I know, I know, you'd think "Leko-Karpov in a Caro-Kann" would have all the excitement of leftover microwave nachos, but at least today you'd be wrong. The Hungarian #1 and world #6 Leko and former world champ Karpov drew the first two games of their eight-game Miskolc Rapid match. Karpov is ranked #40 at 2668, which might be high for classical chess, which he rarely plays, but may be low for rapid, which has been his focus for several years and at which he can still shine despite the inconsistency that plagues the 50+ set.
The first game had Leko as white and the expected Caro-Kann. Karpov looks to have been doing some homework because they went through 17 moves of theory, following Karjakin-Riazantsev from earlier this year until Karpov went for 17..0-0, allowing the 18.Nf5 temporary sacrifice Black probably wanted to avoid in that first game. But it's hard to say for sure if it was all preparation because Karpov's subsequent play didn't look computer prepared. Karpov isn't a fan of the machines, but has resigned himself to using them on occasion. When I asked him in 2003 whether he now used them for preparation he gave a pained "sometimes." This game shows why, to a certain extent. If your opponent is preparing with an engine and you aren't you can get slaughtered in short order in a sharp line, even in the Caro-Kann. One of the reasons Karpov has increasingly relied on the Caro is because it is less susceptible to that sort of thing, but there really isn't anywhere to hide anymore.
Getting back to the game, it looks like Karpov could have grabbed the exchange and kept a plus with the natural 21..Nd5. 22.Nf5 looks like the only reply and White's attack isn't that fearsome. (His avoiding it is why I doubt he prepared to this point.) Karpov instead went for counterplay with a queen infiltration and this paid off when Leko, after an impressively aggressive opening, backed off from further sacrifices and accepted the repetition. The key test is 24.Bxh6!? with an incredibly complicated and forcing position. You'd think this would be just the sort of thing the younger player would like to push Black into here, but Leko wasn't convinced. After 24..c5 25.d5 (or 24..gxh6 25.Nxh6+ (or 25.Qd2)) White's chances look better. But 24..c5 25.d5 Nb6 looks a bit scary for any mortal. In the game, White can still play on with 25.Bg5 and it's quite sharp and unclear. A pity, and 24.Bxh6 is the sort of chance White has to take when he gets that sort of double-edged position.
The second game was the also-expected Nimzo. It's hard to see Karpov's 8.a3 as an improvement over the usual 8.dxc5. Queens came off and while the players deserve credit for playing it out, there was never much of an imbalance in the endgame and the game was drawn on move 30. White could try 25.Rxc4 Nb6 26.Nb7 but Black shouldn't have any trouble with his a-pawn and blockading knight. If Leko can continue to get sharp positions with white you have to like his chances, but he'll have to go for the gusto at some point. If he holds back and waits for Karpov to blunder we could have eight draws. ChessBase will be on the scene for the second half so we'll have pics and reports coming.