In order to beat the monsters I had to become one myself!

by Sagar Shah
2/20/2017 – It was the first super tournament of his life. B. Adhiban started as the last seed at the Tata Steel Masters 2017. Not much was expected from him. But he shocked the chess world with a performance of 2812 and finishing third behind So and Carlsen! We go in touch with Adhiban and spoke to him about his tournament, mind set, expectations, and last but not the least, his crazy opening choices.

Photos by Alina L'Ami

Every year, the chess calendar begins with the super tournament in the small Dutch town of Wijk Aan Zee. The tournament has a rich tradition and the first event took place way back in 1938. It’s not without reason that they call it the Wimbledon of chess. The field of this tournament is always very strong, with Magnus Carlsen participating in the last nine out of the ten editions. The winner of the Challengers group in the previous year gets to play against the Masters in the next edition. This time it was the Indian grandmaster B. Adhiban who had won Tata Steel Challengers in 2016, and booked his seat in the Masters 2017.

The find of Tata Steel 2017 - GM Adhiban Baskaran

Adhiban started the tournament as the last seed. Facing world class players like Magnus Carlsen, Wesley So, Sergey Karjakin, Anish Giri etc. his main task was to put up a respectable show. No one expected him to finish at the top given his relative inexperience of playing at such high level tournaments. As expected, he started off quite poorly with two draws and two losses. When the first rest day came, he was reeling at 1.0/4. But then something magical happened. From the fifth round onwards Adhiban went on to beat World Championship challenger Sergey Karjakin, Polish number one Radoslaw Wojtaszek and Russian Dmitry Andreikin. He played an inspired game against World Champion Magnus Carlsen and was very close to finishing him off. The game finally ended in a draw. The tournament ended with an effortless win against Richard Rapport and Adhiban finished third!

Third behind Wesley So and Magnus Carlsen, Rating performance of 2812 and Elo gain of +29 – now that's a dream debut!

We caught up with Adhiban and spoke to him about his tournament, his seconds, expectations prior to the event, and various crazy opening decisions that he took in his games against world class Opponents!

Interview with B. Adhiban

Sagar Shah (SS): Adhiban, there were some issues that you faced heading up to the event in terms of finding seconds for preparation. Can you tell us more about it?

B. Adhiban (BA): I wanted to ask some friends for help but unfortunately there were lot of Indian opens, Gibraltar and Hastings. So most of them were caught up, but definitely their spirit was with me and hence, such a performance!

SS: You went to the Tata Steel Masters with your father and your second GM Vishnu Prasanna. What were their roles at the event?

Adhiban’s father Baskaran with his second for the event GM Vishnu Prasanna

BA: My dad had to make sure I wouldn’t fall sick (which happened last time) and Vishnu’s role was to make sure I wouldn’t lose in openings. Judging by my performance, I can say both of them performed their roles to perfection. Also all three of us were in high spirits during the entire event which helped me to give my best!

SS: You had many more seconds working for you in the background. Is it possible to reveal who were the ones helping you?

BA: Ah no, this is a long term game! So I have to keep it a secret. As of now I can tell three: My trainer Ubilava whose experience against facing the elite was instrumental and my Indian trainer/longtime coach Mr.Visweswaran because of whom I was well versed in classical games and good knowledge in endgame theory. We have been working from 2007. And bringing Vishnu along was a great decision! He was easy going (in spite of a shaky start) and changing himself to whatever the situation demanded!

Adhiban’s support team at the Tata Steel 2017 (from left to right): GM Vishnu Prasanna, GM Elizbar Ubilava and FM K. Visweswaran (Ubilava’s photo by David Llada, Vishnu’s photo by Sophie Triay)

SS: How happy are you with your 7.5/13 performance. What were your expectations when you started the event?

BA: Yes I am very happy with my performance, but at the same time a bit disappointed that I couldn’t convert the many advantages and chances I got. I wanted to make a debut to be proud of and to make my mark against the elite. I think I managed to fulfill both of these!

SS: Coming to the chess part. You drew your first game and were pitted against Harikrishna in round two. What is your assessment of the above position? You thought for nearly 23 minutes here before playing …c6. Why did you take so much time?

In this position Adhiban thought for 23 minutes before going 17...c6.

BA: It was really stupid of me to think for such a long time, but I had already reached the same position against Kuzubov in 2011, so I was trying to recollect that game and what I had played there. But judging by how my game turned out it was a bad decision.

SS: You come to a tournament – your first super tournament, with a clean slate. You would like to have a perfect event, maybe stay unbeaten. And then right in the second round you lose the game. How did you react to this loss?

