Monday 15 April 2013

Sunday 7 April 2013

Nice Finish from Gawain Jones in the Bundesliga

The German Chess Bundesliga (not to be confused with the football league of the same name) provides a feast of chess entertainment, thanks to the rather splendid software interface they use to broadcast the games (which is now used for other major events, notable the FIDE Candidates' Tournament and the Tradewise Gibraltar Masters). And, of course, it is notable for the excellence of the players who take part in it. Former world champion Anatoly Karpov was there today, drawing comfortably with recent championship candidate Peter Svidler.

Here's the link to today's live action:

Most of England's active GMs play in this event and a game played in today's 15th round by GM Gawain Jones featured a very nice finish. I was a bit sorry to see that German GM Sebastian Siebrecht was the victim as he is a very nice guy whom I always look forward to meeting on the chess circuit but we all have to take our turn at being on the wrong side of a brilliancy.

Gawain Jones (left) and Sebastian Siebrecht

Wednesday 3 April 2013

2013 Candidates: Some Stats...

One thing not featured on my blog yet is a full crosstable of results. Here is the table from the official site (which I thought was excellent, by the way)...

Carlsen qualified on number of wins - 5 to Kramnik's 4

Crosstables often tell a misleading story, of course. When we look back at the above crosstable in the future and see half a point separating the first four players, we may forget that there was a 1½ points gap between the first two names and the next two before the final round, and that Peter Svidler was never really in the running for first but had a late rally.

Now let's have a look at crosstables of the two separate cycles of the event...

Two very different tables! The main difference between them is that the players would have been very much more tired when they played the second cycle. Or you would have thought so - and yet it was the relative youngsters Aronian and Carlsen who did best in the first cycle, with the older players doing very much better in the second cycle. Perhaps the tension and pressure was more important than physical fitness, and the old guys proved to be made of sterner stuff?

Kramnik's resurgence in the second half was the most noticeable, of course, but Svidler and Gelfand did pretty well too. I suppose you could argue that Carlsen wouldn't have gone out on a limb in his final game had the tournament situation not demanded it, so he might have finished joint second with Svidler and Gelfand in the second half; but Kramnik would have been unlikely to have lost against Ivanchuk, so he would have made either 5½ or 6 - a remarkable score against such a field.


The first cycle featured 8 decisive games out of 28, with Carlsen and Aronian winning 3 each, and Radjabov and Svidler winning 1 each. The second cycle, with the tension growing, was much more bloodthirsty, with 17 decisive games in total, and all of the players bar the fading Radjabov getting at least one win on the scoreboard.

That makes 25 decisive games out of a total of 56 played in London = 44%. A very high proportion for a super-GM event: let's compare it with Linares 2009, which was also an eight-player double-cycle a.p.a. and featured five of the same players as played at London 2013 - it saw just 15 decisive games.

R.I.P. Match-Based Candidates Format: Dead and Buried...

Of course, the principal prize in London - a prestigious (and hopefully highly lucrative) match for the world title - provided the extra motivation. But such motivation has not always lead to more decisive games in Candidates' competitions. We only have to cast our minds back two years to the Candidates' matches played in Kazan in 2011, which produced a miserly three decisive classical games out of 30 played! That was probably the death knell for a match-based Candidates qualifier, certainly for the foreseeable future, and the 25 decisive games played in the tournament-based London Candidates will have driven the last nail into the coffin.

... But Bring Back the Interzonal!

So I guess that is it for the foreseeable future - a Candidates' tournament followed by a match for the world title. I'm happy with that. Gradually, inexorably, the tried and trusted ways of organising a world championship have come back into fashion, and the madhouse of Ilyumzhinov knock-out tournaments consigned to the dustbin of history where it belongs.

You have to go back to Curaçao 1962 to find a precedent for a proper Candidates' tournament like the one we have just witnessed in London. Candidates' matches, as played from 1965 onwards, weren't a bad innovation in the days when FIDE was capable of running them properly, getting sponsorship and setting a respectable duration for them, but they eventually fell into disrepute and became unworkable.

