Reports Sep 24, 2017 | 11:08 AMby Colin McGourty

Isle of Man 1: Kramnik’s nightmare start

Vladimir Kramnik’s hopes of qualifying for the 2018 Candidates Tournament were dealt a shattering blow by a loss to Fabiano Caruana, after the Isle of Man International’s controversial decision to use completely random pairings in Round 1 had the freak consequence of the two players for whom the event mattered most being paired immediately. Elsewhere there were almost no upsets, with World Champion Magnus Carlsen duly beating a player rated 663 points below him while other stars such as Vishy Anand and Hikaru Nakamura also got off to a winning start.

Caruana's dream start makes him a big favourite to qualify for the 2018 Candidates Tournament | photo: John Saunders

All the games from the 2017 Isle of Man International can be replayed using the selector below - hover over a result to see the latest position and click to open a game with computer analysis:

The Round 1 draw

With five players from the Top 10 the tournament on the Isle of Man has some claim to be the strongest open of all time, but its historic claim to fame is now instead likely to be that the world nos. 3 and 5 met in the first round of an open. The way such events usually work is that the top players are paired against weak opponents in the first round, then if they win as expected they play the weakest players who also won in Round 1, and so on until the very best players are expected to meet in a clash at the top of the table after a few rounds (the number depends on the number of players). It works on a similar principle to the knockout system used in tennis and of course the chess World Cup, where the players are seeded and the draw arranged so that the nos 1 and 2 can only meet in the final. That has the benefit of ensuring the best chance of getting the “best” final, though of course it does have some consequences you might question, such as the early rounds featuring walkovers and Magnus Carlsen or Rafael Nadal having the easiest route to the final.

The main issue with chess opens was voiced by John Saunders in his report on the pairings for the official website, where he “outed” himself as the person who made the initial suggestion of random pairings:

He found round one of traditional Swiss tournaments particularly tedious, with a long litany of mismatches and only the very occasional newsworthy David success against Goliath. Why, he asked rhetorically, was it axiomatic that the top players should be kept apart until the latter stages of a tournament?  

It should perhaps be noted here that Round 1 of last year’s event wasn’t so tedious. Unlike some massive opens the Isle of Man Masters is relatively small with a low number of weak players, and the way the pairings worked was to pair the top seeds against mid-range opposition, meaning match-ups such as Fabiano Caruana vs. multiple British Women’s Champion Jovanka Houska. By Round 2 the stars were facing strong 2500+ opposition, with three of the first five matches drawn, including So-Harika. By Round 3 there were already clashes such as Caruana-Grandelius that could happen in a supertournament.

So to some extent it was a solution in search of a problem, but the players can’t say they weren’t warned - even if said players are also notorious for not checking contracts or regulations very closely!

The random pairing system on average means that half of the match-ups in Round 1 were less interesting than they would otherwise have been:

On the other hand, you can’t deny that the tougher pairings more than make up for that in terms of interest, and one freak pairing was simply a sensation:

The two players who had by far the most to gain or lose in the event were paired in Round 1, with the player who had to chase, Vladimir Kramnik, given the black pieces. We refer, of course, to the race to claim one of the two rating spots for the 2018 Candidates Tournament that will determine Magnus Carlsen’s next challenger. That will be determined on the basis of the average rating for all the 12 lists from January to December this year. It was (and still is) close!

As you can see, Kramnik had only an outside chance of catching Fabiano Caruana, while Wesley So, who currently seems unlikely to play any more relevant rated games, was much more catchable. Vladimir was going to have to play a careful event on the Isle of Man, trying to beat lower-rated opposition efficiently and play solidly but seize any chances he got against top opponents. But suddenly he found all his carefully woven plans in ruins.

Caruana had been a tough opponent for Kramnik, winning four classical games to his two, and once again we got a fierce struggle, where Vladimir met Fabiano’s 26.h4! with the extremely sharp 26…Nc7!

As Fabiano noted after the game, that move plans to meet 27.g5?! with the piece sacrifice 27…Nxb5! 28.axb5 Rxb5! 29.gxf6 Qxf6 and suddenly, with the b2-pawn about to be attacked by all Black’s army, White has to take drastic measures not to be seriously worse.

Caruana spotted that, though, and felt after 27.Qxc5! he was playing for two results. Despite being under heavy time pressure Kramnik seemed to come very close to equalising completely, but Caruana considered move 42 to be point at which the rook ending turned in his favour:

Here he felt 42…Rc5 offered more chances, while after 42…Rb5 the Sesse Norwegian computer was soon giving huge evaluations in White’s favour and eventually counting down to mate. Caruana was good enough to justify those evals and it couldn’t have been a worse start for Vladimir, since he not only lost but lost a long and painful game, finally resigning on move 67:

Even the winner, Fabiano Caruana, wasn’t keen on the random pairing system, telling Fiona Steil-Antoni:

It’s very difficult to adjust, because you kind of expect at least a slightly easier start. It’s never easy in an open tournament. I’ve often made draws or had difficult games at the start, but I hadn’t really expected to play the no. 2 in the world.

