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Sao Paulo/Bilbao Grand Slam Final Part I

October 30, 2011 • General

Good evening/morning to everyone on this pleasant Sunday before Halloween. I have long been contemplating writing another blog but it has been a very busy last month. However, I was having a conversation with Xuan Liu and we were both regretting not writing more blogs as these memories and experiences will not last forever. This really struck a chord and I shall attempt to recap everything which has happened over the past month and a half since I last checked in.

On September 20th, I left St. Louis and flew to Bilbao! As it turned out, the prices were substantially cheaper if I bought two separate tickets, (STL-BIO and BIO-GRU) so I had the opportunity to spend one day in Bilbao prior to flying to Sao Paulo, Brazil. This one day was fairly uneventful as it was hot summer weather and Kris Littlejohn (my second) and I chose instead to simply rest up and spend our time on the internet prior to the long flight to South America. On the following day we had the treat of flying on Singapore Airlines. Having heard a lot about this airline, it was truly an experience between the attractive flight attendants, the great food and the extremely comfortable seats. I can sufficiently say that having flown over 1,000,000 miles, it was the best airline by far.

Upon arriving in Sao Paulo on September 22nd, Kris and I were greeted by two very helpful South Americans (my apologies to them as I have forgotten their names) who escorted both Kris and I by taxi to the Hotel Melia Jardin Europa in the heart of downtown Sao Paulo. The taxi ride was an hour, so I had the opportunity to take in the scenery and it was amazing to see the economic differences throughout this massive metropolis. With the opening ceremony on the 25th and the first round on the 26th, this gave me ample time to relax, adjust to the time zone and finish my preparation for the tournament.

The opening ceremony was held at 11AM (odd time, I know) in the Ibapuera Park in Sao Paulo. Most opening ceremonies tend to be pretty standard, but not in this case! Upon arriving, we were immediately swarmed by a few dozen if not a hundred kids from Sao Paulo who asked for pictures and autographs. This was truly memorable and very humbling to know that so many people are following this great game of chess despite our lack of widespread media coverage. The rest of the opening ceremony was fairly standard with several speeches by the main sponsors and the drawing of lots. I was fortunate to draw number 1 which meant that I would start the tournament with double white’s against Ivanchuk and Anand.

Having played against Vasily Ivanchuk many times, I knew quite well that there was a very good chance we’d end up out of theory very early on in the game. Sure enough, this happened as we were out of theory by move 7! (Diagram 1)

The game was fairly complicated, but balanced throughout and we agreed to a draw on move 28 in a rook ending. All in all, a solid start with a draw and a chance to get my feet wet before taking any big risks.

In the second round and a second white, I faced the World Champion Vishy Anand. We had only played twice prior to this game in classical chess (London, Wijk aan Zee) with both games being drawn. Vishy surprised me early on by offering me the chance to go into the Anti-Moscow Gambit. At the board, I thought for a bit before deciding to go for it. I trusted that my preparation was good enough, and you do not have the opportunity to beat a World Champion every day! Vishy surprised me early on by choosing 9…Nbd7!? (Diagram 2)

This was first played in Kasimdzhanov-Gelfand in 2009, but there have not been many games since then. The middlegame was very complicated and pretty balanced until move 24. (Diagram 3)

Vishy played 24…Bxe5? (Had he chosen 24…Qc8 25.Qxb5 Qc7 the position should be a draw with correct play. I returned this gift with 25.Bxe5? During the game I saw 25.Bc6, but I completely hallucinated that on 25…Bd4 26.Bc7 won on the spot. After blowing this golden opportunity, the game ended in a draw at time control.

The third round featured a matchup against Armenian, Levon Aronian. In this game, I chose to play the fairly passive but solid Schlecter system of the Grunfeld. Having not come up with many better choices, I chose to play this as I felt inspired by seeing all the games Kamsky had won or drawn from miserable positions in this line. Despite giving up the bishop pair early, it seemed like Levon simply did not have much fighting spirit and we shuffled around for 20 moves before exchanging off all of the major pieces and agreeing to a draw.

