Tuesday, 26 March 2013

2013 Candidates, Round 9


Round nine, and once again Peter Svidler honoured me with a pre-game chat, again mainly about cricket. I imagine that some members of the audience might have wondered what was happening when, a few moments before play was due to start and in full view of the audience, the Russian grandmaster suddenly took out an envelope from his inside jacket pocket and briefly showed it to me. Thanks to Anastasiya Karlovich and her camera, I give you Exhibit A and Exhibit B...

Chess grandmaster from St Petersburg shows me an envelope...

Having seen it, I appear to be saying "You lucky ******!" (I wasn't)

Now, just for a moment, let's imagine the above scene took place some 25 or more years ago - a Russian is seen to brandish a bulging envelope in front of a British subject in London during the Cold War. How would that have looked? A bit suspicious? Had things got out of hand, Peter might have been deported as a possible agent or 'undesirable alien', and I might have been prosecuted for trying to sell secrets to the USSR. When the jury heard my version of what was actually happening - "if it please m'lud, he was showing me some tickets he had been given for the Lord's Test Match in July" - it would have been a toss up between me getting a life sentence for treason, or being detained at Her Majesty's Pleasure as a criminal lunatic for being mad enough to invent a cock and bull story about a Russian who was interested in cricket.

But please believe me, readers, that is the plain and simple truth of what was happening in the photos. Being serious for a moment - thank heavens the world has moved on, and that Russians and Brits can now meet and chat and show each other envelopes, etc, without people jumping to conclusions and imagining John LeCarré scenarios. Not everything is right about the 21st century but this is one thing that has clearly changed for the better.


But (as Harry Golombek was wont to write), turning reluctantly to the chess... round nine was a cracker. Top billing went to the match between world champion Vladimir Kramnik and joint leader Magnus Carlsen and, unlike the eagerly-awaited Carlsen-Aronian clash of round eight, this one lived up to expectations.

Kramnik starts with his favourite Catalan against Magnus Carlsen

The opening was (as many people probably expected) a Catalan, and Vlad Kramnik soon took control with a newish move, 11 Qc2, which he had prepared for a game against Radjabov in Kazan in 2011 but decided against using on that occasion. Carlsen was on his own from an early stage and had to figure it out over the board.

As it transpired Carlsen didn't play the opening too well and was soon confronted with a tough defensive task as Kramnik strengthened his position. It was just the sort of position that Kramnik is renowned for winning but MC didn't get where he is today (top of the rating list) without knowing how to defend bad positions. Like Capablanca, Fischer and Karpov before, he homes in unerringly on good moves when under pressure. When he played 22...Re8 he told us he had already envisaged the brilliant 25...Nd5 which held his position together, or, rather, tipped it inexorably in the direction of a drawn endgame. Grandmaster John Nunn, not known for hyperbole or effusive praise, labelled this "a genius move" in the press room. It was certainly a turning point. Kramnik badly needed a full point from this game to make up the leeway between him and Carlsen (not to mention Aronian) but the pressure was now on him. He fought hard but Carlsen held the endgame without much trouble.

Magnus Carlsen looks up at the big display board showing all the games after two or three moves and is puzzled to see more or less the same opening feature on each board (or so it seems).

Kramnik played a pretty good game overall but he couldn't (and didn't) deny that he had been held at bay by an ingenious and resourceful opponent. He didn't hide his disappointment. Kramnik remains a point adrift of Carlsen with five rounds left. Of course, he still has a chance of clawing back lost ground, but not a very strong one. For Carlsen's part, he will be glad to have escaped defeat by one of his leading rivals and maintain a handy point gap between the two of them.

Vlad Kramnik looks happy: in fact he had just recognised some friends in the audience and, moments after this shot was taken, went over to shake hands with them.


Boris Gelfand and Levon Aronian get down to work.

No doubt Aronian glanced across at the Kramnik-Carlsen game on the other side of the partition during the round and, had he allowed his mind to wander to the scoreboard at the end of the round, he might have envisaged a Carlsen loss and himself leading the field at close of play. But it proved to be a round of two halves: whereas at 'half time', Kramnik appeared to be leading Carlsen, by the 'final whistle' Carlsen had fixed his problems and it was Aronian who had succumbed to his first defeat.

The opening was a Queen's Gambit Declined, with Gelfand emerging with the tiniest of edges based on his extra space. Things started to liven up when Aronian exchanged pawns on c4 and dared to take Gelfand's d4 pawn in exchange for his e6 pawn.Though he gained control of the d-file, Gelfand suddenly had a powerful passed e5 pawn.

