London Classic: Black is more than okay

12/7/2011 – There was one decisive game in round one, two in round two and three in round three. Logically, there should have been four in round four, but in fact there were ‘only’ three again, making nine out of sixteen games so far. This is an amazing percentage for an elite event and we have to congratulate all the players for going at it hammer and tongs yet again. Report and annotations by John Saunders.

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London Chess Classic 2011

The 2011 London Chess Classic is taking place in the Olympia Conference Centre from Saturday, December 3rd until Monday, December 12th, starting at 14:00h London time each day (final round 12:00h). Time controls are classical forty moves in two hours, then twenty moves in one hour and thirty minutes for the rest of the game. A win is counted as three points, a draw as one, and a loss zero. Tiebreaks: 1) number of wins, 2) number of wins with Black, 3) result of the individual game between the tied players. In the unlikely event that there is still a tie then: 4) 2 x 15'+2" games, and if necessary then 5) an Armageddon game: 6'+2" vs 5'+2" with draw odds for Black. If there is a tie involving more than two players then the Rapid games will be conducted as a double round all play all. The total prize fund is €160,000 before tax.

Black is more than okay

Round four report by John Saunders

Round 4: Tuesday, December 6, 2011
Magnus Carlsen
½-½
Vladimir Kramnik 
Michael Adams
0-1
Nigel Short 
Vishy Anand
0-1
Hikaru Nakamura
David Howell
0-1
Luke McShane 
Levon Aronian (bye) – assisting commentary

England’s Luke McShane leads world number one Magnus Carlsen on the ‘black wins’ tie-break after the pulsating fourth round of play at Olympia on 6th December. Football is always pinching chess metaphors so it’s time to get our own back: all the games featured ‘end to end stuff’ while Anand-Nakamura was a game of two halves. And finally Nigel Short got the ball in the back of the net at the Classic.

Did anyone spot my ‘deliberate error’ yesterday? I told you that there had been five decisive games to the end of round three whereas in fact there had been six. There was one decisive game in round one, two in round two and three in round three. Logically, there should have been four in round four, but in fact there were ‘only’ three again, making nine out of sixteen games so far. This is an amazing percentage for an elite event and we have to congratulate all the players for going at it hammer and tongs yet again.

Pride of place must go to US number one Hikaru Nakamura for a courageous fight-back in his game against Vishy Anand. The circumstances of the game make it all the more commendable. He was sitting opposite his fourth consecutive 2800+ opponent (only the second player ever to do this in tournaments – Ivanchuk in Moscow was the first) and this time it was the world champion, and he (Hikaru) had black. And don’t forget it came on the back of the Carlsen Inquisition the day before (unlike in the Monty Python sketch, everybody expects the Carlsen Inquisition, but it didn’t make the experience any easier).


Live by the sword and die by the sword – US GM Hikaru Nakamura

Hikaru’s first act of courage was to wheel out the King’s Indian Defence. Viktor Korchnoi was in the VIP room with a number of other GMs and I imagine he would have pulled a face. Viktor is (to put it mildly) antipathetic to this defence and used to love crushing people who dared to play it against him, often adding scathing comments about it during the post mortem for good measure.

The game proceeded down the Classical Main Line, with White shoving his queenside pawns forward while Black does the same with his kingside pawns. From the Black perspective, the trouble is that White often gains the centre too and this is what happened here. Despite his menacing kingside pawns, Black’s pieces are often pegged to the back two ranks as the white pieces occupy holes in the position. As Hikaru said in his post-match tweet: “Live by the sword and die by the sword. I wonder how many of these games I can play in the King’s Indian Defence before I die of a heart attack?” All King’s Indian players can relate to that!

Soon Vishy Anand was all over Hikaru like a cheap suit. But the trump card for the defender in these positions is that, though White can get a big position, they are very hard to calculate for the attacker. One wrong step and Black gets out of jail. Not only that, many of the resultant positional factors favour Black. It’s an opening for gamblers but in practice the odds are not bad. Looking at it from Black’s point of view, Nakamura himself put this rather more succinctly: “I attack and if it works, it works, if it doesn’t I lose horribly and look like an idiot. The onus is on Vishy to find all the right moves.”

That final sentence is key. Of course, the people at home watching with an engine see Vishy’s position and a +2 or +3 engine assessment and think White is winning. Maybe this is true for a computer but for a human – even a world champion - it is damnably difficult. I sat and watched the denouement of this game in the VIP room with the likes of Korchnoi, Speelman, Nunn, Hodgson, etc, and they couldn’t agree about the right way to handle it.


