London Classic: Tense draws

by Antonio Pereira
12/16/2018 – The final match of the Grand Chess Tour kicked off on Saturday. Hikaru Nakamura held Maxime Vachier-Lagrave to a draw from the white side of a Grünfeld Defence, after the Frenchman won a pawn but could not convert it in the endgame. In the battle for third place, Levon Aronian achieved a slight edge against Fabiano Caruana but was not able to get the full point. The first classical round of the British Knockout Championship also ended with two draws. | Photos: Lennart Ootes / Grand Chess Tour

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Advantage Black

The second major event held in London in the final months of the year moved from Google's Headquarters to its usual venue at the Olympia Conference Centre. The London Classic is already a fixture in the winter calendar, and it never stops to innovate its format. This year, the main stage features four boards, with players facing each other in knockout matches that serve as decisive stages for the Grand Chess Tour and the British KO Championship.

The Olympia Centre | Photo: Lennart Ootes / Grand Chess Tour

In the GCT finale, Nakamura started the duel against Vachier-Lagrave with the white pieces. Maxime is a well-known Grünfeld expert — he mentioned in the past that this is his favourite defence — but Hikaru was not afraid to go into a complicated variation of this very opening. In fact, he followed a line that was played by MVL in the past. The first critical moment came about on move 15:

 

Hikaru was surprised by Black's 15...Qd6 and decided to respond with 16.Bh6. In the post-game interview, the American said that he had considered playing 16.h4, but he rejected this alternative as he did not have a concrete plan afterwards. He declared: "If you're prepared you can play something like this, but if you aren't it is very risky".

By this stage of the game, it was clear that Maxime knew what he was doing, but he clarified: "I didn't remember I had played this position, but I did remember very well that it was good for Black".

Nakamura was in trouble, but he felt relieved when he saw 24...Ba6, given that, as he explained, he had 25.Ng3, and in the case of 25...Ra2 White can use a plan with h4, Qg5 and the possibility of playing Nf5, which gives counter-chances if Black grabs the a3 pawn.

 

Instead of 25...Ra2, Maxime offered a queen exchange with 25...Qc5 and went into an endgame a pawn up. According to Nakamura, the biggest chance missed by his rival in the final stage of the game came on move 33:

 

Vachier-Lagrave decided that his best chances of winning would arise after 33...f6, but 33...Rd1+ is the improvement suggested by both Nakamura and the engines — after 34.Kf2 Rd2+ 35.Kg1 Ra2 36.Rxe5, Black's rook protects the passed a-pawn and cuts off the king at least temporarily. When asked about this possibility, the Frenchman declared: "I thought it was a draw, and I thought 33...f6 gave me chances to win".

In the end, Nakamura defended accurately and a draw was signed after 50 moves.

Nakamura did not shy away from the Grünfeld | Photo: Lennart Ootes / Grand Chess Tour

In the match for third place, Aronian once again managed to put pressure on his opponent with the black pieces — he had done the same against Vachier-Lagrave in the semi-finals. He followed the game Caruana-Karjakin from the 2017 Sinquefield Cup until move 10, when he "didn't remember the precise way" from his analysis:

 

Levon did not remember whether he needed to play 10...e4 — like Karjakin — or 10...a5. He chose the latter and created a complicated early-middlegame position. A couple of moves later, he considered playing 12...Nb4 or 12...Qf5 (the computer's first choice) instead of 12...Bc5, but rejected both for being "very romantic and very stupid".

 

The resulting position left White a pawn up but he still had his king in the centre. Fabiano went for a setup with f3, hoping to "on a good day [...] consolidate my extra pawn". However, the World Championship challenger was not able to do it and declared: "It's funny because I never managed to develop any of my pieces or castle".

The dynamic balance was maintained until the point was split on move 28.

Aronian had the upper hand | Photo: Lennart Ootes / Grand Chess Tour


Live commentary webcast

Yasser Seirawan, Jennifer Shahade, Maurice Ashley and Alejandro Ramirez


All games - GCT London Classic

 

A strange Caro-Kann

The same format as the one used in the GCT final was chosen to decide the 2018 British Knockout Champion. The defending KO champion Gawain Jones started the match with Black and neutralised Luke McShane's Italian without difficulties. The players followed the game Amin-Van der Doel from this year's Hoogeveen Open up to move 19 and quickly simplified into a drawn endgame with symmetrical pawn structures.

McShane did not get much with White | Photo: Lennart Ootes / Grand Chess Tour

The first game of the match for third place was more interesting. Michael Adams spent almost 13 minutes before playing the novelty 7.Bd3 against David Howell's Caro-Kann:

 

However, Howell seemed to be prepared for this manoeuvre and answered 7...Na6 rather quickly. A complex struggle ensued, in which both players needed to use a lot of time in several critical junctions. The result was a position where Black was an exchange down but had the pair of bishops and an extra pawn. Adams pushed but ended up agreeing to a draw on move 41:

 

It was certainly a demanding game for both players, who still have to go through another classical game and a final day of rapid and blitz.

David Howell trusts his Caro-Kann | Photo: Lennart Ootes / Grand Chess Tour

All games - British Knockout 

 

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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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