Wijk aan Zee Recap Part II (The one everyone has been waiting for)
February 05, 2011 • General
Hello! After spending the past four days mainly resting, I am finally feeling quite a bit better. Apparently waking up at 6:30AM on a Saturday morning to endless snow in Saint Louis seems to be commonplace so now seems like an opportune time to drink some tea or cider and eat soup! Of course, it is also high time to write a blog for all the fans out there who have been waiting! YOU MUST GIVE THE FANS WHAT THEY WANT!
Last time I left everyone hanging after my painful 4th round game against rising Dutch junior, GM Anish Giri. Coming off of this draw I had 3/4 and was leading the tournament. However, the tournament had really only just begun for me, and I did not even entertain thoughts of winning at this point.
In the 5th round, I had White against former Fide World Champion, GM Ruslan Ponomariov. In recent years, Ruslan seems to have become fairly inactive as he plays mainly league events and the occasional round robin. Nevertheless, he is still an extremely solid player and always a dangerous opponent. The opening was a bit of a surprise as Ruslan chose an obscure variation in the 4.Nf3 Nimzo-Indian and went for an obscure variation early in the game with 10…Be7!?
Instead of playing a standard hedgehog, I got a bit too ambitious and went for the initiative right away. Ruslan defended very accurately and I soon found myself in a complete mess and in time pressure. Luckily, I was able to complicate things just enough before time control to give myself some chances as we reached time control. Strangely, Ruslan offered me a draw shortly thereafter. I used a bit of time considering my options and I did not see anything conclusive so I took his draw. The commentators were critical of Ruslan offering a draw, but according to the computers I have a forced repetition in hand and can force a draw anyway. A close one!
Before I summarize this game, I must say that in any tournament there comes a point when you stop thinking you are capable of winning and starting to believe. For me, this was the critical game as I really started believing it was possible to win after this victory. The game in question was against the Dutch GM Erwin l’Ami. Erwin is a very solid player, but lacks a certain killer instinct which is why he suffered in this tournament. I threw out a big surprise in the 4.Qc2 Nimzo-Indian when I chose to play the pawn sac variation 6…b5!?
Erwin and I followed traditional theory and the position was completely equal when I offered a peaceful draw on move 15.
Much to my surprise, Erwin turned it down! Erwin incorrectly thought that he had small winning chances with no losing chances. This hinged upon his belief that he could keep the bishop pair in a queenless middlegame. However, the cost was a little bit too great as one of his bishops got shut out of the game and I took the initiative on the queenside. Eventually, Erwin cracked under the pressure and blundered right before time control and I brought him the full point!
The 7th round saw me face another Dutch GM in Jan Smeets. This game had a completely different tone than any of the others as it was all about payback. Smeets has always been a very talented junior and had a phenomenal win in the first round against GM Alexei Shirov. Much was being made about the fabulous preparation by his second, German GM Jan Gustafsson. In 2009, I lost one of my worst games ever against Gustafsson in 22 moves with White in the Austrian League. In this specific game, my second Kris Littlejohn and I spent all night coming up with some fresh ideas in the Botvinnik variation of the Slav. The preparation we did paid off as Smeets walked right into the preparation and I obtained a very pleasant advantage right off the bat. At one point, I missed several very computerish winning continuations, but I was still able to simplify into a technically winning ending. I did not slip up and converted. Winning this game gave me an incredibly satisfying feeling as I took the lead in the tournament by beating Smeets and destroying the myth of Gustafsson being a theoretical genius.
The 8th round saw me facing Norwegian superstar Magnus Carlsen with Black. Some days you just have this bad feeling from the outset. I don’t know if its intuition, heightened perspective or randomness, but it was there from the start. Things did not improve as I played the Najdorf and blundered with 8…0-0 instead of 8…Be6. Magnus correctly responded with the very strong 9.g4!
Things went downhill in a hurry from there as I was unable to find a sufficient plan with a counterattack on the queenside. Magnus came up with a very simple and straightforward attack on the kingside. This led to a typical opposite wing castling Sicilian and my position fell apart and I resigned. Not a good game by any measure, but I still remained tied for first with Anand and headed into another rest day.
After a much needed rest day, I came back in the 9th round with White against my co-leader, World Champion Vishy Anand. I played another 3.Nc3, 4.Nf3 Nimzo-Indian but Vishy surprised me very early on when he chose the variation with 4…b6 5.Bg5 h6 6.Bh4 g5!? 7.Bg3 Ne4.
