Round 5 of the Candidates tournament in Berlin brought a spate of draws – the first time since the tournament began that there were no decisive results. But that was only because one player, Levon Aronian of Armenia, overlooked a relatively simple win. The standings remain unchanged from Round 4, with Fabiano Caruana of the United States leading with 3.5 points, followed by Vladimir Kramnik of Russia and Shakhriyar Mamedyarov of Azerbaijan, who each have three points.
Aronian is another half point back, tied with Alexander Grischuk of Russia, his opponent in Round 5, and Ding Liren of China. Bringing up the rear in the eight-man tournament are Sergey Karjakin of Russia and Wesley So of the United States, who each have 1.5 points. The Candidates is being organized by World Chess, the commercial partner of the World Chess Federation (FIDE), the game’s governing body.
The prize fund is 420,000 euros. The winner will receive 95,000 euros, but, more importantly, he will earn the right to play Magnus Carlsen, the world champion, for the title in the Championship Match in London this November. The tournament is a double round-robin, with each player facing all the other competitors twice, once with each color. There will be a total of 14 rounds. The venue for the tournament is Kühlhaus (or “cool house” in English), an industrial building in central Berlin that was built in the early 20th century as a cold-storage facility for fresh produce. Among the principal sponsors of the tournament are PhosAgro, a giant Russian fertilizer company; Kaspersky Lab, a global cybersecurity firm; E.G. Capital Advisors, an investment management company; S.T. Dupont, a global luxury goods maker; Prytek, a venture capital firm; and Isklar, a Norwegian mineral water company. The most interesting game of the day was clearly the one between Aronian and Grischuk. Both are dynamic, uncompromising players who are unafraid to mix it up. Grischuk, who was Black, played the Benoni Defense, which is rare among elite players, particularly in such an important tournament, because it allows White to seize the center and to control a lot of space. The position quickly became complex, with neither player willing or able to castle. Grischuk began to have difficulties after he played 16… gh4. As the players discussed afterward, it would have been wiser of him to try to undermine Aronian’s center with 16… g4. Aronian soon capitalized with the thrusts 19 e5, followed by 20 d6. After 21 Nb5, Grischuk was forced to give up an exchange, but his pieces retained dynamic potential and the situation was far from clear. Aronian found a way to break through, however, and with only seconds on Grischuk’s clock (he is almost always in time pressure), he blundered with 27… Kg8. (He should have played 27… Qe7.) Aronian now had a clear path to victory. He found the first move (28 Rd6), but then, inexplicably, missed the correct follow-up by not playing 29 Qc8, instead opting for 29 Qd8.
What Aronian overlooked was that after 29… Kh7 30 Qc5 Ne4, he could have played the devastating 31 Rg4! Then after 31… Nc5 32 Rh4 Kg8 33 Rd8 Bf8 34 Rh8 Kh8 35 Bc5, Aronian would have been winning easily. Aronian’s error let Grischuk regroup. After the queens were exchanged, Grischuk’s pieces sprung to life and it was Aronian who had to be careful. He eventually proposed a draw, and with many unclear possible continuations, Grischuk chose to accept. Such a lost opportunity could come back to haunt Aronian later. Indeed, though he is one of the most successful players of the last decade, he has never managed to win the Candidates, always coming up short by making mistakes at critical moments. The other games were more pacific.
Caruana drew quickly with Karjakin, in a game that barely lasted more than an hour. The players blitzed out their moves and exchanged most of their pieces so that by move 31, there were only bishops-of-opposite colors on the board and symmetrical pawn structures. They agreed to a draw. The game between Ding, who had White, and Mamedyarov also went 31 moves. Though there was still plenty of material left on the board when they agreed to a draw, neither player had any obvious weaknesses that could be attacked, so they decided to conserve their energy for another day. The last game to finish was between So and Kramnik. The players could easily have agreed to a draw earlier as the position was never unbalanced, but Kramnik, who suffered a terrible loss to Caruana the day before, chose to keep pressing, though there was little or no hope that he could obtain an advantage. Eventually, after five hours, he accepted the inevitable and agreed to a draw. Round 6 is at 3 PM, local Berlin time.
The tournament can be watched live at www.worldchess.com, the official site of the World Championship.