Reports Apr 22, 2017 | 7:45 AMby Colin McGourty

GRENKE Classic 6: Aronian wins with round to spare

Levon Aronian won a fourth game in a row to reach 5/6 and claim the 2017 GRENKE Chess Classic with a round to spare. He used the power of the bishop pair to beat Hou Yifan, while Fabiano Caruana was unable to convert an extra pawn against Matthias Bluebaum and Magnus Carlsen, claiming much of the limelight with a spectacularly bad hair day, was in some danger of losing a third consecutive game to Arkadij Naiditsch. Maxime Vachier-Lagrave was frustrated by a strong novelty from Georg Meier.

Levon Aronian has a helper on the way to his 4th win in a row | photo: Georgios Souleidis, official website

The penultimate round of the GRENKE Chess Classic was the least decisive of the whole tournament, but it couldn’t have gone better for Levon Aronian:

Peter Leko, again talking to Eric van Reem, recapped the day’s action:

You can also replay the whole day’s commentary with Peter Leko and Jan Gustafsson:

Aronian grabs first big win since 2015

Levon Aronian has won his first major tournament since the 2015 Sinquefield Cup, though it was a difficult outcome to imagine after the first two rounds. In Round 1 Levon was in serious danger against Georg Meier, while in the second round it looked for all the world as though Magnus Carlsen had found the winning plan and would take the full point. Instead both games were drawn, Aronian caught Maxime Vachier-Lagrave out with some fine preparation and flawless conversion, and the rest is history:

Friday’s game against Hou Yifan saw Levon once again win the opening battle. Hou Yifan pulled a surprise on move 4 by playing not the Ragozin with 4…Bb4 as she had over 50 times before, but 4…Nbd7. Aronian didn’t blink, though, and three moves later with 7.Bxc4 he already had the women’s no. 1 burning up time on the clock. 

Hou Yifan has struggled since her brilliant start in Karlsruhe | photo: Georgios Souleidis, official website

White was soon clearly better, but when Levon blundered (in his words) a queen exchange after 16…Qf5 it looked as though Hou Yifan might hold, though it was far from straightforward. Levon explained:

I saw this position that looks visually almost a draw but practically it’s very unpleasant to be on the black side. You have to come up with some decisions and Hou Yifan was down on time.

Lack of time and the fatigue of constantly defending difficult positions told, with Levon identifying move 25 as the critical moment:

25…Ne3 was the way to resist, and if 26.Re1 then 26…Nf5 or 26…f5 are both playable. Instead after 25…Be6 26.Bxb7 material equality had been re-established and White’s bishop pair and centralised rooks were simply too much to handle. First one pawn dropped, then another and it was time for Hou Yifan to resign.

In the press conference afterwards Aronian again joked that he’d adopted the Peter Svidler approach to converting his advantage by above all playing the endgame quickly.

Jan: Just don’t think is your advice?

Levon: Because if there are decisions then normally you’ll regret, but if you did it quick you didn’t see any other opportunities for you, normally.

Jan: Wisdom, ladies and gentlemen – that’s why we call him Dr. Levon. That’s why he has 5/6. He has all this knowledge.

Watch Levon Aronian talk about the game and his tournament:

The day’s other games were drawn, with Georg Meier scoring the most effortless draw you could hope for with the black pieces against Maxime Vachier-Lagrave. It all came down to a novelty in the Rubinstein French:

12…Bc5! Georg explained afterwards how this was the perfect novelty. It had the element of disguise, since it looks counterintuitive to move the bishop again in the opening and the move isn’t flagged up by the computer engines. Plus, of course, it simply works, with the key point being that after 13.Rad1 Black follows up immediately with the concrete 13…e5!. Black is willing to give up one or more pawns for piece activity and, in the game, it was actually Maxime who had to be careful not to end up seriously worse.

Any lingering dreams of glory MVL may have had were thwarted by the cold logic of Meier's preparation | photo: Georgios Souleidis, official website

In the following interesting interview Meier explains how as one of the few top players to “defend the honour of the Rubinstein French” (Leko’s turn of phrase) he has more chance of being able to play his novelties, while he also touched on the cause of his disastrous game against Magnus Carlsen the day before:

The longest game of the day was Bluebaum-Caruana, which had a depressingly familiar feel to it for the 19-year-old supertournament debutant. Matthias ended up in a passive position, then clearly worse with the white pieces, and there was nothing to look forward to but grim defence. He held on, though, and Fabiano had to settle for a 3 vs. 2 pawn ending on one side of the board. Bluebaum was on the brink, but had just enough resources to draw:

51.Nh2+ Kxg3 52.Nf1+ Kg4 53.Nh2+ Kf4 54.Rxh3 g4 55.Nxg4! Kxg4 and Matthias had reached the safety of the relatively simple Rook vs. Rook + Knight draw. The game ended with Caruana taking a stalemate on move 79.

