Saturday, December 19, 2015

A New Grandmaster

Australia's newest GM, Max Illingworth
The Australasian Masters is the only round robin event in Australia to offer norm possibilities. Over the 28 year history of the event, it hasn't always qualified for norms, and even when it has players haven't always achieved the required score. But this year we have had something special.

In the Grand Master section, IM Max Illingworth has scored the GM performance with 2 rounds to spare, with an incredible 6.5/7. I don't know of anyone who thinks Max is not worthy of the title and his occasional hiccup just shows that he is human. In fact, although undoubtedly talented, it could be argued that Max hasn't been the biggest prospect to arise in Australian Junior chess. But what is evident is that Max's workmanlike attitude, and dedication to the game, have meant that he has been able to continue his rise after his junior years, which so many players fail to do. Although I'm probably not qualified to say, it appears that Max is still improving, so where he will end up is anyone's guess. But if determination and effort are the criteria to judge someone by, then Max is right up there. This is the third GM norm for Max, and seeing he has been over 2500 (and may have risen over 2500 again due to his performance here) he should become a GM as soon as it is ratified by FIDE.

IM Izzet (left) needs half a point for a GM norm vs GM Johansen, 3 times winner of the Masters.
Max has had only one draw in the first 7 rounds, and that was to IM Kanan Izzat, the Azerbaijani teenager who is studying in Melbourne. Kanan has also had an amazing start to the event with 6/7, and he stands in second place with only half a point required to achieve his GM norm. Like Max Kanan has shown excellent opening preparation, strong tactical awareness, and great determination. This latter quality was shown to vivid effect in his endgame win against top seed GM Neiksans from Latvia.

The Grand Masters have not had the best of tournaments, but Neiksans has now moved into third place on 5/7. To be fair, this would be a good score if the two young IM's weren't blazing through the field. However, both Papin and Johansen have been out of sorts, which is a shame to see.  The other young players will probably have mixed feelings about the event. I'm guessing James Morris and Anton Smirnov might be a bit disappointed, though their scores and play show they are competitive at this level, and under other circumstances might even have done better. Bobby Cheng lacks tournament practice, so his 50% must be seen as a good comeback to chess. Bobby will continue into the Australian Championship and hopefully this will be a full comeback for a player who has been Australia's only World Champion at the youth level. Melbourne High School players Ari Dale and Luke Li have found the going tough, but again, have proved competitive, and especially Ari could have been better if he'd been able to convert some promising looking positions.

IM Igor Bjelobrk can afford to relax with his 7/7 start in the IM event
In the IM event that I'm playing in, it is all about IM Igor Bjelobrk who has scored 7/7, and stands 2 points clear with 2 to play. Igor, to put it simply, has not had any trouble at all in any of his games, and his solid style and ability to punish errors has proved too good. In the 7th round he converted a difficult opposite coloured bishop ending against FM Chris Wallis, which put a dent in Wallis's IM norm chances. Chris is currently in second place on 5/7, but he will be focusing on winning his last 2 games, as that will get him his second IM norm. With a good performance in the Australian Championship, Chris could conceivably score another norm, and could be close to reaching 2400. I wish him the best in his last 2 games.

Chris has to face IM Richard Jones, the top seed, who is having a pretty tough tournament. Richard is only on 3/7 but Chris will still have to be aware that Richard could kick into his top form at any moment. The other IM, Mirko Rujevic is in equal third with FM Eugene Schon. This is a funny pair as we have probably the most optimistic player sitting on the same score as probably the most pessimistic, regarding their own positions. Mirko is certainly not short of self belief, while Eugene probably suffers from the complete opposite.And while Mirko sits at the top of the veterans list in Australia, Eugene is only in his early 20's and has a lot of development still hopefully to come.

Last minute replacement in the IM section, Alpaeus Ang is the lowest rated competitor but has scored 2.5 so far.
The rest of the IM field are probably just a little below par, or roughly where they should be. There have been no big breakthrough performances in this event. My own play has become weaker as the week has gone on. I could blame tiredness, but really it has been a lack of my own stamina and determination to perform, so I'd do well to look at those qualities of the leading players from the GM event is I want to improve my results in the future.

Finally, a game from the GM event. Kanan Izzat is a bit better from the opening against Neiksans, but after about 40 moves we are in a rook ending that looks pretty difficult for either side to win. Neiksans was quite short on time at this point, and allowed Kanan to show his endgame technique. Here's a position from the endgame. How confident would you be of beating a 2600+ GM from here?

Izzat as white did exactly that, winning a seemingly drawn position. This was the longest of the GM event so far, and epitomises the fighting determination of the young breed of players. This game and all the others from both sections can be downloaded form the official website, along with arbiter IA Kerry Stead's excellent daily bulletins.

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