Vladimir Kramnik beat Magnus Carlsen for the first time in 7 years to move within a mere 6.4 rating points of stealing the World Champion’s no. 1 spot. An out-of-form Carlsen would now need to win both remaining games simply to reach 50%, while Levon Aronian is flying – victory over the hitherto unbeatable Sergey Karjakin took him into the sole lead on +3. A sensational day of chess also saw Anish Giri grab his second win in Stavanger, leaving MVL to quip about his joint last place, “Generally when you’re sharing a spot with Magnus it’s good news…”. This time it wasn’t!
When Round 4 of Altibox Norway Chess provided a day of spectacular action (including Aronian beating Carlsen) the credit was given either to the trip to a farm on the rest day or to a tweet by our commentator Jan Gustafsson predicting five draws! This time round there was no farming on the rest day, so by irrefutable logic Jan is to blame for what followed:
There could potentially have been five decisive games:
Jan Gustafsson was joined by Swedish no. 1 Nils Grandelius since Peter Svidler is on his way to play in the World Team Championship in Siberia. You can replay their show in full below (to watch live and support such shows in future please consider going Premium):
After the game was over and Magnus had left the Stavanger Concert Hall without talking to the press, Vladimir gave his explanation for the worst performance we’ve seen from the World Champion since Norway Chess 2015:
In my opinion it’s clear that he’s not in good form, but also I think he should really improve his openings, especially with Black.
Kramnik explained that the tournament was simply “too strong” to go into it without being well-prepared:
Here I can see that he’s struggling. He’s getting nothing with White and struggling with Black. It’s very difficult, even if you’re Magnus... To me it’s quite obvious that his openings with Black are not that great at the moment.
Kramnik noted that Carlsen had barely made it out of the opening against Aronian, and in Round 7 Vlad managed to spring a surprise on move 12:
Actually I expected Magnus to go for something sharp. Today was probably the last chance for him to fight for something in this tournament, so I was mainly preparing for a kind of Sicilian… I didn’t expect him to play his normal repertoire, but fortunately this 12.Bd3 I was preparing for somebody else in this tournament, since it’s not my first Italian here. I think it’s a very, very dangerous move.
It had been played only once before, by Sanan Sjugirov in last year’s Chigorin Memorial, though the players were on their own when Magnus went for 12…Re8 after 14 minutes’ thought. Kramnik explained his idea was to manoeuvre his knight to g3 without allowing Black to play the d5-break. Realising he was in strategic danger, Magnus took the radical decision to play c5 and give himself a Benoni-style structure, and then with 22…Qc7 he played a decent move that contained an extraordinary oversight:
Kramnik was surprised to see this move played after only four minutes, since it was opening Pandora’s Box.
23.Bxh6!? is a blow you don’t need to be a World Champion to at least consider, but Vladimir revealed:
After the game Magnus told me he simply blundered 23.Bxh6.
When it rains it pours for Magnus. Against Aronian he’d been
cut down by 17.Bxh7+ and here another bishop sac left him balancing on the
brink. For computers the position is a draw, but it was no surprise that a
human player failed to navigate the complications, especially since Kramnik dug deep and played with awesome precision.
Nils Grandelius, who was part of the team helping Magnus with his openings for the World Championship match against Karjakin, takes us through the whole game:
Was Vlad happy?
Of course I’m very happy because I haven’t won against Magnus for quite a while. I have to admit that most of the time in recent years I was having Black with Magnus. It was epidemical. I think I had like out of ten games eight Black, or something, so it’s quite difficult.
The comment on colours isn’t entirely borne out by the facts, though Carlsen was White in the previous three classical games, but Kramnik was correct about it being a while. In fact he last beat Magnus back in Bilbao in 2010. It’s curious that at the time questions were also being asked about the world no. 1, with Sergey Shipov summing up his live commentary on the game:
What’s up with Magnus Carlsen? The question’s becoming real. His current form (at the Olympiad and at the start of Bilbao) is simply horrifying. The level of his play has dropped catastrophically. The fighter isn’t keeping his concentration, he’s miscalculating, letting even simple resources escape his attention. But he has to play! The contracts have already been signed, there’s no way to get out of it. Well, we hope Magnus and his team can get through this difficult period. He’s risen up high and shouldn’t fall low. And after failures new victories should follow… His opponent’s problems do nothing to lessen the brilliant play of Vladimir Kramnik. He was himself – he played a clean and even textbook game.
