Features Jan 14, 2016 | 2:01 PMby Colin McGourty

Sergey Shipov's review of 2015: Part 2

Sergey Shipov commentating on the Russian Championship Superfinal | photo: Russian Chess Federation

In Part 2 of his look back at 2015 in chess, GM Sergey Shipov tackles questions on an uneven year for Magnus Carlsen, the rise of the Chinese, the Candidates Tournament without Vladimir Kramnik and much more. Don’t miss some enjoyable rants directed at the Berlin Variation and the idea that it’s a bad thing that knockout and rapid tournaments feature more mistakes from the top players.

The first part of Sergey Shipov’s review featured the best and worst of the year, while the second part sees Sergey respond to user questions. His full review in Russian can be found at Crestbook, while we’ve again provided extensive highlights in English below:


Which grandmaster grew most in strength/rating? Who fell (among those 2700+)?

1. Wei Yi – he soared high, frightening the whole world.

2. Carlsen – true, he fell from a level that’s nevertheless inaccessible to the rest. A star descended to the stratosphere.  

Did we discover something new about Magnus Carlsen last year?

Yes, we did. A lack of motivation has been preventing Magnus from playing at his previous level. Failures and setbacks have occurred. It was particularly amazing to see the slightly better endings that he failed to win against chess players a class beneath him.

Perhaps Carlsen has fallen in love and can’t concentrate on chess?

Magnus also gave his own verdict on his year 

What on earth happened to our Magnus this year?! Is there really a problem in his private life, or is he just a bit bored with playing?

I can only guess at his private life (I’m short on inside information), but it’s clear he’s been sated with wins. I hope this period doesn’t last long. As the new World Championship match approaches he should come to his senses and get back to his best.

As for marriage… I can’t imagine a girl who would be ideal for the champion – he’s a difficult and even strange guy. Magnus has a fanatic love of chess – he lives for it. Combining that feeling with a comfortable and stable family live is very tough. Many chess maniacs have already been burned on the private front. With Carlsen there are also no guarantees. Let’s hope he ends up with a girl who’s wise and patient – for example, one of our young chess players… We’ve got plenty.

I suggest arranging a bride contest! Or, as they say in the West, casting.

Previously in Old Russia young tsars really did choose their wives. Well-born girls were brought from all over and a contest was organised. “If I were to become queen”, says one girl…”.

In our case being well-born can be replaced with chess qualifications – without that the young couple will have nothing to talk about. It’ll be easiest to seduce our tsar with sensible discussion of the Berlin Variation 

Alina Kashlinskaya and Sopiko Guramishvili have already dropped out of the contest. That’s a chance for others.

Anish Giri seems to have gotten down to studying chess seriously, and he’s already number two in the world! Nevertheless, the majority of fans for some reason aren’t inclined to take him seriously as a challenger for the title. Do you believe in his future progress and ability to throw down the gauntlet to Magnus?

Of course I believe in him. In terms of his mentality and ease of play Giri is very similar to Anand, so why shouldn’t he repeat the path of his great predecessor?

I think Anish has significant chances in the upcoming Candidates Tournament, particularly if he gets in the right mood and adapts his nervous system to the oppressive atmosphere of a fight for the title. If he can show his character and masculine qualities.

Anish Giri's first challenge in 2015 is Wijk aan Zee - on Tuesday he was on a special chess canal boat in Utrecht, where one of the rounds will be held | photo: Tata Steel Chess Tournament

Is Hou Yifan making progress in pursuing her claim to occupy the place, beyond the bounds of pure women’s chess, freed up by Judit Polgar?

Without any doubt! Hou Yifan regularly beats strong male grandmasters – everyone’s already used to that. Particularly Evgeny Najer.

Hou Yifan won the "friendly" blitz and rapid match in China 9.5:4.5 | photo: Russian Chess Federation

As for Judit’s heights (I’ve got in mind a place in the world Top 10), then I think neither Hou Yifan nor anyone else from the better half of humanity will manage. Ever, I think.

