ami was the hero of the day after defeating Arkadij Naiditsch on board 7, while all the other games were drawn.
Again let's start with the line-ups of the top teams: On Saturday, Baden-Baden had "only" seven players rated 2700+ (plus Movsesian, rated 2671, on board eight) and with Vachier-Lagrave and Anand "only" two top 10 players. Peter Svidler and Jan Gustafsson played Banter Blitz for the fourth anniversary of chess24, with Jan then commentating on the Bundesliga on Sunday. Fabiano Caruana and Levon Aronian might not have wanted to interrupt their Candidates preparation, though Mamedyarov actually did, helping Viernheim in the second German league to promotion. It probaby didn't play a role that Aronian had bad experiences against Rapport in team competions twice in 2016: he lost in the Bundesliga and later at the European Club Cup. Solingen - Baden-Baden ended 4-4 back then, with Solingen becoming the 2015/6 German Club Champions.
Surprisingly, Solingen lacked Anish Giri - who hadn't played before this season but may have been expected for the top match. Maybe also surprising was that Robin van Kampen did play - his last rated games were in August 2017 in the Spanish Primera Division (second league), while he had played team competitions in several countries (besides Germany and the Netherlands also England, Belgium and Iceland) in the previous season. It's possible to play on Sunday with a different lineup from on Saturday - hosts Aachen rotated on the lower boards, but Baden-Baden and Solingen posted the same teams.
That was also the verdict of live commentator (in German) Jan Gustafsson, who didn't hide his sympathies for his Baden-Baden teammates. Commenting from Gran Canaria, he had to get up even earlier than the players, who had an uncomfortable 10am start. Unlike the players, though, Jan could take a break for breakfast after the opening phase.
Replay any game from the 2018 Bundesliga, with computer analysis, by clicking on a result below:
The big match can be summarised as follows: five games were drawn rather quickly - not entirely without a fight, but in the other Bundesliga matches at most one or two games were over at this stage. For Solingen the three Dutchmen Van Wely, Van Kampen and L'Ami were still playing, with the match decided shortly after the time control. Solingen were leading 4-3 with Van Wely playing on in a risk-free rook endgame a pawn up. For Solingen the match dynamics were very different to the previous Bundesliga weekend against Bremen - with a happier ending.
Let's take it game-by-game:
Harikrishna - Vachier-Lagrave 1/2: In the chosen variation (1.Nf3 c5 2.c4 Nc6 3.d4 cxd4 4.Nxd4 Nf6 5.Nc3 e6 6.g3 Qb6) MVL had had some problems with Black before - in the previous Bundesliga weekend against Grandelius (after 7.Ndb5 Ne5 8.Bg2 a6 9.Qa4 Neg4?!) and earlier at the FIDE Grand Prix in Palma de Mallorca against Harikrishna, who now repeated the rare 7.Nf3. This time the game was interesting and at least roughly equal throughout. The black pawn sacrifice on move 16 was correct, on move 20 MVL could ignore the white Bd6, attacking his Rf8, and sacrifice an exchange with 20...bxa3!? - but apparently didn't want to take such risks in an important team match. After 20...Re8 21.e5 the position quickly simplified to an obvious draw.
Two diagrams to illustrate how the Anand-Rapport position changed optically within the space of only a few moves:
This is the position after 10...Qc6 - which looks clumsy but is good and might be forced: Black has to prevent b2-b4 by attacking the pawn on c3. He has two knights on the rim, and the combination of 5...a6 and 8...0-0-0 also looks risky - live commentator Gustafsson, rooting for Baden-Baden, was optimistic at this stage. It had all started with 1.e4 Nc6!?.
Now a few moves later after 15...Rdf8. Anand has also put some of his pieces on unusual squares, aiming to play b2-b4 after all. Rapport has neutralised his space disadvantage by opening the f-file. Not for the first time, the young Hungarian had managed to equalise from a suspicious-looking position, and Jan didn't like the trend of the game. In the Bundesliga draw offers are allowed only (or already) after move 20 - Rapport offered a draw with 20...Qb5, and Anand accepted.
Ragger-Wojtaszek 1/2 was a Sicilian Najdorf where White played the positional 6.g3. Ragger obtained at least an optical advantage and then repeated from move 21 onwards. Jan was relieved.