In the second round Adhiban and Harikrishna faced off against each other. It was Hari who emerged victorious after a complicated queenless middlegame.

BA: Accidents are inevitable, either you become strong enough to avoid it altogether (like Wesley So) or find the courage to get back on your feet, no matter how many times you fall. Round two was a blow, but I lost because I ruthlessly played for a draw in a position where I was superior. I realized that with such an attitude, I deserved to lose the game and mentally changed myself after the fourth round. 

During the opening ceremony I was asked, “How do you plan to fight against such monsters?” I replied, “I guess I have to become a monster myself!” I decided to show everyone that I wasn’t kidding when I said that. The rest, as they say, was history!

SS: You played the London System against Levon in the third round. Was this something that you had prepared before or had you already started innovating?

BA: Aronian’s preparation was very solid and foolproof and we (me and my friend Vishnu) concluded that we had to catch him somewhere in the opening.The London was an inspired decision. Yes,you could say that it was the start of the innovations for the tournament!

SS: Many people were surprised that you didn’t take the pawn on b6 (in the position given below) and instead continued Bd2. Why didn’t you pick up the pawn?

Adhiban vs Pavel Eljanov, Round four

Instead of simply taking the pawn on b6, Adhiban played his bishop to d2 in this position against Eljanov

BA: Until the 4th round many of my decisions lacked the courage, killer punch and firepower. I just assumed that Black would have good compensation, which was not at all the case. It was wrong not to take the pawn and I allowed Eljanov more chances to equalize by playing Bd2 instead of cxb6.

SS: Two draws, two losses, and now a free day. What did you do on that day? You were not to be seen on the football field?

BA: I just made a mental list of my mistakes from the first four games and swore to myself that I won’t let those happen again. I mainly focused on what was coming next. Also I had the huge task for trying to find an interesting line against the World Championship Challenger Sergey Karjakin. So rest day passed very fast. I have never been a big fan of football due to its aggressive nature. I like to save my aggression for the chess board.

While many of the players, including Magnus Carlsen, played Football on the rest day, Adhiban tried to find an interesting opening for Sergey Karjakin 

SS: And now the Million dollar question! We know that you played the French for the first time in your life against Karjakin. But why exactly French, and not Caro Kann, or Alekhine or some other opening?

BA: I was totally running out of opening ideas and it was already around 6.30 p.m. (Yes, rest day does pass very fast compared to other days!) Suddenly I got this idea to play the French Defence from one of my friend and he also convinced me of its worth. I am eternally grateful to him since he just changed my tournament from a disaster into a cool debut!

