“If grandmasters are intent on making a draw, even flame-throwers can’t make them want to fight,” once famously commented the late, great Mikhail Tal. But draws don’t necessarily have to be dull; many are entertaining and have proved more appealing than wins. The exception is the notorious “grandmaster draw” – but a zero tolerance with a new Armageddon format adopted by the organisers of the Altibox Norway Chess tournament was specifically aimed at preventing this.
But unfortunately, with the exception of Magnus Carlsen – who seems to be the one player who has best adapted his game for this new format – most of the other top players are struggling, and with it, so too is the quality of the chess. Many pundits and punters are pointing out that the Armageddon “draw-breaks” have not reduced the number of draws in the tournament, and, in fact, if anything, it has only served to increase the number of draws!
The breakdown is that we’ve seen 23 mainly uneventful draws from thirty games so far – that’s 69%. Worse is the fact that the last two rounds alone have seen 10 games producing ten equally nervy draws, which in turn has led to ten very indifferent Armageddon tiebreak games. Indeed, several of the Armageddon games have proved to be accident-prone – the most bizarre incident coming in round six, between Alexander Grischuk and Fabiano Caruana.
Grischuk – regarded as one of the world’s best speed mavens – was under no pressure with over seven minutes on his clock, and had what can only politely be described in family circles as a ‘brain freeze’ on move 17 with a beginners’ aberration of blundering his bishop to a square where his very surprised American opponent simply took it – and with it, the Russian shook his head in utter disbelief as he immediately resigned.
With the notable exception of local hero and tournament leader Carlsen – and the lowest-rated player in the field, China’s Yu Yangyi – the quality of the games have clearly suffered. So not a positive development for chess fans – and many punters and pundits now feel the brave experiment from the Stavanger organisers of their new, hybrid classical-Armageddon format has failed, and next year it will not be repeated again.
1. M. Carlsen (Norway) 9½/17; 2. Yu Yangyi (China) 8/16; 3. L. Aronian (Armenia) 7½/17; 4. W. So (USA) 6½/17; 5-6. Ding Liren (China), V. Anand (India) 5½/17; 7-8. S. Mamedyarov Azerbaijan), F. Caruana (USA) 5/16; 9. M. Vachier-Lagrave (France) 4½/17; 10. A. Grischuk (Russia) 3/16.
Photo: Levon Aronian decides that the best option is simply avoiding the Armageddon! | © Lennart Ootes/Altibox Norway Chess
GM Shakhriyar Mamedyarov – GM Levon Aronian
7th Altibox Norway Chess, (3)
English Opening, Romanishin variation
1.c4 e5 2.Nc3 Nf6 3.Nf3 Nc6 4.e3 A pet-line in the late 1970s and through the early 1980s of Ukraine’s Oleg Romanishin, who in his youth was one of the most original Soviet junior players of his era. 4…Bb4 5.Qc2 Bxc3 6.Qxc3 Qe7 7.d4 Ne4 8.Qd3 exd4 9.Nxd4 0-0 10.Be2 Nxd4 11.Qxd4 b6 12.0-0 Bb7 13.Rd1 d6 14.f3 Ng5 15.b4 Rae8 16.a4 f5 17.c5! Not only opening the game up for the bishop-pair but also taking a wrecking ball to Black’s pawn structure. 17…dxc5 18.bxc5 Ne6 The only move. To show just how Black’s position is teetering on the brink, after the trading of queens with 18…Qxc5? 19.Bc4+! Kh8 20.Qxc5 bxc5 21.Rd7 Rf6 22.Rxc7 Ba6 23.Bxa6 Rxa6 24.Rxc5 White isn’t just a pawn up, but after he easily gets in Bb2-d4, there’s going to be trouble defending g7 and a7. Not the sort of endgame you would like to defend. 19.Bc4? Mamedyarov has clearly miss-assessed his chances here. His best option was to play 19.Qc4! Qxc5 20.Qb3! to bring the bishop-pair into the game with threats of Ba3 and Bc4, as clearly can be seen after 20…Qe7 21.Ba3 c5 22.Bb5! Gaining a tempo for Bc4. 22…Rd8 23.Bc4 Rxd1+ 24.Rxd1 Bc8 25.a5! and despite being a pawn to the better, Black is in deep trouble here. 19…Rd8! Oops! Either Mamedyarov missed this table-turner, or, as we indicated, he’s miss-assessed the outcome. 20.Bxe6+ Qxe6 21.Qxd8 Rxd8 22.Rxd8+ Kf7 23.Rd1 Materially, it’s about equal – but White’s position is now so awkward to get his pieces into the game, and this allows Aronian the time needed to bust a path through to his opponent’s king. And unfortunately for Mamedyarov, the obvious capture 23.cxb6? is strongly met with 23…Qf6 24.Rd4 c5! winning the rook. 23…bxc5 24.Re1 c4 25.Bd2 g5! [see diagram] So simple, yet so effective – Aronian just plans to punch a hole through to the White king with …g4, and the queen and bishop battery down the a8-h1 diagonal is going to be deadly. 26.Bc3 g4 27.fxg4 Qe4 28.Ra2 Qd3 29.Ba1 A further humiliating retreat, but White is in dire straits now anyway. If 29.Bd4 h5!! 30.gxh5 c3 31.Rc1 c5! 32.Bxc5 Qc4 and again, White is going to lose a piece, and with it, the game – not that what happens in the actual game is any better! 29…c3 30.Rf2 Be4 31.Rc1 c2 0-1 Mamedyarov resigns – and while some may think a tad premature, it isn’t really. If 32.Bd4 Qd1+ 33.Rf1 Qd2 quickly wins due to the mate on g2. The best White can hope for is the looming death with 32.Bb2 Qd1+ 33.Rf1 Qxg4 34.Rf2 Qd1+ 35.Rf1 Qe2 36.Rf2 Qxe3 with the cruel threat of …Be4-d3 paralysing White, and Black will calmly march the king to b3 to force the win.