Caruana takes sole lead in Champions Showdown

by Venkatachalam Saravanan
9/4/2019 – The Champions Showdown 9LX continued on the same lines as the first day, with Garry Kasparov and Hikaru Nakamura suffering more heartbreaks and continuing to trail their opponents with scores of 3:9 and 4:8 respectively. Peter Svidler and Wessley So gained further ground on their opponents. IM VENKATACHALAM SARAVAN reports all action from the venue. Photo: Lennart Ootes / Saint Louis Chess Club

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Svidler and So post identical score

Tuesday saw more episodes of extreme time pressure, missed opportunities and volatile emotions for both Kasparov and Nakamura against Fabiano Caruana and Levon Aronian respectively. Wesley So and Peter Svidler continue dominating their matches and lead with identical 8½:3½ margins. One of So's game was even dubbed as 'immortal' by Yasser Seirawan.

The day started with the draw of lots picking up position number 690, and we got to witness a peculiar situation when it was loaded with the engine.

Position 690, already considered as better for white!

The engines already considered it as an advantage of around 0.20 for white. Isn't this the kind of edge professional chess players work for days to get on the board with white?!

Critically looking, this was much better aesthetically than the position from the first day. First of all, the kingside is almost intact, with identical piece placings as regular chess. Wesley So accurately summed up how other pieces looked,

The only bad piece is the knight on e1 (or e8). But other than that, today's pieces were much more understandable. Ba1 (Ba8) is already fianchettoed... I liked the position today.

Whether such liking or otherwise, Caruana revealed a chilling detail later on. From the starting position, this is how his second rapid game of the day went: 1.c4 b5!? 2.cxb5 a6!?


'Almost like a tribute to Pal Benko', opined Cristian Chirila. The shocker was that Caruana felt black already had a good position! As they say in the USA, when life gives you a rook on b8, this is how you make a lemonade out of it!

Later on, Caruana revealed that the idea was found by Aronian in the one hour of time they both analysing the position prior to the game. Heaping praise on Aronian's 'great feel for the opening', and that 'analysing with him is a lot of fun', he threw a bombshell when he revealed, “We had this idea of ...b5 and ...a6 in the morning (!), the reason why we thought that 1.c4 was not the optimal move for white”!!

Let's halt for a moment here. Do you really hear what I am hearing!? The world's second highest rated player says he and Aronian discussed the opening position for just an hour and came out with an original gambit idea, on the basis of which he pronounces the first move of the game as not 'optimal'. We can only heave and say 'You can take preparation away from a chess player, but you cannot take a chess player away from preparation!'

Aronian and Caruana discussing 'optimal' lines prior to the start of the matches | Photo: Austin Fuller / Saint Louis Chess Club

Once such initial escapades had ended, Caruana played with precision, which came for high praise from Kasparov.


6...g6! Black wants to develop the dark bishop on h6, exploiting the white queen's cramped placing at c1 7.c2?! h6 8.d2 and it was obvious that something has gone drastically wrong for White, apart from the deficit of the pawn. White's pieces are a clumsy lot in the opening itself, and Caruana went on to score a convincing victory.

Looking at the position after 8.♘d2, one couldn't help thinking that opening stages of chess 9LX seemed to be broadly about Spassky's quote on Korchnoi,“He develops his pieces initially on the wrong squares, and uses the next 20 moves to correct them!”

But Kasparov showed a glimpse of his class in the very next blitz game.


19.xa7? There was no need for this pawn grabbing 19...b7 20.a4 f2 Invasion. 21.f1 bf8

Remarkably, even in blitz Kasparov correctly judges that the f-file holds the key to developing the initiative here 22.d3 c5 and black pieces dominate the board. The winning blow came with.


25...c8! The white queen is trapped 26.b4 xe6 27.bxc5 exd3 and Kasparov won a piece and the game eventually.

However, his Waterloo turned out to be the fourth blitz game. 


Kasparov held the better position throughout, and came close to a winning advantage at many points. Right here, he can gain a plus with 36.♖xa1 fxg4 37. ♔g3 and White's knights will ensure that Black can't use the open files efficiently.

But with both the players having under 20 seconds in the clock, Kasparov blundered horribly with 36.g5?? xe6 37.dxe6 e5 and Black went on to win the game.

“I can fight all opponents, but not age. Time is the most powerful opponent — none of us can beat (it). But I am actually quite happy with what I did today”, was how Kasparov summed up his play at the end of the day.

Garry Kasparov, fighting 'the unforgiving minute' | Photo: Lennart Ootes / Saint Louis Chess Club

Caruana too was full of praise for the thirteenth world champion:

“It's clear that Garry is lacking some practice. You can tell that he is a great player even after so many years of having retired...But it still tells, especially in time management. He is trying to find the right moves...not trying to play Coffeehouse chess. When you are not in great shape, this leads to large expenditure of time”

Caruana leads the match 9:3.

