22 January 2017

Commentary: 2016 Tal Memorial Round 6 (Aronian - Giri)

Although I've previously mentioned that I tend not to choose games for commentary from the super-GM class, the last batch I selected from 2016 all feature top names who happened to play brilliantly (and understandably) in my general opening repertoire, so I felt I couldn't ignore them!

This next commentary game, from round 6 of the Tal Memorial tournament, features brilliant maneuvering from GM Levon Aronian in an English, which helps show the latent power of the central setup. There are some key thematic observations on positional topics, such as what happens with the light-squared bishop exchange on h3, but the focus of the game is on the queenside pressure and crush that Aronian builds up after his opponent (GM Anish Giri) allows him the initiative. In the resulting sequence, I think that most of the rest of us would decide on the option 21. Nxe5 (and not necessarily be wrong to do so), but Aronian's more complex 21. Na5 followed by an exchange sacrifice is a model of positional and tactical effectiveness. It is well worth breaking down the individual sequences of tactical ideas and how Aronian strings them all together with his final back-rank threats and winning knight maneuver.

Aronian, Levon (2795) - Giri, Anish (2755)

Result: 1-0
Site: Moscow RUS
Date: 2016.10.02
[...] 1.c4 e5 2.g3 this very early fianchetto is a popular way to play the English 2...¤f6 3.¥g2 d5 the most challenging, immediately looking to establish a central presence. 4.cxd5 ¤xd5 5.¤f3 ¤c6 now it looks like a reversed Sicilian, doesn't it? In fact that is how ECO classifies it. 6.O-O ¤b6 7.d3 with Black controlling d4, White must opt for a more restrained game, looking to control the center with pieces, which is the point of the original setup. 7...¥e7 8.¥e3 O-O 9.¤bd2 this move eyes both e4 and c4, but neglects d5. It does leave the c-file half-open for White's rook, though.
9.¤c3 would be a fine (and more natural) alternative development for the knight, focusing more on the key d5 square.
9...¥e6
9...¤d5!? would be the way to immediately take advantage of the knight development; the engine considers the resulting position completely equal after 10. Rc1 and the exchange on e3. The only other game in the database continued 10.¤c4 ¤xe3 11.¤xe3 ¦e8 12.¦c1 ¥f8 13.¦xc6 bxc6 14.£c2 ¦b8 15.b3 ¥d7 16.¤d2 ¦b6 17.¤e4 a5 18.¤c4 ¦a6 19.¤b2 ¥e6 20.¤c5 ¥xc5 21.£xc5 ¥d5 22.¦c1 ¥xg2 23.¢xg2 £d5+ 24.£xd5 cxd5 25.¦xc7 ¦aa8 26.¤a4 ¦ec8 27.¦e7 ¦e8 28.¦d7 ¦ed8 29.¦e7 f6 30.e3 ¦ac8 31.d4 exd4 32.exd4 ¦e8 33.¦a7 ¦c2 34.¤c5 ¦ee2 35.¦a8+ ¢f7 36.¦a7+ ¢g6 37.¤d3 ¢h6 38.¢f3 ¦ed2 39.¢e3 ¦e2+ 40.¢f3 ¦xa2 41.¦d7 g5 42.¦xd5 ¢g6 43.g4 ¦ed2 44.¢e3 ¦e2+ 45.¢f3 ¦ed2 46.¢e3 h5 47.h3 h4 48.¦d6 ¦d1 49.¤e5+ ¢g7 50.¦d7+ ¢g8 51.¦d8+ ¢g7 52.¦d7+ ¢g8 53.¦d8+ ¢g7 54.¦d7+ ¢g8 55.¦d8+ ¢g7 56.¦d7+ ¢g8 57.¦d8+ ¢h7 58.¦d7+ ¢g8 59.¦d8+ ¢g7 60.¦d7+ ¢g8 61.¦d8+ ¢g7 1/2-1/2 (61) Artemiev,V (2663)-Matlakov,M (2691) Sochi 2016
10.¦c1 £d7 telegraphing Black's intent to exchange the g2 bishop. 11.a3 sort of a waiting move, but also done to take away the b4 square from Black (usually to prevent ...Nb4 as a reaction to Qc2). 11...¥h3 12.¥xh3 masters can play this move with ease in the English, even though it looks anti-positional. If Black could follow it up by bringing additional pieces into a kingside attack, then it would be bad, but often the exchange on h3 simply means that Black's queen is offsides for a while.
12.b4 is not a bad other option, but in this position White doesn't have much more to gain beyond this move on the queenside, so taking the time to first get Black's queen out of position is worth it.
