Reports Apr 28, 2015 | 7:38 AMby Colin McGourty

Shamkir Chess 2015: Winners and losers

Magnus Carlsen scored the only win in the final round of this year’s Shamkir Chess to win yet another supertournament in style, finishing a point clear of Vishy Anand and two points ahead of Wesley So. All those players feature as winners of the event, though so does bottom-placed Rauf Mamedov. We also take a look back at the losers, who include the World Team Championships and the black pieces!

The final group photo from Shamkir Chess 2015 | photo: official website

Shamkir Chess had been hotly anticipated for two months before it began and went on to dominate the chess world for two weeks. Let’s take a look back on how it went, focusing on the winners and the losers.   


1. Magnus Carlsen

Magnus Carlsen during his final round win over Rauf Mamedov | photo: Macauley Peterson

What’s left to say? Magnus Carlsen’s unbeaten +5, 2983 performance was the kind of result that doesn’t come round often in supertournaments, even for him:

There was a little of everything. The World Champion beat Maxime Vachier-Lagrave in a creative effort that had real beauty from start to finish. He won opening battles against Shakhriyar Mamedyarov and, a real collector’s item this one, Vladimir Kramnik, and never gave them a chance once they’d gone astray. He pulled off his old trick against Fabiano Caruana of lulling his opponent into a sense of security and then seizing on the slightest of chances in an apparently harmless position. The final win against Rauf Mamedov was the only one that was nothing to write home about.

It wasn’t just the wins, though – he put Michael Adams under huge pressure with an exchange sacrifice and only played a single non-game in the event, against Anish Giri. Overall, he was never in trouble in any game but the first, and even then he showed fantastic tenacity against Vishy Anand after a one-move blunder. It looks ominously as though he’s managed to combine his newfound urge to experiment with his old solidity.

Wesley So congratulated him after both the penultimate and final rounds, commenting:

Whenever he’s around it feels like the battle is only for second place.

Such a success isn’t entirely unprecedented, of course. Magnus has now won all three events he played this year, his overall supertournament haul is already so great even a scholar of the subject was losing track…

…and he leads the rest of the chess world by over 70 points, within 15 points of his highest ever rating mark. He has every right to smile:

He’s apparently not planning on resting on his laurels, since he commented in the final press conference:

Of course I’m still learning all the time. The difficult part is to be able to use what you’ve learned in your games. That’s something that I and also others don’t find easy. You always know more than you’re able to show in the games. I feel I’m improving and that’s motivation enough to keep going.

2. Vishy Anand

Vishy Anand knows more than most about keeping going and now, half-way through his fifth decade and freed of the burden of holding the World Championship title, he’s proving he’s still got what it takes to challenge for the main prize. 

The old tiger is back! | photo: official website

As Wesley So commented:

Maybe next year if Vishy manages to maintain his good form we’ll see another rematch of him and Magnus. That would be funny.

This tournament compares well with all Anand’s recent achievements. He scored an unbeaten +3 in 9 rounds, while in the Candidates it took him 14 to rack up that score. His recent supertournament wins had all come in sprint events – Bilbao Masters (6 rounds, including a final round loss), the London Chess Classic (5 rounds) and the Zurich Chess Challenge (5 rounds). He could have scored more in Shamkir, most obviously in the first game against Magnus Carlsen (which all other things being equal would have left him tied for first), but also after a nice exchange sac against Giri in Round 3 that seemed to get the creative juices flowing. He went on to produce some masterpieces against So, Adams and Mamedyarov and finished with a performance that would often have been enough to win the whole event.  

Vishy summed it up in the press conference:

I won some very nice games and I’m quite pleased. It’s a pity about the first game because you don’t get too many like those, but I think afterwards I made up for it.

And on Twitter:

We’re not sure if we’re officially allowed to disclose what Vishy is referring to there, so let’s just limit ourselves to the teaser that the event will feature six (!) World Chess Champions.

It may be a matter of the tiniest of margins, but it’s still symbolic that Vishy is now live-rated 2803.7, some way short of his best (2820.7) but enough to make him world no. 2 at this moment in time.

3. Wesley So

Wesley himself wasn’t over the moon about his final +1 score:

Finally the tournament is over. It hasn’t really gone that well. I did better than some other players but I made a lot of mistakes and there are a lot of things to improve.

On the other hand, he finished in 3rd place in a major supertournament, posted a rating performance of 2814 and added a few points to his already stellar rating. It’s partly a matter of perception, since he started like a steamroller, winning all three of his Whites in the first four rounds. After that he failed to get another win, but suffering only two defeats, with Black against Anand and Caruana, isn’t a collapse, especially as Vishy uncorked a brilliant novelty.

Wesley couldn't maintain his ferocious start, but was never an easy opponent | photo: official website

What makes it impossible to leave Wesley out of the winners section is how he overcame adversity. His trials and tribulations on and off the board at the US Championship have been well-documented, and we can surmise that there might have been extra drama involving the Grand Chess Tour. It still remains puzzling that Wesley would turn down three lucrative and high profile events simply because Norway Chess (15-26 June) overlaps with an exhibition match against David Navara in Prague (June 12-16). The intrigue was upped by the Grand Chess Tour press conference not naming the ninth player, although the website launched the same day already included a biography of Maxime Vachier-Lagrave.

