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Luck Of The Draw Results In A Win For Caruana Over Kramnik
World numbers two and three smiling before the round. | Photo: Chess.com/Maria Emelianova

Luck Of The Draw Results In A Win For Caruana Over Kramnik

On an island where the largest employer is a poker company, an element of pure chance helped shape the opening round of the 2017 Chess.com Isle of Man International.

On the eve of round one, the top eight players gathered on the stage of the Villa Marina playing hall to randomly select their first opponent out of a blue raffle tumbler. The idea made the event a true "open" -- anyone could play anyone, without exception, to begin the event (the computer would randomize the remaining field, with a regular Swiss to follow beginning in round two).

First GM Magnus Carlsen blindly selected what turned out to be a harmless 2100-rated Icelandic opponent, then GM Vladimir Kramnik picked next. He placed his hand in the tumbler and pulled out a folded strip of paper. The second seed smiled while opening it and read the name: GM Fabiano Caruana, the man who had been slated to pick next. 

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GM Vladimir Kramnik drew GM Fabiano Caruana's name at around 6:30 p.m. Friday, but by 6:30 p.m. Saturday, the humor had ended. | Photo: Maria Emelianova/Chess.com

Instead Caruana was necessarily not needed to select a name himself. Kramnik had not only picked the highest-rated player remaining of the 160 or so in the tombola, he had also set the stage for a supremely important match for qualification to the 2018 Candidates' Tournament. With only three of the eight spots officially known, both Kramnik and Caruana were in a virtual dead-heat along with GM Wesley So. The three men are jousting for only two rating spots, as you can see from Martin Bennedik's exhaustive but unofficial calculations.

Caruana said that while Kramnik will play more rated chess after Isle of Man, this is the American's last tournament that will count toward the rating qualification race (which averages the January-December 2017 FIDE ratings lists).

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A view of the playing hall, with IM Anna Rudolf standing out in yellow. She lost today in what she called a "free lesson" by GM Rustam Kasimdzhanov, but she will be livestreaming most days after her game ends on Chess.com's Twitter and her personal Facebook channel. | Photo: Maria Emelianova/Chess.com

Due to the secondary implications of the head-to-head match, the system of choosing opponents was called into question by some. However there can be no doubt it made the game, and the opening round, much more exciting than normal. In a spirited defense of the novelty of the idea, IM Greg Shahade blogged about the many reasons he supports measures like this (the remaining top seeds more or less selected opponents either in line with or lower than normal Swiss pairings would have offered). Readers will surely add their thoughts on the idea in the comments below.

For those thinking they'd both play it cautiously, the players dispelled that notion in the opening. Caruana castled opposite Kramnik and the race to attack began in earnest.

"I still wanted to play a game," Caruana said. "I'm White and it's the first round...The Carlsbad offers a lot of chances for both sides," he said. (When Kramnik read his name yesterday, Caruana smiled and seemed unflappable, but after the game today, he admitted, "It's difficult to adjust...You kind of expect a slightly easier start.")


When asked by Chess.com if he thought about the battle for the Candidates' qualification, Caruana said, "It's in my head. It's hard to separate the rating race. I didn't play that well this year, so I made it pretty hard for myself." Caruana narrowly took second to GM Sergey Karjakin in the last Candidates' Tournament.

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Caruana chatted with Kramnik for several minutes after the game, which represented about a 10-point swing in the ratings. | Photo: Maria Emelianova/Chess.com

Interviewed on the live show, he noted that beating Kramnik doesn't give him that much of a tournament advantage since there's no tiebreaks (for the first time there is a playoff this year, and actually there are tiebreaks if more than two tie, to decide who gets into the playoff). "It obviously introduces a luck factor," Caruana said of the pre-tournament pairings drawing. "Playing a top player in the first round is not ideal. Even if you win, there's not much of a benefit...besides the fact that with my win it is immensely satisfying."

Caruana's game got him some much-needed rating points, but also took six hours of energy out of him. In contrast, the world champion only needed about 90 minutes to dispatch his opponent.

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GM Magnus Carlsen said during the drawing of names that Iceland is not part of Scandinavia, although it is often included in more expansive definitions of the region. No matter, the Norwegian ruled on this day. | Photo: Maria Emelianova/Chess.com

Carlsen was the second player to finish. According to Tarjei Svensen's research, it was his countryman's lowest-rated opponent in more than a decade.