At the time the game was played the 19-year-old Carlsen was rated 2826 with a 23-point lead over Veselin Topalov at the top of the world rankings, while one month later he’d lost his no. 1 spot to Vishy Anand. It was incredibly close at the top (of course it’s interesting to note that three of the players are still there 7 years later, while Caruana was no. 31 and So no. 73):
In the wake of winning Bilbao Kramnik gave a famous, or perhaps infamous, interview. He reflected on the ratings and felt that Magnus’ previous big lead had been an anomaly:
In chess, as in any other form of sport, there are good runs and bad runs. The rating which Magnus acquired when he was on a good run didn’t, it seems to me, reflect the true state of affairs among the elite. At the given moment there are five roughly equal players – Anand, Aronian, Carlsen, Kramnik and Topalov (the surnames can be arranged in any order), who are playing stronger than the others.
The interview is remembered for another quote, though:
Yury Vasiliev: It seems as though you’ve become a classic “inconvenient” opponent for Magnus…
Vladimir Kramnik: In terms of results, yes. I’ve got a good score against him, and I’ve also regularly beaten him in rapid chess. For now I’m a very tough opponent for him. You could even say, using the professional slang, that for now Magnus is my “client”. But I understand perfectly well that it won’t always be that way, especially as time is working in his favour. Given that we’re playing together in the Candidates Tournament, and also the fact that it’s entirely possible that we’ll meet there “on a narrow path”, it’s clear that he’ll work very seriously specifically in order to improve his play against me. Magnus is young, he’s developing, and the main thing is that he’s mentally resilient. This guy won’t lose heart after temporary setbacks. I understand that completely and I don’t have any illusions, but for now I’m his problem, rather than him being mine.
The rest, as they say, is history. Until yesterday Kramnik hadn’t beaten Carlsen again in classical chess, while Magnus racked up four wins. He regained the no. 1 spot on the next rating list, then lost it again to Anand on the one after that, then from July 2011 onwards has topped every official rating list, reaching an astronomical rating of 2882 in May 2014, when he was 67 points ahead of Alexander Grischuk in second place. It’s remarkable that only seven players have topped the official FIDE rating lists since they were introduced in 1971: Bobby Fischer, Anatoly Karpov, Garry Kasparov, Vladimir Kramnik, Veselin Topalov, Vishy Anand and Magnus Carlsen:
That brings us to the big sub-plot of this year’s Altibox Norway Chess. The 2700chess live rating list looks as follows after Round 7:
As you can see, suddenly not only Kramnik but also So and Aronian could be only a day away from taking over as no. 1, and when the tournament ends the ratings will become official on 1 July, since the elite players will be playing blitz and rapid chess in Paris and Leuven rather than any classical games.
What did Kramnik think about the possibility of becoming no. 1 again at the age of 42? (his birthday comes before the next list)
It’s difficult of course to imagine. Actually I don’t care too much about ranking, but it would be nice, by some miracle, to get to the first place for one day, just for fun!
Fun aside, Vladimir has an excellent chance to qualify for the 2018 Candidates Tournament on rating:
At the current moment many players may fancy their chances in a match against Magnus...
...but first they need to get there! Before that,
though, we can break out the popcorn to watch the unfolding spectacle of
whether the world no. 1 spot will change hands before the end of the tournament.
With Carlsen playing his World Championship opponents Karjakin and Anand you
can’t rule anything out.
While it was hard to take your eyes off Kramnik-Carlsen, we were spoiled for drama wherever we looked:
The “If you can't spot the Hammer, it's probably you” quip that Magnus directed at Giri after the opening blitz is threatening to backfire spectacularly. While things have gone from bad to worse for the World Champion, Anish got his suffering out of the way early on with a loss to Nakamura in the first classical game. Since then he’s drawn four and won two, and has been getting the type of excellent positions he got in the 2016 Candidates Tournament. The difference this time is that he's also converting a healthy number of them into wins.
