London Classic: A tepid start

by Alex Yermolinsky
12/4/2017 – If the first round looked like a car left in neutral, then round two was barely in second gear. Karjakin and Carlsen left their battles for another time, while So failed to make the most of a strange opening choice by Nepo. The game of the day was the sharp as nails Sicilian Dragon between Maxime Vachier Lagrave and Hikaru Nakamura, giving the audience something to cheer for. Report and analysis by GM Alex Yermolinsky. | Photo: Lennart Ootes

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All games drawn

A soporific feel at the start of the London Classic lingers on. Same as in the opening round Friday, all five games today were drawn, and, honestly, not all of them were worth the price of admission.

I don't know how Karjakin feels about playing Carlsen these days. Only one year removed from their face-to-face titanic battle in New York, Sergey doesn't seem to have any momentum on his side. Three times they met in classical chess tournaments in 2017, and the score is +2=1 in favor of Magnus.

Today the World Champion played the bold g7-g5 on the black side of the Italian Game, but even that did not make the former challenger willing to, well, challenge. Queens got traded early, and then Karjakin neglected his last chance to make something happen by pushing f2-f4. A listless performance by Sergey, who hasn't really done anything in 2017 to make his fans believe he'll return to play Magnus again.

Sergey Karjakin hopes to be the next Challenger for Carlsen, but if so, he kept his ambitions in check in this game | Photo: Lennart Ootes

Back in 1966, Spassky lost a World Championship Match to Petrosian, when many felt he was ready to be crowned. Boris did come back by winning the Candidates matches again three years later, and then he beat Petrosian as well. Not to be forgotten, however, that Spassky appeared to be a hungry player right after the first match, as he famously won the 2nd Piatigorsky Cup, 1966 ahead of Fischer and all others.

There isn't much to say about Aronian's tournament yet. He had two Blacks at the start, and did what he was supposed to do, which is to not lose. Levon's Ruy Lopez appears to be holding up well. Both Ian Nepomniachtchi and Fabiano Caruana tried the line from a successful game Vachier-Lagrave played against Aronian in the 2017 World Cup. The position, however, appears to be too short of resources to cause Black any real pain. Levon is ready to enter this line again and again. He will face Sergey Karjakin in round three with white.

Levon Aronian's first two games were with black, so a draw was nothing to be upset about | Photo: Lennart Ootes

Anand-Adams was another Anti-Berlin, leading to yet another symmetrical pawn structure where Vishy may have given more than a token effort, but it didn't change the outcome of the game. Such games have become a bit too common to my taste, but unless White finds some other ideas, I cannot blame Black for playing for the result.

This brings to mind the old talk of changing the scoring system in favor of Black, say .4-.6 or some such imbalance, in an attempt to spice up the game. In my opinion, the effect could be quite opposite. In modern chess, it is Black who chooses the opening, and giving him an extra incentive to make a draw would be counterproductive.

Perhaps, a more radical measure, such as choosing openings randomly, should come into consideration. Imagine, you come to the game, and the computer tells you you must play the Scandinavian today!

It was an uneventful round in terms of results, but some players clearly tried harder than others | Photo: Lennart Ootes

MVL vs Nakamura was without question the highlight of the round. Now to the games that could have ended decisively. Lots of credit goes to Nakamura for venturing into the Dragon's Den today. Hikaru appears to be the one rocking the boat in London in the early going. It might seem a thankless task, as he was skirting disaster again today, but his fans are grateful.

Maxime Vachier-Lagrave 1/2-1/2 Hikaru Nakamura (Annotated by GM Alex Yermolinsky)

