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Morelia-Linares: The Story so Far Print E-mail
By Macauley Peterson   
February 26, 2008
A Morelia church at sunset. Photo Macauley Peterson
Madrid, Spain

 It's pretty rare that mid-way through a Super-GM round-robin tournament, more than half the games played have been won or lost, and yet that is the story of the Morelia-Linares tournament. As the players transition from Mexico to Spain, they each take with them at least one win and one loss.

Six of the eight players from last year's tournament are back in 2008, and yet the Morelia leg saw twice as many decisive games as in 2007. A number of factors have contributed to the slugfest so far, including the two new players, Alexei Shirov and Teimour Radjabov, whose aggressive style and opening choices are less drawish than, say, the Petroff as played by Kramnik.

Kramnik hasn't played in the tournament since he won it in 2004, the same year Shirov last competed here. Of course Shirov is no stranger to Linares, having played in ten editions of the tournament since 1993. He has placed last, or tied for last, in five of them, but also finished as high as second, a half point behind Anand, in 1998. Now, after a strong 2007, Shirov is back the Top 10, ten years later, and again a half a point behind Anand, who leads the field with 4.5/7.

Shirov took out Radjabov's pet K.I.D., in Round 7, to move into a tie with the early leader Veselin Topalov. After the game on Saturday, Shirov told me that he's generally satisfied with his play. "It was a little bit sad not to convert the advantage yesterday," he said referring to his draw with Black against Vassily Ivanchuk, from a position in which he was clearly better. "After that," added Shirov, "It was not even easy to sleep properly."


Shirov credits Anand with showing the best chess so far, and Vishy's +2 score (with 3 wins and 1 loss) puts him exactly where he was this time last year. The difference is that today he is the sole leader, whereas in 2007 Magnus Carlsen, then 16 years old, was putting on one of the most spectacular performances by a youth in chess history. He led the tournament through much of the first half and finished an impressive second overall.

Anand has become somewhat of a Cassiacal nemesis for the young Carlsen, who lost to the World Champion twice in Linares 2007, at Corus last month, and in Morelia last week. In Wijk aan Zee, Anand thought he was losing with Black against Magnus, calling the eventual victory "slightly undeserved." "He's developing just incredibly fast," Anand went on to say. "Nobody is really surprised anymore that he wins games, but that he's already doing it in 2008 here, is unexpected." Their game prompted Carlsen's father Henrik to remark, "I think in a few years Anand will be scared when he plays Black against Magnus." For the moment, another win for Anand with Black in Morelia, leaves his plus score versus Carlsen squarely in the black.

As for the present tournament, Anand doesn't much like to reflect on an event in progress, but did say, "it's been very hard fought," adding, "what [comes] to mind is that after four rounds no one was undefeated any more. Perhaps that shows how tough it's been."

Veselin Topalov is known for starting supertournaments poorly and surging towards the end. That wasn't the case last year in Linares, where the Bulgarian went winless in the second half and finished in the cellar. This year Topalov started well with two wins and a draw from his first three games, but then faltered with back-to-back losses to Shirov and Carlsen.

Vassily Ivanchuk, Veselin Topalov and Teimour Radjabov.

"All of us more or less played the same," said Topalov after Round 7, "I think we had some good games and bad games, and also I think that nobody is in extremely bad shape."  Topalov is relatively pleased to go to Linares on +1 after playing unusually poorly during his two losses in Morelia. Asked about the high number of decisive games at the half, Topalov remarked, "compared to other years, I think it's very fighting." He credits the Sofia rules (which expressly prohibit agreed draws) for reducing the number of draws here, despite the fact that this concept is not in force for Linares. "Still," Topalov explained, "I think players realize they have to fight more." He also said the influence of the younger players in the field (Carlsen, Radjabov) contributes to the low drawing percentage. Topalov, for his part, has had five decisive games, the most of any player.

Earlier in the day, Carlsen expressed satisfaction at the style of play. "I think it's great that so many games are decided," said the Norwegian. "It's more fun to win two games and lose two games than playing seven draws, for sure." He expected a less interesting tournament with some exciting games buffeting several boring draws. Instead, "so far it's been a firework," he said, with a wry grin.

Carlsen is in the middle of the pack, tied with Levon Aronian on an even score. Both Corus co-winners have won two and lost two. Aronian fell to Carlsen on Saturday, the day after a long and tiring draw with Peter Leko. Aronian's early novelty in that game, 9.Qa4, sent Leko into deep thought for nearly 84 minutes, after which a tense struggle ensued that went well into the second time control. (I chronicle Leko's opening dilemma in "A Spoiled Novelty" for ICC.)

Leko, who clearly needed to summon all his reserve concentration to survive the time pressure of Round 6, also lost the final game in Morelia, to Topalov, and the latter made a point of explaining that the game had been completely level until Leko finally erred towards the end. Topalov noted that he could feel that Leko was warn out by the prior round. "Of course, everybody is tired," he was quick to add.

I shared a car ride back to Mexico City with Leko, his wife Sophie, and Ivanchuk's second Manuel León Hoyos. Leko was ashen immediately after his last round loss, but by Sunday he was extremely amiable. He spoke of his passion for American pro wrestling, which he followed avidly in his youth and still does on occasion. He has read biographies by several veterans of the sport including Ric Flair's 2004 autobiography, To Be the Man, which Leko completed on an off day at Corus.

For Leko to be the man in Linares, he will have to overcome his -2 performance in Morelia, which leaves him in sole possession of last place. To get back into contention he would have to pull a Morozevich, who rocketed from -3 in Morelia, 2007, to second place by the end. That kind of winning streak is unlikely for Leko, but at least he cannot be accused of playing boring chess. After I read CLO's re-cap yesterday, including Greg Shahade's "ashamed" update, I began to wonder if Leko might have seen Greg's scathing critique of his playing style. Although I neglected to ask him directly in the car, Peter did turn to me at one point and say something to the effect of, "who is this Shahade, and why is he famous? I heard he had some poker jackpot."

Macauley Peterson recently earned his Masters in Film Studies from the University of Amsterdam. He is currently producing videos and reporting live throughout Morelia-Linares on ICC Chess.FM, and he may be reached at www.MacauleyPeterson.com. The eighth round of Morelia-Linares (and the first round of the Spanish leg) begins in Linares Feb.28. Watch the games live on ICC and check CLO for on-site dispatches from GM Ian Rogers.