Fighting to the last move, Topalov ended Linares with a win over Boris Gelfand that gave him clear first place on a +3 score. Like all of his wins here, this one was far from perfect, but it was also typical of his style, his refusal to quit, and his ability to exploit his opponents' mistakes to the maximum. Grischuk and Topalov began the round tied for first with most tiebreaks favoring the Russian defending champ. A few hours into the round thing were looking very good for Topalov. Vallejo had a strong position against Grischuk's Sicilian and Boris Gelfand had let his enthusiasm for swapping pieces get the better of him and lost an exchange to a simple trap. Another hour later and the picture had shifted again. Vallejo, still with a plus and with a few minutes more than Grischuk, forced a repetition. "The final position was the best one I had the entire game," Grischuk told me on Chess.FM afterward while waiting for Topalov's result. That meant if Topalov drew, Grischuk would get the trophy regardless of Gashimov's result. (I believe there was one arcane possibility of blitz tiebreaks if Grischuk, Topalov, and Aronian all won.)
Meanwhile, Topalov had, somewhat inexplicably, quickly given back the exchange to reach a R+4 vs R+3 endgame that was not at all simple to win, especially against a technical expert like Gelfand. But it was also hard to draw, as these things tend to go! Grischuk, who was in the press room consulting with his second, Khismatullin, eternal Linares kibitzer extraordinaire Ljubo Ljubojevic, and a computer, had more confidence in the computer and Gelfand than anyone else, saying he thought the Israeli would hold the draw and make him the Linares champion for the second year in a row. I say that about confidence in Gelfand because Grischuk admitted that he and the other GMs in the room couldn't find the draw for Black! But the computer was showing 0.00 and since the rook endgame was by then well into tablebase range in the search, there was no reason to doubt it. But it wasn't easy at all and, unfortunately for Grischuk, Gelfand showed why a few moves later with a losing mistake.
I was on the air with Alex Yermolinsky, the Yermonator doing a fab job in his Chess.FM debut, and rook endgame sage Speelman was also lending a hand. From all the tries they made the only thing that we were sure of was that there were many ways for Black to lose and very few for him to draw. In the end, the losing mistake was leaving his king on e8 instead of getting it off the back rank before pushing the a-pawn. This gave Black a winning difference over the line we'd been looking at much earlier that would have been reached (in a different move order than our analysis) after 49..Ke7 50.Kc7 a2 51.Rh7+ Ke6 52.Rh6+ Ke7 53.Ra6 Rxc3 draw. But with the white king still on c6 protecting the c5 pawn, it's a simple win.
Gelfand made things tough on himself with the strange king move to e8, and after a long think at that. 48..Ke6 was fine, staying out of trouble by keeping the white king or c5 pawn in the way of the white rook's access to the a-file after a check. Black is still threatening ..a2, so White can't make progress. Again, if the white king goes to c7 it's a draw because the king isn't protecting the c5 pawn, which gets picked off after ..a2. This isn't terribly difficult (by that late point) and to me this shows how Topalov owes so much of his success to handling pressure better than his opponents. Gelfand knows his endgames as well as anyone in the world and spent a long time on 48..Ke8?!, the first step on the road to oblivion he took on the next move with 49..a2?? White keeps both his pawns, the black pawn is frozen on a2 while the white king and pawns advance. Topalov finished with the pretty little flourish GM Yermolinsky had shown us much earlier, giving up his rook and promoting thanks to the shield provided by his doubled pawn. (The immediate 48..a2 also draws, if differently, thanks to the black king infiltrating. 49.Rd7+ Ke6 50.Ra7 Rb2 and White can only move his rook up and down the file. 51.Kc7 Kd5 or 51.c4 Ke5. Black can still go wrong after, say, 51.Ra5 Ke7 52.Kc7 and Black has to find 52..Rb5! to draw. 48..Ke6 seems easiest to me, but there's always a good chance I'm missing quite a bit.)
A flawed fighting game just like almost every other decisive Linares encounter this year, and so a fitting conclusion. Topalov didn't have his best stuff but he complicated constantly, pitched out of trouble again and again, and outplayed his opponents when it mattered most. Congratulations to him on his first Linares title! He collects 75,000 euros, $100,000 dollars. Grischuk pockets 50K euros.
Aronian picked up a consolation win of sorts, beating Gashimov in the final round to break his personal record streak of nine consecutive draws. He had a ways to go for the Linares record, however. In fact, that wouldn't even have been possible with this year's smaller field. Leko drew all 12 of his games in Linares 2005, the same year Topalov beat Kasparov in the final round of Garry's last tournament to tie him on points. Aronian will even add a rating point or two on the deal despite getting into serious trouble on several occasions and generally sleepwalking through the event. It's almost more impressive that he managed +1 undefeated while not playing very well, reminiscent of Kasparov's +1 here in 1998, also winning one and drawing the rest. Speaking of ratings, Topalov will be one point behind Carlsen on the next list, ruining a PR hype angle of being the world #1 as he takes on Anand in April. Vallejo was another winner in the final round, gaining a pair of companions in the cellar at +2 instead of finishing there alone. He and Gelfand finished winless, never a pleasant feeling.
For Grischuk, another excellent result. +2 was enough to win for him last year and he'd already won a critical game by beating Topalov in the penultimate round. In our brief chat he admitted his time trouble addiction was a weak point, though obviously you can't argue too much with the results he's been having lately. Gashimov didn't look ready for prime time here. He might be well on the way to having his Benoni problem beaten out of him after this. He lost two and was in very bad shape against Vallejo as well. A solid black repertoire is an essential piece of armor in the supertournament world, as Wang Yue and Dominguez found out last year. Gelfand, the veteran, picks his spots and plays less than the other elite stars, but he looked tired here.
Blindfolded eyes now turn to Nice and the Melody Amber tournament, where the stars will again be out in full constellation on March 13. Everybody who's anybody is there, excepting Topalov and Anand, who will be deep in training for their match, which begins April 23. Carlsen, Kramnik, Aronian, Ivanchuk, Svidler, and a very high-Elo etc. will play rapid and blindfold for our entertainment.