Round 7 Report

Round 7 Report

John Saunders reports: another remarkable round at the Villa Marina saw the number of leaders increase by one – the same names as per the round six leader board, plus England’s perennial numero uno, Mickey Adams. There was some fantastic chess played, which it gives me great pleasure to report upon. Before we move on, let’s just record the seven leaders’ names for the record: Maxime Vachier-Lagrave (France), Hikaru Nakamura (USA), Radoslaw Wojtaszek (Poland), Wang Hao (China), Arkadij Naiditsch (Azerbaijan), Mickey Adams (England) and Jeffery Xiong (USA) all have 5½ out of 7.

The eagle-eyed amongst you might have spotted that those names are listed in descending ranking order. They are respectively the numbers 3, 8, 10, 12, 13, 15 and 29 in order of rating in this event. Of course, it is still by no means certain that one of them will turn out to be the ultimate winner of the tournament but with only two rounds to go it may be a tough ask for a player outside the top score group to overtake all seven of them. It is interesting that just three of the top ten rated players in the tournament should figure in the top score group and perhaps more so that Jeffery Xiong, ranked as low as 29th, should have risen to this height. His TPR so far is 2851, incidentally.

It might be worth looking back at the round seven scores in each of the past four years of the tournament, working back in time. Last year Magnus Carlsen had 6/7 at this stage and ran out the sole winner on 7½/9. In 2016 Pavel Eljanov had an extraordinary 6½/7 but shared the top final score of 7½/9 with Fabiano Caruana. In 2015 Pentala Harikrishna had 6/7 and was one of three players – the others were Gabriel Sargissian and Laurent Fressinet – who finished on 7. Finally, the inaugural Douglas tournament in 2014 saw four players tied on 5½/7, with Nigel Short winning his last two games to finish alone at the top on 7½. I think we have to hope that, this year, someone, or perhaps a couple of players, will make 7½, otherwise it will be a multiple car crash on 7.

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MVL versus Naiditsch caught fire briefly but fizzled out quickly (photo: John Saunders)

The top three boards between the leaders finished in 25, 40 and 58 moves respectively and all were hard-fought. The game between MVL and Naiditsch caught fire when the Frenchman punted 17.c4. The same move was suggested by Daniel King on commentary although he didn’t quite believe it himself and was moderately surprised when MVL chose it. It’s safe to say that it flabbergasted Naiditsch as he plunged into a 42-minute think about how to reply. In the end he struck back by taking a pawn but also committing himself to a piece sacrifice on the following move. In return he received two pawns and a good shot at his opponent’s much weakened king. Rather than take any further risk, and perhaps shocked at their own temerity in bringing about the imbalance in material in the first place, the players headed towards a repetition.

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Nakamura line about Siong's 'soft pairings' was put to bed by the round eight pairings, with Siong given a second
successive Black - against Vladimir Kramnik (photo: John Saunders)

The build-up to the Hikaru Nakamura – Jeffery Xiong clash actually started the previous day in the interview after Nakamura’s sixth round game. Nakamura made reference to what he called the ‘soft pairings’ that the younger American had received in previous rounds. Xiong didn’t rise to the bait but at least it was an indicator that the game would be hard fought. As of course are pretty well all Nakamura games: he plays as hard and as honestly as he talks and the game of chess is all the better for it. As regards the game itself, Xiong commented afterwards that he was surprised by Nakamura’s 16.e5 when he himself had expected (and perhaps feared) to see 16.Qd2 which he thought was a more tenacious way for his opponent to retain and reinforce the advantage of the first move. In the course of the next few moves any advantage that Nakamura thought he had more or less evaporated and he indicated his own dissatisfaction with his position with various head shakings and unhappy facial expressions. Xiong thought he was better by this stage, and that had he played 34...Rb8 instead of wasting time with 34...Rc8, he would have been close to winning. On move 39 Nakamura brought about the end of the game with a rook sacrifice to force perpetual check.

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Two extra pawns weren't enough for Wang Hao to overcome Radoslaw Wojtaszek (photo: John Saunders)

Wang Hao-Wojtaszek was a typically long game by the Chinese player (and perhaps also typical of the Polish GM) which got going with a tricky tactical sequence around moves 18-22, from which Wang Hao emerged with an extra pawn. However, it wasn’t really a clear extra pawn as it was a doubled rook’s pawn and there was also an opposite-coloured bishop sub-text to the subsequent play. Wojtaszek was even bold enough to let a second pawn go as it enabled him to take control of the position with an attack on f2, which tied down White’s rook to defence. Resourceful though Wang Hao was, his opponent’s active defence saved the day.

