Round 7 of the 2017 London Chess Classic featured as many decisive games as the previous six rounds combined, with Ian Nepomniachtchi joining Fabiano Caruana in the lead by beating Vishy Anand. Maxime Vachier-Lagrave cut down Sergey Karjakin in the Najdorf, but it was challenge accepted from Magnus Carlsen, who described his level of play in the tournament as “awful” but nevertheless managed to conjure up a win out of nowhere after his 1.f4 against Mickey Adams could easily have led to ignominious defeat.
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Suddenly draws were in the minority in London on Saturday, and only Caruana-So could be passed over in silence. A quiet Ruy Lopez led nowhere, with Fabiano Caruana maintaining his leading position and Wesley So scoring his 7th draw.
Only two other players have now drawn all their games, and they faced each other in Round 7. It was Hikaru Nakamura’s 30th birthday, with Anish Giri tweeting:
He was referring to Nakamura’s failure to beat Carlsen the day before and, it seems, to his own crushing win over Levon Aronian in a rapid game in Leuven on his birthday this year, though Giri’s record against Aronian isn’t one to envy (7 losses and 0 wins at classical chess!).
In any case, Levon Aronian wasn’t feeling especially kind and although Nakamura was the first to deviate from a game Levon played against Ernesto Inarkiev in the recent Palma Grand Prix just a few moves later 20.Qb1 got Hikaru out of his preparation (“it’s kind of hard you prepare so much to look at every move at move 20”).
Over the next few moves Hikaru spent an hour while Levon blitzed out moves, but on move 26 it seems he missed his chance to press:
26.Qf5! Qd6 27.Re7! Rf8 28.h3! might have brought White success, with the plan of playing Rc7 and threatening to take on c5 and win the black queen with Nf6+. When the computer’s 28.h3 was pointed out to Hikaru, he commented, “That’s why computers are just better than us!” Instead Aronian called his 26.Qb5, “a move in the wrong direction”, although he still felt he could pose technical problems until he allowed Black’s queen to come to f5 itself.
Levon summed up:
To get such a position and let your opponent walk free without even challenging him is not a very pleasant moment… Sometimes some tournaments are tournaments of missed opportunities. Those things happen.
Finally we got decisive action in multiple games on Saturday, with fatigue perhaps taking its toll on the players as the three players who had already lost a game in London lost another. The audience was struggling too!
Vishy Anand, in particular, must have had a depressing feeling of déjà vu from his earlier game against Fabiano Caruana. Ian Nepomniachtchi followed the same pattern of playing an early g4 (7.g4!? compared to 10.g4 from Caruana). The resulting position in both games was probably slightly better for Black, with Vishy commenting about giving back the pawn:
I basically felt I was doing fine out of the opening. It’s not like I prepared g4, but when it happened I liked my position after f5 and e5.
In both games, though, the opened g-file would finally prove a liability, with Anand sacrificing a pawn to gain control of it against Nepomniachtchi only to realise he’d given up the pawn for nothing. His best hope was that Nepo would take a repetition, but the Russian made a comment that could have applied to all the players:
I was ready to repeat at some point, but I decided I’d made too many draws in this tournament!
His 36.a3 was a final turn of the screw:
Nepomniachtchi explained his purpose here was to provoke Black’s c-pawn to move so that the black queen wouldn’t be protected on d6 in some lines, but it was also a perfect quiet move to force Vishy to choose something in a hugely unpleasant position. He opted for 36…Ne8 and simply resigned after 37.Qc6! forked the knight and the pawn on a4.
That meant Nepomniachtchi joined Caruana in the lead, though there’s another leadership battle in progress in London. The biggest prize on offer is $100,000 for winning the Grand Chess Tour as a whole, while the runner-up gets $50,000. The only real contenders are Maxime Vachier-Lagrave and Magnus Carlsen, with the Frenchman trailing by 3 points. He knows that clear first would at least force a playoff for the top prize, but while that now looks unlikely any distance he can put between himself and Magnus gives him chances.