[Event "79th Tata Steel Chess 2017-Masters"] [Site "Rotterdam"] [Date "2017.01.19"] [Round "5"] [White "Karjakin, Sergey"] [Black "Adhiban, Baskaran"] [Result "0-1"] [ECO "C11"] [WhiteElo "2785"] [BlackElo "2653"] [Annotator "Sagar Shah"] [PlyCount "62"] [EventDate "2017.??.??"] [EventType "tourn"] [EventCountry "NED"] [SourceTitle ""] [Source "ChessBase"] [TimeControl "40/6000+30:20/3000+30:900+30"] 1. e4 {0} e6 {6 This is the first time in his career that Adhiban has played the French Defence? What motivated him to play this with black? Your guess is as good as mine!} 2. d4 {0} d5 {1} 3. Nc3 {50} Nf6 {5} 4. e5 {5} Nfd7 {4} 5. f4 {5} c5 {5} 6. Nf3 {5} Nc6 {4} 7. Be3 {6} Be7 {9} 8. Qd2 {56} a6 {5} 9. a3 {394} O-O {21} 10. dxc5 {31} Nxc5 {4} 11. Qf2 {9 All of this has been played before and has been seen in top level encounters like Kramnik-Meier, Ragger-Bluebaum, Sethuraman-Korobov and Salem-Svane. The main moves for Black have been either b6 or Qa5. Adhiban unleashes a novelty.} Nd7 $5 $146 {4 The credit for finding this move was given by Adhiban to his coach, most likely K. Visweswaran.} 12. Nd4 {632 Karjakin thinks for 10 minutes and goes for the most critical line.} Nxd4 {7} 13. Bxd4 {4} f6 {4 Adhiban is still in his preparation. Facing Adhiban when he is well prepared ccan be an unnerving experience. He moves very quickly and can often unsettle you. But this is common for players at the level of Karjakin. They are used to this.} 14. exf6 {48} Bxf6 {3} 15. Bxf6 {308 } (15. O-O-O $5 b5 $13 (15... e5 16. Bc5 $1 $14)) 15... Qxf6 {2} 16. g3 {8} g5 $1 {5 The f4 pawn can no longer be held. That being said, no one would like to weaken his kingside with a move like g5 in an opposite side castling situation. } 17. O-O-O {242} gxf4 {4} 18. Kb1 {245 This move surprised Adhiban.} (18. Rd4 {should have been preferred by Karjakin.} f3 19. Rf4 Qh6 20. Qxf3 e5 (20... Rxf4 21. gxf4 $16) 21. Qg4+ Kh8 22. Qh4 {The only way not to lose a rook.} Qxh4 23. Rxh4 Nf6 24. Bg2 Be6 {Black looks fine with the strong central pawns, but after} 25. Re1 e4 26. Bh3 $14 {White should have a small edge.}) 18... f3 {488} 19. g4 {491} (19. Rd4 Qg7 20. Bh3 Nf6 21. Qxf3 e5 22. Rh4 Bxh3 23. Rxh3 Ne4 24. Qe2 Nxc3+ (24... Nf2 25. Rh4 $1 Nxh1 26. Rg4 $18) 25. bxc3 e4 $13) 19... Ne5 { 373} 20. g5 {67} Qg7 {508} 21. g6 {573 Karjakin plays with great energy. He realizes that he must open the position of the black king. He is a pawn down already, so he throws another pawn into the fire. Objectively it might not be a great idea, but as Adhiban says, practically it was quite a challenging one to face.} hxg6 $1 {424} (21... Nxg6 22. Bd3 {Followed by Rg1 and h4 should give White good attacking chances.}) 22. Bd3 $6 {786 Once again, not the most challenging move, as this bishop can be chopped off by the knight anytime.} ( 22. Rg1 Bd7 23. h4 Rf5 {Black maintains control.}) (22. h4 Bd7 23. Bh3 { This might be the most complicated way to play the position. But still Black has the advantage is beyond any doubt.}) 22... Bd7 {156 Once Adhiban made this move, he was happy because the bishop could always drop back to e8 and defend the g6 pawn.} 23. Rdg1 {56} Nxd3 {234} 24. cxd3 {16} Rf5 {19} 25. Rg4 {104} Raf8 {45} 26. Rhg1 {138} Be8 $19 {265 The bishop defends the g6 pawn and the rest is not too difficult.} 27. Nd1 {373} Rh5 $6 {1254} (27... Qf6 28. Ne3 Rf4 29. Rxf4 Qxf4 $19 {was easily winning.}) 28. h4 {309} Re5 {543} 29. Ne3 {458} Bb5 $1 {228} 30. Rd4 {170} (30. Kc2 Rc8+ 31. Kb3 Bxd3 32. Qxf3 Be4 $19) (30. Nc4 Bxc4 31. dxc4 Rf6 $19) 30... Re4 $5 {217} 31. Rxg6 $2 {423} Bxd3+ $1 { 20 This clear shot ends the game. Karjakin is known as a Master of Defence. The fact that Adhiban could beat him without any glitches makes it a highly commendable victory.} (31... Qxg6 {is also winning after} 32. dxe4 dxe4 $19) ( 31... Bxd3+ 32. Rxd3 Qxg6 $19) 0-1

The game which changed Adhiban’s entire tournament – his win against the World Championship Challenger Sergey Karjakin

SS: King’s Gambit against Wesley So! Who came up with this idea and how did you prepare for the game? After all there were no games of Wesley in this line. He could have played anything.

Adhiban managed to pose great problems to Wesley in the opening and had a clearly better position before settling for a draw

BA: The story behind my choosing the King’s Gambit is very funny. I have a friend from Sri Lanka on Facebook. His name is Dineth. One fine day he asked me about the King’s Gambit. I didn’t want to reply to him without checking any games in the opening. So I found out some interesting games and asked him to see those in order to prepare that opening. When I was up against Wesley So and my trainer suggested me to play the King’s Gambit, I immediately knew in my heart that it was the right decision and that it was going to be an epic game! Dineth probably couldn’t probably believe his own eyes when I played his favourite opening!

Dineth Naotunna - the man who inspired Adhiban's choice of King's Gambit against Wesley So!

SS: The game against Radoslaw Wojtaszek looked really complex and topsy turvy. How would you describe it? How did the Polish number one collapse when he had quite a lot of time after 40 moves and also a winning position?

BA: I was so inspired during that game that I was more or less on auto-pilot. I was playing well until a point and once he slipped, I got a decisive advantage, but it was my turn to go wrong before the time control. After it I had the unenviable task of defending a worse position with a pawn down, but I kept thinking that I could somehow turn this around again and couldn’t believe it when he played Ra1 allowing me the manouevre Qa7-e3, after which I was more or less out of danger. Even after that he had many chances to draw but I guess it was my lucky day.

