Biel, Round 4: Restart

The tournament in Biel wasn’t held back by events outside its control. Bologan took over Morozevich's duties, but otherwise nothing was altered… Carlsen “dragged out” his endings, Nakamura was tricky and Wang Hao restored historical justice in the King’s Indian Defence. It seems as though it was nothing special, but Vlad Tkachiev thought it was an outstanding round!

Translated from the Russian of Vlad Tkachiev and Evgeny Atarov. Some photos below © Biel Chess Festival

Hero of the day. It was an absolutely brilliant round and no doubt the best so far in Biel. At the same time there’s no trouble deciding on the winner of this category: Wang Hao has no rivals. It’s also pleasant that for the second tournament in a row it’s been possible to “guess” – in Dortmund I bet on Caruana, and here on the Chinese player. If you forget about the game against Carlsen his play has been spectacular.

Yes, Giri frankly didn’t dazzle in the game. His handling of the 6…Nc6 variation in the Saemisch seemed dubious, as did his move 15.g3, which turned out to be a novelty. And then after that there was lots more you could criticise Anish for, starting with 17.Rc1. You got the impression he “foresaw” threats Black hadn’t even thought about. A curious “fight with his own shadow”, which meant he drove himself into an unpleasant position.

Each time the topic of the Saemisch System in the King’s Indian Defence comes up it’s pleasant to recall Gufeld’s thoughts about it. He compared White’s setup to a clumsy tank of the early 1920s, and also wondered what the g1-knight thought about the move 5.f3. Incidentally, he considered this system to be almost incorrect precisely because of the variation with Nc6 and a6. In part that was because he needed it to be true so he could maintain the image of the “immortal” game he won in that line, but it was also partly because it really is the case. People used to think roughly the same thing about the “English Attack” in the Najdorf: f3, Be3, Qd2, 0-0-0 and g4, which was considered primitive – as if to say, why isn’t the pawn on f4 where it’s more active? However, experience has shown that when White stabilises the centre, whether in the Saemisch or the Najdorf, that’s actually his best chance of being able to develop an initiative on the flank against the black king.

As for the approach with 9.Rc1 and 10.Nd1, that was popularised by Nenashev and has always seemed weird. Those moves, and then also 11.Nf2, are an apotheosis of prophylactic thinking. It’s impossible to believe it can be taken seriously! At the same time, however, whatever you say about it White’s results have simply been off the scale, and people had almost begun to talk about a refutation of the whole line with Nc6 and a6 – although it’s unlikely that could be the case.

The way Wang Hao played: 11…b5, 13…e5 and 15…c6 is a normal handling of the position. Black has a lead in development and should try to use it to break up the white centre. And when the c- and d-pawns had left the board it was time to ask White: “Well, and what next?” It’s not so easy to answer, and Giri didn’t manage.

On move 15 people have played Qc2, Qc1, Nd3… But Giri’s move gives the impression of a complete lack of understanding. White, in allowing himself be distracted by abstract exercises, had lost too much time in order to… then continue to play normally. Even Alekhine had said that a “strange variation” can only be refuted with a “strange variation”.

As a result the Dutchman was already worse by the 18th move, and moreover he was possibly worse than it seems to the computer – and he failed to keep things under control. Wang Hao, meanwhile, did everything correctly: his moves kept coinciding with one of the top computer lines, and he developed the initiative and ultimately took down the pile of white pieces… White also went wrong when he allowed 25…Nc6 to be played, as after that his opponent could organise his forces however he wanted!

After 26.Nd5 Giri’s position went rapidly downhill: the Chinese player had a healthy extra pawn, and his pieces were also well-placed. He was almost flawless in the technical stage and didn’t give his opponent even a single chance of grabbing on to something…

There's no question Wang Hao was ready for Giri in the line where the latter had caught out Bacrot, but unfortunately we never got to see any of that on the board.

Revelation. That’s probably how Carlsen ground away in a worse position against Bacrot and almost managed to win it! That made a powerful impression, although the manner in which he failed to complete the operation was strange. The way Magnus did it was almost indescribable. You can agree with Anand who said the current Carlsen is an “improved Karpov” from the time when the latter was at his peak at the end of the 70s. If you recall, back then he also introduced the “fashion” of winning tournaments with +2, but he only really went all-out and played games until the end selectively, against opponents where such a strategy could work. Carlsen, however, doesn’t select. Either the position or the opponents… And the way Magnus did that for a long time against Etienne almost surreptitiously, coinciding consistently with the 1st or 2nd line of the computer, made a big impression. It’s a pleasure to observe such work!  

There’s an interesting psychological point here. The thing is that Carlsen plays for a win in positions that for a long time now no-one had been playing. He also doesn’t hide his intentions. Everyone knows about it, but there’s nothing they can do. Firstly, because they’re out of practice, and secondly, because of a lack of endgame technique. There’s also a third point: it looks so unusual and even a little degrading that people think: ah, then I’m going to try and punish you. Just, for example, as Bacrot did in this game when for some reason he played 19.dxc5. He could simply have held onto the b3-pawn, after which there’s no way White could lose. But… he deliberately wanted to provoke a crisis.

That’s precisely what Carlsen’s looking for, the thing he’s striving towards. In calm circumstances Magnus wouldn’t claim even 50% of his wins, but when play becomes a matter of principle people again and again start to go wrong. At some point, however, they’ll stop worrying.

The Norwegian doesn’t dazzle with the level of his opening preparation. You get the impression it’s something he hardly works on. He does the bare minimum in order not to lose immediately in the opening and to be able to go for some kind of fight, and at that point he can display all the strong points we know so well. If you recall, however, the time he was working with Kasparov, then back then Magnus’ opening preparation was of the very highest level… In the opening nowadays he’s simply nondescript, and it’s his weakest side. However, you have to note that nobody yet beats him in 20 moves, and he doesn’t get absolutely hopeless positions.

