26 Apr

Never Had It So Good

To borrow on a popular British political phrase from the mid-1950s, we’ve never had it so good. That’s chess-wise, as there was a time when the world’s top players could go for long spells without meeting their peers. Elite events, where the entire field consisted of the best of the best, tended to be held months, even years apart - but now the game has grown with globalization that super-tournaments often come thick and fast these days, sometimes even running almost as if in direct competition with each other.

Did White miss a winning tactic?

We now have ever-younger jet-setting grandmasters lured to a variety of exotic or unknown locales as sponsors get greater exposure and name recognition with hours upon hours of live online coverage. And last weekend, while the Grenke Chess Classic in Baden-Baden - featuring top-10 players Magnus Carlsen, Fabiano Caruana, Maxime Vachier-Lagrave and a rejuvenated victor Levon Aronian - was winding down, there was another super-tournament just getting into its stride in Shamkir, Azerbaijan.

Like the Grenke Chess Classic, the 4th Vugar Gashimov Memorial has a very formidable line-up, with the 10-player field headed by American No.1 Wesley So, and the Russian top duo of ex-champion Vladimir Kramnik and defeated title challenger Sergey Karjakin; with the supporting cast featuring: Shakhriyar Mamedyarov (Azerbaijan), Michael Adams (England), Pentala Harikrishna (India), Pavel Eljanov (Ukraine), Radoslaw Wojtaszek (Poland), Veselin Topalov (Bulgaria) and Teimour Radjabov (Azerbaijan).

And as a chess nation, the US has never had it "So" good lately, with the Minnetonka-based US Champion winning every super-tournament and team honor he’s played in since last summer, where along the way he’s notched up a phenomenal unbeaten streak. However, all good things must end, and his glorious 67-game streak came to a sudden grinding halt when he was outplayed in the opening round by local hero Mamedyarov, who went on to take the sole lead in the tournament.

So vs Kramnik showdown | © Shamkir Chess

While that result allowed Kramnik to temporarily take over the World No.2 spot on the unofficial live rating list, his tenure proved to be all but brief, because So hit back in round 5 with a very powerful performance to outplay the Russian to once again regain the No.2 spot behind numero uno Magnus Carlsen.

1. Mamedyarov, 3½/5; 2-3. Adams, Eljanov, 3; 4-7. So, Karjakin, Topalov, Kramnik, 2½; 8-9. Wojtaszek, Radjabov 2; 10. Harikrishna, 1½.

