After the Bilbao Grand Slam Final, there isn’t much of a wait until the next super-tournament begins: Pearl Spring starts on Wednesday! It’s a 6 player, double round-robin with an interesting set of players. By live rating, it’s Anand (2803), Carlsen (2802), Topalov (2786), Wang Yue (2753), Gashimov (2733), and Bacrot (2716). Pretty much every player comes in with some question marks.
Carlsen has a pretty good lifetime score against Topalov – 5 wins against 3 losses (along with 4 draws) in slow games. Since 2008, he’s dominated the matchup, winning 2 and drawing 2. However, Carlsen is coming into this event bleeding a bit, with a bad Olympiad and a subpar Grand Slam Final.
After Dortmund 2009 (where Kramnik thrashed him), Carlsen went on a huge run that took him to the #1 ranking. However, that run largely featured wins against people outside the other four best players (Anand, Kramnik, Topalov, and Aronian). He’ll get 6 games against those kinds of players here, and maybe the win against Shirov is a harbinger of a small turnaround. At least he’ll be breathing a sigh of relief that he doesn’t have to deal with Kramnik, who has really pushed Carlsen around with both colors in 2009 and 2010.
Anand, of course, beat Topalov earlier in the year to hold onto the World Champion’s crown. That was a tense match that wasn’t decided until the very end. In general, though, it’s hard to say that Anand made much of a dent with his openings and he was often dancing in and out of trouble. He came in second at Bilbao just now, but it wasn’t a particularly stirring performance in my view.
The win against Carlsen was nice – accurate play throughout the game – but the games in the second half against Shirov and Carlsen were disappointments. Against Shirov, he lost his way in the complications and was somewhat lucky to draw. And against Carlsen, he made some serious missteps to find himself clearly worse, worked his way back and into a small plus (that’d be hard to convert) before acquiescing to a draw.
When he’s gotten into extremely complicated games this year, he hasn’t acquitted himself all that well – a near-loss against Shirov in Corus; the game 9 mess against Topalov that he couldn’t put away; and a pair of close calls against Shirov and Carlsen in Bilbao. I just realized all these more complicated games were as White! With black, he’s happy to get by on class alone, but he will try and push a bit with white. He also hasn’t won a classical even since Linares 2008.
Like Carlsen, Topalov had an Olympiad to forget. He’s had trouble with Carlsen in the past and while he played alright in the World Championship match in April, he did lose his mind in the final game at a critical juncture. Topalov is also a bit more reliant on power preparation than his colleagues at the very top. The break after the Olympiad probably has helped him relative to Anand and Carlsen, who’ll come in a bit more tired. He also absolutely eats up Bacrot (5 wins and 4 draws in classical play), and has healthy plus scores against Wang Yue and Gashimov.
Gashimov and Bacrot resurface after missing the Olympiad, but for very different reasons. Gashimov was left off the Azerbaijan roster in a rather controversial decision, while Bacrot went AWOL for the French team without any apparent reason. At least I haven’t heard any reason for why he didn’t play. There’ve been questions about his commitment in the past, so I guess it’s more of the same.
As for the local participant, Wang Yue, he’s quite solid, but I can’t see him making a dent in this field. His idol is Kramnik, and while Wang Yue can grind out small advantages quite well, there aren’t many guys here who’ll let him get his preferred tiny +=.
In one of my post-mortems this past summer, I mentioned to my opponent that he repeated a Wang Yue line with white. Amongst normal GMs, that’s equivalent to, “I killed the position and made a draw.” He’s lethal against normal GMs, who make small mistakes somewhat often, but against 2700+ GMs, he struggles to create opportunities. He doesn’t have a plus score against anybody in this field.
My own prediction? Carlsen won’t run away with it like he did in 2009, so I think 6.5/10 will be good enough for first place. I’ll say Topalov hits that mark, with Carlsen and Anand half a point back at plus-2.