Candidates come out swinging

by Macauley Peterson
3/11/2018 – An unusual start to the Candidates tournament in many respects. Three winners, three losers, and several players troubled by their first-round experience in the "Kuehlhaus" Berlin. The good news is, the first round games were great, amid many teething problems. Fans and professionals alike are eagerly awaiting round two to see how the situation develops. | Photo: Frederic Friedel

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Three decisive games to start

Sometimes the start of a tournament can be a bit dry, with players proceeding cautiously, trying to settle their nerves and find their footing in a new location. Not so today. All the games were fighting with players posing problems for each other from the opening. Speaking of posing problems, the venue choice is turning out to be a tad too avant-garde even for the chess glitterati. All around, there were signs that, for all practical purposes, the event was still a few days away from being ready for primetime. For an ironically optimistic spin on it, look no further than Garry Kasparov's view from afar:

Indeed, three decisive games to start the tournament is noteworthy. Both of the last two Candidates (Khanty-Mansiysk 2014 and Moscow 2016) started with three out of four games drawn — in both cases a win from Anand.

Caruana 1-0 So

Here in Berlin, it was Fabiano Caruana who scored the first full point, in a game in which he was never worse. Caruana flew to Germany a week early and spent his first five days in the country staying at Rustam Kasimdzhanov's house in a small village northeast of Bonn, the former West-German capital where Anand confirmed his classical World Championship ten years ago in a match against Kramnik. There, Caruana could get over jet-lag, and get in some last minute training before the pair travelled to Berlin by train on Thursday, the day before the opening ceremony.

Caruana was one of the few players who did not seem bothered by the noise in the playing hall, an almost-inevitable consequence of the multi-level interior surrounded by steel beams and exposed concrete. Every door opening reverberates, every cough echoes. But Fabiano remained focused.

At the post-game press conference, he said, "I know there are levels of people looking down, but I didn't really notice. I wasn't distracted." He added that he has worked with some other players to prepare before the tournament, aside from Kasimdzhanov, but will refrain from mentioning them, for now.

Wesley So

A "God's-eye-view" from the balcony | Photo: Frederic Friedel

So was exceptionally diplomatic, referring to the playing hall only as "quite different", while focusing on the positive side of the noise problem — the fact that there are a healthy number of live spectators there to make noise in the first place.

So arrived in Berlin directly, but a week in advance, and said that jet-lag was not an issue. "It's clear it's going to be a tough tournament, we have some of the best players in the world here and it's hard to predict what will happen...Unfortunately, I always seem to get bad positions against Fabi."

 

Afterwards, Caruana joined the English webcast with GM Yannick Pelletier and Judit Polgar, and once again pointed out a few key moments from his first-round win. For some reason, he was greeted with a comic-book style graphic proclaiming "we have a winner" which elicited a broad if somewhat sheepish smile. 

Caruana webcast

Caruana off to a good start, but celebration would be premature | Webcast frame via WorldChess.com

"I can't say I have any expectations. It's a really good start, but it's still the first round, and I think we see in every candidates tournament that there are a lot of ups and downs for pretty much all players. But, it's still a great start."

Kramnik 1-0 Grischuk

One of the big questions coming into the tournament was how Grischuk would manage to handle his clock. If the first round is any indication, he could be in for a rough time. Grischuk was in time trouble leading up to move 40...a4, which left him in the second time control facing very difficult prospects. On the other hand, as Judit Polgar noted, "Kramnik played a brilliant game".

 

Kramnik vs Grischuk

Kramnik won the all-Russian duel | Photo: Frederic Friedel

It's worth noting that the all-American and all-Russian pairings in the first round are no accident. This is common nowadays for the Candidates to avoid even the suggestion of collusion among players from the same country, which could conceivably arise later in the tournament.

After the game, Grischuk was characteristically blunt: "I think the playing conditions are absolutely terrible. Now that I've lost, it will sound like an excuse, but believe me, it's not — I mean there is not even water in the toilet — but it has nothing to do with my loss."

Now, as veteran chess fans since the World Championship match in Elista 2006 know, if there's any word you don't want associated with the sport in a game involving Kramnik, it's the T-word.

Kramnik also noticed the noise problem and says he had raised the concern yesterday at the players meeting. "Everybody is in equal condition and I understand we need spectators, but something must be done".

Karjakin 0-1 Mamedyarov

Winning with black against as solid an opponent as Karjakin is a dream start for Mamedyarov, who is joined in Berlin by his wife Narmin. He had to do quite a lot of work with his queen but eventually brought home the full point, with a crucial breakthrough 50...g5! But queen endings are difficult — see for yourself:

 

Karjakin vs Mamedyarov

Karjakin was clearly annoyed with himself in the post-game press conference, and when things are not going well, everything else around that is not to one's taste is made that much worse. When it was his turn to answer how he felt about the playing conditions, he pulled no punches.

"Well, actually I don't like almost anything about the organisation of the tournament. I don't like the hotel, I don't like the venue and also it was a few times very noisy during the game. I don't want to say that I lost because of all these things, but basically, I don't like anything."

Mamedyarov singled out a stunning blunder that was mainly hidden from view, telling the press and spectators that at a certain moment in his game, the monitors usually reserved for showing the live positions of the boards in the playing hall, instead displayed the live commentary webcast from Polgar and Pelletier. Fortunately, at the time, he said, only the commentators were shown — no chess positions — at which point he immediately informed the arbiter. So they may have dodged a bullet there, in a situation that could otherwise have caused a huge scandal, albeit an accidental one.

Pelletier and Polgar

Pelletier and Polgar were a fine team, but unfortunately reached just a tiny audience in the hundreds throughout much of the day | Photo: Frederic Friedel

If the commentary was possible to find in the playing all when unwanted, it was sadly difficult to locate on the official website WorldChess.com. The video was sandwiched at the top of the page worldchess.com/berlin which was not clearly linked from the home page, although they have now added a prominent "watch broadcast" link, so that will improve.

The live games are still an issue, with a re-designed custom game viewer still undergoing development, and not enough time to implement a backup plan, viewers were forced to look elsewhere (such as live.chessbase.com) for the games, which by request of World Chess are delayed by five minutes. There was no way to watch the moves of the first round in real-time if you were not physically in Berlin.

Levon Aronian ½-½ Ding Liren

"Even the draw was tense and lively", was Pelletier's verdict near the end of day one. Judit was surprised by how sharp and tactical the games were for a first round, but her sister kibitzing from Reykjavik was surprised by Aronian's decision to allow a draw at all.

In the early opening, it looked like Levon Aronian came prepared for a fight, and the Armenian had his Chinese opponent quite tangled up. But Ding Liren bravely offered up a piece for a few pawns, after which Aronian pulled the emergency brake, satisfied with a draw:

 

Levon Aronian und Ding Liren watched by IA Klaus Deventer, vice-president of the German Chess Federation | Photo: Andre Schulz

Had the game continued, we may well have seen four decisive games, which would have made everyone (save the loser) happy.

I caught up with Ding as he was retrieving his coat from the cloakroom at the exit and asked him how his nerves were as he sat down for the first game of his first Candidates tournament. After all, by drawing Aronian with black he has already survived an important test as the first ever Chinese player to reach this far in a World Championship cycle.

"The tournament is different but I tried to think of it as a normal tournament because otherwise, it will make me very stressed out and uncomfortable."

And did he succeed?

"Maybe", he said.

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Macauley served as the Editor in Chief of ChessBase News from July 2017 to March 2020. He is the producer of The Full English Breakfast chess podcast, and was an Associate Producer of the 2016 feature documentary, Magnus.