Reports May 21, 2019 | 11:23 AMby Colin McGourty

Moscow GP, QF 1: Magnus on match strategy

Daniil Dubov reeling off 26 moves of home preparation against Hikaru Nakamura was perhaps the highlight of Day 1 of the Moscow FIDE Grand Prix quarterfinals, as all games ended in draws in 31 moves or less. Fortunately we had Magnus Carlsen on hand to discuss the action, with the World Champion introducing the concept of “sudden death aversion” to explain how some underdogs avoid taking risks even though that reduces their chances of overall success. We also found out what Ian Nepomniachtchi and Magnus were laughing about in Abidjan!

Magnus Carlsen makes Hikaru Nakamura the favourite to beat Daniil Dubov, but commented of Dubov, "Boy is this guy good when he’s on his game!" 

You can replay all the games from Moscow using the selector below:

For one day only, we had World Champion Magnus Carlsen joining Jan Gustafsson to discuss the games:

Magnus was asked for his overall assessment of the players’ chances in the quarterfinals:

Magnus: It’s very hard to bet against the more seasoned, higher-rated players, to be honest.

Jan: That’s Nakamura, Grischuk, Svidler, Nepomniachtchi?

Yeah, it’s as boring as you can get!

Three of those players had the white pieces on Monday, but none of them could win their first classical game. Let’s take each game in turn:

Nakamura ½-½ Dubov

Can Daniil Dubov claim another big scalp as he takes on Hikaru Nakamura?  | photo: Niki Riga, World Chess

The way the players reached this quarterfinal couldn’t have been more different, with Nakamura taking two very quick classical draws before beating Teimour Radjabov in rapid chess, while the Giri-Dubov classical games were both thrillers.


Hikaru after the game was dismissive of the suggestion (from Wesley So) that his plan was to take matches to tiebreaks:

But Magnus also felt this was the plan, and a correct one, for Nakamura. He went into a deep discussion of the tactics adopted by favourites and underdogs:

In Nakamura’s case it’s very clear that he’s one of the best in faster time controls, and he has no recent track record whatsoever of doing well in classical, so it makes perfect sense for him to put all his eggs in that particular basket. I think for Radjabov he just found it unpleasant to try particularly hard in the classical so he felt like, “I’m just going to hope for some lucky break in the rapid or blitz”, which is fair enough.

Obviously he’s got some pedigree in rapid and blitz as well, it’s just that I think in classical he’s clearly not worse than Nakamura, so I feel like he did get surprised in the opening in the first game, but in general he should try. I would have said that even if he had won yesterday in the tiebreak, that it’s not necessarily his best approach.

He’s just comfortable making draws?

That’s the point. He knows it’s not necessarily the +EV play, but the +EV play is much less comfortable. It’s way outside his and many others’ comfort zone, so that’s why people don’t make those plays. I often like to bring up my match against Karjakin in New York. I was much maligned for my draw offer in Game 12, but I was convinced then that it was the right approach. I was convinced in the match against Caruana that I made the right decision of offering a draw then based on the information that I had. The question is rather, “Should Karjakin have played more sharply?”

There’s this thing called ‘sudden death aversion’, that I think affects a lot of people. You make decisions that give you a lesser chance of winning overall, but decisions that at least extend the game or the match, because you feel like, “as long as I’m in it I have a chance, and losing it right now because I did something risky would be very unpleasant”. I very much understand that, but you’re not always going to maximise your chances this way.

Bu Xiangzhi played a great attacking game to knock Magnus Carlsen out of the 2017 Tbilisi World Cup in Round 3 | photo: Anastasia Karlovich, official website

I made that mistake myself when I played the World Cup a couple of years ago. I did feel like before the match with Bu, and also during the first game, that the only way I can lose this match is by doing something incredibly stupid, and so in the first game when things weren’t going my way I had a chance of basically just forcing a draw, and I thought for a long time and I didn’t go for it. I still thought what I played was unclear and it was not clear that it was bad for me, but I couldn’t see a clear way that it was better either, so it was clearly the correct play for me just to take the draw with White. With Black I’m probably not going to have any problems, and then it’s a likely tiebreak where I’m a huge, huge favourite, rather than to possibly risk it all on one game. In this game I clearly made the wrong decision. It’s difficult!

