For a while during Thursday’s final round of the 2016 Tal Memorial it seemed Anish Giri was going to win the event without even needing a playoff. Ian Nepomniachtchi was contemplating resignation against Boris Gelfand while Giri just needed to put the finishing touches to a win over Li Chao. Fortune was on the side of the Russian, though, who finished in clear first when both those games ended in draws. Only Shakhriyar Mamedyarov broke the deadlock, stylishly punishing Vladimir Kramnik’s urge to play any position for a win.
In hindsight the 2016 Tal Memorial could have come to an end in Round 6, when Nepomniachtchi leapfrogged Giri into the lead by beating Mamedyarov while Giri lost to Aronian. A loss to Kramnik was also the end of Gelfand’s losing streak, the tournament’s other big storyline. The remaining three rounds featured 14 draws and a single final win for Mamedyarov over Kramnik, one which meant little for the standings at the top:
The final table represents a proud moment for Ian Nepomniachtchi, who won his first major supertournament to crown a spectacular few months in which he’d won the Danzhou tournament in China and starred for Russia in the Olympiad:
Let’s take a look at how things went for the players in the order in which they finished:
1. Ian Nepomniachtchi | 6/9 (3 wins, 6 draws), 2887 performance, +17.9 rating points
Nepomniachtchi’s victory in the 2016 Tal Memorial was richly merited, though he reserved his shakiest game for the final round, when he called his opening play against Boris Gelfand amateurish and had to cling on for dear life. He managed in the end, and could if anything have scored more points, with Vishy Anand pointing out the potential win Nepo missed against Aronian (Levon: “But that was an undeserved chance!”).
Nepomniachtchi was $45,000 wealthier, and understandably chuffed:
At the closing ceremony (all in Russian, but you can rewatch here) his short speech included:
It’s nice to be here in this capacity. It’s not just that I don’t win tournaments like this so often, I don’t play them so often!
He elaborated on that theme in an interview with Sport Express shortly afterwards:
The tournament was very strong. It’s a long time since I took part in such events, and in general I don’t often get the chance to play in a good round-robin. This was probably the strongest tournament of my life, and it’s doubly pleasant that I managed to go the whole distance pretty evenly.
What are the main moments you’d single out?
Of course the first win. Evgeny Tomashevsky is a very solid chess player, and it’s very tough to beat him. After success you also start to feel more confident. I managed to beat Vladimir Kramnik, doing that in time trouble, when my opponent went astray in a defendable position. Well, and of course it was satisfying to win a high-quality game against Shakhriyar Mamedyarov.
Nepomniachtchi, one of the most under-performing player of the stars born in 1990 (Carlsen, MVL, Karjakin, Andreikin…), edged into the world’s Top 10 for the first time and commented on his plans and ambitions now:
To take each game seriously, not to fool around. If you play chess your whole life then you set yourself some kind of goals. My main goal is to get into the World Championship system. Incidentally, a high rating will really help there… I hope organisers will now pay more attention to me. I really would like to play in more round-robins, and I’ve now shown that I don’t do so badly when participating in such events.
Perhaps the most interesting (and slightly backhanded!) compliment on Nepomniachtchi’s success came from Anish Giri:
He had what I lacked. He was very optimistic throughout and he never got punished for it, because he was calculating very well here. If you calculate well you can get away with a lot of nonsense! There are examples in the history of chess – I’m not talking about Ian at all, I’m just talking in general – of strong grandmasters who, if you talk to them about chess, seem not to understand anything, but they play extremely well. The thing is, if you calculate well it doesn’t matter how you evaluate the position - you’re going to make good moves. If you think you’re winning the whole time and you weren’t, you can still make good moves.
I don’t talk about Ian now, but he did calculate very well here and, in general, he’s the kind of player for whom the game… is just one big variation, just calculating this one long variation from move 1 to the end of the game. When these kinds of players are in shape then everything works. When they’re not in shape it’s not the same, but here he was in shape and he played very well and very bravely. With White he took a lot of risk against Aronian, against Anand. He was shaky in both games but he just pushed forward and saved himself. I wouldn’t say I’m jealous, because it doesn’t work all the time like that.