Wei Yi will soon be 17 years old – an old man – and he’s still outside the Top 20. Does he still have a chance of becoming a new genius and a superstar for years to come?

Yes, old age is no joke 

But still, he should become an elite player for years to come. In Wijk aan Zee 2016 our new Kid will already get a chance to show his teeth. His nervous system is stunning. His style is fierce and his talent is great, so I don’t see any fundamental barriers to Wei Yi reaching the top.

Personally I’m rooting for him, as a commentator. It would be interesting to see such a bold representative of China in all the major supertournaments.

Artemiev, Dubov, Fedoseev – summarise the year for the gifted young Russians. Do any of them have prospects of breaking into the elite?

Artemiev has chances of breaking into the elite. For the others it will be tougher. It’s not clear that they’ll manage to stand out against the background of umpteen other strong players.

Our guys don’t have a convenient flag by their boards from a geographical point of view, by which I mean if Fedoseev, Dubov or Bukavshin lived in some small country, in chess terms, then they’d long since have been playing in strong round robins. For now, though, the organisers are more interested in Kramnik, Karjakin and Grischuk. They don’t need a fifth, seventh or tenth Russian.

So our guys need to start by beating their outstanding contemporaries, or winning the World Cup. Only then will they have a chance to gain a foothold at the top.

By the way, another chance is to shine for the Russian team. There a lot may depend on decisions taken by our chess officials, which is one more reason to make the team younger.

Ah, how good it would be to see our team with the line-up Karjakin, Grischuk, Artemiev, Fedoseev, Dubov (head coach – Kramnik) win the Olympiad! In that case…

World Junior Champion Mikhail Antipov, Grigoriy Oparin, Vladislav Artemiev and the tragically now departed Ivan Bukavshin at the closing ceremony of the 2015 Nutcracker tournament | photo: Russian Chess Federation

Why do young Russian talents slow down on the verge of the elite? Somehow this year wasn’t particularly impressive for them, while Wei Yi is light years ahead. It seems it’s become customary that at some moment their progress slows down sharply. Nepomniachtchi was the talk of the town, then in recent times Dubov, Fedoseev… They’re all very strong, but they’re unable to make the same progress as the young Chinese players… Even a talent like Vladik Artemiev, it seems, has somewhat stalled. What’s wrong?

But who doesn’t slow down on the verge of the elite? It’s an order of magnitude tougher for a strong grandmaster to enter into it than it is for a normal grandmaster to become strong.

Those same Chinese worked at it and tried for umpteen years but just couldn’t insert their youngsters among the chess gods. And now, all of a sudden, they have a real eagle (even eagles). Why envy them? Over the same years Grischuk and Karjakin appeared for Russia – also not a bad result. Now we can await big things from Artemiev and Makoveev. We’ll keep on working! The elite won’t be left without our players.

How do you rate the progress of the Chinese players this year?

Clear progress! The victory of the Chinese team at the Olympiad in Tromsø was initially taken as an unexpected success by many, but now it’s clear that the young Chinese really are wonderful. After many years of fruitless effort in the previous generations Ding Liren, Yu Yangyi and Wei Yi have punched through the previously solid ceiling, soaring above Chinese everyday life. I think those guys are capable of staying at the top for many years – and perhaps they’ll fight for the World Championship title.

Wei Yi's victory over Lazaro Bruzon in the Danzhou supertournament was a brilliant calling card for the new star | photo: qipai.org.cn


This year there were plenty of tournaments (and supertournaments) in the most varied of formats and for the most differing tastes. Which do you recall in particular, and why? A disappointment?

I really enjoyed the knockout tournaments: the Women’s World Championship and the World Cup. That’s the most vivid format for holding tournaments at the moment. All the intrigue and struggle you could ask for!