Initially Baden-Baden's hopes were mainly based on this game. Again, a Najdorf Sicilian, with Adams playing 6.Be3 (an English attack from an Englishman?) 6...e6 7.g3 (no, while after 6.g3 the main move is 6...e5, as chosen by Wojtaszek). After 10.Re1 Black had to protect his Bb7 (avoiding the trap 10...Be7? 11.e5! Bxg2 12.exf6, winning a piece, as both black bishops are under attack). The typical Najdorf 10...Qc7 was probably more precise than Van Wely's 10...Rb8?!, when after 11.a4! bxa4 (a move Black makes with a heavy heart, but 11...b4 12.Na2 is also problematic) 12.Rxa4 White had a positional advantage, until move 20:
Now 21.e5?! wasn't in the spirit of the position, or was at least premature. The game continued 21...dxe5 22.fxe5 Bb4 (22...Rb4! may have been stronger) 23.Nb3 Bxg2 24.Qxg2 Nd5 25.Rea1 Bxc3 26.bxc3 Rc8:
The character of the position had also changed here within the space of just a few moves: Black has solved all his problems and was the only one who could be better, partly due to the weak white pawn on e5. Later Loek allowed White a drawing combination in the endgame - it was unclear whether he missed it or deliberately allowed it given the match situation by that stage.
Ganguly-Vallejo was one of the games starting with 1.e4 e5. Vallejo played the Petroff and Ganguly chose not the trendy 5.Nc3 but one of the old main lines. The novelty 13.a4 (with the idea Ra1-a2-e2) was probably home preparation, and had Jan mildly worried - also because Vallejo now spent a lot of time. In the end, though, Paco was able to solve all his problems with a pawn sacrifice and was, if anything, better when he accepted Ganguly's draw offer on move 24.
Bacrot - Van Kampen 1/2 also started with 1.e4 e5, then the Italian Giuoco Piano. Bacrot spent a lot of time early on, probably over move-order subtleties, while Van Kampen invested 35 minutes in 14...h6. Then Black sacrificed a pawn, getting full compensation in the form of the bishop pair and rook on the second rank. Bacrot returned the pawn, Van Kampen kept his trumps, but then the game simplified and moves were repeated. Perhaps it was match strategy from Solingen - since Erwin l'Ami was clearly better there was no reason for his countrymen to take any more risks.
Before getting to the decisive game on board 7 let's get Movsesian-Predojevic 1/2, board 8, out of the way. White achieved little, if anything, in a French Tarrasch (1.e4 e6 2.d4 d5 3.Nd2 c5 4.Ngf3 cxd4 5.exd5 Qxd5), and a draw was agreed after 21 moves, in a rather simplified position.
In the Cambridge Springs variation of the Queen's Gambit (an unexpected opening choice by Arkadij Naiditsch?) Black had a passive but solid position where Erwin l'Ami could slowly increase his space advantage. This is the position after 25...Rd8:
26.e5!? was maybe surprising, since d4-d5 now or later was also possible. The second critical moment came a few moves later:
After 30...Ng6 Black is threatening to free himself with Bd8 followed by Ne7. To keep an advantage, White had to find the less-than-obvious 31.Nf4! - played by l'Ami after eight minutes. The game continued 31...Nxf4 32.gxf4 Qd8 33.Qf3 Rb8 34.f5! - a doubled pawn as a storm trooper - and soon afterwards Erwin l'Ami reached a far superior endgame.
Shortly after the time control Jan ended his live commentary with the (approximate) words, "This is impossible to hold even for a player as stubborn and tricky as Arkadij Naiditsch, while it might last one or two more hours. It's 26 degrees and sunny outside, I'm on holidays, ciao!". Earlier Jan had expressed respect for the Solingen team performance and, generally, for what their team captain Herbert Scheidt had built up and saved/secured over many years (a few years ago the Solingen Bundesliga project was in danger due to a temporary lack of sponsors). L'Ami-Naiditsch actually lasted only a few more moves, and minutes, with Naiditsch resigning on move 46. Giri was there in spirit!
Let's take a brief look at some of the other matches:
On Saturday OSG Baden-Baden beat hosts DJK Aufwärts Aachen 4.5-3.5. It was close, but match victory was never really in doubt, since the three drawn games were balanced throughout.
On board 1 Vachier-Lagrave got rather little with his pet variation against Ivanchuk's Caro-Kann (1.e4 c6 2.Nc3 d5 3.Nf3), or rather, only an intermittent advantage on the clock. On board 2 the 6.d3 Ruy Lopez between Jorden van Foreest and Vishy Anand also remained balanced. It was the same story for Handke-Bacrot (Berlin Wall with 5.Re1) on board 6, with the two latter cases relative successes for the Aachen players rated below 2700.
