Epic Catalan Battle
The most exciting and talked about game of the FIDE World Championship 2021 was Game 6. Statistically, the sixth game of a World Championship match has yielded more decisive results than any other game. This one proved to be no exception, as records kept tumbling. The game had various layers of action and consequences borne due to the new time control introduced in this match. The man of encyclopaedic and impeccable knowledge, GM Sundararajan Kidambi explains the game arising out of Catalan opening and various references of previous games including comments from Kramnik during his live commentary. Check out his enriching article. Photo: Shahid Ahmed
"Staring at the Abyssmal depths of chess" - Jonathon Rowson
The ongoing World Chess Championship between Magnus Carlsen and Ian Nepomniachtchi is covered most extensively and is perhaps the only time in my memory where so many living legends are commenting upon the games live! Vishy Anand, Vladimir Kramnik, Peter Svidler, Fabiano Caruana, Vasyl Ivanchuk and Judit Polgar are all commenting live in various channels. There are numerous others too, but just looking at the names I cannot help imagining myself as Buridan's ass who is unable to make a proper choice!
With all the talks of draws and death of Classical Chess in World Championships in the background, yesterday's game destroyed all such illusions. It is the most grueling World Championship slugfest I have ever seen! To get into the depths of such a fascinating game is beyond the depths of a mortal human, so I will restrict myself to jotting down several interesting moments from this classic.
Carlsen - Nepomniachtchi, World Championship 2021 Game 6
A very interesting and rare line, but a typical Catalan theme of sacrificing a pawn in the opening. Carlsen showed his intentions that he is geared up for a long and uncompromising fight. Kramnik admitted that despite being a Catalan player throughout his life for both colours he has never actually studied this particular position or line!
There were some chaotic and fun lines analysed by Kramnik and Svidler in Ilya Levitov's youtube channel. A rather romantic and chivalrous line where no one is sure what is really happening! Such is the depth and beauty of chess!
The idea of exchanging the dark square bishop for Black's knight is a possibility in a Catalan, and Black rightly refrains from exchanging queens at the moment. If he does so, even though Black has the bishop pair in the endgame, there are some problems he will have to face. The doubled pawns on f6 can be a weakness, the weakness of the square c5 because of having played b5. And also it is very important to note the wonderful placement of the knight on d3 from where it blocks the d-file and is ready to jump to c5, or f4 as required. Ivanchuk with his inimitable erudition mentioned this knight as Romanishin's knight. The origin of such a name is beyond my knowledge of those classical games. Note to myself - Check Romanishin's games on these structures.
I was reminded of two games in these structures where a pure knight versus bishop endgame can be a big headache for Black. Ulf Andersson - Ivanov Sweden 2000 and Kramnik - Deep Fritz game 1 Bonn 2006. These two games (among many others, surely!) illustrate the dangers of such endgames. One needs to pay attention to these positions more minutely. I came across Ulf's particular game in Aagard's Excelling at Positional Chess, I believe.
From Black's point of view it made absolute sense to keep queens on the board and only exchange them under more favourable circumstances. I could not help but remember Seirawan-Ivanchuk Amber Rapid 1994 in this regard, which too deserves a closer look. Ivanchuk would go on to exchange Queens under favourable circumstances and win a Rook Knight versus Rook Bishop endgame.
This interesting and instructive moment came after Black's 24th move Kg7. Kramnik was explaining prophylactic thinking with the position before 24....Kg7. He said it will be useful for Black to question what White intends to do, and then one can come up with the idea that White wants to do e3 and Qe2 to improve the position a little bit. So, instead of 24...Kg7, Kramnik's suggestion was 24...Rd5 with the idea of meeting 25.e3 with 25...Bxe3 26.fxe3 Rad8! It was very interesting to observe his thought process. In this regard he is a successor of Karpov in appraoch to the game - always looking at the position from opponent's angle. Anand, Ivanchuk and Kramnik all of them felt that White's position was more pleasant after 25.e3!? but the World Champion thought for a long time before continuing with 25.Rd2!? demonstrating the depth and richness of chess! When he indeed avoided playing 25.e3 at this moment I was drawn towards the thought that perhaps he did not want to loosen the stable post for his knight on d3 in an eventual endgame versus the dark squared Bishop, as this is what happened in his game versus Karjakin in their first game of the World Championship match 2016 which started from a Trompovsky! (Or Perhaps Magnus' reasoning was entirely different!). This endgame needs to be studied in addition to the Ulf Andersson and Kramnik game mentioned earlier. In passing I would also like to mention Kramnik's version of how Andersson became a very strong endgame player. Apparently he would play casual games with his friends by removing Queens (for both sides from the startposition), sometimes Queen and a minor piece and sometimes some changes in pawns etc!
Black had answered 25.Rd2 with 25...Rac8 provoking an exchange of two rooks for a queen. After a while we reached this position. This particular exchange is a huge topic in itself and one that is not easy to understand. Here the experts preferred White and the way the game went reinforced their opinion. The Question of king safety is a very important feature in evaluating positions with queen against two rooks. Here White's king is safe and relatively Black's king is not. The doubled pawns, themselves can turn out to be weak especially since White has a knight and apart from that there are possibilities of White launching an attack against Black's king with his two rooks and a knight. Especially vulnerable are the light squares like the pawn on f7 and sometimes the g8 square when White infiltrates both his rooks to the eighth rank and so on. In the position from the diagram White continued
which was a wonderful move which Carlsen played in time trouble with five minutes left on his clock for his remaining ten moves. This quickly dispelled the illusion of White being happy with a draw. He further safeguards his kingside structure before embarking on any further operations. As, tempo play is definitely not the need of the hour. Nepo answered
The pawn thrust h4 many a time elicits a similar response from the opponent. But, here it is a clearly a problem as Black abandons his h-pawn to a light square and it does not have a pawn to protect itself because of the doubled pawns. This is clearly a concession from a positional point of view.