Who's the commentator here? Vladimir Kramnik

In the commentary room, Messrs King and Trent couldn’t figure it out either. Lawrence Trent cheekily asked Vlad Kramnik for his assessment of the game and the great Russian cleverly ducked the question with a wave of his hand and a twinkle in his eye: “you are the commentator here!”

This truly is the wonder of chess – it continues to baffle, mystify and infuriate all its adherents, even the top GMs, years after computers have supposedly ‘solved’ it. No need to tinker with the rules – it’s hard enough as it is. Seeing live chess also gives a tremendous insight into the hit or miss decision-making process, which is sometimes obscured in annotations where games are depicted as consisting of a single, logical plan, smoothly executed. This is just science fiction. Real-life chess is rarely like this. The UK TV quiz show QI (standing for ‘Quite Interesting’) has a nice feature whereby panellists are asked general knowledge questions to which there is no known answer. They are supplied with a sign to hold up with the words ‘nobody knows’ and get extra points for holding it up at the right time. We’re thinking of supplying our commentators with these signs. It’s the ‘nobody knows’ questions which make chess more than ‘quite interesting’.


Visibly elated: Nakamura discusses the game with GM Danny King

So, perfectly understandably, Vishy went wrong in a very hard position and the position turned round. It was still very hard to win for Black but Hikaru stuck to his task and brought home the points. His four-day master class with the four 2800+s was finally over and he had made a plus score. Also, he was the first US player to claim the scalp of a reigning world champion in something like two decades. He was visibly elated and an audience which had warmed to his courage and honesty in adversity the previous day gave him a great reception in the commentary room. Club players could perhaps relate better to a slugging match where the players couldn’t hope to calculate all the variations rather than the holy perfection of a Carlsen grind. “I was in one of these moods after yesterday's loss to Magnus where I felt like playing something exciting and I didn't really care if I won or lost – so I just took a chance.” Again, we all know what that feels like. That is why Hikaru is a player’s player.

While all the excitement of the Anand-Nakamura game was going on, there was another turnaround in the Howell-McShane game. It started with the moves 1 e4 e5 2 Nf3 Nc6 3 d4 cxd4 4 Nxd4 and now 4...Bb4+!?. A few years ago, if someone did that against you in a club game, you’d think he was a duffer, losing a tempo with his bishop, but the point is that after 5 c3, White can no longer put his knight on c3. It has become one of the main lines of the Scotch, with Aronian, Adams and Vallejo Pons playing it, as well as late iconoclasts such as Tal and Miles.


David Howell and Luke McShane in the press conference

David Howell seemed to have an edge for a while but he lapsed into his usual time pressure (though this time it was mutual) and the position was level when he was tempted to try an extravagant combination to exploit Luke McShane’s back rank. Luke only had one defence – but one is all you need and he found it. Game over. This win took Luke into a joint lead with Magnus Carlsen, and he is technically ahead on tie-break, having won two games with black. Interestingly, Black has now won five games to White’s four in the tournament so far.

Vladimir Kramnik was next in line for the Carlsen Inquisition. I was toying with a different analogy, depicting Magnus as a dentist examining his ‘patients’ for ‘cavities’. As usual the young man aimed for some ‘non-theoretical theory’ (if that makes sense), choosing a particularly arid line of the Nimzo-Indian. Dry as dust – you could almost see the tumbleweed blowing across the largely deserted board. It didn’t look like anything much happened but you can be pretty sure that was only because there was a formidable player in charge of the black pieces. Magnus didn’t find any ‘holes’. Anyone else in the Norwegian’s dentist chair and they might have suffered a drilling or a painful extraction of points. Vlad got off with a scaling and a light polish.


Kramnik (right) discussing his survival of the Carlsen Inquisition

Having said it was ‘dry’, there was plenty going on below the surface, amongst the moves which didn’t get played. The best way to follow this game is to watch the relevant video in which the two adversaries ask each other ‘what do you do if I do this?’ and answer each other with nods and knowing looks, acknowledging all the dirty tricks and traps they set along for each other along the way like a couple of Harry Potter wizards.

Finally, the showdown between England’s long-time numbers one and two. Nigel moved above Mickey a year or so ago but he’s now down at number two again, and finished runner-up on tie-break at this year’s British Championship. So there was plenty of prestige at stake as there always is when they meet across the board.