You can grumble as much as you want about mistakes and unexpected results, but for the general public what you need are precisely ups and down and strong emotions. We got that in Baku and Sochi – from start to finish. There were no irrelevant games or boring matches. That means a lot.

Disappointment? We expected a lot from the final tournament of the Grand Chess Tour in London. It didn’t really work out that way. Draws, draws, draws…

Your assessment of the major blitz and rapid chess tournaments?

In recent months we witnessed the World Championship in Berlin and the European Championship in Minsk. They provided a spectacle and a fierce struggle.

It’s essential to hold such events more often and with good prize funds. A series of rapid chess tournaments (it’s not hard to think up names) with good commentary (not necessary mine) – that’s a top quality video product which it wouldn’t be embarrassing to approach TV with. On a permanent basis.

When our chess officials, organisers and sponsors take up that task together we’ll finally break through onto TV.

As for the results of the championships, I’m endlessly proud of Grischuk. He’s become a blitz legend of our century – already a three-time World Champion!

The Russian men’s team has finally managed to win a team tournament – the European Team Championship. And for that, as expected, there was no need to perform miracles – it was enough to play at their strength. What do you think – is that a one-off success or has the bad run finally come to an end?

How long? How long will it be until the Chess Olympiad has been won by everyone but us?

The European Team Championship is the third most significant tournament. Victory there isn’t grounds for wild joy.

Definitely the selfie of the year! | photo: Alexandra Kosteniuk's Twitter

When we win the World Team Championship and particularly the Olympiad then we can talk about putting a bad run behind us. In Reykjavik, meanwhile, it was just a pleasant and useful warm-up. We really need to catch that victorious wave and ride it.

The team line-up will, of course, soon change, but I hope the result will be the same.

Until which Olympiad will teams other than us win? Baku 2016!

Vladimir Kramnik at the 2014 Petrosian Memorial | photo: B. Dolmatovsky, Tashir Chess

Sergey, I’d like to hear your opinion about holding the Candidates Tournament in Moscow while Aronian plays. And in general, is the line-up of the upcoming tournament optimal?

The rules are the rules. The organising country of the tournament is Armenia, so the inclusion of Aronian can’t be disputed. Yes, the event will take place in Moscow, but that should hardly upset the Russians. You have to agree that it’s much easier to travel to Moscow than Yerevan.

If you recall, the “Tashir” company held the Petrosian Memorial in the Russian capital and not in Yerevan. It was more convenient like that and the tournament was a great success.

In general I consider the choice of venue for the Candidates Tournament a real compliment for us. Moscow is the capital of the chess world.

To be optimal the line-up clearly lacks Kramnik, but he didn’t get through the qualification, and our chess federation wasn’t persistent enough in the battle to find sponsors.

So Vladimir won’t play. I hope we manage to get him to work as a commentator in March – as an invited star.


A characteristic trait of 2015 was the instability of the results of the elite. Previously individual grandmasters (above all Ivanchuk and Morozevich come to mind) would from time to time find themselves in a state of rating freefall, but this year so many of the Top 10 saw sharp declines, starting with the World Champion, that it was hard to believe. Some, like Vachier-Lagrave, managed after an incredibly (for someone of his class) deep fall to rise up just as dramatically (while at the same time Topalov plunged from almost the very top). As a result, the rating lists even of adjacent months differed radically from each other, as never before. 2800 players (besides Carlsen) disappeared. And ratings stopped being a reliable indicator of even short-term form. Karjakin and Svidler managed to shine at the World Cup after prolonged failures, and what of it? Was anyone particularly doubtful of how justified their success was, despite their pre-tournament positions on the rating list? In general it was a strange year: Carlsen had more flops than in all his previous years put together, but he still won more than anyone else. Is there some kind of pattern of modern chess in the instability of almost everyone? Or did it simply work out that way, and it’s unlikely to be repeated?  

