The Aronian year

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Bobby Ang

Chess Piece

Palma de Mallorca Grand Prix
Palma de Mallorca, Balearic Islands, Spain
Nov. 16-25, 2017

Final Standings

1-2. Levon Aronian ARM 2801, Dmitry Jakovenko RUS 2721, 5.5/9

3-9. Hikaru Nakamura USA 2780, Ding Liren CHN 2774, Peter Svidler RUS 2763, Teimour Radjabov AZE 2741, Penteala Harikrishna IND 2738, Evgeny Tomashevsky RUS 2702, Richard Rapport HUN 2692, 5.0/9

10-12. Maxime Vachier-Lagrave FRA 2796, Pavel Eljanov UKR 2707, Ernesto Inarkiev RUS 2683, 4.5/9

13-15. Anish Giri NED 2762, Li Chao CHN 2741, Francisco Vallejo Pons ESP 2705, 4.0/9

16. Alexander Riazantsev RUS 2651, 3.5/9

17-18. Boris Gelfand ISR 2719, Jon Ludvig Hammer NOR 2629, 3.0/9

Time Control: 100 minutes for the first 40 moves, 50 minutes for the next 20 moves, and then 15 minutes play-to-finish with 30 seconds added after every move starting move 1.

Many of our BW readers are familiar with the so-called “Rubinstein Year.” The Polish GM Akiba Rubinstein (born Dec. 1, 1880 passed away March 14, 1961), reputedly the strongest player never to become world champion, won five consecutive major tournaments: San Sebastian, Pistyan, Breslau, Warsaw and Vilnius. Considering that back in those days there weren’t that many tournaments to begin with, this feat established his claim to the world championship. This match against the reigning titleholder Emanuel Lasker was actually scheduled to take place in 1914 but it was canceled due to the outbreak of World War I. Rubinstein was unable to recapture his formidable form after the war and in later years mental illness set in.

In like manner I’d like to declare 2016 as the “Wesley So year.” To recap, he warmed up for 2016 by winning the Bilbao Chess Masters Final in November 2015. Then everything started to happen. In March 2016 he was awarded the Frank P. Samford, Jr. Chess Fellowship, a fund set up by Mr. Samford to advance the game he loved by identifying and assisting the most promising young chess masters in the United States. This is no small matter — the value of this fellowship is around $42,000 per year.

In August of that year Wesley won the 2016 Sinquefield Cup and in December the London Chess Classic, two of the strongest tournaments in history. This, together with his second place finish in the Leuven rapid and blitz tournament, won for him the 2016 Grand Chess Tour, not a trivial award either — Wesley’s winnings from the tour for 2016 totaled around $300,000.

To top all of that off Wesley played 3rd board for the United States in the 2016 Baku Chess Olympiad and won the gold medal on 3rd board (as all of you know silver medal on that same board went to the Philippines’ Eugene Torre). He contributed heavily to the American cause and the USA came out champions in the Olympiad.

From July 2016 up to April 2017 Wesley So had an undefeated streak of 67 games played against the world elite. Former world champion Mikhail Tal has the longest streak at 93 and the second longest streak at 86, but his opposition was mixed. I guess the most impressive is the 82-game undefeated streak of Vladimir Kramnik, although it actually hurt him as he later got so obsessed with maintaining that streak that he forgot to play to win. Wang Yue (China) and Milan Drasko (Montenegro) also have their claims at the record with 82 and 84 games, respectively, but that is laughable. Surely you cannot compare games with local masters with the super GM opposition that Wesley So faced.

OK, having settled naming rights over 2016, for the current year 2017 I don’t think anyone will dispute that it should henceforth be called the “Aronian Year.” The highlights:

April 2017 Grenke Chess Classic (average rating of 2729, category 20). Aronian won this with a round to spare against Caruana, Carlsen, Naiditsch, Hou Yifan, Vachier-Lagrave, Bluebaum and Meier. He drew with Caruana, Carlsen and Meier and won the rest of his games. An amusing highlight of this tournament was that Magnus Carlsen lost control of his eyes (for the first time he had to wear glasses) and his hair (something to do with the hot springs).

June 2017 Altibox Norway Chess (average rating of 2796, category 22). Aronian humiliated Magnus Carlsen in front of his hometown crowd by both defeating the world champion and then finishing ahead of him. Other competitors were Nakamura, Kramnik, Caruana, Wesley So, Anish Giri, Vachier-Lagrave, Anand and Karjakin.

August 2017 St. Louis Rapid and Blitz. Aronian placed 2nd in the Blitz portion (behind Karjakin) and 1st in the Rapid to finish 1st in the overall standings. Former world champion and living legend Garry Kasparov came back to play his first officially rated game since he retired 12 years ago. He wasn’t one of the top finishers but still showed some flashes of his old self. Other participants were Nakamura, Leinier Dominguez (a former world blitz champion himself), Nepomniachtchi, Anand, Navara, Le Quang Liem (another former world blitz champion) and Sergei Karjakin.