[Event "79th Tata Steel Chess 2017-Masters"] [Site "Wijk aan Zee"] [Date "2017.01.21"] [Round "7"] [White "Wojtaszek, Radoslaw"] [Black "Adhiban, Baskaran"] [Result "0-1"] [ECO "A40"] [WhiteElo "2750"] [BlackElo "2653"] [Annotator "Sagar Shah"] [PlyCount "132"] [EventDate "2017.??.??"] [EventType "tourn"] [EventCountry "NED"] [SourceTitle ""] [Source "ChessBase"] [TimeControl "40/6000+30:20/3000+30:900+30"] 1. d4 {0} e6 {30} 2. c4 {0} b6 {4 The English Defence. Once again Adhiban chooses a system which is not theoretically popular.} 3. Nc3 {159} Bb4 { 5 Now this has a flavour of the Nimzo Indian + the Queen's Indian.} 4. Qc2 {119 } Bb7 {30} 5. a3 {7} Bxc3+ {20} 6. Qxc3 {6} f5 {127 And now we have some sort of a Dutch!} 7. Nh3 {184 Wojtaszek develops his knight on h3 so that he can keep the e4 square under control with the move f3.} Nf6 {40} 8. f3 {13} O-O {75 } 9. e3 {14} Nh5 {59} 10. Be2 {285} Qh4+ {16} 11. Nf2 {30 Overall White has a very harmonious position with the centre, and the bishop pair. But Black's play is easy. He just develops d6-Nbd7 and breaks in the centre with e5.} d6 { 14} 12. b3 {261} Nd7 {109} 13. Bb2 {358} e5 {20} 14. d5 {87} f4 {1192 Adhiban decides that it is best to close down the position against White's bishops.} 15. e4 {80} a5 {688} 16. g3 {1246} Qe7 {8} (16... fxg3 17. hxg3 Qg5 18. f4 Qxg3 19. Rxh5 Qg1+ 20. Kd2 (20. Bf1 Rxf4 $19) 20... Qxf2 21. Rf1 $13) 17. g4 {5} Nhf6 {2} 18. Qc2 {77} c6 $1 {95 The white king doesn't really have a safe spot to go to and hence Adhiban opens up the position in the center.} 19. dxc6 {284} Bxc6 {62} 20. b4 {11} axb4 {126} 21. axb4 {154} Rxa1+ {21} 22. Bxa1 {5} Ra8 { 109 Black pieces are activated without any issues.} 23. Bb2 {8} Nf8 $1 { 87 The knight is making its way from e6 to d4.} 24. Qd2 {671} Ne6 {81} 25. O-O {159} h5 {80} 26. Rd1 {13} Ra2 {1003} 27. b5 $6 {924} (27. Qxd6 Qxd6 28. Rxd6 Rxb2 29. Rxe6 Bd7 $1 30. Rd6 Rxe2 31. g5 Nh7 32. Rxd7 Nxg5 $11 {When the position is around even.}) 27... Bd7 {704} 28. c5 {704 This was Wojtaszek's plan. To get the bishop to c4.} Nd4 $1 {175} 29. c6 {93} (29. Bc4+ d5 $1 30. exd5 Nxf3+ $19) 29... Be6 {7 True the pawn on c6 is strong. It is even protected. But the knight on f6 is going to come around to c7 and blockade the pawn. The other knight will also jump in and the b5 pawn would become quite weak. Although at first look this seems like better for White, it is in fact the other way around.} 30. g5 {89} Ne8 {78} 31. h4 {125} Nc7 {16} 32. Kg2 {135} Bb3 {517} (32... d5 $5) (32... Ncxb5 $2 33. Bxb5 Nxb5 34. Qb4 Nd4 35. Bxd4 $16) (32... Qe8 $1 33. Bd3 Ncxb5 34. Bxb5 Nxb5 $17) 33. Rc1 {139} Nxe2 {20} 34. Qxe2 {7} Ba4 {362 Black goes after the b5 pawn, but now the d6 is also equally weak and Black loses control.} 35. Qc4+ {130} Qf7 {19} 36. Qb4 {20 White is already pretty fine, because the d6 pawn is falling.} Bxb5 {303} 37. Nd1 $1 {62 The bishop on b2 is defended and the d6 pawn is attacked.} Kh7 {754} (37... Qe6 38. Nc3 $16) 38. Qxd6 $18 {43 In a matter of few moves the position has turned into a clearly better one for White.} Be2 {54} 39. Qxe5 $1 {128} Ra5 {32} 40. Qd6 {0} (40. Qd4 $1 Ne6 41. Qxb6 $18 Rb5 42. Qf2 Bxd1 43. Rxd1 $18) 40... Ra2 { 48 Forty moves have been made. Now White is clearly winning and also has a lot of time in hand.} 41. Qb4 {683} (41. Qd7 $1 {Not an easy combination to see.} Qxd7 42. cxd7 Ne6 43. g6+ $3 {The only move to win.} Kh6 (43... Kxg6 44. Rc6 $18) (43... Kg8 44. Rc8+ $18) 44. Rc2 $1 Bxd1 45. Bxg7+ $18) (41. Rc2 {is the simpler way to win.} Bxd1 42. Qxd1 Qb3 43. Qc1 Ne6 44. Rd2 $18) 41... b5 {788} 42. Nf2 {372} Ne6 {350} 43. Ra1 $2 {1101 According to Adhiban he couldn't believe that Wojtaszek played this and allowed Qa7-e3.} Rxa1 {108} 44. Bxa1 { 34 White is still better, but nowhere close to what he was four moves ago.} Qa7 {235} 45. Qd2 {228} Qe3 $1 {217} 46. Qxe3 {5} fxe3 {2} 47. Be5 $6 {196} (47. Nh3 b4 {Maybe Wojtaszek was afraid of this position, but it should be a draw.}) 47... b4 {269} 48. c7 {95} exf2 {80} 49. Kxf2 {5} Ba6 {9 Black has won a piece but White has two pawns in return and very strong structure. The game should be objectively drawn.} 50. Ke3 {69} g6 {574} 51. Kd2 {75} (51. f4 b3 52. Kd2 Bc8 53. Kc3 Nc5 54. Bd4 Nxe4+ 55. Kxb3 $19 {This is als losing as the knight will pick up the h4 pawn and the pawn will queen.}) 51... Kg8 {83} 52. Kc2 {17} Bc8 {403} 53. Kb3 {129} Nc5+ {0} 54. Kc4 {5} (54. Kxb4 Nd3+ $19) 54... Na6 {9} 55. Bd6 {291} Be6+ {71} 56. Kd4 {4} (56. Kb5 b3 $19) 56... Kf7 {41} 57. f4 {39} b3 {53} 58. Kc3 {37} Ke8 {5} 59. c8=Q+ {196} (59. f5 gxf5 60. exf5 Bxf5 61. Kxb3 {would have given better drawing chances.} Kd7 62. c8=Q+ Kxc8 63. Kc4 Kd7 64. Kd5 $11) 59... Bxc8 {3} 60. Kxb3 {0} Kd7 {99} 61. Ba3 {10} Bb7 {15} 62. f5 {6} (62. e5 Nc7 $19) 62... Bxe4 {6} 63. f6 {73} Bd5+ {130} 64. Kc3 {67} Nc7 {97 } 65. Kd3 {107} Ke6 {51} 66. Bc1 {29} Nb5 {48 Black has complete control on the light squares and Wojtaszek saw no reason to continue the fight.} 0-1

