Tal Memorial. Round 2. Slumbering Lion

The Moscow chess public is nevertheless a strange beast: the more interesting the action the less attention it pays. It would seem that after the carnage of the first day of the 7th Tal Memorial fans should have downright barged their way into Pashkov House, but instead… there were even less! They missed a majestic victory by Kramnik against Grischuk, an epic battle between Morozevich and Carlsen, and Radjabov seizing the sole lead.

Report by Evgeny Atarov

Official commentator Mark Glukhovsky’s words were a cry from the soul after he went down to the hall for a moment to see if Nakamura and Caruana were still “alive”. “On my way I encountered a couple of arbiters, three cameramen, the director, about five of the organisers, a few journalists, two players and… one spectator!” 

Yes, the Candidates Tournament in London really did play a dirty trick on the Tal Memorial. The Russian Chess Federation managed to rush to move their tournament from November to June, only to confirm that you simply can’t hold a supertournament in Moscow in summer. Or rather, you can of course hold it, perhaps the players will also come, and you can do everything to a high standard… but it’s just that in advance you have to come to terms with the hall being empty. Holidays, dachas! Even if a dozen Carlsens were playing.

However, at the moment not even a single one is visible in Pashkov House. Or rather, some guy walks onto the stage who’s very similar to Magnus – you can compare him to dozens of billboards you can now encounter all over Europe – but he only reminds people he’s the number one on the world rating list at a point that for many others would already be too late. In the first round the Norwegian should probably have been beaten by Kramnik, while it’s even more likely he should have lost to Morozevich in the second.

Before the tournament I chatted a little with Magnus and his father. We discussed the latest news, Anand, Gelfand, Paulson and the upcoming Candidates Tournament, and also that in his homeland and in part across the whole of Scandinavia “Carlsenmania” has begun. Well, and then I took the chance to ask him how he rated his chances in the tournament. Magnus frowned and characteristically shrugged his shoulders, as if to say what are you asking, I’ll fight for first place as why else would I be here, but then he bit – and said doubtfully that he hadn’t sat down at a chessboard for four months and still hadn’t done any concrete preparation for the Tal Memorial. I was surprised, but then I recalled how he told me that he often prepares for a tournament at the tournament itself. And moreover, before the start there was also blitz, where Magnus could warm up a little and recall what it feels like. What the Norwegian showed there, sharing first place in the tournament without any great effort, confirmed: everything was okay! 

But it turned out that far from everything was okay, or even that it wasn’t ok. Whatever kind of chess genius you are such a prolonged break from practical play – Carlsen last sat down at a board back in Wijk aan Zee – can’t be overcome so easily… No, Magnus isn’t blundering or getting into time trouble, but you can’t help but be amazed by how carelessly he’s approaching the opening. Watching him allow Kramnik to seize the initiative, or immediately ending up in dire straits against Morozevich, you might even get the idea that he was doing it on purpose in order to force himself to wake up, “to switch on” at full power, after which he could deal with weaker opponents in his usual manner. Whichever way you look at it, the schedule means that it’s at the end that Carlsen will have the task of crushing the tail-enders.

For now that’s no more than guesswork, but… let’s talk about it nearer the finish, and we’ll also see how many points Carlsen has by that point.

So far, he’s got two halves. The day before Kramnik “didn’t want to”, while Morozevich “wasn’t able to”. Show anyone his position after around move 23 and ask how the game would end and regardless of the name of his opponent you’d get a confident: White must win. But how? Despite the obvious signs of Black’s position collapsing no direct variations forcing a white victory jump out at you.

So Morozevich sat there, thought about it, and gradually got into unpleasant time trouble.

How did things get like that for Carlsen? He put all the blame on his 11…Nd7? “I didn’t know how to react to 11.Rc1 and probably chose the most awful plan”, he said after the game. He thought about “snapping up” the pawn on a2, but then decided against the idea as he was too far behind in development. He considered a few more plans and came up with that absurd manoeuvre. The knight rapidly jumped across the whole board, and left Black’s position in tatters. And when the white rooks got to the “promised land” on the seventh rank… But it seems we’ve already chatted about that. Magnus was asked if he considered his position hopeless?! In reply Carlsen, looking straight ahead, just threw up his hands: “It doesn't make any sense for me to evaluate whether my position is lost or not. I just have to fight and find my best chances, which is what I tried to do…” It was harder for Morozevich to answer.  