So’s schedule meant a dash from St. Louis to Shamkir. He explained:

It’s a very tough thing to have two tough tournaments in a month, but at the same time they moved the US Championship to accommodate Hikaru’s schedule and I got this opportunity two months ago.

Coming halfway around the world is the kind of ordeal that might have crushed a lesser (or older) man. 21-year-old Wesley instead seemed liberated to have escaped his troubles and hit the ground running. If he does keeps his work ethic and will to learn he’s going to be a very tough opponent in the years to come.

4. Rauf Mamedov

Ok, we have to admit Rauf only sneaked into this spot, since his carefully constructed tournament performance somewhat came tumbling down in the last round. Magnus Carlsen spoiled Rauf’s 27th birthday party (Carlsen after the game: “I had no idea!”).

Although, to be honest, it was self-inflicted punishment, since you didn’t need to be Magnus to spot that 34…Qe5?? was a terrible blunder. After a move like 34…Re5 the game might have gone on for a long time, but Magnus wasn’t optimistic about his winning chances. As it is, simply 35.Qf7! was enough to get Rauf to resign on the spot. Black has to give up vital pawns since there’s no other way to parry the obvious threats such as Qg6+ and Rd8.

Rauf Mamedov's birthday mood seemed to deteriorate the more moves he played against Magnus - not an uncommon occurrence! | photo: official website 

That ugly end meant Rauf did in fact finish in his expected last place, but it was only on tiebreaks, after avoiding the mauling at the hands of the supertournament regulars that most had predicted. Seven draws with losses only with Black against Carlsen and So was more than respectable, and amounted to a healthy 2706 performance. The result no doubt owes a lot to some opening cunning from his second Alexander Khalifman, but Rauf also showed he could trade blows with anyone in thrilling encounters with Mamedyarov and Caruana. All he needs to work on is his press-conference English, assuming that was the reason he barely said a word!

5. Shamkir Chess

Overall the tournament in Azerbaijan is going from strength to strength! The 10-player format is more enjoyable for spectators than the 6-player double round-robin we saw in 2014, and if this was a dress rehearsal for Shamkir to join the ranks of the Grand Chess Tour (which uses exactly the same format), then they passed with flying colours.

Chess has come a long way! | photo: official website

A near miss: Fabiano Caruana almost made the grade, but although his +1 actually helped him add rating points (if you’re going to lose, make it to Carlsen!) it wasn’t quite the level of performance we hope to see from the man who looked for a while last year to be arguably the strongest chess player on the planet. On the other hand, he improved as the tournament went on, with his coach Vladimir Chuchelov noting on the live broadcast:

On the rest day we changed a few things, and suddenly he got quiet and focussed and confident. He improved his game, definitely… Last year it was from Shamkir he started his rise. We hope it will happen the same this year, with a culmination point in St. Louis!


1. The World Team Championships

Vassily Ivanchuk is among the star names in action | photo: Arman Karakhanyan, World Teams website

We’re not sure who’s to blame, but holding the World Team Championships at the same time as a top supertournament was verging on criminally negligent scheduling. Team tournaments struggle to attract fan interest at the best of times, but they’re not going to compete with an event like Shamkir, especially if some of the players in Shamkir would otherwise have played in the World Teams. Then there were some odd decisions:

  • Holding the open and women’s events almost simultaneously but over 5,000 km apart (quite a challenge if any journalist or live-broadcast video crew was thinking of attending both)
  • Making the open tournament’s logo the forget-me-not symbol of remembrance for the centenary of the Armenian Genocide, and greying out the site and broadcasting the live commemoration ceremony on the rest day – of course some things are vastly more important than sport, but should an international sporting competition website be devoted to them?

The overlapping schedule was a shame, since the events, which are coming to a close right now (watch them here: Open | Women*), have featured some very entertaining chess. 

* actually the women's final round from Chengdu, China is currently unavailable since the whole FIDE website is down. We do at least have Kirsan Ilyumzhinov's tweets from a panda reserve nearby:

Red panda. Chengdu.

It’s hard to beat the opening of Richard Rapport against Ahmed Adly: 1.b3!? a5!? 2.e4 a4!? 3.b4!?

Richard had finally found his soulmate, but unfortunately he lost to him!

And how about Wei Yi doing a Nigel Short (that’s the pre-St Louis Massacre Nigel Short!) and marching his king all the way up a busy board to give mate. Admittedly Wei Yi used the light squares not the dark squares and marched through a lost position, but it was still spectacular!