With that in mind, perhaps it is time to think about euthanasia for the FIDE Grand Prix and World Cup system. These events have also proved to be unworkable (as well as eminently forgettable), with the federation's resources and limited competence being stretched to the limit trying to organise a motley collection of events all over the world (though by default they usually end up in Kirsan's backyard - Khanty-Mansiysk, Elista, etc).

We still have Zonal qualifiers, as of old - so why not have one big interzonal of 24 players, as in the good old days. I suppose the objection to that will be that FIDE can't use it as a cash cow, with weak players from obscure corners of the globe having their chance to get smashed by super-GMs in round one of another Siberian extravaganza. Well, I guess a couple of them could be squeezed in alongside the genuine contenders in a 24-player event.

It would have the advantage that just one big tournament would need to be funded and organised - but it would have much greater prestige and prominence than the existing system. It could be a cracker of a sporting event, just like London 2013, and provide a chance for a player to make a name for himself, like the guy who won the last of the 24-player interzonals in 1970: Bobby Fischer. Preceding him, Larsen, Smyslov, Spassky, Tal, Kotov... (Bronstein, Tal and Fischer won two of these mega-events). Surely an aspirant super-GM would give his eye teeth just to get on an honours board with those guys. Do it, FIDE!

Tuesday 2 April 2013

2013 Candidates, Round 14

One of the greatest chess tournaments ever staged ended on 1 April - and I am missing it already. This is my last blog specifically addressing a round of the tournament but I will be returning to the subject of the FIDE Candidates' Tournament, London 2013, for a further few more observations yet, partly because there is more to be said, but partly because I can't bear to let it recede into history. It was with a heavy heart that I walked out of the venue for the last time, wishing that it had been a four-cycle tournament like the Candidates of old (though, if it had been 28 rounds, I expect that the players would have been going home in ambulances at the end).

Anyway, let's stick to the events of the last round for now. It couldn't have been set up better, with Magnus and Vlad tied on 8½ points, and Vlad needing to better Magnus's score on the final day to qualify for a rematch with Anand, while for Magnus it was enough to equal Vlad's last round performance to qualify.

Vlad had the additional handicap of the black pieces, while Magnus had white. Magnus's opponent was Peter Svidler, whom he had already defeated with Black, but definitely not a soft touch as Peter's form seemed to get better as the tournament reached its conclusion. Vlad, meanwhile, had to play the joker in the tournament's pack - Vassily 'Chucky' Ivanchuk - whose form had swung wildly between technical excellence and clownish clock-handling incompetence. One of the tournament's established clichés had become 'which side of the bed would Vassily get out?'. The Chucky factor made it impossible to guess what would happen next so most pundits were wise not even to try. It was too close to call.

Magnus Carlsen: lost the battle, won the war


The last round conformed to the movie-script-like progression we had come to expect. Normally super-GMs pride themselves on their single-mindedness but it became inevitable that Magnus and Vlad would keep a close eye on each other's games. Vlad did this mainly via the big demo screen at the back of the stage, as per normal (scores of photos of the players show them doing this throughout the event), but Magnus regularly got up from his seat and watched the Ivanchuk-Kramnik game in person (there were reports of eyeball-to-eyeball looks between the two contenders during these moments); probably Magnus wanted to take in Chucky's body language which is sometimes a key to what to expect in his games (though it is doubtful whether it is any more reliable an indicator than trying to guess his moves).

FINAL SCORES: 1-2 Carlsen, Kramnik 8½/14, 3-4 Svidler, Aronian 8, 5-6 Gelfand, Grischuk 6½, 7 Ivanchuk 6, 8 Radjabov 4.

Link to the official last round report and press conference videos


Carlsen v Svidler: the Norwegian looks weary as he starts the game

If Magnus could win his game, of course, he wouldn't have to bother looking over his shoulder. That must have been his main focus in his game with Svidler. But, as in round 12 against Ivanchuk, he overdid it at a crucial stage.

