One crazy, wild ride of a slugfest game by two ‘wounded wild beasts’ proved to be the highlight of round ten of the FIDE Berlin Candidates in the German capital, as yet again the rest of the games were drawn, included that of the US leader Fabiano Caruana and his closest rival, Shakhriyar Mamedyarov of Azerbaijan, as the tournament now moves into its final stages to select a title challenger for World Champion Magnus Carlsen in London in November.
It was the third successive round where we had three mainly tame draws and one outright crazy game – and, remarkably, that crazy game was to come once again from the wildcard and ex-World champion Vladimir Kramnik, who now seems to have picked up from fans and pundits alike of Boris Spassky’s famous tag of “drunk machine gunner” on a former top English player, as Levon Aronian inadvertently walked right into his erratic line of fire.
In the late 1980s, ex-World champion Spassky famously described the wild and uncompromisingly aggressive play of GM Willie Watson to be as that of a drunk with a machine gun. The tag stuck, but Watson didn’t, nowadays a practising tax lawyer and partner at the London legal firm of Slaughter and May, and for many years has been inactive as a chess player. But the tag is back, only this time attached to the unlikely figure of the normally solid and safe Kramnik.
After getting off to positive +2 start and on the verge of +3 with mounting speculation of a fairytale return to London for a title match (where he beat Garry Kasparov in 2000 to win the title), the tournament wildcard has since lost four games – but in one wild ride against Aronian, Kramnik has moved out of the bottom spot, as the Armenian’s storied candidates’ curse strikes yet again, as, unfortunately, he left a mate hanging.
1. Fabiano Caruana (USA) 6.5/10; 2. Shakhriyar Mamedyarov (Azerbaijan) 6; 3. Alexander Grischuk (Russia) 5.5; 4-5. Ding Liren (China), Sergey Karjakin (Russia) 5; 6. Vladimir Kramnik (Russia) 4.5; 7. Wesley So (USA) 4; 8. Levon Aronian (Armenia) 3.5.
GM Vladimir Kramnik – GM Levon Aronian
FIDE Berlin Candidates, (10)
Four Knights Game
1.e4 e5 2.Nf3 Nc6 3.Bc4 Bc5 4.Nc3 After over 50 years in doldrums, interest in the Four Knights was re-awakened in the 1990s when the English grandmasters John Nunn and Nigel Short revitalised it into an effective winning weapon once again. 4…Nf6 5.d3 a6 6.Nd5 Nxd5 7.Bxd5 d6N It’s a novelty from Aronian, but not much of one when you consider that previously played here was 7…0-0 8.Bg5 Be7 9.h4 d6 10.Qd2 Bg4 11.c3 – but taking this into consideration, Aronian is perhaps trying to delay castling, to try and avoid the likes of Bg5 and h4. 8.Be3 Bxe3 9.fxe3 0-0 10.0-0 Nb8 11.b4 Nd7 12.Qd2 c6 13.Bb3 a5 14.a3 Nf6 15.h3 h6 16.Rab1 b5 17.Qc3 Bd7 18.Rf2 Qb6 19.Re1 Rfe8 20.Nh4 c5 21.Ref1 Kramnik admitted this was a very risky move. 21…cxb4!? Uncompromising from Aronian…and “Awfully dangerous,” according to Kramnik, who was considering lines such as 21…c4 22.dxc4 bxc4 23.Qxc4 Be6 24.Qe2 Nxe4 25.Rxf7 and 21…axb4 22.axb4 c4 23.dxc4 bxc4 24.Bxc4 Rec8 with both being sharp and unclear; though telling from the engines, however, both showing it to be just “0.00”. 