That brings us to his game against Sergey Karjakin, where MVL stuck with his trusty Najdorf, an opening in which he seems to sense the dynamics better than anyone else in the world:
Karjakin went for a super-sharp setup in which Nakamura had been beaten with Black by Caruana in the 2016 London Chess Classic only to go on to beat Maxime with White the very next day. Unsurprisingly both sides came prepared, and this time there was no knockout opening blow. Instead, as so often happens in the Sicilian, it was Black who gradually took control. Karjakin should probably have played 21.g6, something he spent 30 minutes looking at, since when he allowed Black to redeploy his forces White was clearly in trouble. This is the position after 33…Rh4!
All Black’s pieces are well-placed, all the weaknesses are defended and the e4-pawn is in trouble. Maxime’s play was slow, but methodical, until he eventually won the g5-pawn and the game came to an end with 59…d5:
And here Sergey resigned for a second time in London while playing with the white pieces. This one was controversial, though, since you don’t get called the “Minister of Defence” for resigning a single pawn down in such positions. He explained afterwards:
If I don’t win anything immediately I’m just completely lost… I feel like Maxime played very well, so I didn’t think he was going to blunder anything.
It had already been a long game and it seemed Karjakin was simply lacking the burning desire to try and save half a point in a tournament where he already had little to play for:
The resignation was of course good in one way for MVL, but it also acted like a red rag to a bull on Magnus Carlsen.
The World Champion’s encounter with Mickey Adams was described with no small amount of understatement by the Englishman as “a kind of confusing game”, but regardless, when Karjakin resigned Magnus knew what he had to do:
I actually started to play for a win because I needed to win this game, not necessarily because of the position!
Before we get to that, though, we need to go from the start, where Magnus played “The Bird”, 1.f4. Many players, all the way up to Magnus himself, have got burned trying to play offbeat openings against Mickey Adams. Doing it with White is safer, but it probably wouldn’t have saved Magnus if Adams had been a bit more precise at critical moments of the game. Although he said it was out of strategic necessity, his piece sacrifice for two pawns was powerful. He then rushed a little too much to win the piece back:
Here 14…Rac8! first, to deflect the white queen, is very strong (“basically lost, or close to lost” was Carlsen’s verdict), while in the game after 14…Bd4+?! 15.cxd4 Qxd4+ 16.Be3 Nxe3 Magnus had 17.Qe5! and it turns out Black has nothing better than 17…Nxg2+ and an exchange of queens. Instead Mickey played 17…f5?
He immediately realised what he’d done:
As soon as I played 17…f5? I thought 18.Nf3! and I’m going to have to resign, or not resign, but it’s very bad.
Here Magnus returned the favour, though, taking just three minutes to play 18.Bh3? What had he missed?
It says something about your shape when you think 18.Nf3! exf3 and you cut off the line there. Of course I was trying to make Nf3 work, but I didn’t even calculate 19.Bxf3!, which is insane.
After that, though, Magnus said that he “pulled himself together”, and though still worse when 26…Nf5 appeared on the board he felt “at least I could see a scenario where I could hold this game”. He would go on to do better than that, with a series of inaccuracies from Mickey Adams leading to a second unnecessary endgame loss in a row. The last straw was 51.Kb8? (51.Kc6!), which allowed Carlsen to consolidate and prepare to weave a winning attack with his pieces. Magnus was happy to spot “an unusual geometrical motif”:
54.Na6! Rc6 55.Rf8+! Kb7 56.Bd5! and Black was losing a piece.
So the game ended with glimpses of the Carlsen of old, though he admitted he’d been relying on pure will power in London:
I’m not pleased with the level of my play in this tournament at all – it’s been awful – but I think I’ve been fighting quite well and that’s what got me the full point today.
That means you certainly wouldn’t rule out Magnus or MVL winning the tournament, since they’re the most motivated players and only half a point behind the leaders with two rounds to go:
Magnus takes on one leader, Nepomniachtchi, with the White pieces, and will be hoping to improve his surprising classical score against a player who had the better of him when they were growing up together as juniors:
The other leader, Caruana, has a tricky task with Black against Nakamura, while MVL has White against a wounded Vishy Anand. Meanwhile two other major events ended on Saturday.
The penultimate round of the London Chess Classic is on Sunday 10 December at 14:00 UK time. You can watch all the action here on chess24: London Chess Classic
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