Watch Giri’s English comments in full:
2. Anish Giri | 5.5/9 (3 wins, 5 draws, 1 loss), 2840, +10.7 rating points
It was a bitter-sweet result for Anish Giri, but with the emphasis on the sweet. Three wins in a row in Rounds 2-4 and then a game where he was the only one playing for a win against Nepomniachtchi, left the Dutchman in the sole lead, only to swap places in Round 6. Anish could never regain the lead, though he did come within a whisker of forcing a playoff in the final round. When he missed his big chance against Li Chao he explained that it upset him so much that he was unable to fight on in the remainder of the game. Giri diagnosed a general problem:
I lose belief in my position… I need to be a bit more optimistic. Ian thinks he’s winning even when he’s worse!
So a satisfying return to form for Giri, who had suffered three losses and no wins in his last two major supertournaments, but that win is still eluding him (if you don't count Reggio Emilia 2011/12)...
As Radio Jan reminds us with his customary tact, the youngest player in the field wasn't only occupied with chess during the event but also became a father on the final rest day!
It was remarkable he kept his composure so well to the end of the event, though the toughest test now awaits him and Sopiko in Tbilisi!
Levon and Vishy both played and handled themselves well in Moscow, but neither seemed to have a driving urge to win the event, as Evgeny Miroshnichenko suggested after their sharp but balanced final round game (note that indeed Aronian has tied for 1st three times at the Tal Memorial, taking first on tiebreakers in 2006 and 2010, while Anand has never won):
3. Levon Aronian | 5/9 (1 win, 8 draws), 2799 performance, no rating change
Levon was the only player other than Nepomniachtchi to finish the Tal Memorial unbeaten, and though he scored only one win it was a beautiful one with great sporting significance against Giri. He never got into real difficulties except in his game against Nepomniachtchi, but even there - apart from blundering a piece... - he had chances to beat the leader and transform the tournament standings.
4. Vishy Anand | 5/9 (2 wins, 6 draws, 1 loss), 2801 performance, +2.7 rating points
Vishy also had a dangerous initiative against Nepomniachtchi, but ultimately could feel a little hard done by to be knocked down into fourth place in the standings, since Sonneborn Berger was used as the tiebreak rather than the common tiebreak of most wins. He won top quality games against Mamedyarov and Gelfand, but lost to an equally impressive display by Kramnik. A smooth performance from the former World Champion, who plays classical, rapid and blitz chess against Caruana, Nakamura and Topalov in the Championship Showdown in St. Louis from 10-14 November.
All four players balanced wins with losses and could, understandably, look back at the event with mixed feelings.
5. Peter Svidler | 4.5/9 (1 win, 7 draws, 1 loss), 2761 performance, +2.1 rating pointsThe big what-might-have-been moment for Peter came in the first round, where he won a pawn but couldn’t quite drive a stake through Vladimir Kramnik’s heart, eventually needing to hold on for a draw. So instead of a brilliant start, three Whites in the first four games brought only two draws and a loss – with an opening debacle against Anish Giri followed by some fine technique from the Dutchman.
In the remainder of the tournament Peter managed to get back to 50% by winning an offbeat and enjoyable game against Li Chao and also engaged Mamedyarov in a fascinating battle. When Evgeny Tomashevsky declared an amnesty in the final game rather than trying to convert a slight edge for three hours, as everyone expected, Svidler’s thoughts could turn to chasing an 8th Russian title. He plays the Russian Championship Superfinal in Novosibirsk in just over a week’s time, and we’ll have that event with live commentary (and maybe another surprise bonus!) here on chess24.
6. Li Chao | 4.5/9 (1 win, 7 draws, 1 loss), 2761 performance, +2 rating points
As in Norway Chess, Li Chao finished the Tal Memorial with one win and a loss and again enhanced his reputation both for solid chess and fluent English! He beat Boris Gelfand with good preparation and energetic play, before falling to Svidler, which later caused him to disarmingly admit to having been unprepared for 1.Nf3!
Li Chao was happy that luck was finally on his side after a terrible Olympiad, but noted that his issues with playing at the very top seem, unsurprisingly for someone who hasn’t been there all his life, to be with the opening - his main problem, he felt, was with the white pieces!
7. Vladimir Kramnik | 4.5/9 (2 wins, 5 draws, 2 losses), 2754 performance, -6.8 rating points
One person who has no problem at all with the white pieces is Kramnik, whose relative failure in Moscow could ultimately be traced back to the final round of the pre-tournament blitz. If Giri hadn’t won a game he was losing against Tomashevsky, Kramnik would have had five games with the white pieces in the main event, and we might have seen more of the smooth and powerful wins over Anand and Gelfand. We would also have seen less of his black (mis)adventures – since Kramnik had decided to be the entertainer in Moscow!