There are a few factors here:

  1. It seems last year the favourites bit off more than they could chew – now they’ve had to spit it back.
  2. The attack of the young talents and their rating rise couldn’t take place as a one-sided process. They had to take the rating points from someone. Those who suffered were the elite players… the previous elite – a normal phenomenon.
  3. Increased competition at the top leads to no-one being capable of regularly winning tournaments. Everyone shines occasionally, but rarely. Taking turns.
  4. Rating really isn’t an indicator of short-term form. By definition! It takes into account all the previous achievements, even those that took place a long time ago. The tournament schedule for the elite is packed, so a drop in form can happen at any moment.
  5. It’s also important here to note the psychology of a biased observer. If a 2800-level player plays at his rating or even slightly better that goes unnoticed, like the rising and setting of the sun. Mundane. But if he suddenly plays at 2650 that sticks in the memory. And provokes questions… 

The impression is that rating inflation has almost stopped, despite being obvious for many years.  The number of 2700 players has long since been pretty stable. Does that “mathematics” reflect some real processes in modern chess?

As far as I’m aware the mathematical formula for calculating ratings hasn’t changed, so it’s all a matter of statistical effects.

The process isn’t developing perfectly steadily but in stages. The accumulation of strong players at the top leads to noticeable qualitative changes that sometimes take place fast. It happens…

Next year I boldly predict an increase in the number of 2700 and 2800 players.

Sergey Shipov's photo of the year was of the Moscow wedding of Radek Wojtaszek and Alina Kashlinskaya, with Vishy and Aruna Anand in attendance

After the London Chess Classic people started to talk about the boredom inherent in elite tournaments with almost the same line-up. Many people see a solution in a greater use of Swiss tournaments with a mixed line-up. There’s also the traditional lament that in fact many chess players of the middle tier are in no way inferior to the top players – they simply don’t have the chance to meet them and prove it. 

After the dramatic World Cup in Baku and the exciting Rapid and Blitz World Championships in Berlin any round-robin tournament could appear tame. Not all formats are equally enticing. I’ve long since proposed introducing blitz playoffs in case of draws in round-robin tournaments. That could brighten up the boredom of fans and make chess more of a sport – particularly if you introduce the three-point system, where a draw in the main game gives the players one point each, while winning the playoff gives the winner another.

I hope that sooner or later that will come to pass.

As for talk about the privileges of the elite – that’s the normal grumbling of sceptics. The elite really are stronger and more stable than the second tier. A lot of mixed tournaments are now being held and the statistics give an unambiguous answer.

The last clear example was the Swiss Open in Qatar. Take the final standings - at the top, with rare exceptions, were all familiar faces.

The Berlin didn't boost the number of decisive games in London, but it wasn't entirely the opening's fault! Here Grischuk spent over an hour on a single move and eventually failed to win a totally won position against Giri's Berlin | photo: Ray Morris-Hill

The notorious “Berlin”: there are (again, particularly after the London tournament) two opposing views. Some say it’s the bane of modern chess, leading to an epidemic of draws and boredom. Others say that, on the contrary, it’s a chance to engage in a real fight, because even deep analysis doesn’t guarantee a result, that precisely in that variation more depends on strength of play and chess understanding. You just need fighting spirit! So if there wasn’t a Berlin you’d have to invent it – in contrast to the lively Dragons and other Najdorfs where actually if something’s been analysed there’s no play at the board. What do you think?

The Berlin really has gotten tiresome. It’s given chess players a kind of minimalist set of knowledge which gives them a high probability of holding with Black after 1.e4.

I don’t agree with the argument that “the Berlin is a chance to engage in a fight”. In my view, it’s above all else precisely a chance to hold, which is very important in round-robin tournaments, and in knockouts as well. It’s a means of neutralising the attacking abilities of your opponent, since without queens you’re not going to generate a mating attack.

And that would all be fine if the Berlin was played by a limited percent of strong players. At the end of the day, on its own it’s interesting and useful. It develops endgame technique, improves defensive technique and teaches how to use the advantage of the two bishops and so on.