It might not have been too bad had not Aronian played 26...Bf7 - this looked very suspect - and Gelfand grabbed the f5 pawn and thrust his e-pawn to e6. This turned out to be the move which Aronian had missed and he now found himself in all kinds of trouble. Computers showed that Gelfand might have wrapped the game up before the first time control but queens came off and some more technical work was required up to move 60.

Ultimately Gelfand was not to be denied and he was clearly elated at the subsequent press conference, having won his second game in a row and become the most successful player of the second phase of the tournament so far. “I think for me it was more difficult because I played with my very close friend and he is leading the tournament. But we're professionals and we have to play our utmost in each game.”


Experienced chess watchers noticed former British Women's Champion Dr Jana Bellin at the venue today and that meant only one thing - drug testing. No disrespect to the FIDE 'Drugs Tsarina' herself (who was just doing her job), but it is of course a patent absurdity having chessplayers subject to testing for drugs which help people run, jump, throw things and wrestle each other physically but do bugger all that is of use to a mind-sportsperson. However, for various reasons (some of which are actually quite sensible), FIDE is affiliated to the IOC and in order to comply with their rules it is obligatory for people to turn up at official World Chess Federation competitions to take the p*** out of chessplayers occasionally  (as if they don't do enough of that, albeit metaphorically, in the general media anyway, you might well be thinking - and I would agree with you).

We were later informed that Carlsen, Aronian, Kramnik and Svidler had to undergo this pointless indignity, prompting me to wonder (in my irreverent way) why the fluid of the other four wasn't deemed worthy of testing. (One recalls that Ivanchuk, in the past, has been difficult to deal with when it comes to the abstraction of the aforementioned substance.) But let us pass onto more tasteful topics of conversation...


Peter Svidler and Alexander Grischuk practise some synchronised form-filling-in...

Peter Svidler, with his test match tickets in his pocket, appeared rested and ready for action in this round but he was soon hit by a howitzer from fellow Russian Grischuk. Incidentally, I've said it before but it's worth repeating - all notions and allegations of collusion between players of the same country lie dead and buried with Bobby Fischer. OK, it might have been true in his day, fifty years ago, but it isn't true in the here and now. These guys, regardless of country and friendship, are all playing as individuals in every game with, for the most part, commendable fighting spirit.

Sacha Grischuk's bombshell consisted of a knight sacrifice on c4 in a Sämisch King's Indian. Peter, like Magnus on another board, had to spend a long time figuring out how to counter a particularly dangerous opening innovation. But, as he said afterwards, he rather welcomed this injection of interest into the game. His reactions seemed pretty sound on the whole. It was a sharp sacrifice but he found an impressive counter, sacrificing his queen for three minor pieces. The computers thought it was equal but human experts rather he was better. An exposed king made progress difficult, however, and Grischuk's remaining queen and rook made enough of a nuisance of themselves to maintain the balance for a draw. A very interesting game, with lots of tricky tactics to enjoy.


Man at the bottom: for the second day running, Vassily Ivanchuk's body language was that of a man who wanted a break from looking at chess pieces. But finally it all came good for him.
The 'boys in the basement' (if I can refer to them in that way) were involved in the longest game of the day. It was, however, rather one-sided and must have been a soul-destroying experience for Teimour Radjabov who, with Black, was at a disadvantage to varying degrees for the entire game and could only sit and suffer as his position deteriorated. And having lost, he found himself condemned to last place. Chess is a cruel game.

Ivanchuk looked distracted at the start, as in the previous round but he shrugged it off well enough as he got his teeth into an orthodox Queen's Gambit Declined. The game didn't feature any fireworks but it was a fine example of the sort of relentless technical play which is Ivanchuk's forté. For much of the time it seemed that he didn't quite have enough to expect to win but he finally outmanoeuvred his opponent in the endgame.


The laconic Alexander Grischuk, on being asked at a press conference how he had spent the rest day before round seven: "As usual: cocaine, girls, cards."


At the end of the round, Magnus Carlsen found himself in sole first place for the first time. 1 Carlsen 6/9, 2 Aronian 5½, 3 Kramnik 5, 4-5 Gelfand, Grischuk 4½, 6 Svidler 4, 7 Ivanchuk 3½, 8 Radjabov 3.

Tuesday is a rest day. In the final five rounds, Carlsen and Aronian have three whites each, while Kramnik has two. The one remaining fixture between the top three is in round 12 when Aronian has white against Kramnik. Carlsen's run-in consists of white v Gelfand, black v Grischuk, white v Ivanchuk, black v Radjabov and finally white v Svidler. Carlsen must remain the favourite, but it's not all over yet.


  1. Thanks for your brilliant reports, John. Some day I'll have to ask you, how you embed the games' JavaScript (Palview?) into your blog posts.

  2. I use Paolo Casaschi's excellent facility pgn4web which is freely available online - http://pgn4web.casaschi.net/home.html