Reports Sep 26, 2017 | 9:40 AMby Colin McGourty

Isle of Man 2-3: 65-year-old Tarjan stuns Kramnik

Vladimir Kramnik’s hopes of qualifying for the 2018 Candidates Tournament by rating suffered a new and likely fatal blow on Monday as he blundered and lost to 2412-rated James Tarjan. It was a heart-warming story for the veteran US grandmaster, who won an Olympiad gold medal before Kramnik was born and only returned from a 30-year chess retirement in 2014. Afterwards he called himself “a promising 3-year-old”. Meanwhile Magnus Carlsen and three others lead the Isle of Man Open on 3/3, while Hou Yifan has been paired with a fourth female player in a row.

Vladimir Kramnik on the way to a stunning loss against James Tarjan | photo: John Saunders, official website

You can play through all the games from the Isle of Man using the selector below – click on a result to open the game with computer analysis or hover over a player’s name to see all his or her results:

Round 2: Normal service resumes

After the controversial experiment with random pairings in Round 1 normal Swiss order was restored in Round 2, with most games featuring clear favourites. By and large they did well, though some top players were held to draws. 

Nikolas Lubbe did better than Vladimir Kramnik against Fabiano Caruana | photo: John Saunders, official website

It was a good day for young German grandmasters, with 20-year-old Jonas Lampert drawing against Vishy Anand, while IM Nikolas Lubbe, a regular chess24 contributor alongside his wife Melanie, played the game of his life against Fabiano Caruana before the world no. 5 ultimately scraped a draw.

There was a reward for that draw!

There could have been a real sensation, since Magnus Carlsen again tested the limits of permissible risk with Black against Ukrainian-born US GM Eugene Perelshteyn. 

Can Magnus win his first classical tournament in 14 months? | photo: John Saunders, official website

Magnus played the Modern Defence, which hasn’t always served him well…

…though Peter Svidler was a fan, since until move 10 Magnus was following his game against Vishy Anand from the 1998 Linares supertournament. As Peter told Jan Gustafsson on our live show:

I won the “Junkiest Opening of the Tournament” award from my, by this point, close friend Mig Greengard, when I played I think more or less this precise line against Vishy in Linares… I was better after 15 moves. It still didn’t save me from the ire of the all-mighty chicken factor inventor. He basically saw me play the Pirc against Vishy, he saw me lose and he drew all the conclusions he needed.  

At one point Perelshteyn was two pawns up, but eventually he was beaten by the World Champion:

The other most notable moment was Nigel Short beating Inna Gaponenko with Black to cross 2700 on the live rating list at the age of 52.

You could argue Nigel perhaps isn’t the strongest player in his 50s of all time – for instance Viktor Korchnoi’s 2695 rating at 50 in 1981, a year when he played a World Championship match against Anatoly Karpov, probably needs some adjustment for inflation – but it’s still a great achievement.

He would dip back below 2700 after a draw in Round 3, but that wasn’t one of the things the round will be remembered for…

Round 3: A 3-year-old prodigy

The man of the day - James Tarjan | photo: Maria Emelianova /

There were two great stories in Round 3 that were almost only tangentially connected – one was a fairy tale victory for 65-year-old US Grandmaster James Tarjan, while the other was a devastating and unnecessary loss for former World Champion Vladimir Kramnik. Of course the connection was on the chessboard, where after applying pressure but failing to make a breakthrough after 29 moves Kramnik blundered with 30…Bf3?

Tarjan’s theory is that Kramnik simply missed that after 31.Bxf3! “winning the rook” with 31…Qxf1 is met by 32.Be2!, trapping the queen. That was actually Kramnik’s best and last chance to save the game, though, since 32…Nxg3!! is enough for a draw after 33.Bxf1 Nxf1+ 34.Kg2 Rxe1 35.Qb2 Re6! and with the rook ready to swing over to g6 White has to show some care to ensure the best Black can get is a draw by perpetual check.

In the game, though, Kramnik tried 31…Nxg3?, but after 32.fxg3 Qxf1 33.Bf2! his rook was no match for Tarjan’s bishop pair and it would almost have been possible to resign there and then. Instead a dejected Kramnik played on until move 56:

The result was a simply extraordinary moment for James Tarjan, whose “first” chess career had stretched from when he played for the US team at the World Students’ Olympiad in 1969 as a 17-year-old until he retired in his early 30s in 1984 to become a librarian. 

During that period he played in five consecutive Olympiads, claiming individual gold twice and team gold in the 1976 Olympiad in Haifa, Israel, when the Soviet team boycotted the event.

His peak ranking was world no. 39 in July 1983, when he was rated 2535.

He only returned to chess in 2014, and has now played in all four editions of the tournament on the Isle of Man. In 2014 he only lost one game, to Maxime Vachier-Lagrave, on the way to finishing 19th, in 2015 he drew with Jan Timman and finished 36th, while in 2016 he ended in 55th place. Nothing, however, compares to his victory over Vladimir Kramnik.

In the post-game interview he was visibly moved, responding to Fiona Steil-Antoni’s question on how he felt:

Don’t ask! You know it’s just one game of chess, but of course it’s a little different, someone like him…

James was both self-deprecating (“he plays patzers like me almost never”) and justifiably proud, commenting, “it's impressive I can play with him at all, at my age”, noting some of his defensive ideas, “were not such terrible moves, I think” and later adding “you can think of me as a promising 3-year-old!”