[Event "9th London Chess Classic 2017"] [Site "London"] [Date "2017.12.03"] [Round "2"] [White "Vachier-Lagrave, Maxime"] [Black "Nakamura, Hikaru"] [Result "1/2-1/2"] [ECO "B78"] [WhiteElo "2789"] [BlackElo "2781"] [Annotator "AlexYermo"] [PlyCount "93"] [EventDate "2017.??.??"] 1. e4 c5 2. Nf3 d6 3. d4 cxd4 4. Nxd4 Nf6 5. Nc3 g6 6. Be3 Bg7 7. f3 O-O 8. Qd2 Nc6 9. Bc4 Bd7 10. h4 h5 11. Bb3 Rc8 12. O-O-O Ne5 13. Bg5 Rc5 14. Kb1 Re8 { [#] This move, introduced in the 1990's and upheld by GM Tiviakov some ten years later, caught the attention of Magnus Carlsen, who used it first against Radjabov in 2008 and later against Karjakin in 2014. The point is to overprotect the sensitive e7-pawn in anticipation of White's attack with g2-g4. } (14... b5 15. g4 hxg4 16. h5 Nxh5 17. Nd5 Re8 18. Rxh5 gxh5 19. Qh2 {has been known as very good for White since Chandler-Mestel and Karpov-Sznapik, both from 1986.}) 15. g4 {Nevertheless, MVL goes for it.} ({Karjakin's choice in the above mentioned game (World Rapid, Dubai, 2014) was} 15. Bh6 {but Carlsen showed great powers of anticipation by setting up his own shots:} a5 16. a4 Qb6 $1 17. g4 Rxc3 $1 18. bxc3 Nxf3 {and the subsequent tactical play resolved in a draw.}) 15... hxg4 16. f4 ({Radjabov-Carlsen, FIDE Grand prix, Baku 2008 demonstrated why} 16. h5 Nxh5 17. Rxh5 gxh5 18. Qh2 {doesn't quite work. Magnus calmly defended by returning the exchange:} Ng6 19. Qxh5 Qa5 20. f4 Rxg5 21. fxg5 e6 {and Black already stood better. Teimour's wild attempt at the black king,} 22. Nf5 exf5 23. Qxg6 {was turned back by} Be6 {and Magnus went on to win.}) 16... Nc4 {[#]} (16... Nc6 {meets with a typical tactic,} 17. Bxf6 Bxf6 (17... exf6 18. Ndb5 $16) 18. e5 $1 {and Black must part with major material,} dxe5 (18... Bg7 19. Ne4 {is simply unbearable}) 19. Nxc6 Bxc6 20. Qxd8 Rxd8 21. Rxd8+ Kg7 22. Rg1 {There are some lines in the Dragon where Black can play down a rook in the endgame, but here he's unlikely to succeed.}) {Another important juncture.} 17. Qd3 $1 {Maxime plays the best move.} ({ White doesn't get to continue with his K-side attack in peace and quiet after} 17. Qe2 Qc8 18. f5 {as Black has his own ideas.} Nxb2 $1 19. Kxb2 (19. fxg6 Nxd1 20. gxf7+ Kh7 21. Nxd1 Rf8 {is sharp, but Black is up the exchange.}) 19... Rxc3 20. fxg6 Rxb3+ {Exchange sacrifices abound.} 21. axb3 fxg6 22. Bxf6 exf6 23. h5 f5 $17) 17... Na5 $6 {Somewhat unfortunate. One wonders if Nakamura was out of book.} (17... Qc8 {is still critical.}) 18. Bxf6 $1 exf6 ( 18... Bxf6 19. e5 Nxb3 (19... dxe5 20. Qxg6+) 20. Nxb3 Bf5 21. Qd4 Rxc3 22. Qxc3 Bg7 23. Nd4 {should be favoring White, but he shouldn't underestimate the power of the Dragon Bishop.}) 19. Bd5 ({The positional treatment of} 19. f5 { deserved serious consideration.} Nxb3 20. axb3 Qc8 21. Rdf1 gxf5 22. exf5 Ree5 23. Rf4 {etc.}) 19... Nc6 $2 {[#]} (19... f5 $1 {was a must. After} 20. exf5 Bc6 21. Bxc6 Nxc6 22. Nxc6 bxc6 23. fxg6 Bxc3 24. bxc3 Qf6 {both kinds are shaky, but Black's active pieces should provide for ample counterplay.}) 20. Nxc6 $6 {tempting, but not the best choice.} ({Hitting d6 with} 20. Ndb5 { would have given MVL a near decisive advantage.} Be6 21. Bxe6 Rxe6 22. f5 Re7 23. h5 {etc.}) 20... bxc6 21. Bxf7+ {Maxime's calculations were all about this shot. In the end he got to keep an extra pawn, but, as it often happens in sharp Sicilians, the formerly bad black king became a major factor in the endgame.} Kxf7 22. Qxd6 Rxc3 23. Qxd7+ Qxd7 24. Rxd7+ Ke6 25. Rxg7 Rf3 26. Rxg6 Rxf4 27. Rg1 Rxe4 28. R6xg4 Rxg4 29. Rxg4 {[#]} f5 30. Ra4 Rg8 (30... Ke5 31. Rxa7 f4 32. Kc1 Kf5 {also looks drawish despite White's two pawns edge.}) 31. b3 ({Giving up the c-pawn after} 31. Kc1 Rg1+ 32. Kd2 Rg2+ 33. Ke3 Rxc2 34. b3 {would deprive White of winning chances.} Rc3+ 35. Kf4 Rh3) 31... Rg4 32. Rxa7 f4 33. Kc1 f3 34. Kd2 Rxh4 {No need to bother with more complicated lines.} ({ Hikaru could have gone for} 34... Re4 35. Ra4 Re2+ 36. Kd3 Kf5 $11) 35. Ra8 Rh2+ 36. Kd3 Kf5 37. a4 (37. Ke3 Rxc2 38. Kxf3 Ke5 39. Ke3 Rh2 40. Kd3 Kd6 { is a routine draw.}) 37... Kg4 38. a5 Rh1 39. Rg8+ Kf4 40. Rf8+ Kg3 41. Rg8+ Kf4 42. Rf8+ Kg3 43. b4 f2 44. Kd4 f1=Q 45. Rxf1 Rxf1 46. Kc5 Rc1 47. Kxc6 1/2-1/2