Why doesn’t Carlsen have any openings? It’s the same story it was with Karpov. With a team or without a team there were two different people. What can you do: they simply weren’t granted the quality of being able to generate opening ideas, which was something Kasparov possessed from his early youth, and Kramnik had to an even greater extent. It’s possible Magnus even wants to do the same, but that’s the problem – he can’t, as he’s not “focussed” on it.

So people say he doesn’t work much with computers… Yes, Magnus has long since realised he doesn’t need to work a lot with computers as it probably won’t work out in any case… That Carlsen isn’t capable of finding new ideas is a long-established commonplace. Everyone knows about it, but the Norwegian gets away with it…  

He sits down for a game and starts to demonstrate his outstanding qualities: wonderful calculation of variations, pragmatic time usage, a strong nervous system, the ability to find resources for playing for a win in absolutely any position and, finally, brilliant physical form – for the moment the concept of fatigue simply doesn’t exist for him.

But… if Carlsen can’t find a way of working on the opening – as was done before him by Anand, who also didn’t sparkle in that regard – then it’s unlikely he’s going to become World Champion. After all, he needs to come to terms with that work while not losing his other qualities, as otherwise it might simply turn out to be an uneven “exchange” …

Novelty of the day. Unquestionably the move 12…Qe8 in the Bologan – Nakamura game. The novelty is absolutely thematic, as it’s applicable to various other variations. It poses White very concrete questions and almost deprives him of any chance of an edge – White has to give up the light-squared bishop, after which his position loses a great deal of its appeal. The motif is brand new and looks very strong.

But never mind novelties! I want to talk about the King’s Indian Defence, which has been appearing almost every day at this tournament. It’s already possible to come to some definite conclusions on the current state of that opening. It’s clear that it’s now experiencing a second youth. At first, since Kramnik discouraged everyone from playing g6 and Bg7, there was only Radjabov, but then he was joined by Grischuk, Morozevich and Nakamura.

The appearance of Carlsen, who began to win tournament after tournament, somewhat modified the style… of his opponents. People grew bored! And they all began to “sharpen” things up a little, in part by including the King’s Indian in their repertoires. There was only one person who didn’t change his style – Anand. The thing is that if you look at the theory Black is generally fine in almost all lines – including after 9.b4 in the classical variation, where at one point White was picking up a lot of points while at the same time almost never losing. It turned out that since the time Kasparov played the opening it had almost been abandoned – and you just needed to dig a little deeper with strong computers and play appeared in many continuations that had previously seemed unpromising.

It’s possible to speculate that the popularity of the opening will rise dramatically once more. What needs to be said if even Kramnik played it as Black! One thing leads to another – and after observing how Carlsen fights for a win in any position people have begun to resurrect variations which they previously didn’t even want to look at. Including the King’s Indian…

The absurd. Carlsen’s decision to exchange rooks after the time control – Rd8-d1-a1. He didn’t see a simple idea for White: approaching with the king, and if Black promotes the pawn he’s in time to give up his knight, capture the black knight and then return with the king!

For a player like Carlsen that wasn’t at all difficult to calculate, and if it wasn’t for that his victory would barely have been in doubt… It was absolutely uncharacteristic of Magnus. In the endgame he’s always displayed surgical precision, but then he misses something like that. His decision could be described as absurdity squared.

In the background. Bologan’s first game was always going to be very important, and he started off by losing with White to Nakamura. That was nothing special, as after all with a couple of exceptions Hikaru plays only for a win against everyone – both with White and Black. That’s why he’s Nakamura, and why he occupies the position he does. It’s a different matter that Bologan also played only for a win – that’s why he was the person they called upon. Viorel often has long games, but they’re rarely even in terms of quality. In this game as well the number of mistakes – from both sides – was simply off the scale. He voluntarily sacrificed the exchange coming out of the opening, and in the ending he reached an absolutely won position.

If he’d played 74.Rc3 then no force would have been able to save Black from defeat. The white pawns would simply queen: Nakamura’s endgame technique is his biggest weakness, but even with Carlsen’s technique it’s unlikely anything could have been done.

But Bologan didn’t find that simple move, and ultimately only a dozen moves later his king had landed in a mating net. That was the most unexpected thing imaginable, but in that game the balance kept swinging from side to side from the first move to the last!

Has Bologan got into the flow of the tournament? It’s hard to say. One thing is clear: it’s unpleasant to replace someone who had 0 out of 2 and then start off by losing another game. But even if you can’t talk about Viorel winning the tournament he’ll fight to the end in every game.

Aftertaste. Everything’s been mentioned already – Wang Hao’s surge, Magnus’ issues, Nakamura’s prospects. There’s also no need to add that the 4th round has been the most interesting one so far in Biel – it’s enough simply to look at the games.

Expectations. The most interesting thing is that the struggle for first place has begun to take shape. While at the beginning you had to guess which of the two – Wang Hao or Nakamura – would represent the main competition for Carlsen, we now need to change our bearings. It’s clear that Wang Hao will fight to win this tournament, particularly given Magnus’ clear problems.

If he manages to overcome them then we’ll get a fight. If not – then the Chinese player will break clear. Even a few years ago Timofeev said that the guy is extremely “artistic”.  That can be seen both from his individual games and tournaments as a whole. When he’s really on a roll he starts to dramatically improve in all components of his game. It’s very hard to stop an inspired Wang Hao.

In the second half of the event we can expect a battle of world views and characters. On the one hand there’s the Chinese player’s inspiration, while on the other – the cold calculation of the Norwegian machine.

See also: