Reports Jun 16, 2017 | 11:41 PMby Colin McGourty

Norway Chess 9: Aronian cruises to victory

Levon Aronian has won one of the strongest tournaments of all time by a full point after his rivals fell at the final hurdle. While Lev drew safely with Wesley So, Hikaru Nakamura was cut down in Fabiano Caruana’s Najdorf preparation, while Anish Giri’s attempt to punish Vladimir Kramnik’s bold opening play led only to a 20-move train crash that took their lifetime score to 7:0 in Vlad’s favour. The other games were drawn, with Magnus Carlsen finishing 2nd last and revealing a staggering loss of confidence when he confessed, “I’m not so convinced about my ability to win games”.

Levon Aronian and his infectious smile | photo: Lennart Ootes

Going into the final round Levon Aronian led Altibox Norway Chess by half a point, with only Hikaru Nakamura and Anish Giri in with a chance of stealing tournament victory. They both went for fighting openings with the black pieces, but in both cases lived to regret it:

Jan Gustafsson and Nils Grandelius were once again our guides and you can replay their commentary below:

Let’s now take a look at the final games, focussing more on how the tournament went overall for each of the players:

So ½-½ Aronian

In different ways, both players had perfect tournaments... | photo: Lennart Ootes

To say this game had draw written all over it would be an understatement. The tournament situation meant that a draw would ensure Levon at least entered a playoff for first, while the super-solid Wesley had drawn all of his preceding games. There were some brownie points for Wesley avoiding a repetition on move 20, but although Levon said he got a little optimistic at one point he undercut that point with, “if I put my king on d6 and change the colour of my bishop!” The encounter ended on move 59 with bare kings, and by that point although one game was still in progress Levon knew he had tournament victory in the bag:

The only way I’m going to get equal first is if Fabiano gets a heart attack, which will not happen in the next 85 years, I hope!

The final standings looked as follows, with Levon winning the event by a full point after winning his last tournament, the GRENKE Chess Classic, by a full 1.5 points:

Levon Aronian: 1st place, 6/9 (3 wins, 6 draws), +16 rating points

Levon’s performance can only be talked about in superlatives. It wasn’t just that he won games but the style in which he won them and the level of opposition – crushing Magnus Carlsen and Vladimir Kramnik with White and outfoxing Sergey Karjakin with Black. That all came in a heady streak of three wins and one draw in the space of four games:

Levon put that down to the jolt he’d received against Anish Giri in Round 3, when he found himself in crazy time trouble and only survived by the skin of his teeth:

That draw woke me up – I realised I had to step up or I might lose on time otherwise.

It is perhaps a serious point that the short time control of 100 minutes to the first time control on move 40, without increments, benefitted the players who could seize the initiative, which Levon did time and again with inventive preparation and play over the board.

Levon talks to Norwegian TV after finishing his game | photo: Jose Huwaidi

One thing Levon has never lacked is confidence, and when Nigel Short asked him if he's thinking about the World Championship title he didn’t hesitate for an instant:

I never stopped thinking. The day I stop thinking about that I’ll probably quit, or it’s the day when I’ll finally become World Champion - one of the two! I respect myself so much: I’m my own favourite chess player!

Such ebullience makes him many chess fans’ favourite as well, with the Garry Kasparov quote about the chess world being a better place when Levon is winning never feeling so apt. Aronian is back up above 2800 and into the world top 5 again, though the problem for his World Championship hopes is that he has no clear path to the Candidates Tournament. After a poor showing in the first Grand Prix he probably needs to get to the final of the World Cup, though Armenia again funding the Candidates in return for his participation also can’t be ruled out. It helps to be a national hero!

Wesley So: joint 4th, 4.5/9 (9 draws), -2 rating points

Nothing went wrong for Wesley in Norway, but he failed to make much impact on the event | photo: Lennart Ootes

In our preview of the tournament we asked “Is So currently the world’s best player?”, a question on which the jury is still out. On the one hand we saw real evidence that Carlsen’s claim to that title is more shaky than it’s been in a decade, but after nine draws Wesley failed to make his own case – particularly with the older generation of Aronian and Kramnik turning on the style. Of course drawing all your games so effortlessly against a field as strong as Altibox Norway Chess is no mean feat, especially given Wesley had five Blacks, but for once he couldn’t pull off his trick of squeezing out some wins from risk-free positions. Not Wesley’s event, but still more evidence that no-one would feel confident taking him on in a match.

