The 2021 FIDE Grand Swiss: Final Thoughts

A Grand Success

The FIDE Grand Swiss  and Women’s Grand Swiss (organized in partnership with chess.com) concluded this past weekend in Riga, Latvia. The COVID protocols were apparently effective, as we did not hear of any incidents during the event.

Grand Swiss

Alireza Firouzja
Firouzja won the FIDE Grand Swiss convincingly. Photo: FIDE

Alireza Firouzja (France) won clear first with 8 points out of 11. Fabiano Caruana (USA) and Grigoriy Oparin (Russia) finished in a tie for 2nd place with 7.5 points.

Caruana, the 2018 World Championship Challenger, had the better mathematical tiebreaks, even defeating Firouzja in their individual encounter. As a result, “Fabi” joined “Firo” in the next FIDE Candidates Tournament.

A Note on Tiebreaks
The primary tiebreak used was “Buchholz Cut-1.” Buchholz compares the total scores of tied players’ opposition, the idea being that a player who faced opponents that scored more points had a tougher road to the same final score. The “Cut-1” removes the score of the lowest-scoring opponent, to reduce the impact of an unlucky pairing. Each player therefore had the scores of 10 of their 11 opponents compared to judge who had the best tiebreaks.

Oparin, Yu Yangyi (China), Vincent Keymer (Germany), Maxime Vachier-Lagrave (France), Alexandr Predke (Russia), and Alexei Shirov (Spain) all got seats into the upcoming FIDE Grand Prix Series. This tournament series will have a total of 24 players; and the top two finishers at the end will qualify for the next FIDE Candidates Tournament.

Overall, it seems clear that Firouzja is the leading “young gun” who many fans are already picking to challenge Carlsen in the next World Championship Cycle. I can’t disagree; during this event he was knocking on the door of World #3 (live rating), nearly overtaking Caruana at one point.

Women’s Grand Swiss

Similar to the Open event, one player was in command for most of the Women’s event, but even more so.

Lei Tingjie
Lei scored 7 wins and 4 draws. Photo: FIDE

Lei Tingjie (China) won with 9 points out of 11, earning the only direct slot into the next Women’s Candidates Tournament. Her pre-tournament rating of 2505 shot up to 2536 afterwards!

I will note that Lei is only 24 years old, younger than her countrywomen Ju Wenjun (30) and Hou Yifan (27), the current and previous Women’s World Champions. She’s just a year older than Aleksandra Goryachkina (Russia), the previous Challenger, who played in the Open event.

The Women’s World Championship cycle should be fascinating! There are several contenders of similar strength vying for the crown, but none seem invincible (unless Hou decides to return).

Finishers 2-4 in the Women’s Grand Swiss earned a spot into the upcoming Women’s Grand Prix Series. They are Elisabeth Pähtz (Germany), Zhu Jiner (China), and Mariya Muzychuk (Ukraine).

Pähtz and Jiner each scored 7.5 points out of 11, and earned GM norms. The 36-year-old from Erfurt, Germany completed her title after a long and distinguished career, and becomes the 40th female to earn the “open” GM title. Zhu is the top Junior Girl in the World.

Muzychuk had the best tiebreaks among the 7 pointers, beating out Harika Dronavalli (India), Lela Javakhishvili (Georgia; she scored a 9-game GM norm), and Olga Badelka (Russia).

Bibisara Assaubayeva (Kazakhstan) also earned a 10-game GM norm.

A Note on Grandmaster (GM) Norms
A norm is a performance level (2600 for GM), in an event that meets other conditions relating to the makeup of a player’s opposition. Norms need to be scored in events totalling 27 or more games. With few exceptions, a player needs to play at least 9 games in an event to earn a GM norm, but the maximum number of games counted for a norm is 13. This is why players usually need three GM norms (plus a 2500 rating) to earn the Grandmaster title. In events longer than 9 rounds a player can disregard any games won, or not count any games played after a norm has been scored. In Assaubayeva’s case, for example, she had a GM norm after Round 10, but lost in the final round. Her performance rating dropped below 2600 after Round 11, so she doesn’t get an 11-game norm but keeps her 10-game norm. There’s little practical difference between a 9-, 10-, or 11-game norm since a player still needs three in any case.

