The London Chess Classic is underway in England and will continue until Dec. 13. This is one of the chess world’s premier events, usually attracting all the top players, but this year it’s extra-special.
That’s because it’s the culmination of the Chess Grand Tour, a brand-new, high-level $1-million series of tournaments. The tour kicked off at the beginning of the year with Norway Chess, played in the home country of current World Chess Champion Magnus Carlsen (it was won by former World Champion Veselin Topalev of Hungary). Over the summer, the tour pulled into St. Louis and the center of American chess, the Chess Club and Scholastic Center, for the Sinquefield Cup, won by Armenian Grandmaster Levon Aronian.
Going into London, no obviously winner for the Big Title has come to the fore, although the US number one and world number 3 Hikaru Nakamura has finished third in the first two events and is now in second overall. Carlsen is in third overall, while Fabiano Caruana — a young player often named as a future Carlsen challenger for the world title — is pretty far back in the field, in eighth place.
The London event is hugely important because it represents the culmination of the the first serious effort to bring all the best chess players in the world together for a big-money contest that can signal a challenge to the World Championship cycle, which commences early next year with the Candidates Tournament. The winner of that event will face Carlsen to battle for the World Championship. The past two times around, it’s been won by former World Champ Vishy Anand of India, who’s also in the Grand Chess Tour field.
Many chess experts and observers consider the World Championship, as it’s currently managed by chess’s governing body, FIDE, to be a deeply corrupt affair that’s controlled by the Russian chess elite and cronies of Russian President Vladimir Putin.
The Grand Chess Tour, meanwhile, was organised in part by former World Champ Garry Kasparov, and of course we all know how he feels about Putin. He also ran for President of FIDE in 2014 and was beaten out by incumbent Kirsan Ilyumzhinov. So he moved forward with his efforts to create in the GCT a viable alternative to the WCC. Although he won’t specifically cast what he’s up to in those terms. The WCC after all is a multi-game affair (as FIDE now operates it) with only two player duking it out over several weeks. The GCT is tournament chess, but because it covers three events and puts the top guys over the board repeatedly, it’s designed to find out who the best player is over a given span of time.
I spoke to Kasparov around the time of the Sinquefield Cup — named for retired financier Rex Sinquefield, who is almost singlehandedly transforming St. Louis into a global mecca for chess — and he seemed delighted at how the Tour was coming together. His ultimate stated goal is to professionalize the game, along the lines of other big-time sports, and attract the types of major sponsors who want nothing to do with the WCC cycle.
“Garry does have an agenda, and it’s very clearly not with the establishment,” said Grandmaster Maurice Ashley, a chess commentator and tournament organiser, when I spoke with him during the Sinquefield Cup.
Slow times in London Town
So far, the London tournament has started off in slow fashion. Two rounds in, only the young Dutch GM Anish Giri has won a game. The rest have been draws.
A lot of chess observers complain that there are too many draws in top-level chess. However, some of the draws can be chalked up to the ability of players to extensively study and prepare openings that are by their nature drawish.
That’s what happened in Round 2, in a game between Carlsen and Caruana. Every major encounter between these two is closely watched as a potentially preview of a future WCC.
Carlsen was playing white, and he opened with the the deeply studied Ruy Lopez, one of the Cadillac openings at the GM level. I’ve covered the Ruy Lopez before, but briefly, you can see that white uses his bishop to challenge black’s knight on the c6 square. The idea is straightforward: white wants to (possibly) trade the bishop for the knight, inflicting doubled pawns on black on the c-file, a liability if all the pieces are traded off and the battle goes into an endgame.
Other stuff can happen, however. And at GM level play, rather than black accepting white’s plan and taking on the doubled pawns, he can employ the Berlin Defence by playing his knight out to f6. For GMs, this move now sends the game in a drawish direction, thanks the the efforts of Vladimir Kramnik, who was credited with using the Berlin as a “drawing weapon” as black in his 2000 World Championship match against Kasparov.
And here we see it yet again in the Carlsen-Caruana game in London:
I honestly don’t know why anyone plays the Berlin against Carlsen, because the World Champ is such a fantastic endgame player. And wouldn’t you know it, after 30 moves he managed to make things interesting, by getting his d-pawn all the way up the board to the d6 square, where, guarded by the white king, it function like a dagger into black’s position. The risk for Carlsen is that his king is exposed to a back-rank checkmate, boxed in by a defensive screen of three pawns.
Caruana has to play sharp chess to deal with the threat, which he did, eventually finding a way to create a perpetual check on the white king by sacrificing a rook.
The thing to note about this game is that Carlsen is developing a pattern in ostensibly drawish openings, at last as far as I can tell. He strives to create an advanced pawn, forcing black in this case with the Berlin to make a lot of very accurate decisions at a point in the game when the calculations are difficult and time pressure could be building up. In fact, in a lot of the games of Carlsen that I’ve looked at over the past year or so, he’s jammed a pawn into his opponent’s position and compelled the other guy to figure out how to deal with it.
This isn’t really a subtle thing to do, but it does allow Carlsen to avoid falling into some the theoretical battles that don’t always work out in his favour — for example, this game against Anand in the most recent WCC.
Regardless, I’m still pretty depressed whe I see an 1. e4 e5 opening that heads for the Ruy and the Berlin in GM play. I’d much rather see 1. d4 with a Queen’s Gambit Declined setup, a very positional and strategic choice that can nonetheless lead to some beautiful chances for white; or a good old-fashioned Sicilian Defence from black, with 1… c5 played to counter 1. e4.
And, interestingly, the only player in London who has gone for the Sicilian this far was Carlsen, in round one against Maxime Vachier-Lagrave of France. But that game ended in a draw.
Anyway, stay tuned. In about a week, we’ll have a Grand Chess Tour Champ who can (maybe) stand up next to the World Champ. And he may be the same guy!