- The Washington Times - Tuesday, March 20, 2018

He is one of the most accomplished players of his generation, a national hero after leading tiny Armenia to gold in three Chess Olympiad gold between 2006 and 2012. He’s respected by all his peers, has no real weaknesses in his game, and came into 2018 as one of the hottest players on the international circuit.

Then the Candidates Tournament began.

Once again, Armenian super-GM Levon Aronian is setting himself up for heartbreak on the game’s grandest stage, stumbling badly out of the gate at the 14-GM, double round-robin tournament in Berlin that will pick the challenger to reigning world title-holder Magnus Carlsen of Norway. A popular pre-tournament pick to win, the 35-year-old Aronian instead found himself at the bottom of the crosstable at the tournament’s mid-point at 2½-4½, already 2½ points behind pacesetter U.S. GM Fabiano Caruana.

Caruana capped Aronian’s miserable first half with a tense, demoralizing win from the Black side of a QGD Ragozin System. Aronian’s aggressive 16. g4!? is a sign the Armenian may already feel his hopes already slipping away, launching a speculative attack that nearly break through Black’s defenses.

The complications are vast and the quality of play high as White tries to batter down the Black kingside with his advanced pawns: 26. Kh3 Qe7 27. Ng5!? (better might have been 27. Rg1, loading up on the g-file in lines such as 27…Rg8 28. Rfg3 Bd7 29. hxg6 fxg6 30. Rxg6 Bxf4 31. Nf6 e5+ 32. Nxd7 Qxd7+ 33. Kh4 Rxg6 34. Rxg6) e5!? (fiendishly complex, as was 27…gxh5!? 28. Rxc6 bxc6 29. Qxd4+ e5 30. Qe4 f6) 28. Rxc6!? bxc6 29. Nxf7+! Rxf7 (Qxf7 30. hxg6 Qe6+, was also possible, when 31. f5 Qf6 32. g7+ Kh7 33. gxf8=Q Rxf8 34. Be4 Qxh6+ 35. Kg2 Rg8+ 36. Rg3 Rxg3+ 37. Qxg3 Kh8 38. b3 looks equal; White’s hopes for a win are repeatedly frustrated by the possibility of an opposite-colored bishop ending) 30. hxg6, when Caruana misses the tricky 30…Rxf4! 31. Rxf4 exf4 32. Qxd4+ Qe5 33. g7+ Kg8 34. Bc4+ Kh7 35. Qd3+ Kxh6 36. g8=Q Rxg8 37. Bxg8 Qh8!, when only Black has winning chances.



White returns the favor, however, on 31. g7+ Kg8, when 32. Qh4!! appears to save the half-point; e.g. 32…Qe6+ 33. f5 Qd6 [not 33…Rxh6? 34. fxe6 Rxh4+ 35. Kxh4 Re8 36. Rf7 Bd8+ 37. Kh5 Rxe6 38. Rd7 Bb6 39. Bc4 and wins] 34. h7+ Kxg7 35. h8=Q+ Rxh8 36. Rg3+ Rg6 37. Rxg6+ Qxg6 38. Qxh8+ Kxh8 39. fxg6, with equality.

After the game’s 32. Bc4+? Kh7 33. Qh4 e4! 34. Rg3, White’s threat to queen the pawn is decisively met by the saving 34…Bxf4! 35. g8=Q+ Rxg8 36. Bxg8+ Kh8 37. Rg7 Qf8!, and White’s attack fizzles. Aronian resigned since 38. Kg2 Rxh6 39. Rh7+ Kxg8 40. Rxh6 Qxh6 loses a piece.

Aronian’s troubles began back in Round 3, when he found himself on the wrong end of a brilliancy engineered by Russian former world champion Vladimir Kramnik. White’s development lagged in this Ruy Lopez Berlin Defense, and Aronian’s attempts to catch up run into an exchange sacrifice that opens the floodgates to Black’s attack. We pick things up from today’s diagram, after Aronian has just played 19. Bc1-g5. There followed: 19…Rxg5! 20. hxg5 f4 21. Qd1(gxf4 Nxf4 22. Nd2 Qxg5 and White will soon be mated) Rd8 22. Qc1 fxg3 23. Na3 Rd3 24. Rd1 (Kg1 Qf7 25. Qc2 Nf4 26. Rad1 Nh3+ 27. Kg2 Qf3 mate) Bd5!! — a magnificent concept which wins in all variations.

It’s over after 25. f3 (Rxd3 Qxe4+ 26. f3 gxf3 27. Re3 f2+! 28. Rxe4 Bxe4 mate; or 25. exd5 Qe4+ 26. Kg1 gxf2+ 27. Kxf2 Rh3! 28. Re1 g3+ 29. Kg1 Rh1 mate) gxf3 26. exd5 Qe2! 27. Re1 (even pinning the queen can’t solve White defensive woes) g2+, and White resigned in light of 28. Kg1 (Kh2 g1=Q+ 29. Kxg1 f2+ 30. Kh1 Rh3+ 31. Kg2 f1=Q mate) f2+ 29. Kh2 g1=Q+ 30. Rxg1 f1=N+ 31. Kh1 Qh2 mate.

Through Monday’s Round 8, Caruana continued to set he pace at 5½-2½, a half-point ahead of Azerbaijani GM Shakhriyar Mamedyarov. We’ll have updates online and in next week’s column on Brawl in Berlin, which wraps up March 28.

Aronian-Caruana, FIDE Candidates Tournament, Round 7, Berlin, March 2018

1. d4 Nf6 2. c4 e6 3. Nf3 d5 4. Nc3 dxc4 5. e4 Bb4 6. Bg5 h6 7. Bxf6 Qxf6 8. Bxc4 c5 9. O-O cxd4 10. e5 Qd8 11. Ne4 O-O 12. Qe2 Be7 13. Rad1 Qc7 14. Bd3 Nd7 15. Rc1 Qa5 16. g4 Nxe5 17. Nxe5 Qxe5 18. f4 Qa5 19. g5 Qd8 20. h4 Bd7 21. gxh6 g6 22. h5 Kh8 23. Kh2 Bc6 24. Rf3 Bd6 25. Qf2 Bc7 26. Kh3 Qe7 27. Ng5 e5 28. Rxc6 bxc6 29. Nxf7+ Rxf7 30. hxg6 Rf6 31. g7+ Kg8 32. Bc4+ Kh7 33. Qh4 e4 34. Rg3 Bxf4 35. g8=Q+ Rxg8 36. Bxg8+ Kh8 37. Rg7 Qf8 White resigns.

David R. Sands can be reached at 202/636-3178 or by email [email protected].

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