Fabiano Caruana just can’t stop winning. There was an overwhelming sense of déjà vu as he beat Nikita Vitiugov with Black in the final round to win the GRENKE Chess Classic by a full point with a +4 score, just as he’d won the Candidates two weeks earlier in Berlin. This time it was Magnus Carlsen who fell short in the final round after Vishy Anand gave as good as he got, though the World Champion had the consolation of taking clear second place. We draw some conclusions from the tournament.
You can replay all the games from the 2018 GRENKE Chess Classic using the selector below – click on a result to open a game with computer analysis or hover over a player’s name to see all his or her results:
Relive the final day’s action, including interviews with Anand & Carlsen, Caruana, and MVL & Meier:
One of the big questions going into the GRENKE Chess Classic was how Fabiano Caruana would cope coming straight from winning the Berlin Candidates. Would he be suffering from crushing fatigue or would the sheer euphoria of reaching a match with Magnus Carlsen carry him through? Well, it turned out to be the latter, though it might all have been very different if Fabiano hadn’t managed to hold the most difficult of endgames against the World Champion in the first round:
In the end the tournaments proved eerily similar. Fabiano ended both of them with the same +4 score, won three games with Black and won two of his last three games.
He later commented:
Overall it was a great tournament. At the end especially it couldn’t really have gone better the last few days. I was kind of hoping or expecting to just coast the last three games with three draws, but somehow I managed to win two games with Black, which is very rare but also very pleasant.
Going into the last round of both events he had a half-point lead and Black against a Russian player, and he ended up winning the game when he already knew that a draw would have been enough for first place. The parallels continued even in the details, with Fabiano playing the Petroff, as he did against Grischuk in Berlin, but this time he sprung a very early novelty by not capturing on d2 but instead playing 5…Qd7!?
During the live show we knew instantly it was good, since Peter Leko had analysed it himself, and quite possibly in more detail than Fabiano! The challenger revealed he’d checked it briefly the day after his triumph in Berlin and then again in the train to Karlsruhe, though it was a hard move to convince yourself to consider:
It took me a while to even put it on the board! I really didn’t want to play this move – it just looks so strange. Also I think that strange moves often have a very good psychological effect, because your opponent isn’t really sure what this is about and he had to spend his time and energy first trying to figure out what the idea of the move is. So you gain some time, your opponent expends some energy and if you know it even a little bit you’re already in a better position than him.
The key idea seems to be that in contrast to playing a “normal” developing move like 5…Be7, it’s no longer good for White to take on e4 and exchange queens, since Black would recapture the queen on d7 with his knight and be ready to take on e5. In any case, the move worked to perfection, since Nikita immediately sank into a 10-minute think and eventually Black obtained just the kind of dynamic but strategically sound position Caruana thrives in. There was a consensus on where Nikita went wrong from Fabi, Vishy Anand and Magnus Carlsen, with the latter summing up, “The position is screaming out for c3 at some point, isn’t it?” 16.Bg4!? was the last straw:
The reason the players wanted c3 was to stop 16…d4!, which gave Caruana a clear strategic edge, just as it had done against Grischuk in Berlin. White’s position was probably still defendable, but time trouble made it close to a mission impossible.
Perhaps Nikita's best practical chance was Carlsen-Anand ending in a draw, as it did, meaning all Fabiano needed was a draw to win the tournament. Alas, some differences from Berlin were an issue here. The anti-draw rules in place meant that no draw could be offered until after move 40, but also the pressure was massively less on Fabiano. It was “just” a supertournament, there was no significant prize money at stake (the GRENKE Chess Classic uses the older system where players are mainly paid a fee regardless of their result) and even if Fabiano lost he would still qualify for a playoff. But then, as in Berlin, there was also the position on the board!
As he told Fiona:
Even if I could I would never offer a draw in this position. It looked completely winning to me around the time that Magnus drew – no risk, and I’m up 15 minutes on the clock. I wouldn’t make a draw under any circumstances here!
Sure enough, the game ended with Vitiugov resigning after making it to move 40.