The opening was a restrained Lopez, with Magnus expected to keep it ticking over until the time control, when he would presumably do the the usual Torquemada endgame stuff. But not a bit of it: he went in for a dubious middlegame escapade with his two knights and a bishop in an attempt to beat up Svidler's king. It smacked of naïvety and impatience - quite the opposite of the traits which Carlsen is famous for. Svidler, in good form and feeling secure (having made sure of at least a 50% score the day before), was able to exploit these unaccustomed chinks in his opponent's armour all too easily. His 26...Bf3! must have come as a hammer blow to the Norwegian chances, and then 31...Nf4 more or less put pay to Carlsen's hopes of saving even a half point.

More unusual still was Carlsen's time pressure. This was the tangible effect of his spending time watching the other game, and wanting to see what happened there before committing himself on his own board. What he would have seen there was Ivanchuk gradually getting a good game, but also running down his clock in alarming fashion, as usual. Ironically, though, Carlsen's own time became even more critical and he had only seconds left for his final half dozen moves, at one point knocking pieces over in his panic. Truly, Magnus showed his human side in this game, as well as his naked ambition to reach a world championship match (something he has often played down in interviews).

A relatively relaxed, tension-free Peter Svidler nearly ended the Carlsen dream

This game ended in the fifth hour of play when Carlsen couldn't reasonably play on any longer. But as he left the board for the press conference he would have glanced at the Ivanchuk-Kramnik position and seen that the Ukrainian was close to booking Carlsen's ticket for the Anand match. Magnus must have known then he was going to be a contender - though he had had to rely on the kindness of strangers...

"Am I gonna be a contender?" thinks Magnus as he emerges from losing his game to Peter Svidler (visible left - that's Carlsen's manager Espen Agdestein on the right) when he was still 'relying on the kindness of a stranger' (Ivanchuk) to put him into a world championship match with Anand. The eyes betray a sense of bewilderment, though he was still able to raise a smile at a quip from Peter Svidler a few moments later. This gave way to elation when the news of Kramnik's defeat emerged some minutes later.


Two expressions of Vlad at the 13th round press conference

Bad news for Vlad: Chucky might only have been preparing for the Russian League but he took the last round very seriously - and avoided losing on time.

Vlad was in more or less the same quandary as Magnus when he sat down to play his last game. He decided to change his opening to reflect the circumstances - do or die - and played the Pirc Defence (in this instance 1 d4 d6). Not exactly a Cinderella opening, but definitely something more provocative and risky, which would ensure that Chucky would come out and fight. He had no way of knowing that Magnus was going to blow his last game, otherwise he could have relied on his usual solid black repertoire. As the man himself put it simply: "I had to play for a win because I didn't think Magnus was going to lose." Of course, by the same token, had Magnus seen the usual Kramnik repertoire deployed, he might have been much less inclined to play his risky middlegame knights escapade. So the Pirc was played as much to provoke Magnus as it was Chucky. To that extent it worked pretty well. But, as in the old joke, "the operation was successful but the patient died."

A resigned, reflective Kramnik at the press conference after the final game.


Levon Aronian's tournament was effectively over but he finished with a pleasant mating attack

Teimour Radjabov: good-humoured to the end, but the nightmare is finally over

Levon Aronian and Teimour Radjabov had little to play for in the last round but put on a good show for anyone who was still watching them. Actually, Aronian did have something to play - a share of the third prize with Peter Svidler - but that was not what he had in mind a few rounds earlier. Teimour Radjabov might have hoped to avoid a mind-boggling seventh defeat in total but he did not succeed and found himself cut adrift in last place by two whole points. Both players will have better tournaments and nobody should write off their future world championship chances. They were a credit to the playing hall and the press room.


This game featured my personal moment of the day - Boris Gelfand saying 'hello, John' on his way to the board. At heart I'm just a chess fan and being recognised by one of the greats of the game is as good as it gets for me. Boris and Sacha started the day on the same score but decided not to duke it out too violently for the glory of the fifth prize. Actually, if you look at the game closely, you'll find it was quite well contested but of course everyone's attention (including mine) was elsewhere. I do hope we see these two guys in London again soon. You'll have figured out a long time ago that I'm a huge fan of Boris in particular - he can do no wrong for me, either personally (he's a charming man) and as a representative of the legendary Soviet school of chess (which remains the basis of the modern professional game). But I was also very taken with Sacha and his black humour, delivered in that heavy, mournful accent of his.