But in this case it’s the mass appeal that’s lethal! The mass migration of players to the Berlin Variation has impoverished modern chess. Many substantial and fighting openings have become a rarity in tournaments. It’s sad to see…

On the other hand, in previous times you could say similar things about the Petrov, the Chelyabinsk Variation and other hackneyed systems. Let’s hope the fashion changes.

By the way, the dominance of the Berlin provides new impetus to give serious consideration to the format of holding tournaments in which a win with Black is worth more than one with White. Even if by only 0.01! The simplest approach would be to take wins with Black into consideration for the tiebreakers when a place is shared.

The World Cup this year was, on the one hand, a model fan spectacle (a lot of interesting games, beautiful combinations, unpredictable struggles), but on the other – it vividly demonstrated the problem of a drop in quality of play during such a format (a long tournament + rapid playoffs). Aren’t you afraid that in future, while trying to make chess appealing to a mass audience, there will be inevitable degradation?

“Degradation” is the negative perception of an idealist. That idealism is the real problem.

After all, we’re perfectly comfortable with the fact that top class footballers from the best national and club teams of the world make a number of inaccurate passes and shots during a game. That doesn’t prevent us from evaluating their play in superlatives. And tennis players in any particular match make umpteen errors, but we’re still in awe of them.

It’s the same in chess. You simply finally need to understand that people are fundamentally physiologically incapable of playing both fast and at a flawlessly high level. Their mistakes are part of the game – they make play interesting and enthralling. It’s normal.

Svidler leaving a rook en prise didn't qualify as Shipov's blunder of the year

It’s also important to realise that as spectators you see the current mistakes of players so fast thanks to computers and us commentators. Previously there were also a lot of mistakes, but you only found out about them much later, in analytical articles. That has its effect.

In general, put all the blame on us commentators! We lay bare the essence of play, dethrone heroes and overthrow gods.

A question on chess engines - which do well-known commentators now use for their work? And which are now being used by the top players?

Komodo and Stockfish are clearly dominating. The combination of those two engines allows you to confidently dig around in any kind of position. I use them regularly.

Houdini is already out of date. Without the release of a new, higher quality version it won’t remain at the top.

In the final match between Komodo and Stockfish the number of decisive games was only 1 in 10. Is that an accidental parity in the strength of the programs or is the engine world inevitably approaching “the starting position is drawn, and by a big margin”?

Computer experts know better, but I really do see a movement towards a drawn result as the logical outcome of limitlessly strong play. The margin of solidity in chess is great.

On the other hand, you can always accelerate the time control. So in matches between the best programs you’ll also be able to declare a winner. It needs to be sped up! Then the games will be more interesting and more blood will be spilt.

It’s all the same as with humans.

Predictions for 2016

What do you expect overall from the chess year 2016?

The year is set to be spectacular! We’ve got the Candidates Tournament in Moscow in March in store for us, two World Championship matches (in the spring the women in Lviv, then the men’s in autumn – I don’t know where), the Women’s Knockout World Championship at the end of the year in Minsk and, of course, the Olympiad in Baku. I’ll have plenty to do.

I hope we won’t lose sponsors and organisers because of godforsaken politics. We’ll play chess and talk about it without getting distracted by background noise.

What changes do you think are likely in the world elite? Who’ll win the most significant tournaments?

There will, of course, be changes in the elite. Youth is relentlessly on the march.

We need to begin with the fact that Carlsen’s opponent in the new title match should be someone significantly younger than Anand (I wouldn’t dare to give a more concrete prediction for the Candidates Tournament). The rating list is getting younger… especially if Rublevsky, Smirin and other coach-commentators don’t return to chess.

And, of course, the Chinese. They should take up their niche among the elite.

Jan Gustafsson and Fiona Steil-Antoni, who will be commentating live on Wijk aan Zee from Saturday onwards, also gave their predictions for 2016!

See also:

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