Starting with two consecutive White’s is nice, but it also meant I would get double Blacks following that. This meant I would face Magnus Carlsen with black yet again. Having lost my last three games against Magnus with black, I knew this was a big opportunity to solidify my standing and also break this horrible streak. Keeping this in mind, I chose to play the very solid Queens Gambit Declined which seems to be very popular of late. Magnus chose to play 6.Bxf6 and we reached the critical position on move 19. (Diagram 4)

Magnus chose to play aggressively with 19.g4, but I equalized nicely with 19…Be6 20.f4 Qb6 21.Rd1 Bxe5 22.Qxe5 Re8. The rest of the game was pretty simple and we agreed to a draw at time control. Having drawn the four players above me and facing the tail ender Paco Vallejo with White in the fifth and final round of the Sao Paulo portion of the Grand Slam Final was pretty much according to plan.

Coming into my fifth round game against Paco Vallejo, we were on opposite trajectories. I had drawn all four of my games while Vallejo had lost three and gotten a miracle victory against Carlsen from a dead lost position. As such, I knew that if I was going to contend for first place, I would have to win this critical game. I chose to repeat the same English Opening like Ivanchuk has chosen earlier and much to my surprise, Vallejo chose to repeat the same line as in that game. I obtained a close to winning position by move 20 before allowing Vallejo to complicate matters by sacrificing a piece. Although the computers show the position to be completely winning, it is not quite so easy for us feeble humans under game conditions with pressure to avoid miscalculating. In a messy time scramble with complications, I was able to outplay Vallejo and eventually ground him down in a very long ending which he resigned on move 59. This meant that I ended the first half with 1 win, 4 draw and in clear second place behind Ivanchuk.

Before delving into the second half of the tournament, I would be remiss if I did not mention the unfortunate incident surrounding our departure from Sao Paulo and the entire event. Following the 5th round, there was a brief closing ceremony at the hotel where we were all given money for a cab. Although I think that the incident involving the robbery of Ivanchuk was simply a case of being in the wrong place at the wrong time, I do think that organizers for such a prestigious event should handle the transportation in a better way.

As I mentioned before, the Ivanchuk incident in Sao Paulo certainly changed the dynamics of the event. Having arrived safely in Bilbao, I was shocked when Kris alerted me to the news, and I promptly contacted the organizers offering to postpone our game an extra day so that there would be the possibility of Ivanchuk’s wife being able to arrive and/or also giving him a chance to recover. Ivanchuk chose to decline the offer and play resumed on October 6th in Bilbao, Spain.

Having had three full days to recover from jet lag and prepare prior to this game, I felt like I would be in very good shape. Unfortunately, after spending the better part of 2 ½ days preparing for the game Kris and I found a significant hole in our preparation and I decided at the last minute to play the Sicilian Kan instead. Much like our first round game in Sao Paulo, we were out of theory by move 7 once again. The middlegame was very imbalanced and we both made several mistakes. After being under significant pressure, I missed a draw on move 22. (Diagram 5)

I played 22…h6? instead of 22…Qb6! 23.Bxd5 Nexd5 24.g4 Rac8 25.gxf6 Nxf6 26.Qf2 Ng4! 27.Qh4 Nf6. The second opportunity I had was on move 30. (Diagram 6)

In the massive time scramble I played 30…Kg8? whereas 30…Rxd3 31.cxd3 Qxc3 31.Bb4 Qxd3 would have been highly unclear. After 31.Bd6, I played on for a few more moves, but to no avail and I suffered my first loss of the Grand Slam Final. This was a tough defeat to deal with, but chess is about converting opportunities and I blew mine while Ivanchuk did not in this game.

This is the first blog on the Grand Slam Final. Stay tuned for the second and final blog on the tournament shortly.