FIDE World Cup (Tbilisi) in September. The biggest chess event of the year. 128 of the top players of the world congregated in Tbilisi, Georgia to determine the World Cup champion and also to qualify two players to the Candidates’ Tournament to be held in March 2018. Aronian defeated Daniel Cowdery (2-0), Hou Yi Fan (4-2), Maxim Matlakov (4.5-3.5), Daniil Dubov 1.5-0.5), Vassily Ivanchuk (1.5-0.5), Maxime Vachier-Lagrave (5-4) and finally Ding Liren (4-2) to win the World Cup title for the 2nd time, the first player ever to do so.

At the end of September 2017, Levon Aronian married his long-time girlfriend WIM Arianne Caoili of the Philippines (she is the daughter of former Deputy Minister of Agriculture Arnold Caoili). Aside from her chess credentials, Arianne also has a PhD in Russian foreign policy and its economic and business relations with Armenia. Currently she is an Advisor to the Prime Minister of Armenia.

And now Palma de Mallorca, the final leg of the FIDE Grand Prix. An amazing year for GM Levon Aronian! In the following game from Palma he puts down the “invincible” Anish Giri.

Aronian, Levon (2801) — Giri, Anish (2762) [A16]
FIDE Grand Prix Palma 2017 Palma de Mallorca (4), 19.11.2017

1.Nf3 Nf6 2.c4 g6 3.Nc3 d5 4.cxd5 Nxd5 5.d3

Nowadays the caveman move 5.h4 is popular. It was even used in the World Cup: 5…Bg7 6.h5 Nc6 7.g3 Bg4 8.h6 Bxc3 9.dxc3 Qd6 10.Bg2 0–0–0 11.Ng5! with a very unclear position. Ding,L (2782)-Wei,Y (2734) Baku World Cup 2015 1–0 39.

5…Bg7 6.Bd2 0–0 7.g3 c5 8.h4!?N

The “Caveman Move Deferred!” GM Alex Yermolinsky, someone whose positional feel I have great respect for, commented that Giri’s 7…c5 did not do anything and perhaps Aronian thought that with the extra tempo he could run over Black’s position?

8…Nc6 9.h5 Nxc3 10.bxc3 c4!

You remember the rule of the thumb that a flank attack is best met by attacking the center, right?


After 11.dxc4 Black will continue with …Be6, …Qa5, ….Rd8, etc.

11…hxg6 12.Qa4 Na5?

[12…Qd5 is better as now the Black knight gets shut out of the game]

13.d4 b6 14.Bg2 Bb7 15.Qc2

If now Black returns his knight to c6 Aronian can go for mate along the h-file with Qc2–e4–h4.

15…Qd5 16.Nh4 Qd7 17.e4 e5 18.d5!

Correctly closing the center. White is clearly going for a kingside mate while it is not clear what Black should be playing for.

18…Bc8 19.f4 Qe7

Yermolinsky points out that 19…Qg4 is met by 20.Bf3! Qxg3+ 21.Ke2 and Black’s king and queen are both in big trouble.

20.f5! g5 <D>

[20…gxf5 21.Bh3! fxe4 22.Bxc8 Raxc8 23.Nf5 Qd7 24.Qxe4 Black’s king cannot escape]


21.Qd1! gxh4 22.Rxh4 Rd8

After 22…f6 White will play 23.Qh5 with the idea of Qh7+ Kf7 Qg6+ Kg8 and then Ke2! making way for his other rook to join in the attack.


How should Black defend? If 23…f6 then 24.Qh7+ Kf8 25.Rg4 followed by 26.Rxg7 Qxg7 27.Bh6. If on the other hand he plays 23…Qd6 then 24.Qh7+ Kf8 25.Bh6 Bxh6 26.Rxh6.

23…Kf8 24.Rg4 Bf6?

Loses. It is hard to find, but 24…Qd6! keeps the game live. After 25.Rxg7! Kxg7 26.Qg5+ Kf8 Black is a rook up but White has Kf2 followed by Rh1 and the attack should be strong enough to win.

25.Bh6+ Ke8 26.Rg8+ Kd7 27.d6! 1–0

[27.d6 Kxd6 (not 27…Qxd6 28.Rd1) 28.Rd1+ Kc7 29.Rgxd8 the end]

Maybe soon we will be assigning years to Fabiano Caruana and Magnus Carlsen, in fact perhaps Magnus should have more than one year. Anyway, when this whole thing snowballs and they start assigning the years to the players, everyone should remember that we got dibs on 2016 and 2017!

Bobby Ang is a founding member of the National Chess Federation of the Philippines (NCFP) and its first Executive Director. A Certified Public Accountant (CPA), he taught accounting in the University of Santo Tomas (UST) for 25 years and is currently Chief Audit Executive of the Equicom Group of Companies.