I was familiar with the basic ideas as I had seen the Kasparov-Timman games from the 80s. However, I went astray with 13.h4? This error led to a significant amount of suffering for me in the middlegame after the strong reply 13…Qf6!
However, I played very solidly and never let Vishy obtain any serious winning chances. The game ended peacefully at time control when we reached a theoretically drawn rook and pawn ending. Still tied for the lead!
In the 10th round I had White against French GM, Maxime Vachier-Lagrave. Maxime, was one of the surprises of the tournament as he was incredibly and was very steady from start to finish. Our game followed his earlier victory against Alexei Shirov as we hammered out the first 12 moves in a Grunfeld. I deviated from his game with 13.Bg5!?
This idea was first tried out in Gelfand-Kamsky, and I figured it would keep Maxime off balance and out of his comfort zone. The critical position occurred when he played 17…Rf7? Allowing 18.exf5!
After this mistake his position began falling apart very quickly as he had a knight out of play and a wide open king. After a couple of precise moves, I exploited this advantage and converted the victory without any major complications. I thought that I would move into clear first place, but Vishy showed why he is the reigning world champion by defeating Alexei Shirov in a very complicated tactical battle.
The 11th round featured my third battle against an opponent who was younger than me! In this game, I had to play the rising Russian star, Ian “Ctrl+V” Nepomniachtchi with Black. Ian and I had many great internet encounters on the Internet Chess Club, but we had not played over the board until now. In the style of the 12th World Champion, Anatoly Karpov, I played the Caro-Kann. Ian opted for the highly topical advance variation with 5.h4. The only time I faced this prior was against another Russian GM, Peter Svidler. Like every other game I play against Svidler, I got completely destroyed and so it certainly was not one of my fondest memories with this opening! Nevertheless, I came to this game better prepared and came up with a novelty in 7…Bg4!?
which was an idea by Karpov. We reached a relatively calm middlegame position, but Ian wanted more and created a very dynamic position by sacrificing a pawn! The position completely exploded with major complications and was not clear at all until Ian made a fatal blunder with 24.Qxg7? which allowed the very strong reply 24…Rh7!
After this, the result was never in doubt and Ian conceded shortly after we reached time control. With this spectacular victory, I took the clear lead heading into the final two rounds.
The 12th round featured a matchup with the 14th World Champion, Vladimir Kramnik. There really is not a whole lot to say about this game as we followed the game Smeets-Kramnik from earlier in the tournament and drew quickly. Kris and I spent a lot of time looking at various options and we concluded that based on the tournament situation and the risk involved, there would be better opportunities to take chances than at this moment. The draw also put tremendous pressure on my competitors as both Aronian and Anand were in serious trouble against both l’Ami and Giri respectively. The ended up drawing, which meant that I was a half point up on Anand and a full point up on Aronian heading into the final round!
The last round of this extremely long tournament saw me facing Chinese GM, Wang Hao. It seemed like Wang never really got going in this tournament but he did have a very nice win over GM Grischuk in the 5th round. Our game was weird from the get go. I surprised Wang by playing the Benoni! This choice was probably not the best objectively, but I wanted to play something double edged and keep tension just in case Anand managed to stir up something serious against Ctrl+V. As it turned out, my decision worked and failed at the same time! I reached a complicated middlegame and offered a draw because I was very unsure if the looming complications would favor me or backfire completely. Wang Hao used a good 20 minutes before accepting my draw offer, but he did nevertheless! This meant I was guaranteed at least a share of first place. After doing the customary interviews and walking back to the Hotel Zeeduin, I got on my computer and watched the Anand game with great excitement. When I saw the words “Game Drawn,” I simply could not contain my excitement! Winning such a prestigious tournament has always been one of my dreams and regardless of whatever I accomplish in my career here onwards, I will always have my place in history!!
In conclusion, I would once again, like to thank Jeroen van den Berg for inviting me to this tournament in 2005 as it led to this long journey towards the top. I also cannot express my gratitude and appreciation to the amazing Dutch spectators and journalists who give the tournament such a special atmosphere. One of my best memories from the event was when I headed into the playing hall for my game against Smeets and as a guy was parking, he yelled out, “kick ass!!” It is moments like this which make playing chess so much fun and so rewarding! Last but not least, I’d also like to thank my second, Kris Littlejohn once again for all the great work we have done together. We have shown that it is possible to get to the top with a different approach and that there is no one correct method!
I hope everyone enjoyed the blog!