Levon Aronian of Armenia, not a dark horse but a strong contender in the super-strong Tata Steel tournament in the Netherlands, carried away first place. In the first round, playing Black against Sergey Karjakin of Russia, Aronian won this fine game. It was a Ruy Lopez, that became a positional game after Karjakin played 6. d3, a conservative but solid move. This was a complex game and the players must certainly have used up much time in a long encounter involving numberless possible combinations.
Aronian moved to make his king’s bishop strong on a long diagonal, but a critical move was 19Be6, offering Karjakin a generous gift of a pawn, an offer which Karjakin felt he could not turn down. However, 20. Ba6 necessarily lost time and put the bishop out of play, so Aronian found counterplay, and in the end he got the pawn back plus a better pawn structure. His eventual victory was vintage Aronian, not so much a theoretical win as a constant clash of wits.
a) It is a bit more accurate to play 6.Re1 first, even if ultimately White wants to play the closed lines (e.g. 6.Re1 b5 7.Bb3 O-O 8.a4 or 8.h3 or 8.d3). The reason is that White sometimes wants to keep the option of playing d2-d4 in one move, but almost always wants the rook on e1 in any case.
b) This looks slow. Yes, this move is often useful, but what is it doing right here?
c) It was necessary to foresee Black’s 19th move to play this, and it seems to work. White has been just slow enough and Black has been just active enough to be able to back up such aggressive play.
d) This is key: Black needs to contest the c4 square.
e) Note that 20.Qe2 Nf4! would turn out badly for White.
f) Of course not 21.Qxd8? Rexd8 and Black is too quick to threaten 22. . .Rd6, trapping the bishop.
g) This position has been reached by a relatively forced sequence after 19. . .Be6. Black stands very well; White’s pieces are forced into passive placement to keep his extra pawn, and Black’s control of a6 and b5 ensures White’s queenside pawns are controlled. Meanwhile, Black has a strong attack.
h) 29.Kh2 does not look useful, and now the threat of 30. . .Rd7 discombobulates White’s pieces.
i) White must surely be lost now. Black’s pieces are far more active than White’s, and he has a strong extra pawn to boot. All he must do is be careful not to lose control of the blockade of the a-pawn.
j) This loses immediately, but also 42.Nxc3 Nxg2 would be hopeless.
Annotations by grandmaster Patrick Wolff, a two-time US champion.