|Caruana Dominating Grand Slam Final at Halftime|
|By GM Ian Rogers|
|September 30, 2012|
Put the two best players in the world – Magnus Carlsen and Levon Aronian – together in a tournament with World Champion Viswanathan Anand and one may expect the rest of the field to be mere extras.
However after the first half of the Grand Slam Final, played in a glass cube in Sao Paulo's famous Ibirapuera Park, the US-born Italian Fabiano Caruana has shown – for the third time in three months – that he can compete with, and beat, the world's elite players.
Unperturbed by some of the coldest spring weather that Sao Paulo locals could remember, Caruana, 20, knocked over Carlsen, 21, in the first round and Russia's hope Sergey Karjakin, 22, in the second.
As the players prepare to fly to Bilbao in northern Spain for the second half of the Grand Slam Final, Caruana is a full point ahead of Aronian (or four points using the tournament's 3-1-0 soccer scoring system) and a point and a half ahead of Anand and Carlsen.
The Grand Slam Final may be one of the strongest tournaments of 2012 but its raison d'etre has almost completely collapsed.
When the Grand Slam Association began four years ago, tournaments were falling over themselves to join up, with only the Sparkassen tournament in Dortmund and the Tal Memorial in Moscow staying aloof.
The established traditional tournaments in Wijk aan Zee and Linares were joined by new super-tournaments in Sofia, Nanjing and Bazna for a circuit where the winners could form a worthy Grand Slam final in Bilbao. (Soon Bilbao was to share the final; first with Shanghai and then in 2011 and 2012 with Sao Paulo.)
Though fine in theory, the Grand Slam Final has been dogged by bad luck. In the 2009/10 season Magnus Carlsen won all but one Grand Slam tournament, making any Grand Slam Final something of an absurdity.
More worryingly, year by year the Grand Slam tournaments ran into financial difficulties and dropped out of the circuit.
In 2011 one of the jewels in the Grand Slam crown, Linares, stopped after being one of the world's elite tournaments for three decades. (With 40% unemployment in Andalucia, the chance of the tournament resuming in the near future appears bleak. The mayor of Linares, a big chess supporter, is currently locked in a car factory with the factory workers, trying to prevent Volkswagen from closing down their workplace.)
By 2012, only one Grand Slam tournament remained, Wijk aan Zee, so the organizers required some creative thinking to create a Final for a circuit which no longer existed.
The solution was ingenious – invite the winners from the super-tournaments that had not agreed to become part of the Grand Slam circuit!
Thus the 2012 Grand Slam Final features Carlsen (Tal Memorial winner), Aronian (winner of Wijk aan Zee), plus Caruana and Karjakin, joint winners of Dortmund 2012. Add the winner of the 2012 World Championship match, Viswanathan Anand, and the Grand Slam Final magically became a serious end-of-season event. (The only top player missing is Vladimir Kramnik (winner of the 2011 London Classic), because the former World Champion refuses to play in tournaments split between continents.)
Yet despite so many elite GMs being present, the armchair critics, with computer programs such as Houdini running by their side, have been scathing about the number of errors made by the competitors in Sao Paulo.
The biggest howls of disapproval came in the fourth round, when the two top players in the world were going head to head...
Sao Paulo Grand Slam Final Round 4
Carlsen is well ahead on the clock – 40 minutes to 13 – and the Norwegian world number one later explained that with his knight impregnable on e4, he felt he had little to fear.
26.Qd1 Qh3 27.Bf4!?
Played after 11 minutes thought. Aronian briefly looked at 27...R8xf4!? 28.gxf4 Nxf4 and saw that it was refuted by 29.Ra8+ Kh7 30.Ng5+. So, knowing that serious time trouble in Sao Paulo – a tournament where there was no increment on the first time control – could be fatal, Aronian quickly replied
with the aim of making the previous variation playable by decoying the knight away from control of g5.
However by now every chess computer was screaming out that 27...R8xf4! would have won, since after 28.gxf4 Nxf4 29.Ra8+ Black has 30...Bf8! and mate will be forced after 31.Rg1 Qxh2+!!
Carlsen admitted that he saw this immediately after he moved and was shaking for the rest of the game, which concluded
28.Qxf3 Bxa1 29.Qg2 Qf5 30.Bd2 Bd4 31.h3 Bc5 32.Bc3 Be7 33.Re1 b5 34.Kg1 b4 35.Bb2 Bd6 36.h4 Be7 37.Kh2 Ra8 38.Ra1 Rxa1 39.Bxa1 Nc5 40.Nd2 Bf6 41.Bb2 b3 42.Nxb3 Nxb3 43.cxb3 Qxd3 44.Qxc6 Qc2 45.Qe8+ Kh7 46.Qxh5+ Kg8 47.Qe8+ Kh7 48.Qh5+ Draw
How could top players blunder so badly, overlooking a 'simple' mate?
Yet, something even worse was avoided by mere chance a round earlier...
Sao Paulo Grand Slam Final Round 3
Here Vallejo, running short of time, took a repetition of moves with
30...Ra1+ 31.Kg2 Ra2+ 32.Kf1 Ra1+ 33.Kg2 Ra2+ and the game was drawn.
Vallejo admitted that he had also been tempted to play 30...Qxh2, which would oblige Aronian to force a draw with 31.Rg7+ Kxg7 32.Qe7+ when Black cannot escape the checks.
At the post-game press conference, Brazilian GM Gilberto Milos pointed out that 30...Qxh2 would actually have allowed 31.Ne5+!! fxe5 32.Rc7+, with mate to follow.
