I am writing this column from the fabulous Ritz-Carlton hotel in Moscow, which is about a five-minute walk from Red Square. My mission in Moscow is to help Hikaru Nakamura do well in the 2011 Tal Memorial. This event is the elite-of-the-elite playing in an all-play-all (round robin) format of 10 players. Nakamura is ranked No. 7 at the start, as all the top players in the world were invited to duke it out for first prize.
Why am I in Moscow, and what can I do for Hikaru?
Well, I am what as known as a “second.” I help Hikaru prepare the games each day by looking at previous games of his opponent in an effort to figure out what each will do, mainly in the opening phase of the game. Of course, since his opponent is doing the same, sometimes Hikaru will introduce something he has not played often to throw the opponent off guard, and we have to be prepared in case his opponent does the same.
Each morning, from about 9 a.m. to noon, we look at chess with our computers, databases and chess engines to evaluate with a high level of accuracy which positions are likely to occur out of the opening and how best to play them. I do the same type of work when I play in a strong event, but it is a bit easier with a second.
The event is nine rounds, and after seven, Nakamura has five draws and two losses, which places him in a tie for last place with just two rounds to go. He has been a bit unlucky; he could have easily won one of the games he drew and should have drawn one of the games he lost. Nakamura has actually gotten into time trouble in more than one game, which is not like him at all, as Nakamura is noted for his rapid pace of play. But this slow and solid style is a nice change from the old Nakamura, who would occasionally play too quickly and recklessly.
The tournament is likely the strongest ever, and to show how evenly matched the field is, there is a five-way tie for first atop the leaderboard, and only one player (Vassily Ivanchuk) has won more than one game after seven rounds.
Another unusual aspect of the event is that the black pieces have outscored the white pieces. It is advantageous in chess to have white and go first, especially at the top level, but black is doing well this event, thus far. Let’s all root for the hometown hero Nakamura, and hope he can win his last two games against some tough competition to turn in a solid finish at this prestigious event.