If you’ll forgive another chess post, the annual grandmaster chess tournament in Wijk aan Zee in the Netherlands is now complete. It was the first major tournament of the year, and it had a pleasingly unexpected outcome. Young phenoms Levon Aronian of Armenia and Magnus Carlsen of Norway were the joint winners, with eight points out of thirteen.

For Aronian this was a return to form. His ability to play with the big boys had been established in a number of tournament wins (for example, Wijk aan Zee 2007). Alas, his play had been somewhat shaky since then, but he is plainly back in form.

But Carlsen was the real pleasant surprise. At 17 he has been nipping at the heels of the top players for several years now, but with this performance he has plainly arrived. His play in the first half of the tournament was impeccable. He was shakier in the second half and took some questionable risks. He was lucky to win from a lost position after playing the Benko Gambit against Loek van Wely, and then lost to Anand when he got a bit reckless with his king-side attack against the Sicilian. But outplaying Kramnik with black, as Carlsen did in Round 12, is an impressive accomlishment!

What the tournament makes clear is that there is currently no clearly best player in the chess world right now. Viswanathan Anand is officially the world champion, but his play was mediocre throughout the event and he was a bit lucky to finish tied for second. Kramnik and Topalov finished farther down the pack in eighth and ninth respectively. When Kasparov was in his prime there was no question that he was the best player in the world. Likewise for Karpov in his prime and Fischer in his. Right now there is no one who can make that claim.

Despite his generally poor performance, Topalov played the move of the tournament. Beating his arch-nemesis Kramnik in such a game surely takes away some of the sting form his less impressive efforts.


Topalov – Kramnik
Wijk aan Zee 2008
Position after 11. … Bf8-g7

In this topical line of the Semi-Slav Topalov unleashed 12. Nxf7!. After 12. … Kxf7 13. e5 Nd5 14. Ne4 Ke7 15. Nd6 Qb6 16. Bg4 White had a lot of positional pressure but no concrete threats. Topalov managed to keep up the heat, even sacrificing his queen at one point. Kramnik was not able to work out a viable defense at the board and ultimately had to resign. It’s hard to believe that white’s idea is ultimately sound, but it sure was effective here. It takes iron nerves to play like this, but then nerves have never been Topalov’s problem. Recklessness is. He tried a comparably risky piece sac in Round 12 against celler-dweller Eljanov, for example, who promptly ate him for breakfast.

Kramnik and Anand are slated to play a match for the World Championshipin the fall. Hopefully it will actually happen. Stay tuned!

Comments

  1. #1 Jeffrey Shallit
    January 29, 2008

    One thing I’m curious about. When Topalov sacrificed his knight on move 12, how far did he see through to? All the way to the queen sacrifice? Or was he just relying on the fact that the positional advantage would eventually lead to a win?

  2. #2 Dave S.
    January 29, 2008

    Jeff Shalit writes:

    One thing I’m curious about. When Topalov sacrificed his knight on move 12, how far did he see through to? All the way to the queen sacrifice? Or was he just relying on the fact that the positional advantage would eventually lead to a win?

    The move was apparently discovered 3 years ago and analysed by Team Topalov since then (some lines to move 40!). Whether or not they forsaw all the way to the queen sac, apparently they concluded the move offered excellent practical chances against the right opponant in the right circumstances. In any event, while splashy, the queen sac probably wasn’t necessary to win at that point. Besides, he got a R, N and P in compensation. Puts one in mind of the famous incident where Frank Marshall discovered a move and kept it hidden for 10 years, just to spring it on Capablanca. Unfortunately, Capa found a refutation over the board and beat him. DOH!

  3. #3 Jason Rosenhouse
    January 29, 2008

    Over at chessgames.com, gambitfan expresses some skepticism about the story of Marshall holding back his gambit for many years before springing it on Capablanca. Of course, nowadays the Marshall gambit is considered a perfectly reputable way of meeting the Ruy Lopez, so much so that a lot of top players have it in their repertoire as black, and try to avoid it when playing white.

    As for Topalov, I believe it was spceifically his second Ivan Cheparinov who came up with the idea. There are so many plausible variations from the diagrammed position that it’s hard to believe he could have seen all the way to the queen sac. As Dave points out, the sac wasn’t really necessary since more mundane wins were available. So that was probably an over the board inspiration.

  4. #4 Dave S.
    January 29, 2008

    Although the story may indeed be hypocryphal (like another story about Marshall, being showered with gold upon making his famous queen sac against Lewitsky), I see no reason to conclude that at this time. To be sure, that others may have played the move before is not hard to believe. I imagine almost any legal move has long since been tried in most any opening … by someone, somewhere. But as you say, there’s no reason to think Marshall was aware. And even if he was, he still deserves precidence based on his analysis and exposure of the move at such a level.

    For the record, I tend to avoid the complications with white myself and decline the gambit with a4.

  5. #5 Jason Rosenhouse
    January 29, 2008

    Personally, I avoid the question entirely. After 1. e4 e5, I play 2. Bc4!

  6. #6 Dave S.
    January 30, 2008

    Jason –

    Fred Reinfeld would have your head for developing that bishop so soon. :)

  7. #7 John Monfries
    February 3, 2008

    For what it’s worth, many years ago Cecil Purdy (Australia’s greatest chess theorist and teacher, much praised by Fred Reinfeld incidentally) got someone to ask Marshall whether the gold pieces story was true, and Marshall confirmed it.

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