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7 December 2017

Quality and Emotion

Superfinals, round 4. Misha Savinov reports from St. Petersburg

December is a depressing month in St. Petersburg. Statistically the Northern capital of Russia experiences two sunny days per week, but in December life becomes significantly darker. I personally try not to leave brightly lit rooms – the sky is always gray, and the streets are usually covered with a mixture of dirty snow and sand (widely used against sleet). So each time I have to go through this mess, I want to be rewarded. (Chocolate is not an option, sadly.) And today at the Superfinal I was rewarded splendidly. In four games of the day the players went to war, setting up unbalanced positions, sacrificing pawns and pieces, not to mention pawn structures or weak squares. The most exciting round of the championship quickly erased memories of snowfall turning into a dirt.

I am not sure if everyone will share my opinion, as the 4th round had in fact the fewest number of decisive games so far, and this is all what most people care about. Yet the positions after the opening were so fresh and full of life that I recalled the famous quote by Dr. Tarrasch – no, not about the knight on the rim: “ Chess, like love, like music, has the power to make men happy.” My happiness was unlikely shared by the players, who had to work hard, keep their heads straight, and cut the emotion. However, chess fans of either kind, completely dedicated or sporadic, would surely enjoy the uncompromising battles of different sorts that were going on on four boards out of six.

Round 4, men

Riazantsev-Dubov ½-½, Matlakov-Fedoseev 0-1, Inarkiev-Svidler ½-½, Tomshevsky-Vitiugov ½-½, Sjugirov-Malakhov 1-0, Romanov-Volkov ½-½. 

Current standings:

Fedoseev – 4, Dubov – 3.5, Vitiugov – 2.5, Inarkiev, Sjugirov, and Svidler – 2, Riazantsev, Matlakov, Tomashevsky, and Malakhov – 1.5, Volkov, and Romanov – 1.


Alexander Riazantsev vs. Daniil Dubov

This game did not offer that much drama. In a sideline of the Gruenfeld Defense, Daniil Dubov employed a new move – 9...b5. The idea is quite standard, it just has never been played in that particular position. And maybe for a good reason? Alexander Riazantsev reacted in a rather unpretentious way, quickly completing the development at a cost of a tempo, and Black drew comfortably, annihilating almost all pieces and pawns before move 30. Yet, Dubov was not fully convinced about his invention after the game:

“In my database, the analysis stops after Whtie's 9th move with the following conclusion: Black equalizes with anything. So I started to think if 9...b7-b5 matches this criterion and then just decided to try it out. It worked, however, over the course of my career I lost many games when I wanted to experiment, but was the only player experimenting, while the opponent just demonstrated depth of his home analysis. Next time I should dig a little deeper at home and not play the fourth best move in the position when there are three normal ways of equalizing. It is not a good habit.”


Maxim Matlakov vs. Vladimir Fedoseev

A conflict spread early in this important game: in the Slav Defense White sacrificed the c4-pawn and developed a strong initiative. Black's position looked very suspicious. Even computers were giving White a big edge despite Black's extra pawn.

“Yes, to me Black's opening choice seems questionable”, said grandmaster Miroshnichenko during the first coffee break. “However, Vladimir is well known for his optimism. I will not at all be surprised if he currently thinks he simply has an extra pawn.”

This was more of a joke, of course. After the game the killer of the Superfinal cursed himself for terrible opening play. “How come I did not have anything against 8.Na4 in my base? There are only 8.Nb1 and 8.Nd1, and for those I was prepared quite well. But 8.Na4 is the most logical of all three options!”

According to Vladimir, Black's strategy was rather simple – he had to exclude all the moves that were losing by force, and then play the remaining move no matter how weird or ugly it looked. This worked for a while and even allowed Black to complete the development, although White retained a threatening position and regained a pawn.

Then, all of a sudden, Maxim Matlakov made a logical looking move, activating/trading his sidelined knight. A more or less forced sequence followed – Black traded two pairs of minor pieces, then traded the queens, and suddenly his remaining pieces began to work at maximum efficiency! The tables have turned. It reminded of a typical Gruenfeld endgame – White's centralized passed pawn was going nowhere, while Black's connected passed pawns on a- and b-files proved to be the deciding factor.

The unperturbed Fedoseev extended his winning streak to four in a row, but looked more concerned than happy:

“I was quite skeptical about White's opening approach in general – after all, if White could really obtain this much by sacrificing the c4-pawn, the Slav Defense would have been refuted long ago. However, Maxim's position after the opening was almost winning. There is definitely some mystery here”, elaborated the new sole leader of the Superfinal.

But a win is a win. Alexander Khalifman is there to repair the opening database, and for everything else there is optimism and precise calculation.


Ernesto Inarkiev vs. Peter Svidler

This was probably the sharpest Four Knights' Defense I have ever seen in my life. Peter Svidler started with developing the king's bishop to d6, right in front of his d7-pawn, and continued with a novelty – 8...Na5. In principle, Black should not be able to violate the opening principles so bluntly, therefore Inarkiev opted for exploding the center. Black's position started to look like a house of cards that is about to fall. The only hope to hold it together was by using some tactical tricks, and the tricks followed indeed. For the second game in a row Svidler sacrificed his light-squared bishop, forcing the opponent to continue with the queen stuck somewhere in the Black's camp. This sacrifice could have been only temporary, a step towards an inferior ending, but the St. Peterburger clearly detested the idea, and it was his call. So after a re-e-e-ally long thinking he castled, making the sacrifice permanent. Now Black needed to come up with concrete play against the enemy king just to survive.