Part II of this interview will follow shortly with Adhiban's views on his wins against Andreikin and Richard Rapport, why he thinks Giri could be the next Petrosian and on his missed winning opportunity against the World Champion Magnus Carlsen. Stay tuned.

Firstpost and ChessBase India have collaborated to bring you extensive and detailed coverage of the chess scene in India and internationally. This article was first published on the Firstpost website on 18th February 2017.

Sagar Shah is an International Master from India with two GM norms. He is also a chartered accountant and would like to become the first CA+GM of India. He loves to cover chess tournaments, as that helps him understand and improve at the game he loves so much. He is the co-founder of the ChessBase India website.
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The_Tenant The_Tenant 2/20/2017 05:37
Gotta keep an eye on this guy Baskaran. Looks like he's moving up in world. Good on him!
benedictralph benedictralph 2/20/2017 06:26
The next Anand, possibly.
KOTLD KOTLD 2/20/2017 08:41
Brilliant. I'm so happy for the guy.
kprabha kprabha 2/20/2017 04:07
I loved his Scandinavian against Carlson . But I felt that he would have done better with Qxd5 and Qd6 ; which is a Tiviakov line !!!
Carlsen would have been shocked !!
madrasvinod madrasvinod 2/20/2017 06:35
Adhiban looks very promising! Seems like India has found a replacement for Anand!! To top it, he plays aggressive and exciting chess!!!
joshuar joshuar 2/27/2017 09:04
Adhiban is my new favorite player. Great energy and courage.