Another player who is having a torrid time is Hikaru Nakamura, who achieved so many good positions but spoiled many of them. With the previous day's score at a disastrous ½:5½, he started with this game:


With three seconds left in his clock against Nakamura's fourteen, Aronian blundered here with 59...c2+ 60.c3??

White could have obtained a drawn rook ending with 60.♔d4 followed by manoeuvring his rook ♖b3-b8-h8 salvaging a draw. 60...♜e2??

Black was winning the pawn ending, the main line being 60...♜xc3+ 61.♔xc3 h5! 62.c4 h4 63.b5 h3 64.c6


64...♚e6! 65.♔b6 h2 66.c7 ♚d7 67.♔b7 h1=Q+ and wins.

The game went 61.c6 g4 62.c7 e8 63.d3 Threatening 64.♖d8


63...f3?? A horrendous blunder overlooking a simple detail 64.d8 f2 65.c8=Q+ and only now Nakamura realized that the black king is under check first, before he could play 65...f2-f1=Q with a check himself.

Hikaru Nakamura, shocked beyond belief | Photo: Lennart Ootes / Saint Louis Chess Club

The moment Aronian promoted his queen with a check, a shell-shocked Nakamura got up from the board and was in a daze, loudly repeating 'Oh my God! Oh my God!', and acted totally in shock and awe for several moments, finally rushing out of the hall in a daze. Aronian was naturally elated with the turn of things, and couldn't help a smile on his face.

Levon Aronian, unable to hide the smile | Photo: Lennart Ootes / Saint Louis Chess Club

Watch the final moments of Nakamura's blundered and his baffled reaction | Video: V. Saravanan

To his amazing credit, Nakamura calmly returned to the board for the fourth rapid game and ground down Aronian with white pieces. And he produced a beauty in the third blitz game.


White has given up a piece for unclear compensation, and had lots of play left with 12.0-0.

Remember: in Chess 9LX, when white castles on the kingside, the white king goes to g1 and the white's kingside rook goes to f1, irrespective of where they are in the position before castling! 


Here the game could have continued with 12...♞xe5 13.♘d4 with complicated play, as White has a roaring attack on the black king too. Aronian unexpectedly went crazy in the position with 12.d4?? xf3 13.gxf3 xe5 14.dxe5 xf3+ 15.d2 e4+ 16.d3 Watch out! 16...0-0-0!!+

Again remember: in Chess 9LX, when black castles on the queenside, the black king goes to c8 and black's queenside rook goes to d8, irrespective of where they are in the position before castling!!


Though the position was already winning, when the move was played on the board, it produced at least two loud gasps from the spectators. As they say in the USA again, “Mystery is at the heart of creativity”!

White resigned after 17.c4 a6 (0-1)

The fourth blitz game ended in a draw, which meant that Aronian leads the match 8:4.

So's 'immortal'

Wesley So dazzled today, and many of his concepts were aesthetically brilliant. After missing a win in the third rapid game, he played the following beauty:


14.ce1! xb1 15.xb1 and White has a clear attack on the queenside, which means the exchange sacrifice is almost a negligible factor. He has a simple plan with a2-a4-a5 and Black will find it difficult to face the opening up of the king's covers. The irony is that, So managed to create this gem against a past master of exchange sacrifices like Topalov himself!


22.xc5! xc5 23.d4 a3 24.c5! With a crushing attack, White won in a few moves. The whole play by So impressed Yasser Seirawan so much that he dubbed the game as 'immortal'.

Veselin Topalov in poor form | Photo: Austin Fuller / Saint Louis Chess Club


12.xf6! xf6 13.cxb4 White is simply busting Black in the dark squares 13...d6 14.bxc5 xc5 15.xc5 dxc5 16.xe5 and White went on to win very comfortably.

So leads the match 8½:3½.

Another player who is in worse form here so far is Leinier Dominguez. The following game would indicate that the new entry to the USA's problems have almost nothing to do with the 9LX format. 


This position could have easily arisen from a symmetrical English opening. 11.g4?! d6 12.gxf5 dxe5 13.xe5 exf5 and there was no justification behind White's weak kingside.


White is under pressure, and his best chance to fight is to exchange off the light-squared bishops with ♕b2-b3 followed by ♗e2-f3 etc. Dominguez again lashed out with 22.f4?! cxd4 23.xd4 xe5 24.fxe5 xe5 and White's kingside was in tatters.

Dominguez surprisingly in poor form | Photo: Lennart Ootes / Saint Louis Chess Club

Svidler leads the match 8½:3½

Commentary webcast

Commentary by WGM Jennifer Shahade, GM Yasser Seirawan & GM Maurice Ashley


Saravanan is an IM from Chennai, the southern-most state of Tamil Nadu, India. He has been an active chess player in the Indian circuit, turning complete chess professional in 2012, actively playing and being a second to strong Indian players. He has been consistently writing on chess since late 1980s and is a correspondent to national newspapers and news channels.


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