Caruana failed to set up a last-round showdown with Aronian | photo: Georgios Souleidis, official website

That result was a big disappointment for most chess fans (Levon’s fans will take it!), since it meant that the final round clash where Caruana has White against Aronian would no longer be a showdown for first place. Magnus Carlsen had also fallen out of the race for first earlier, when he drew the day’s most enjoyable game against Arkadij Naiditsch.

This game stole the attention of the chess world before a move was even made, since you just couldn’t take your eyes off the World Champion:

It was the topic that just kept on giving:

Alas, the answer to that was a no!

Theories as to what was going on abounded.

Maybe Magnus no longer wanted to look like Jon Ludvig Hammer, in which case:

Did Magnus have a new idol?

No explanation seemed too outlandish:

Investigative journalist Jan Gustafsson didn’t disappoint the watching chess world and finally asked Magnus about the issue in the post-game press conference. His response requires a little editing for a family publication... 

Jan: Magnus, I have to ask. The hair situation – conscious choice to confuse your opponent or no time for styling?

Magnus: No, I went to the spa yesterday and this water really f***** up your hair. I discovered now that this is the problem with having a lot of hair. If you don’t do anything about it it looks ridiculous. You know, I have a plan. It’s going to be revealed in due time.

It has nothing to do with you trying to look less like Jon Ludvig Hammer?

No, Hammer has his curly days…

There was also a game, though, with Arkadij Naiditsch in with a chance of doing something that defied belief and beating Magnus for a third classical game in a row. Both players could be satisfied with an opening that gave an interesting, playable position, though one not without historical precedents. 

Naiditsch denied he was distracted by his hirsute opponent | photo: Georgios Souleidis, official website

On move 9 Naiditsch thought for almost 20 minutes, considering the manoeuvre 9.Nfd2 and then 10.Nb3 a move later.

When Levon Aronian was asked later about what books to study he suggested games annotated by the old masters, and noted that their ideas reoccur even in modern games. For instance, Capablanca had played the knight manoeuvre Naiditsch was contemplating in a famous game back in 1924.

Instead Naiditsch went for 9.0-0 and eventually a position was reached where both players had nothing better than to repeat moves. Arkadij, reluctantly, offered to do so, but Magnus decided to try and play on given his tournament situation. He wasn’t overly proud of what followed, describing his 15…Qa5 as “stupid” and 18…Qc7 as “rubbish – just way too risky”. After Naiditsch’s 22.Bb5! and 23.e4 (afterwards he wished he’d tried 23.Bd6) real precision was required from Black, and finally the real Magnus Carlsen showed up:

23…Bxf3! 24.Qxf3 Ne5! 25.Qh3 Nc6! and by a tempo Black was in time to hold, even giving up his queen for a position both players agreed White could no longer win:

Rather than allow Magnus to gang up on the f-pawn, Naiditsch shut things down with 34.Bxg6+! Rxg6 35.Qxh5+, liquidating into a simple draw.

That left the standings with one round to go as follows:

So what remains to be decided? 

Well, let’s take the games in turn:

Hou Yifan – Naiditsch: Both players are on 50% and how they look back on a somewhat mixed tournament may depend on the outcome here. A win for Hou Yifan, for instance, would mean a great event overall, while a loss would be a disappointing end to an event that began so well.

Caruana – Aronian: Levon won the 2014 Tata Steel Masters with a round to spare and then lost to Loek van Wely in the final round. He’ll want to avoid that bitter-sweet end this time, while a win might conceivably see him hit no. 5 in the world. For Fabiano it’s a fight for 2nd place.

Carlsen – MVL: When Jan asked Maxime who he had in the final round he replied, “I have this Norwegian kid...”. The kid has of course underperformed by his standards, but he’s still unbeaten and could post a very respectable +2 with a win. Short as the tournament is, Maxime may just want it to be over by now.

Meier – Bluebaum: Matthias summed up: “Kind of an interesting game to look forward to, since we’re deciding who has the honour of finishing last”.

Tune in for commentary with Peter Leko and Jan Gustafsson here on chess24 from 14:50 CEST onwards. You can also watch in our free mobile apps:   


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