Friday, March 23, 2018

Candidates Tournament 2018 Highlights: Part 1

The Candidates Tournament 2018 is proving to be one hell of a ride, with decisive games played in almost every round. At the time of writing, Fabio Caruana is in the lead after Round 11, with Shakhriyar Mamedyarov close behind. But early in the tournament, many exciting battles were already fought, and I will look at 3 highlighted games today.

Our first game is the encounter between Alexander Grischuk and Wesley So in Round 2. Both players, who had lost their first round, were seeking to make a comeback. With a simple rook lift, Grischuk won a full piece after a vigorous kingside attack, but was already low on time and gave So the chance to complicate matters. Nevertheless, the Russian defended well under time pressure to maintain his advantage and brought home the full point.

I seem to be giving Kramnik a lot of attention in my recent articles, but that is because he has been playing some really great games lately. In Round 3, he won a brilliancy against Aronian using his favourite Berlin Defense. The move of the day was his ugly yet logical looking 7… Rg8!?

Position after 7… Rg8!?

Once of my chess buddies was watching the game live, and upon seeing this move he exclaimed: “Is this really Kramnik?” Rg8 definitely isn’t something we see every day from a positional player like Vlad!

The idea here is that Black wants to push g4-g5, playing against the hook on h3 and opening up the kingside. Aronian tried to counterattack in the centre, but this backfired and allowed Kramnik’s forces to crash through on the kingside:

Note: At the time of writing, Kramnik had just won his second game against Aronian in Round 10, after suffering a series of losses in the middle rounds.

Unfortunately, Vlad’s good streak wasn’t going to last. In the next round, he played a dramatic game against Fabio Caruana, and made the final blunder under time pressure. Of course, credit must be given to Caruana who found two brilliant moves that saved the game for him.

The game can be divided into three key positions:

Position after 22… gxh3

We join in at this part of the game, where Caruana had just captured on h3. Rather than the obvious recapture, which would have led to a better position for Black, Kramnik chose to undermine the enemy knight’s position with 23. c5, leading to a whole slew of complications.

Soon, both sides had their own passed pawns racing down the board, which led to the next position:

Position after 28. Bxc6

It seems that White has the upper hand: His d6 passer is supported with everything it needs, while Black’s b2 counterpart is frozen and on the verge of being snapped off. However, Caruana found the stunning saver 28… Rad8!!, bringing his last piece into the game, and playing against White’s weakened back rank to stop the enemy pawn.

With this the advantage swung back and forth between both sides, with even more passed pawns advancing on opposite wings. Eventually we reach another position where White had regained the upper hand:

Position after 47. Rg8

Here Kramnik thought the game was over: The bishop cannot move without hanging the rook, thus it must be captured and let White’s pawn promote. Except that the bishop CAN move, and Caruana’s next find must have stunned Kramnik: 47… Bf6!!

And it turns out that the Black rook is invincible due to the mate threats on a1. Although White still retained a slight advantage after that, the strain of playing such sharp lines after so long was beginning to tell on both players. It was Kramnik who made the last blunder with just seconds left on his clock:

That moment when you realized you messed up

We have only looked at the first few rounds and so much hype has already occurred. With three rounds left to go, who will emerge as the contender to the world title?

To be continued…

Part 1:
Part 2:
Part 3:


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