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The inter-generational clash between Vladislav Artemiev and Vladimir Kramnik ended in a draw (photo: John Saunders)

Artemiev-Kramnik was a fascinating glimpse of Russian chess present and future, with Kramnik approaching the end of his career (he has occasionally been known to talk about retirement) and the 20-year-old Vladislav Artemiev now being seen as a likely successor. In the game Artemiev’s opening edge fizzled out and his queenside was broken up. Engines thought Kramnik could have secured a substantial advantage by advancing 30...f5 but he played something more conservative. The game meandered on for a while but never looked like being other than a draw.

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Sethuraman-Anand: nothing to see here, move along now, ladies and gentlemen... (photo: John Saunders)

Anand-Sethuraman was a fairly sedate affair in a similar line of the English to Artemiev-Kramnik. It reduced to a minor piece ending by the 30-move watershed.

So, the reader is thinking, ‘where is all this fantastic chess that you trailed in your opening paragraph?’. OK, you know what, I apologise. I’ve taken a heck of a long time to cut to the chase and I commend your patience in staying with me this long. The chess on the top five boards had its moments and should not perhaps be described quite so effusively but you’ll be relieved to know we’ve now reached the pairings where most of the spectator entertainment was to be had. And (my chest swells with pride as I write) it was the Brits that provided most of it. Oh, and Alexei Shirov, who’s not the slightest bit British, of course. But, anyway, you Brits reading this should run the Union Jack up the flagpole, put on a shamelessly nationalistic recording of Elgar or Parry as you read the following Kiplingesque tale of our brave boys in round seven, Lord love ‘em.

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Another great escape by Gawain Jones, this time against Hungary's Richard Rapport (photo: John Saunders)

Firstly, Gawain Jones... how does he do it? 102 moves his game against Richard Rapport lasted, and he spent about 70 of them looking like a dead man walking, written off by computer engines and pundits alike, but somehow he hung on for a 50-move rule draw, a piece for a pawn down, against one of the most creative and talented players in the world. I wasn’t present at the end, having sloped off to start work on my report, and was very pleasantly surprised to see ½-½ on the list of results when I fired up my computer again in my hotel room. I do hope there was a posse of loyal Brits there to see him do it, and form a guard of honour whistling the theme tune to ‘The Great Escape’ as he left the building. Jolly good show, old man.

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Board 13 - lucky for some. Simon Williams put in a tremendous shift to hold Zoltan Almasi to a draw (photo: John Saunders)

Another English GM was up against a higher-rated Hungarian player, and I joked on Twitter some time in mid-afternoon that we could be on for a towsing from the Magyars not seen since Puskas and co beat England’s footballers 6-3 at Wembley in 1953. I have never been more glad to be proved wrong as Simon Williams, conceding 245 rating points to Zoltan Almasi, also turned round a dodgy position and at one point was even in some danger of winning it. Like Gawain, Simon played up to his characteristic strength, namely his counterattacking élan. It reminded me a bit of another such game I saw Simon play in the Isle of Man, back in the Monarch Assurance tournament days. I’ve just looked it up: Agrest-Williams, Isle of Man 2004. Brutal but exhilarating. But let’s have a look at this remarkable game of today which secured England’s unofficial score-draw with Hungary.

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Spiderman traps Superman: Mickey Adams ground out a bishop endgame win against Abhijeet Gupta (photo: John Saunders)

After Jones the escapologist, and Williams the counterattacker, comes Adams the grinder. It seemed all the GMs were showing off their party pieces on the same day. As one wag put it on Twitter (and I’m annoyed I didn’t think of it first): this was Spiderman beating Superman. You would have thought Abhijeet Gupta would have retired his Superman cap after it had failed to work its magic on Nakamura in round six but he tried his luck again, to no avail. Like so many before him, he was soon helpless in Adams’s web. That said, it didn’t look terminal until the very end. Classic Adams.

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David Howell beat Helgi Olafsson in (by his standards)quick time (photo: John Saunders)

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Levon Aronian proved to be a super-GM too far for Nigel Short (photo: John Saunders)

David Howell also cashed in on this British bonanza, beating Helgi Olafsson within the first session: the first time he has managed this during the tournament. The one British defeat of significance was that of Nigel Short, who had coped manfully, comfortably even, with three mega-GMs in a row, but found a fourth, Levon Aronian, a bit too much for him. It was actually a great game but a little too rich for my blood: I have simply run out of time to look at it in any detail.

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Alexei Shirov scored a fine win against Le Quang Liem to get him in contention for the big money (photo: John Saunders)

Ditto, Alexei Shirov’s game against Le Quang Liem. Fascinating but too long and complex to be tackled in one of these brief overnight reports. That’s it for now, folks. The penultimate round tomorrow (Saturday) starts at 2.30pm UK time and here’s an early reminder that the final round on Sunday starts at the earlier time of 1.00pm UK time.

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GM Hikaru Nakamura
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