Caruana Leading Candidates Race: "I’ll Try to Stay Calm."

Aronian vs. Caruana, Photo Cathy Rogers

Other the past two days Berlin has gone into deep freeze mode, the temperature falling below 20 degrees. The Kühlhaus, the venue for the 2018 Candidates tournament has lived up to its name, with the concrete floors and insulation-free walls not capable of heating all areas adequately. Nonetheless the crowds coming to see eight of the world’s elite Grandmasters have picked up, with 150+ chess fans gathering on the high floors of the Kühlhaus to look down on the Grandmasters in action or enjoy the commentary in the Fan Zone. The fans in Berlin, and the tens of thousands watching online via multiple sites, have been treated to what many are describing as the most exciting Candidates tournament in living memory, given the violence of many of the games. In a tournament where only first place is of great value, one might expect competitive chess. However in Berlin even the tail-enders are fighting hard; in the last two rounds the player in last place has won his game. Perhaps the less-than-ideal playing conditions have contributed to the up-and-down nature of the games but two have handled the conditions better than the others: the front-runners, both undefeated, Fabiano Caruana an Shakhriyar Mamedyarov. (China’s Ding Liren is also undefeated but is yet to win a game.) In the modern era, the winning recipe for qualifying to challenge the World Champion from the Candidates Tournament has been to be in the lead at the halfway mark. In fact one has to go back to 1959 to find a Candidates Tournament where the winner was not leading halfway through the event. Back in those days, when Grandmasters were a different breed, the Candidates tournament was a 28 round marathon, rather than the modern three week walk in the park.

Fabiano Caruana, Photo Cathy Rogers

So, if history is any guide, after seven of fourteen rounds at the 2018 Berlin Candidates Tournament Caruana should be feeling very comfortable. Caruana is sitting on 5/7, half a point clear of world number two Mamedyarov following Caruana’s dramatic seventh round time scramble against Aronian. Caruana needed to keep his nerves well in check to survive his seventh round game as Aronian sacrificed two pawns straight after the opening. The critical moment of the game was reached with both players running into severe time trouble…

[pgn] [Event "FIDE Candidates 2018"] [Site "Berlin GER"] [Date "2018.03.18"] [White "Aronian, L."] [Black "Caruana, F."] [Result "0-1"] [ECO "D37"] [WhiteElo "2794"] [BlackElo "2784"] [SetUp "1"] [FEN "r4r1k/ppb1qp2/2b3pP/4p1NP/3p1P2/3B1R1K/PP3Q2/2R5 w - - 0 28"] [PlyCount "20"] [EventDate "2018.03.10"] {Aronian ran himself down to less than two minutes before taking the plunge and venturing...} 28. Rxc6 $1 bxc6 29. Nxf7+ $3 Rxf7 30. hxg6 Rf6 ( 30... Rxf4 {'just wins," declared Aronian, but he was too pessimistic since even here after} 31. Rxf4 exf4 32. Qxd4+ Qe5 33. g7+ Kg8 34. Bc4+ Kh7 35. Qd3+ Kxh6 36. g8=Q Rxg8 37. Bxg8 {White retains drawing chances thanks to the bishops running on opposite colors.}) 31. g7+ Kg8 {[#]} 32. Bc4+ $2 {One rushed move in time trouble ruins the attack just when White had a forced draw via} (32. Qh4 $1 {. After} e4 {it took Aronian more than the minute he had on the clock to work out that} 33. h7+ $1 Kxg7 34. Rg3+ Kh8 35. Rg8+ $1 Rxg8 36. hxg8=Q+ Kxg8 37. Bc4+ Kg7 38. Qg5+ $1 {is a draw by perpetual check. "Beautiful!" commented Caruana when he understood Aronian's idea.}) 32... Kh7 33. Qh4 e4 $1 {Not, of course,} (33... Rxh6 34. g8=Q+ Rxg8 35. Bxg8+ Kg7 36. Rg3+ {and it is White who wins.}) 34. Rg3 Bxf4 $1 35. g8=Q+ Rxg8 36. Bxg8+ Kh8 37. Rg7 {[#]} Qf8 $1 {Avoiding Aronian's last trap. Instead} (37... Qd6 $2 { would allow Aronian to turn the tables after} 38. Rh7+ $1 Kxg8 39. Qg4+ Rg6 40. Rg7+ {and Black can resign.}) 0-1[/pgn]
Caruana, however, was not expecting an easy run home: “Towards the end, players will have to go for it; we won’t see any less action and there will be lots of nerves. Sometimes even +4 [9/14] may not be enough. I’ve been in this situation before – I’ll try to stay calm.” Nonetheless, Caruana expressed quiet confidence that he could keep going. “I am happy so far; I’ve played good fighting chess. I prepared well before the event. I have had some luck but I feel as if I’m in good shape.” Asked if he felt extra pressure playing in a Colosseum-type environment, with spectators peering down on the playing arena from above, let alone talking and taking photos throughout the round, Caruana replied diplomatically with “I don’t think they had bananas and dates at the Colosseum!” (Fact check: Dates were a popular food for the Romans, bananas not.) Caruana’s main rival Mamedyarov, had had fewer ups and downs than the American and looks capable of winning more games, so Caruana may need the big winning score he was predicting to stay ahead of the Azeri. The dreams of the other US hope, Wesley So, may have ended in round seven when he threw away a defensible endgame against Sergey Karjakin.
[pgn] [Event "FIDE Candidates 2018"] [Site "Berlin GER"] [Date "2018.03.18"] [White "Karjakin, Sergey"] [Black "So, W."] [Result "1-0"] [ECO "E51"] [WhiteElo "2763"] [BlackElo "2799"] [SetUp "1"] [FEN "2r2k2/6pp/2N1p3/1K2P3/6P1/5n2/R6P/8 b - - 0 35"] [PlyCount "11"] [EventDate "2018.03.10"] {So has been under pressure since the endgame began soon after the opening and here could finally equalise with 35...Rc7. However, with just over five minutes on the clock to reach move 40, So used two of them and chose a move which created a devastating new threat for White.} 35... Ke8 $2 36. Kb6 $1 { Suddenly 37.Kb7 becomes a deadly threat, and the Black king cannot return to f8 without losing the knight after 37.Rf2.} g5 $5 {Hoping to meet 37.Kb7 with 37...Rxc6, whereas the immediate} (36... Rxc6+ 37. Kxc6 Nxe5+ {allows} 38. Kd6 $1 Nxg4 39. Kxe6 Kd8 40. h3 $1 {and Black's kingside pawns are doomed.}) 37. h3 $1 Nxe5 {Desperation, but there is now no defence against 38.Kb7.} 38. Nxe5 Rc3 39. Rh2 Ke7 40. Kb5 Re3 1-0[/pgn]