The position was full of options, and no wonder that both players ended up in a serious time trouble. Perhaps the overall quality of decisions suffered a little, but not as much as one could expect. And when Inarkiev spent more than half of his shrinking remaining time to find the most accurate 25.Kxd2!, Black's situation began to look grim. His kingside pawns were rolling towards the promotion squares, but they were not fast enough and lacked proper support.

However, one common feature of players of Svidler's caliber is that they are extremely hard to beat. In desperate situations they use every hidden resource of the position to confuse, intimidate, scare the opponent. Even though luck was not on Svidler's side...

“See, the time control has passed at the right time for Inarkiev!” exclaimed Sergey Shipov. “His most important decision in this endgame could not be taken in 30 seconds, but now Ernesto has 30 minutes to find the winning 41.Rc1! Not an easy move by any means...”

“Not an easy move at all!”, shook his head Evgeny Alekseev, former Russian champion, who visited the Superfinal for the first time and occasionally consulted with an engine in his phone.

...even though luck was not on Svidler's side, his effort was rewarded.

“I think a draw is the most likely result in a game between humans”, said Fedoseev, who was ready to leave but glued to the screen, captivated by tension and drama of this battle.

Inarkiev spent almost all his remaining time, but did not find the path to a victory after 41.Rc1, although his gut told him the move was winning. Finally he went for 41.Bf2, which also wasn't the end of the world – White retained practical chances, but his time! With just a minute on the clock, finding the narrow path between Black's threats was impossible. Svidler did not waste a chance when he got one, and the game ended in a perpetual on the 49th move.

Oh, what a battle!

From talking to the players it became clear that neither of them liked the game. And that's understandable – they want quality, not those childish emotions. But for quality there is Alpha Zero...


Evgeny Tomashevsky vs. Nikita Vitiugov 

The game was short and bloodless. A 3.Bb5+ is the Sicilian is not so critical, especially after White spends another tempo on pushing his e-pawn to trade it next move. A move repetition on the move 18 sealed the deal. 

“We tried to trick each other in the opening – I surprised him with 1.e4, Nikita surprised me with the Sicilian... I think his surprise was a little bit more successful than mine”, explained Evgeny Tomashevsky. “His 8...Rc8 was quite accurate, too.”

“What had to happen in this game to make it a fight?”, I asked. 

“1.d4”, answered Evgeny immediately. “Or even 3.d4.”

As a partial explanation he added that his wife arrived today, and he looks forward to spend time together. Besides, he was planning to see a League of Champions match between Liverpool FC and Spartak Moscow. Jumping ahead, the football probably did not bring Evgeny much joy: Liverpool was in a less peaceful mood and went on to win 7-0 – the biggest loss in Spartak's history in the continental competitions.


Sanan Sjugirov vs. Vladimir Malakhov

Vladimir Malakhov outprepared his younger opponent and had an advantage for most of the middlegame, which was developing very slowly, with subtle maneuvering and well thought-out structural transformations. But then...

“It reminded me my game from yesterday”, said Sjugirov. “I had a promising position, but a couple of inaccuracies ruined it so badly that I had to resign in a few moves.”

According to Sanan, Black's first inaccuracy was trading the knight for White's restricted dark-squared bishop on the 34th move. This took away Black's advantage, but the game was even. The fatal damage was done of the 39th move, when Vladimir overlooked the deadly 40.Bd3! reply – the bishop attacked the g6-pawn and covered an invasion square at the same time, allowing his queen to grab on a5 freely; an unusual type of a fork! A free pawn led to an easy and quick victory.


Evgeny Romanov vs. Sergey Volkov

The battle on the last board, so to speak, saw an early advantage passing to Volkov, who traded the right pieces and forced the opponent to defend. This time, however, Romanov was up to the task, not cracking at any point and patiently protecting his weaknesses. The game continued until the completely drawn queen ending arose – and then some.


Round 4, women 

Girya-Bodnaruk 1-0, Goryachkina-Galliamova ½-½, Kovalevskaya-Guseva ½-½, Ovod-Gritsayeva ½-½, Pogonina-Kashlinskaya ½-½, Shuvalova-Gunina ½-½. 

Current standings:

Kashlinskaya – 3, Pogonina, Goryachkina, Girya, and Gunina – 2.5, Shuvalova, Galliamova, and Guseva – 2, Bodnaruk, and Ovod – 1.5, Kovalevskaya, and Gritsayeva – 1.

The leader of the championship made a steady effort to hold the balance against the dangerous Pogonina, and once again the chasers were unable to catch up. Gunina, playing Black against the 16-year-old Shuvalova, was dead lost in the endgame, but Shuvalova could not deliver the final blow. The Oscar predictably goes to Olga Girya and Anastasia Bodnaruk – they finally helped me discover the position, in which the classical ICC bullet try h2-h4-h5 (Nxh5) Rxh5 is not a bad, dubious, or interesting, but is simply a winning move! A violent attack by White swept Black's entire kingside, and Anastasia resigned reluctantly under the threat of mate in one.

Photos by Eteri Kublashvili

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