Shakhriyar Mamedyarov, who finished second in the Berlin Candidates and is second on the April FIDE rating list, will be looking to win his third Gashimov Memorial title when the tournament starts in Shamkir on Thursday. It’s not going to be easy, though, since a certain World Champion Magnus Carlsen will be looking to do the same! On the eve of the event Shak talked about how the Candidates went for him, the way his style has changed and his future plans.
At 13:00 CEST on Thursday the World Champion will be back in action as the 5th edition of Shamkir Chess begins. The first two in 2014 and 2015 were won by Carlsen, but he was absent in 2016 and 2017 when Mamedyarov took the title. So the official world numbers 1 and 2 will be competing to pull off a hattrick, while we would have had three of the top four if Vladimir Kramnik hadn’t pulled out, citing minor health issues and exhaustion. With Polish no. 1 Radek Wojtaszek replacing him, though, the line-up remains formidable:
You’ll of course be able to follow all the action here on chess24.
Just before the event began Mamedyarov talked to the Azerbaijan website Extra Time. The first topic was the recent Candidates Tournament, where Mamedyarov finished second after losing a single game to Ding Liren:
Mamedyarov: For the first time at a Candidates Tournament I appeared in the role of favourite, at least according to rating. Many people therefore expected me to finish first in Germany. Chess fans believed in me, and the way the tournament went showed that I did have a chance of taking first. Considering the strong line-up, though, it was hard to make predictions – before it began I said that the favourite could finish both first or last…The event began well for me: in the first round I beat Sergey Karjakin, then I played some good games. It must be admitted, though, that Fabiano Caruana put up a simply incredible fight, scoring more wins with the black pieces. In such events it’s particularly important if you can get an advantage when playing with Black. From the point of view of competing for first place the most important game for me was against Ding Liren. I took incredible risks, because for a few rounds in a row I just hadn’t been able to win. At that moment I realised that I simply had to win, so I took risks, although in case of a draw I’d have been leading the tournament. I simply wanted to beat Ding Liren, since if I succeeded I could have broken half a point clear of my nearest rivals. I didn’t think about defeat and took risks. The result of that game was a hard blow for me. I managed to recover and beat Alexander Grischuk, but the loss to Ding Liren was one of the toughest losses of my career. If I could have beaten the Chinese player it’s possible I’d have won the Candidates Tournament.
What surprised you at the Candidates Tournament?
There were positive and negative surprises. For example, Levon Aronian and Wesley So demonstrated quite a low level of play, although they’re very strong grandmasters. In Berlin they didn’t look themselves and in the final rounds it was clear they’d lost their inspiration. Karjakin, meanwhile, managed to regroup. After two losses many thought he had no chance, but with four wins Sergey managed to join the leaders, demonstrating his character. It was the most interesting Candidates Tournament in recent years - right up until the final round four players still had chances of victory.
The Armenian player Levon Aronian really did play very poorly, losing to Fabiano Caruana twice…
Yes, Caruana beat Aronian twice while he drew against myself and Karjakin. So Fabiano scored two points, while Karjakin and I scored one. That was a big advantage for Caruana - scoring two points against a rival significantly increases your chances of competing for first place. In the second half Aronian made decent moves in his game against Caruana. At some point Caruana was close to defeat, and he would have had to start looking for ways to survive. It was clear that it would be very hard for Caruana to defend such a position, but Aronian missed that chance, failed to see the winning combination, and ultimately lost. In the games against Vladimir Kramnik he also looked very weak. Aronian is a strong player, but the low level of his play in Berlin suggested poor form. My games against him didn’t work out: in neither encounter could I achieve the advantage I was counting on.
What was lacking for you to win the Candidates Tournament? Luck, perhaps?
If your result in a tournament at such a level depends on a single game, then it means the tournament was a success. If I’d beaten Ding Liren my chances would have been even higher, but until the last round I was fighting for tournament victory, and I increased my rating. I don’t agree with the word “luck”. We should admit that Caruana deserved to win in Berlin. He was in very good form. Despite losing to Karjakin, he didn’t let his play slip, beating both Aronian and Grischuk. It’s interesting that in January we played in the tournament in Wijk aan Zee, where Fabiano didn’t play at his best. Some even said Caruana would continue to play that badly, but it’s obvious that in Wijk aan Zee he was thinking about the Candidates Tournament. And Berlin showed he was worthy of first place.