The strategy that’s almost always correct is, if you’re down, complicate, if you’re winning, simplify! If you believe that you’re weaker you should always try and complicate as much as possible. If you’re a weaker player you’re not necessarily improving your chances by extending the match. You might in general do that if each game counts more, but it should not deter you from taking risky decisions. You should be more prone to taking those decisions.

"He feels like he’s there, and he’s ready, and he wants to win" said Magnus of Dubov | photo: Niki Riga, World Chess

Daniil Dubov is not a player you could accuse of being afraid to take risks, but although the Russian is the World Rapid Champion, Magnus still feels it would be better if he could avoid tiebreaks against Nakamura:

I think if Daniil can survive today, I mean get something from the game, he’s definitely going to try hard tomorrow, but Hikaru is tough with the shorter time controls. Dubov is very, very good. It’s not about whether you can give the audience some fun and give him a scare – that’s not what he wants to do at all. He feels like he’s there, and he’s ready, and he wants to win, and that is obviously a considerably harder thing to do. Hikaru is definitely the favourite and he’s a tougher opponent in this format than our boy Anish Giri, who seemed like he was just there to lose in the first round!

Jan mentioned Hikaru’s suggestion that Giri was trying to avoid tiebreaks at all costs, but Magnus dismissed that as “just not a very nuanced view”:

I think he just played. He clearly got caught in a major way in the second game. After 4.Bg5, 4…dxc4 is considered a good move, and Anish knows that, and that’s why he went for it. He played what he believes in and he got caught. Also in the first game, he encountered an idea that’s barely been played at all before, and frankly was an amazing concept at some point - that you give up the bishop pair and the central pawn, you have no threats… and you’re just better! To me it’s very, very fascinating. It’s certainly not something you encounter every day.


The position after Giri played 14.gxf3 in Game 1

Magnus continues to discuss the second game from Round 1:

Daniil is one of those guys who is capable of that. He comes up with unbelievable concepts and when he manages to follow those concepts up with energetic play then he’s very, very good. I think Anish would have defended better if he had believed in it more, but on this particular day he was up against it… I watched without computers, and for me almost every single move was a surprise, and I kept thinking, “Boy is this guy good when he’s on his game!”

It’s finally time to get to the quarterfinal game, however, which featured another extravagant idea by Dubov, who once again shattered his own pawn structure with 13…axb6 and 15…gxf6:


Magnus commented of Dubov:

He’s also very ambitious. After 13.Bxf6 there’s no hint of thinking of 13…Qxf6 and going for something that’s slightly worse but pretty drawish.

Carlsen liked the position:

It’s one of those nice all isolated pawn situations - six of them. That’s pretty much the maximum you can get, I think, with all of them being isolated... realistically, I think.

The fact Dubov only thought for seconds, however, was an indication he was in his home preparation, a fact Nakamura lamented after the game:

I knew that Daniil would surprise me in the opening, but I didn’t quite expect him to play 20 moves or something like this without thinking at all.

In fact the preparation stretched even further, with Dubov revealing:

Obviously it was not exactly a bluff, yeah? I think I had it in the morning till 26…Nd6, one or two moves before we agreed a draw. Until Nd6 it’s basically a perfect game of chess…

It was credit to Hikaru, therefore, that he avoided some real pitfalls. For instance, Magnus spotted that after 22…Rc8 the move White wants to play, 23.f4?, would run into the piece sac 23…Qxc3!!.