12...£xh3 13.b4²13...¥d6 this is done to protect e5 and subsequently maneuver the Nc6, but it seems somewhat contrived, as if Black has nothing better to do. Bringing the queen back on side with ...Qe6 or ...Qd7 would seem more productive. 14.£b3 the natural spot for the queen, which no longer faces opposition from a bishop on the light squares and has a beautiful diagonal now; this is another reason why Aronian was happy to exchange off the bishops. 14...¤e7 15.d4 Aronian judges the time is right to release some of the pent-up energy of his minor pieces clustered in the center and challenge/eliminate Black's presence there. 15...exd4 essentially forced, as it would be more awkward for Black to try to defend with something like ...Nc6. 16.¥xd4 now the bishop has an excellent diagonal as well and cannot be easily opposed by its Black counterpart. 16...¤c6 Black moves to trade off the centralized bishop. 17.¤e4 White has to be careful to maintain momentum here. Piece activity is more important than avoiding the bishop for knight swap.
17.¥b2 for example would allow Black to get some counter-pressure with 17...¦fe8
17...¤xd4 18.¤xd4 White's pair of knights are doing well by being centralized, while Black's minor pieces are comparatively restricted. 18...£d7?! Here Giri seeimgly invites the following sequence, by enabling the potential tactics down the d-file. (18...¥e5!? immediately is playable.) 19.¦fd1± now both of White's rooks are in the game, while Black's are still at home. The game illustrates the latent power of rooks when they are opposing queens (or kings) down a file, even with multiple pieces in the way. 19...¥e5 20.¤c6 £e8 21.¤a5
21.¤xe5 is an alternate way to play that may be a more obvious one for most (at least Class) players. 21...£xe5 22.¤c5 and now Black's b- and c-pawns are under potential threat, while Black can gobble the e-pawn. For example 22...£xe2 23.¤xb7 £e7 24.£c3±
21...¦b8 22.¤c5 £c8 23.£f3 White builds up single-mindedly against the b7 pawn while tying Black's pieces to its defense. 23...c6 24.b5! a brilliant idea to increase the pressure on the queenside, involving an exchange sacrifice, and probably why Aronian chose the approach with 21. Na5 in the first place. (And why for the rest of us 21. Nxe5 would probably be the easier way to go.) 24...¥b2 (24...cxb5?25.¤d7+⁠− and Black has no good options.) 25.bxc6 the sharpest and most effective continuation.
Avoiding the exchange sacrifice with 25.¦c2 is less good, as after 25...cxb5 White has to contend with the pin on the Nc5.
25...¥xc1 26.¦xc1 £c7
26...bxc6 is shown by the engine as the least bad option, but then 27.¤xc6 forks the Rb8 and the undefended e7 square (which would fork the Black king and queen), so in this variation White can regain the exchange and then be a clear pawn up. Giri evidently didn't like this, so went for the more complicated game continuation.
27.cxb7+⁠− although the engine shows a big advantage for White, the winning continuation is tricky to find. 27...¤a4 trying to exploit the pin on the Nc5, however 28.¤cb3 holds everything together. 28...£e7 29.¤d4 Although Qf4 could be played immediately to good effect, White is still handily winning with this move, which threatens a fork on c6. 29...£g5 targeting the Rc1 and Na5, but now White has a brilliant finish. 30.£f4 this works on multiple levels, as after an exchange on f4 Black would have no defense against Ndc6 and subsequent material losses. In the game continuation, Aronian exploits Giri's back-rank problems. 30...£xa5 31.£xb8!31...¦xb8 32.¦c8+ £d8 at first this looks like it holds Black together, but after 33.¦xd8+ ¦xd8 34.¤c6! the knight and b-pawn threats prove decisive after all.
34.¤c6 ¦e8 (34...¦d1+ 35.¢g2 ¦b1 36.¤b4 and the b-pawn queens.)
34...¦b8 35.¤xb8 ¤c5 36.¤c6 ¤xb7 37.¤xa7 and Black will not be able to stop both the a-pawn and White's 4v3 kingside majority.
35.¤e7+ ¢f8 36.¤c8! and the b-pawn queens, with a blocking motif along the 8th rank similar to the above variation's one along the b-file.
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