We had a last helping of that at the press conference, where he bemoaned the fact that whatever he tried, and whatever mistakes he made, it always seemed to lead to a draw. Is he the Jack Dee of chess? If ever there were a chess radio programme called I'm Sorry, I'll Play That Again, he would have to be the compère.

Boris Gelfand: please, please, please, come back to London soon (says John Saunders, self-appointed president of the Boris Gelfand Fan Club)

Alexander Grischuk: the Jack Dee of chess? I can just imagine him delivering a line like "Samantha tells me she's been learning some chess theory with an elderly grandmaster. She says she's got the hang of how to fianchetto a bishop now and next week he'll be showing her how to fit it into her opening." 

Boris Gelfand: "My play was very erratic. You have to play ambitiously in this tournament." Alexander Grischuk: "I won one game but this on time!"

N.B. Check back at my blog soon! I haven't finished on the subject of London 2013 by any means.

Monday 1 April 2013

2013 Candidates, Round 13

London 2013 will go down in chess history. That much we know already. It has been the most astonishing tournament. OK, round one was a quiet start, but since then it has pulsated with action all the way.

Just one round to go now and the scores are Carlsen, Kramnik 8½/13, Aronian, Svidler 7, Gelfand, Grischuk 6, Ivanchuk 5, Radjabov 4. Only the top two can now win the tournament, but in the event of a tie,  we already know that Carlsen is better on tie-break and qualifies for a title match with Vishy Anand.


This has been the tournament which just goes on giving. It can only have only winner in terms of who goes through to the world championship final match - we won't know who that is until the end of the last round - but in truth it has produced a long list of winners...

WINNER NO.1 - classical chess - in the past and at the beginning of the tournament some gloom and doom merchants have been predicting the death of the longplay form of the game. Seems laughable now, doesn't it?

WINNER NO.2 - the format -  Bobby Fischer didn't think much of an all-play-all format for the Candidates' competition, and there was a switch to match play for many decades, but the a.p.a. format worked a treat here. Maybe we could quibble about the merits of a play-off for first in the event of a tie (and Vlad Kramnik will count himself very unlucky if his world championship challenge founders on something trivial like number of wins), but that is the only drawback. And I think we should laugh off any daft ideas of collusion for or against any players. OK, Chucky plays like a genius one day and a buffoon the next, but he's not doing it on purpose to mess up any specific player's chances. His brain is too randomly wired for any Machiavellian mullarkey of that ilk.

WINNER NO.3 - the audience. I haven't come across any chess fan or journalist who hasn't been thrilled by this tournament.

WINNER NO.4 - the organisers and officials. There were murmurings at the start but everything seems to have come good.

WINNER NO.5 - good ol' London town. Tournament chess had its birth in the English capital and it is still an ideal venue for elite chess. Last year the 2012 Olympics were a triumph and this year, despite the absence of home players, this tournament has already gone down in history as one of the all-time greats. Something for the nation to be proud of, although most of them will be unaware of it, of course (their loss).

WINNER NO.6 - the players, collectively. Though some have scored more points than others, they've all contributed immensely to the success of the event with some fighting chess and entertaining comments at press conferences. You'd be hard put to find such a sporting, good-humoured, courteous field of sports people.

OK, that's effusion overdrive for now, but I felt the need to capture the elation of the moment. Everybody I've communicated with this evening at the venue has been knocked out by the excitement of yet another great round of chess. Round 12 was amazing, but Round 13 delivered some more amazing twists.

Below, photos of the two guys left standing in the race for the world title spot. At the beginning of the day, Vlad was the strong favourite according to most pundits, but by the end of a long, gruelling day's chess, he had been replaced as favourite (albeit not quite so strong) by Magnus.

After polishing his glasses (as always), Vladimir Kramnik sits calmly at the board at the beginning of his 13th round game with Gelfand. You can bet he is a bag of nerves inside, though.


Kramnik was half a point clear of Carlsen at the start of the penultimate round, with the white pieces against Boris Gelfand. But the Israeli is not so easily beaten. Indeed, if Vlad fails to secure first, he may look back and compare his results against Boris (two draws) with those of Magnus (two wins) and see them as the difference between qualifying and being left out in the cold.

