26 March 2018

Come on, Vlad - Sacrifice the Exchange!

Round ten of the Candidates Tournament in Berlin. Report by Vladimir Barsky

– What a boring game does Kramnik have today!  – exclaimed Wesley So, looking at the monitor before the start of his press conference.  – Not a single rook has been sacrificed yet!

The American grandmaster drew an uneventful game with Ding Liren within two hours and was eager to see the action. Meanwhile, Nigel Short’s appeals resounded across Internet:  Come on, Vlad - sacrifice the exchange! It’s a lot better than some of your other sacs and it does not matter any more. Well, the most creative participant of the Candidates tournament did not fail to meet public’s expectations, although initially he intended to play a quiet game that day.  “I’m tired of this sharp game, of these sacrifices,” admitted Vladimir.

In a symmetrical position, arisen from the Giuoco Piano with a modest 4.Nc3, White could hope for a minimum edge only.  It is not for nothing that this opening has long been known as "the quietest game."  However, Levon Aronian, having an underwhelming tournament, began to slowly add fuel to the heat of his opponent’s ambitions.  Black started by voluntarily opening the f-file in front of his king, as if challenging his opponent: “Checkmate me, if you can!”, followed by the subsequent deployment of the queen on the queenside to promote a pawn offensive.  Well, Kramnik accepted the challenge, and very soon the board was a big mess: a black pawn made it as far as d2, and White did sacrifice the exchange and his knight galloped into the opponent’s camp, delivering direct fire at the enemy king from close range.  This crazy game has definitely kept everyone watching it on toes!  On the other hand, today all broadcast viewers are armed with computer evaluations, and the electronic mind always showed zeros or a value close to it.  It stood to show only that the grandmasters were delivering an almost unmistakable performance in this complex game, the attack and defense balancing each other out. 

But, as it often happens between human players, time stepped into the matter and on the move 36 Black blundered a spectacular mating combination involving the queen sacrifice, thanks to which Vladimir Kramnik forcibly checkmated the opponent’s king.  The ex-world champion has broken a spell of failures, becoming a real hero of the evening with a mass of journalists and autograph collectors lined up to meet him.

The journalists have many questions to ask of Vladimir Kramnik

Benefitting from Vladimir’s good mood, the journalists challenged him with some not very delicate questions:

– Have you pondered the reasons behind your failures during the rest day?

Vladimir Borisovich did not bat an eyelid:

– There is more than one:  a combination of circumstances, occasional bad luck, and wrongly chosen strategy.  However, I will give it a thought after the tournament, whereas now it is a good idea to try finish it on a positive note.

– How did you manage to keep up your motivation?

– We are professionals, above all.  A motivation is always to play a good game.  Spectators watch us, and with the field being so strong, each game is an interesting challenge. For me, at least, this is quite a motivation already.

– You meet Caruana in round 11, the previous encounter with whom has launched a series of your failures.  How fundamental is it to try take revenge?

– I am Black, so I do not think about it.  Let things take care of themselves.  If he wants to have a quiet draw, he is then unlikely to win, and if he plays sharply for the win, then I might have some chances.  Let us wait and see!

Your correspondent asked Kramnik how high he raised stakes in his game against Aronian:

– Did White burn all bridges, or has there always been a certain margin of safety?

– I do not know as the position was so sharp!  I seem to have been playing fundamentally and logically: Nh4, Rxf6 looks consistent to me.  I understood that it was not without risk, of course.  I need to have a serious look into this game with my computer.

– Has it been a justified risk?

– I thought so, but the computer’s point of view may differ.  I did not see how Black could get the edge and believed to have had a dangerous attack.  However, the position is very concrete and I need to check lines.

– Could White have opted for a calmer play?

– Yes, he could.  Nevertheless, he provoked me into sacrificing the exchange, while I believed it to be very dangerous for Black.  In general, I started quietly, but not because I wanted to make a draw. And when an opportunity turns up, you try to hook on to it.

Kramnik – Aronian

The Black’s queenside offensive is on the fast track, but White does not intend to hunker down into defensive stance.

21. Ref1 cxb4

Kramnik shared that much time calculating the consequences of 21... axb4 22. axb4 c4!? 23. dxc4. Now bad is 23... Nxe4 24. c5 dxc5 in view of 25. Bxf7+ Kh8 26. Bxe8! Nxc3 27. Rf8+ Kh7 28. bxc5 Qa6 29. Bg6+, and White wins, but after 23…bxc4 24. Bxc4 Rec8 the position remains double-edged.

22. Qe1!

A start of fireworks.

22…d5 23. axb4 dxe4

23... a4 is underwhelming in view of 24. Rxf6 gxf6 25. Bxd5.

24. bxa5 Rxa5 25. Ng6!


The grandmasters believed this move to be the only one, but the engine also keeps Black’s position together after 25... exd3 26. Rxf6 gxf6 27. Qg3 Ra7! For example: 28. Ne7+ Kf8 29. Nd5 Qc6 30. Nxf6 dxc2… The storm is raging, but the screen displays “0.00”.

26. Nxe5 exd3 27. Rxf6 gxf6 28. Rxf6 d2 29. Qg3+ Kf8

30. Rf1!

This is the strongest move. After 30. Nd7+ Ke7 31. Nxb6 White wins after a straightforward 31... d1Q+? 32. Rf1 Qd2 33. Qc7+ Kf8 34. Rxf7+, but much stronger is 31…Ra1+! 32. Kh2 Rh1+! 33. Kxh1 d1Q+ 34. Kh2 Kxf6 – White’s attack is over, while Black is up an exchange.