So vs. Aronian, Photo Cathy Rogers

A day earlier So had been riding high following a magnificent positional display against Aronian but now he can only remind himself of a strange statistic; the person tied with Aronian after round seven has always gone on to be the World Champion’s challenger. The winners in 2013, 2014 and 2016 - Carlsen, Anand and then Karjakin - were always tied with Levon Aronian at the halfway point, before going on to outpace the Armenian. Unfortunately for both So and Aronian, Aronian’s score at that point of the earlier tournaments had been 4.5 or 5, not 2.5 as here.

[pgn] [Event "FIDE Candidates 2018"] [Site "Berlin GER"] [Date "2018.03.16"] [White "So, Wesley"] [Black "Aronian, Levon"] [Result "1-0"] [ECO "C88"] [WhiteElo "2799"] [BlackElo "2794"] [PlyCount "155"] [EventDate "2018.03.10"] 1. e4 e5 2. Nf3 Nc6 3. Bb5 a6 4. Ba4 Nf6 5. O-O Be7 6. Re1 b5 7. Bb3 O-O 8. a4 b4 9. a5 d6 10. d3 Be6 11. Bxe6 fxe6 12. Nbd2 Rb8 13. Nb3 Qc8 {[#]} 14. h3 $5 { "This position has been reached many times," said So. "Fabiano played} Nd8 15. Be3 c5 16. Nbd2 Nc6 17. c3 Rb5 18. d4 $1 {[#]} exd4 {Taking up the challenge and grabbing the a ppawn. "I saw that after} (18... bxc3 19. bxc3 exd4 20. cxd4 c4 21. Nxc4 Nxe4 {it should be around equal," said Aronian. "But then I felt like some adventure."}) 19. cxd4 Nxa5 20. dxc5 dxc5 21. Ra2 $1 {These type of positions are well known in similar Ruy Lopez lines - including a Carlsen-Aronian game from the first Sinquefield Cup. White has nothing but pressure for the pawn, but it is very difficult for Black to untangle his knight and rook on the queenside.} Qb7 22. b3 Kh8 $6 {"This surprised me," said So. "I felt that} (22... Nxe4 23. Nxe4 Qxe4 24. Bg5 Qb7 25. Qe2 {was very dangerous, though I could calculate it to the end" responded Aronian. "Maybe it holds in some way but it wasn't the sort of position I wanted to get."}) 23. Qc2 Nd7 24. Rea1 Bd8 25. Nc4 $1 {This cost So 17 minutes, but it was time well spent. "The critical move. After} (25. e5 {Black has} c4 $1 26. Nxc4 Nxc4 27. Qxc4 Rxf3 $1 {," explained Aronian. "Otherwise 25.e5 would have been extremely strong."}) 25... Nxc4 26. Qxc4 Bf6 27. Rd1 Qc6 28. Rad2 Nb6 29. Qc2 {[#]} Qc7 $6 {"Maybe I have gone wrong somewhere, though it is hard to say where," said Aronian at the exact moment when he went wrong. After} (29... Qc8 $1 30. e5 Be7 (30... Bd8 31. Rd6 $1 Be7 32. Ng5 $1 Bxg5 33. Bxg5 Nd5 34. Ra1 {is slightly better for White.