Round 3 Report
John Saunders reports: after three rounds of the Chess.com Isle of Man International at the Villa Marina in Douglas, six players remain on the maximum score of 3/3. Maxime Vachier-Lagrave (France) is the only representative of the top ten seeds amongst them, and the other five in rating order are Wang Hao (China), Arkadij Naiditsch (Azerbaijan), Jeffery Xiong (USA), Erwin L’Ami (Netherlands) and Pavel Tregubov (Russia). But the show was stolen by 13-year-old Rameshbabu Praggnanandhaa of India who defeated 2703-rated Pavel Eljanov (Ukraine) after a six-hour battle.
Dutch digital artist Pia Sprong's image of Praggnanandhaa vs Eljanov catches the flavour and significance of the game (image: @piasprong)
Games like Praggnanandhaa-Eljanov are what this tournament is all about and give it its unique spectator appeal. Players rated 2519, as Praggnanandhaa currently is, don’t get invitations to elite closed tournaments, so their opportunities to show what they can do against the top players are confined to big-money opens such as the Isle of Man and Gibraltar tournaments. Incidentally, this is the second time that the young Indian star has beaten a 2700+ rated player. His first elite victim was David Howell in 2017 at... yes, you guessed it, the Isle of Man. I rest my case.
The end is in sight for Pavel Eljanov, while his opponent still looks remarkably fresh after such a long game (photo: John Saunders)
I suppose the two great debating points that chess fans like to talk about are (1) who was the greatest world champion and (2) who the future world champions will be. The first usually centres around Fischer and Kasparov, while the second involves sifting evidence such as the age by which a player achieves the GM title plus instances of their beating elite opponents. The Praggsta’s win in round three falls smack bang into the latter category and will surely be compared to games from the past such as Fischer’s legendary win against Donald Byrne in the 1956 Rosenwald tournament. Fischer was 13 years 5 months old when he won that game, while Pragg is a couple of months younger. On the face of it you’d have to say that Pavel Eljanov is a rather more formidable opponent than Donald Byrne was in 1956 but it is necessary to make allowances for the vastly improved dissemination of knowledge and playing opportunities available in the modern era, so overall it is perhaps not a bad comparison.
My own gasp of astonishment at 'the Praggsta's' remarkable feat (photo: John Saunders)
There is nothing quite as magical for the avid chess fan as the arrival of a new star in the chess firmament. I’ve got a long memory which doesn’t quite stretch back to the explosion of Tal or Fischer onto the world stage, but I particularly used to relish reading Leonard Barden’s reports of the early achievements of Karpov, Kasparov, Anand, Kramnik and Carlsen. Leonard’s excitement as these new stars made their mark was palpable and infectious. Gratifyingly, Leonard is still with us and still writing his column at the age of 89 and no doubt he will have an interesting take on this game and its implications. I am looking forward to reading his next column just as I have done every Saturday for more than fifty years.
In the meantime, here’s my first take on the game. It’s a complex encounter but there is a boldness and a self-confidence about the way that White insouciantly throws his kingside pawns up the board and puts his knight on c6 to tee up the queen for two rooks trade that invites comparison with the young Tal or perhaps Kasparov. But once the position resolved itself into an exchange-for-pawn endgame one starts wondering about a comparison with Karpov or Carlsen. Of course, we should also look at the game from the point of view of the guy on the opposite side of the board. Did Eljanov simply miss a couple of decent chances to turn the game in his favour? Did he simply have a bad day at the office? The fact that he has chosen to take a bye in round four is perhaps indicative that he is a bit disappointed in himself. Anyway, I expect we will all have different takes on Pragg’s style and what happened in this remarkable game, none of which are any less valid than another. That’s the joy of watching and debating chess, and why we switch our computers on in huge numbers to witness play in exciting tournaments like this.
The Other Games
Aryan Tari gets ready to meet MVL's 1.d4 (photo: John Saunders)
Maxime Vachier-Lagrave entered his 29th year with another smooth win. It was one of those games where the clock times tell the story as well as the game score. MVL played his first 20 or so moves of a Grünfeld very quickly but Aryan Tari lived up to the homophone of his surname: the 2017 world junior champion arrived six minutes late, then expended nearly half an hour on his 11...f6 and a further nine minutes on 19...Ne6. Despite the time taken, neither of these moves stand up to engine scrutiny, with the second one losing a pawn which White converted effortlessly.
