The star-studded line-up of players at the London Chess Classic had taken off in a rather sluggish manner. Three rounds past, 15 games into the fray, there wasn’t a single decisive game. All players drew, all players led. Of course, it’s not that the players weren’t giving it a fair try; they were seen experimenting with their openings, going off the well-trodden or jaded paths, taking calculated risks, trying to pull out a little something extra to outfox their opponents with. Levon Aronian, in fact, let all hell break loose in his third round game against Sergey Karjakin. Hikaru Nakamura also took to the turbulent waters of the Sicilian Dragon against Maxime Vachier-Lagrave in Round 2. But all this was to no avail as all roads led to draws, much to the disappointment of the spectators.
Grand Master Alexander Yermolinsky rightly pointed out in his third round report of the event that this high number of draws could pose problems promoting the game to the casual chess fan. “As much as some commentators may fluff it, there’s a sense of doom settling over the future of our beloved game. How do we get across to an average sports fan, when 100 percent of games are drawn?” he wrote.
Tournament organiser, Malcolm Pein, also pointed out – although jokingly – to the players before the start of Round 4 that the object of the game is, after all, to checkmate your opponent or force resignation.
All this seemed to have had an impact as Round 4 saw the first decisive game of the tournament. With black pieces, Italian-American Grand Master Fabiano Caruana drew first blood on Tuesday in his game against Grand Master Karjakin.
In his Round 4 game, Caruana completely outprepared Karjakin in the Taimanov variation of the Sicilian Defence. Barely shredding any time on the clock, Caruana was able to win a pawn right out of the opening on move 23 as his opponent struggled to regroup his pieces.
Within a few more moves, the American No 1 had connected passers in the centre and an error by Karjakin on the 35th move forced the exchange of queens. Barely seven moves later, the Russian had to throw in the towel.
After the game, Karjakin said that it would have been much better for him had Caruana played any line instead of the one he played. “Yeah, I was surprised, of course. I hadn’t expected it. Basically, any line instead of this would be much better,” he said talking to Grand Master Maurice Ashley.
“It really came down to good opening choice. I actually wanted to play this against Nepo (Ian Nepomniachtchi) yesterday. But he played Nf3 on the first move; and then I thought briefly about playing c5 to king of tempt him into a Sicilian but I figured he wouldn’t go for it. And it worked out today. So, I think it worked out for the best that I didn’t play it yesterday, when it might just have been a draw or something,” said Caruana after the game.
In the game between Viswanathan Anand and Aronian, the latter sort of found a way to get into the realms of his favourite Marshall Gambit despite Anand’s Anti-Marshall set-up. Anand did get an extra pawn out of the opening thanks to Aronian’s gambit but it turned out to be hard to make anything of it due to black’s piece activity. Anand returned his extra pawn on the 23rd move while trading a pair of bishops and by the 30th move, peace was signed.
After the game Anand pointed out that he had played against Aronian in a similar fashion in the Candidates tournament in 2014. Talking about if Aronian’s 15th move surprised him, Anand said, “It is exactly the move he played against me (at the 2014 Candidates) – without the inclusion of a4 and a6 – so it shouldn’t have. But, I don’t know why, at home, I felt this was… well, not much of a pawn but still something extra for white. But at the board, it turned out to be very hard to prove anything.”
Talking to Ashley about whether this was a good result for him, Aronian replied, “Absolutely! And, generally, you shouldn’t fight the inevitable,” referring to the insane amount of risk he took against Karjakin in the previous round.
Like Aronian in the previous round, Wesley So, in Round 4, seemed to be in the mood for some risky play (but not quite as much as Aronian in the previous round). With white pieces he essayed the Reversed Benko Gambit and sacked a pawn early in the game. Michael Adams, his opponent, responded in the most solid manner. Unable to find a clear way to gain an advantage, So decided to recover his pawn and exchanged a lot of pieces in the process. The ensuing endgame didn’t offer much to either side and a draw was agreed soon after.
Vachier-Lagrave’s game against world champion Magnus Carlsen was the most significant encounter of the round as the former is trailing the latter on the overall Grand Chess Tour Standings for the top prize. Vachier-Lagrave was also able to get a better position out of the opening along with an extra pawn but some inaccuracies on his part allowed Carlsen’s pieces enough activity to hold on for a draw.
After four rounds, Caruana is leading the event with 2.5/4. Anand, along with eight others is half-a-point behind on 2.0/4 while Karjakin, after his loss on Wednesday is at the bottom of the table with 1.5 points. In Round 5, Anand will be playing the tournament leader, Caruana with black pieces. Given that Caruana has won the only game of the tournament so far and has the white pieces, this will not be an easy outing for the Indian.
Crosstable after Round 4