This was another star move, taking some more time to secure the king and stop eventual checks before proceeding further. Carlsen made this move with just three minutes (and no increment) remaining on the clock. Kramnik was also expecting this. Kramnik noted an important weakness of chess engines, he felt that they were not good at evaluating queen versus pieces material imbalance. There is a tendency for the engines to overestimate the queen's power. This has always been the case for a long time, but apparently even now engines find this too abstract to understand. In this regard, he quoted his game as White against Ding Liren from the Berlin Candidates 2018. That was prophetic! Little could he have known a very similar occurrence was going to happen in this very game! From my own experience I know engines used to overestimate the queen versus three minor pieces position arising in a Gruenfeld. But that was a decade ago :-) For example check the game Aronian-Sutovsky Reykjavik 2004. In this regard I remember a game of Ivanchuk versus Aronian from Russian Team Championship 2006 which was won by Ivanchuk in which he had three minor pieces against Aronian's queen in an Anti-Marshall. Kasparov once commented in New In Chess stating that the engines dissuaded the top players including himself from realizing the potential for White in that line as they always asess it in Black's favour!
Here Magnus erred with 33.Rd1? White should have maintained coordination with 33.Rcc2! intending to meet 33... Bxa3 with 34.Nf4! Qxb4 and 35.Rd7 and White's attack crashes through. Magnus was extremely short of time and we need to remember that there was no increment as well. Slowly Nepo was also catching up in time trouble. Kramnik once again was expecting 33.Rcc2! Apparently Black is even better after Magnus' mistake although one is not sure about the extent of Black's advantage. Perhaps White has enough resources to draw. However the time trouble phase had huge drama in store for spectators.
In this position Black refrained from taking 35...Bxb4 and perhaps wanted more with 35....e5. At this moment Nepo was quickly catching up in terms of time trouble. If he had captured on b4 he perhaps would have had no danger of losing the game as White lacks coordination to win the a-pawn in the first place before other things. Black is surely better, but maybe White will hold it with solid play.
Move 40 and Magnus went for the most natural 40.Nxe4 However he had a cute little domination in the form of 40.Rdc2! f5 41.Nxa4 Qxa4 42.Rdc3 and in a four versus four pawn structure and doubled f-pawns Black will lose the game slowly. Here the game was just beginning it seems!
Annotators were showing a lot of imaginative and fun lines, This for example found by Miro. This position arose after not so forcing lines and quite far from the actual game, but here Black is powerless with two queens to stop a mate so he sacrifices all his pieces with ....Be7 Rxe7 Qh1+ Kh1 Qd1+ Kg2 Qh1+ and draws the game with a stalemate trick!
After move 82 this position was reached and it was well past midnight and I decided to call it a day as a spectator and fell asleep. Magnus however was only getting started! Remember the game Kramnik-Ding Liren Berlin 2018 that Kramnik was talking about earlier? White has got a much favourable version compared to that. The fact that in computer terms this game is a draw etc. does not make any relevance to a practical game. It is very hard to defend this position as Kramnik rightly pointed out, maybe the computer will draw with its constant ability to accurately calculate and find some perpetual checks in long lines. This is hardly possible for a human, and especially so for a defender. We think in terms of plans and ideas and the resources to save more often than not remain behind a veil to us.
Here Giri pointed out that 118...Qb6! draws instead of Nepo's 118...Qa5
Intending to force the knight to d4 and keep White's pieces tied up by means of a pin. Maybe pinning the knight with the queen can be a reasonable way to approach this otherwise complex position which I do not claim to know anything about! This endgame needs to be checked in detail and at leisure.
Anish Giri himself defended a marathon game against Magnus in Tata Steel 2017 where he had a lone queen against Magnus' rook, light squared bishop and h and g-pawns. He defended really well to draw the game. There was an extra defensive idea of wrong coloured bishop in those positions.
However even with f and g-pawns and a rook and dark squared bishop against a lone queen did not prove to be sufficient to win in another game that I had watched live. Vijayalakshmi-Xu Jun Doha 2014. It seems to me that rook knight and two connected passed pawns pose more of a problem against a lone queen than rook and bishop and two connected passed pawns. This is perhaps because of the unique L-shaped movement of the knight as pointed out by Magnus and Anish which the queen finds hard to combat. A bishop's movement is within her reach!
Final position after move 136, the longest ever in World Championship history. White king can go to g8 and hide from checks. Phew! This drama needs to be fathomed in for months to come!
About the author
ChessBase India is happy to see GM Sundararajan Kidambi writing his sixth post of the year 2021 in his blog "Musings on Chess". Knowing what an encyclopedic knowledge the grandmaster from Chennai possesses, I think we are in for a treat! One can only hope that Kidambi continues writing regularly! We will keep reminding him about it!
The article was edited by Shahid Ahmed