Tournament report

A (Relatively) Quiet Day at the Berlin Candidates Tournament

Top players are so well-prepared in the computer age, and so adept at defense, it is very hard to beat them. In addition, some elite players in top tournaments follow risk-adverse strategies, preferring not to lose rather than take chances in an effort to win. That has not been the case at the Candidates tournament currently underway in Berlin.

Through the first seven rounds, 40 percent of the games were decisive, often because the players pressed on long after they might have agreed to a draw in another tournament. The reason is clear: The winner of the tournament will receive 95,000 euros, but, more importantly, he will earn the right to play Magnus Carlsen, the reigning world champion, in a title match in London this November.

As Wesley So of the United States, one of the participants, observed at the start of the competition: Second place really doesn’t matter. There was only one decisive result on Monday in Round 8, but it was not for lack of effort. Only one game – between Shakhriyar Mamedyarov of Azerbaijan and Sergey Karjakin of Russia – did not reach at least the first-time control (40 moves), and the players only agreed to a draw in that game because the position was completely balanced and symmetrical. In the longest game of the day, Alexander Grischuk of Russia beat Vladimir Kramnik, a compatriot and former world champion, after Kramnik made a seemingly innocuous move that allowed Grischuk to manufacture two passed pawns on either side of the board. The victory moved Grischuk into sole possession of third place, one point behind the leader, Fabiano Caruana of the United States, and a half point behind Mamedyarov. The tournament 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 format is a double round-robin, with the eight players facing all the other competitors twice, once with each color. 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. Monday, the ceremonial first move was made by Elisabeth Paehtz, Germany’s top female player. Grischuk had White against Kramnik, who employed the sharp Tarrasch Defense in the Queen’s Gambit Declined. Kramnik’s choice, which is a bit unusual at the top level, may have been inspired by the tournament’s location, as the opening is named for Siegbert Tarrasch, a great German player of the early 20th century. After 16 moves, Kramnik was down a pawn, but the activity of his pieces and his compact pawn structure gave him roughly equal chances. Grischuk was able to hang on to his extra booty with careful maneuvers, but the game seemed to be heading for a draw until Kramnik made a normal-looking move, 76 … Bf4+, that move forced Grischuk’s king closer to his king-side pawns.

That made all the difference as Grischuk was able to force an exchange of his knight for one of Kramnik’s bishops, leaving both players with dark-squared bishops, but with Grischuk having two outside passed pawns. Kramnik could stop one, but not both, and soon had to resign. With the loss, Kramnik, who was leading the tournament only a few rounds earlier, has dropped into a tie for fifth with Karjakin, two points behind Caruana. Caruana’s game against So was a long, hard battle, though that is not the way it started. Indeed, Caruana, who was Black, chose the Petroff (or Russian) Defense, for the second time in the tournament. Normally that is a prelude to a quick, bloodless draw. But just as the first time in which he used the defense (against Kramnik, whom he beat), the game turned out to be anything but short and boring. Caruana fell behind in his development, but in the Petroff, unlike in so many other openings, that is not automatically fatal. So tried, perhaps too hard, to do something with his initiative, but failed. As Caruana began to uncoil his pieces, he was actually able to seize the initiative. So then gambled, dropping one of his knights deep behind enemy lines, with no way out. Though he was able to win a pawn, his knight was soon in dire straits. Only an exchange sacrifice allowed So to extricate his knight. Fortunately for him, So also won a second pawn, giving him roughly material equality. From there he was able to systematically force exchanges of pawns, until Caruana’s last pawn was off the board. At that point, So only had a knight against Caruana’s rook, but that is a draw with best defense.

Rather than test So’s technique, Caruana traded off the last pieces, content to preserve his lead for another day. So remains tied for last, with three points. The player who shares So’s unhappy position for the moment is Levon Aronian of Armenia. Monday, he faced Ding Liren of China, with the Black pieces. Ding chose the Catalan opening and Aronian seemed well on his way to achieving equality. But perhaps anxious to shake things up, Aronian gambled, sacrificing a pawn for activity for his pieces. An unusual position arose in which both kings were unable to castle and it was unclear whose king was potentially in more danger. Eventually, Ding was able to force an exchange of queens, but at the price of ruining his pawn structure. He sacrificed that extra pawn in order to activate his rook, but it only led to equality. After repeating moves, the players agreed to a draw. Ding is alone in fourth place, with four points. He is still the only player with neither a win nor a loss in the competition. The game between Mamedyarov, who had White, and Karjakin, had some interesting moments early on. But after a series of exchanges in the early middlegame, the symmetrical nature of the position left neither player with much to play for and they agreed to a draw. Round 9 is Tuesday at 3 PM, local Berlin time.

The tournament can be watched live at, the official site of the World Championship.

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