What’s Next?

The FIDE World Championship Match starts November 24 in Dubai, UAE.

2022 should be a busy year: we should see the Grand Prix Series and Candidates Tournaments (open and women), as well as the 2022 Moscow Olympiad.

Stay tuned!

Chess Tactics: Filipovíc — Jurkovíc, 2003

Taming Lions

When deciding which openings to employ, there are a lot of possible shortcuts one can take…but this entails some risk.

In the 2000s, a setup now known as The Black Lion (due to a book of the same name published by New in Chess in 2009) became popular for the second player. It is a Hanham setup reached via a Pirc Defense move order (to limit White’s targeted replies against this brand of Philidor Defense).

This kind of setup has something in common with the recommendations in An Explosive Chess Opening Repertoire for Black (Gambit, 2003) — a popular and well-regarded book in its time that I suspect still holds up due to the nearly theory-less nature of the setups examined.

Note: I may receive a commission on products purchased through Amazon links on this page. Thanks for your support!

 

Zadar, Croatia
Zadar, Croatia. Photo: International Living

Quite frankly, I think the Black Lion is a risky line, and White has a few ways to attack it. For proof, check out Filipovíc vs. Jurkovíc from the 2003 Zadar Open in Croatia.

White chooses a provocative refutation attempt essayed by Alexei Shirov several times over the years, and creates an anthology piece.

 

If you haven’t seen this one before, you’re in for a treat! White to play.

12.?

 

Four of a Kind

 

What was it Mikhail Tal said about taking your opponent into a forest where 2+2=5?

How to Defeat Kids in Chess Tournaments

The Impact of Scholastic Chess

Children usually have more time to devote to chess improvement.

Kids have been taking over chess for a long time now. This is great for the game in the long term, but what about the adults who have to face these youths in tournaments?

A kid or teenager is usually still improving; if an adult is getting better, it’s typically at a slower rate. I’ve never been convinced that this is because of “younger vs. older brains.” Older players simply have more life responsibilities which require focus and energy that cannot be spent on chess.

Given two players of the same rating facing off, I would bet on the younger player in the absence of other information.

All is not lost, however.

Understand Your Adversary

I have played in many quads over the years where all of my opponents were kids or teens rated similarly to me, that is, in the 2000-2100 range. Bearing in mind everyone has a different style, here are some things I learned:

Home prep can make a huge difference

Kids stick to their openings and either don’t suspect or don’t respect prepared variations.

Research! If you know what openings your rival plays, do some pre-tournament work and find wrinkles to set them challenges. You can really make hay if you regularly face the same set of opponents and can develop a game plan against them.

Also, especially in Swiss tournaments, remember to go for a walk early in your rounds to see what potential opponents are playing. On a related note …

Put your thinking cap on

In one event, I noticed in the first two rounds that a player I was due to meet in the final round displayed impressive middlegame and endgame play, both tactical and strategic. His openings were quite refined as well. I asked myself: “Why is he under 2100 and not 2200+?”

I concluded the reason was likely psychological. Probably, he gets nervous and doesn’t handle pressure on par with other players of his rating class.

When we faced off, he got a definite advantage with the White pieces, though Black has some counterplay:

Trusting my scouting report, I played 21…Nd5 confidently and … offered him a draw!

Mind you, the clock wasn’t an issue for either of us.

He started to think … and think … and think. He began turning red and looked ill.

Soon he did what I expected, and agreed to the draw. I could tell he knew he shouldn’t do it, but he didn’t have the stomach to play on. I understood his emotions, because I’ve been there!

