Round 9 Report
John Saunders reports: the ninth round featured the much-anticipated clash of the world rated numbers one and two, Magnus Carlsen and Fabiano Caruana, which ended in a draw, as did the game between two of the three joint leaders Levon Aronian and David Antón Guijarro, though this lasted considerably longer. The one significant change at the top of the tournament was that Hikaru Nakamura won his game with Vladislav Kovalev and became the fourth member of the leading score group on 6½ going into the last two rounds.
Magnus Carlsen and Fabiano Caruana haven't had a decisive classical encounter since the 2017 Isle of Man tournament (photo: John Saunders)
The game between Magnus Carlsen and Fabiano Caruana, which opened with a Four Knights English, fizzed and sparkled for a brief span, as Carlsen sped through the opening phase of the game while Caruana laboured for some time over his ninth move. He later said he had forgotten his prep but it didn't matter unduly as he was able to level the game. Caruana opened up a line of counterattack on the queenside at the cost of a pawn and he was able to make use of this in baling out with perpetual check in just 25 moves. I imagine that chess fans will be wondering like me whether either of them really believes he can beat the other after their all-draws match in London 2018.
Levon Aronian pressed hard against David Antón Guijarro but the Spanish GM resisted coolly (photo: John Saunders)
The top board clash between Levon Aronian and David Antón Guijarro was more substantial and lasted longer. It featured a line of the Giuoco Piano which has become theoretically hot in the past few months, finally diverging from Alekseenko-Ding Liren from the recent FIDE World Cup on move 17, by which time the material had imbalanced by quite a degree (Aronian, White, had bishop and knight for rook and two pawns). On move 44 Aronian managed to reduce the pawn deficit by one, but Antón hit back immediately by sacrificing the exchange for a pawn. He was thus a piece down for two pawns, but with Aronian only having one pawn left in total, the chances of a draw had increased. There were still chances of winning but only if the Spaniard faltered, and he didn’t. It was a fine defensive effort from Antón. His coolness under pressure is impressive and if he continues to hold his nerve and maintain he could yet prove a surprise qualifier for the Candidates’ tournament.
The game between Kirill Alekseenko and Vishy Anand explored another line of the Giuoco Piano. (It is remarkable how this ancient opening, considered played out and fit only for rank amateurs during the second half of the 20th century, has been given a new lease of life in top-flight chess in the 21st century.) Play was more cagey than in the Aronian-Antón game and never quite caught fire. A draw was agreed as soon it became legal to do so.
Parham Maghsoodloo maintained a plus against Sergey Karjakin from the opening into the endgame but it never quite looked as though White would fully exploit his initiative. By move 40 a level rook and pawn endgame was on the board and the game was soon agreed drawn.
Hikaru Nakamura joined Caruana, Aronian and Antón in the lead with a win over Kovalev (photo: John Saunders)
Vladislav Kovalev versus Hikaru Nakamura followed a trendy line of the Moscow Sicilian until move 14 when the US player diverged from Anish Giri’s 14...Rb8 (against Mickey Adams in 2017) with the more ambitious 14...g5. Kovalev replied with the incomprehensible 15.Nh2 which abandoned the e5-pawn for no obvious compensation. Nakamura didn’t look a gift horse in the mouth, grabbing the pawn and then using the gap in White’s centre as a conduit for a massed pawn advance. White’s subsequent play may have been sub-optimal and was deftly exploited by a resurgent Nakamura. The American thus joined the leading group and set himself up for his trademark big finish to a Swiss tournament which has brought him a record four victories in the prestigious Gibraltar Masters.
Wang Hao missed a golden opportunity to win just at the end of his game with Nikita Vitiugov (photo: John Saunders)
The game between Nikita Vitiugov and Wang Hao was a long, hard battle, with the Chinese GM just unable to exploit an extra pawn in a double rook endgame. Just six moves before the end, Wang Hao missed an exquisite win in a rook and two pawns endgame. Sadly, in the modern era, in which adjournments are a thing of the past, grandmasters are usually too tired and/or short of time at the end of long sessions of play to spot these little endgame nuances, and they have become the exclusive preserve of Stockfish and the composers of studies.