Vallejo looked shocked that he had almost walked into this, but Aronian was equally surprised, since he had intended 31.Rg7+ and was not at all sure that he would have noticed the forced mate. "I saw that I was making a draw," said Aronian, "but maybe I would see it."
"Actually, I was very lucky," admitted Vallejo," since I was not sure whether to force a draw or let him do so with 30...Qxh2 31.Rg7+."
On the same day, another large tactical accident was missed
Sao Paulo Grand Slam Final Round 3
Black has just played 45...f5 - "My only chance because otherwise White just brings his king to c2 and plays Rb3," explained Karjakin.
"Perhaps I should play 46.f3," but I believed that after the exchange of rooks White should be very close to winning here," said Carlsen.
The game continued
46...Rd8 47.Rxd8 Bxd8 48.Kd3
and with extraordinary effort Karjakin hung onto a draw after
48...f4! 49.Ke2 g5! 50.gxf4 exf4 51.hxg5 Bxg5 52.Kf3 Bh4 53.a4 a6 54.b3 g5 55.Na5 Ke5 56.Nc6+ Kd6 57.Na5 Ke5 58.Nc4+ Kd4 59.a5 Bxf2 60.Kxf2 Kxe4 61.Nd6+ Kd5 62.Ne8 Kc6 63.Nf6 Kb5 64.Ne4 g4 65.Ke2 Kxa5 66.Nxc5 Kb4 67.Nxa6+ Kxb3 Draw
46...Rxb2!! 47.Nxb2 fxe4! when the White rook is trapped and White will struggle to draw.
"Oh! Really! 46...Rxb2 is brilliant!” exclaimed Karjakin.
"Wow!" was all Carlsen could manage.
So are the top players playing worse that they used to? Would superstars of old have missed such tactical ideas?
Absolutely. The problem, as Shakespeare pointed out many years ago, is not in the stars but in ourselves.
We are living in an age where everybody has access to computer assessments, meaning that every small oversight by top players appears magnified.
In years past, tricks such as 46...Rxb2+!! might only have been noticed months or even years later, perhaps only brought to light by an amateur writing a letter to Larry Evans in Chess Life.
Nowadays every move of the top Grandmasters can be challenged and yes, being human, even Carlsen and Aronian can miss moves that seem obvious once you are shown them.
After all, who would see 46...Rxb2+!! without a computer pointing it out?
Fabiano Caruana – that's who! (Did I mention that Caruana was in good form?) Yes, Caruana was wandering past Carlsen's game against Karjakin, when Karjakin played 45...f5. At first Caruana was puzzled as to why Karjakin would allow 46.Rd5, which obliges Black to exchange rooks into a likely losing ending, when he saw 46...Rxb2+!! and thought “What a great trap by Karjakin!”. Sadly Caruana's faith in the genius of Karjakin was disabused one move later.
To conclude one trick that neither the players nor the spectators saw...
Sao Paulo Grand Slam Final Round 2
Vallejo thought that he was holding with
31.Rc1 Rxc1 32.Kxc1 but after 32...h4!!
Carlsen wins by force. Vallejo was expecting only 32...a5 33.Nc2 when 33...Bxc2 34.Kxc2 leads only to a draw.
33.gxh4 gxh4 34.Nxa6
34.Nc2 Bxc2 35.Kxc2 Ke5 is now a losing pawn endgame.
Carlsen won the g pawn and the game via
35.Nb4 Bf1 36.Kd2 Bxg2 37.Ke2 Bh3! 38.a4
38.Nc2 loses to 38...d3+! while 38.Nd3 Bf5 39.Nf2 b4 is also fatal.
38...Bf5 39.axb5 d3+ 40.Ke3 h3 41.Nxd3 Bxd3 42.Kd4 0–1
Both players, and Anand watching the game, dismissed 31.Rd1! on the grounds of 31...a5! 32.Rxd4+ Ke5 33.Rd5+ Ke6 34.Rxg5 Kf6! 35.Rxb5 (Anand thought that 35.Rxg6+ Kxg6 36.Nd3 would offer some drawing chances) 35...axb4 36.Rxb4 Rc2+ 37.Ka3 Rxg2 when Black's h pawn will be a winner.
However nobody noticed the computer move 33.Rd8!! in this variation, which leaves Black scrambling to force a draw.
Yet there was one place where the players were fully appreciated – at Ibirapuera Park in Sao Paulo. Every day 300-400 spectators surrounded the glass box where the world's best were caged, watching the games and listening to commentators Gilberto Milos and Susan Polgar.
Without the tyranny of the computer assessments, the players ideas were admired and appreciated by the commentators and the fans.
The players did their part, participating in post-game press conferences win or lose, while also posing for multiple photos with fans – no doubt soon to be displayed as a modern form of autograph on Facebook.
At the conclusion of the Sao Paulo half of the Grand Slam Final, Gilberto Milos made a point of thanking each of the players for coming to Brazil and competing hard and fearlessly.
The thanks were amplified by the audience with rousing rounds of applause but the biggest was reserved for the Caruana after his near-death experience in a five hour marathon against Aronian. The crowd appreciated the world's best but realised that they may have seen a new star born.
Sao Paulo Grand Slam Final
Scores after 5 rounds:
=3.Anand(Ind), Carlsen(Nor) 2.5;
=4.Karjakin(Rus), Vallejo(Spa) 1.5.
=5.Karjakin, Vallejo 3.
The Grand Slam Final resumes in Bilbao on October 8. The games, which start at 9am AEST, can be viewed live (including live video of the playing hall) via http://www.bilbaomastersfinal.com/en/home/