Backwards and forwards

by Jonathan Speelman
1/3/2021 – Star columnist Jon Speelman recaps what he describes as an “unpr******ted” year, noting that the u-word is “a screen behind the comforting foliage of which gormless politicians have hidden”. Speelman then analyses remarkable wins by Maxime Vachier-Lagrave, Daniil Dubov, Hikaru Nakamura and Magnus Carlsen. | Photos: Niki Riga / Lennart Ootes

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Recap of an unpr******ted year

[Note that Jon Speelman also looks at the content of the article in video format, here embedded at the end of the article.]

A very Happy New Year to readers as we leave 2020 behind us.

A truly ghastly year, the effects of the pandemic were mitigated in chess terms by online activity which rose to levels  both of quantity and quality which I almost wrote were unpr******ted.

Elsewhere, I have advocated instant execution for public use of the u-word: a screen behind the comforting foliage of which gormless politicians have hidden. So we’ll make do with some near synonyms — extraordinary levels of online activity, highly unusual ones, unparalleled.

This is the time for looking both backwards and forwards, and we’ll start with a short summary of 2020. Prior to the lockdowns, Wijk aan Zee was won at a canter by Fabiano Caruana who drew five of his first six games but finished with 6½/7.

Maxime Vachier-LagraveFIDE decided to go ahead with the Candidates tournament in Yekaterinburg in March and got halfway through. Ding Liren, who had had to spend time in quarantine on arrival in Moscow, played way below par, though he did beat Caruana. Ian Nepomniachtchi was leading until the final round when Maxime Vachier-Lagrave beat him and overtook him on tie-break at which stage the second half of the tournament had to be postponed, since Russia was about to close its airspace.

As political manoeuvring has continued regarding the second half — now I believe  scheduled to resume in the spring of this year, probably again in Ekaterinburg — that last round game loomed ever larger in its importance. It was a very good effort by MVL, and I’m reprising it here.

Most of the rest of the year’s chess was online, though there have been some smaller tournaments and league events face to face and a couple of big ones. Biel was played in July with screens between the players for all the tournaments, apart from the blitz — in which the screens would inevitably have led to bruised hands. Pentala Harikrishna won the main event (there was also chess960, rapidplay and blitz) ahead of Michael Adams. 

The Norway tournament was postponed from June until October, and it was won by Carlsen. And the Russian Championship at the Moscow Central Chess Club last month was won by Nepomniachtchi after Daniil Dubov beat the then co-leader with Nepo, Sergey Karjakin, in the last round.

Carlsen’s opening specialist, Dubov, is a tremendous talent and beat Carlsen himself in the Airthing Masters on New Year’s Eve. I think that his superbly hackety victory against Karjakin was one of the games of the year.

Daniil Dubov

Daniil Dubov | Photo: Niki Riga

The online activity has seen many victories for Carlsen and Hikaru Nakamura, who is nowadays not just a wonderful chess player but also a top level streamer — indeed the online gaming community regard the two activities as being in the other order.

The final between Carlsen and Nakamura at the end of the Carlsen Chess Tour was splendid, and I’ve included two of the best games from there.

The top guys have had to raise their game not only at blitz but also bullet chess and Alireza Firouzja has shown his mettle at this especially, beating Carlsen himself by a significant margin in their 200+ game bullet match in April.

Overall, there was plenty of chess in 2020, even if it wasn’t what we’re used to. I’ve done this mostly off the top of my head, so I may have left something significant out. Please complain in the comments if you like... 

As to this year, Wijk aan Zee will be starting in a fortnight over the board, but it’s just the top tournament without spectators. The Candidates will presumably resume as advertised and the Olympiad is due to be in Moscow in the summer. Beyond that, we’ll see, but there will be the constant accompaniment of top-class online tournaments.

Hikaru Nakamura

Hikaru Nakamura | Photo: Niki Riga

Carlsen dominated the ether in 2020, though Nakamura ran him very close over an extended match and Firouzja began to show his mettle. MVL and Nepo will start the second half of the Candidates in prime position, and Dubov showed his fantastic talent at times. There will surely be one or more players who will stand out from the crowd in 2021. It will be fascinating to see who.

[Maxime Vachier-Lagrave’s photo: Lennart Ootes / FIDE]


Fascinated by the French Winawer

The Winawer Variation in just 60 minutes - that can only work by reducing it to a clear repertoire for Black and, where possible, general recommendations rather than variations. Alexei Shirov was surprised at how quickly he managed to make of the French Winawer an opening he himself could play. And now he will let you share in his conclusions.


Jonathan Speelman, born in 1956, studied mathematics but became a professional chess player in 1977. He was a member of the English Olympic team from 1980–2006 and three times British Champion. He played twice in Candidates Tournaments, reaching the semi-final in 1989. He twice seconded a World Championship challenger: Nigel Short and then Viswanathan Anand against Garry Kasparov in London 1993 and New York 1995.


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