}) 31. Bg5 {Aronian was not happy, but} Qe8 {should be fine for Black.}) 30. e5 Be7 31. Nd4 Rc8 32. Nxe6 $1 Qxe5 {[#]} 33. Nf4 {"I spent all my time here on} (33. Rd6 $3 {and 33.Nd8!?," admitted Aronian. After 33.Rd6 } Bxd6 (33... c4 {is more resilient but White should win after} 34. Bd4 Qxd6 35. Bxg7+ Kg8 36. Rxd6 Bxd6 37. Qd1 $1 Rd5 38. Bd4 $1 Kf7 39. Ng5+ Rxg5 40. Bxb6 {with 41.Qf3+ to follow.}) 34. Ng5 $1 Qh2+ 35. Kf1 g6 36. Rxd6 {when Black has no defence against 39.Qb2+-f6 since} c4 {allows} 37. Bd4+ Kg8 38. Rxg6+ $1) 33... Rf8 $2 {"A terrible move. After spending all my time on the difficult variations like 33.Rd6, I just relaxed," admitted Aronian. " I should play any move like bring my king to the center."} 34. Re2 $1 Qc3 35. Qb1 {"Here already} (35. Qa2 $1 {wins," said Aronian, indicating} a5 36. Bc1 $1 { when Black's queen is threatened by 37.Bb2 and after} Qf6 37. Re6 Qf7 38. Qe2 $1 {the unlucky rook on b5 is hanging.}) 35... Qf6 {[#]} 36. Bc1 $1 c4 37. bxc4 Nxc4 38. Re6 Qg5 39. Ng6+ Qxg6 40. Rxg6 hxg6 41. Qe4 Bf6 42. Qxc4 b3 43. Ba3 Rfb8 44. Rb1 b2 {[#]} 45. h4 $1 {"I was very careful," said So. "Maybe if Black reaches a position such as that after} (45. Bxb2 Rxb2 46. Rxb2 Rxb2 47. Qxa6 g5 $1 {maybe Black can draw." "At least Black has chances [to survivie]," Aronian agreed.}) 45... Ra5 46. Qd3 Rd8 47. Qb3 Rc8 48. Qb7 Rd8 49. Qb3 Rc8 50. Qb4 Rb5 51. Qg4 Rc3 52. Bxb2 {Finally agreeing to liquidate into an endgame where the win is slow but sure.} Rxb2 53. Rxb2 Rc1+ 54. Kh2 Bxb2 55. Qxg6 Ra1 56. g4 a5 57. Qh5+ Kg8 58. Qb5 Ba3 59. Qe5 Rd1 60. Qe6+ Kh7 61. Qe4+ Kh8 62. Qa8+ Kh7 63. Qxa5 Bd6+ {Resignation was a good option as well.} 64. Kg2 Rd4 65. Qf5+ Kh8 66. Qh5+ Kg8 67. g5 Kf8 68. Qg6 Be7 69. Qf5+ Ke8 70. Kh3 Rd6 71. Qh7 Kf7 72. f4 Rd4 73. Qf5+ Ke8 74. Qe5 Rb4 75. Kg4 Kf8 76. Qf5+ Ke8 77. Qe6 Rd4 78. Qe5 1-0[/pgn]
2018 Candidates Tournament Scores after round 7: 1.Caruana(USA) 5; 2.Mamedyarov(AZE) 4.5; =3 Kramnik(RUS), Ding(CHN), Grischuk(RUS) 3.5; 6. Karjakin(RUS) 3. =7.So(USA), Aronian(ARM) 2.5. The Candidates Tournament continues on Monday with round 8 starting at 10am AEST. See A Couch Potato’s Guide to the Candidates for details on how to watch.