Thirteen is lucky for Caruana!

by admin on March 26, 2018

So far I haven’t written anything in my blog about the ongoing Candidates Tournament to pick the next challenger to Magnus Carlsen. After all, what can I tell you that you can’t read on a thousand other websites?

However, today’s round was too exciting not to write about. It was the 13th (second-to-last) round of the tournament. Fabiano Caruana and Shakhriyar Mamedyarov, who had been leading most of the way, had lost in round 12, creating a mad free-for-all with five players within a half-point of the lead. But at the end of a wild and crazy day, Caruana and Mamedyarov were the two leaders who pulled out victories. Here are the standings going into the final round:

  1. Caruana — 8/13
  2. Mamedyarov — 7.5/13
  3. Sergey Karjakin — 7.5/13

For Caruana, the situation must seem hauntingly familiar. Last time, in 2016, he went into the last round tied with Karjakin. But he had a slightly unfavorable position in tiebreaks: Karjakin had the tiebreaker advantage over Caruana unless Anand (who was out of contention and thus had nothing to play for) won his last game. Under the circumstances Caruana had to play all-out for a win, and instead Karjakin scored a beautiful victory.

This time Caruana has two things in his favor. First, he’s going into the last round ahead, rather than tied. Second, he has already played (and lost to) his bete noir, Karjakin. In the last round Caruana is paired against Alexander Grischuk (who may be psychologically reeling from a time-pressure debacle against Mamedyarov). Both of his pursuers are playing against people who will be extremely difficult to beat. Karjakin is paired against Ding Liren, who has not lost a single game this tournament. (Twelve draws, one win.) Mamedyarov is playing against Kramnik, who has had an up-and-d0wn tournament. But jeez, he’s Kramnik — a former World Champion, playing White.

All in all, I have to like Caruana’s chances. But if he falls short again, I would really wonder if he’s missed his chance at making history.

But let’s not think about that. Let’s think only positive thoughts for tomorrow!

Here was the crucial position for Caruana today. He was playing White against Levon Aronian — usually a huge contender, but struggling along in last place with only 4 points. The kibitzers online are already calling him “Error-nian,” which is a trifle harsh since he sports a 2794 rating.

Position after 31. Qxf2. Black to move.

FEN: 1r1r4/2p2p1k/pbn2q1p/1p2pP2/PP6/2P1N3/2B2QK1/R1B1R3 b – – 0 31

First of all, Aronian gets lots of credit for throwing the position into chaos with a piece sacrifice instead of letting Caruana grind him down. The position is amazingly complex, with both players harboring ideas of attacking the other’s king. White’s king is naked on the g-file, while Black’s king looks slightly safer — but really isn’t, with White’s two powerful “Rubinstein bishops” aiming at him. If Black’s queen ever leaves its awkward post on f6, it could be lights out after the f5-f6 discovered check.

In this position, unbelievably, Black’s saving move comes on the other side of the board. The computer found it, of course, but Aronian did not: 31. … Nxb4!!

After you’ve seen it, the move makes a great deal of sense. The idea is that after 32. bc Rd4! Black gets all four of his pieces into the attack: one rook via d4, and the other rook via g8. Remember, when you are attacking, try to invite all of your pieces to the party!

But to the kibitzers criticizing “Error-nian” for missing this move, let me ask: how many of you, after sacrificing one piece, would immediately sacrifice another? And also, there is some real heavy-duty calculating to be done in an immensely complicated position, with two or three minutes left on your clock.

According to my laptop, White’s best play after 31. … Nxb4!! 32. bc Rd4! would be 33. Nd5!, out-and-out giving the knight back in order to slow Black down by a tempo or two. This actually leads to something like a 0.33-pawn advantage for White — and there are winning chances for both sides. If White wants to make Black prove the soundness of the two-piece sacrifice, the computer says 33. Kh3 Qg5 (to threaten Qh5+) 34. f6+ Kh8 35. Bd1 (defending the threat) Rg8 36. Ng2 (the only way to play the discovered attack without allowing … Rh4+) Rf4 (defending the discovery, attacking White’s queen) 37. Rxe5 (counterattacking) Rxf2 38. Bxg5 Bd4! and Black recovers a full rook with equality.

All of this requires superhuman play with flags hanging. In reality, it would have been a total crapshoot.

Instead Aronian chose to play 31. … e4?, a reasonable-looking move, but it just doesn’t give him enough threats to really slow Caruana down. In particular, Caruana’s king finds relative safety on f1 (which was not possible in the above lines due to the threat of … Rf4) and Aronian is not able to get his second rook into the attack. The game finished:

32. Rh1 Rd6 33. Bxe4 Rg8+ 34. Kf1 Ne5 35. Qf4 c6

As Peter Svidler, who was commenting online, said, if you have to play moves like this then you know you have made a mistake. Basically you’ve sacrificed a piece for your opponent to get an attack.

36. ab Rg5

Looks strange, but Aronian realized that Rxh6+ was a huge threat. (Spoiler alert!)

37. ba …

Simple.

37. … Qd8 38. f6+ Ng6

Position after 38. … Ng6. White to move.

FEN: 3q4/5p1k/Pbpr1Pnp/6r1/1P2BQ2/2P1N3/8/R1B2K1R w – – 0 39

And now Caruana wins in style:

39. Rxh6+! Black resigns

Admittedly, the surprise was somewhat spoiled by the fact that the commentators and kibitzers were calling for White to do this three moves ago, but it’s still completely deadly. After 39. … Kh6 the most forcing line would be 40. Qh2+ Rh5 41. Nf5+ Kh7 42. Qxh5+ Kg8 43. Ne7+ and it’s pick your poison for Black. 43. … Kf8 runs into 44. Nxg6+ trading everything off into an easily won endgame for White. 43. … Nxe7 runs into the neat 44. Qh7+ Kf8 45. fe+! Kxe7 46. Bg5+ winning the queen.

Very nice by Caruana! And a nice case study for anyone who wants to argue that the rook and bishop are already well developed on their original squares, a1 and c1.

What will the morrow hold?

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