London Chess Classic – Round One

News Release by John Saunders

The inaugural 2009 London Chess Classic was so good, with so many positive, entertaining games, that the superstitious and/or pessimistic amongst us couldn’t help worrying that 2010 couldn’t be as good. Was 2009 beginner’s luck? Would the players go on strike, play some boring Petroffs and draw all their games?

Good news: so far things in 2010 are as good as in 2009. Positivity is alive and well and producing decisive encounters at London’s Olympia Conference Centre, with only one game of the first four drawn and that one going down to the wire. But that’s not to say we didn’t have some changes of script.

Far from it! As we left things last year, Magnus Carlsen and David Howell were the two big success stories, the former winning the tournament and zooming to the top of the rating list, while David Howell sailed through the event, finishing a superlative third despite his status as lowest rated player. Neither lost a game in 2009.

But what a difference a year makes: in 2010, both are carefree teenagers no longer. David Howell is a university student while Magnus Carlsen is a part-time fashion model. Twenty is evidently a difficult age as the two young men both looked out of sorts in round one and lost.

A quick resumé of the games: David Howell tried to build a ‘Berlin Wall’ though, architecturally, this was a ‘pre-Kramnik’ version of the sturdy edifice which Vladimir Kramnik first erected in this same borough of London to keep out ‘Big Bad Wolf’ Kasparov in their 2000 world championship match.

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Michael Adams

David admitted to the commentary room that he had not played this particular line of the Berlin Ruy Lopez before but had looked at it some weeks before. Mickey wasn’t prepared for it but found a playable line which offered him an edge. The GM pundits reckoned that 14…Nd3 was the first wrong step for Howell and he was gracious enough to plead guilty to all charges when brought before the trial judges in the commentary room. “I expected Mickey to play 15 Re2 and when he started thinking, it dawned on me that I’d missed 15 Re3!”, he confessed to the audience.

Giving up the b-pawn and getting the rook onto the third rank supercharged the white attack on the queenside. Mickey thought 16…Ba6 might have been better than 16…Bxg5 but after that most of the assembled experts regarded Howell’s position as unsalvageable. “I had given up and was just trying to keep a straight face at the board,” admitted David Howell, to the laughter of the large audience. (Replay the games bellow)

The big surprise of the round was Magnus Carlsen’s defeat at the hands of England’s Luke McShane, which was sweet revenge for Luke’s loss to Magnus in 2009. The game followed a known (if slightly obscure) line of the English Opening until Magnus experimented with 9…Ne5, when the more conservative …Nxd4 and …Bd7 have been tried before. Magnus found himself obliged to re-stable his horse again a couple of moves later.

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Magnus Carlsen and Luke McShane

This (literally) cavalier play was faintly reminiscent of Carlsen’s adoption of another off-beat knight-hopping defence against Mickey Adams at the Olympiad. It was a risky plan, trying to lure his opponent into complications. For those who know the late Simon Webb’s wonderful book Chess for Tigers, it seemed as if the Heffalump was luring the Tiger into the swamp instead of the other way round. Soon we saw the equivalent of the Great Grimpen Mire open up on the chessboard but it was the cat-like McShane who emerged unmuddied whilst the Norwegian heffalump sank without trace into the primeval sludge (yes, I know I’m getting my Simon Webb enmeshed with my Conan Doyle, and my monstrous hound confused with my pachyderm, but I don’t care).

“I played strategically and got mated,” said a whimsical Nigel Short of the final stage of his loss to Vlad Kramnik. Nigel has had some splendid results with old-fashioned 1 e4 e5 openings over the years (including a good win against French star Laurent Fressinet at the Olympiad) but he made little impression on the former world champion, who built up a solid positional advantage based on his central pawns.

Eventually an e-pawn thrust cut Short’s position in half, separating his queen from his vulnerable king, and Kramnik conjured up a powerful kingside offensive to kill the white king. Short tried a few defensive alternatives in the commentary room and let out an audible expression of pain as Kramnik announced a particularly vicious refutation of his idea.

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Nigel Short and Vladimir Kramnik

Hikaru Nakamura also played a ‘Berlin Wall’ but this was the standard Kramnik recipe used to tranquillise Garry Kasparov (should we call it the Hammersmith variation?). The world champion of the year 2000 couldn’t break it down so maybe his successor a decade on would also find it tough. Vishy was playing his first chess game in Britain for 16 years but he looked very composed as he set about grinding out an endgame win.

English GMs Jon Speelman and John Nunn were practically salivating at the prospect of a long-distance endgame. Vishy Anand is another person who can remember when endgames really were endgames (with those strange rituals called adjournments, sealed moves and resumptions which Magnus, Hikaru and co will be blissfully unaware of), but in the end he couldn’t break down Hikaru’s rugged resistance.

Yesterday Hikaru wasn’t best pleased with his tournament draw – Black versus Anand, Kramnik (tomorrow) and Carlsen (in round 4), but the upside of this equation becomes apparent if he succeeds in toughing it out with the big guys – it leaves him with some whites against the others. Maybe things are looking up for the American.

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Hikaru Nakamura

Scores after round 1: Michael Adams, Luke McShane, Vladimir Kramnik 3 points; Vishy Anand, Hikaru Nakamura 1 point; David Howell, Magnus Carlsen, Nigel Short. (Note, games are scored 3 points for a win, 1 point for a draw and 0 points for a loss)

Note that the Round 2 games start two hours later than in Round One, for one round only, on 9 December 2010. That’s 4pm British time.

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