“White’s edge was obvious but there were just too many options…” They still didn’t manage to find anything decisive right away. It seems White could have played 19.f4 – in reply Magnus was preparing to sacrifice a pawn in order to bring his bishop to e6. It may have been better not to rush with 24.b4, although Morozevich said he wanted to stabilise the structure on the queenside as soon as possible. In the end Sasha actually expressed the thought that the whole idea of doubling rooks on the f-file was dubious and that White’s position also had other long-term strategic factors.

But if you’ve reached the stage of having doubts like that then Carlsen’s ability to defend what are apparently hopeless positions… is capable of giving rise to uncertainty in anyone!

In any case, during the game Morozevich clearly appeared to be more concerned than his young opponent. He literally didn’t get up from the table, while Carlsen was nonchalantly strolling across the stage and sipping from his bottle of juice…

And when Sasha started to blitz out move after move in sharp time trouble it seemed as though he was actually going to lose the game! Thankfully he didn’t lose, as he once did to Nepomniachtchi  in the Russian Championship Superfinal after a roughly similar scenario. “I thought I’d got my suffering out of the way back then, but it turned out I hadn’t!” Sasha said. “On that occasion I lost, but this time I got a draw. An encouraging trend…”

An encouraging trend has also emerged for Kramnik. In general he’s been demonstrating absolute calm in Moscow, some kind of sporting thick skin. Things didn’t work out against Carlsen – no worries – there are plenty of opponents at the tournament. Things worked out against Grischuk. And how! 

After the game one of Sasha’s phrases was striking: explaining his opening choice and what happened overall in the game against the ex-Champion he said something disarming: “It always seemed to me that if both sides make logical moves and don’t commit any clear mistakes the game should end in a draw!” For his part Grischuk did indeed make logical moves that were simply begging to be played, and he committed no clear mistakes – but as a result he stopped the clocks as early as the 29th move. It ended up being an amazing game.

The opening choice in games at such a level is a matter of taste… It’s unusual, of course, to see Grischuk playing the King’s Indian Defence as Black, but there you go. Kramnik, of course, reacted with the “Classical”, as he’s beaten everyone there, including Kasparov; his 10.g3!? was a surprise – “he put the bishop on e2 and then decided to fianchetto” – he carried out the typical Ng5-e6 and b4-b5 and brought the queen out to a4 to make way for the rook on d1 … It seemed it was nothing special – during that time Grischuk was able to develop and take down the white pawn centre, and overall, apart from the two bishops and more freedom of action, there was nothing at all for White! But harmless as it seemed, the potential of Volodya’s pieces turned out to be so great that Sasha consumed almost all of his remaining time looking for concrete paths. 

Who, looking at White’s position after the 20th move, would say that Black was doomed?! But, by all accounts, he was. In any case Grischuk just sat there, not raising his head. Kramnik meanwhile calmly strolled around the stage, as his presence definitely wasn’t needed. In fact he resembles some kind of… “sleeping lion”, which occasionally raises its head, looks around, and then falls back into slumber. At the same time, however, any one of its predatory movements proves fatal for its prey.

At the press conference he gave a sincere shrug of his shoulders, saying that the game was an… “echo” of the preparation for Kazan (note that back then it was precisely Grischuk who Kramnik played in the semifinal), and that he’d tried to play like that once before – against Giri – but he mixed up the move order before nevertheless winning. “The position after 19.Qa4 is very unpleasant for Black”, he stated. “White has a strong initiative, and offhand you can’t immediately say how Black should neutralise it…”

And Grischuk couldn’t deal with it, clutching at one thing after another. The g6, d5 and c6 pawns, and the rook itself that was guarding the 6th rank, at some point became targets for the white pieces, which were impossible to get at.

“Everything boiled down to the position after 22.Qb3”, Grischuk complained. “I hoped I’d be able to find something there, but after calculating a mass of variations I couldn’t find a decent defence. I underestimated that move and 24.Ba3! White didn’t make a single superfluous move!”

Kramnik called 22…Rb6 the decisive mistake, suggesting 22…Qd7 as an alternative, although the impression was that no single move could have rescued Black from such a tight spot. In the press centre Dlugy presided as various moves were looked at – Max asked for and was eventually brought a real chessboard – but it always turned out that Black found himself in some deep defence with the prospect of playing only for two results. Or more accurately – for “one and a half”, with White much closer to a win than a draw. Well, and after Kramnik launched his a-pawn forward all his moves just looked so natural that, it seemed, all of us would play like that – the outcome of the game ceased to raise any doubts. The fact that Black was “in trouble” was also clear from the clock situation – Grischuk’s minutes were numbered.

The climax followed almost immediately… White’s threats snowballed. A blow from the left – 27.a5, a blow from the right – 28.h4 and the knockout 29.Qd1, after which Grischuk lacked the moral or physical strength to continue the game.