In Round 7 against Maxime Vachier-Lagrave it was an opening triumph in a topical Sicilian Dragon. Anish said he’d revised his notes just before the game and could still recite all the forced draws - with best play from both sides. Instead he got more than he bargained for:
I didn’t expect it to be double-edged. In fact this variation is very, very forcing. I thought it would be the first game to finish and a draw.
Maxime, however, has struggled in Stavanger, dropping to -1 when he completely misevaluated a position against Nakamura. He said of the theoretical lines against Giri, “The problem is I saw them, but not today”. Both players confessed that after some point they were on their own and struggled to understand what was going on, so rather than giving the computer’s turning points it’s perhaps best simply to give one late position that illustrates how badly things had gone awry for Maxime. Only desperation can explain 31.Kc2 (after 31.g6 White might retain some swindling chances in a lost queen ending):
The move at least had the virtue of cutting short a miserable day for the French no. 1. There followed 31…b3+! 32.Kd1 (the impossible dream goes on…) 32…Rc8! 33.g6 Rc5! and since simply 34.gxf7+ Kh7! would be game over, White resigned.
While those were noteworthy games the encounter that might prove most significant for the tournament standings was a third win for Levon Aronian. The Armenian no. 1 had previously beaten the world’s top two players with the white pieces, but in Round 7 he showed how dangerous he can be with Black as well. If you haven’t seen it check out Artur Yusupov’s series of videos with Jan Gustafsson on the topic of Aronian: Fighting for the initiative with Black.
Sergey Karjakin is of course famously difficult to beat, and had drawn all six of his preceding games. He played the Giuoco Piano and, up to a point, seemed to be doing well. Then, however, White’s play ran out of steam and Aronian had seized the initiative with his play on the kingside even before the game reached what Karjakin considered the critical moment:
Basically it was a game of one mistake, 28.Rg6. I should just have played Qh3 at any time. I thought I’m fighting for an advantage, but in fact it’s a terrible decision.
With Levon scenting blood more questionable decisions followed (32.gxf3?!) and all he needed to do was find the final crushing attack:
34…g4! (not the tempting 34…Rg4+, which only draws) 35.Kg1 R8f5! was devastating, and although Sergey managed to make the time control by a single second he resigned a move later.
Levon was downplaying his performance afterwards, but you needn’t necessarily believe a word!
I think I’m fighting. I’m not playing particular good. I’m not playing better than usual.
Asked about the source of his combative play he came up with:
Sessions of poker with my friends prior to the tournament helped to build my aggression!
There’s not normally any reason to doubt Fabiano Caruana’s aggression at the chessboard, but his Queen’s Gambit Accepted choice against Wesley So came in for some light-hearted criticism from our commentary team – Jan Gustafsson mentioned playing like an 80-year-old man and pointed the finger at Fabiano’s coach Rustam Kasimdzhanov! The line Fabi played had indeed been played by Rustam and, not for the first time in Stavanger, Caruana stumbled into a position a pawn down with no counterplay in which he was merely grimly trying to hold on. He did it – opposite-coloured bishops came to the rescue – and can point to four draws in four games as Black as some kind of justification for his approach.
Wesley So, meanwhile, is now the only player to have drawn all seven games and can regret failing to convert an opportunity to come within a few points of Magnus.
The remaining draw between Viswanathan Anand and Hikaru Nakamura was yet again a Giuoco Piano, with Vishy commenting on that ancient opening:
Surprisingly the Italian is one area where you can just say computers have revolutionised it, because it seems that we gave up way too early.
The encounter was extremely sharp, with Vishy noting at one point in the post-mortem: “I wasn’t sure if I was in control or I was losing the plot!” Even the ending unexpectedly became one in which all three results were possible, though the draw was the logical outcome and saw Nakamura slip half a point behind Aronian at the top of the table:
Going by past results in the tournament we can expect five quiet draws in Round 8, but let’s hope the pattern is broken! The treats in store include Aronian-Anand (can Lev wrap up the title with a round to spare?), Carlsen-Karjakin (the World Championship rematch comes at a tough point for both players) and Nakamura-So (who’s the US no. 1?):
Tune in for all the action with live commentary from Jan Gustafsson and Nils Grandelius live here on chess24 from 16:00 CEST onwards. You can also follow the games in our mobile apps:
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