Hikaru Nakamura unleashed the Dragon on Maxime Vachier-Lagrave, but nothing could stop all games in the London Chess Classic ending in draws for a second round in a row. Hikaru had to hold an endgame a pawn down, World Champion Magnus Carlsen admitted he bailed out in his game against Sergey Karjakin and Wesley So mishandled a space advantage against Ian Nepomniachtchi. Vishy Anand couldn’t squeeze out a win against Mickey Adams, so for decisive action we had to look elsewhere, with Luke McShane and David Howell reaching the British Knockout Championship final via Armageddon.
The London Chess Classic switched to its familiar Olympiad Conference Centre venue on Sunday, but the main event is yet to spark into life. Perhaps we should, therefore, highlight some of the other action in the chess world first. Jorden van Foreest won the CNE Dutch Rapid Championship with 5/7, including a crushing win over second-placed Anish Giri. The Russian Championship Superfinals started in St. Petersburg, with Daniil Dubov stealing the show with the brilliant 13.Nd5!! piece sacrifice against Sergey Volkov.
Vladimir Fedoseev’s annus mirabilis continued as he beat Alexander Riazantsev in the other decisive game of Round 1.
Komodo drew in 213 moves against Houdini (those are computer chess engines, for the uninitiated!), while the last four rounds of the Chinese League are underway, but despite the top Chinese players and a host of foreign talent (Andreikin, Vallejo, Rapport, Grischuk and co.) taking part we haven’t yet spotted anything to compare to Ding Liren’s masterpiece from the last league meeting.
In a similar time zone, in Adelaide, Australia, 12-year-old Praggnanandhaa is continuing his hunt for GM norms and seemed to be well on course when he finished with 2/3 against the three grandmasters in the field, including finding a nice fortress against Adrien Demuth. In Round 4 he was on the verge of beating IM Kanan Izzat before disaster struck. Black’s last-ditch attack should simply have accelerated defeat, but instead it worked to perfection as it seems Praggnanandhaa made a big oversight:
The young Indian was probably intending 20.Qxd5 until realising to his horror that Black had 20…Rd6! As it turns out, though, White is still better in this position if he plays 20.c4!, but you have to spot that 20…Qh3 is met by 21.Qxg6! Instead after 20.Rd2? Rd8 21.c4 Nxe3 22. Qxd7 Rxg2+! White went down without a fight.
Praggnanandhaa now needs to score 5/5 for a GM norm, and while that’s not impossible given his opponents’ ratings, it will of course be an extremely tough feat to pull off.
Another young Indian, 13-year-old Nihal Sarin, is currently on 3/3 in the FIDE Open that accompanies the London Chess Classic and, just as he did in the Faroe Islands in his last tournament, he got to sacrifice a knight on f7:
27.Nxf7! It’s mate-in-two if Black takes the knight immediately (27…Kxf7 28.Qxg6+Kf8 Ne6#), but Black had placed his hopes in 27…Bxd3+. After 28.Nxd3, however, Yuanling Yuan decided to resign anyway, since the other knight is coming to e5 and the black king will be at the mercy of the white pieces.
The other big event in London is the British Knockout Championship. The McShane-Short and Howell-Sadler semifinals saw all the classical games and rapid tiebreaks drawn in both matches, but as it was a knockout there had to be a winner. It seemed the gods were on Nigel Short’s side when Luke McShane missed mate-in-2 in time trouble in the last rapid game, but Luke didn’t let that dampen his spirits. In Armageddon he had White and 6 minutes to Short’s 4, and again he immediately went on the attack:
Nigel’s French Defence has gone badly wrong and there were multiple ways to win, but Luke’s was the most elegant: 19.Bh7! took away the g8 retreat from the rook, and then after 19…Nd7 he followed up with 20.Nh2, winning the rook and, more or less smoothly, the game.
That means Nigel Short won’t be able to defend his title, while Luke will face David Howell in a 4-game match where the winner takes £20,000 and the loser £10,000. David turned around a losing position against Matthew Sadler to also win the Armageddon with White.
We can’t put it off any longer, though, so it’s time to get to Round 2 of the London Chess Classic!
You can rewatch the coverage, and all the player interviews, below:
The most anticipated game was the Karjakin-Carlsen rematch, and it looked promising when Magnus went for 9…g5!? in an Italian Game:
Sergey didn’t blink, though, since he was aware of Maxim Matlakov using the move to beat Grigoriy Oparin in this year’s Russian Higher League. It had also been played by Wei Yi against Vishy Anand, but Karjakin’s 10.b4 instead of 10.Nf1 was a novelty. The players played on opposite sides of the board until 12.b5:
Magnus admitted afterwards:
Certainly I was intending to play aggressively, but then I kind of bailed out at the first moment when I saw this alternative that I could actually go for this endgame, and probably we still have some very interesting play. I was tempted, but after that there isn’t that much to say.
