London Chess Classic
Happy New Year to all!
I was in London, England for the London Chess Classic, Dec. 1-10. This will go down in history as the event where Magnus Carlsen became the highest rated player of all time at 2861 FIDE, eclipsing Garry Kasparov's previous mark of 2851. What an achievement! As a chess fan it was pretty amazing to attend this tournament and see Magnus and company up close and personal (I had never been to a "super tournament" before). There aren't a lot of tournaments in the US where you can expect to bump in to an elite player while walking out of the bathroom :).
One memory I'll definitely have for awhile is witnessing the analysis session between Kramnik and Carlsen following their round three draw. My God, these guys are good! Kramnik was a lot more animated in analysis than I expected, and he fired off variation upon variation with unfailing accuracy for 30+ minutes. Carlsen was more content to sit back and listen to his opponent's commentary, though when he did chime in it was usually to correct a rare Kramnik mis-evaluation or offer some other profound insight. Both men have always struck me as human calculators, but observing it first-hand was something else. By the way, all of the coverage and analysis can be seen here.
Aside from getting to act like a giddy chess fan, my other major reason for attending was to play the FIDE Open that was held alongside the main event.
Ready to rock. All hail the Scandinavian Defense!
Round 1: I began with a lackluster draw against a much lower-rated player. He played quite solidly with White, though I didn't exactly make it tough on him by adopting an Exchange Slav-type position with 5...cxd4 6.cxd4 Nc6 7.e3 d5. Pieces were exchanged and I prodded for awhile, but upon realizing that I could easily become worse after 33.Qh5 I sensibly decided to accept his draw offer. Score = .5/1
Round 2: With my "Swiss gambit" in effect, I struck back in the second round. I noticed in the database that my opponent was a die-hard Scandinavian Defense player, so - being that this is one of my favorite openings - I decided to put him to the test with 1.e4. He used a lot of time in the opening and chose a dubious continuation (17...e5?!; 17...c5 is theory) after which Black was decidedly worse. A couple innacuracies followed, and his position totally collapsed. Score = 1.5/2
Round 3: Paired down again, and working out of another symmetric middlegame, just like round one. This time I managed to create a few more imbalances (21...a5!?), and my opponent reacted hesitantly. We simplified to a Q+N vs. Q+N position and then a knight endgame where White's numerous pawn weaknesses led to his downfall. Score = 2.5/3
Round 4: Norway's FM Brede Kvisvik surprised me by playing the Grunfeld, an opening he had never previously played before according to my database. I chose the formerly trendy variation 5.Bd2!? (the idea is to recapture with the bishop when Black plays ...Nxc3) and was looking forward to trench warfare with 14.g3 (intending to hide the bishop on g2 then push f2-f4 and e4-e5). Then Black played a shocker, 14...e5?, a simply terrible move. I suspect he just miscalculated, as the game quickly opened up and I won a pawn. Pretty smooth sailing from there. Score = 3.5/4
Round 5: Chess.com on Chess.com violence against IM Thomas Rendle! Nah, this was really a pretty bloodless draw. While subtle, these Giuoco Pianissimo have a tendency to peter out to strict equality if Black plays accurately. Thomas pushed for awhile in the Q+R+N vs. Q+R+N semi-ending, but with only one open file it's difficult for either side to do much. Score = 4/5
Round 6: A win in the Anti-Slav against Japan's top player, FM Shinya Kojima. The gambit continuation 8.b3!? isn't too common, but I had analyzed it a few months back in my column at ChessPublishing.com. White has good compensation, and when my opponent played 18...Kf7?! I felt his position starting to crack. Later on, Black's only chance to hold later on was 26...cxd5 27.c6 Qc7 28.exd5 a5, hoping to blockade White's "c" and "d" pawns and obtain counterplay with his own queenside passers. Kojima is on the fast track to the IM title (I believe he scored a norm immediately after London!) and is looking to become Japan's first Grandmaster. Good luck to him! Score = 5/6
Round 7: My most interesting game of the tournament came against GM Jonathan Rowson, author of the acclaimed work The Seven Deadly Chess Sins. This was a highly theoretical Queen's Gambit Declined that took an interesting turn when Jonathan produced 13.Kd2!? (novelty) after 20 minutes thought. I was a bit worse in the middlegame/endgame but ended up holding nicely when I found the resource 48...Kc8 49.Kd4 Nxg4! 50.Nxg4 Bd7. White cannot press because 51.Ke5 Bxe6 52.Kxe6 c3 53.Ne3 g4 actually wins for Black!. I greatly enjoyed the post-mortem with my esteemed opponent. Score = 5.5/7
Round 8: A crucial board two matchup in the penultimate round. The affable GM Mark Hebden is a long-time King's Indian player, and I enjoy playing against this opening, so a war was inevitable! Unfortunately, my ChessBase program crashed about two hours before the round (brilliant timing, right?), so I had to make do with what I knew. As it turned out, we both sidestepped the other's preparation: Mark had expected a Samisch Variation (he told me he prepped several hours for it), whereas I had planned on the Classical Variation with 7...Nc6 but not 7...Nbd7. A complicated battle unfolded where I was constantly behind on the clock. He made a piece sacrifice that was perhaps unsound (19...Bxg4) but worked well with my dwindling time. I couldn't figure things out as we neared time control and he drew level on the material count, and then I totally collapsed in the endgame (48.Kxc3? and especially 53.Kd2??; 53.Rf2! could hold a draw because 53...Rxe2?? 54.Rxe2 is check!). Gutted. Score = 5.5/8
Round 9: Final round. A win would be unlikely to net me a prize, but I still wanted to play like it would. My opponent also needed to beat me to make an IM norm. I tried to surprise him a bit with the Sicilian Kan, but he blitzed out the opening pretty fast (though I don't think 9.Na4 is too promising for White). I made a thematic pawn sacrifice with 16...b3!? which proved to be unpleasant for him. He lost his bearings and played the awful 20.f5?, which is way too optimistic. I then got a big attack against his king and even was able to put my queen en prise (26...Qa5!?). He missed the only defense (the unexpected 27.Qh7+!), and it was all over. Final score = 6.5/9
Thus, I finished on 6.5/9 for a 2470 performance. I gained eight FIDE points to bring me up to 2435, which was nice after my disastrous showing at the SPICE Cup Open in October. Full standings here.
This blog is running long, so I'll leave you with a few pics from London.
The London Chess Classic had many side events and sections for players of all ages/skill levels
Analysis by GM David Howell
With GM Stuart Conquest, organizer of the Gibraltar Chess Festival
With an extremely tall and intimidating Russian: the former World Champ, GM Vladimir Kramnik! He told me the secret to the Berlin Defense, but promised to have me killed should I ever reveal it.
GM John Nunn