Anand ½-½ Carlsen

This game wasn’t a classic, by any means, but it did feature two World Champions and the most remarkable post-game interview of the day. Vishy seemed to get a real advantage in the Giuoco Piano, though Magnus was talking up his position in the confessional:

He would later comment, “Today I played terribly, but at least I felt ok”, though both players considered Black had compensation and the draw looked like a normal result.

Anand and Carlsen played their 57th classical game | photo: Lennart Ootes

Vishy Anand: joint 7th, 4/9 (1 win, 2 losses, 6 draws), -3 rating points

Vishy’s tournament got off to the worst possible start when, facing three games with Black in his first four, he managed to lose the first classical game of his career with White against Vladimir Kramnik in Round 2. He then lost in Round 4 to Anish Giri, but staged a recovery, later beating Fabiano Caruana with Black in fine style. He summed up:

Obviously one doesn’t dream of minus 1… It was really a bad start, so under the circumstances, in this kind of tournament, it was a good recovery.

Magnus Carlsen
: joint 7th, 4/9 (1 win, 2 losses, 6 draws), -10 rating points

Only a messy late win over Sergey Karjakin rescued some pride from the World Champion’s performance in his home supertournament – avoiding the ignominy of last place – but there was no papering over the cracks:

After a supreme blitz performance, Magnus started slowly and then came to a shuddering halt when he played Levon Aronian. He explained of that game:

I completely underestimated what Levon was doing in our game. When he sacrificed I thought it’s probably a bluff he’s prepared, but it’s a draw. My general hunch was that he had a repetition, but nothing more. Then I started to realise there were a bunch of problems with my position... At that point I thought I was completely fine and played a bit hastily and lost.

That was the kind of thing that can happen to anyone, even the best, but Magnus was more disappointed about his failure to exploit the two Whites in a row in Rounds 5 and 6 that he’d carefully selected after winning the blitz tournament. A loss to Kramnik followed and the tournament was already all but irredeemable:

It wasn't just that it was one bad event. In a post-game interview with Dirk Jan ten Geuzendam - full of jaw-dropping moments - we got a glimpse of Magnus’s inner demons:

A few quotes:

I think it was just a lack of confidence from the start coupled with some very decent play from my opponents. That was just not a good combination at all.

It was a strange feeling. Somehow I managed to build myself up at least a bit for each game, but then it would all disappear very quickly… Basically I know that I can play, but I’m not so convinced about my ability to win games.

There won’t be some quick fix or anything. I have to work on it. Basically I think I can still play – I’m sure I can still play – I just have to get my confidence back. It has to be said that it’s a strong tournament and no-one can win it on demand, but usually even if I play poorly I’m in the upper half. Obviously that didn’t happen this time.

Obviously I’ll speak to my closest confidants, but most of all I have to work on it on my own. I’m sure I’ll get there.

Obviously there’s a trend. In none of these tournaments has my confidence been particularly good. There is a problem. Each of the tournaments I’ve gone to thinking I’ll do well, but it’s changed pretty quickly…

It’s really connected to classical chess only. I’m very convinced I can do well in Paris!

For a player whose game has always been based on seemingly unshakeable confidence those were some remarkable admissions. Anand pointed out when asked about Kramnik’s view that Carlsen needs to work on his openings that Magnus had always managed to get by with the belief that he can outplay his opponents from any position. If he loses that belief, or even ability, we’re not far from a new era in chess history. But let’s not get ahead of ourselves… there are few who would be surprised to see a re-emergence of the old dominant Magnus in the near future.

Magnus was looking more confident on Norwegian TV | photo: Lennart Ootes

Kramnik 1-0 Giri

We’ve been brushing over the actual games so far, but this one is worth savouring. For Anish Giri to actually finish in first place he needed to win while Aronian lost, but even if that was a long shot he would still have loved to get a first classical win over Vladimir Kramnik. 

Kramnik prepares for another encounter with his "client" | photo: Lennart Ootes

You could see that when he picked up the gauntlet thrown down by Kramnik’s provocative early play, pushing pawns to get a position where:

I just needed to finish my development and castle and I’m winning.

That was the plan, but Anish described what followed as “a disastrous day”. (At this point we would normally direct you to commentary by Nils Grandelius, but alas, Sweden’s no. 1 forgot to switch on the chessboard view for his 20-minute video!)

Both players agreed that 10…Bd6? was the move that turned the tables, while 15…g6? was the last nail in Black’s coffin:

16.e4! unleashed the power of the previously trapped bishop on c1 at the cost of a mere pawn, and after 16…Nxe4 17.Bh6+ Ke7 18.f3 Nd2 19.Rfe1 Kd8 20.Bf4! Giri resigned.

