The Candidates Tournament in London has just completed the first set of rounds. It’s been a very interesting event so far, although with a lot more bizarre time management than I remember from previous events similar to this one (e.g., San Luis 2005 and Mexico City 2007, although both were officially title events).
The games themselves have – almost without fail – been interesting. The one completely uninteresting game that comes to mind was the Round 7 game between Ivanchuk and Svidler. That’s not to say every game has been interesting throughout, just that there were interesting moments in those other games.
At the halfway point, Carlsen and Aronian are ahead of the pack on +3 (5/7). Nobody else even has a plus score, while the elder statesmen among the group (Ivanchuk and Gelfand) are on -2 (2.5/7).
I think it’s pretty clear that Carlsen or Aronian will win this event. A Topalov-like run (6.5/7 in one half, 3.5/7 with all draws in the other) is still theoretically possible for Kramnik, but it’s just a a theoretical possibility. And given that unlike the 2005 and 2007 double-RRs, a good portion of this field appears to be in poor form (relative to even their normal results/rating), I expect Carlsen and Aronian to win some games in the 2nd half as well.
I wouldn’t quite count missing something like in this poor form:
Aronian is up a pawn, but they’re doubled and Black has the bishop pair. That doesn’t mean it’s a trivial draw, but Black does have decent drawing chances. Moves like …Bb6 could allow d5!? and a rook invasion on the 7th rank though; while something like …Bd5 gives up any hope of challenging the c-file (and White will likely try to install a knight on c6 + pawn on b5). Gelfand played 25…Rc8? though, walking into a beautiful combination: 26.Bh6+!! Kg8 (26…Kxh6 27.Rxc8 and 28.Nxf7+; 26…Kf6 27.Bg5+ Kxg5 28.Nxf7+ Kf4 29.g3+ Kf3 30.Re1! are some sample variations) 27.Rxc8 Bxc8 28.Nc6 Bf6 29.b5! Bd7 30.g4! (this is the real culmination of the plan) and Black is just lost.
Taking the a7-pawn (and giving up the d4-pawn) was by no means a trivial win (and it might well still be within the drawing margin). By threatening g5 though, White essentially forces Black to take on c6 (going back to h8 allows Ne7#, while Bg7 leaves the d4-pawn on the board).
But after 30…g5 31.h4 gxh4 (this doesn’t fundamentally change things) 32.g5 Bxc6 33.bxc6, Black has to retreat to d8. Now his bishop is tied down and his king is boxed in. White just walks up, takes h4, then walks over the queenside, and pushes his pawn through.
Instead, bad form is playing moves like 22.Nd6? in the one below:
br3rk1/2qnbpp1/2n1p2p/2p1P2P/ppP1N1Q1/3P1N2/P4PP1/BR2RBK1 w - - 0 22)
Grischuk just drops a pawn unprovoked – no time pressure, no unseen threat, just a very simple tactic – 22…Nxce5 23.Nxe5 Nf6 and Black is up a clean pawn – the fact Gelfand could only draw the game despite some huge advantages speaks to his poor form more than the loss to Aronian from the above position I think.
As another example of poor form, I’d offer the Leningrad Dutch between Radjabov and Ivanchuk. A known line (with an undisputed plus for White by virtually everybody), one pawn exchange later, and Ivanchuk was essentially just lost in one move. Coupled with the crazy, caveman-style attack he launched the next day and repeated brushes with hanging flags, and I think it’s safe to say that Ivanchuk isn’t handling the tournament so well.
So Gelfand and Ivanchuk are in poor form — with Chucky, it’s not so unexpected, but Gelfand has been pretty solid at least, and occasionally more (when winning a FIDE Grand Prix event, which counts for the next candidates tournament).
Radjabov and Grischuk are in subpar form as well it looks like. Svidler I think will do fine in the event (although his loss to Magnus was completely bizarre). Kramnik is generally playing well, but he hasn’t been able to take advantage of his small windows of opportunity in the same fashion as Aronian and Carlsen.
I think it’s rarer to play yourself into bad form within a tournament than the opposite, so there’s some hope for that bottom quartet. Their play has been spotty at best, while their time management has been atrocious, maybe even more atrocious than normal. So I’m hoping they rediscover some of the form that earned them these spots, but I still expect Magnus to win this event when it’s all said and done.