“If it had been the last round or, let’s say, the Candidates Matches, then I wouldn’t have resigned on the 29th move, but there was absolutely nothing for me to clutch at!” was how Sasha explained his resignation.

Kramnik, it seemed, was almost yawning out of boredom: banal, Khobotov! [a quote from a popular Soviet comedy] It’s unlikely Volodya thought that everything would be so easy: almost a win against Carlsen and a win like that against Grischuk?! A supertournament, you say… It’s well-known after ten Dortmunds that summer’s the time for him, but to such a degree? If he continues to play in the same style applying such “relaxed pressure”, then in all probability you could name the winner of the event right now. We’ll see what follows.

Someone who wouldn’t agree with that assessment, perhaps, is Radjabov. Teimour could be satisfied with the draw (or with his play in the blitz) for the start of the tournament: in the 1st round – Tomashevsky with White, in the second – McShane with Black. He overcame both those barriers. Not without difficulty, but…

The fact that he’d come to beat Luke was immediately visible, both from his posture at the table and his aggressive opening choice: by move 14 White had already clearly turned into the defending side, as should actually be the case in a game between the 5th and 40th players in the world, between a professional and an amateur who’s only playing the tournament because he was granted leave from work. However, for a very long time Radjabov had nothing significant.

He could only boast of the difference in time. From the very first moves the Englishman began to head for his usual time trouble, and by around move 22, when Houdini didn’t know what either White or Black should do and showed a clear 0.00, he’d left himself about 10 minutes.

But time notwithstanding, in order to chalk up a point on the scoreboard Radjabov needed to do something. Ultimately he came up with the switch Nb4-d5-f4 and g5, which with the passive acquiescence of White allowed Black to seize the g-file and at least get some play. And not just some, but the Azeri’s favourite King’s Indian attack on opened files – directly at the king. It seemed as though McShane himself couldn’t grasp how he’d given his opponent what he so passionately desired. And then time trouble reared its head as well – and Tima finally began to act more intuitively. Almost as if it was blitz!

On the 33rd move McShane had perhaps his last chance to “bail out”, when Radjabov followed his plan and offered an exchange of queens, as if asking: what would you prefer, sir – to straighten out my pawns or to come under an attack? “Perhaps I should have taken on g6, agreeing to a slightly worse but roughly equal position?” – Luke still couldn’t work it out after the game. And then… Everything was crystal clear: Black set up an attacking battery while White arranged his special battalions.

“Right up until the 40th move I was happy with my position!” McShane said after the game. “But then I looked at the board (Luke thought about his 41st move for about forty minutes – E.A.) and realised that it was simply hopeless. A sad discovery…”

The computer does indeed confidently show zeros right up until the 39th move, when it suddenly changes its opinion, giving White -2.25 after 40.Kh2. Anything else, any nothing move but just not aitch-two – Houdini yelled. And did that change something? Yes, everything – Black was given the option of Rh6 and h5, and White had deprived himself of the move Rh2.

Does it need to be said what two moves Radjabov made next? White’s king raced back to h1 on the next move, but it was already too late… There’d been time to lament him and place him in the grave. McShane made a few more unnecessary moves and resigned.

Radjabov, meanwhile, had chalked up 2 out of 2! Not a bad start for a Category 21 tournament. In Moscow Teimour has been composed, focussed and is clearly in the mood for a top result. If they let him, of course. He’s had a wonderful “warm up”… How will things go from here?

After an opening win Aronian, for instance, didn’t go out on a limb and when Tomashevsky felt the urge to make a draw with the white pieces he didn’t have any great objections. Well, a draw’s a draw. With Black it’s the not the worst result, especially as Levon’s form clearly isn’t what it was, for example, in Wijk aan Zee.

A great deal of desire but little content was shown by Caruana and Nakamura. In general strange things have been going on with Hikaru in Moscow. It would seem as though the fifth best player in the world has come to visit us, someone who’s just torn apart the US Championship, but apart from ambitions he's had little to offer. In November at the Tal Memorial he even finished on -3, without a single victory… He’s also continuing to blunder in July. Against Fabiano as well he only reminded us who he was after the game had started to approach a hundred moves and there were only a couple of pieces and a pawn each on the board. He was squeezing and squeezing but couldn’t squeeze out a win, leaving the firm impression that it would be worth channelling his irrepressible energy into something more creative… And then, perhaps, victories will come. At the Tal Memorial as well.

For now Nakamura is, if not an outsider, then clearly not one of those who generate the atmosphere at a tournament and who the spectators come to see. For that he needs to make them take him to their hearts. Above all, through wins!