09 Jun

The Candidates Race

Put together ten of the best players under the one roof in the strongest tournament’s of the year at the 5th Altibox Norway Chess Tournament in Stavanger, and you will not get lots of pyrotechnics with sparkling wins littered all over the place, but instead you'll witness many draws comprising of tough, careful play, and that's because, at this level of chess, with a field of near equal playing-strength, not many full points will change hands.

After 38...Re1!

And this has been the case in the opening three rounds, with just two wins and 13 draws - but there’s a ‘no-draw’ policy in operation in the tournament, so the battles at the board have nevertheless been intriguing and proving a masterclass of how to survive difficulties positions with games ending in perpetual draws, threefold repetitions or almost going down to the two kings.

In the opening round, we saw America’s Hikaru Nakamura jumping into the sole lead with his win over Anish Giri - and now joining Nakamura in the joint lead at the end of round two is the former Russian World Champion, Vladimir Kramnik, who capitalised on a serious misjudgment by one of his long-time rivals, former five-time World Champion Viswanathan Anand, as the Indian ace erred in a critical position.

This was a match-up for the ages, full of nostalgia for many of the chess fans. And this didn’t go unnoticed either from Kramnik, who immediately went into the ‘confessional box’ to reminisce on the first time these two title-rival leftovers from the Kasparov era played back in 1989. The big Russian even wryly noted that more than half of the field in Stavanger weren’t even born back then!

And not only did the win propel Kramnik into the joint lead at the top in Stavanger, it also dramatically brought into sharp focus an intriguing three-horse qualifying race for next year’s Candidates Tournament, with only a couple of rating points now separating Americans Wesley So, Fabiano Caruana and Kramnik! The two top players by average rating for the year (with the cut off being December 2017) will qualify into the Candidates and, currently, it now stands at: So 2814, Kramnik 2812 and Caruana 2811.

When veterans clash! | © Lennart Ootes (official site)

1-2. V Kramnik (Russia), H Nakamura (USA) 2/3; 3-8. M Carlsen (Norway), W So (USA), F Caruana (USA), L Aronian (Armenia), M Vachier-Lagrave (France), S Karjakin (Russia) 1½; 9-10. V Anand (India), A Giri (Netherlands) 1.