Since the island is best known for motorbike racing, you may wonder who beat Carlsen to the finish line? That would be GM Jeffrey Xiong, who showed that Isle of Man is a place for the TT, not the Grand Prix.


No matter what you think of the pairings system for the Isle of Man event, recall that earlier this year a pairings incident blew this one out of the water in terms of newsworthiness. GM Hou Yifan threw her final game in Gibraltar after incorrectly asserting that some error had caused her to play too many women.

Changing locations from that British Overseas Territory to this British Crown Dependency, Hou may be wondering if she's living in the chess version of "Groundhog Day." Her opening round Swiss-paired opponent was GM Alexandra Kosteniuk (update: round two pairings have Hou playing, you guessed it, another woman -- IM Elisabeth Paehtz!).

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As Bill Murray might say, "Well, what if there is no tomorrow? There wasn't one today." GM Hou Yifan (left) played yet another woman in an open, this time GM Alexandra Kosteniuk. | Photo: Maria Emelianova/Chess.com

Two former women's world champions thus clashed in round one, playing even longer than the six hours of Caruana-Kramnik. The game lasted so long that the seagulls could be heard late in the day above the roof of the playing hall. There are no ornithologists on this web site's payroll, so perhaps one of our readers can inform why they get more feisty at sunset.


Speaking of seagulls, the "Way of the Seagull," translated as the "Road ny Foillan" in the Manx language, encircles the island. The 95-mile coastal footpath was completed nearly in its entirety by British Women's Champion IM Jovanka Houska just prior to the event. After hiking 80 miles in six days, she regrouped today to begin with a win.

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IM Jovanka Houska (left) hiking with her husband to the farthest northern point of the island, despite gale-force winds...

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...only to complete her circular trip back in the capital and face more storms on the chess board.

Carlsen may have been inspired; he inquired about how to get atop Snaefell, the island's highest peak. The name translates to "Snow Falls" in old Norwegian, the former conquerors of the island. It seems that like Houska, he wants to conquer the land and the chessboard, too.

One of the other "interesting" tombola pairings (though certainly not too far out of line with "natural" pairings) was GM Viswanathan Anand's selection of IM Marc Esserman. The two have a brief history -- Esserman played his favorite Smith-Morra Gambit to draw Anand at Gibraltar, 2016.

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If some of the top women were repeating "Groundhog Day" then GM Emil Sutovsky against 11-year-old FM Christoper Yoo was "Twins." | Photo: Maria Emelianova/Chess.com

Anand told Chess.com that he briefly considered playing it back at Esserman as White today, but that thought only lasted about five seconds. Instead more common Sicilian themes still produced a win for the Indian.

For some variations and explanations on his thinking, see the interview with Anand below.


Another favorite getting the job done today was GM Hikaru Nakamura. He kept things balanced for 95 percent of the afternoon, but as it so often the case, he complicated matters just when his opponent had no time to work through the complications.

Why not wait to play ...d5 until you have 30 minutes and your opponent has only one? Funny, Nakamura was thinking the same thing.


For those on upset watch, various players came through. Several draws were turned in by 300+ point underdogs, but how about the 668-pojnt spread that separated this split point!? Again, the Smith-Morra precipitated the surprising result.

The only thing that will eat at the 69-year-old playing White? He missed several wins right at the end, which would have turned Harari into a Ferrari, if just for one day.

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Hold your head high Zaki Harari. You just drew a man who nearly won the event last year, who is also 41 years your junior. GM Maxim Rodshtein looks genuinely happy for his opponent, or maybe that's for his close escape? | Photo: Maria Emelianova/Chess.com


If your definition of an upset requires a full point to be scored, then exhibit "A" would actually be "A.A." -- "Alina l'Ami." It's only a pity that the fantastic photographer couldn't take any pictures of herself as she built up this ferocious attack. Luckily, Chess.com's Maria Emelianova sensed the upset and grabbed a few shots.

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IM Alina l'Ami is married to a Dutch GM, but today she beat another one -- GM Ivan Sokolov. | Photo: Maria Emelianova/Chess.com

The Chess.com Isle of Man International is an elite nine-round open tournament from September 23-October 1. The time control is 40/100, 20/50, SD/15 with a 30-second increment from move one. The total prize fund is £133,000 with a £50,000 first prize (~$65,000 USD). All rounds will be at 1:30 p.m. local time (GMT+1) except the final round, which will be at 12 p.m. All of the action can be found live at Chess.com/TV with commentators GM Simon Williams and WIM Fiona Steil-Antoni.

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