Maxime Vachier-Lagrave beat Vishy Anand in the big clash of Round 2 of the GRENKE Chess Classic after catching his opponent out in a fashionable opening line that neither player had expected to happen in the game. That was the one surprise out of the four wins for the white pieces, as Magnus Carlsen (against Hou Yifan), Levon Aronian (Arkadij Naiditsch) and Nikita Vitiugov (Georg Meier) made their healthy rating advantages count. Only Fabiano Caruana failed to win against Matthias Bluebaum after being outprepared by the young German.
For a brief glimpse of the atmosphere in Karlsruhe you can’t do better than watch the quick “impressions” video of Round 2:
The round was as bloody as expected given the higher rated players all had White, though if told before the round that there would be four decisive games you would have bet on a different game finishing in a draw:
Relive the day’s action with commentary from Jan Gustafsson and Peter Leko, including player interviews with MVL, Vitiugov, Meier, Carlsen and Hou Yifan:
The day’s big clash was a heavyweight theoretical battle, although if we believe the players, and the move times suggest we should, they were both stumbling in the dark as they attempted to remember the formidable work they and their teams appeared to have devoted to the position. Things got interesting on move 9 of a Taimanov Sicilian after Vishy played 9…b5:
The best known game to reach this position was Karjakin 0-1 Caruana, the Round 4 game that finally broke the draw curse at the 2017 London Chess Classic after Karjakin played the chess24 engine’s 1st choice move 10.f4 and fell to a heavy defeat. Paco Vallejo recently tried the 2nd choice, 10.Nf3, in his ill-fated European Championship, though despite losing that game he was better out of the opening and missed a tactical blow the computer evaluated at more than +17.
Maxime instead close the third choice, 10.a3, which is anything but as quiet as it looks, since it prepares White’s next move. 10…Bb7 11.Bxb5! followed, and then, after just 3 minutes, Vishy responded with 11…Rc8!
That move saw Maxime later use a phrase that encapsulates modern computer-aided chess, “Then 11…Rc8 came as a shock, before I realised it was exactly what I had prepared!”
I don’t remember for exactly which reason 11…Bxa3 doesn’t work. I was inclining to play 12.Nde2, not 12.Bf4, but I thought, if he plays it then I’ll figure it out, because I knew it’s basically not good…
For the answer to that mystery we can turn to Dmitry Frolyanov’s game against Semen Khanin in the Nezhmetdinov Memorial last year. Khanin thought 20 minutes before going for 11…Bxa3? only to get hit by 12.Bf4!, and after 12…Bd6 the spectacular 13.Nxe6!! fxe6 14.Rxd6 Qxd6 15.Bxe5. That’s the kind of thing it’s better to have worked out at home, while Maxime’s 12.Nde2? looks to be losing to 12…Bxb2+!, though of course he’d probably have spotted that if Vishy had played 11…Bxa3.
Back in Karlsruhe the fact Maxime now spent 10 minutes on 12.Ba4 and Vishy took 32 over 12…Nxe4 backed up their story that they were struggling to remember the details. Peter Leko gives a lucid explanation of the moves that followed – using a real chessboard (what is it with these Peters?) – at the start of his Round 2 recap:
Vishy wasn’t sure if he’d followed his preparation:
He had a reasonable idea in a slightly obscure line, and it succeeded because exactly the move I played I couldn’t remember what I was supposed to do, so I’ve no idea if I reacted well or not, but anyway I got into a slightly worse endgame.
Maxime, meanwhile, eventually recalled he’d had the position all the way up to 17.Bd6 at home:
The computer gives 0.00, but the players had a similar impression of the position. Maxime:
In terms of practical play it’s very pleasant for me to play and I just had free play and could try working on the queenside or push my pawns on the kingside. As a matter of fact, I guess I did both!
Vishy said of the ending that followed:
It didn’t feel that bad and I felt I should be able to hold it, but once I got there finding moves to play was not so easy. Maybe it’s objectively ok, but it’s not easy to make a move.
The players felt the losing blunder was 27…Rc5? (27…Kf8 was MVL’s suggestion):
Vishy had only counted on 28.Nf3 as a reply, when 28…Rc4 holds the balance, but instead Maxime played 28.Ne2!, stopping that resource by defending the f4-pawn. 28…d5 runs into 29.Nd4!, hitting e6, and Vishy could find nothing better than admitting his mistake with the retreat 28…Rc7, when after 29.Rd6! Black was all but strategically busted.
The game didn’t last long after that, with Anand commenting:
It went downhill very fast. You lose the plot completely, you don’t like this, you don’t like that, you don’t like this, you don’t like that, and then you make the worst move!
Resignation came on move 38. Watch the players talking about the game:
If you’re not confident of improving on Vishy’s play in your own games you might want to check out Robin van Kampen’s 4-hour video series on the Taimanov Sicilian, where he recommends the interesting idea 7…d6!? instead of Vishy’s 7…Nf6.
