Monday, March 14, 2016

Candidates 2016 Round #3

This was a fantastic round, with four interesting games. Actually, the three draws were truly fascinating while the one decisive encounter was a little meh.  At the end of the round, Aronian joined Anand and Karjakin in the lead with each of them up by +1.

One odd data point that occurred was that, in the three drawn games,  black played  --h5 at some point, despite being castled on the kingside. As played, it was a strong counter-attacking shot from Svidler and it fetched him a large advantage against Nakamura. It was a frankly incomprehensible pawn sacrifice from Karjakin and it put Giri on top. It was an excellent attempt to mix up things by Caruana and he eventually pulled off a draw by following through courageously on that idea versus Anand.

More generally, two of the draws (Anand- Caruana and Nakamura- Svidler) were excellent advertisements for long-form, classical chess while the third (Giri-Karjakin) generated enormous excitement. Caruana and Nakamura displayed great fighting qualities and defended superbly in "almost-lost" positions where they somehow hung on.

But first, let's get the Topalov-Aronian game out of the way. Topalov is, of course, an enormously strong player. But he's past 40 now and his results are becoming increasingly erratic. He's still perfectly capable of winning super-tournaments but he's also capable of big minus scores.

There are several possible reasons for the increasing instability.

Topalov's repertoire is razor-sharp and he has always had a low draw percentage. He doesn't have a cruising gear : he doesn't enjoy playing  stable, balanced positions.  Anand and Kramnik both beat him in matches by forcing him to play "boring" positions.

Age has also meant the Bulgarian is no longer as tactically certain as he used to be when it comes to deep calculation.  Most importantly, Topalov is not an intuitive, instinctive player. He is a pure calculator. He has never been a particularly good rapid or blitz player because he does not "play by hand" as the Russians say, relying purely on his intuition.

Anatoly Karpov, Mikhail Tal, Boris Gelfand or Viswanathan Anand for that matter, remained formidable competitors even after their calculation slowed down, because of intuition: The first move their hand instinctively makes is usually the best move in a given position. This is not true for Topalov. He  doesn't have, or hasn't yet, developed the compensatory mechanisms that older players use, as their calculating ability erodes.  

There is also a streak of irrational optimism about his play sometimes. He was surprised in the opening by Aronian and chose to sacrifice a pawn instead of playing rationally. 

On move 17. Topalov made an outright blunder missing a one-mover 17.-- Nxe4 18. Bxe4 Qf6.  After going two pawns up with the initiative, Aronian played well enough to take it away but then, you'd expect that.

The Giri- Karjakin game was flat equal until Karjakin lashed out with 18.-- h5. He should probably have followed up 19.--h4 but he didn't, choosing to sacrifice a pawn on g4 instead. Although Giri's 20 Nf4 looks very powerful and natural, there is no breakthrough after the Kt sacrifice on g6.  The oracles (aka the engines) suggest 20.f3 instead, with a follow up of Ne5. It's an open question whether black has enough compensation for the pawn deficit if white doesn't play Nxg6. Both players seemed to think so.

The obvious 26. e4 (or 26. Qh6+ Kh8 27. e4) was  possible but black seems to holds on. There will be rough material equality but while the pawns will count in a pure endgame, the bishop pair counts for more in the middlegame. The light square holes around the white king could become dangerous landing squares for black pieces.  Giri's perpetual was pragmatic.  

The other two games were defensive masterpieces of somewhat different stripes. Defence is, in general, harder than attack for several reasons ranging from the technical to the psychological. Few players like being pushed around and staying calm and finding the best moves can be difficult when you are being pushed around.

What is more, the attacker is usually the attacker because by definition he has more mobility, better-placed pieces or other objective advantages. Somebody playing with the initiative usually has several possible ways to develop an edge. But there is usually a very narrow path to safety for the defender.

Nakamura got caught in preparation by Svidler. By move 25, Svidler had gained five minutes on the clock - which means he had spent a total of 10 minutes getting there.  By then Nakamura was in some time pressure and about to go a pawn down. Move 26 saw white jumping into h7 with his queen and black responding with the ice-cool h5!  

Faced with the prospect of consecutive losses Naka found a remarkable defence.
The queenside pawns will all come off. But the resultant R+Kt endgame with 4 Vs 3 pawns on the same side will be drawn. Or at least, white will have huge drawing chances and Naka showed the requisite technical skills and nerves to hold on.

Anand-Caruana was more messy for the defender although it's not so obviously a poor position.

Here, black is actually quite close to defeat despite the apparently peaceful nature of the position and the roughly equal activity of the pieces. It might help to think of this in terms of Open Sicilian structures rather than the Berlin Spanish. Black must try to keep pressure on the e-pawn. He would like to push b5, b4 etc.  White has huge pressure on the d6-pawn and chances of expanding inexorably by f4.

Black made the brave push 27.-- h4!? and, all of a sudden, there's no clear way for white to proceed. After he takes the pawn with 28. gxh4, the broken kingside makes it hard to protect e4, or to push f4 without getting hit by counter-play. Caruana played precisely later on when he got a chance to slam in 35. --Bxe4 and thus, equalise.

There's a broader theme visible in Svidler- Nakamura and Anand-Caruana. In both games, the young guns demonstrated that they can hunker down and defend positions that are very close to losing.  Both of them stood on the edge of a precipice for a while. But they never quite got pushed over the edge.

It's early days yet. But nobody wins a world championship until they've learnt to defend inferior positions against good opposition. "Don Fabiano" and "Naka" just ticked that particular box.



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