The big showdown between two-time winners Magnus Carlsen and Shakhriyar Mamedyarov ended in anti-climax on Thursday as the 2018 Gashimov Memorial began in Shamkir with five draws. A sharp opening led only to mass exchanges and an inevitably peaceful outcome, but there were battles on the other boards. Ding Liren-Wojtaszek in particular lasted over six hours and saw the Chinese no. 1 come incredibly close to starting with a win before his Candidates draw curse returned.
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Particularly after Vladimir Kramnik’s withdrawal there was one game everyone was waiting to see in Shamkir, and we didn’t have to wait long. World no. 1 Magnus Carlsen was paired against official world no. 2 Shakhriyar Mamedyarov, with the two players between them having won the previous four editions of the tournament. At the opening press conference Magnus commented that Shak was his main rival, “according both to rating and recent form”, though he was less politically correct for local fans when asked if he’d ever thought during the Candidates Tournament that the Azeri no. 1 would emerge as his challenger:
In Shamkir Magnus had won both tournaments in which they both played, in 2014 and 2015, and all three of their games, and it was once again clear to Mamedyarov that he might be in danger after Carlsen sprang an opening surprise.
The early 5…Nc6 in a g3-Grünfeld (instead of 5…d6 first) was a sharp try that had recently been played by Peter Svidler against Alexander Grischuk in the Tal Memorial. Peter squandered a winning position in that game, but Magnus varied with 8…e5, a sharp try played by such firebrands as Baadur Jobava and Emil Sutovsky:
Alas, this is where the life was sucked out of the position. After an 11-minute think Shak decided not to see what Magnus had prepared in the main line after 9.Nxd5 (that Kirill Stupak used to beat Sutovsky in last month’s European Championship) or 9.Bg5 and go for the safe option with 9.Nxe5 Nxc3 10.Nxc6 Nxd1 11.Nxd8 Rxd8 12.Rxd1 Rxd4 13.Be3 Rxd1+ 14.Rxd1, when almost all the pieces had been hoovered off the board. The players still needed to reach move 40 to agree a draw, and though in principle a quiet endgame favoured the World Champion, he admitted he was a little careless:
I thought maybe in the long-term there can be some play, but I missed 17.f4!, and now I thought maybe I’m a little bit worse.
There was no drama, though, and the draw briefly brought Mamedyarov level with Caruana as world no. 2 on the live rating list (Fabi’s win later in the day took him ahead again). Whether either player is going to complete a hat-trick of Shamkir Chess titles is now going to depend on how they do against the other players.
There was something to enjoy in all the other games, with even the Berlin endgame in Topalov-Radjabov sparking into life. Until 18.Nd4 Veselin Topalov had been following the play of his arch-rival Vladimir Kramnik against Sergey Karjakin from the recent Candidates Tournament (Kramnik played 18.Bg5 and got some winning chances). Topalov’s position also looked promising, but in the end White had nothing better than to give perpetual check.
Anish Giri played the 4.Qc2 line against the Nimzo-Indian and noted that Sergey Karjakin’s 10…Nc6 was “a little bit rare”:
It’s a theoretical variation, but unfortunately I was a little bit sloppily prepared here, so I didn’t recall the details.
In his video series on 4.Qc2 against the Nimzo-Indian Jan Gustafsson concurs:
10…Nc6 is a playable move for Black, but you're not going to see it very much. Pretty much everyone and their dog plays 10...Qa5 in this position, which is very much the critical test.
The game followed Jan’s recommendation until Anish sank into a 24-minute think after 13…Qxd4:
Here Jan gives 14.Ne2 Qxc5 15.Be4 and a small plus for White due to the black king on e8 having nowhere good to go. Giri eventually opted for 14.Nf3!? Qxc5 15.0-0 and soon both players were burning up a huge amount of time in an extremely complicated position. Giri was surprised by 20…Qa6!?, commenting, “I expected Sergey to take a lot of time, but he very quickly made a bad move”, but if that was a mistake Giri returned the favour a couple of moves later:
He played 22.Qe3!? but after 22…Qb6 23.Qf4+ Qd6 24.Qe3 the players repeated moves for a draw. Anish said that just after moving his queen he realised that 22.Nb5! would have posed Black serious problems, but it was already too late to return to that position.
After the game Giri noted that he’s starting to get back to working on chess more after the birth of his child, confessing, “The last two years I think I’ve not been as well-prepared as I usually was”. When Ljubomir Ljubojevic suggested one of the factors in Magnus Carlsen’s success was how sporty he is, Sergey commented, “He’s winning not because he’s good in sports but because he’s good in chess!”
The most swashbuckling game of the day was Navara-Mamedov, a Sicilian Dragon in which David Navara hadn’t paused for thought before he launched a bishop sacrifice:
17.Bxf7+! Navara felt he was inaccurate at some point after this, but both players seemed to conduct themselves well in a razor-sharp position. The game continued 17…Kxf7 18.Qg3 Bg7 19.fxg6+ hxg6 20.Bg5 Nc6:
21.Rxf6+! Bxf6 22.Rf1 Nxd4 23.Bxf6 Qxf6 24.Rxf6+ Kxf6 25.Qh4+ and White had emerged slightly better, but the draw that ensued was a fair result. You can catch some of the latter stages of David showing his game in the only available section of the live commentary:
That leaves Ding Liren-Wojtaszek, where the Chinese no. 1 surprised the Polish no. 1 on move 9 and went on to build up a position where Radek admitted his strategy boiled down to, “I thought I will stay and pray for the best”.
Problems for Black were pointed out both by humans…
…and the Sesse computer:
This was where Wojtaszek’s persistence paid off, though, since instead of the winning 49.Ke2 Ding Liren went for 49.Ke3 (it would be harsh to add a “?” after six hours of play in such a tricky ending) and it turned out that after 49…Qd8! Black was able to give up a bishop and eventually 3 pawns in exchange for delivering perpetual check:
The game was once again evidence of how strong Ding Liren has become (he’s within 10 rating points of the Top 5), but will he suffer from a draw curse as he did in the Berlin Candidates?
In Round 2 the Chinese player has Black against Karjakin, while the game of the round is likely to be Carlsen-Navara. Magnus is sure to be out to win with the white pieces, while David Navara is a combative player who usually gives his opponent a chance to play.
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