SANDS: Anand in command as candidates tourney nears chess finale

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Breaking news: Indian Viswanathan Anand has qualified for a rematch against Norwegian world champion Magnus Carlsen later this year, clinching first place in the FIDE Candidates Tournament Saturday with a round to spare. Full details in next week’s column.

The chess world may have written off the ex-champ a little too soon.

Indian Grand Master Viswanathan Anand, who lost his crown in a demoralizing match to new Norwegian champ Magnus Carlsen late last year, was not expected to rebound so quickly as the world’s top players gathered for the FIDE candidates tournament this month to select Carlsen’s first challenger.

But the Indian star has played superb chess at the double round robin event in Khanty-Mansiysk, Russia that winds up Sunday, and is a full point ahead of his nearest rivals with just five rounds to go. Should Anand hold his lead, he’ll win the right to a rematch with Carlsen later this year.

Starting off with a morale-boosting win over pre-tournament favorite GM Levon Aronian of Armenia in Round 1, Anand’s play has become increasingly impressive as the tournament has gone on. He has rarely been in real danger of losing, shown no signs of the nerves that have befallen his rivals, and has pounced on his winning chances when they arose.

Mamedyarov-Aronian after 34...Bg6.

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Mamedyarov-Aronian after 34…Bg6. more >

The popular 43-year-old ex-champ may have clinched the victory in Sunday’s pivotal ninth round, when he bested Bulgarian GM Veselin Topalov as both of his main pursuers, Aronian and former Russian world champ Vladimir Kramnik, lost. Anand is the only player in the field yet to lose a game.

The Topalov win was indicative of Anand’s play in Khanty-Mansiysk, a solid positional win in which he clearly outplayed his opponent. White gets a slight pull out of this Keres Attack in the Sicilian Scheveningen after 20. Nf2 Bc5 21. Qg3 Bxf2!?, as Black gives up his valuable bishop pair because too many tempting squares beckon for the White knight.

With both players having a backward pawn on a half-open file, the situation breaks in White’s favor after 26. Re5! Rxe5 27. fxe5 Rxf1+ 28. Bxf1 Qe7 29 a4! (stopping any ideas of …Bb5 to free the Black bishop), and Anand’s bishop is far superior to its Black counterpart. Topalov, an aggressive player stuck in a passive position, lashes out unwisely to break the bind and pays the price.

Thus: 30. Kb2!? (White has no reasons to gamble now, but 30. Qa7! would pose awkward problems for the second player in lines such as 30…Qb4 31. Qb8 Kf8 32. Bd3 Qxh4 33. Qxb7 Qxg5 34. Qxa6 Qxe5 35. a5 h5 36. Qb6, and White is close to winning) Bg6 31. Bh3 h6? (Be4 32. Qb6 Kf7 33. Bg4, and Black still has a chance to hold) 32. gxh6 gxh6 33. Qg4! Kf7 34. h5 Be4 35. a5 Bh7 (Bf5 loses to 36. Qf4 Qg5 37. Qxg5 hxg5 38. Bxf5 exf5 39. h6 Kg6 40. e6 and one pawn must queen) 36. c3, and Black has no good moves; e.g. 36…Qd7 37. Qf4+ Kg7 38. Qf6+ Kg8 39. Bxe6+.

White grabs a pawn on 36…Be4 37. c4! Bf5 38. Qf4 dxc4 39. Bxf5 exf5 40. Qxf5+ Ke8 (Kg8 41. Qg6+ Qg7 42. Qxg7+ Kxg7 43. bxc4 Kf7 44. Kc3 Ke6 45. Kd4) Qc8+ Kf7 42. Qxc4+ Kg7 43. Qd5, and the queen-and-pawn ending is just a matter of technique.

White easily finds shelter from the Black queen checks and it’s over after 51. Kc5 Qf2+ (Qxh5 52. Kb6 Qf7 53. e6 Qf2+ 54. Qc5+ Qxc5+ 55. bxc5 h5 56. e7 Kd7 57. Kxb7 h4 58. c6+ Kxe7 59. c7 h3 60 c8=Q and wins) 52. Qd4 Qf7 53. Qc4 Qg7 55. Kb6+ Kb8 55. Qc5 Qf7 56. Qd6+ Kc8 57. e6, and Topalov resigned in light of 57…Qf2+ 58. Qc5+ Qxc5+ 59. bxc5 Kd8 60. Kxb7 Ke7 61. c6, winning.

We featured Aronian’s victory over GM Shakhriyar Mamedyarov in last week’s column, but the Azeribaijan No.1 got his revenge Sunday when the two met again. On the Black side of a Nimzo-Indian, Aronian tries an original plan with 9. bxc3 f6!? 10. exf6 Qe8+ 11. Qe2 Qf7!? 12. fxg7 Re8, temporarily giving up two pawns for real pressure along the open e-file. Black must have figured he could pick off the pawn on g7 any time he wanted, but that’s not the way things work out.

White prudently tries to slow down Black’s initiative with an exchange sacrifice, and even gets the better of things after 15. Rb1 Nb6 16. Rb4 Nac4?! (Aronian said later that 16…c5! 17. dxc5 d4, blowing open the center, was stronger and more consistent) 17. Bxc4 dxc4 18. Rb5 Bf5 19. Kf2 Nd5 20. Rxd5 Qxd5 21. Ne2.

With White consolidating, Black embarks on a risky plan to drum up some queenside play, failing to tend to his own central and queenside weaknesses. That comes back to haunt him when White reinforces that long-abandoned g-pawn and frees his pieces with 28. d5! (the cramped bishop on e3 finally gets into the game) Bb1?! (more clever than sound, but Black faced tactical dangers in lines such as 28…Qd7 29. Bd4 Raa8 30. h6 Rxe1 31. Qxe1 Re8 32. Nh5! Kf7 [Rxe1 33. Nf6+ Kf7 34. g8=Q+ Ke7 35. Qg7+ Kd8 36. Qxd7 mate] 33. Nf6 Qe7 34. Qxe7+ Kxe7 35. Nxe8 Kxe8 36. g8=Q+) 29. Kg3! (White takes far better care of his king than Black does here) c3 30. Qc1! Rb3 31. Bc5 Rxe1 32. Qxe1 Qd7 33. h6 (now the g7 pawn becomes a massive headache for Black) Qf7, when White misses an instant crush on 34. Qe5! c2 35. Nh5 c1=Q 36. Nf6+ Qxf6 37. Qe8+ Qf8 38. Qxf8 mate.

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About the Author
David R. Sands

David R. Sands

Raised in Northern Virginia, David R. Sands received an undergraduate degree from the University of Virginia and a master’s degree from the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University. He worked as a reporter for several Washington-area business publications before joining The Washington Times.

At The Times, Mr. Sands has covered numerous beats, including international trade, banking, politics ...

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