The Berlin Candidates’ continue to show fighting chess at its very best – and none more so than in round three, as Vladimir Kramnik, who received the organizer/sponsor’s wildcard spot, lived up to his wildcard status with arguably one of the wildest and most exciting games ever to be played in the long and storied history of the Candidates tournament, as he systematically demolished Armenia’s Levon Aronian. And in doing so, the Russian ex-world champion moved into the early outright lead.
Fans, pundits and players alike all marvelled at Kramnik’s ‘Berlin Immortal’. Even his fellow Russian, Alexander Grischuk – who took the plaudits for his exciting round two sacrificial win over US champion Wesley So – went as far as saying that Kramnik’s stunning win was “One of the greatest games I have seen. Amazing from start to finish, absolutely unbelievable.”
Kramnik had discovered a “killer move” in his favorite Berlin Defense from an obscure correspondence game from 2015 that he had greatly improved upon. But what’s more remarkable, was that he had prepared its use for a few years, expecting the likely ‘victim’ to be either Magnus Carlsen or Vishy Anand, but not Aronian, who rarely plays 1.e4. “I was waiting for the moment to use it,” Kramnik said, “and of course it came at the most unexpected moment, in the Candidates’, against Levon, who doesn’t play 1.e4. I was lucky.”
And Kramnik’s win with the Berlin in Berlin throws up a very intriguing scenario. If the ex-world champion now goes on to win the Candidates’, he will face Magnus Carlsen for the world championship title in London – and that would be a sensational return to the scene of his most famous victory, where, in 2000 in London, he was responsible for rehabilitating the Berlin, en route to winning the world title from Garry Kasparov.
Berlin…London…Kramnik? It all sounds rather like déjà vu.
1. Vladimir Kramnik (Russia) 2.5/3; 2-3. Shakhiryar Mamedyarov (Azerbaijan), Fabiano Caruana (USA) 2; 4-5. Ding Liren (China), Alexander Grischuk (Russia) 1.5; 6-7. Sergey Karjakin (Russia), Levon Aronian (Armenia) 1; 8. Wesley So 0.5.
GM Levon Aronian – GM Vladimir Kramnik
FIDE Berlin Candidates, (3)
Ruy Lopez, Berlin Defence
1.e4 e5 2.Nf3 Nc6 3.Bb5 Nf6 Kramnik is the player who single-handedly is responsible for the rebirth of the Berlin Defence. When he unexpectedly beat Garry Kasparov in 2000 to become world champion, he exclusively used the Berlin Defence, and Kasparov simply couldn’t break it down – and this was the first time in over a century that the Berlin Defence had been used at the elite level. 4.d3 Aronian opts for a quiet and popular sideline that’s been championed both by Carlsen and Anand, that avoids the dreaded ‘Berlin Wall’ endgame that so bamboozled Kasparov in London in 2000 after 4.0-0 Nxe4 5.d4 Nd6 6.Bxc6 dxc6 7.dxe5 Nf5 8.Qxd8+ Kxd8 that nowadays has practically become the tabiya of the Ruy Lopez at elite-level. 4…Bc5 5.Bxc6 More common has been 5.Nc3 – but whatever plan Aronian had in mind by playing 1.e4, he picked the wrong time and the wrong player to deviate from his normal openings 1.Nf3, 1.c4 or 1.d4, as he now gets quickly blown off the charts, as Kramnik takes him on an unexpected wild ride. 5…dxc6 6.0-0 Qe7 7.h3 Rg8!? An amazing move that Kramnik discovered a few years ago in an obscure correspondence game. “I think it is just a killer”, says Kramnik – and how right he is, as the game dramatically changes from a complex strategical battle into a brutal caveman assault on the White king. The idea is simple: to play …Nh5 and then push with …g5 (without wasting a tempo with …h6, as happened in the aforementioned correspondence game) and …g4 to bludgeon his way through to Aronian’s king. 8.Kh1 Nh5!N This is Kramnik’s novelty improvement over Kazoks,A-Calio, M, corr. 2015. Although Black still won, Kramnik felt it was a waste of a tempo using 8…h6 to force …g5, as he goes straight for the jugular. 9.c3 g5 10.Nxe5 g4 11.d4 Bd6 12.g3 Bxe5 13.dxe5 Qxe5 14.Qd4?! Caught by a strong opening novelty, Aronian’s mistake is that he’s putting everything on trading queens to ease the pressure on his king – but he realizes to his horror that Black doesn’t have to exchange queens. 14…Qe7 15.h4 c5! 16.Qc4? Aronian himself admitted this was just one of a series of miscalculations that led to his speedy demise, just not realising how bad his position was after 15…c5. And in playing 16.Qc4, he tries to prevent Kramnik bursting the game open with …f5 – but all it does is help Kramnik develop his pieces and push the White queen out of the game. 16…Be6 17.Qb5+ c6 18.Qa4 Aronian goes “all-in” preventing Kramnik from castling queenside to connect his rooks – but Kramnik has the attack all finely worked out that he doesn’t even need to bother about castling! 18…f5! 19.Bg5 The main point behind 18…f5! is that 19.exf5? allows Black to finish with a splash of elan after 19…Nxg3+! 20.fxg3 Bd5+ 21.Kg1 Qe2! and White can resign here and now. 19…Rxg5! The exchange sacrifice was just crying out to be played – and with it, Kramnik now storms Aronian’s king. 20.hxg5 f4 21.Qd1 As 21.gxf4 Nxf4 22.Qc2 Qxg5 will see the White king being mated, the only way for Aronian to offer some sort of cover from the impending attack on his king, is to attempt to quickly re-route his queen – but even here, the queen tracking back only offers Black the chance to bring his rook into the fray with tempo. 21…Rd8 22.Qc1 fxg3 23.Na3 Rd3 24.Rd1 Bd5!! [see diagram] 25.f3 gxf3 As Ian Rogers, the Aussie GM and noted chess journalist once wittily remarked, “Two passed pawns on the sixth beat everything, up to a royal flush.” 26.exd5 Spoilsport! Kramnik explained that his spectacular sacrificial onslaught was designed to win with 26.Rxd3 Qxe4 27.Re3 f2+!! 28.Rxe4+ Bxe4 mate – which is just a beautiful throwback to the Romantic era in chess during the period of the mid-to-late 19th century, and in the spirit of the likes of Paul Morphy and Adolf Anderssen. 26…Qe2 27.Re1 g2+ 0-1 Aronian resigns because of 28.Kh2 g1Q+ 29.Kxg1 f2+ 30.Kg2 f1Q mate.