The Sicilian Dragon Vol. 1: Main Line with 9.Bc4

Volume one of the DVD deals with 9.Bc4, White's sharpest option, and shows how Black can counter this ambitious try by White with the main lines of the Soltis variation (12.h5), which was played by Magnus Carlsen regularly as well.

Hikaru Nakamura: "I completely misevaluated this endgame..."

Vachier-Lagrave: "The position is a complete mess and of course if you don't know everything exactly you have to spend a lot of time to navigate the complications..."

Nakamura discusses the game with Maurice Ashley | Saint Louis Chess Club on YouTube

Wesley So continues to baffle his fans. What more could today's opponent, Nepomniachtchi, do than open the game with the Old Benoni, the opening that has been all but discarded decades ago? Wesley was pretty much served a great positional advantage on a silver platter at the start of the game. Yet, he wasn't able to capitalize and went for the unforced move repetition already on move 24.

Wesley So 1/2-1/2 Ian Nepomniachtchi (Annotated by GM Alex Yermolinsky)

[Event "9th London Chess Classic 2017"] [Site "London"] [Date "2017.12.03"] [Round "2"] [White "So, Wesley"] [Black "Nepomniachtchi, Ian"] [Result "1/2-1/2"] [ECO "E60"] [WhiteElo "2788"] [BlackElo "2729"] [Annotator "AlexYermo"] [PlyCount "53"] [EventDate "2017.??.??"] 1. d4 Nf6 2. c4 g6 3. f3 {The Anti-Grunfeld recipe, commonly used in top level chess since Kramnik-Shirov, Casorla (9) 1998.} d6 ({The same opponents had a game in 2015 that went into a Modern Benoni after} 3... e6 4. e4 c5 5. d5 d6 6. Nc3 Bg7 7. Nge2 exd5 8. cxd5 O-O 9. Ng3) 4. e4 e5 5. Ne2 c5 $6 {The Old Benoni is a rare guest in Grandmaster games.} 6. d5 Nbd7 $6 {The knight is misplaced here.} ({Grischuk-Nepo, World Blitz 2013 went} 6... h5 7. h4 Bh6 8. Bxh6 Rxh6 9. Qd2 Rh8 10. Nbc3 Na6 {and White applied a typical positional squeeze to win in 39 moves.}) 7. Nbc3 a6 8. a4 $6 {I don't see why White should even bother with preventing b7-b5. A pawn sac with the black pawn on e5 would be unthinkable even for the most die-hard Benko fan.} (8. h4 h5 9. Be3 $16 { I don't get it. What does Nepo see in this position?}) 8... Nh5 {[#]} 9. g3 { Normally in the Saemisch KID White doesn't play like this.} ({If only White kept his a-pawn where it belonged, he would have been happy to accept the upcoming pawn sac.} 9. Be3 Bg7 10. g4 Nf4 {Absolutely forced.} 11. Nxf4 exf4 12. Bxf4 Bd4 13. Qd2 Ne5 14. Be2 Bd7 15. h4 {as it is, Black would get chances after} Qb6) 9... Bg7 10. h4 $5 ({Also, interesting was} 10. Bh3 O-O 11. O-O { anticipating} f5 12. exf5 gxf5 13. Qc2 {In that case, just as in the game, Black suffers the consequences of his early development with Nbd7, as Bc8 remains blocked.