The real challenge was to go for 12…axb5, when Sergey noted the engine gives a complicated line beginning 13.axb5 Bxf2+. Magnus decided not to risk running into serious analysis there, though, and went for 12…gxf3 13.Qxf3 Qf6 14.Qxf6 Nxf6, when both players agreed that if there was a path to a real advantage for White it was a very narrow one. Instead the game ended in a draw on move 30.
So-Nepomniachtchi finished even sooner, on move 27, but for a while had looked very promising for White. Ian Nepomniachtchi said, “I was trying to disrupt his preparation somehow” as he repeated the strategically risky 5…c5 push he’d once tried against Alexander Grischuk in a blitz game. White’s edge may have been exaggerated by computers, with Wesley noting:
The computer really likes it because White has a space advantage and computers really love that, but I didn’t really see a way to increase my advantage.
Both players agreed, however, that White went astray on move 19:
Wesley felt he should have kept his knights where they were and “slowly but surely” tried to improve, but instead he shocked Nepomniachtchi by playing 19.Nh5?!, when after 19…Bf5! the Russian felt he’d solved most of his problems. The game soon fizzled out.
The other quick draw was Caruana-Aronian, which was interesting from the point of view of opening psychology. Levon persisted with the Ruy Lopez variation he’d lost to Maxime Vachier-Lagrave in the World Cup but used to score a comfortable draw against Nepomniachtchi the day before in London. This time he came prepared to deviate first:
Instead of playing 15…Bd7, with the aim of immediately exchanging the dangerous bishop, Levon played 15…Rb8, explaining:
Generally if my opponents repeat the line that I have played the day before I try to surprise them, to bring something new to the table. This worked. I think Fabiano was not too familiar with Rb8, which is not a very stupid try, because I’m basically threatening to bring the bishop to e6 and force the structure that happened in the game, which is probably very close to a draw. With this rook on b5 and queen on c5 I’m just attacking too many pawns and that doesn’t allow White to get active.
Caruana also tried to unsettle his opponent…
More seriously, though, he said he had looked at Rb8, but
not too deeply, and he defended Levon’s choice to repeat lines:
I think it’s a decent line and the fact that he lost a game was not necessarily due to the problems he faced in the opening. I think Maxime played an exemplary game against him. If we all stop playing lines in which we’ve lost a game then we wouldn’t be playing chess at all at this point!
The other point is that the defence fits a recurring strategy at the very highest level – playing an opening with Black that seems dubious enough to tempt white players to keep trying to beat it, while having enough resources to hold up against the challenge. The archetypal use of that technique was perhaps Vladimir Kramnik’s Berlin Wall against Garry Kasparov in the 2000 World Championship match, with Garry slow to admit defeat. To some extent Kramnik got a taste of his own medicine in the 2008 match when he paid a high price for trying to defeat Vishy Anand’s Meran despite losing the first game against it, while Sergey Karjakin’s path to the 2016 World Championship match was paved by drawing games with Black at the Candidates in what looked like a far from convincing setup:
The stakes aren’t, of course, as high in the London Chess Classic, but it’ll be interesting to see if the theme tournament continues.
The longest game of the day was Anand-Adams, but although Vishy tried to exploit the advantage of a good knight against a bad bishop, when Mickey had overcome some mild time trouble the game soon drifted towards a draw. The English no. 1 summed up his long history of competing with the 5-time World Champion: “a lot of suffering, a bit like today!”
We’ve saved the best for last, though, with Hikaru Nakamura unleashing the Dragon variation of the Sicilian on Maxime Vachier-Lagrave. When they met recently in the Palma Grand Prix MVL played 3.Bb5 and the game was drawn in 13 moves. In a parallel universe things might have gone very differently, since Hikaru revealed in London:
I’d prepared this for Maxime in Palma. The point was I was going to play it against him in Palma and I was going to win or I was going to lose – either I was going to take the lead in the tournament or he was going to qualify for the Candidates. That was basically my attitude.
He summed that up again in London with one word:
The word is something you don’t want to hear from Daenerys Targaryen:
In the end, though, it was only Hikaru who seemed in real danger of getting burned after he lost his way in the theory:
17…Qc8 had been played 5 times (if not quite at the highest level), with 4 wins for Black, but Hikaru spent 52 minutes eventually persuading himself to play 17…Na5 instead. Maxime commented in turn:
The position is a complete mess and of course if you don’t know everything exactly you have to spend a lot of time to navigate the complications.
He was surprised by 18.Bxf6 exf6 19.Bd5 Nc6!? and might have been able to play for more with 20.Ndb5!, but he admitted to not even looking at that move. The murky passage of play eventually led to an ending where Nakamura was concerned to find it was far from as easy as he’d anticipated. However, his play was just in time:
29…f5! set the f-pawn in motion, and it was fast enough to compensate for the missing pawn, with the game drawn in 47 moves. Maxime’s explanation for all the games in the London Chess Classic having ended in draws so far?
Everybody’s sharp, everybody’s well-prepared, everybody’s had a rest.
Will we get our first decisive game on Monday? Magnus has White against his old rival Vishy Anand as the games start two hours later than at the weekend at 4pm local time (17:00 CET).