World Champion Vishy Anand of India has won his second straight Linares title, his third Linares crown overall. (First was in 1998.) He cruised through the last half of the tournament, playing a total of 150 moves in his last six games, all drawn. This low-risk strategy was rewarded when none of his competitors could put together a push to reach his winning +3 score. This is the third year in a row that +3 has been enough for clear first place in Linares. That's not to say this was a tranquil tournament, quite the opposite. Other than Anand, who lost only one game, to Aronian (just like last year, oddly), every player had at least two losses. Even last place finishers Leko and Shirov, who finished on -3, had two wins apiece. There were only three decisive games in the final three rounds, however, which tipped the balance to a 55% draw rate for the event. (It was under 50% at the halfway point.) 70% is not unusual for Linares-level events.
Much of the credit must go to the remarkable fighting spirit shown by Magnus Carlsen and Veselin Topalov. Carlsen finished in second place for the second year in a row. Last year he had to share the 2-3 spot with Morozevich thanks to a final-round loss to Peter Leko. This time he had 2nd to himself thanks to an amazing and bizarre 12th-round win over Topalov. Carlsen's typically ambitious play led to a position that should have ended in a draw by repetition in one of several ways. Instead Topalov, typically ambitious himself, found a way to avoid the repetitions with 34..Nc6. Unfortunately for the Bulgarian, this allowed a forced checkmate with a pretty bishop retreat he must have missed entirely. (To be fair, many of the kibitzing GMs also failed to see it live.) This was Carlsen's second win over Topalov in the event and it adds another strange chapter to a book that includes Topalov resigning in a drawish position against Carlsen at Linares last year.
It also meant that the tiebreak situation was complicated headed into the final round. Apart from the title, the Linares Grand Slam spot in Bilbao was up for grabs. If Anand lost to Topalov in the final round things could get messy. The first tiebreak was head-to-head this year, so if Anand and Carlsen tied for first Vishy would take the title. But if a three-way tie resulted with Topalov, it would go to Carlsen due to even head-to-head combined score with Anand and Topalov and his lead in the second tiebreak, most wins. So Anand needed only a draw with white against Topalov to lock up first and he achieved that without much drama. Carlsen could still reach a tie for first on points with white against Radjabov. Curiously he went for the Topalov-Radjabov instant endgame line of the Schliemann that we'd seen just a few days earlier. He got even less than Topalov did and settled for a draw. Between the endgame line of the Marshall Shirov played against Aronian and Leko and this Schliemann line, we skipped the middlegame entirely in at least four games.
Carlsen won five games and showed that the only question is how strong he will eventually become if he's this good at 17. When Kasparov retired in 2005 few imagined we would ever see any player dominate that way again. Suddenly it's quite easy to imagine a 19-year-old Carlsen as the favorite in every event he plays. He is always aggressive and optimistic but also wins positional grinds and tricky endgames. He wins from worse positions (against Ivanchuk and Topalov in particular) and with strong new opening ideas (Shirov). Three losses showed he still has a lot of room for progress, a terrifying thought. Topalov's tournament was similarly up and down, but without the excuse of being a hormonally charged teen. I kept waiting for him to put together a string of wins and it looked like he was ready to pull it off at any moment. And yet each time he won he followed it with a loss. Topalov has always suffered the predictable consequences of maximum aggression. Usually he is a net beneficiary of this admirable attitude. Here his losses, four of them, almost looked careless. Three of them should have been at least drawn with routine caution. The horrible loss to Carlsen's Alekhine's Defense (!) was another matter, if one perhaps even more troubling for Topalov fans.
Aronian tied with Topalov on +1 in a relatively discreet performance. He had a spectacular win with black against Anand, offset by two opportunistic wins against Topalov and Ivanchuk. He took several short draws in positions that were just begging to be played out, although he was far from the only culprit in that department. Radjabov also confirmed his reputation for sporadic timidity. He reached an even score regardless thanks to a total collapse by Shirov in round 13. The entire game had been played before up to move 20, when Shirov either missed 21.b4 completely or hallucinated that he'd be able to save the rook. 20..Bh4?? goes down as one of the worst forest-for-the-trees moves in recent memory. (20..g5 was played before.) "A subtle maneuver that sidesteps g5, controls e1, and prepares ..Re8. Oh, and it hangs the Rd5." Ouch. That was the last wheel off the buggy for Shirov, who lost all four of his blacks in the Linares half of the tournament after initially defying predictions and finishing the Mexico half on +1.
Leko pretty much rotted equally on both sides of the Atlantic for the worst result in his memory since he was 16 and finished -5 at Dortmund. This is a man who would lose five games per year and here he lost five games in a single tournament. I felt bad when I heard that Macauley Peterson was talking to Leko after the final round and the Hungarian grimly joked that "I bet Mig is happy now." Ouch. I'm sure I've teased Leko more than his fair share over the years due to his drawish proclivities, but I'd never wish bad results on anyone. I root against openings I find boring, yes, so I cheer for anyone who beats the Petroff or the Berlin Defense, for example. But barring that I don't hope for negative results for anyone and certainly not someone as nice as Peter. That said, as a fan I'm delighted to see new guys like Carlsen and Aronian mixing it up, although as I said above, Aronian tanks it on occasion despite his fighting reputation.
I'm more concerned about how some players in supertournaments can draw 80% of their games, lose more than they win, and still keep a high rating and get invited back every year at the expense of new blood. (Mamedyarov counts as new blood but so far he's the epitome of this complaint.) Leko is without a doubt one of the strongest players in the world. He has won titles in Dortmund, Linares, and Wijk aan Zee, something few can say. Anyone who doubts his qualities need only look at the Linares game Aronian-Leko, a defensive masterpiece for the ages that was played at rapid tempo after Leko used 84 minutes (!) on his 9th move to consider his response to Aronian's amazing novelty. I think living in the elite bubble for so long has hurt Leko's killer instinct, which was never that of a rabid grizzly to begin with. He hasn't played anyone outside of the superelite in years, mostly due to his avoidance of team competitions. In club and national team events the big dogs on board one are expected to crush their opponents, which might provide the vegetarian Leko with a little chessic red meat now and then.
Ivanchuk was, well, very Ivanchuk. He blew two games in horrible time trouble, including a forced win against Aronian he turned into a loss by hanging a bishop. He played quite a few interesting games but his only wins were both against the hapless Leko. The overall level of play in Linares was quite spotty, with more blunders and more time trouble than we are used to seeing. This goes hand in hand with the fewer draws and fighting chess, so it's wrong to complain too much about a few blunders.
The future of the tournament is in some doubt. The Morelian organizers sounded quite sure the tournament wouldn't return there in 2009 due to costs. They did hope it might be able to come back to Morelia every two years. We'll see if Linares finds another partner. Since the municipality is the main sponsor we shouldn't expect too prompt an announcement on these things.
The win put Anand into the six-player Bilbao Grand Slam final along with Corus winner (tiebreaks) Aronian. MTel, which begins on May 7 and Dortmund in July will produce the other two qualifiers. The other two will be selected by the organizers. The calendar has suddenly become quite crowded with the appearance of the FIDE Grand Prix tournaments, on which more later. The Garry is in town for a speech here in NY on Thursday, so time has been at a premium.