Reports Apr 17, 2017 | 6:15 AMby Colin McGourty

GRENKE 2: Magnus-Lev thriller | 100% Hou Yifan

Women’s world no. 1 Hou Yifan leads the men’s nos. 1, 3, 5 and 9 by a full point after only two rounds of the 2017 GRENKE Chess Classic. Hou Yifan beat Georg Meier, while Magnus Carlsen and Levon Aronian played a draw that was “pure art” (Leko), though Magnus in particular missed a great winning chance. Fabiano Caruana returned to the 2800 club by beating Arkadij Naiditsch while MVL was within a point of doing the same after winning the day’s longest game against Matthias Bluebaum.

Hou Yifan continued her dream start | photo: Lennart Ootes

The view from the crowd | photo: Lennart Ootes

Round 1 seemed tough to match, but the players did all they could to electrify the more than 1,000 players and fans packed into the venue. Click on a result to replay the game with commputer analysis.

For a quick summary of the action check out the recap from our commentators Peter Leko and Lawrence Trent:

Although there were three decisive games, the Game of the Day was obviously the one that got away.

Carlsen 1/2-1/2 Aronian

Aronian and Carlsen's 51st classical encounter was one of their best | photo: Lennart Ootes

To truly appreciate this game you need to ditch, at least for a while, the computer, which instantly highlights some oversights by both players. From the computer-unaided commentary of Lawrence and Peter, or the players talking about the game afterwards, you got a glimpse of the depth and complexity of the double-edged struggle that ensued. You can watch the interview below:

It was one of those rare occasions on which one of the commentators may have known a little more than the players. Peter Leko, a player who came within a draw of winning the World Championship and who is currently back above 2700 on the rating list, revealed he’d prepared this line of the Anti-Marshall with 9…Bc5 as a novelty, but was disappointed when it was played by Evgeny Tomashevsky against Wei Yi in the 2016 Tata Steel Masters. That game finished in a short draw, but Magnus and Levon went for one of the most exciting variations, with a critical moment coming after 14…Nh5:

15.Nxe5! is the principled line, but one where it was understandable Magnus feared his opponent’s preparation, even if Levon would later claim – believe him at your peril - to have been working things out at the board by that stage. 

Fully focused | photo: Lennart Ootes

Instead Carlsen went for the quiet 15.Nbd2, and admitted his later exchanging bishops on e6 was, “a bit stupid, but at this point I didn’t think I had anything so I tried to provoke him a bit”. If that was the plan it worked, since Levon seized the initiative but then exchanged rooks on the b-file in a decision he later described as “ridiculous”. He’d assumed Magnus could never enter his position with his remaining rook… Then 24.Rb7 happened!

Levon has a history of squandering excellent positions against Magnus, and had the sensation it was happening again. An exchange from after the game:

Aronian: I couldn’t believe my eyes, because I saw there has to be something for me…

Carlsen: It’s the same thing every time!

Aronian: I should just stop having any ambitions at all.

The Magnus and Levon show | photo: Lennart Ootes

Levon went for it with 24…h3!? and didn’t stop believing in his position, at least until his bold play had backfired when Magnus was able to unleash 30.d4! exd4 31.e5!

Levon spent just 5 minutes on 31…dxe5, allowing Magnus to demonstrate the point – 32.Nc4! and the rook wishes it never landed on b2. He then burned up 18 minutes on 32…Rb1+, a move made with a heavy heart. After all, it forced 33.Kxg2, while Aronian said about his previous position, “How do you evaluate this… a pawn on g2, I might mate the guy at some point!”

Levon's belief in his position finally allowed him to survive some dark moments | photo: Lennart Ootes

Then 33…e4 brought us to the key position of the whole game:

The lines get extremely complicated, but after 34.Nfe5! it seems White is winning – after all, Black’s two minor pieces are attacked, with one of them also pinned to the king. It’s important that 34…e3 can be met with 35.Rf7!.

Magnus didn’t play it, though, saying afterwards that he simply thought he’d found something "easier" in 34.Qxe4? – alas, that ran into 34…Nf4+! 35.Kg3 and the move Magnus had missed 35…Ne2+! The knight can’t be taken since that allows Black to force an instant draw by perpetual check with 36…Qg6+. White would even have to be careful, given the rook on b1 is ready to join the fray.

Magnus' new look was still drawing attention | photo: Lennart Ootes

Carlsen would later say that “the fun part” was that the story didn’t quite end there:

I also thought that when he played 35...Ne2+ we’re going to shake hands soon, but at least something happened!

