Reports Apr 22, 2018 | 11:01 AMby Colin McGourty

Shamkir Chess 2-3: Why all the draws?

Magnus Carlsen played on to bare kings against David Navara and Rauf Mamedov but couldn’t stop all 15 games so far in Shamkir ending in draws, with the World Champion’s frustration shown by his failure to attend the Round 3 post-game interview. It was Veselin Topalov who came closest to ending the deadlock, but he missed great chances in Rounds 2 and 3. What’s up at the Gashimov Memorial? Is classical chess dead? We take a look at some of the reasons for all the draws.

Magnus Carlsen was held to a third draw in a row, this time by Rauf Mamedov | photo: official website

Anish Giri was in his element after Round 2 of the Gashimov Memorial…

…and Round 3 just added another 10 halves to that picture:

What’s going on? Well, let’s look at seven possible reasons for all the draws:

1. Kramnik’s late withdrawal

Less than two weeks before the start of Shamkir Chess it was announced that Vladimir Kramnik had withdrawn from the tournament, citing exhaustion after the Berlin Candidates Tournament. That was a blow, not just because we were losing the world no. 4, but because Kramnik in his later years has been the most dynamic player in top-level chess. Not for nothing has Nigel Short christened him the “drunk machine-gunner”.

In the Candidates, despite all that was at stake, he played 7 decisive games in 14, in the Tata Steel Masters it was 8 in 13, while in his last classical tournament before that it was 1 draw in 9 on the Isle of Man (ok, it was an open tournament, but the one draw was against Lawrence Trent, of all people!). Last year in Shamkir he had 5 decisive games in 9, and if he had played we could have relied on him to go all-out for a win in most games.

Kramnik took second behind Mamedyarov in 2017 | photo: official website

Instead he was replaced by Radoslaw Wojtaszek, an extremely strong player, as the Polish no. 1 showed by winning Dortmund in 2017, but not one likely to attempt to crush the field – especially with almost no time to put together the kind of targeted preparation you’d like to have against these guys.

2. Carlsen isn’t firing on all cylinders

There were high hopes before the start of Carlsen-Navara | photo: official website

When Magnus last played Shamkir Chess in 2014 and 2015 he won, with just 3 draws in 10 games in the first tournament and then 4 in 9 in the second. In fact, that 2015 result was one of the Norwegian’s career highs, even by his standards, as he scored an unbeaten +5 that included wins over Mamedyarov, Caruana, MVL and Kramnik.

This year, though, it’s been all about frustration so far. You can’t deny the will-to-win that’s seen him play a King’s Indian/Grünfeld (vs. Mamedyarov) and the Pirc (vs. Mamedov) with Black…

…and he’s given it his all, playing on to bare kings against Navara and Mamedov…

…but so far it’s been with no reward. That’s largely been down to his opponents playing well, but the frustration was evident after Round 3 when Magnus skipped the obligatory post-game press conference (Kramnik once did that in Shamkir, but only after a painful loss to Mamedyarov in 2015, and he later issued an apology). Admittedly the long interviews conducted by Ljubomir Ljubojevic have been an ordeal for all concerned, and in Round 2 a strange question on the possibly negative impact of gadgets on our lives was met with a blunt answer from the World Champion: “I’m not interested in solving the problems of the world today!”

What he is interested in is playing chess, of course, and no-one will be surprised if he does start to rack up some wins. The good news from St. Louis is that the gap between himself and Fabiano Caruana, that had closed to 15 points as Magnus kept drawing and Fabi kept winning, is now back at 23 points after Caruana overpressed and lost to Zviad Izoria in St. Louis. Mamedyarov is again the world no. 2, for now.

3. The time control and Sofia rules

Shamkir Chess is very unusual nowadays in not employing an increment until move 61. While that could lead to time-trouble blunders (remember how Wesley So’s almost 70-game unbeaten run ended in time trouble disaster in 2017) it seems more likely this time round that players have played cautiously to avoid getting into time trouble, while the 60-minute thinking time added at move 40 means that if there’s a draw they’ll probably find it.

It’s also sometimes been suggested that Sofia Rules, here banning draw offers before move 40, actually encourage players to take draws by repetition when they see them so as to avoid having to play on in a dull position for hours. On the other hand, those rules are common everywhere nowadays, and Shamkir Chess has had the same rules in previous years when draws haven’t been an issue.

4. Topalov is letting his prey escape

Topalov has always been one of the world's most aggressive chess players | photo: official website

Veselin Topalov, the least active member of the chess elite, could single-handedly have stopped this discussion if he’d taken his chances in Rounds 2 and 3. First Anish Giri had what he thought at the time was “a flash of genius” and quickly played 30…a4?

