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FIDE Chess.com Grand Swiss: Round 2 Report

Round 2 Report

John Saunders reports: after two of the 11 rounds played, there are five joint leaders of the inaugural FIDE Chess.com Grand Swiss tournament to decide a qualifier for the 2020 World Championship Candidates’ tournament. The five on 2/2 are Baskaran Adhiban (India), Fabiano Caruana (USA), Wang Hao, Bu Xiangzhi (both China) and Alexei Shirov (Spain). A glaring omission from their number is world champion Magnus Carlsen, who only secured a draw with Alexey Sarana of Russia after being caught in opening preparation and being obliged to play with extreme accuracy to escape a worse fate.

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Magnus Carlsen and Alexey Sarana start round 2 with the traditional handshake (photo: John Saunders)

The world champion is finding things tougher than he did on his Manx debut in 2017, when he smoothed his way through the tournament in the leading score group after every round and occupied the top board for all his games. Tomorrow, deposed from the leadership for the first time in 12 games played in the Isle of Man, he will be as low as board four. OK, not exactly an ignominious descent but low by his stratospheric standards. Of course there is a long way to go but, unless he can put his poor form behind him, the era of Viking chess sovereignty on this island might be drawing to a close.

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Alexey Sarana's bold and confident play against Carlsen impressed the fans in round 2 (photo: John Saunders)

Carlsen’s second round opponent was Alexey Sarana of Russia, who will be a new name to some of us. Alexey was born in the first month of the 21st century so he's still a teenager for a few more months. Already rated 2655, he is clearly a formidable talent. Confident, too: far from wilting in the face of Carlsen’s reputation, he chose to play the sharpest (but most studied) line available to White to counter Carlsen’s Sveshnikov Sicilian, rather than opting for the more circumspect plan adopted by Fabiano Caruana in the London 2018 title match. Other players have chosen to play this before against Carlsen but the champion was careful to vary from his previous play, which proceeded at breakneck speed as the players entered the endgame before many boards were out of the opening. However, Sarana’s preparation was thorough and he was ready for Carlsen's divergence. He later told interviewer Fiona Steil-Antoni that he had analysed the line for himself, with only his computer for company, up to move 24.

That said, to the untutored eye (e.g. mine), the position reached, with most of the material hoovered off, still looked innocuous, with a draw the likeliest outcome. Sarana demonstrated that the White’s game still possessed venom and it was only ultra-precise defensive play that steered Carlsen’s position to safety. It says something for Sarana's ambition that he was more disappointed at not taking his chance than at achieving a draw with a legend of the game.

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Fabiano Caruana's game against compatriot Samuel Sevian went the distance but the world no.2 look well in control throughout (photo: John Saunders)

For the second day running the world number two looked more assured than the man who had quashed his championship aspirations in 2018. Facing fellow countryman Samuel Sevian, Fabiano Caruana started conservatively and non-theoretically – one might even say in Carlsen style. Sevian’s position seemed solid but small inaccuracies, e.g. giving up bishop for knight, and stranding one of his own pawns, left him with positional problems which Caruana exploited accurately.

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Rauf Mamedov took White against Wang Hao but Black soon wrested the initiative (photo: John Saunders)

Wang Hao reached 2/2 after an impressive squeeze with Black against Rauf Mamedov of Azerbaijan. Mamedov opened with a Sicilian, Moscow variation, but soon found himself metaphorically re-enacting Napoleon’s retreat from the aforementioned city as Black bottled him up on the queenside. White’s play from around move 13 looked insipid and Black was soon calling the shots after his bold reply 13...a5. White tried a piece sacrifice to regain the initiative but Wang Hao defended carefully to exploit this tangible advantage.

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Bu Xiangzhi reaches 2/2 with a win against Russia's Alexander Riazantsev (photo: Maria Emelianova/Chess.com)

Bu Xiangzhi versus Alexander Riazantsev didn’t look particularly promising for White until the Russian pushed his luck too far with 27...c4 allowing a double attack with 28.Qe2. He was probably banking on a clever combination to create a far-advanced passed pawn but the plan had a fatal flaw which the Chinese player exploited neatly.

