24 Apr

Bend It Like Levon

In Armenia, chess is king and their grandmasters are regarded as sporting superstars.  None more so than their national hero Levon Aronian, who was once dubbed in the tiny country as the “David Beckham of chess”.  But over the last few years, Aronian’s form has dipped like a legendary Beckham free-kick, and arguably could be said to have been associated with his failing to win through from the Candidates for a World title challenge.

After 29.b4!

Such was Aronian’s bad form and his lack of confidence in his play, there were even fears recently that he could well be slipping out of the World’s top-10 - but Levon lives on! The Armenia ace is back to his brilliant best with a totally dominating performance to win the 4th Grenke Chess Classic at Baden-Baden well ahead of World Champion Magnus Carlsen and American world No. 2, Fabiano Caruana, who both shared second place.

After his opening round draw, Aronian said during his post-mortem that “I should just stop having any ambitions at all!” But he also revealed that, after his poor form and bad run, he took a full two-month break completely from chess, and the rest seemed to do the trick. A rejuvenated Aronian finished on a tear, as he came so close to winning five straight games; and was only prevented from doing so by missing a difficult win in an overwhelming position against Caruana in the final round.

But by then, Aronian had secured the title with a round to spare, and he finished unbeaten on 5½/7, a full point and a half ahead of Carlsen and Caruana. And the decisive margin of Aronian’s victory was more than enough to gain him 15-points and to push back up three spots on the unofficial live rating list to No.6. Meanwhile, Carlsen and Caruana lost 6- and 15-rating points, respectively.

Sven Noppes (tournament director), Fabiano Caruana, Levon
Aronian, Magnus Carlsen, Christian Bossert (chairman
Schachzentrum Baden-Baden) | © Georgios Souleidis

There’s a nice 4min video interview with tournament winner Levon Aronian for the official Grenke Chess Classic site by Eric van Reem, which can be viewed on YouTube by clicking here.

Final standings
1. L. Aronian (Armenia), 5½/7; 2-3. M. Carlsen (Norway), F. Caruana (USA), 4; 4-6. Hou Yifan (China), M. Vachier-Lagrave (France), A. Naiditsch (Germany), 3½; 7-8. G. Meier (Germany), M. Bluebaum (Germany) 2.

GM Levon Aronian - GM Arkadij Naiditsch
4th GRENKE Chess Classic, (5)
Catalan Opening
1.c4 e6 2.g3 d5 3.Bg2 Nf6 4.Nf3 dxc4 5.0-0 Nbd7 6.Qc2 c5 7.Na3 Nd5 8.Nxc4 b5 9.Ne3 Bb7 10.Nxd5 Bxd5 11.e4 Bb7 12.d4 cxd4 13.Nxd4 Rc8 14.Qe2 a6 15.Rd1 A central theme of the Catalan is White dominating the d-file with his rook - and here, Aronian's rook causes problems for Black successfully completing his development. 15...Bc5 16.Nb3 Be7 Black can't afford to play 16...Bb6, as after 17.Be3! Bxe3 18.Qxe3 0-0 19.Rac1! Rxc1 20.Qxc1! White will dominate the central squares, and likely things will exchange down to an ending with White having easy access to exploiting Black's vulnerable queenside. Instead, Naiditsch attempts to hunker down with a rear-guard action. 17.Rd3 Qc7 18.Bf4! Aronian's moves come easily and freely, forcing Naiditsch into a difficult position with a self-inflicted pin. 18...Ne5 19.Rc3 Qb8 20.Qh5! The pin on the Black queen leaves Naiditsch with a headache to deal with. 20...Bd6 There's no respite with 20...Rxc3 as 21.Bxe5 Rc7 22.Bxg7! leaves Black in a structural mess, as he'll need to hand back the exchange and then some with White picking off all the weak pawns. 21.Rxc8+ Bxc8 22.Rd1 Bc7 23.Na5! We are always taught to centralize our pieces in chess - but Aronian bends the rules with two pieces on the extreme edge of both wings that threatens to win material. 23...Bd7 Black can't afford to further weaken his position with 23...g6? as after 24.Qh6 Black's king is caught in the middle of the board and White threatens Qg7 easily winning. And even securing the king with 23...0-0 is no solution, as White has 24.Bxe5 Bxe5 25.Nc6! Qc7 26.Nxe5 g6 27.Nxg6 hxg6 28.Qg5! winning a solid pawn - but even more importantly, commanding the open d-file and also mating threats with Qf6 etc. 24.Bxe5 Bxe5 25.Rxd7! Something had to give here, and it's Naiditsch's king caught in the crossfire. 25...Kxd7 26.Qxf7+ Kd6 27.Bh3 Re8 The only move. If 27...Qe8 28.Qa7! and White is going to emerge with a number of pawns for the exchange, plus Black's king will still be wandering dazed and confused in no man's land. 28.Nb7+ Kc6 29.b4! A nice little move from Aronian that takes full advantage of the fact that Naiditsch can't capture the knight due to Qxe8+ - and it helps to box his opponent's king in further with mating threats and no access to c5, and also supports the knight when it comes back to a5. 29...Rf8 30.Qe7 Bd6 There's just no escape for Naiditsch, as he can't hit the queen again with his rook with 30...Re8 as Aronian has a mate-in-two after 31.Na5+ Kb6 32.Qc5#. 31.Na5+ Kb6 32.Qxe6 Re8 33.Qd7 Bxb4 34.Nc6! The culmination of all of Aronian's creative efforts - he now forces Naiditsch into a lost endgame. 34...Qd6 35.Qxe8 Qxc6 36.Qb8+! A little finesse that adds the final touch, as it forces Naiditsch's king further away from the center of the board for the ensuing bishop ending. 36...Qb7 Naiditsch goes for the opposite colored bishops for some hope in saving the endgame - but arguably a little better was attempting to keep the queens on the board with 36...Ka5!? 37.Qd8+ Qb6 (If 37...Ka4 38.Qd1+ Ka5 39.e5! and the passed pawns become a problem for Black to deal with as well as the vulnerability of his king.) 38.Qd5 Bc5 39.Qd2+ Bb4 40.Qb2 and White hold's all the cards, with Black's king in a tight spot and the passed e-pawn ready to come down the board. 37.Qxb7+ Kxb7 38.f4 Kc6 39.Kf2 a5 40.Kf3 a4 41.Bf5 h6 The problem with 41...g6 in such an endgame scenario is that Black will be putting all his pawns now on White squares and they can readily be attacked by White's bishop. 42.Bg6 Kd7 43.e5 Bc5 44.Bd3! Another nice little finesse from Aronian, as now 44...b4 45.Bb5+ wins another pawn. 44...Kc6  45.Bc2! Yet again stopping Naiditsch from advancing his b-pawn that would create some problems for White. 45...Kd5 46.Be4+ Kc4 47.Bc6 Again preventing the potential life-saver of ...b4 - only this time, Aronian's bishop now also helps clear the path for his kingside pawns to start marching further up the board. 47...Bg1 48.h4 Kc5 49.Be8 Bd4 50.h5 Bc3 51.Ke4 Once the king and the pawns start mobilizing, the win will quickly come, as Black's tied down to defending his pawns on b5 and a4. 51...Be1 52.g4 Bd2 53.Kf5 a3 54.g5 b4 55.Ba4 Now that Black's queenside pawns are locked, Naiditsch is almost in Zugzwang. 55...Kd5 56.gxh6 gxh6 57.Bb3+ Kc5 58.Ke4 1-0 Naiditsch resigns, as he can't stop White from playing f5 and passing the kingside pawns.

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