Wang Hao's missed chance - 72...Kf6!! wins
Two elder statesmen of the professional game, Boris Gelfand and Alexei Shirov, aged 51 and 47 respectively, have put up a mighty challenge in this tournament but round nine will probably prove to have been the graveyard of their qualification hopes. Gelfand diverged from Semi-Slav theory against Maxim Matlakov with 16...Qh5 but he was soon under pressure after castling long. The 28-year-old player from St Petersburg followed up in good style and never let the Israeli player off the hook. He was also responsible for dumping Gelfand out of the recent World Cup, we should recall. Matlakov’s punishment for this doubly cruel treatment of a much-respected member of the chess community is the black pieces against Magnus Carlsen in round ten. And may God have mercy on his soul.
Alexander Grischuk came roaring back after his round nine debacle (photo: John Saunders)
Alexei Shirov was beaten by Alexander Grischuk, with the Russian player probably furious with himself having played so poorly in the previous round. The opening was a line of the Classical French in which White gambits his b2-pawn but soon gains it back in the shape of Black’s b7-pawn. Grischuk diverged from known lines with 17.Rf3. Shirov weakened his kingside pawn structure with 21...f6 and thereafter Grischuk gradually built up on that wing, grabbed a pawn on e6 which Shirov thought he could counter with a pin, but Grischuk demonstrated that, not only was the pawn a freebie, he could use the knight that captured it to set up a series of diabolical mating threats. Shirov staved off the worst of these but he was left a pawn down with no compensation and Grischuk converted efficiently.
David Howell put himself into contention with a win against Rustam Kasimdzhanov (photo: John Saunders)
Also reaching the second score group of 6 out of 9 were England’s David Howell, who beat former FIDE world champion Rustam Kasimdzhanov, and Aleksandr Rakhmanov, who overcame Markus Ragger of Austria. Howell’s was a fine achievement, playing the black side of a Caro-Kann and engineering a major pawn counterattack on the kingside which the Uzbek grandmaster could ultimately not hold back as his own queenside play came to nothing. Howell faces Grischuk in the tenth round. The 30-year-old Russian Rakhmanov has done well to get into contention for the Candidates’ qualifying place as he is “only” rated 2621 (which is nothing special in this field – he is ranked 95th) and he faces his compatriot Nikita Vitiugov in the tenth round.
Raunak Sadhwani didn't need a result to complete his GM qualification but proceeded to defeat Alexander Motylev anyway (photo: John Saunders)
Round nine was a watershed for younger wildcard entries aiming for GM norms. Three players achieved their final third norm. Raunak Sadhwani did so much as achieve a norm as smash it out of the park. He merely needed to show up to do it but he did far better than that, beating formidable Russian GM Alexander Motylev, who, at 2651, was the lowest rated opponent the 13-year-old has faced in the tournament so far. His TPR is currently 2721. Raunak gave a further example of his sang froid and maturity with a note-perfect performance in the interview room, thanking his coaches and generally charming everyone. Not only is India producing incredibly strong young grandmasters, but they all seem to possess the humour and affability of their country’s great role model, Vishy Anand.
Vincent Keymer completed his GM qualification at the strongest Swiss tournament of the year (photo: John Saunders)
Germany’s Vincent Keymer, a month away from his 15th birthday, has been hunting down his final norm for about a year but did it in style at the strongest Swiss tournament of the year. Keymer too has had a tough, tough tournament, not meeting anyone rated below 2634, but 4/9 is all he needed.
Jonas Buhl Bjerre is Denmark's youngest GM ever, and that includes Bent Larsen (photo: John Saunders)
Denmark had cause to celebrate their newest grandmaster, Jonas Buhl Bjerre, aged 15 and in the ninth grade at school. Jonas too has had the toughest of opposition, his ninth round opponent Evgeny Alekseev being the lowest rated at 2629. He has only lost one game, to Wesley So and his TPR so far is 2665. Jonas intends to take a gap year from his schooling soon, so prospective opponents should look out for this new star from the land of Bent Larsen.
Harika Dronavalli, the tournament's highest rated female player, beat Axel Bachmann to reach a 50% score (photo: John Saunders)
Alina Kashlinskaya won the top women's prize here in 2018 and is joint leader in the race again in 2019 (photo: John Saunders)
It was all change in the race for the women’s top prize as round eight leaders Dinara Saduakassova and Soumya Swaminathan both lost, to Grigoriy Oparin and Evgeniy Najer respectively, to remain on 4, while Harika Dronavalli and Alina Kashlinskaya both won with Black, against Axel Bachmann and Kacper Piorun, to leapfrog over their rivals to reach 4½ out of 9. A further eight women competitors are on 3½ so there is still all to play for with a total prize fund of $33,000 and a first prize of $10,000.