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Aronian, So, Kramnik Win; Take Early London Lead

Aronian, So, Kramnik Win; Take Early London Lead

Last year's inaugural Grand Chess Tour ended with a late-night playoff in London after the final round. This year, the opening day may end up being the decider.

The concluding London Chess Classic, the fourth and final leg of the tour's second edition, opened with the only two tour hopefuls remaining squaring off. GM Hikaru Nakamura, who needs nothing short of clear first place, took White against GM Wesley So, who needs only a top-three finish to clinch a tour victory.

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Games from TWIC.

Unlike the world champion, Nakamura did not play well on his birthday. He turned 29 today, but he only lasted 29 moves against So. The culprit, an opening blunder, left fellow players to wonder what exactly had happened.

Shortly after GM Hikaru Nakamura's gaffe, he struggled to find the best way out while GM Wesley So sat comfortably. (Screenshot from official broadcast.)

In addition to Grand Chess Tour's now heavy-favorite So, also winning today was GM Levon Aronian, who benefited from an equally mysterious misstep by GM Mickey Adams. Finally, GM Vladimir Kramnik's better knowledge of the opening led to a comfortable win against longtime rival GM Veselin Topalov.

An exciting opening is what the chess world craved: that's more classical wins in one day than in all three weeks of the world championship.

All photos courtesy Lennart Ootes for the London Chess Classic.

So's win was a triple play of sorts. Not only did he take the shared lead in the London tournament, he also greatly reduced the chances of a Nakamura comeback in the tour. Finally, the win propelled him to within one point in the live ratings of the once-mythical 2800 mark. He would be the 12th person in history to eclipse that barrier.

Oh, and he did it all without using up one of his Whites.

"I haven't won as Black against such a strong player for a long time," So said, adding that he had no idea his Olympiad teammate was celebrating a birthday.

So gets White tomorrow against the last-seeded Adams. That's as juicy of a spot as you can be in when trying to break 2800.

About Nakamura's 13th move, So said he spent a lot of time trying to uncover how best to respond.

"He played it relatively quickly," So said. "I thought it was part of his preparation, but obviously Black is just fine after the queen exchange ... I didn't know how much better I really was. I just knew I didn't have any problems."

So also beat Nakamura at their last classical encounter, as part of his victory in the 2016 Sinquefield Cup. The win also evens their lifetime record at 2-2 in decisive games.

In 2015, also at the Sinquefield Cup, Nakamura questioned So's preparation after their game. Today's winner said that he guessed Nakamura fell victim to the same error he had made back then—mixing up a prepared sequence.

"It can happen to anyone," So said. "It happened to me in our King's Indian game last year ... I also mix up the move order all the time. That's one of the chess player's main worries."

Kramnik was also asked about this phenomenon. Like So, he said it's more like phenomena. "All the time with me," was his answer when asked about the frequency of the mistake.

For Adams, by his own admission, he made several tactical oversights today. But like Nakamura, it was one singular move that did all the self-inflicted damage. One small king error left too many pieces loose, and Aronian found an elementary tactic.

GM Mickey Adams spoiled a decent position at the end today.

Indeed there was not one but two possible ways to produce a double attack, making Adams's error that much more inexplicable.

"Obviously my opening was quite pleasant, but I just played really horribly," Adams said. "Clearly at the end I didn't really need to lose, but I was just missing Qc7 [or] Qf6. Every queen fork I basically allowed."

Aronian said he is a notoriously slow starter, comparing the malady to GM Mikhail Tal's career. 

"I didn't really deserve to win," he said with a smile. "The most dangerous round is finished."

Kramnik, who missed the Sinquefield Cup with back issues, said he is playing in his strongest tournament of the year. He could not explain why GM Veselin Topalov played an opening that the Bulgarian seemed to not know intimately.

"It's really strange that he played this line without much knowledge," Kramnik said.

Even for non-chess fans, it's easy in Kramnik-Topalov to pick out who "Big Vlad" is.

Looks can be deceiving, despite the exact symmetry after move seven, Topalov's 8...c3 started down a path that Kramnik greatly preferred for White. The win was straightforward from there. Kramnik powered his superior rooks into the creation of a passed pawn, and 10 moves later, it sat on c7.

Black's queen became a statue in defense of any possible promotion. At the end, Kramik's forces were a model of perfect placement. Topalov lasted one move less than Nakamura as he didn't want to see 29.Nxe6 tactics on the board. As is customary between the two, neither player offered his hand before or after the game.

GM Fabiano Caruana drew GM Viswanathan Anand despite the latter's self-described "senior moment." The elder statesman of the tournament forgot that after 28...Ra8 he had relaxed the pressure on e4.

"For a minute I went mad," Anand said about allowing 29.d4. Something about that number 29 kept coming up insidiously today, but the Indian kept his cool before regrouping and finding adequate resources for his knights against bishops.

GM Maxime Vachier-Lagrave expected a double king-pawn opening against GM Anish Giri until this morning when he checked the database.

"I saw that his last 10 games with Black were the Najdorf so that was a surprise," Vachier-Lagrave said. "It's never so easy to play against your Black openings."

Today Giri went for number 11. He didn't just want to pay well, he wanted to wrest a moniker away from the Frenchman.

"Maxime is the big Najdorf guy, so I thought, 'OK, let's try to steal that title from him,'" Giri said. He allowed that since he didn't win, Vachier-Lagrave could keep the privilege.

Afterward both players cited the same uncertainty: If after a possible Bxe5 dxe5, would White's resulting d-pawn ever able to get farther than d7? Neither knew, so they called it a day.

London Chess Classic | Round 1 Standings

Place Player Rtng Fed Score 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10
1 So, Wesley 2794 1 1
2 Aronian, Levon 2785 1 1
3 Kramnik, Vladimir 2809 1 1
4 Caruana, Fabiano 2823 0.5 ½
5 Anand, Viswanathan 2779 0.5 ½
6 Vachier-Lagrave, Maxime 2804 0.5 ½
7 Giri, Anish 2771 0.5 ½
8 Nakamura, Hikaru 2779 0 0
9 Topalov, Veselin 2760 0 0
10 Adams, Michael 2748 0 0

Image courtesy Spectrum Studios.

In the British Knockout Championship, four players advanced to the semifinals. GMs Gawain Jones, David Howell, Luke McShane, and Nigel Short (together with Adams, that's England's 2016 Olympiad team). In the opening round of the semifinals, Jones drew Howell while McShane drew Short.

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