World no. 1 Magnus Carlsen came into this game with a formidable record against women’s no. 1 Hou Yifan:
The number of moves tells a story, since his modus operandi (except when he blundered and almost lost in last year’s GRENKE Chess Classic), has been to get a quiet opening position with no real advantage and then apply pressure until his opponent finally cracked. That was the case on Easter Sunday in Karlsruhe, when Magnus explained afterwards that some aggressive looking attacking moves (21.Qc1, 23.Bh6) were really only aimed at getting the slightly better ending that occurred in the game. Hou Yifan burnt up time trying to figure out what was going on, meaning she couldn’t take the deep think required on move 32:
Here Hou Yifan played 32…Re6 relatively quickly and, as Leko pointed out, the position after 33.Rd8 was very hard to play in a practical game. After 33…Kg7 Carlsen was correct to think that 34.Nf1! was a trap encouraging 34…Rf6?! (the only reason Hou Yifan had another chance to equalise with 38…Rg5! was that he then played 38.Kf2 and not 38.Kh2!, when the king can come to h3 and support a pawn on h4) and White had a big edge.
Instead, though, 32…Ra8!! may equalise on the spot, with a possible line running 33.Rxc6 Ra2! 34.Bd3 h4! 35.Rxb6 hxg3 36.hxg3 Nh2! and it turns out Black forces a draw by perpetual check e.g. 37.Bxb5 Rd2! 38.b4 Nf3+ and the white king is trapped.
Of course something like that is tough to see or play, and the way the game developed looked smooth and logical. Since again it was the last game of the day to finish it was hard not to think of the missed win from the day before, but this was to be no repeat performance. Magnus couldn’t quite fill the whole f-file with pieces…
…but the end result was never in doubt. As MVL had noted, “this is Magnus’s bread and butter”.
The post-game press conference is worth a watch, with Hou Yifan having her moments:
This game was just what Levon Aronian needed after a miserable run of 11 games without a win. Things went well early on, when he surprised Naiditsch by meeting the King’s Indian Defence with 5.Nge2, a move Arkadij had faced only once before as a 2390-rated teenager. Arkadij went on to reproduce theory, slowly, until Levon unleashed the novelty 13.Nb5. That already saw Naiditsch forced into the sad 13…b6, but the game perhaps only really got out of hand on move 18, when a 21-minute think produced 18…e4?!
A tempting move but, as in Naiditsch-MVL the day before, despite the white king being caught in the centre the opening of the position only favoured White. 19.Rb1 sidestepped the attack and soon the multiple weaknesses in the black position were being targeted. Passive defence might have brought nothing, but when Arkadij tried to play more actively it only hastened the end. Black’s greatest achievement of the game was to reach an ending with level material, but his position was dire, as 33.Nd8! illustrated:
The white knight will be a monster on c6, the bishop can come to e6 and most black moves lose material one way or another. The game finished: 33…d5 34.Nc6 Ra3 35.Bxd5 Black resigns
That was more like it from Levon, with Leko feeling that now the reigning GRENKE Chess Champion will be able to play normal chess again: “Playing good games and achieving results is the only medicine that can help him”.
Despite three regular Top 10 guys picking up wins in Round 2, it was Nikita Vitiugov who kept the sole lead on 100% by beating a second German player in a row. Leko said afterwards of Vitiugov:
He’s a great player. He only has this problem that in Russia there are way too many great players!
Vitiugov is currently only a win, or a draw or two against the right people, from the world Top 20, and his victory over Georg Meier was again extremely impressive. During the Candidates Peter Svidler credited Vitiugov as the ideal person to have around when it comes to opening theory, and 8.b5! was an interesting novelty (at the top level) against his opponent’s trusted French Defence:
The immediate 8.Bxh6 or 8.cxd4 were the moves that had previously been tested. This new try tempted Black’s knight to a5, while if b5 was played only after 8.Bxh6 Black would prefer to have the knight on e7. Georg soon found himself choosing a move he felt wasn’t the best (12…Qc7) in order to get his opponent thinking at the board, which worked out reasonably well until he played 22…Nc4+?!:
Nikita said he “blundered” this, but it was Meier who had overlooked the danger of opening up the e4-square so a white knight could make it to d6. This was the position just 7 moves later:
Meier said he’d forgotten the b7-pawn would be under attack – “it’s just a big tempo and it’s killing me”. The position had some similarities to a game Meier had managed to draw “by a miracle” against Anand in the first ever GRENKE Chess Classic back in 2013, but this time the h-pawn was indeed just one tempo short of saving the day. White queened first and was about to deliver mate when resignation finally came.
Nikita insisted on repeating the mantra that he’d been “lucky” and what he was doing was “nothing special”:
Matthias Bluebaum rescued the honour of German opening preparation by managing the not inconsiderable task of outpreparing Fabiano Caruana. He also played the French, and revealed afterwards that he was still in his prep up to 21.f5:
In fact he only started thinking here, because he couldn’t remember if he should play 21…f6 immediately or 21…Bxd3 first. He chose the latter, correctly it seems, and there was no opportunity for White to fight for anything.
Perhaps the best moment came after that game, when Fiona Steil-Antoni asked a question she’d been asking of all the players: “Have you ever played the King’s Gambit as a surprise weapon?” Bluebaum’s answer seemed like an April Fool’s joke, but wasn’t: “I actually never played e4 as the first move ever in my life.” So it turns out there’s no need to go to the lengths of the King’s Gambit to surprise a future opponent!
Monday’s Round 3 is the last in Karlsruhe before the players move to Baden-Baden. This time the higher-rated players have Black, which increases the probabilities of draws, but also of surprises if the top players overpress. Of course as in Round 2, Vishy Anand’s game is one without a clear favourite.