30... Ra7!

Kramnik admitted that he had missed this rejoinder in his advanced calculations, believing Black to be defenseless already.

31. Ng6+ Kg7 32. Nf4+ Kh8 33. Nh5 f6

A sequence of only moves goes on. 33...Rg8 fails to 34. Qe5+ f6 35. Qxf6+ Kh7 36. Bxe6.

34. Nxf6


Possible now was 34... Rd8, intending 35. Qf4 Bf5! (Aronian was aware of this continuation) 36. Qxf5 d1Q, maintaining balance.

35. Qf4 Rh7 36. Qe5


A sapper’s lot is clear: he only gets to make one mistake...  Black needed to find 36... Rg7!, and after 37. Bxe6 Rg5 the game could have ended in a nice draw by perpetual: 38. Nh5+ Rxe5 39. Rxf8+ Kh7 40. Rf7+ Kh8 (losing are both 40... Kg8 41. Nf6+ Kh8 42. Rh7#, and 40... Kg6 41. Rg7+ Kxh5 42. Bf7+ Qg6 - 42... Kh4 43. Rg4# - 43. Bxg6+ Kg5 44. Bh7+ Kf6 45. Rd7 Re7 46. Rxd2 Rxh7 47. Rd5, ending up with two extra pawns) 41. Rf8+ Kh7 42. Rf7+, etc.

37. Ne8+! Black resigns in view of an inevitable checkmate in a couple of moves.


Shakhriyar Mamedyarov – Fabiano Caruana

The tournament leader Fabiano Caruana was Black against his closest pursuer Shakhriyar Mamedyarov.  The opponents opened into a very sharp line of the Catalan and seem to have had long home lines to retrieve from their memory.  It resulted in almost all sharpness quickly fizzling out from the position, giving way to a complex endgame in which the active play of black pieces made up for the missing pawn.  The opponents were very careful in avoiding unnecessary risk: the initiative was with Mamedyarov, but Caruana was defending precisely, creating counter threats to the white king.  The intrigue was gone shortly after the first time control, but the grandmasters took another 15 moves to reduce the board to lone kings. A draw was agreed on move 58. 


Alexander Grischuk, Anastasiya Karlovich and Sergey Karjakin

Without much trouble, Sergey Karjakin made a draw as Black with his compatriot Alexander Grischuk, and this is what he has shared with your correspondent:

– I was lucky to be familiar with the ins and outs of the opening position seen in the game (it was part of my home prep via a different order of moves).  I knew that Black should be fine after 11...a5 12.Nbd2 Nxd2 13.Nxd2 .  While not remembering all lines, of course, finding the move 13...Bf6 was a piece of cake.  Then we both played precisely.  I essayed at one point to play for an advantage, but did not see anything deserving serious consideration.  In lieu of 16...Bf6 16...Be5 may be a bit more accurate, but it should be equal anyway.

If I wanted to trade everything and make a quick draw, an excellent opportunity to do so was on move 19 via an immediate posting up of the bishop on a long diagonal.  It’s not that I was playing for the win at the moment, but I thought that if anyone ran any risks in the endgame arising after 20.Bc3 it was White alone.  Was Black to knock the opponent’s knight out of b3 and plant his own on c5, his initiative would have been quite substantial already.  It was not to be, however, and the draw was only a natural outcome of the game.

Grischuk – Karjakin

1. d4 Nf6 2. c4 e6 3. g3 Bb4+ 4. Bd2 Be7 5. Bg2 d5 6. Nf3 0-0 7. 0-0 Nbd7 8. Qc2 c6 9. Rc1 b6 10. a4 Ne4 11. Be1 a5

12. Nbd2 Nxd2 13. Nxd2 Bf6 14. cxd5 cxd5 15. e4 Bxd4 16. Nb3 Bf6 17. exd5 exd5 18. Bxd5 Ra7 19. Bg2

19… h6 20. Bc3 Rc7 21. Bxf6 Rxc2 22. Bxd8 Rxc1+ 23. Rxc1 Rxd8 24. Rd1 Kf8 25. f4 Ke7 26. Re1+ Kf8 27. Rd1 Ke7 28. Re1+ Kf8 Draw. 


Wesley So

Finally, in the game Ding Liren-So, which we started out report with, the opponents opened into a well-studied line of the queen’s gambit.  Black carried out a well-known pawn sacrifice, which allowed him to be several tempi ahead in development and leave the opponent’s king uncastled. The Chinese grandmaster was prudent in giving back the pawn, initiating a series of trades which nearly equalized the position.  White still had some minimum winning chances, perhaps, but Ding Liren reasoned that the game was not worth the candle, and finally simplified the position. A draw was agreed on move 31.

The tournament standings after round 10:

1. F. Caruana - 6.5 out of 10; 2. S. Mamedyarov – 6; 3. A. Grischuk – 5.5; 4-5. S. Karjakin, Ding Liren – 5; 6. V. Kramnik – 4.5; 7. W. So - 4, 8. L. Aronian – 3.5.

Round 11 is scheduled on Friday, March 23, and features the following pairings: Caruana - Kramnik, So - Mamedyarov, Ding Liren - Grischuk, Aronian - Karjakin. 

Pictures by Anastasiya Karlovich and Vladimir Barsky