Target their Weaknesses

I faced one Expert kid five times. I lost the first game, drew the second from a much better position, and then won the last three encounters!

What happened?

In the first game I went for a slow, maneuvering Chigorin Ruy Lopez as Black, with the idea that young players are generally more comfortable with livelier positions. I was outplayed and lost the game, but I got to watch some of his other games in that event and others before we met again.

In our second game I went for a kingside attack, after observing that he didn’t handle direct attacks very well. I had great winning chances, but couldn’t crash through and drew.

After seeing more of my adversary’s games, I was able to prepare effectively for the final three battles and went for aggressive play. Our fourth game began with the sequence 1.e4 d6 2.d4 Nf6 3.Nc3 e5 (I knew he played this line) and now 4.Nf3 Nbd7 5.g4!? which had been popularized by Alexei Shirov.

I won in 17 moves.

I’m not a great attacker, but judged that he was an even worse defender.

Don’t be a Hero

Conversely, another Expert I often faced became my angstgegner. This was in large part because I was stubborn and kept trying — and failing — to refute his opening. But at a certain point, I felt I was doomed against him no matter what I did, and it affected my play. The final tally: one win, one draw, and four losses.

The bottom line: learn as much as you can about your young opponents’ playing style, openings, and likes/dislikes. Prepare well, establish a blueprint for your games in advance when possible, and trust your skills!

Good luck!

Which Sicilian is Right for You?

I don’t believe that the Sicilian is necessarily the “best” opening, or that everyone should play it. I do believe, however, that any player who wants to answer 1.e4 with 1…c5 can find a system to their liking.

 

Choosing Your Sicilian: Like Ordering from a Diner Menu!

The menu at Sarge’s Deli, a New York City institution. Photo: TripAdvisor

I discussed the Smith-Morra Gambit and other Anti-Sicilians in passing in previous posts. When deciding to play the Siclian, however, the most important question is: which main system will I employ?

I’m talking about how to answer the Open Sicilian (1.e4 c5 2.Nf3):

As you probably know, there is a huge array of options. Traditionally, they are grouped by black’s reply from the diagram: does s/he play 2…Nc6, 2…d6, or 2…e6 ?

Instead I’ll consider popular variations based on my opinions about they rank on two scales:

Aggressive — Neutral — Solid

and

Tactical — Neutral — Positional.

Mastering the Sicilian by Danny KopecOf course, white has a hand in which line is played also, so these won’t be 100% accurate, but I’ll characterize some popular lines.

If you want an excellent overview of the Sicilian mainlines and Anti-Sicilian setups, get Mastering the Sicilian Defense by the late International Master Danny Kopec (1954-2016). It is probably the best book I have seen on the subject: good prose, good examples, and sensible recommendations.

Kopec always shined as an author when discussing structural play in the opening and middlegame.

 

Okay, here we go:

 

Aggressive and Tactical

High risk, high reward! Probably the most aggressive line in the entire Sicilian universe is the Dragon Variation (1.e4 c5 2.Nf3 d6 3.d4 cxd4 4.Nxd4 Nf6 5.Nc3 g6):

The “Dragon bishop” plans to breathe fire on the long a1-h8 diagonal. White’s most critical try is the Yugoslav Attack (6.Be3 Bg7 7.f3 Nc6 8.Qd2 0-0): 

The first player will castle into an attack on the queenside, while starting one of their own on the kingside.

Despite this, I have never considered the Dragon super-tactical, because many of the sacrifices are standard and repeat themselves over and over again. Still, compared to other options, I will place it in this bucket.

Aggressive and Neutral

Najdorf Variation (1.e4 c5 2.Nf3 d6 3.d4 cxd4 4.Nxd4 Nf6 5.Nc3 a6):

This may surprise some people, but I consider the Najdorf a blend of Tactical and Positional. Black doesn’t necessarily aim to attack the king, and often uses a “whole board” strategy. It is not as aggressive as the Dragon in a “kill the king” sense, but a positionally aggressive opening where black willingly takes on some risk. I learned how to play this opening from the first edition of The Sharpest Sicilian, one of the finest opening books I have ever read.