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India's Baskaran Adhiban proved too tough a nut for Jeffery Xiong to crack (photo: Maria Emelianova/Chess.com)

Young US GM Jeffery Xiong raised his profile with an excellent showing in the recent FIDE World Cup but he came unstuck here against Baskaran Adhiban of India. The American may have overestimated his kingside chances when giving up a pawn on the queenside. Though the pawn was regained, a knight on the rim proved typically dim and allowed the Indian’s d-pawn to sprint down the board after which Xiong’s position became indefensible.

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Alexei Shirov's pieces find the parts of the board that other GMs cannot reach (photo: Maria Emelianova/Chess.com)

The fifth member of the 2/2 quintet was Alexei Shirov, playing again under Spanish colours, whose play against Erwin L’Ami was a reminder of his golden years, topped off with a delicious finish. I’ll try to be the first chess hack in a couple of decades to eschew a combustion-related cliché at this point but it will be difficult, nay impossible, to avoid reference to another notable Shirovian accomplishment that we caïssic scribblers can’t seem to resist when desperate for copy – namely his 47...Bh3!! against Topalov at Linares in 1998 which was accorded the title of ‘greatest chess move ever made’ in a magazine feature in the 1990s. The move 36...Ba4!! in today’s game with L’Ami was a remarkable echo of the 1998 gem, once again putting a bishop en prise to a pawn in order to gain time and facilitate the path for pawns and/or king. By way of comparison I’ve put the key positions from the two games alongside each other so you can admire these two supreme examples of his flair.

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Vishy Anand recovered from his first-round calamity by defeating Tal Baron of Israel. This too was a Sveshnikov Sicilian but the former world champion soon established a comfortable edge and won by exploiting his passed d-pawn.

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Vishy Anand chats with his second round opponent Tal Baron after their game (photo: John Saunders)

Raunak Sadhwani – or ‘the boy who would be Vishy’ if I might be permitted to nickname him that – had another excellent day, following his win against 2662-rated Sjugirov in the first round with a draw against former world championship runner-up Sergey Karjakin. It seems only a few years ago that Karjakin was the enfant terrible of the chess world; now he’s a relative veteran facing the new wave of brilliant youngsters coming from India and elsewhere.

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Raunak Sadhwani, still only 13, has made a great start to the tournament. In round 2 he held Sergey Karjakin to a draw (photo: John Saunders)

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Hikaru Nakamura discussing his win against Axel Bachmann for the live broadcast (photo: Maria Emelianova/Chess.com)

These are early days but there seems to be a theme starting up in the tournament with knights venturing into enemy territory in ever more imaginative ways to discomfit the opponent. Carlsen nearly succumbed to this horseplay yesterday. Another example was Hikaru Nakamura’s masterful use of cavalry to imbalance his game against Axel Bachmann, first by invading with Nb6 and then giving up the other knight to force the win of material. Instead of following the cavalry charge with an infantry assault as in non-metaphorical warfare, Nakamura then deployed his clergy to round up and trap one of his opponent’s knights.

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Boris Gelfand looked the more tense of the two but he overcame Nihal Sarin in a long grond (photo: John Saunders)

Not all prodigies present did as well as Sadhwani. Nihal Sarin was unlucky enough to find Boris Gelfand at his imperious best as he ground the Indian youngster down in 71 moves. It was similar to Nakamura’s game in that two bishops gradually outmanoeuvred two knights, though Sarin defended tenaciously and it took longer to pull off.

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IM Brandon Clarke, now returned to live in England from down under, demonstrates his win against GM Eduardo Iturrizaga (photo: John Saunders)

There were a number of rating-defying upsets further down the list, with IM Brandon Clarke restoring English pride with a career-best defeat of Venezuelan GM Eduardo Iturrizaga with Black. Brandon is not so well known even in his native country, probably because he hasn’t played much in the capital and perhaps more because he has been living and working in Australia for some years, but he recently gave notice of his talent in winning the British Major Open with a handsome score of 8½/9. His wildcard entry was thanks to his Manx heritage: Brandon’s father comes from the Isle of Man. In the game the Venezuelan GM’s approach to Brandon’s King’s Indian looked a bit gung-ho and he paid the penalty for loosening his pawn structure and leaving his king exposed in the centre.

