Wednesday, March 23, 2016

Candidates Round #9

The standings at the top changed as Anand picked off Aronian in an epic rook endgame.  Meanwhile Anish Giri split the point with Fabiano Caruana after the Dutchman missed multiple wins. The bottom-ranker Nakamura made a brave attempt to knock out Sergey Karjakin but Karjakin's fine sense of danger kept him out of trouble. The other bottom-ranker, Topalov had a far better position against Svidler but he couldn't quite put it away.

There are five rounds left and there is a very narrow spread at the top of the scoreboard. Karjakin and Anand lead with +2, while Caruana and Aronian share 3rd-4th with +1.  The maths indicates that any of these four could win and so could Giri (even score with 9 draws! ). Even Svidler (-1) has a mathematical chance of winning. Only Nakamura (-2) and Topalov (-3) appear to be completely out of it .

Anand has relied on 1.e4 with white through this event. This has meant a sequence of Spanish Anti-Berlins, and an Anti-Marshall against Svidler. Aronian always defends with 1. e4 e5 and he also plays the Marshall and the Berlin. The Anand -Aronian matchups have seen some heavily "booked" battles over the years with the Armenian winning brilliantly from the black side of the Spanish on at least two occasions.

This time, Anand pulled off  a major surprise. He played the Italian; the Quiet Game aka La Guioco Piano.  The Piano gives very little but it postpones the battle to the middlegame.

This fits with the "post-modern" attitude. Getting a crushing opening advantage is very hard when both parties have ample time, strong programs and big databases  at their disposal. So the post-moderns - Carlsen, Karjakin. Nakamura - rely on surprise and understanding. They are happy to get roughly equal positions which they understand better and which their opponents have not studied in great depth. The real battle happens in the middlegame and the endgame.

This is the sort of position the great Mikhail Botvinnik flagged as an exception to the normal rules of evaluating good bishops and bad bishops. Normally a good bishop is a piece operating in cooperation with its pawns on squares of the opposite colours. That way, the bishop  is not blocked by its own pawns and the pawns can control squares of the other colour. Here, black has the better bishop by those rules.  However white has a huge edge in space and his bishop  is parked on the very best possible square, dominating both long diagonals. With heavy pieces on the board, black is liable to get squashed.  The pressure should soon translate into something more concrete.  It does.

Engines consistently underestimate the white edge in this sort of position. There are no major tactics to consider but white's space advantage makes it very unpleasant for black to defend.

White has several plans to try and increase his edge. Meanwhile black can only wait and hope that white does not find a plan that works.  In analogy, black's defensive task is like a cricket team trying to bat out two days in a test match, while "chasing" a target of 650. There is no hope of winning and a draw will require perfect concentration for hour after hour.  

Here, white could for example, try to pile up on the c-file, hitting c7. He could push his kingside pawns with h4,g5 etc., to create some targets there. He could also do what he did, which is to activate his king and generate mobile kingside passed pawns. This is deadly.   

A long forced or "semi-forced" sequence follows. Either Black lets White get in Kf5 "for free" or he allows this liquidation.  If white gets in Kf5 without Rxe4 being played, he will have the additional possibilities of g4,h4, g5 or even e5 at some stage. That will be a process of slow strangulation. Instead black opted for a pawn race.

38.Kg4! Rxe4 39.Rxg7+ Kc8 40.Rd2 Kb8 41.Rc2 Rc8 42.Ra2! Rd4 43.Kf5 Rxd5+ 44.Kxf6 Rf8+ 45.Rf7 Rxf7+ 46.Kxf7 Rf5+ 47.Kg6 Rxf4 48.g3! Rc4 49.Kxh6 d5

The win is clear. White's passers run easily while black's pawns are clumsy. Also white's king is much more active and that counts. But Anand played somewhat inaccurately in that he could probably win easier by running the h-pawn with 50. Kg5 d4 51. h4 d4 52. Rd2! Rxa4 53. h5 Rb4 54. h6 Rxb5+ 55. Kg6  Rb1 56. Rxd3 Rh1 57. g4 etc. with white multiple tempos ahead in the race.

However what Anand did was quite good enough 50.Kh5 d4 51.g4 d3 52.h4 Rd4 53.Rd2 Kc8 54.g5 Kd7 55.Kg6 Rxh4 56.Rxd3+ Ke8 57.Ra3 Rc4 58.Kg7 Kd7 59.g6 c6 60.Kf6 cxb5 61.g7 Rg4 62.axb5 Rg1 63.Rd3+ Ke8 64.Re3+ Kd7 65.Re5 Rxg7 66.Rd5+ (1–0).
This by the way is the sort of game that would repay very careful study. It involves several clever transference of advantages to go into a winning rook endgame and sharp calculation is required in the final stages.
Giri - Caruana saw black playing a high-risk line all over again. On move 14. Caruana opted to sacrifice his kingside pawns presumably in the hopes that the white pawn on h7 would actually protect his king on h8. This is a similar idea to his game with Nakamura. And, as against Nakamura, Caruana has counter-play against an exposed king. But it probably wasn't enough.

There are long-term imbalances here. White has multiple extra pawns and a huge centre and black's king is not exactly safe. However, Black has the bishop pair and obvious chances of hitting the White king from several directions. There are no instant knockouts for either side but there are many tactical themes to be watched.

White can play the calm 24. Ke1 here. That unpins Nf4 and creates counter-threats of Rh5 or 24. Ke1 Bxe5? 25. Ng6+. it probably wins.

After 24. Rd4 ?! Rxd4 25. Qxd4 Bxe5 , black is still fighting and indeed, Caruana pulled off a great save after 96 moves. It was a superb game and well worth  the effort of deep analysis.
Karjakin played his pet variation of the Queens Indian for the fourth time (!) which is really tempting fate or making an emphatidc statement about the depth of his preparation and his confidence in the position.
Nakamura seemed to be improving on Topalov's game
Here White tries the ambitious 14.Nxe4 dxe4 15.Nd2 Bxa2 16.Bxe4 Bxb1 17.Qxb1 Now if the rook moves, 17.-- Rc8 18. Bxh7+ should give White  plenty of play. But Karjakin just played 17.-- Nf6! 18.Bxa8 Qxa8 19.e4 Rd8 20.Be3 Ng4 21.h3 Nxe3 22.fxe3 a5 23.bxa5 Qxa5 and there are no worries for him. It turned into an entertaining tactical slugfest after that and finally simplified into flat equality.

Topalov seemed to get a huge edge out of the opening against Svidler. He had the bishop pair and play against unstable, exposed black pieces. 

Here White missed a simple win with 32. Be2! Nxe5 33. Bxb5 ab5 34. Re1 and one of the  hanging black pieces will be picked up with an easily won endgame. Alternately 32. Be2 Rb3 33. Bxd3 Rxd3 34. Rc1 Bb7 35. Rc7 with a blistering attack.
Topalov was not in time-trouble, and he is a tactician par excellence,  So the explanation for the miss must lie in the domain of psychology.


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