“If that works that’s huge!” said Magnus, and it does work, since after 24.Qxc3 Rxc3 25.fxe5 d2! it’s White fighting for survival. Nakamura dodged that bullet with 23.Rc1! first, however, and the position remained balanced until 27.Ne2!? appeared:


If Dubov remembered correctly he made only one independent move of this game, and it was possibly a mistake! The computer gives 27…Bg4 here, preparing to capture on e2, and White can’t avoid ending up a pawn down in all lines, though the advantage would still be slight. Instead after 27…Bf5 28.e4 a draw was agreed. Magnus had been predicting that Dubov would fight on:

He could end up losing this game in a stupid way because he overpressed, but I think he’s the kind of guy who would still be comfortable that he made the right play… It’s not like you’re not going to hate yourself after, but you can still make those decisions!

Dubov, however, was swayed by his preparation: “I remembered that I’m fine, but it’s kind of tricky for Black”. 

Watch the interviews with the players below:

Wei Yi ½-½ Nepomniachtchi

Wei Yi remains the only player to win with Black so far in the event | photo: Niki Riga, World Chess

This game reached the same position as Duda-Nepomniachtchi in Dortmund last year, except that Ian Nepomniachtchi played 15…Bd8 instead of 15…Rd8:


He called the bishop move “clearly an improvement” (Jan-Krzysztof missed a win in Dortmund), and here 16.Ncd5?! was a decision that Jan and then Magnus disapproved of:

After what he does at least practically speaking it should always be pretty ok for Black. His king is a bit safer, and I guess White is not running any risks, but everyone knows how dangerous Ian is in these open positions where he has the safer king.

Wei Yi himself admitted he’d missed something when exchanging off knights and following up with f4, but in the end the game fizzled out into a draw. The highlight of the players’ interview afterwards is perhaps Nepo quoting Grischuk’s, “a draw is better than losing and worse than winning”:

More importantly, though, we got the solution to a mystery from the Grand Chess Tour event in Abidjan! Magnus confirmed they have a good relationship despite Ian being the only 2700+ player remaining with a plus score against him:

No, that’s ok. I’ve obviously had problems with him in classical, but we’ve played enough training games to give me some glimmer of hope, at least.

I would also like to address one episode from Abidjan. There was a point during our game in the second round where we both started laughing and people probably were curious as to what that was about. There was some noise coming from an adjacent room – I don’t know if there was some kind of conference or it was commentary on the game or whatever, but several times there was applause coinciding with one of our moves, which we thought was a little bit amusing. And just regular moves, so that was the reason why we didn’t stay so professional there!

Here's video of that moment:

Svidler ½-½ Wojtaszek

There were high hopes for this game, with Magnus commenting, “All major pieces on the board, you have tension in the centre – it’s a fun game!” 

There was no stopping Svidler-Wojtaszek ending in a draw | photo: Niki Riga, World Chess

It looked to be getting critical when Peter Svidler played 18.b4!? (a move Jan had suggested):


Magnus suggested 18…g5!? here, and called Radek Wojtaszek’s almost instantly played 18…Qa7?!, “a major concession”. Alas, as in Vitiugov-Svidler from Round 1, the game wasn’t long for this world. After 19.Nd2 Rac8 20.Bg3 Peter offered a draw in the kind of position that provokes criticism of the rules:

Svidler summed up:

At some point I thought I was getting somewhere, but in the final position it was very difficult for me to understand what my plans are, and it’s a kind of a strange and difficult position to play with a headache, with 30 pieces on the board and not really any kind of clear-cut plan. I just thought I’ll ask Radek what he thinks about the position, and he seemed to not like his position either.

Radek confirmed he simply thought he was worse after an opening in which he’d mixed up his preparation:

Svidler has admitted in the past that the anti-draw Sofia Rules helped him since they cured him of a tendency to offer or accept too many draws, and here Magnus greeted news of the draw with, “Yeah, that’s the good old Svidler!” On the other hand, Magnus agreed with Jan that Peter knows exactly what he’s doing in knockout events:

You cannot argue one bit with his track record, so he does know what he’s doing. I think he’s definitely more of a favourite against Wojtaszek in faster time controls than in classical. It feels that his equity wasn’t great in this position, so he thinks, “hold tomorrow and then I’ll be fine”.


