John Henderson
By John Henderson

The eagerly-awaited world championship candidates tournament got underway at the Kulhaus, Berlin, in Germany on Saturday afternoon, with the near month-long event deciding who among eight top qualifiers will emerge from the fray to challenge Magnus Carlsen for the Norwegian’s world crown in London in November. And despite several embarrassing operational disappointments for organizers Agon/World Chess – both for the players onsite and the fans with the official online coverage – the play over the chessboard at least didn’t disappoint!

The tournament got off to an explosive start with three decisive games. The first blood came in the all-American battle, as Fabiano Caruana outplayed Wesley So for an emphatic win – and an early win that could boost Caruana’s confidence to emerge as Carlsen’s challenger. Ex-champion Vladimir Kramnik also won a complicated affair over his compatriot, Alexander Grischuk; and Sergey Karjakin, the previous title challenger, couldn’t hold the draw in his ending against Shakhriyar Mamedyarov.

Things then went from bad to worse for Wesley So for his chances to emerge as Carlsen’s challenger. In round two, in the only decisive game of the round, the US Champion was again comprehensively outplayed, this time to Grischuk, as the time-trouble addicted Muscovite won arguably one of the best games to have been played in the candidates’ in recent years. And with a disastrous start of 0/2, So’s hopes of playing for the world title now looks to be doomed already.

 

But kudos to Grischuk for his sparkling winning attack. In the post-mortem, one journalist asked him whether his game (because of the rook lift maneuvers) reminded him of the famous Steinitz-Von Bardeleben encounter at Hastings 1895? Without missing a beat, the Muscovite dryly replied: “No, but I remember there was a really famous game of Keres-Smyslov, Candidates’ 1953. White put rooks on h3 and h5, took h7, and lost.”

Standings: 1-3. V. Kramnik (Russia), S. Mamedyarov (Azerbaijan), F. Caruana (USA) 1.5/2; 4-6. A. Grischuk (Russia), L. Aronian (Armenia), Ding Liren (China) 1; 7. S. Karjakin (Russia) 0.5; 8. W. So 0.