That took Vladimir’s lifetime score against Giri up to 7 wins and 0 losses, with 7 draws.

Vladimir Kramnik: joint 2nd, 5/9 (3 wins, 2 losses, 4 draws), +3 rating points

2nd in Norway Chess, 2nd in the world! | photo: Lennart Ootes

The final victory took Vladimir back up to world no. 2, and some fine games have again demonstrated that, with 42 approaching, he’s still one of the world’s very best players. He came close to overhauling Magnus to become the world no. 1 and can look back with regret on his penultimate round loss to Maxime Vachier-Lagrave. He explained that he’d suffered “a terrible blackout”:

Here he’d been planning all along to play 34…Rd8, but then said he suddenly noticed White’s threat of 35.Nd3 and, in five minutes, failed to spot the 35…Re2! 36.Nxe5 Rxe4+ trick that he’d calculated in other lines (“you have to be a complete idiot”). He played 34…Bd6?, which he described as “a panic move”, before immediately realising what he’d missed:

When I played it I saw it, but I couldn’t play anymore. It was ridiculous. Instead of getting a better endgame with some chances I just got a worse position. Just a mental blackout.

Kramnik added, “it was a difficult evening yesterday”, before reflecting that it wasn’t only something that’s happened with age:

You remember I blundered mate-in-1 to a computer after 10 minutes’ thought!

In the end Kramnik’s tournament was an exact replica of Shamkir Chess, where he also finished second with 3 wins and 2 losses, summing both events up as, “crazy losses, strange wins”. For the spectators it was of course great fun to watch - let’s hope Kramnik doesn’t retire anytime soon!

Despite it all Magnus still has a buffer at the top | source: 2700chess

Anish Giri: joint 4th, 4.5/9 (2 wins, 2 losses, 5 draws), +4 rating points

It’s sometimes said that the best way to assess a tournament is by your position going into the final round. Whatever happens, if you go into the last day with chances of winning you must have done something right. That certainly applies here, since after a miserable blitz tournament and a first-round loss Anish was a revelation. He was getting the good positions he managed in the 2016 Candidates Tournament but actually converting some of them and in general showing a sharpness we haven’t seen from him in a long time.

Giri started and ended on a low | photo: Lennart Ootes

Perhaps the long attempt to grind down Fabiano Caruana in the penultimate round, or the memory of his previous losses to his nemesis Kramnik, affected him on the final day, but although the loss took away some of the sheen… and he scored his famous 50%... this was an excellent showing by the youngest and lowest rated player in the event.

Karjakin ½-½ MVL

This game to some extent summed up the tournament for both players. Sergey Karjakin blundered and Maxime Vachier-Lagrave, despite getting in 20 moves of theory, then squandered the advantage almost immediately, admitting he hadn’t been “focussed enough” to realise his 24…Rxd5? didn’t work and that he should have played 24…f5! That was a theme of Maxime’s post-game press conferences, with the French no. 1 also admitting that in the game he won against Kramnik he’d become transfixed by Carlsen-Karjakin for a while.

It was perhaps a silent protest that the official photographer didn't cover this game at all, so let's instead have some Norway Chess swag! | photo: Lennart Ootes

Sergey Karjakin: 10th, 3.5/9 (2 losses, 7 draws), -8 rating points

After winning the only two Norway Chess tournaments he played previously nothing went Sergey’s way this time round and he ended up in last place. In mitigation it could be pointed out that -2 usually isn’t “enough” for sole last place and anyone can lose to Carlsen and Aronian, but there was little to cheer, except one thing:

I’m very happy that the tournament is finished!

Meanwhile in Moscow...

Maxime Vachier-Lagrave: joint 7th, 4/9 (1 win, 2 losses, 6 draws), -5 rating points

Maxime avoided Sergey’s fate with that penultimate round win over Vladimir Kramnik, though as we’ve already noted, it wasn’t entirely convincing. The Frenchman will look to show more when he plays in his “home” supertournament, the Paris Grand Chess Tour, starting in a few days’ time. He regretted he’s not quite as local as he was in the previous years, with the switch to a Canal+ studio venue meaning he now lives 10 rather than 2 kilometres from the venue. Life is tough!