There are lines like the English Attack (6.Be3), but here white more or less forces black into a ferocious counterattack. Personally, 6.Bg5 annoys me the most: the late Ed Kopiecki shredded me with this a few years ago at the Marshall, in our only tournament encounter. RIP, Eddie.

Aggressive and Positional

Sveshnikov Variation (1.e4 c5 2.Nf3 Nc6 3.d4 cxd4 4.Nxd4 Nf6 5.Nc3 e5 6.Ndb5 d6):

Black seeks aggressive counterplay in this line, but the risks are more structural than anything else, with the potential outpost on d5. A knight ensconced here can be paralyzing. Still, neither side is too likely to get mated during a Sveshnikov battle, and the tactical play is relatively tame.

Neutral and Tactical

Taimanov Variation (1.e4 c5 2.Nf3 e6 3.d4 cxd4 4.Nxd4 Nc6):

This is a dynamic, combative system with a large array of possible setups for both sides. Not only do both players need to be well-prepared and alert, some of the tactical motifs are strange. There are more solid lines a player can choose than the Taimanov, but more aggressive ones as well.

When I play 1.e4, it is my least favorite Sicilian to face because of its chameleon-like qualities. I should probably take a look at Emms’ book!

 

Neutral and Neutral

Scheveningen Variation (1.e4 c5 2.Nf3 e6 3.d4 cxd4 4.Nxd4 Nf6 5.Nc3 d6):

I’ve given a traditional move order, but this exact position is now infrequent because of the strong Keres Attack (6.g4). Nowadays the Scheveningen is more often reached through the Najdorf: 1.e4 c5 2.Nf3 d6 3.d4 cxd4 4.Nxd4 Nf6 5.Nc3 a6 6.Be2 e6.

These positions are among the most balanced in the Sicilian, with something for everyone.

Dynamics of Chess Strategy by Vlastimil Jansa

For more than a crash course on the Scheveningen, get Dynamics of Chess Strategy (2003) by Czech Grandmaster Vlastimil Jansa. His most notable pupil is David Navara.

Jansa’s comments on the Scheveningen, Ruy Lopez, and other lines will help you understand these rich, maneuvering openings. Garry Kasparov, devoted Scheveningen player during his career, might also agree with Jansa’s recommendation against the Pirc as a “turkey shoot!”

This is one of the most underrated strategy books in many, many years. Get it if you can find it.

Neutral and Positional

Kan Variation (1.e4 c5 2.Nf3 e6 3.d4 cxd4 4.Nxd4 a6):

This branch of the Sicilian is much tamer than, for example, the Sveshnikov or Taimanov. There are more solid or positional alternatives, however. Black’s play is restrained, but not plodding. White has very different ways of answering this opening, from the space-eating Maroczy Bind (5.c4) to the solid 5.Nc3 to the more aggressive 5.Bd3.

Honestly, this is a Sicilian I don’t like for either side! Of course, your mileage may vary.

Solid and Tactical

Paulsen Variation (1.e4 c5 2.Nf3 Nc6 3.d4 cxd4 4.Nxd4 d6 5.Nc3 e6):

We saw just how crazy this line could get in Shirov — Polgar! ‘Nuff said!

There is some overlap between the Kan, Paulsen, and Taimanov systems. I think of a Sicilian as a Paulsen when black develops the king knight from g8 to e7.

Solid and Neutral

Accelerated Dragon (1.e4 c5 2.Nf3 Nc6 3.d4 cxd4 4.Nxd4 g6):

I’ll say it plainly: I don’t think the Accelerated Dragon is very good if white plays the Maroczy Bind (5.c4!) and doesn’t allow black to make a bunch of exchanges. I’ve never understood why this line is so popular in books/DVDs and with chess coaches. Can someone please explain it to me? Everytime I face it I feel like I’m shooting fish in a barrel.