He then went into more detail:

It introduces a huge luck factor. Obviously playing a top player in the first round is not ideal at all. Even if you win I don’t think that there’s much of a tournament benefit. I beat Kramnik, but I don’t see how I’m ahead of let’s say Carlsen, who played a 2100 player. I don’t even think there are tiebreaks in the tournament… I don’t think my win has any benefit except that it’s immensely satisfying. So there’s a luck factor. On the other hand, it does make it interesting for the spectators and it allows players who might not normally get the chance to play top players. I’m happy because I beat Kramnik, but it’s quite bad luck to have Kramnik in the first round!

Advocates of the experiment such as Greg Shahade correctly argue that the luck will even out in the long run, but Vladimir Kramnik doesn’t have the second career and many, many similar events it would take for that to happen. His compatriot, Peter Svidler, was sympathetic, feeling the pairing had been unfair to both players: 

He commented while it was still going on:

I don’t think it’s a great idea, in particular right now. I understand the organisers of Isle of Man aren’t supposed to really care about that, but since these guys are in a sort of straight race for Candidates spots by rating if this game is not a draw whoever loses it not only loses like double the points, because it’s plus five for one of them and minus five for the other one, he also is going to be playing significantly weaker opposition, given the thing with the Swiss, for the next like five rounds. Five is maybe an overstatement, but definitely for the next three rounds, he will be playing people in the lower brackets, so the implications of this game are going to be huge, in particular if it doesn’t end in a draw. I’m not a huge supporter of that.

I’m all for somewhat randomised pairings, but I think the names of the top five should not be in the bag. By all means have them drawn from the bag, but the people whose pairings you’re randomising should not be able to pick one another. I think that just skews everything so much, and even if it was, let’s say, a Kramnik-Carlsen pairing or a Carlsen-Anand pairing, where none of them have to care about the rat race for the Candidates, it just gives everybody else a head start in the tournament. The same could not have happened at all and Magnus today is playing a 2100 player and these guys are playing each other, so their tournament situation is immediately significantly worse than his. So yeah, not a fan!

When it seemed as though Caruana was much better Svidler added:

And that would be - it’s slightly ridiculous to call it after Round 1 - but if he does end up losing that’s maybe his Candidates kind of gone, and that’s extremely harsh. Shouldn’t really happen, I feel, but it has happened and what can you do? But really not great, in my viewpoint.

Of course Kramnik, with the European Club Cup to come after the Isle of Man, isn’t out of the race just yet, but he faces an uphill struggle, especially since, as Svidler noted, the next couple of pairings may help Vladimir’s tournament situation but aren’t going to let him get back his lost rating. White against 2281-rated Vilmos Balint in Round 2 will earn Kramnik under a point for a win, while a draw or loss will be disastrous.

Meanwhile, though, the other players did a good job of making it look like a normal first round of an open tournament.

Carlsen's toughest test yet was getting recognised!

Magnus Carlsen cruised while Vishy Anand beat a player he’d drawn with in Gibraltar, Marc Esserman, and Hikaru Nakamura managed to rustle up a mating attack out of nowhere against Indian GM Neelotpal Das. Alina l’Ami beating World Cup commentator Ivan Sokolov on board 32 was the first real upset, with the commentary team revealing they’d received a text message from the Dutch GM asking for recommendations for a good bar to drown his sorrows!

Despite a 44-year age difference Timman held Rapport to a draw

The game that might have been the sensation of the round was between England’s 2027-rated Zaki Harari and 668 points higher rated Maxim Rodshtein. 

The underdog had White and drew by repetition here (checking on h8 and h6), but Bd5!, taking the g8-square away from Black, was a clear win!

For Round 2 onwards the pairing returns to normal, with Vladimir Kramnik effectively starting a point behind his rivals. One big game to look out for is Praggnanandhaa-Adams. 

At the same stage last year the then 11-year-old lost to Hou Yifan, with the women’s no. 1 having some pairings déjà vu of her own. After she felt unfairly treated by being paired against a number of women at the Gibraltar Masters this year she’s now facing two women in two rounds on the Isle of Man. First she drew with former Women’s World Champion Alexandra Kosteniuk and now she faces Elisabeth Paehtz in Round 2. 

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