One victory for Baden-Baden was on the horizon early on: Naiditsch-Zaragatski 1-0 - in the Guimard variation of the French Tarrasch (1.e4 e6 2.d4 d5 3.Nd2 Nc6!?) Black was behind in development with a king stuck on e8. Then Naiditsch swapped two minor pieces for a rook and pawn:
The previous moves were 20.Bg7 Rg8 21.Qxh7 Rxg7 22.Qxg7 Qxa5 23.Re1. Here the white rooks are obviously stronger than the black minor pieces: they have open files, the black Bc8 has to protect e6 and thus can't be used in different ways, the black king is - unlike the white one - vulnerable. Later White won the black pawns on f6 and e6 and in the end he regained two minor pieces for a rook.
The other Baden-Baden victory featured a sudden attack:
Wojtaszek-Lupulescu 1-0: White had a more pleasant position, but Black wasn't obliged to lose quickly. After 25...Qc7? (25...Qe7 or 25...Rc6) 26.Nf6+!! White suddenly had a decisive kingside attack.
The match seemingly became close due to Donchenko-Movsesian 1-0 on board 8:
Donchenko's 43.b4!? Nxb4 44.Bc3 was an interesting try: the black Nb4 lacks squares and has to be permanently protected by queen and bishop. It's maybe difficult to assess over the board, but if White plans to transfer his king to b3, Black can, in the meantime, play Bf8 and Qd6-e7-f6 (and on f4 there's Qf5). Then he can either give perpetual check or capture several white kingside pawns with the queen to obtain sufficient compensation for the piece. After 11.5 minutes Movsesian panicked with 44...e5. Later he missed a chance to reach an inferior but maybe holdable endgame, and White won with a mating attack.
Match victory for Baden-Baden was never in doubt: with the score 3.5-2.5 for Baden-Baden, Adams and Vallejo tried to win their better and risk-free endgames. Despite favourable engine verdicts Adams' bishop endgame against Parligras was maybe never objectively won. However, Paco Vallejo missed a victory against Falko Bindrich - definitely at the end in the tablebase zone with rook and pawn against a rook and a cut-off king, but probably also earlier when both players had two rooks, a bishop and several pawns.
In the parallel match Solingen improved their board point score by beating Speyer-Schwegenheim 7.5-0.5. That means little, however, since if teams are tied on match points at the end of the season there will be a playoff for the German club title. Oleksiyenko secured half a point for Speyer-Schwegenheim on the top board against Harikrishna, though at some stage he had a winning position.
The next day there was a convincing 5.5-2.5 for Aachen against Speyer-Schwegenheim:
Lower boards obviously also affect the match result - wins with Black for "new" Aachen players (not in the Saturday lineup) were racked up early on:
Simon Commercon misplayed the opening against Twan Burg. Already 5.Nxd4, which was just played, is inaccurate according to live commentator Jan Gustafsson (first 5.0-0). Details can be found in Jan's video series A repertoire against 1.d4. Part 4: Sidelines.
Denis Mager soon had an inferior endgame against Christian Braun.
With further wins by their Romanian players Lupulescu und Parligras, Aachen had a healthy margin for error, which was useful, since Michael Hoffmann and Dr. Florian Handke missed wins, while there was a shock on board 1:
Ivanchuk allowed the Berlin endgame and later stumbled into a hopeless rook endgame. Oleksiyenko, an experienced grandmaster who's been rated slightly above 2600 for several years, thus scored 1.5/2 against elite players this Bundesliga weekend - and 2/2 was possible.
Things are very different when Ivanchuk's inspired!
One more note: as already mentioned, SC Viernheim won the Southern group of the second German league and will be promoted to the 2018/19 Bundesliga. With their lineup (Mamedyarov, Malakhov, Kryvoruchko, Amin, Smirin, Kovalenko, Anton Guijarro, Fedorchuk, Maze, etc.) they won't have to fear relegation but can aim for the top spots. Jan Gustafsson said Baden-Baden aren't afraid of Viernheim - but their average rating for the top match of the second league was higher than Solingen's against Baden-Baden...
Thanks to Solingen, the Bundesliga will now remain interesting until the final weekend, when all teams descend on Berlin for the last three rounds from 29th April - 1st May. They are now two match points ahead of Baden-Baden, but still face strong opposition in the form of Hockenheim, Deizisau, Schwäbisch Hall and Aachen - teams currently ranked 4th to 7th. Can Deizisau, also sponsored by GRENKE, still secure Baden-Baden another German club title (or at least a playoff)? They meet Solingen in the 15th and final round on 1st May.