Moments in March: Outside the Candidates

For this week’s post, I decided that instead of breaking down the tiebreak system that gave Karjakin a match with Magnus, I would highlight some interesting games and positions from outside the Candidates Tournament that occurred this month.

While Norway Chess is no longer part of the Grand Chess Tour, it still boasts one of the strongest tournaments in the calendar year. Not only will it feature our first glimpse at a Carlsen–Karjakin match-up, it will also bring players like Vladimir Kramnik, Maxime Vachier-Lagrave, Pavel Eljanov, and many others. Being a ten seed round robin, a qualifier tournament was run between Jon Ludvig Hammer, Aryan Tari, Nils Grandelius, and Hou Yifan to decide who the tenth competitor will be. Needless to say, after the first decisive game, I knew who I was rooting for.

Hammer–Grandelius (Altibox Norway Chess Qualifier, 2016)

Screen Shot 2016-03-30 at 14.18.31
Black to Move

After much maneuvering, it appeared that this game was headed to a draw after 40. b4, but Grandelius found the best way to press for a win by sacrificing the exchange with 40… Rxe5! While the resulting position leaves Black down a minor piece, it’s White compromised structure that will determine the outcome of this game.

41. dxe5 Rxe5 42. Rg1 Bd8 43. Kf3 Bxg5

Screen Shot 2016-03-30 at 14.24.23

With three pawns for the knight, Black has more than sufficient compensation. With best play, the game should be equal, but with Hammer’s next move, it’s Black who has the advantage.

44. e4?!

Screen Shot 2016-03-30 at 14.27.21

Not immediately losing, but this move gives Black’s bishop a lot more mobility. Hammer likely panicked here, thinking he just needed to get his pawns off dark squares, but trading the e- and d- pawns will only help Black make the f-pawn passed.

44…Bc1 45. a4 Ba3 46. exd5 Rxd5 47. Bc4

Screen Shot 2016-03-30 at 14.30.23

I didn’t watch this game live, but I have to wonder if White was in time trouble here. This move simply gives up the b-pawn and any realistic chance at a draw.

47…Rf5+ 48. Ke4 Bxb4 49. Rf1 b5 50. axb5 cxb5 51. Ne3 Rxf1 52. Bxf1 a6 -+

Screen Shot 2016-03-30 at 14.32.01

Only Black can win this endgame now, and Grandelius converted on move 73. He finished the double round robin with 4 wins and 2 draws. Quite an impressive showing!

I don’t expect Grandelius to fare too well against the much superior competition, but it will be a great opportunity for Sweden’s best player!

Our next game features a well-known prodigy you’ve definitely heard of, Wei Yi. The Chinese teenage superstar hasn’t been doing well as of late, with a rocky finish in the Aeroflot Open and a slow start in the Asian Nations Cup. However, after falling below 2700, perhaps he was inspired enough to remind me why I stopped playing the Najdorf. Let’s have a look:

Wei Yi – Dao (Asian Nations Cup, 2016)

1.e4 c5 2.Nf3 d6 3.d4 cxd4 4.Nxd4 Nf6 5.Nc3 a6 6.Bg5

Screen Shot 2016-03-30 at 14.46.23

We’ve already discussed the Be3 Najdorf lines at some length here, but I believe that the Bg5 lines are also an aggressive try for White. This move directly points out Black’s lack of space and control of the center.

6…e6 7.f4 Nbd7 8.Qe2

Screen Shot 2016-03-30 at 14.49.47

If I recall from my studies years ago, White usually opts for the f3 square for his queen. However, this move (as Wei Yi proves) is a considerable option. Knowing that Black will likely not castle kingside, White prepares for a future opening of the e-file, while getting his king to safety.

8…Qc7 9.O-O-O Be7 10.g4 h6 11.Bh4 g5 12.fxg5 Nh7

Screen Shot 2016-03-30 at 14.53.22

The thematic mechanism for Black in these lines. By exploiting the pin on the g5 pawn, Black usually gets sufficient counterplay on the kingside. The computer generally overstates White’s advantage in these positions, but the point is that Black is walking a thin line between life and death.

13.Bg3 hxg5 14.Nf5!

Screen Shot 2016-03-30 at 14.55.58

The computer move! White’s idea is to sacrifice a piece to open up the Black monarch. While such a position comes at the price of a knight, Wei Yi proves once again that activity is of much greater importance than material.

14…exf5 15.Nd5

Screen Shot 2016-03-30 at 14.58.40

One of the key points of the last move. Sacrificing the knight on f5 gains White entry to d5 (with a tempo). Black must play 15… Qd8 to stay alive, but after the natural 15… Qb8?, White’s pressure on d6 and e7 alone is enough to end the game.

15…Qb8 16.exf5 Ne5 17.Nxe7 Kxe7 18.Rxd6!

Screen Shot 2016-03-30 at 15.01.01

And Black’s position collapses. The sad thing about it is that most of the tactics are intuitive, meaning that Wei Yi could have easily played them move-by-move from here and Black would have still never had a chance.

18…Qxd6 19.Bxe5 Qd5 20.Bg2 Qxa2 21.Bd6+!

Screen Shot 2016-03-30 at 15.03.01

Drawing out the king so it can’t retreat to f8 for relative safety. Now all White has to do is ensure that Black’s king stays in the center.

21…Kxd6 22.Rd1+ Kc7 23.Qe5+ Kb6 24.Qd4+

Screen Shot 2016-03-30 at 15.04.23

Great technique! Black now must move towards White with the king as a7 is taken away.

24…Ka5 25.Qc5+ b5 26.Qc7+ 0-1

Screen Shot 2016-03-30 at 15.06.05

Wow, Wei Yi made it look easy! The best part? For him it truly was. After spending 14 minutes on 14. Nf5, and then two minutes on 15. Nd5, he needed less than a minute per move for the rest of the game, and then fewer than eight (!) seconds a move after 19. Bxe5. Talk about some confidence!

And our last moment for today comes from the latest round of the Schachbundesliga where the best team Baden-Baden was upset 3-5 by Werder Bremen.

Naiditsch–Smerdon (Schachbundesliga, 2016)

Screen Shot 2016-03-30 at 15.20.35

Here Black just played 34… Qf8, leaving the b6 pawn unprotected. In a moment of blindness, Naiditsch decided that in his slightly worse position, he needed to find counterplay along the 6th and chose 35. Rxb6?? Can you find the Aussie’s demolition of White’s position? (see diagram below)

Black found the best way to exploit White’s weak king with 35… Nxe4! and now White has problems. The knight is untouchable as 36. Bxe4 Rxe4 37. Qxe4 Qh6+ and checkmate is unstoppable. In the game, White chose 36. Bg2 but didn’t last much longer after 36…Qg7 37. Rb2 Nc3 0-1

Sometimes even Grandmasters blunder! Interestingly Naiditsch, while in time pressure, had much more time than Smerdon had (47 seconds). Interesting to see what time trouble can do to you! Just look at the ending of my game last week!

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