GM Wesley So - GM Vladimir Kramnik
Vugar Gashimov Memorial, (5)
Catalan Opening
1.c4 e6 2.g3 d5 3.Bg2 Nf6 4.Nf3 Be7 5.0-0 0-0 6.d4 dxc4 7.Qc2 a6 8.a4 Bd7 9.Qxc4 Bc6 10.Bf4 a5 11.Nc3 In the Catalan, White attempts to secure control of the centre by trying to engineer e4. 11...Nbd7 12.Qd3 Bb4 13.Rfe1 Re8 14.Qc2 Kramnik doesn't want to allow So playing e4 where he'll have full control of the centre. At least by swapping bishop for knight, he makes d4 momentarily weak, as he attempts to play around White's central pawns. 14...Bxf3 15.Bxf3 c6 16.Red1 Qe7 17.Na2 So hits Kramnik's bishop and threatens to gain the bishop-pair - but also he has the plan of re-routing his knight via a2-c1-b3 hitting the vulnerable squares of c5 and a5. 17...Bd6 18.Bxd6 Qxd6 19.Nc1 Nd5 20.e4 Nb4 21.Qc3 e5 22.Nb3! The a5-pawn is the weak link in Kramnik's camp. 22...Qe7 23.Bg2 exd4 24.Rxd4 Nf8 25.Rad1 So takes his chance to dominate the d-file, and here now has to be looking at endgame scenarios where all the rooks come off the board and his knight and queen can easily exploit Black's vulnerable queenside pawns. 25...Red8 26.R1d2 Even stronger was 26.Qc5!? Rxd4 (There's no relief in exchanging queens, as after 26...Qxc5 27.Nxc5 Rxd4 28.Rxd4 b6 29.Nd7! the White rook will be too active, and able to exploit Black's weak queenside pawns.) 27.Qxd4 Qc7 28.Qd6 Qb6 29.Qd4! Qc7 (If 29...Qxd4 30.Rxd4 and once again White's rook is dominant, and looking to exploit Black's weak queenside pawns.) 30.Qd6 Qb6 31.Bf1! and White will soon have Bc4 in play, and all his pieces very active and aggressively placed - and note that the trick with 31...Nd5 quickly backfires to 32.Bc4! 26...Ne6 27.Rxd8+ Rxd8 28.Nxa5 Ra8 29.Nc4 Rxa4 30.Nd6 Kramnik may well have restored the material balance, but with So set to play Bf1-c4, White has the more active pieces and direct threats towards f7. 30...Ra1+ 31.Bf1 Na6 32.Kg2 Nac7 Kramnik's knights just have no scope to find active squares, so he has no other option than survival by hunkering down for a tough and what proves to be an ultimately futile defence. 33.Nf5 Qe8 34.Bc4 Ra8 35.Rd6! So's pieces just dominate the position, and now he has the very real tactical threat of Bxe6 followed by Rxe6 and the little matter of a mate on g7(!) that forces Kramnik into yet another concession. 35...Qf8 This was the only way to stop the tactical mating threat - but it also leaves another hole on d7 for So's rampant rook to wreck havoc along the seventh rank. 36.Rd7 Re8 37.Qe5 b5 38.Ba2 g6? This falls into a big tactical trap, but Kramnik is doomed anyway here. 39.Ne3?! It's hard to be critical, as So has such an overwhelming position, but Kramnik got a big reprieve here as So missed the head-on winning tactic of 39.Rxf7!! Kxf7 (Forced, as 39...Qxf7 40.Nh6+ wins on the spot.) 40.Qxc7+ Kf6 (If 40...Kg8 41.Nd4 just heaps more pressure on the haplessly pinned knight.) 41.Qxc6 gxf5 42.exf5 Kxf5 43.Bxe6+! Rxe6 44.Qf3+ picking up the loose queen on f8. 39...Re7 40.Rxe7 Qxe7 41.Ng4! It could well be that in the clamour to reach the time control, So spotted this forced sequence first and perhaps didn't even bother looking any further to save time, where he could well have found the winning tactic of 39.Rxf7. Just a theory, as many chess-players often find a particular winning line and not realise there could well be a more clinical option available to them. 41...Qg5 Kramnik had to stop the direct threat of Nh6+ followed by Qh8 mate. 42.Nf6+ Kh8 The only move, as after 42...Kf8 43.Nxh7+ again White forks king and queen. 43.Nd7+ Qxe5 44.Nxe5 Nd4 Kramnik may well have avoided a clubbing with 39.Rxf7!! and has now eased the pressure somewhat by exchanging queens - but there's just no respite, as he now faces the prospect of a hopeless ending. 45.Bxf7 c5 46.f4 c4 47.Kf2 Kg7 48.Ke3 Nb3 49.g4 Nc5 50.h4 Eventually, So's kingside pawns will smash through to run up the board. 50...Na4 51.b3! A nice little finesse that makes the endgame win even more certain. 51...cxb3 52.Bxb3 Nc5 53.Bd1 h6 54.Nc6 N7a6 55.Kd4 Yet again So has restricted the scope of Kramnik's knights. 55...Ne6+ 56.Ke5 Nec5 57.Bc2 b4 58.Nd4 g5 59.hxg5 hxg5 60.f5 The rest of the game needs no further comment, as So simply pushes home his powerful passed pawns. 60...Nd7+ 61.Kd6 Nf6 62.e5 Nxg4 63.Ne6+ Kh6 64.f6 Nb8 65.Ba4 1-0 Kramnik resigns, as So avoids the last remaining little "difficulty" of ...Nxe5, ...Nd7+ and ...Nxf6 and White having to mate with the rarity in elite chess of lone bishop & knight.

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