His strategy was simply to hang around, noting that since Kramnik is usually playing fellow elite grandmasters, “if he has any weakness it's that he always plays so solidly with Black”. He explained, “I was kind of just crouching around” and then, more memorably, “it's kind of like Mohammed Ali with the rope-a-dope”. His play drew the admiration of Sergey Shipov, who was impressed to see another veteran giving almost as good as he got against the former World Champion.

That admiration was echoed around the whole chess world!

Kramnik’s new low

The other side of that coin was a huge blow to Vladimir Kramnik’s chances of qualifying for the 2018 Candidates Tournament by rating. His experience of open tournaments up to this point had been positive, as he gained rating in the Qatar Masters Open in 2014 and 2015:

As you can see, he’d scored some draws against players he would expect to beat, but had experienced none of the real pitfalls for top players in open tournaments. That all changed after the randomly paired first round on the Isle of Man, when the punishment for losing an exciting game with Black against one of the world’s top players was to be paired against a 2281-rated opponent in Round 2. In terms of the tournament you could argue that favoured Kramnik, but in a situation where rating was all-important it was the last thing he needed – a win would gain him an insignificant 0.8 rating points while a draw would be around as bad as losing to Caruana and a loss would be unthinkable.

Kramnik, armed with a banana, successfully overcame Vilmos Balint, but it wasn't to be the first step on the path to a rating recovery... | photo: John Saunders, official website

With the white pieces Kramnik successfully overcame that hurdle, but then he was paired with Black against Tarjan and was essentially in the same situation. A draw would have a large negative impact on his Candidates qualification chances, so he had to go for a win at all costs. Up to a point he handled the situation well, continuing to apply pressure even though he couldn’t find a killer blow. Then, with time becoming an issue, one rush of blood to the head condemned him to defeat, and the loss of 9.1 rating points.

From starting the month as world no. 3 losses to Ivanchuk, Caruana and now Tarjan have taken Kramnik to world no. 9 and seem him fall further behind Caruana and So in the race to qualify for the Candidates Tournament on rating:

It's all gone wrong for Vladimir Kramnik | source: 2700chess

Kramnik still can’t be entirely ruled out, but he’d have to gain 22 rating points by the end of the event to nudge back ahead of Wesley So, which given the weaker pairings that again await looks close to a mathematical impossibility:

He does have a potential 7 games in the European Club Cup after that (though historically he would be expected to play only 4 or 5 rounds) and if he was close by that point it’s possible he’d ask to play in the European Team Championship in November, but it’s increasingly looking as though his hopes of playing in the Candidates Tournament lie in a wild card spot.

Carlsen among the leaders

Meanwhile at the other end of the table some of the favourites flexed their muscles in Round 3. Vishy Anand succeeded where Caruana failed and beat Nikolas Lubbe, weaving a mating net after giving up his queen for two rooks. Nikolas still had unflagging support from his wife via the chess24 app:

Caruana himself eased to victory over Vishnu Prasanna, while Magnus Carlsen again managed to bamboozle a weaker opponent, though this time it was none other than World Junior Champion Jeffery Xiong. Neither player played perfect chess, but Magnus was the one turning the screw in his opponent’s time trouble:

After 29…Bxe6 30.h6! gxh6 31.Qf6 Jeffery still had a chance to save the game:

31…Qd8!! sacrifices the bishop to 32.Rxe6, but after 32…Qxf6 33.Rxf6 Black has 33…Rc8! and the c-pawn wins back the piece with a probably drawn rook ending. Instead after 31…Kg8? 32.Qxh6 Qb4 33.Kh1 Black resigned, since Xiong would have to give up a lot of material to stop mate on the g-file.

Magnus is joined on a perfect 3/3 by 2016 Champion Pavel Eljanov, who ground down Falko Bindrich in 64 moves, Aleksandr Lenderman, who managed to win the theoretically drawn but tricky Rook + Bishop vs. Rook against Paco Vallejo, and Rustam Kasimdzhanov, who positionally outplayed India’s Sunildth Lyna. The reward for the former FIDE World Champion and the current coach of Caruana? White against Carlsen in Round 4!

Hou Yifan’s curse continues

For a second open tournament in a row women’s no. 1 Hou Yifan has started by being paired against four women:

In Gibraltar she eventually faced 7 women in 10 rounds, and infamously opened her final game with 1.g4 before resigning on move 5. Since that protest she hasn’t apologised to the organisers and has in fact continued to maintain that the pairings were manually altered to ensure she played against women. They weren’t, of course, either in Gibraltar or on the Isle of Man (for each round it can be shown the odds weren’t so great given her rating, previous mix of White and Black and potential opponents), but to be fair, Hou Yifan isn’t alone in finding the situation extraordinary. Sergey Shipov called the latest pairings “mockery” of the world’s top female player, and when challenged as to why the organisers would manually be pairing her against women responded:   

I have no idea, but the fact remains. Fanechka declared she was quitting women’s chess and after that in Swiss tournaments she’s been paired almost exclusively against women, while the clear majority of players in these tournaments are men.

And that’s unpleasant.

Whose idea is it? Whose conspiracy is it? It doesn’t matter. And if there’s the hand of the heavens in this it’s still necessary to bring an end to this disgrace 

Nino Batsiashvili added salt to the wound by beating Hou Yifan in Round 3 | photo: John Saunders, official website

In Gibraltar Hou Yifan won in Round 4 and finally faced a man, Mickey Adams, in Round 5. Everyone will be watching to see how things go on the Isle of Man!

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