Black has some tricks in non-Maroczy lines, but if white is prepared this defense will be a most welcome sight.

 

Solid and Positional

Classical Sicilian (1.e4 c5 2.Nf3 Nc6 3.d4 cxd4 4.Nxd4 Nf6 5.Nc3 d6):

The polar opposite of the Dragon? I think so. Black hangs back and develops solidly, reacting to white’s ideas. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, if you’re the kind of player who likes to bait the opponent into overextending themselves.

The Classical has some distinct advantages. Like the Dragon, there is only one really challenging line against it, the Richter-Rauzer (6.Bg5). Unlike the Najdorf or Taimanov, in the Classical you pretty much know what’s coming if your opponent doesn’t play an Anti-Sicilian.

An aggressive player might opt for the Sozin Attack (6.Bc4) and a very aggressive opponent will head for the Velimirovic Attack (6.Bc4 e6 7.Be3 Be7 8.Qe2), but the prepared Classical player has nothing to fear in these lines.

Another benefit of the Classical is its flexible move order: black can play 2…d6 and 5…Nc6, or 2…Nc6 and 5…d6. That’s helpful when trying to get your preferred setup against Anti-Sicilians.

I hope this overview helps players considering playing the Sicilian for the first time or, maybe, a player considering a system change! Which Sicilian is best for you?

Happy Birthday, Anatoly Karpov!

My Favorite Chess Player

Anatoly Karpov was born May 23, 1951 in Zlatoust, Russia (then part of the USSR).

Anatoly Karpov, 12th World Chess Champion. Photo: World Chess Hall of Fame.
Anatoly Karpov, 12th World Chess Champion. Photo: World Chess Hall of Fame.

Karpov first gained widespread international attention after winning the 1969 World Junior Championship with 10 points out of 11 in the final.

He won the Moscow 1971 tournament (tied with Leonid Stein) ahead of World Champion Boris Spassky and former champs Vasily Smyslov, Tigran Petrosian, and Mikhail Tal.

Karpov’s World Championship debut at the 1973 Leningrad Interzonal was a success, tying for first place with Viktor Kortschnoj, and qualifying for the Candidates Matches. The winner of the elimination series would become Bobby Fischer‘s Challenger in 1975.

In the 1974 Candidates Matches, Karpov defeated Lev Polugaevsky 5½—2½ in the quarterfinal and Spassky 7—4 in the semifinal to meet Kortschnoj in the final. He won this Best-of-24 match 12½—11½, setting up a showdown with Fischer in Manila, Philippines.

It was not to be. FIDE accepted all but one of Fischer’s 179 match demands, but he refused to play and forfeited his title, making Anatoly Karpov the 12th World Chess Champion.

If anyone doubted the new champion, he proved his worth over the next decade by dominating matches, tournaments, and the rating list. While Garry Kasparov dethroned Karpov in the 1985 World Championship Match, he was the Number 2 player in the world through the mid-1990s.

Karpov won more than 160 international tournaments in his career, with his most resounding victory coming as late as Linares 1994. He scored 11 out of 13 (9 wins, 4 draws) in a superstar field, leaving Kasparov and Alexei Shirov 2½ points behind; one of the greatest performances ever in a top tournament.

My Favorite Anatoly Karpov Game

Anatoly Karpov could play flashy combinations, such as in his famous victory against Veselin Topalov at Linares 1994, but I most enjoy his positional masterpieces.

I began playing chess tournaments in 1996 and began receiving Chess Life magazine. Not only was Karpov’s Grandmaster Musings column one of my favorites, I remember following his 1996 FIDE World Championship Match in Elista, Kalmykia against Gata Kamsky with great interest.