Check out Peter Leko’s recap for more details on that game and the other encounters in Round 9:
Fabiano had perhaps not been firing on all cylinders, but it was a third tournament victory in four (“Rustam is saying let’s not count Wijk, but I think we kind of have to!”) and saw Fabiano back as world no. 2 on the live rating list (he joked he was a bit disappointed not to reach a prime number, 2819, since then Valery Salov would struggle to make up any cabalistic conspiracy theories):
He summed up:
I just took this Candidates very seriously, we did a lot of work, and I think that the work and the form I was in before that kind of carried over here. Even though I was not really very fresh, I was still more or less calculating well. I was very impatient in a few games, which led to some careless moves, but that was where the luck came in, that my careless moves didn’t lead me to any losses. A few games I felt like I was just itching to make a move and I had to restrain myself from not rushing, but still I was calculating reasonably well throughout the event.
He has just 8 days before Round 1 of the US Championship in St. Louis!
When people look back on the GRENKE Chess events of 2018 it’s likely they’ll remember it for two things – Caruana’s win straight after the Candidates and 13-year-old German IM Vincent Keymer’s coming of age. His finishing clear first on 8/9 in an almost 800-player field is a more impressive individual result than any of his peers have yet managed, even if many of them have been faster to score GM norms or climb the rating list (by the way, you might have missed that Praggnanandhaa is currently norm-hunting in Greece).
In his interviews afterwards Vincent came across as extremely level-headed, and in Peter Leko he has a coach who knows exactly what it means to enter the elite at a young age. It’s not yet clear if Vincent will take up the invitation to play in next year’s GRENKE Chess Classic, but he’s gained a lot of admirers. Some of the comments from the Classic players:
Of course I’m very excited for him. I think that’s great news. Generally the more strong players we have coming from Germany the better, because there is so much tradition and love towards the game. I think Germany deserves to have a strong player. It was of course a great result, so we’ll watch with excitement to see what comes out of it.
I’ve actually followed Vincent for more than 3 years, because I’ve had one training session a year with him, and already the very first time when he was 10 I realised he’s by far the biggest talent we’ve had in Germany in a couple of decades, and I’m not surprised he does well, but of course I’m surprised, everyone’s surprised, that he had this unbelievable result. I was looking at his games also and I had the impression that he deserved most of his wins.
I only saw the last game, actually, but there he certainly showed great resilience in defence and also poise to counterattack when needed, so that was impressive. We’ll see what happens next year. I’m sure he has a lot to look forward to in the future.
It’s some sort of breakthrough, of course, something every youngster needs to get now and then, and I hope it’s only the beginning of the story for him.
Ok, this was a better conclusion after the Tata Steel Masters, but finishing clear 2nd with a 2800+ rating performance despite a relatively uninspired event was quintessential Carlsen.
In the end he "only" beat Hou Yifan and Arkadij Naiditsch, though he came close against Caruana in the first round and Vitiugov in the penultimate round and still had playoff chances going into the final round. Needing to win on demand with Black he followed Caruana’s attempt from the last round of the 2016 Candidates Tournament against Sergey Karjakin and allowed Vishy Anand to play the Richter-Rauzer Attack in the Sicilian. Some silky manoeuvring was on show, with the black king getting out of Dodge:
16…Rc7 17.Bd3 Kd8 18.c3 Kc8 19.Bc2 Kb8 followed, but in the end two titans of chess cancelled each other out. Magnus summed up:
I kind of liked the game today, it was interesting, but no, in general I’m not happy with the quality of my play or the content of the games. It’s definitely a step down from my previous couple of tournaments. The result in itself is not a disaster - it’s going to be probably second since Vitiugov has a pretty dicey position. I’m not thrilled, but I’m looking forward to the next one.
That next one is Shamkir
Chess, which starts just one day after the US Championship begins, with Mamedyarov,
Kramnik, Giri, Ding Liren and Karjakin among the other participants.
Nikita Vitiugov could be the poster child for one of the big problems with chess – how closed off the absolute elite is from players even just slightly below that level. He’s been a 2700-player on almost every rating list since 2010, but can count his super-tournament invitations on the fingers of one hand – he only broke through into the GRENKE Chess Classic by winning the open in 2017. It’s not, as some claim, that the elite are only the elite because they don’t have to fight against the rest (the lucrative new super-opens again and again show that the elite are there for a reason), but that there are always players with the potential to compete regularly at the very top if they could just get more practice. Nikita has a doubly tough task, since Russia has such an embarrassment of chess riches that he can get little of the support a player of his calibre would get in almost any other country.
Two wins and then six draws demonstrated that Nikita deserved his chance, but he was arguably under much more pressure than Fabiano in the final game. Win the game and tournament and it would be the result of his career and, perhaps more importantly, ensure an invite to next year’s event. It the end it wasn’t to be, but of course gaining rating points and sharing third place on +1 with Maxime Vachier-Lagrave and Levon Aronian was a highly respectable result.