GM Alexander Grischuk – GM Wesley So
FIDE Berlin Candidates, (2)
Ruy Lopez, Martinez Variation
1.e4 e5 2.Nf3 Nc6 3.Bb5 a6 4.Ba4 Nf6 5.0-0 Be7 6.d3 The modest but solid ‘Martinez Variation’ has been seen numerous times at the highest level of play, regularly employed not only by Grischuk, but also Magnus Carlsen, Vishy Anand, Fabiano Caruana, Sergey Karjakin, Peter Svidler and many other super-grandmasters. The reason for its new-found popularity is that it simply sidesteps all of the big mainlines such as the Marshall Attack, Zaitsev, Chigorin and the Breyer et al that’s been holding up well after the standard 6.Re1. 6…b5 7.Bb3 d6 8.c3 0-0 9.h3 Also an option here is 9.Re1. 9…Bb7 10.Nbd2 Re8 11.Ng5 Rf8 This is similar to a well-known repeating line in the Ruy Lopez Zaitsev Variation with Nf3 Re8, Ng5 Rf8, also a well-known device for grandmasters to have a quick draw. There’ no way Grischuk is interested in a quick draw – but with the Russian’s almost drug-like addiction to time trouble, I’m surprised he didn’t repeat moves twice just to get closer to move forty. 12.Re1 d5N A novelty, but not one I believe was inspired by research at home – more likely, created over-the-board. Grischuk didn’t think much of it, commenting: “This looks strange as he is losing lots of tempos.”And indeed, it seems that the Marshall Attack-like …d5 push was a tad over-optimistic from the US Champion. More normal would have been chasing the knight back with 12…h6 13.Ngf3 Re8 etc. 13.exd5 Nxd5 14.Ndf3 Qd7 So tries to ignore the annoying knight on g5 – and in any case, 14…h6 15. Ne4 will likely transpose into what happens in the game. 15.d4 White needs to play energetically, otherwise Black will easily consolidate his position. 15…exd4 The only continuation now, as 15…h6? fails to 16.dxe5! 16.cxd4 The correct capture with White’s pieces ideally placed to mount an attack. In such positions, the isolated pawn is not considered a weakness, and anyway too tepid would have been 16.Nxd4 Nxd4 17.Qxd4 h6 with equality. 16…h6 17.Ne4 The position was probably going to plan here for both players. White has the extra space and the more active pieces and is looking to launch a kingside attack. But Black is not without his own resources here, and if he can safely trade off some pieces, his position will ease and the isolated d-pawn will be a target for the endgame. 17…Rfe8? If anything, this is where it all begins to go pear-shaped for So, as the rook was playing a vital role in defending f7 from the menacing Spanish bishop on b3. Instead, he should have consolidated first with either 17…Rad8!? or even 17…Rae8!? 18.Bd2 Nf6 Now 18…Rad8 allows Grischuk to seizes the initiative with 19.Rc1 Bf8 20.Nc5! Bxc5 21.Rxc5 Rxe1+ 22.Qxe1 Nf6 23.d5! and excellent chances to play for the win. 19.Rc1 The correct move from Grischuk, finishing his development by putting his other rook on an open file. Grischuk said that 19.d5 “was tempting but after 19…Nxd5 20.Bxh6 gxh6 21.Bxd5 Rad8 Black trades the queens and has nothing to worry about.” 19…Nxe4 The d4-pawn is poisoned: If 19…Nxd4?? 20.Bxf7+! Kxf7 21.Ne5+ wins on the spot. 20.Rxe4 Bf6 21.Rg4! So completely underestimated this move, believing Grischuk would play 21.Rf4, and after 21…Qd6 thought his position would be OK. But instead, after 21.Rg4!, his position soon becomes critical. 21…Kh8 After 21…h5 Grischuk planned 22.Rf4 Rad8 23.Ng5!, and the chronic weakness on f7 will ultimately prove decisive. Not only that but the obvious capture 21…Nxd4 backfires to the forcing line 22.Nxd4 Bxd4 23.Bc3 c5 24.Bxd4 cxd4 25.Rxd4 Qe7 (No better is 25…Re1+ 26.Qxe1 Qxd4 27.Rc7 and again, the f7 pawn is a major liability) 26.Rd7 Rad8 27.Bxf7+! and Black is totally lost. 22.Rc5! [see diagram] A second powerful rook lift that all but seals So’s fate now. Just how good is Grischuk’s position? Well, so good, he comments “Here I didn’t really calculate anything. I said to myself, OK, I have all pieces in attack, and Black defends with one bishop. If there is no mate, I just quit chess.” 22…Rad8 23.Qc1! Just heaping more pressure on Black’s position, with yet another piece joining the attack. And with it, now Bxh6 cannot be stopped without Black’s position being compromised one way or another. I think this is the correct decision in the game, as the strain on the Black position becomes totally unbearable. Grischuk said he also considered the direct, bludgeoning route with 23.Bxh6 gxh6 24.Rh5 Bg7 25.Qc1 but decided it wasn’t worth the risk with his time-trouble, as he couldn’t see a way through to the win – but in fact, he’d missed a stunning queen sacrifice follow-up that was quickly spotted by all the engines. 25…Qd6 26.Ng5! Rd7 27.Nxf7+ Rxf7 28.Bxf7 Rf8 29.Rg6 Qxd4 30.Qxh6+!! Bxh6 31.Rhxh6#. 23…Nxd4 There’s just no way to adequately defend against the looming Bxh6. If 23…Kh7 24.Bxh6 gxh6 25.Bc2+ soon forces mate. 24.Nxd4 Re4! If So is going down, then he’s going down with one last-gasp desperate gamble that at least will make Grischuk have to think very carefully as his flag begins to rise rapidly now. It’s no use going down with a line that Grischuk has probably already analyzed out, such as 24…Bxd4 25.Bxh6! Re2 (If 25…Bxc5 26.Bxg7+ Kg8 27.Qh6 leads to the inevitable mate.) 26.Bxg7+ Bxg7 27.Rh5+ Kg8 28.Rxg7+ Kxg7 29.Qh6+ Kg8 30.Qh8#. 25.Rxc7 Qxd4 26.Be3 All roads lead to Rome here, but the more clinical win was to be had with 26.Bc3 Rxg4 27.hxg4 Qe4 28.f3 Bd4+ 29.Kh1 and White will emerge with a big material advantage. 26…Rxg4 27.hxg4 Qe4 28.f3 And with that, So is going to go a whole piece down – but there’s still one or two tricks left to try to take advantage of Grischuk’s precarious hanging flag. 28…Qb4 29.Rxb7 If it weren’t for the fact that Grischuk was playing – as usual! – on increment here, then Black would be contemplating resigning by now. 29…Bxb2 30.Qf1 Grischuk sees through the swindle of 30.Qxb2? Qe1+ 31.Kh2 Qh4+ and a perpetual. 30…f6 31.Qf2 Be5 32.f4 Bd6 33.g5 Qe4 34.Qf3 All the ‘armchair grandmasters’, armed with their omnipresent playing engines, were screaming out that Grischuk had missed the ‘easy’ mating attack with 34.gxf6 Qxb7 35.fxg7+ Kxg7 36.Qg3+ etc. But the reality of the situation dictated that Grischuk was only living on the fumes of his increment, his flag hanging, so he goes for the ‘safe’ option – and an option that at least repeats a couple of moves to get him closer to move forty. 34…Qb1+ 35.Qf1 Qe4 36.Qf3 Qb1+ 37.Kf2 Bb4 The last, and obvious swindle (38…Qe1 mate!), that Grischuk easily deals with. 38.Qe2 Qe4 39.Qf3 Qb1 40.Kg3 fxg5 41.Kh2! Avoiding any king weakening after 41.fxg5. 41…Qf5 According to Grischuk, “The last beautiful line was” 41…Bd6 42.Rd7! Rxd7 43.Qa8+ Kh7 44.Bg8+ Kg6 45.Qe8+ Kf5 46.Qe6#. 42.Rf7 Qg6 43.fxg5 Bd6+ 1-0 And So resigned without waiting for White’s reply, seeing that 44.Kh3 hxg5 45.Bxg5 Qxg5 46.Rf5 and there’s no way to stop Rh5 either mating or winning the Black queen.

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