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Gawain Jones is renowned for his Houdini-like escape acts, but it didn't work against Antoaneta Stefanova (photo: John Saunders)

Another English player was on the wrong end of a rating upset. Gawain Jones’s bad start got worse when he lost to former women’s world champion Antoaneta Stefanova. Recent motherhood seems not to have dimmed the Bulgarian’s sharpness (why should it?) and she set about refuting the English GM’s speculative exchange sacrifice with her customary determination. She gave back the exchange to win a far-flung e-pawn and not even Gawain Jones’ Pimpernel-style knack of pulling lost positions out of the fire could save him on this occasion. Another leading English contender Luke McShane won his game after outplaying Chinese GM Lu Shanglei, who was soon saddled with the worst bishop since the Spanish inquisition. Attempts to spring it from prison were quickly refuted.

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Alina Kashlinskaya tried to cheapo David Howell but the English no.1 replied with a bigger, nastier counter-cheapo (photo: John Saunders)

David Howell also won after a complicated struggle with Alina Kashlinskaya which concluded when last year’s top women’s prize winner set a sneaky trap which was instantly refuted by a tactic of higher calibre from the Englishman.

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GM Marie Sebag downed China's Zhang Zhong in round two (photo: John Saunders)

Antoaneta Stefanova was by no means the only female competitor to defeat a much-higher rated opponent. The same feat was accomplished by three others, Marie Sebag (France), Bathuyag Munguntuul (Mongolia) and Elina Danielian (Armenia), all of whom were conceding in excess of 200 rating points to the opposition. Zhang Zhong seemed well placed against Marie Sebag with an extra pawn into the bargain but he carelessly allowed the French GM’s knight to emerge from its isolation and help open up the position. The game remained in the balance until Zhang Zhong overlooked a well-masked tactic to win material. Elina Danielian’s win with Black against SP Sethuraman featured some forceful play in the French Defence, based on queenside counterattacking play after the formidable Indian, perhaps unwisely, chose to castle long. Analysis engines point out plenty of opportunities where White could have improved his game but at the board it was far from easy. So it wasn’t altogether surprising when Sethuraman finally succumbed to a savage tactical snare that cost him his queen. French Defence fans will do well to check out Elina’s positive play in this game.

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Bathuyag Munguntuul of Mongolia played an excellent game to beat Sergei Movsesian (photo from round 1: John Saunders)

Munguntuul’s game against Sergei Movsesian is still a bit of a mystery, at least to me. At first sight the narrative of the game is that the Armenian GM was pressing for a win from a slightly advantageous position for much of the game. That is what the engine seems to suggest. However, Movsesian always laboured under the risk of his undefended h-pawn dropping off, and that is what eventually happened. Whether he could or should have averted this fate, or whether his opponent was biding her time and defending stoutly until such time as she could capture the pawn, is something I don’t feel qualified to pontificate about without spending more time on it. I've an uncomfortable feeling that, if Carlsen had been playing Movsesian, we chess press people in our ivory towers would be telling our readers how Carlsen had it under complete control at all times. Hmm... I leave readers to decide for themselves. Whatever the case, the Mongolian IM deserves much credit for going toe to toe with a strong opponent for so long and exploiting the material advantage that accrued. All in all, a pretty good round for women’s chess and indicative of an exciting and competitive battle to come for the women’s first prize of $10,000.

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Elina Danielian's handling of the French Defence in beating SP Sethuraman was a master class (photo: Maria Emelianova/Chess.com)


The sands of time have run out on me and I must publish and be damned. Nevertheless, I shall endeavour to add a few annotations to this page later in the day so look back again later for an update. Incidentally, some annotations have been added to the first-round report since its initial publication so click on the link if you want to see more detail about Magnus Carlsen and Vishy Anand’s games in round one.

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