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Have the engines led us to lose our respect for the elite GMs?

by Sagar Shah - 24/09/2019

Alexander Grischuk and Ding Liren sat opposite each other in the fifth round of the World Cup 2019. In their first game after 13 moves, Grischuk made a move that led the engines to give an evaluation of nearly -3 points. It was almost as if he had blundered a piece. Ding Liren after thinking for a long time replied with a move that let his opponent off the hook without any problems. On social media as well as in live commentary one could see the viewers and the kibitzers saying things like these top players aren't as good as their ratings suggest, they always keep making blunders and so on. Is this really the case? Has the level of chess gone down, or are the viewers armed with engines being unjustifiably harsh? In this article IM Sagar Shah looks at the Grischuk vs Ding Liren position in depth and makes some observations.

The fifth round of the World Cup 2019 saw an explosive match-up. Alexander Grischuk was pitted against Ding Liren. While Ding Liren's rating (2811) shows that he is the stronger player as compared to Grischuk (2759), the Russian GM is known to do well in knock out events and in general is an extremely deep player. Everyone who knows Grischuk well, knows that he comes regularly under time pressure because he likes to think about his moves and options in great depth. Ding Liren on the other hand is a pragmatic player who manages his time well.

The clash between Alexander Grischuk and Ding Liren was one that was followed with great excitement by chess players all across the world

Something very interesting happened in the first game of the match. 13 moves had been played in a well known line of the Catalan and this is the position that was reached:


Grischuk vs Ding Liren, Round 5.1

After Ding Liren played 13...Qc8, Grischuk thought for a long time in this position. He was clearly worried about Black's move ...h4. Hence, a move like Nc3 or b3 was not what he wanted to go for. At the same time a move like h3 would be met with ...h4 with immense complications. The move that Grischuk chose was...

14.Qf3 attacking the c6 pawn

The kibitzers who were watching the games online immediately started to comment on social media about what a big blunder Grischuk had made.

A look at the engines show that after the move 14...Bd5 Black is completely winning! An evaluation of -2.91 at the depth of 41! This is akin to being a piece up!

Yet, after nearly seven minutes of thought Ding Liren didn't go for ...Bd5 but instead played the surprising move 14...Rb6 giving up an exchange and hoping for the light squared bishop to compensate for the missing exchange.

As can be seen from the engine's evaluation in the "Let's Check" window, the position is around equal

How did a strong player like Ding Liren make a miss like this one?

Mistakes can be classified in two categories - there are simple blunders and there are variations so deep that even the top players are unable to calculate them. This one clearly falls in the second category. Let me explain as to what I mean by this.

Let's say Ding Liren plays the move 14...Bd5

Grischuk has no option but to snap it off. If he moves the queen, ...h4 comes with extra power and White is in huge trouble. So after 15...cxd5 16. Qxd5 Black has a powerful continuation.

...Qf5! Ding Liren of course saw this in his calculations. Now it is extremely important for White to play actively with f3. In case he doesn't do so, Black simply continues with ...h4 and his attack continues.

If the knight moves back, then White can check on c6, simply develop his pieces and gets a completely acceptable position. Here Black has a strong move.

17...Qc2! This continues to the attack on h2 and also threatens the c1 bishop which is undefended. Let's assume that White now plays 18.Nbd2, then after Qd1+ the position is lost because Kg2 is met with Qe2 and instead of Kg2, Nf1 is no longer possible as the queen on d5 is hanging. Hence, White must first play...

18.Qc6+ Giving this check ensures that later the knight can move from d2 to f1.

Once again we reach an important position where Black has an important decision to make. What would you play?

Black has to play 20...Nxh2! Note that beginning with 20...Rh6 is bad because of Qe4 Nxh2 Qh4+ followed by taking on h2. Hence, first ...Nxh2 is accurate.

White takes on h2 with his king and now capturing the knight on f1 leads to a forced draw after e6! There is a mate threatened on d7 and in case the pawn is taken then the knight jumps to e5. Black would do well to give a perpetual to the white king. But instead of taking on f1. Black has a strong move in the above position. Can you find it out?

The final key move 21...Rh6 is what solidifies Black's advantage. Next up is Qxf1 and Black is winning! White's final attempt is Nd6 when after Qe2+ Kg1 Bxd6 exd6 Rxd6

The final position is winning for Black.

So many pitfalls, so many complicated variations and so many ideas had to be seen if Black had to go for this winning line. Of course, for the viewers armed with an engine, this is really not a problem. But for the players who have to figure out everything on the board, without even knowing what the evaluation of the position is, this is extremely difficult.

Grischuk thought really hard to understand the intricacies of the position
In this YouTube video you understand the possibilities explained by IM Sagar Shah
Interview with Grischuk and Ding Liren after the game

India's top GM Surya Sekhar Ganguly understood the depth of the position and tweeted about the same

Perhaps after all of the analysis, we as viewers and kibitzers would not be as brutal to say that Grischuk made an easy blunder with 14.Qf3 or Ding Liren missed a simple win after 14...Bd5.


I would like to recount one incident from my experience here. I was playing at the Qatar Masters Open 2015. It was the second round and Harikrishna was pitted with the black pieces against Nino Batsiashvili. The Georgian top women's player had already pulled off a big upset in round one by drawing against Magnus Carlsen. Harikrishna, being her second round opponent, decided to play risky chess in order to create winning chances. They reached this position:


Batsiashvili vs Harikrishna, Qatar Masters Round 2

The opening had not gone so well for Hari. He had played 11...Nf4 and was waiting for his opponent's move

Batsiashvili went wrong with the move 12.Bf5. Hari simply took on f5 and after 13.Nxf5 continued with 13...Qd7!

The queen on d7 attacks the knight. Playing g4 would mean that the knight on f4 is strong and also moves like 0-0-0 and h5 become possible. By now Harikrishna was out of the woods and he went on to win the game.

After analyzing the game, I met Harikrishna the next day at the Breakfast table. I told him, "Weren't you lucky yesterday? After 12.Be4! (instead of Bf5) you would have been in deep trouble, right?" I had checked the move with the computer and hence was confident about the same. Hari replied:

"What if I just played 0-0?" I was puzzled. The computer did not show this move in the first three options for Black and hence I had not analyzed it. It surely looked like an interesting move. Black threatens f5 and White has to now play very energetically.

Later I checked the position once again carefully and realized that White has to give up the g2 pawn with Nf5 and after Bxf5 Bxf5 Nxg2+ Kf1 Nf4

White goes Ne2 and has a clear advantage. I couldn't find this when Harikrishna asked me at the breakfast table!

From this experience I learnt one important thing. Yes, these top players go wrong many times. But it is never really a very simple oversight by them. Most of the times they have looked deep and missed something which is not very obvious. We as viewers should always try to look deeper because when these top players sit on the board and play chess, they are giving it their all.


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