After a disappointing near two-year period that saw a dramatic dip in his form, the Armenian lion is roaring loudly and proudly once again, as Levon Aronian rekindles the brand of exciting play that once made him one of the best players in the world, as yet another sensational win in the 5th Altibox Norway Chess Tournament in Stavanger sees him joining American Hikaru Nakamura at the top, both undefeated on 4/6, and now a full point clear of the chasing pack.
In Round 4, Aronian turned on the style to beat reigning champion, Magnus Carlsen - and now, in Round 6, he once again showed he’s a force to be reckoned with, as he easily dispatched another world champion, this time by comprehensively outplaying Russia’s Vladimir Kramnik for a second successive win with the White pieces.
Before his much-welcomed return to form at the recent Grenke Chess Classic in Germany, there were fears that Aronian, once a perennial Candidates’ favourite, would slip out of the World’s top-10 without even contesting a title match - but now he’s back to his brilliant best, and storming back up the rankings, shooting up a further three places now on the unofficial live rating list to World No.4, and with it comes a late surge to be a contender for one of the two rating qualifying spots into next year’s Candidates’.
Not only that, but after the double whammy of beating Carlsen and Kramnik with successive Whites - and with White also against Viswanathan Anand to come in Round 8 - Aronian has the chance to become one of the few players to have beaten three world champions in the one super-tournament. In fact, if such a feat has happened in the past, you would probably need to check the records of some of the old Soviet-era championships through the 1960s and early 1980s.
1-2. Hikaru Nakamura (USA), Levon Aronian (Armenia) 4/6; 3-6. Sergey Karjakin (Russia), Vladimir Kramnik (Russia), Anish Giri (Netherlands), Wesley So (USA) 3; 7-10. Magnus Carlsen (Norway), Fabiano Caruana (USA), Maxime Vachier-Lagrave (France), Viswanathan Anand (India) 2½.
GM Levon Aronian - GM Vladimir Kramnik
5th Altibox Norway Chess, (6)
Queen’s Gambit Declined, Semi-Tarrasch Defence
1.d4 d5 2.c4 e6 3.Nf3 Nf6 4.Nc3 c5 5.cxd5 Nxd5 In the Semi-Tarrasch Defense, Black opts to recapture with the knight on d5 so as not to be landed with the isolated d-pawn. The idea being he wants to complete his development, have a solid position, and look long-term for his queenside pawns to become a danger in the endgame. But alas, as Tarrasch himself wryly observed, "Before the endgame the gods have placed the middlegame." 6.e4 Nxc3 7.bxc3 cxd4 8.cxd4 Bb4+ 9.Bd2 Bxd2+ 10.Qxd2 White's focus of attention in the Semi-Tarrasch is his powerful pawn center - which, if he can make it work to his advantage, can often over-spill to a ferocious kingside attack. 10...0-0 11.Bc4 Nd7 12.0-0 b6 13.Rac1 Bb7 14.d5 Nc5 15.Rfe1 Qf6 Also an option is the immediate capture with 15...exd5 16.exd5 and then 16...Qf6 but, long-term, White's passed d-pawn could become dangerous - and, indeed, after 17.Qd4! White already has a promising position, as exchanging queens will only make the d-pawn stronger. 16.Qe3 And there are dangers here for White if he tries to hastily push forward, as 16.e5?! Qg6! and already White is in trouble, as he can't do anything about his d-pawn due to the threat of ...Bxf3, so his advanced pawns have now become a weakness instead of a strength. 16...Rac8?! I didn't understand the point of Kramnik putting his rook here, as it doesn't attack anything and just wastes a move. Much more to the point was 16...Rae8! continuing the pressure on White's advanced pawns. So now, if 17.e5 Qg6 18.d6 f6! the advanced White pawns are being undermined, and also Black's pieces are suddenly springing to life. 17.e5 Qg6 18.d6 f6 The big difference here is that Kramnik doesn't have his rook on e8 supporting the weak e6-pawn. 19.Nh4 Qg4? Kramnik has seriously over-estimated his chances here. His best hope seems to be seeking the exchange of queens with 19...Qg5!? 20.Qxg5 fxg5 21.Nf3 Bxf3 22.gxf3 Kf7! where, yes, White has a bite on the position with his pawns on d6 & e5 looking strong, but it is not easy to think of winning this as Black's knight on c5 is like a rock, and covers all the key squares. I would imagine a player of Kramnik's caliber would easily hold this position. 20.g3 fxe5 21.Qxe5 Rcd8 More or less an admission that 16...Rac8 was wrong. 22.f4! Stopping Black playing ...g5 shifting the knight on the rim, which here is playing a valuable role covering f5, f3 and g2, and also threatens to push ahead with f5! Not only that but suddenly Kramnik's queen now has a shortage of squares available to it - and this is just what Aronian plays on. 22...Rf6 23.Rc3! There is an important reason for this move, as now the big threat is simply 24.Be2 Qh3 25.Bf1 Qg4 26. h3! winning the queen, as the Rc3 vitally protects g3! 23...Rh6 24.Be2 Qh3 25.Qg5! Brutally winning material, as now the queen is trapped and also the rook on d8 is under attack. 25...Qxh4 26.gxh4 Rg6 27.Rd1 Bd5 28.f5! The final blow - the material loss coupled with the liquidation of the position is just too much. 28...Rxg5+ 29.hxg5 Kf8 30.fxe6 Bxe6 31.Bc4 Bf5 32.Re3 g6 33.Re7 Rd7 34.Rde1 1-0 Kramnik resigns, as to avoid being mated he's forced to exchange rooks, and the resulting ending with a rampant rook on the seventh can't be defended against.