Were you happy with your preparation for the tournament?
Participation in the Candidates Tournament is confirmed quite late. All the players were decided by November, so there were three months for preparation, but over the course of the year we’d agreed to play in various events which we approached as preparation. Before Berlin I played in Moscow in an exhibition match against young chess stars. I played in China, Saudi Arabia and then the tournament in Wijk aan Zee, the German Bundesliga and the Tal Memorial. I agreed to play in lots of events and in total I played for two months, so just 20 days were left for direct preparation for Berlin – very little. In that time I held a training camp in Qakh, and also worked on my home preparation with my seconds. In future it would be great if a place in the Candidates Tournament could be confirmed sooner.
You’re 33 years old. Will that not interfere with your qualifying for the Candidates Tournament? You’re not despairing of your chances?
In chess age limitations are somewhat different. For example, in football if you play in the World Cup at 33 you know that’s going to be your last chance, since to play at the same level at 37 will be very tough. In chess, though, 33 is considered a good period. You can give the examples of Boris Gelfand and Vishy Anand. At 40 Anand is still demonstrating beautiful play. As for me, I came to chess late, therefore I consider myself young. In the next two years a lot can change, so earning the right to play in the Candidates Tournament will get tougher and tougher. I’ll keep training and we’ll see what form I’ll be in next year, but I feel full of strength and energy. For the moment I’m not thinking about getting fully prepared for that. If I’d been 100% prepared then I’d have taken first place in Berlin, but the goal hasn’t changed. I’ll try to gain a place in the Candidates Tournament again and celebrate victory there.
How important is rating for a chess player?It’s very important. If you don’t have a very high rating you won’t get invitations to supertournaments. I feel happy because I’m the second highest rated player in the world, but Magnus is still ahead. Carlsen is a very strong opponent, a headache for everyone - the World Champion in classical, rapid and blitz. Beating him is extremely tough, but my goal is to overtake Carlsen on the rating list.
You’ve begun to play more calmly, not taking risks. What’s the reason for that change?
In recent tournaments everyone has been saying it’s time for me to return to my old style. During the Candidates Tournament people also talked about that. Chess players miss that Shakhriyar and say there’s not enough sporting aggression, but there’s another side to that coin. I risked in the game against Ding Liren and everyone saw the result. Risk-taking is important in achieving results as well, but in games where that’s essential - with an aggressive style you can’t get into the world Top 10. That Shakhriyar still lives inside me and probably at some point he’ll return. Many think that in terms of play I’ve become similar to the coaches with whom I’ve been working i.e. Dreev and Khalifman.
In Berlin did you sense support from abroad from Azerbaijan?
During the event I used a telephone extremely rarely. On the rest days I devoted 2-3 minutes to social media and saw how people were sharing links. I don’t think there’s ever been such support before in Azerbaijan chess. It seems to me that everyone believed I’d take first place in Berlin. I haven’t seen such support before.
You’ve twice won the Vugar Gashimov Memorial. How do you rate your chances of winning in Shamkir for a third time?
It'll be a very interesting line-up. This year I’ve suffered two defeats: one to Anish Giri, and the other to Ding Liren. Both will be fighting for the top places in Shamkir. Magnus needs no introduction. Veselin Topalov and Sergey Karjakin are among the strongest grandmasters in the world. David Navara displays an aggressive style and can stop any opponent. I really want to win the 5th Gashimov Memorial, because finishing first in a tournament where Carlsen is playing is a special pleasure. I’d like to thank the organisers for inviting the best to the tournament. I really hope that holding the Gashimov Memorial will become a tradition.
Do you want to take revenge on Ding Liren for beating you in Berlin?
There are two grandmasters I haven’t yet managed to beat – Ding Liren and Viswanathan Anand. I haven’t played against the Chinese player often, but in Berlin he beat me for the first time. As for revenge – well, we’ll meet in Shamkir. I can’t predict how our game will go.
The other players (well ok, mainly Giri!) have been preparing for and making their way to Shamkir…