Grischuk ½-½ So

The 6th Women's World Champion Nona Gaprindashvili made the first move for Grischuk | photo: Niki Riga, World Chess

Just glancing at the player names and computer evaluations you might dismiss this game as a dull draw, but the consensus was that Wesley’s choice to go for an ending where White had the bishop pair was high risk:


Magnus commented, “My first thought was, what the hell is Black doing!?” Grischuk noted it was “an extremely tactical position”, and “either Black just equalises or it will be unpleasant for him for 100 moves”. Wesley So managed to navigate all the tactics, however, and even picked up a pawn. Grischuk saw a way to force a draw, or he could play on, but, “just to play a pawn down for some unclear compensation and much less time was not too appealing for me”. Instead the players simply agreed a 28-move draw.

Here they are talking about the game:

It was a day when the shield had been at least a match for the sword, and Magnus talked about defence in chess. Jan had brought up the idea that if you have a bad position statically you should aim to play dynamically (inspired by a video series Jan's filming with GM Iossif Dorfman). Magnus didn’t entirely agree:

I don’t know. It’s true in some cases, but I wouldn’t take it as an absolute rule at all. Sometimes if you’re worse statically you can just defend, and playing dynamically will just make your position worse…

Is Karjakin particularly good at that?

Yes, he is. He goes a bit too far in that direction. In some cases he would definitely be better off taking counterchances when he just is trying to hold instead, but it’s a rare talent to have to be able to defend positions where you have no counterplay, and no particular hope of ever getting counterplay. It’s been the case for so long that that’s something very, very few people can or are willing to do. He’s definitely very good at it.

Then you have somebody like Kramnik. He’s not active anymore, unfortunately, but he was one of those guys who never ever defended statically. He would try and break out, and if he couldn’t then he would lose. If he could, then he would be fine. Also Aronian is an example of that. Somebody who just doesn’t defend passively.

Vishy’s good at defending passively?

Yeah, he used to be even better than he is, but he’s very good, he’s very patient, and he believes in those mythical creatures!

The mythical creatures are fortresses. Magnus was also asked about his overall view of the Grand Prix format:

I’m happy that they got rid of these Swisses, where just nobody tried to win particularly... I like the format, it definitely makes the tournaments way more interesting. Still, the one strange thing is that the prize money is pretty bad, so I don’t know if that changes how people approach it. On the one hand, the tournaments are interesting in the sense that they qualify you for the Candidates. On the other hand, you’re not getting paid particularly well.

It's certainly been the case in the past that the carrot of Candidates qualification has been enough for players to overlook sub-par prize funds | photo: Niki Riga, World Chess

The top prize in Moscow is €24,000, but it’s worth noting FIDE have put extra money into the series above that provided by World Chess, so that the overall winner of the series will pick up €50,000 as well. In general, though, Magnus felt it was an improvement:

Most of all I applaud the change. It makes it a whole lot more interesting. The surprising thing is how many decisive games there have been so far.

We’ll see on the second day of the quarterfinals whether the players who consider themselves weaker at the rapid time controls will fight to finish the matches sooner. Meanwhile Magnus has a busy schedule ahead:

This week I’m going to Denmark for a small exhibition, then I’m going to Scotland to play a rapid tournament this weekend against Vishy, Ding and some Russian I think, probably Karjakin since he busted out in the first round. Then the weekend after that it’s Norway Chess, so it’s pretty busy at the moment.

Jan will now switch to commentating in German, while you can follow Evgeny Miroshnichenko and Daniil Yuffa in English for the 2nd quarterfinal games. Again it's sudden death, with any player who loses now out of the event. Tune into all the action live from 14:00 CEST!

See also:


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