The Zurich Chess Challenge has an unusual format, but the former World Champion had no trouble adjusting.

On Day 1 of the Zurich Chess Challenge, Viswanathan Anand, the former World Champion from India, showed that he is still capable of dominating his competition. Only two weeks after a disastrous tournament in Gibraltar (in which he tied for 24th), Anand won his first two games in Zurich to grab the early lead. 

The tournament features an entirely new format for top-level events. Instead of one game each day, there are two, just as in many American opens. And the time controls are much faster than normal. Each player starts with 40 minutes for the entire game, with time added after each move. 

I liked the new format. It produced a lot of fighting chess, and more mistakes, so that there were more opportunities for decisive results. But it also gave each player enough time to keep the level of play reasonably high, and provided enough time for the players to think for a while on one move, if they felt it was necessary.

In Anand’s first game, he faced Levon Aronian of Armenia. After a quiet Four-Knights opening, Anand began to open things up. 

In the above position, Anand played the very aggressive 12. Nf5!, paying no heed to his soon to be ruined pawn structure and setting his sights clearly on the Black king. After 12. … Bxc4 13. dxc4 Kh7 14. Qf3!, Anand’s pieces were ready to strike.

Aronian, perhaps not fully appreciating the danger he was in, chose 14. … Nb8?, looking to reroute the knight to d7. But there followed 15. Nxh6! If Black had played 15. … gxf6, White could simply take his pieces back with 16. Qxf6, remaining a pawn ahead and with a much better position.

So Aronian played 15. … Kxh6. There followed 16. Qh3+ Kg6 (16. … Nh5 would have been met with 17. g4) 17. Rf3! threatening 18. Rg3, with mate. Aronian tried 17. … Nh5, but resigned after 18. Rf5! Nf6 19. Qh4!, when he has no answer to the threat of Rg5 mate.

It was a short and devastating victory that is normally never seen in elite tournaments, but that was made possible by the faster time controls.

Anand’s second win came at the expense of Anish Giri of the Netherlands.

White has more pawns in the center, but they are under fire on the sides. Giri should have continued modestly with a move like 31. Rf1!, simply defending his f2 pawn, and he would not be worse. Instead, his ambition turned out to be his biggest enemy. He chose 31. f4?, which was met strongly by 31. … e5!, after which the pawn cannot be taken because of the rook on e3 is attacked.

Giri tried 32. Nf3, but after 32. … exf4! 33. gxf4 d5! 34. exd5 Qd6!, Black was on the verge of winning his pawn back, and the White position was in shambles. Giri was unable to offer any meaningful resistance after that and had to resign ten moves later.

Second place is currently occupied by Hikaru Nakamura of the United States, who is just a half point behind Anand. Nakamura was the only other player on Day 1 to win a game. His victory came against Alexei Shirov of Latvia after Shirov made a surprising decision. 

The position has been complicated for a long time, and undoubtedly Black looks as if he is a bit better because of his well-placed pieces on White’s weakened dark squares. Still, White is not without counterplay — the h4 pawn is weak, and the Black king lacks pawn cover which means his pieces cannot come into play that easily.

After 36. Rh1!, White would win the h4 pawn and have fully adequate counterplay. The computer rates this position as dead equal.

Instead, Shirov played 36. Rxc5? after thinking for four minutes. It was a move that I totally fail to understand. After Nakamura replied 36. … bxc5, Black was simply up an exchange for nothing.

There followed 37. a5 h3+! 38. Kg3 h2! and Shirov already had to resign because 39. Kxh2 would be met by 39. … Qh6+ and Rxg4+, winning the queen. A surprising turn of events and an unusual blunder from Shirov.

In addition to the main event, there was also a side exhibition match with the same rules between Boris Gelfand of Israel and Alexander Morozevich of Russia. Gelfand was really suffering in Game 1, and I thought Morozevich would put it away, but ultimately Gelfand manged to hold a draw.

He made good use of that half point by winning a fine game in Round 2 to clinch the match by a score of 1.5-0.5.

Gelfand, who was White, has played a very good game up to this point and has an extra pawn, but the opposite-colored bishops offer Black good drawing chances. However, Morozevich blundered badly with 44. … Qd6??, allowing the winning tactical shot 45. c5!, which cleared a path for the bishop on e2. With the queen attacked and the threat of 46. Bc4, mate, Morozevich was forced to play 45. … Qe7. But after 46. Bc4+ Ke8 47. Qxc6+, White had netted a second pawn and soon won a third one on b6. Black was completely lost and resigned on move 54.

Day 2 will feature a match between Anand and Nakamura in Round 4, which could be decisive in deciding who wins the tournament. 


Samuel Shankland is a United States grandmaster ranked No. 7 in the country. He is a professional player and recipient of the Samford Fellowship in 2013, the most prestigious award in the United States for young chess players. He is @GMShanky on Twitter and is also on Facebook.