2. Anish Giri and Maxime Vachier-Lagrave

Anish and Maxime surprisingly didn't manage a win between them | photo: official website

We’ll take these two young stars of the game together, since they had almost identical results – 0 wins, 7 draws, 2 losses, with all of the losses coming with the black pieces in totally crushing style (So 1-0 Giri, Adams 1-0 Giri & Carlsen 1-0 MVL, Kramnik 1-0 MVL). Giri perhaps showed more fight and could have escaped a place here if he’d taken advantage of Kramnik’s over-optimism and forced a win in the final game:

Giri said he'd calculated 76...Rxg3 to the end but was surprised by Kramnik's 76...Kg6, got confused and panicked as he got down to the 30 second increment. 77.Ra4? gave away his advantage after 77...Nd5! At least that left us an entertaining final press conference that Giri joined halfway through, commenting, "I just didn’t realise that after such a long game you are still alive":

And also a tweet:

Maxime never really got going and constantly lamented his opening preparation. Even when he was the one who knew more he wasn’t entirely convincing, for instance in the final press conference when he responded to a line of questioning from Wesley So with:

I can’t explain why it doesn’t work but I know it’s not recommended by the computer.

Modern chess!

He may also have been somewhat distracted, since it seems he was offered a place in the Grand Chess Tour during the tournament. It’s going to mean a packed schedule, but neither he nor Anish can be too disappointed about taking part in a series that will earn them $45,000 even if they finished last in all three events.

3. Black

There’s a strong rumour that Black is the new White and it’s easier to prepare to play with the black pieces nowadays. Kramnik, for instance, espoused that view in Shamkir after his draw with Vishy. When you look at the hard facts, though, you see 45 games with 15 wins for White and only 2 for Black – one of those games, Caruana 0–1 Carlsen, was completely drawn until Caruana lost the plot, while the other, Kramnik 0-1 Caruana saw Kramnik get a near to winning advantage before he threw it all away with a mistimed break. Wesley So felt how tough it was:

Here with Black I couldn’t even think about an advantage as I just had to try and survive. I hope this will make me tougher at defending.

4. Russian comments from the players

In general the organisers deserve only praise for the press conferences after the games. A good starting point was actually getting all the players to attend, win or lose, with the one exception being Kramnik after his defeat to Mamedyarov (for which he apologised). The players also spoke almost exclusively English, which was perfect for the majority of the watching audience, with only brief translations into Azerbaijani.

Our one gripe is when some of the players answered in Russian. The relationship between what they said and what was later translated into English was a rather distant one… The example below is from the Kramnik and Vachier-Lagrave press conference after the penultimate round:

Kramnik is asked about the lack of intrigue in the tournament and how big the gap is between Carlsen and the rest of the elite. His Russian answer (from about 10:00 onwards) is as follows:

In Russian? Well, first of all it seems he's only going to be leading by half a point and it's not certain he'll win the tournament...

Journalist: "Almost" no intrigue!

In my view there's been intrigue all tournament. So was leading, Anand had a totally winning position [against Carlsen] and would simply be ahead of him now. So no, there was intrigue. I wouldn't say, at least in this tournament, that there was some kind of crazy gap between him and the other players. But yes, in principle, he's of course the strongest player in the world at the current moment, undoubtedly, but there are chess players who can compete with him. And how big is the gap? That's something... there is one, you really can definitely say that he's the strongest player in the world, undoubtedly, there's no question, but by how much and how long will that continue? Well, that's already a question for a fortune teller rather than me! (smiles)   

And this is what the interpreter conveyed to the English-speaking audience:

What I can say is while the gap isn't that big, yawning, it's only 0.5 points difference. Wesley So was already leading after the first half of the tournament and you don't know what Anand could have done as well. Once again yes, indeed, there's a substantial, a conspicuous gap, which is very obvious and it's out there.

Of course it’s a tough job (especially when someone speaks a lot and occasionally repetitively like Kramnik and not in the chiselled sentences of Carlsen), but if they can stick to English in 2016 it might be best for all concerned     

5. Team Carlsen

Magnus and Henrik Carlsen and Fabiano Caruana during the rest-day football session | photo: official website 

In Shamkir 2014 Magnus Carlsen lost two games in a row before the rest day, then took out all that frustration on the Chief Arbiter and others during the football match. It was a wonder lives weren’t lost. After that he of course recovered and won the tournament. This year it was all less dramatic:

Essentially for me it was a bit of the same – a good start and a good finish, but this time I managed to avoid the collapse in the middle, so that was the difference between a good performance and a very good performance.

Perhaps that drop in intensity is why a team that included Carlsen junior and senior and Fabiano Caruana ended up losing a game 7:1, as Vishy Anand helpfully noted. We may as well take this chance to put Carlsen among the losers, since we’re not likely to get too many more opportunities in the near future!

After the event he was staging a rival competition to Kasparov-Short:

And then set off for some last challenges:

Did you have different winners or losers? Were we too kind to declare an amnesty on anyone who won at least one game? 

In any case, that’s all for Shamkir Chess 2015! Apart from the World Teams, chess action coming up in the next week includes the Italian Team Championship from Wednesday (Nakamura, Vachier-Lagrave, Bacrot), the Russian Teams from Friday (Svidler, Dominguez, Morozevich etc.) and the Nakhchivan Open (Hou Yifan, Rustam Kasimdzhanov etc.) from Saturday. We'll be covering all of them here on chess24.

See also our Shamkir Chess 2015 reports:

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