Against Svidler, Nepomniachtchi and Aronian he played a somewhat unusual Hedgehog formation, seemed to overpress and was perhaps lucky to escape with two draws and one loss. We're not sure Judit is right when it comes to Vlad's little critter!
He managed to play …g5 in dubious circumstances in all three
of those games, and also managed to get in the move against Giri with Black,
when he stopped himself from getting carried away just in time. In the final
game, alas, he didn’t manage to play g5, got no counterplay and was bulldozed
off the board by Mamedyarov, though time trouble did make the game a much more
exciting fight than you’d imagine from the moves alone. The verdict there
again, though, was that any “normal” player would simply have settled for a
draw after a 108-move game the day before.
Mamedyarov suggested 18…Qxd4 19.exd4 b6, and Giri later confirmed that was included in his files as a draw. Kramnik seems determined to enjoy himself in the later stages of his career, though, and who are chess fans to complain! That final loss may have cost Kramnik 2nd place on the live rating list (he slipped back to 4th), but the attitude is the same one that enabled him to set a peak rating at the age of 41.
8. Shakhriyar Mamedyarov | 4.5/9 (2 wins, 5 draws, 2 losses), 2759 performance, -0.1 rating points
Shak was the grateful recipient of Kramnik’s gifts, and got to demonstrate his huge tactical ability in both the moves that appeared on the board and what he saw in his analysis:
It was a strange event for Mamedyarov, who actually said afterwards that it could have been one of his worst if not for that final win, although he then tempered that by noting that the games Anand and Nepomniachtchi had won against him were beautiful.
Mamedyarov’s 1st win was another tactical crush against Gelfand, so all in all – including a dominant performance in the pre-tournament blitz – there wasn’t too much to complain about.
9. Evgeny Tomashevsky | 3.5/9 (7 draws, 2 losses), 2683 performance, -5.9 rating pointsFor reigning Russian Champion Evgeny Tomashevsky this was a repeat of his 2012 Tal Memorial performance, when he also scored 3.5 points, though with three losses and one win. The start was out of character – in Round 1 Tomashevsky proved utterly unprepared for a sharp variation and sank without a trace, though perhaps the news of Mark Dvoretsky’s death had some influence on that game against Nepomniachtchi. Then in Round 3 Tomashevsky was ground down in a seemingly drawish ending by Giri.
The ship was righted after that, with
six draws following, though there was little to cheer about. Evgeny had continued
his disappointing form from the Olympiad and failed to assert a claim for more
supertournament appearances. The only good news was that 3.5 wasn’t “enough”
for last, as it had been in 2012, because of course we have…
10. Boris Gelfand | 2/9 (4 draws, 5 losses), 2541 performance, -22.6 rating pointsBoris came into the event after playing few games in 2016 and none against the very best opposition, and had also been distracted by an unpleasant dispute with the Israeli Chess Federation which saw him miss the Olympiad. Still, that was no reason to expect the collapse that came from the player who had won the last full Tal Memorial in 2013.
In mitigation, Black against Mamedyarov, Anand and Kramnik is no walk in the park for anyone, Giri won a brilliant game, and even Li Chao managed to uncork some well-judged home preparation with the black pieces. A less-principled player would probably have stopped the bleeding sooner by playing strictly for a draw, but Boris stuck to his guns, which is one reason it would be foolish to write him off at the age of 48. Another is that Boris has always been a big tournament player, as he showed by winning the World Cup and Candidates Tournament to qualify for the 2012 World Championship match against Vishy.
The obvious parallel in the new generation of players is of course Sergey Karjakin, with Mamedyarov commenting when asked about Sergey’s chances against Magnus Carlsen:
He plays very important tournaments very well. He won two important tournaments in the last year – the World Cup and Candidates… why not a third one?
So that’s all for the 2016 Tal Memorial. It’s just over a month until Carlsen-Karjakin begins, but there’s plenty of action before that. This weekend’s chess events include the final rounds of the Isle of Man International, the 3rd edition of Millionaire Chess, the Czech and Polish Leagues and Anatoly Karpov and Jan Timman playing a classical match in Murmansk - don't miss all the action here on chess24!