Magnus managed to rustle up some action by rejecting perpetual check and instead rolling the dice once more with 42.Kf6!

Black could queen the c-pawn, though it would soon have to give up its life for a knight. 42…Rb8 is the computer’s mathematical draw, but both players thought that was insanely risky, with the white pieces ganging up on the black king. Levon: “I thought how much joy and happiness (Magnus) will have!”

Instead Levon went for 42…Rg1!?. Both players had seen (“give us some credit!” – Carlsen) 43.Ng5 Rxg5 44.Ne3! but judged the knight ending that follows to be drawn. In the game after 43.Nxg1 c1=Q 44.Nxe2 Black was able to pick up the knight with check and reach a Q vs. R + N + P position that tablebases helpfully announced was a draw. In practice Magnus had winning chances, but Levon didn’t put a foot wrong and a draw was reached on move 70.

The view of our producer Macauley as Carlsen and Aronian joined Trent and Leko | photo: Lennart Ootes

Peter Leko commented:

I was calling this the game of the last years, because to be honest I haven’t seen such a fascinating draw!

To which Levon quipped:

We know your preferences!

We’ve taken so long on that game that we’d better speed up for the remainder of the round, though there was definitely no lack of incident. The big story overall was that Hou Yifan is flying on 2/2, even if she admitted her win over Georg Meier wasn’t the kind of comprehensive victory she’d scored over Caruana the day before:

Instead it was the exception that proved Bobby Fischer’s rule that “tactics flow from a superior position”, or as Meier lamented, “usually there comes some natural solution, but it was not there”. His superiority was such that Hou Yifan had to find a series of only moves, but when Meier weakened his kingside things fell apart at breakneck speed, with his time trouble leaving him with almost no chance of survival. 

Meier and Hou Yifan after the game | photo: Lennart Ootes

The last straw was 29.Nh4?

Hou Yifan almost instantly played the killer 29…Nxf2!, when after 30.Kxf2 Qe2+ 31.Kg1 Re3 the rest was trivial.

Getting an autograph from the woman of the moment | photo: Lennart Ootes

Two 2800 players had lost on same day on Saturday, and both bounced back immediately with wins. Fabiano Caruana benefitted from Arkadij Naiditsch misplacing his queen on b4:

Both Fabiano and Peter Leko assume Naiditsch had simply missed 14…b6! was possible (“a cold shower” – Leko), since 15.Nxb6 is met by 15…Rb8! The queen was soon driven to a3 and later found itself trying to return to the action via a1.   

Arkadij Naiditsch spoilt his impressive start | photo: Lennart Ootes

There was no knockout blow, however, and it was only when Arkadij began to drift before the time control and Caruana played the forceful 30…f5! that White’s fortunes took a sudden turn for the worse. The final position is a sad indictment of Naiditsch’s previous play:

All the pieces will be exchanged and the pawn ending is a trivial win for Black. Fabiano Caruana talked about the game, and his previous debacle against Hou Yifan:

Maxime Vachier-Lagrave played a novelty on move 13 and although he claimed not to remember his notes well he still seemed to have analysed the position until he was a pawn up. The conversion was anything but easy, though, with Matthias Bluebaum again showing the kind of resilience he’d put up against Magnus Carlsen the day before. 

Matthias Bluebaum attempting to chill | photo: Lennart Ootes

When asked at one point where the next critical moment was Maxime replied “I have no idea”, so perhaps let’s just give the final moment when victory was assured:

68.Rxb6 and the game goes on, but 68.Be4! was a beautiful winning shot. Black is losing a piece and the game.

Maxime Vachier-Lagrave had the last laugh | photo: Lennart Ootes

The standings that left after only two rounds are extraordinary, since Hou Yifan leads five star players by a full point:

Where next for Hou Yifan? Well, in Round 3 she has the little matter of White vs. Magnus Carlsen, a player who has beaten her in all three of their previous classical encounters. That game promises to be great fun, Aronian-MVL is a heavyweight battle and you don’t need to be Nostradamus to predict that Caruana-Meier and Bluebaum-Naiditsch will see the higher-rated players pushing hard to win. After all, it’s a short event, with Easter Monday the last day in Karlsruhe before the players move to Baden-Baden. The GRENKE Chess Open is coming to an end.

You can also see Richard Rapport on the stage - one of 7 players on 6/7 in the open, behind Vladimir Fedoseev on 6.5/7 | photo: Lennart Ootes

Don’t miss all the games with commentary from Peter Leko and Lawrence Trent here on chess24 from 14:50 CEST onwards. You can also watch in our free mobile apps:   


See also:

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