22.Qe1 d5 The only move, according to Kramnik – but the ubiquitous engines suggestions two good alternatives in 22…a4 23.Rxf6 axb3 24.Rxf7 and 22…Be6 23.Bxe6 fxe6 24.Rxf6!? gxf6 25.Rxf6 Ra7 26.axb4 a4 27.Rxh6 leading to murky, but nevertheless equal-ish positions with Black’s exposed king, easily allowing White excellent drawing chances here. 23.axb4 Also a possible punt was 23.Rxf6!? gxf6 24.Qg3+ Kh7 25.axb4 Rg8 26.Qf3 a4 27.Bxd5 Rac8 28.Rf2 and again even here, the exposed Black king should be more than enough to safeguard White the draw. 23…dxe4 24.bxa5 Rxa5 The alternative just seems to fizzle out to an equal ending after 24…Qxa5 25.Rxf6! Qxe1 26.Bxf7+ Kh7 27.Rxe1 gxf6 28.Bg6+ Kg8 29.Bxe8 Bxe8 30.d4! and Black has more than enough pawn weaknesses to not even consider trying to push for a win. 25.Ng6 Be6 A very practical solution. The engines like 25…Ra6!? but it all gets very murky again after 26.Rxf6 gxf6 27.Qg3 Qd6 28.dxe4 Kg7!? the engines like Black here – but the human instinct will kick in here and suggest that this is far too dangerous a twist. 26.Nxe5 exd3 27.Rxf6! This is the only way White can stay in the game now, as the position goes ‘full chaos’ mode. 27…gxf6 28.Rxf6 d2! 29.Qg3+! Amazingly, amidst all this mayhem, the engines just calmly declare the position to be “0.00” – but these are all mainly inhuman moves, and the human heart would surely have been beating here like the late great Cozy Powell on a drum solo! 29…Kf8 The only move, as 29…Kh7?? dramatically falls to 30.c4!! and White’s winning. 30.Rf1! “I thought it just finishes the game,” thought Kramnik, who had somewhat overestimated his position – but it is the best move and retains equality. And 30.c4 doesn’t work this time: 30…Ra1+ 31.Kh2 d1Q 32.Bxd1 Rxd1 33.cxb5 Qxb5 and Black’s winning. 30…Ra7 Also drawing was 30…Rd8 31.Qf4 d1Q 32.Qxh6+ Kg8 33.Qg5+ Kh7 34.Qh4+ and a perpetual. 31.Ng6+ Kg7 32.Nf4+ Kh8 The only move, as 32…Kh7 33.Nh5 and the dual threat of Qg7 mate and Nf6+ wins on the spot. 33.Nh5 f6 This was the reason for 30…Ra7, with the rook defending against the mate on g7. But also good was 33…Bg4 34.Qxg4 f5 35.Qxf5 Qxe3+ 36.Kh1 Qg5 37.Qf3 Rae7 and yet again the engines calmly deliberate this to be “0.00” – but with the rooks now doubled on the e-file, and that dangerous pawn on d2, in practical terms this position holds many dangers for White. 34.Nxf6 Rf8 “I had a zillion options here, what about Ree7?” pondered Aronian. But the engines say his instincts with 34…Rf8 was right, and his alternative not so clear – 34…Ree7?! 35.Qf4! Bg8 36.Qxh6+ Rh7 37.Qf4 Rhe7 38.Qh4+ Rh7 39.Nxh7 Qxe3+ 40.Kh2 Rxh7 41.Qg4! Rg7 (Not 41…Bxb3?? 42.Rf8+ Bg8 43.Qxg8#) 42.Qh5+ Rh7 43.Qxb5 d1R 44.Rxd1 Rxh3+ 45.gxh3 Qf2+ 46.Kh1 Qf3+ 47.Kg1 Qxd1+ 48.Qf1 Qd4+ 49.Qf2 Qd1+ 50.Kg2 and White is two pawns up in the ending. The other option was 34…Rd8!?, but it did rely on Black finding a couple of incredible “only move” follow-ups after 35.Qf4 Bf5!! 36.Qxf5 d1Q 37.Qf4!! and the hit on h6 saves the day for White. 35.Qf4 Rh7 36.Qe5 [see diagram] 36…Qc7?? Tragedy for Aronian! Amidst all the chaos and randomness that has gone before, the Armenian cracks at the critical moment by hanging a mate! He had to play 36…Rg7! and now 37.Bxe6 Rg5 38.Qc3 b4 39.Nh5+!! bxc3 40.Rxf8+ Kh7 41.Rf7+ Kh8 42.Rf8+ Kh7 43.Rf7+ etc and the king can’t escape the perpetual check, as 43…Kg6?? there’s the little matter of 44.Nf4# 37.Ne8+! 1-0 A now crestfallen Aronian resigns, as there’s a forced mate after 37…Kg8 38.Qxe6+ Qf7 39.Rxf7 d1Q+ (39…Rhxf7 40.Qg6+ Kh8 41.Qxh6+ Kg8 42.Nf6#) 40.Rf1+ Rff7 41.Nf6+ Kh8 (41…Kg7 42.Qxf7+ Kh8 43.Qg8#) 42.Qe8+ Kg7 43.Qg8#. What a tragic end to a marvellous, no-holds-barred slugfest!