The game started (Adams, above, was White) 1 e4 e6 2 d4 d5 3 Nd2 h6!? Not totally unprecedented: Morozevich and Sadler have played it, while Nigel himself used it, unsuccessfully, when facing the ex-English, now Aussie, IM Gary Lane at the 2004 Olympiad. Levon Aronian’s comment was “It avoids theory, and it puts pressure on White. If you don’t win the game, you’re going to be ridiculed.” However, Viktor Korchnoi’s comment in the VIP room on seeing 3...h6 was more dismissive: “switch the game!!”

But Mickey Adams’ follow-up seemed insipid. On move 16 he weakened the squares in front of his king with g2-g3. “If you have to play that, your opening strategy has failed,” said Aronian in the VIP room. Nigel gradually assumed the initiative and held on to it. Just after the time control he gave up the exchange for pawns and some more attacking chances. It still wasn’t over but he continued to play extremely well to win the game. A great technical effort: it was his first win in the three London Classic tournaments and will be very welcome for that.

Unfortunately, the game ended so late that we didn’t get a post-match commentary session or a sound-bite from Nigel (above). Well, I’ll have to manufacture one. We started with a football theme so let’s end on one and have Nigel voice a standard football cliché (though I’m sure he would have been much funnier than this): “I got the ball... and I put it in the back of the net. So that’s one in the eye for the knockers who said I was finished!”

Pictures by Pascal Simon


Standings after four rounds (London scoring)

Standings after four rounds (traditional scoring)

Schedule and results

Round 1: Saturday, December 3, 2011
Vladimir Kramnik
½-½
Hikaru Nakamura
Levon Aronian
½-½
Luke McShane 
Magnus Carlsen
1-0
David Howell 
Michael Adams
½-½
Vishy Anand 
Nigel Short (bye) – assisting commentary
Round 2: Sunday, December 4, 2011
David Howell
½-½
Michael Adams 
Luke McShane
½-½
Magnus Carlsen
Hikaru Nakamura
1-0
Levon Aronian
Nigel Short
0-1
Vladimir Kramnik 
Vishy Anand (bye) – assisting commentary
Round 3: Monday, December 5, 2011
Levon Aronian
1-0
Nigel Short 
Magnus Carlsen
1-0
Hikaru Nakamura
Michael Adams
0-1
Luke McShane 
Vishy Anand
½-½
David Howell 
Vladimir Kramnik (bye) – assisting commentary
Round 4: Tuesday, December 6, 2011
Magnus Carlsen
½-½
Vladimir Kramnik 
Michael Adams
0-1
Nigel Short 
Vishy Anand
0-1
Hikaru Nakamura
David Howell
0-1
Luke McShane 
Levon Aronian (bye) – assisting commentary
Wednesday, December 7, 2011 Rest day
Round 5: Thursday, December 8, 2011
Hikaru Nakamura
  David Howell 
Nigel Short
  Vishy Anand 
Vladimir Kramnik
  Michael Adams 
Levon Aronian
  Magnus Carlsen
Luke McShane (bye) – assisting commentary
Round 6: Friday, December 9, 2011
Michael Adams
  Levon Aronian
Vishy Anand
  Vladimir Kramnik 
David Howell
  Nigel Short 
Luke McShane
  Hikaru Nakamura
Magnus Carlsen (bye) – assisting commentary
Round 7: Saturday, December 10, 2011
Nigel Short 
  Luke McShane 
Vladimir Kramnik 
  David Howell 
Levon Aronian
  Vishy Anand 
Magnus Carlsen
  Michael Adams 
Hikaru Nakamura (bye) – assisting commentary
Round 8: Sunday, December 11, 2011
Vishy Anand
  Magnus Carlsen
David Howell
  Levon Aronian
Luke McShane
  Vladimir Kramnik 
Hikaru Nakamura
  Nigel Short 
Michael Adams (bye) – assisting commentary
Round 9: Monday, December 12, 2011
Luke McShane
  Vishy Anand 
Hikaru Nakamura
  Michael Adams 
Nigel Short
  Magnus Carlsen
Vladimir Kramnik
  Levon Aronian
David Howell (bye) – assisting commentary

All games start at 2 p.m. or 14:00h British time = 15:00h CET, 17:00h Moscow, 7:30 p.m. Chennai, 22:00h Beijing, 01:00 a.m. Melbourne, 03:00 a.m. Auckland (sorry Murray!), 6 a.m. San José, 9 a.m. New York. You can check your location here. Naturally the games will be covered live on the official web site (below) and on Playchess. Stand by for further details on Saturday. The games of the final round start two hours earlier.


Links

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