Some of the big names failed to shine in Karlsruhe and Baden-Baden. Maxime Vachier-Lagrave ran out of gas in the second half of the tournament, while Levon Aronian managed to avoid any losses after the trauma of the Candidates but put in a performance that was more a slow convalescence than a fight to retain his title. Vishy Anand stood out for the wrong reason, as the only player to suffer a double-digit rating loss, and his losses to MVL and especially Matthias Bluebaum saw him drop to world no. 13.
There wasn’t a lot to say afterwards. Jan asked the eternal question, “what went wrong?”
I’ve already forgotten the rest of the tournament… self-defence mechanism! It was just horrible, but today was a decent game, and maybe it’s a good note to wrap it up.
The final game saw Vishy play fast and confidently while also spotting some nice tactical points. For instance, when he responded to 30…d4! with 31.Nc2!
This is only playable if you’ve seen that 31…Bf3 runs into 32.Nxd4! Bxd1 33.Nxb5+!, exploiting the undefended rook on d8. Magnus said he spent all his time on this line, but eventually had to play 31…d3 with a heavy heart and let the game fizzle out to a draw.
The tournament overall will have come as no surprise to Vishy watchers. With age he’s lost consistency, but that should fool no-one. He scored a winless -3 in the London Chess Classic then hit back to win the World Rapid Championship and score +3 in the Tata Steel Masters. All that remains is to see which Vishy turns up for Norway Chess next month!
It wasn’t a tournament featuring spectacular results by the underdogs, but none of them disappointed. Georg Meier finished last with three losses and no wins for a second year in a row, but as there were two more rounds this year that meant two more draws, and he made a big contribution to the enjoyment of the event. He was one well-calculated move or time trouble leap of faith away from scoring the sensation of the event by beating World Champion Magnus Carlsen, he missed a tricky win against Vishy Anand and he also posed problems for MVL in the final round.
Matthias Bluebaum only lost in Round 1, beat Vishy Anand and finished on 50%. Arkadij Naiditsch played his usual brand of aggressive chess, and Hou Yifan proved her doubters wrong by showing that losing to Carlsen and MVL in consecutive rounds in Karlsruhe was the kind of thing that could happen to anyone. She drew her remaining games and came close to improving her score in the final round against Naiditsch:
The one rule-of-thumb everyone knows about knight endings is that you can evaluate them essentially by removing the knights from the board. There are exceptions, though, and while here without knights White is definitely winning, it’s a lot less clear with knights on the board. There are subtleties – for instance, now Yifan played 40.Kg2 and Arkadij replied 40…c6! If the Chinese no. 1 continued 41.Nc2? Black could simply take the knight since a check on e3 will allow that knight to get back in time to stop the c-pawn. After 40.Kg1!, to avoid that check, White wins after 40...c6 41.Nc2! Nxc2? 42.bxc6, so Black would instead have to try 41...c5.
It was yet another fantastic endgame from this year’s GRENKE Chess Classic, but in the end Naiditsch was able to set up a fortress despite still being two pawns down in the final position.
It wouldn’t fundamentally have changed anything if Magnus had won their Round 1 game and gone on to win the tournament, but it’s certainly more fun to have Fabiano on a roll and up to world no. 2 in a year that will see them face off for the World Championship title! When he was asked whether he’d managed to “send a message” to Magnus, as he’d said he'd try to do in the final Berlin Candidates press conference, he replied:
In our individual game I was on the back foot for pretty much the entire game, but overall I did think I played better than him. I had a lot of lucky breaks, but I also played a number of I think quite good games, like today, against Maxime, and probably also against Arkadij was a decent game. Overall you need some luck to win a tournament, but I’m very satisfied.
So that’s all for this year’s GRENKE Chess Classic, except to thank everyone involved in putting on the event for another great show! As mentioned above, the next outing for Fabiano will be the US Championship, starting on 18 April in St. Louis, when he’ll again face Hikaru Nakamura and defending champion Wesley So. Then 17 hours later (it’s going to be a tough schedule for chess fans!) Magnus Carlsen will start his bid to win a 3rd Shamkir Chess title in the tournament in Azerbaijan. Of course there’s going to be plenty of chess action before then (need we mention Jan Gustafsson and co. in the Bangkok Chess Club Open!), and you can follow it all on our Live Tournaments page.