}) 10... f5 11. exf5 gxf5 12. g4 $1 fxg4 13. fxg4 Nf4 14. g5 O-O 15. Ne4 Nb6 $1 {[#] Ian grabs a chance to get that knight out of the way.} 16. N2g3 {The correct approach. White needs to keep the situation from getting out of control.} ({The point was} 16. a5 $2 Nxc4 $1 17. Nxf4 exf4 18. Bxc4 Re8 {with strong attack.}) 16... Bd7 17. Rg1 Kh8 18. Bd2 (18. Nxd6 Bxa4 19. Nxb7 Qc7 20. Rxa4 Nxa4 21. Qxa4 Qxb7 22. Ne4 Rab8 $13) 18... Nc8 {On the face of it Wesley's K-side advantage should ensure a long-term edge for White, but playing such positions takes a very subtle approach.} 19. Nh5 $2 {I don't like this plan. Trading pieces just feels wrong.} ({Suppose we start with} 19. h5 h6 20. g6 Qc7 {and now White, whose king appears to be safe, can try the other side:} 21. a5 Ne7 22. b4 $6 Nf5 23. bxc5 dxc5 24. Nxf5 Bxf5 25. Qf3 {only to find himself under pressure after} b5 $1) (19. a5 Qc7 20. h5 $1 {only now when the black queen no longer attacks the g5-pawn.} h6 21. Qc2 Ne7 22. O-O-O b5 23. Ne2 $1 {[#] So much for the positional squeeze. Instead, White is trying to get to the black king!} b4 24. Nxf4 exf4 25. gxh6 Bxh6 26. Kb1 Nf5 27. Qd3 $16) 19... Bf5 20. Neg3 (20. Nef6 Nxh5 21. Nxh5 Ne7) 20... Qd7 21. Nxg7 Qxg7 22. Nxf5 Rxf5 23. Qb3 Na7 24. Qb6 {A disappointing finish.} ({I guess Wesley was not quite happy with allowing} 24. O-O-O b5 {but White might still be better.}) 24... Nc8 25. Qb3 Na7 26. Qb6 Nc8 27. Qb3 1/2-1/2

The ABC of the Czech Benoni

The Czech Benoni has never quite made it to the top of the charts as a reply to 1 d4. Perhaps it‘s the very nature of blocked central positions which put people off. Thus, after 1.d4 Nf6 2.c4 c5 3.d5 e5 the first impression is that the Black position could become rather passive. However, players of the calibre of Nisipeanu, and Ivan Sokolov revived the opening by using the Czech Benoni with success.

In the last few months, Wesley So has struggled to recover the form he displayed in 2016. Every player has a dry streak, and it seems this has been his.

Wesley So, early in Round 2 | Photo: Lennart Ootes

Let's see now how the players are going to fare in a 7-round tournament. Time to leave the starting gates!

Round 2 commentary


Rk. Name Pts.  TB1 
1 Carlsen Magnus 1,0 0,0
  Aronian Levon 1,0 0,0
  Caruana Fabiano 1,0 0,0
  Vachier-Lagrave Maxime 1,0 0,0
  So Wesley 1,0 0,0
  Anand Viswanathan 1,0 0,0
  Nakamura Hikaru 1,0 0,0
  Karjakin Sergey 1,0 0,0
  Nepomniachtchi Ian 1,0 0,0
  Adams Michael 1,0 0,0

All games



Yermo is enjoying his fifties. Lives in South Dakota, 600 miles way from the nearest grandmaster. Between his chess work online he plays snooker and spends time outdoors - happy as a clam.


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