Sam Sevian surprises Levon Aronian by pushing his e-pawn only half the usual distance (photo: John Saunders)
Levon Aronian was held at bay by Sam Sevian, at least, if you look at the game in terms of ratings – judged on the moves played it was the other way around. Like Pragg, the 17-year-old New Yorker is something of a prodigy, having become the youngest American to get the GM title, aged 13 years 10 months, and it is no small feat to take a half-point off Levon Aronian in an open tournament. Sevian probably surprised Aronian with his choice of a French Defence rather than his usual 1...e5. It went into an offshoot of the Winawer variation where Black plays 5...a5 rather than the usual capture on c3. Aronian’s choice against this was unconvincing and the advantage of the first move quickly dissipated. He even contrived to lose his a-pawn but there was no prospect of Black exploiting this so a draw was agreed shortly after the 30-move watershed.
Always hard to get a shot of Naiditsch as he shades his eyes. Jumabayev attends to his scoresheet (photo: John Saunders)
Arkadij Naiditsch is a tough tournament competitor and he won an attractive game against GM Rinat Jumabayev after the Kazakhstan player miscalculated in the middle game.
Jeffery Xiong will celebrate his 18th birthday two days after the tournament ends (photo: John Saunders)
Jeffery Xiong, who turns 18 just after the tournament, from Plano, Texas, won a pleasant game against Vishnu Prasanna after the Indian GM overlooked a combination to invade his position with fatal consequences. Xiong’s reward is a fourth-round top-board pairing with Maxime Vachier-Lagrave.
Erwin L'Ami looks slightly surprised to see me taking a picture of him playing Harsha Bharathakoti (photo: John Saunders)
The game between Erwin L’Ami and Harsha Bharathakoti will probably turn up in lots of publications as a chess puzzle. I won’t spoil your future enjoyment of such puzzles by featuring it here but you might want to look at the position after White’s 28th move and figure out what Black needs to do to counter White’s ideas to exploit Black’s back-rank problems. Black has one good queen move and one very bad one. It’s definitely not an easy one and poor Harsha got it wrong. But credit to Erwin L’Ami for his enterprising build-up play to induce the error.
Tregubov-Melkumyan is about to get underway (photo: John Saunders)
Pavel Tregubov spends more of his time coaching than playing these days but his performance in the Isle of Man so far suggests that he has still got what it takes. He overcame Hrant Melkumyan of Armenia in a long game after winning a pawn just before the time control.
The start of a very long battle between Wang Hao (China) and Alexander Donchev (Germany) (photo: John Saunders)
The longest game of the round, which ran to six hours, 40 minutes, was Wang Hao’s win against Alexander Donchenko of Germany. This was grim, attritional stuff, not unlike a Carlsen game, with the German putting up a spirited resistance after going a pawn down and perhaps only truly lost around move 69 when he allowed another pawn to drop, perhaps thinking that the resultant endgame could be drawn.
The two ex-world champions find themselves on 2/3. Vishy Anand was comfortably held by 21-year-old German GM Rasmus Svane, while Vladimir Kramnik secured his first win by beating 23-year-old Indian IM Fenil Shah. It is of course early days and both could easily get back into contention within a couple of rounds but the world champions’ struggle to get points on the board underlines the enormous strength in depth of this tournament.
They seek him here, they seek him there... Gawain 'Pimpernel' Jones dodged a bullet as only he can against Shyam Sundar (photo: John Saunders)
The host country’s players are also struggling to show their best form in the Isle of Man. Leading them at present is FIDE Vice-President GM Dr Nigel Short (I’m not sure I’ve got all his titles in the right order but no matter) with 2½/3 after defeating French player Anthony Bellaiche with a black defence that fleetingly resembled an hommage to his old rival Tony Miles. Half a point behind Short are clustered Mickey Adams (who beat Alan Merry), David Howell, Gawain Jones (who pulled off one of his trademark ‘Scarlet Pimpernel’ escapes from seemingly inevitable disaster against Shyam Sundar) and Danny Gormally.
That’s it for now. Check in for the fourth round Chess.com show at 2.30pm on Tuesday.