Caruana 1-0 Nakamura

Who doesn't love a Najdorf? | photo: Lennart Ootes

Going into this game Hikaru Nakamura knew that a win with the black pieces would probably earn him a rapid playoff for the €70,000 first prize, a format in which he would perhaps be a slight favourite. He did all you can ask of a chess player and played the Najdorf Sicilian, but it backfired in spectacular fashion when Fabi played the 6.Bg5 line and then unleashed the novelty 15.Rg1!?:

Subtle it was not, at first glance, although Fabiano gave a glimpse into his and Rustam Kasimdzhanov’s laboratory when he revealed one point is to get the rook off the h1-a8 diagonal, where it would be exposed after e5 in some lines. After 20 minutes of deep thought Hikaru went for 15…Bd7 and after 16.g5 hxg5 17.Rxg5 he shocked Fabiano by spending 31 minutes on 17…Nc6, rather than defending the g7-pawn. It wasn’t that the move was bad by itself, but…

To play this move you basically have to see a detail way down the road that is very hard to spot… I was wondering for a while if he’d analysed it and was just trying to remember it. It’s so risky to play this without having analysed it.

The suspense ended on move 22:

To justify Black’s play Hikaru now needed to find 22…Rxh2!!, with the amazing point that after 23.Rxe7 Rh1+ 24.Bf1 Rf8! White can’t use his free tempo to save the pinned bishop on f1 and retain an extra piece. In fact White is even in some danger of getting mated:

I couldn’t believe he’d calculated all the way up to here… I was thinking he’d prepared it, or he’d calculated it brilliantly – then he’d deserve a draw, or maybe even more than a draw!

Instead, though, Nakamura spent another 21 minutes on 22…Ng8, which Fabi called, “a very welcome surprise”. White was a pawn up with Black’s pieces tangled up on the back two ranks and, to Aronian’s delight, the remainder of the game went incredibly smoothly for Caruana. Usually the remaining moves wouldn’t merit a mention, but the following position deserves a diagram:

After both players had blitzed out the last dozen moves or so, Nakamura suddenly stopped. Caruana had managed to set up a fortress against Giri the day before, but this was no fortress. It surprised everyone, therefore, when, with all the other games over, Nakamura sank into 16 minutes’ thought on his next move:

When action finally resumed, the players blitzed out: 54…Bf6 55.d6 Ne5 56.Bf5 Nd3 57.Rxf6 Kxf6 58.d7 Ke7 59.h6 Black resigned

Fabiano was asked afterwards if he’d been irritated by that delay:

A little bit. He wasn’t thinking about this position, it’s clear. I think thinking for 30 minutes is not very good sportsmanship at this point.

Hikaru later tweeted:

On the chess before that Maxime Vachier-Lagrave had commented:

This sometimes happens when you play the Najdorf - otherwise it would just be the best opening in the world!

Fabiano pointed out, “To play this you basically have to analyse every move for White or Black in every position”. Easy for him to say!

Fabiano Caruana: joint 4th, 4.5/9 (1 win, 1 loss, 7 draws), -2 rating points

The final game put a positive gloss on a tournament where previously Fabiano had been notable above all else for a catatonic approach to his play with the black pieces, defending miserable technical positions in game after game and earning the epithet of “accountant” from Giri. It worked to the extent that Caruana didn’t lose a game with Black – his one loss came with White against Anand – and perhaps it was a form of training for challenges ahead. The result kept Fabiano in the qualifying places for the Candidates Tournament by rating… just!

Hikaru Nakamura: joint 2nd, 5/9 (2 wins, 1 loss, 6 draws), +7 rating points

Just the one slip at the end for Nakamura | photo: Lennart Ootes

Until next year... | photo: Lennart Ootes

The final game was of course a bitter end for Hikaru, but until that point he’d had an excellent tournament, racing into the lead with wins in Rounds 1 and 4 and staying there or thereabouts until the last round. The final decision to take on Fabi in the sharpest Najdorf couldn’t be criticised – the loss cost him €7,500 in comparison to finishing in sole 2nd place after a draw, while if he’d won the game and playoff he’d have earned €30,000 more. He’d also have climbed into the 2800 club while knocking Caruana out of it. It wasn’t to be, but the potential upside far outweighed the downside.

So that’s all for Altibox Norway Chess 2017. We hope you’ve enjoyed our coverage and will keep coming back for more. The “wait” for more top chess action is less than a day, since the World Team Championship kicks off in Khanty-Mansiyk at 12:00 CEST on Saturday. You can of course watch all the action, with Evgeny Miroshnichenko and Anna Rudolf commentating in English and Sergey Shipov in Russian, here on chess24: World Team Championship | Women's World Team Championship 

Then the Paris Grand Chess Tour rapid and blitz event starts on Wednesday, with a few familiar faces: Carlsen, Nakamura, So, MVL, Karjakin, Caruana, Grischuk, Mamedyarov, Topalov and Bacrot are all in action!

See also:

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