The Age-Old Question

With the recent conclusion of the Your Next Move leg of the Grand Chess Tour, we saw some things that weren’t surprising, and then some things that were in fact eye-opening.  We saw Carlsen and So perform exceptionally well, which wasn’t surprising at all, considering those two are probably the best players in the world at this point. We also saw the likes of Jobava struggle, which wasn’t all too surprising either, considering he was the lowest rated seed by 50+ rating points; however, some may say that the extent to which he struggled was surprising, considering that he won only one game and drew five out of 36 total games.

We also saw a few players uncharacteristically struggle, including Anand.  He finished with 16/36 and a minus score, which was surprising in its own right, considering that Anand was once considered one of the best blitz/rapid players in the world.  Anand also had a string of four straight losses in the home stretch of the event.  So why did he struggle?  Was it one thing that one could pinpoint?  Or was it a slew of reasons?  You may have an idea already, but let’s see exactly why and how this was made apparent.

Now, we won’t be focusing on the games that he lost as much as the games in which points were left on the board (i.e. wins into draws or losses, draws into losses) since mistakes tend to happen and everyone loses games.  However, games in which a player had a clear path to a draw or win but missed it are the true indicators of weak play.  The first case that we will take a look at was the game between So (White) and Anand (Black) in round 6 of the rapid section.

So-Anand, position after 31. f3

It’s Black to move, and Black has the bishop-to-knight advantage; however, the doubled b-pawns somewhat negate that plus.  The position is objectively equal since White has no clear entry into Black’s position without offering a trade of minor pieces, which Black would gladly accept since it would allow the Rook to enter through c4.  If White marches his king to b3 before trading, Black won’t be able to enter anymore, but that doesn’t change the evaluation of the position since Black can just sit and White can never make progress on the queenside.  Here, a move like 31 … f6 would do since it protects the e5 pawn and effectively prevents White from making any more substantial threats on the queenside.  However, Anand decided to force the issue and after a 5-minute think played 31 … Bg1?  The move looks fancy but in truth just blunders a pawn cleanly after 32. Rd6+ Ke7 33. Nxb6, which happened in the game.  White eventually won the game by nursing the extra pawn advantage from here on.  A fairly straightforward blunder by Black turned what could have been a draw into a loss.  You can play through the entire game here.

This next case that we will investigate was the game between Anand and MVL in the very next round, round 7.

Anand-MVL, position after 20. …. Bg5

After MVL played the tricky move 20. … Bg5, Anand found the beautiful 21. Bb5!, and after 21. …. Bf4 22. Bxd7+ Kxd7 White had a clear advantage.  However, Anand’s technique was less than perfect, and in this position:

Anand-MVL, position after 33. … Kg7

Anand played the blunder 34. Nc4?? which would have lost to 34. … Qh8 if MVL had found it.  Anand lucked out and MVL played 34. … Nxe4, which gave the advantage back to Anand.  No harm was done there.  Later, the players arrived at this position:

Anand-MVL, position after 46. … Rf5

With the evaluation at a hefty +5, White could have played 47. Qa7 after which the threat of Qf2+ and Nxe5+ is enough for Black to resign.  However, White played 47. Qb6, which has a similar idea, but fails to impress on the account of 47. … Qg8 when both the knight on c4 and the rook on h7 are hit (If the queen was on a7, Qg8 would be met by b3).  Anand didn’t spot the key difference and continued with 48. Qf2+, and due to miscalculation, Black was, however improbable, winning the game.  This game was truly a heartbreaker for Anand as it looked to go down as another one of his brilliancies.  You can play through the entire game here.

The next case was in the first round of the blitz section, with Anand pitted against Carlsen with White.  The players navigated through the opening and middle game to an eventually equal endgame.  Up until this point, it was only White that had had any winning chances, but each of them was squandered away.  The players reached the position:

Anand-Carlsen, position after 53. … Rxa5

After the interesting move 54. Rd7, the position is labeled as a draw in the tablebase.  Black can’t make any progress since if Black tries to vacate a path for the pawn by moving his King, White checks him from behind and returns to d7.  If the rook threatens to check in any way, the king is always close enough to attack the rook with the king or escape some other way.  However, Anand blundered with 54. d6, which loses to Re5+ and Rd5+, which collects the pawn.  Moreover, Anand had 22+ seconds to Carlsen’s 15 but still blundered in this way.  This was yet another game where a draw became a loss because of a horrible blunder near the end.  You can play through the entire game here.

These three games weren’t even the only cases in which mistakes in superior or equal positions were made, with others occurring in the last few rounds of the blitz section.  In the end, this seemed like a recurring pattern rather than a rare occurrence.  Now, we come back to our question asked earlier in the article.  Why was Anand struggling so much in the tournament?  There are a few possible explanations.  The first is a very plausible one – the games were rapid- and blitz-rated, and the short time controls could have played a role, especially if critical positions occurred with low time left on the clock.  However, the fact that there were so many different examples of suboptimal play decreases the chance that it was just low time.  Additionally, Anand has never been “known” as a slow player; as mentioned before, Anand was considered one of the best quick players in the world just a few years ago.  So, if the answer isn’t the time control, the other possible answer that’s been tossed around before is stamina.  Stamina was discussed heavily during the past two Carlsen-Anand world championship matches as a possible decider in who would win.  Since then, it hasn’t been brought up much in press conferences or conversations.  But with Anand in his 47th year, recent tournament performances seem to beg the question to be asked again, and Anand has realized it as well.  After the conclusion of the rapid section, Anand said in an interview, “It’s nice to say ‘just a little bit off’ – I thought I was just mental! … There’s no point playing chess like this.”  It’s clear that the missed wins against MVL and arguably Carlsen that day had taken their toll.  All we can hope for is that the Indian GM is in higher spirits next time around and can still play for as long as possible.

And, as always, thanks for reading!

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