GM Viswanathan Anand - GM Vladimir Kramnik
5th Altibox Norway Chess, (2)
Ruy Lopez, Moeller Defence
1.e4 e5 2.Nf3 Nc6 3.Bb5 a6 4.Ba4 Nf6 5.0-0 Bc5 In the Moeller/ Defence, once a favourite of Alexander Alekhine, Black gets a chance to acquire active development and to fight for the initiative right from the start - and White can quite easily go very wrong very quickly, especially if he goes on Ruy Lopez autopilot. 6.Nc3!? As in most Lopez systems, White can indirectly defend e4 with 6.c3 as capturing on e4 allows 7.d4 and the game opening up to White's advantage. But it seems Vishy has something planned with the rarity of 6.Nc3. 6...b5 Also a worthy option was 6...0-0 7.Bxc6 dxc6 8.Nxe5 Re8 and Black will recover the pawn on e4 with an easy game. 7.Bb3 0-0 8.Nd5!? This throws down the gauntlet with a swift pawn sacrifice, as more usually seen here is 8.d3 h6 9.Nd5. 8...Nxe4 Kramnik is never one to duck a direct challenge! 9.d3 Nf6 10.Bg5 Be7 11.Nxe7+ Qxe7 12.Re1 White may well have the bishop-pair and some pressure on e5 - but Black has a rock-solid position and an extra pawn. What's not to like here for Black? 12...h6 13.Bh4 And here's the dilemma for Vishy. If 13.Bxf6 Qxf6 14.Bd5 Bb7 15.Nxe5 Nxe5! 16.Bxb7 Rae8 and Black is fine here - he has the better-developed pieces and looming threats of ...c6 followed by ...d5 potentially locking White's bishop out of the game. 13...Bb7 14.c3 Rfe8 15.d4 Anand has to be patient, as there's just no good way right now to immediately recapture the pawn. If 15.Nxe5 Nxe5 16.d4 Nf3+! 17.gxf3 Qd6! and White's crippled kingside pawns will be a liability. 15...e4 16.Nd2 Na5 17.Bc2 g5 Black could have tried 17...d5 - but this risks opening too many lines opening up after 18.f3 e3 19.Nb3 Nc4 20.Nc5 Bc6 21.b3 Na3 22.Bd3 where White's bishop pair will become problematic, playing around the e3-pawn, and exploiting the holes in Black's kingside. 18.Bg3 Nc4 19.Nxc4 bxc4 20.b3 Bd5 21.Be5?! Anand has been very clever in not immediately recapturing the pawn - and he should have persevered with this policy for just a couple of more moves, as he had promise of a better return by exploiting the weakening of Black's kingside with 21.h4! gxh4 (If 21...Qe6 22.hxg5 hxg5 23.Bxc7 Rac8 24.Be5! d6 25.Bg3 and the bishop-pair and the game opening up will only favour White.) 22.Bxh4 Qd6 23.Qe2! and White stands much better, with promising prospects of winning here. 21...d6 22.Bxf6 Qxf6 23.bxc4 Bxc4 24.Rxe4 Rxe4 25.Bxe4 Re8 26.Bd3 Qe6! Anand may have finally recaptured his pawn - but at the cost of Kramnik's position improving, with no dangers and hitting White's queenside pawns. 27.Bxc4 Qxc4 28.Qb3 Qd3 29.h3 Kg7 30.Rd1 Qe2 Kramnik's queen and rook dominate here; he's threatening ...Re6-f6 forcing Rf1 and a difficult defence. 31.Rf1 Re6 32.Qd5 Qd2 33.Qc4 a5 34.Qxc7? A bad misjudgment from Anand that now turns Kramnik's a-pawn into a game-winner. He had to play 34.a4! and it is hard to see this being anything other than a draw. 34...Qxa2 35.c4 Qd2 36.Qb6 Perhaps Anand thought he had sufficient counterplay by pushing his own c-pawn? If so, there's a drawback with this: 36.c5 Qxd4 37.cxd6 a4 38.d7 Rd6 and Black keeps the a-pawn and has White's d-pawn under full control. 36...a4 37.Qa7 The a-pawn is a big problem - if 37.Ra1 Re1+ 38.Rxe1 Qxe1+ 39.Kh2 Qxf2 40.Qa6 Qxd4 41.Qxa4 d5! easily wins for Black. 37...Qb4 38.f4 Re1! Timed to perfection! The queen ending easily converts to a win, as Black's a-pawn is dangerous and White's pawns on c4 & d4 are vulnerable. 39.fxg5 Rxf1+ 40.Kxf1 hxg5 41.Kg1 Qxc4 It's always tempting to snatch an extra pawn, but Kramnik missed the clinical win with 41...a3! 42.Kh2 Qb2 43.Qe7 Qd2! and there's no way to stop the pawn running home, as 44.Qxd6 Qf4+ forces the exchange of queens and White can resign. 42.Kh2 Qb4 43.Qe7 Qd2 44.Qa7 Qf4+ 45.Kh1 Qc1+ 46.Kh2 a3 47.Qa5 Qf4+ 48.Kh1 Qc1+ 49.Kh2 Qe3 50.Kh1 f6?!? It is hard to be judgmental here with Kramnik winning, but he could have made life much easier for himself with 50...Kg6! 51.Qa8 Qb3! (supporting the push ...a2 and also defending f7) 52.Qg8+ Kf5 53.Qh7+ Ke6 54.Qe4+ Kf6! and White will run out of checks. 51.Qa4 Anand is running out of moves. If 51.Qc7+ Kh6 52.Qf7 Qc1+ 53.Kh2 Qf4+ 54.Kh1 Qxd4 and all that's happening is Black winning more pawns. 51...Qc1+ 52.Kh2 Qf4+ 53.Kh1 Qe3 54.Kh2 Kf7 55.Kh1 There's no 'Hail Mary' save with the queen giving a perpetual, so long as Black finds the timely ...Qb3! White will run out of checks. For example: 55.Qa7+ Kg6 56.Qa8 Qb3! 57.Qe4+ Kh6 58.Qe7 Qd5 59.Qxf6+ Kh7 60.Qe7+ Kg6 61.Qe8+ Qf7 62.Qe4+ Kg7 there's no more checks and Black will play ...a2. 55...Kg6 56.Qa8 Again, if 56.Qc4 Kh6! 57.Qf7 Qxd4 just wins another pawn and an easy win. 56...Kg7 57.Qb7+ Kg6 58.Qa8 Qb3! As noted in several notes above, this move is the key to the win. 59.Qe4+ Kg7 60.Qe7+ Qf7 0-1


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