Since the organizer invited me to Bilbao Masters Final 2016 this winter, I’ve looked forward to revisit Bilbao where I was a frequent participant 5 times from 2007 to 2012 (and winning in 2011 and 2012.)
Bilbao, together with Leon, now carry the long and proud Spanish world elite chess tournament tradition manifested by Linares for so many years (where I was fortunate enough to participate three times early in my elite chess career).
We are playing a 6-player all-play-all twice with the rest day today (half way through the 10-rounds event). The interesting field – my competitors are World Championship match challenger Karjakin, Paris-winner Nakamura, young elite players Giri and So and the dangerous 17 year old Wei Yi – but somehow I’ve been involved in all decided games so far. For me the short time control (90 minutes per player) with no increment prior to 40 moves seems to help.
The first round loss against Nakamura was really bad. Having got an excellent position in the opening I got impatient and sacrificed a pawn to obtain what I believed was a significant advantage. Having missed his response e6 I was instead left with a strategically lost position and Nakamura finished efficiently to score his first classical victory against me.
Fortunately my play has improved consistently and considerably since then. I managed to pose some questions to Wei Yi before the time control with the black pieces and got excellent winning chances. However, his brave counterplay and my inability to find a win in the immensely complicated rook and knight pawn-race could have ended in a draw. I left one last trap and he went for it and could no longer stop my c-pawn. The queen against rook and knight ending was easily won for me.
Against Karjakin I avoided main lines in the Sicilian, and well into the middle game his dynamic defense had at least equalized with black. Rc4 was a mistake and later he simply couldn’t stop my kingside attack. Not a perfect game but not bad at all.
As white against Wesley So I played the quiet Qe2 on move 6. Investing about half an hour on the clock familiarizing me with the a3-b4 plan I felt comfortable with the position throughout the rest of the game. So is normally very difficult to beat, but he seemed uncertain on how to respond to my set-up. The knight on f5 prevented short castle as it would be met with Bh6! He couldn’t didn’t find a good consistent plan, and ultimately left his king in the centre and then tried Nxe4 in desperation. By checking on b6 with my knight and on d2 with the queen before g4 and Rfd1 he resigned. A very nice game, although he did not put up enough resistance to put it high on my best-games list.
I think I played reasonably well against Anish Giri. Not surprisingly, despite a small but clear opening advantage as white, he went for a draw with Ne5. I had no intention of indulging him and after Nxe5, Bxh5 and Ng6 there isn’t an easy route to draw. He made several inaccuracies and despite the material balance black was clearly better due to the weaknesses in the white pawn structure and the black queenside pawn majority. I´ll admit I was quite optimistic as he didn’t seem to know how to defend the position. Once again his good tactical eye (and some luck) saved him as he just seems to hold after c4 although I’m pretty sure he had seen neither Qxa6 nor Qe2 when he allowed c4. I did not enjoy the press conference afterwards, but with soccer score 10/15 points gives me a solid lead (with Nakamura at 7, Giri at 5 and the rest at 4 points) halfway.
On the rest day today the temperature reached 40oC in the shadow. After the morning session with team chess with live pieces and press conference in the Eliseos Theater, my family and I went for a boat trip along the coast. It turned out to be the ideal place on such a beautiful and hot summer day.
Tuesday I’m playing black against Nakamura at 4 pm.