Viswanathan Anand threw the form book out the window with a stunning and largely unexpected win over pre-tournament favourite Levon Aronian in the first round of the Candidates tournament in Khanty-Mansiysk, Russia. The three other games ended in draws, giving Anand an early lead in the fourteen-round tournament whose winner will go on to challenge world champion Magnus Carlsen in November this year.
Anand had white pieces against Aronian. Normally an advantage, this only seemed a small mercy against an imposing opponent. The Armenian has largely dominated Anand, except perhaps for a remarkable game at Tata Steel in 2013. Then, despite being in as bad a slum as he is in currently, Anand played one of the best games of his career, earning the Yearbook Novelty of the Year award, an entry in the pantheon of great attacking games, and a sweet win against an opponent who had, before the game, enjoyed a +5-1 record over him.
The game, however, did not spark Anand’s game back into life, nor did it turn his fortunes around in his personal battles against Aronian. The last time they played each other, Aronian brushed off Anand in the first round at Zurich early in 2014. Anand’s Wijk Aan Zee show was in danger of becoming a painful reminder that Aronian’s style so thoroughly threw his own game off its rails, that he had to play out of his skin to beat his nemesis.
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Given their personal history and his own poor recent form, Anand may have settled for a draw against Aronian in the first round, and consider that a reasonable success. A tough delivery peaceably negotiated for a scampered single to leg. As it happened, Anand found himself with a pleasant advantage out of the opening. “When we got to c4 (white’s 21st move) I was surprised how strong my position was not slightly better but clearly better,” he said in the post-match interview. The game panned out to a perfect script from Anand’s perspective, who generally relies on his extensive opening knowledge and quick, sharp play in middle games for an upper hand. Here, a strong advantage out of the opening (a Marshal setup, which strangely enough, considering how things went, is a preferred system of Aronian’s) was built on subsequently, while his opponent, slipping steadily towards a time-default, further weakened his position. By around the first time control, Aronian, with less than a minute on his clock for 7-8 moves, blundered away his knight in a deteriorating position. Anand completed the win in 47 moves.
That the rare win against a personal tormentor came without much fuss raises, once more, the prospect of Anand turning a corner with his form. It is something that will become evident as the 21-day long tournament progresses, but there was also a clue late in the first-round game. With the win seemingly wrapped up, Anand mis-calculated — a weakness that he has tried, unsuccessfully, to keep out of his game in the last few years. But fortunately for him, the error left the integrity of the position untouched and Anand found a way to win.
There is a danger that the bad result sets Aronian off on a downward spiral, like it happened at the Candidates tournament in London last year. But the top seed seemed in an equable mood after the game. “I’m kind of used to losing in the early stages of a tournament. Stats show that I start playing better after I lose one game. So I think this is an important event,” he said after the game.
In the next round, Anand will play with black pieces against Veselin Topalov, who drew a topsy-turvy game with Shakhriyar Mamedyarov in round one. The game swung one way then the other until the players pulled the plug with a series of exchanges. This was not unlike what happened in the Sergey Karjakin-Peter Svidler draw, where players agreed to repeat moves when the position remained double-edged. Dimitry Andreikin, who has a surprisingly positive career record against Vladimir Kramnik, had to settle for a draw this time though, in what was the shortest game of the round.
Round one results: Anand bt Aronian, Karjakin drew with Svidler, Andreikin drew with Kramnik, Mamedyarov drew with Topalov.
Round two pairings: Topalov vs Anand, Kramnik vs Karjakin, Svidler vs Andreikin, Aronian vs Mamedyarov.