Unfortunately that just forced Topalov to find the refutation 31.bxa4 Rb4 32.Rb1!, the move Giri had missed, and after 32…Qxc4 33.Rxb4 Rxb4 34.Qxb4 Qa2+ 35.Qb2 Qxa4+ Black’s “brilliancy” had left him down an exchange for no real compensation. A couple of moves later, though, Topalov let that edge slip:

He played 38.Qd5?!, when after 38…Ng5! there were suddenly technical issues and the win had soon gone. Instead 38.h4!, preventing that knight jump, was the move. Topalov may have feared 38…Nc5, but after 39.Rd8+ Kh7 40.Qg8+ Kg6 41.h5+! Kxh5 42.Qxg7 Black has no perpetual check and White wins.

Ding Liren completed some more escapology | photo: official website

Against Ding Liren it was a similar story, though curiously the drama took place after the time control, when both players had plenty of time. Liren went for 41.Nxe6? (he should have taken on e4 instead) 41…fxe6 42.Bf1?

Here the winning move is 42…Ng4! and White’s position falls apart, but to play that you had to see a tricky queen retreat after 43.f3:

Topalov in fact said afterwards that he had seen that, but he was worried about 44.Qb2 Qxg3+ 45.Qg2:

45…Qe1! was crushing there. The other reason he didn’t find that, though, is that he thought he was also winning after 42…Nxf2? 43.Kxf2 Ne4+, but had underestimated the strength of the “computer-like” 44.Ke2!, a move that cost Liren 20 minutes and saved the day for the Chinese star.

5. Anish Giri and Ding Liren are draw wizards

It’s some kind irony of fate that the two players who did all they could to provide Topalov with a win are famous for their Candidates Tournament performances. Giri scored all 14 draws in 2016, while Ding Liren fell just short with 13 earlier this year in Berlin. Both players, it has to be said, were involved in games in those tournaments that required some kind of miracle to end in draws – perhaps the curse has moved to Shamkir?

Giri keeps an eye on his rival | photo: official website

A less supernatural explanation you might come up with is that some players – Mamedyarov and Radjabov, Mamedyarov and Karjakin – are good friends who are happy to draw against each other unless something serious is at stake.

6. Classical chess is dead

Whenever a tournament features a lot of draws – for instance, the London Chess Classic last December – we get laments over the state of classical chess and calls to switch to rapid chess or/and Chess960. This time it was the same:

But then what about the fantastic fighting chess we saw in Tata Steel, the Candidates and the GRENKE Chess Classic this year?

My personal view is that classical chess is still far from exhausted – even the best chess players (just think Capablanca) are prone to underestimate just how vast chess is. That there are more possible games than atoms in the universe is not just a funny fact with no practical application. We see it in chess24, since every position analysed in a game (or by users clicking around to try moves that don’t happen) is saved so it doesn’t need to be analysed again. You’d think the tens of millions of positions stored would mean you don’t need much computing power to analyse each new game, but in fact it’s just a drop in the ocean. Almost every game at every level leaves “theory” after 5-25 moves, and we see again and again that top grandmasters still manage to surprise their opponents very early on. Rather than killing chess computers have instead shown that almost every strange opening move that doesn’t lose on the spot is playable. There’s no burning need to switch to Chess960 and add new infinities to the game.

Even watching five games at the same time is one of the reasons watching chess is so much more challenging that most other spectator sports | photo: official website

While some speed chess is definitely good, it’s probably also not the solution. Chess fans and top players still don’t seem to take rapid and blitz particularly seriously, and it’s also much more difficult to watch and really grasp what’s going on. Chess is famously tough, and following more than one blitz game at the same time is difficult even for grandmasters, never mind the average spectator. I suspect that’s one of the reasons why World Championship matches are still by far the biggest draw in chess (no pun intended!). However “boring” people sometimes claim they are, chess fans have a fighting chance of grasping not only the human drama but some of the depth of the games.  

7. It happens

Of course the other explanation is just a statistical one. A draw is a likely outcome of any individual game between closely matched players, and you’ll occasionally get long runs of draws, just as you’ll get long runs of decisive games. In the recent Stockfish-Houdini match, Stockfish was clearly the better engine and won by a crushing 59:41 scoreline, but while at one point there were 7 decisive games in 9, there were also sequences of 17 and 14 draws in a row. It’s part of the game.

In any case, we needn’t worry, since we’ve got Anish Giri vs. Ding Liren in Round 4  Follow all the Shamkir Chess action from 13:00 CEST

See also:

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