Vlad Kramnik came up with a novel, though slightly ungainly, innovation for this vital game, and it elicited smiles from the other players at the start. But Boris Gelfand was impressed and complimented the former world champion on having produced more new opening ideas than the rest of the players put together. (High praise indeed from someone so dedicated to opening preparation.)

Kramnik will probably look back at this as one that got away. No cast-iron wins were missed but he had several better continuations found by computers. Gelfand's defensive play was characteristically tough and resourceful. Though downed twice by Carlsen, he comes away from the tournament with his reputation intact and popularity undimmed. A great role model for aspirant chessplayers.


Sitting down to try and win games with Black could be seen as unrealistic at this level of play but there seems little doubt that this is what Carlsen does. He doesn't do it in any overtly aggressive way, of course, but tries to overcome the opposition by stealth. No description of this game can get to heart of the 'long-drawn-outness' of its seven-hour length.

One of the best ways to enjoy a Carlsen game is to imagine you are his opponent. Then it becomes like a sort of delicious, creeping horror, like an Edgar Allan Poe story. For hours you think you have all the doors and windows closed, and struggle to see by what route the 'red death' will enter the city - and then suddenly it is all around you. I think it was around six hours in when the press room's collective opinion switched from 'even Magnus can't win this' to 'Radjabov is a dead man walking'.

All in all there seven hours of attritional chess, followed by a 15-second standing ovation from a deeply-impressed audience. To give you an idea (if you were unfortunate enough not to have followed it in real time), Kramnik and Gelfand also fought a long and arduous game but the decisive phase of Radjabov-Carlsen had barely started when the Kramnik-Gelfand post-game press conference finished. Kramnik pooped back into the room, scanned the game quickly and went off, probably in the perfectly reasonable hope that Carlsen would achieve no more than a draw and thus still be trailing him in round 14.

It's time everybody stopped being surprised by Carlsen's relentless, never-say-draw modus operandi since he pulls off these miracles time and time again. Of course, he needs help from his opponent but even the hardiest super-GM can't seem to shake off the sense of creeping death which comes over the game from about the fifth hour onwards.

Magnus Carlsen opts for his favourite sulky teenager look at the start of his game with Radjabov.

At the end of the game Carlsen's arrival in the press room was a huge contrast to that of Good Friday when Ivanchuk crucified him. He entered the room, rushed up to his manager Espen Agdestein and high-fived him in elation. Cool and calm is the mask he likes to show us most of the time but Carlsen is clearly passionate in his quest for the world title (though he has many times feigned otherwise). Truly, we have seen the resurrection. But Easter Monday is yet to come, of course.

He may be in last place but nobody can beat Teimour Radjabov for the neatness of his pieces on their squares. Teimour fought a long battle with Magnus Carlsen and seemed to be within reach of a draw for much of its course.


After his tragic loss to Kramnik in round 12, Levon Aronian's interest in the tournament was resided more in the value of third prize rather than any forlorn hope of a melt-down by the top two. He had a closely-fought game with Grischuk, where the Russian stood better for some time, but it ended naturally in a draw.

Levon Aronian had to hope that the two players ahead of him both had a major melt-down. It didn't happen so he must slug it out with Peter Svidler for third prize.

Alexander Grischuk looks relaxed (but then he always does). He and Levon Aronian drew.


Nothing much was riding on this game but it was hard fought and entertained the crowd. Once again, much interest centred on which Chucky turned up. Would it be Chucky The Carlsen Killer? No, it wouldn't... it turned out to be Chucky The Unready (to make all his moves within the allotted time). Peter Svidler, on his own at the press conference, commented on Ivanchuk's eccentric behaviour in turning away from the board when he was already in desperate time shortage and then spending precious seconds figuring out and recording the move Peter had played during his day dream.

Five losses, all on time, but credit to Svidler, he gave him a very hard time and it was the logical result of a well-played game. There was

Peter Svidler and Vassily Ivanchuk have both done Vlad Kramnik a big favour (by beating Levon Aronian and Magnus Carlsen respectively). They  faced each other. in round 13 and Chucky had another off-day, losing his fifth(!) game on time.