London Classic: King's pawn openings

by Antonio Pereira
12/17/2018 – The final matches of the Grand Chess Tour and the British Knockout Championship continued in London's Olympia Conference Centre on Sunday. The second classical games of the GCT resulted in two more draws, which leave the scores tied before the decisive rapid and blitz rounds. In the British KO Championship, meanwhile, Gawain Jones took a six-point lead over Luke McShane in the match for first place. | Photos: Lennart Ootes / Grand Chess Tour

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A Berlin and a Petroff

Curiously, all four games that took place in the main stage of the London Classic started with 1.e4, and all of them were answered with a different defence. In the Grand Chess Tour, Fabiano Caruana chose his trusted Petroff against Levon Aronian, while Hikaru Nakamura used the Berlin against Maxime Vachier-Lagrave. Both encounters ended peacefully, which increases the streak of draws in classical games played in London to twenty — twelve from the World Championship match and eight from the GCT.

The fact that some draws are (much) more exciting than others was clearly seen on Sunday's round. Nakamura barely survived against Vachier-Lagrave after finding a miraculous resource in a rook endgame, while Aronian and Caruana signed a quick 21-move draw.

The match for first place is between two of the most consistently strong rapid and blitz players in the world, Nakamura and MVL. It is quite a fitting final match, given the absence of Magnus Carlsen and the fact that, as pointed out by Maurice Ashley during the live commentary, this year's Grand Chess Tour put more emphasis on the accelerated time controls — only the Sinquefield Cup was a pure classical round-robin.

Hikaru arrived wearing a new jacket | Photo: Lennart Ootes / Grand Chess Tour 

In the second game of the final, Vachier-Lagrave once again demonstrated that he is very well prepared to face the Berlin Wall. However, when his opening play was praised by Alejandro Ramirez in the post-game interview, the Frenchman clarified: "15.a3 was Vladi's move, so I have to give credit to Vladi on this one". He, of course, referred to Vladimir Kramnik.

Nakamura felt surprised by White's 20.g4, a move he had not foreseen — "I played 19...Bd5 and then miscalculated this whole line", said Hikaru. After 20...Bxe4 21.Rxe4 Ne7 22.e6 f5, this was the position on the board:


At first, the American thought that he could take on g4 after 23.Re5, but then found out it was not possible due to 24.h4, with Bg5 coming next, leaving Black in a very uncomfortable situation. "I played 23...Nd5 but even here I didn't realise just how dangerous this really was, because I thought this should just be completely fine..." It was time to defend for Nakamura, who found a very nice resource:


With 31...g6, Black had a couple of targets and a chance to draw with precise play after 32.hxg6. Maxime clearly was in the driver's seat, but according to Hikaru he should have played 33.Rf5 instead of 33.Rf7+, as it gave more practical winning chances. Nakamura said about his plan with g6: "It was a good couple of moves that I found after kind of misplaying the middlegame".

Black kept on defending until the draw was signed with only kings on the board after 53 moves. Vachier-Lagrave was not happy with the way he handled his advantage: "My position was very promising, but then I'm pretty disappointed at myself because I did what Levon did against me in game two — I played just too fast and missed resources".

Nakamura is a good defender | Photo: Lennart Ootes / Grand Chess Tour

In an adjacent board, the action had finished much earlier, when Levon decided it was a smart decision to take a quick draw with White, targeting Caruana's weaker point (as shown by Carlsen a few weeks ago). When asked about his decision, Aronian said: "I'm usually not the guy to go for a short draw with White, but since it's a match I thought it to be practical. After all, I have a much higher rating in rapid and blitz than Fabiano, so mathematically it should not be a bad decision".

The only point where the game could have gone a different — sharper — way was on move 15:


Here White could have chosen 15.c5 instead of 15.cxd5, which would lead to a much more complex middlegame. "Had I prepared this before the game, I would have gone for this", said Aronian, but after the capture simplifications followed and the outcome was never in doubt. 

So, everything will be decided on Monday's rapid and blitz rounds. When asked about Caruana's chances in the last stage of the match, Nakamura declared: "Levon should win. [...] He is a little more stable". 

Caruana keeps using his Petroff effectively | Photo: Lennart Ootes / Grand Chess Tour

Live commentary webcast

Yasser Seirawan, Jennifer Shahade, Maurice Ashley and Alejandro Ramirez

All games - GCT London Classic


Jones beats the French

As mentioned above, the British Knockout also featured two games with 1.e4. In the battle for first, Luke McShane chose the French Defence against Gawain Jones, while on the other board we saw Mickey Adams drawing with Black against David Howell's Ruy Lopez. 

Howell and Adams are still tied in the battle for third place | Photo: Lennart Ootes

Jones-McShane followed theory until move 16, when White had the initiative but Black was left with the pair of bishops. It was not a crazy Najdorf, but the position had hidden tactical themes that pushed both players to use a lot of time on most moves. McShane, known for getting in time trouble often, spent almost 34 minutes before choosing an imprecise continuation:


Luke was surely considering whether it was safe to take on b2, but finally decided to continue with 21...Rc5. The computer thinks that capturing the "poisoned pawn" (at least, it is given that name in some Sicilians) was the right way to go, but it is hard to blame McShane for not doing so — this is a sample variation of the many he needed to calculate: 21...Rxb2 22.Nxe5 Bxe5 23.f4 Rb4 24.Rxe5 Rxc4 25.Rxe7 Rxe7 26.Bxc4.

From this point on, however, Gawain showed confident and accurate play to take advantage of his trumps in the position. He seemed to have everything worked out when he took only over a minute before sacrificing his bishop:


25.Bxf7+ was the killer blow. Black captured with the queen, 25...Qxf7, leaving the d6-bishop undefended — after 25...Kxf7, keeping the queen connected to said bishop, there would have followed 25...Kxf7 26.Rxd6 Qxd6 27.Ng5+ Kg8 28.Ne4 Qd4 29.Qxc5:


McShane saw this and preferred to take with the queen. Nonetheless, Jones showed the flaw with that continuation in the next four moves. Luke resigned and now will need to mount a comeback in the final day of this year's Knockout Championship.

Gawain has been showing great chess in the KO Championship | Photo: Lennart Ootes

All games - British Knockout 



Antonio is a freelance writer and a philologist. He is mainly interested in the links between chess and culture, primarily literature. In chess games, he skews towards endgames and positional play.


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