Game 4 from that match is a great example of why I love Karpov’s chess! Enjoy!

Chess Tactics: Shirov — Polgar, 1994

Polgar turns the tables on Shirov’s aggression

It was the perfect setting for a showdown between two of the most combative players of the 1990s and 2000s: a thematic tournament stipulating every game begin with an Open Sicilian (1.e4 c5 2.Nf3 and, after 2…Nc6, 2…d6, or 2…e6, 3.d4 cxd4 4.Nxd4).

Polgar chose a Paulsen Sicilian, where black places pawns on a6, d6, and e6, and develops the queen knight to c6. Shirov, not surprisingly, decided to tackle it with an early g4 and f4.

This was risky, because it exposed the white king, who had not castled to safety. Decisions like these can create brilliancies — for the player or their opponent!

The Hungarian prodigy was up to the task. One of the first females to earn the Grandmaster title (1991), Judit Polgar broke Bobby Fischer’s record (from 1958!) as youngest GM ever. She is universally recognized as the greatest female player in chess history.

Judit Polgar with her highly-acclaimed autobiographical book series. Photo: juditpolgar.com
Judit Polgar with her highly-acclaimed autobiographical book series. Photo: juditpolgar.com

Black’s 10th move sets the stage for everything to follow, How would you deal with white’s coming pawn storm while gaining activity for your pieces?

10…?

Fight for key squares with all your might!

Judit Polgar retired from professional chess after the 2014 Tromso Olympiad, but this will not be the last time we see one of her games on chess-essentials.com!

Garry Kasparov Tribute, and My Favorite Kasparov Game

The Greatest

Garry Kasparov was born April 13, 1963; today is his 57th birthday.

MasterClass photo of Garry Kasparov
MasterClass photo of Garry Kasparov

Kasparov retired from classical chess in 2005 after winning the Linares tournament (shared with Veselin Topalov). It was the ninth time he won clear or shared first at the most prestigious tournament of all.

Though he retired at the relatively early age of 41, Garry Kasparov accomplished so much there’s no way I can recount everything.

Garry Kasparov Career Highlights

  • In 1985 he became the youngest (official, undisputed) world chess champion in history: 22 years, 6 months, 28 days. He is the 13th World Chess Champion, defeating the 12th Champion Anatoly Karpov.
  • In January 1984 he became the fourth player to achieve an Elo rating of 2700 (after Bobby Fischer, Karpov, and Mikhail Tal). He simultaneously became World #1 for the first time.
  • In January 1990 he became the first player to achieve an Elo rating of 2800.
  • In July 1999 set the record for the highest Elo rating: 2851 (surpassed by Magnus Carlsen in 2013).
  • Except for July 1985 (Karpov) and January 1996 (tie with Vladimir Kramnik), Kasparov was ranked World #1 from January 1984 through January 2006 (when he dropped off the ranking list for inactivity following his retirement the previous year).
  • He won or shared first place in 15 consecutive tournaments from 1981 through 1990.
  • He was the Classical (i.e. lineal) World Chess Champion from 1985-2000.

My Favorite Garry Kasparov Game

The Kasparov game that made the biggest impression on me was his positional sacrifice against Alexei Shirov from the 1994 Credit Suisse Masters. As usual, Kasparov had no fear of a major mainline opening, in this case the Sveshnikov Variation of the Sicilian Defense. Let’s start from the position before white’s 16th move:

16. ?

White has a powerful knight on d5, but black has two pieces that can remove it: his knight and, more directly, the light-squared bishop. This leads Kasparov to an idea that’s logical once you see it, but striking nonetheless.

White sacrifices a clean exchange, but White’s d5-knight is a tower of strength. Black’s knight can’t move and needs at least three moves to challenge its counterpart.

There’s no immediate win, and indeed the game continued for some time. White can keep improving his position, but what can black do? Positions like this are very hard to play.

What’s your favorite Garry Kasparov game?