“Everyone else was playing blitz while he was playing chess!” That was Garry Kasparov’s assessment of an utterly dominant display by Magnus Carlsen, who followed up his Paris triumph by cruising to victory in the Your Next Move Grand Chess Tour in Leuven. A sequence of four wins in a row on the final day of blitz blew away the challenge of Wesley So, who held on to second place but finished a full three points back. Maxime Vachier-Lagrave took third to position himself well before the classical events of the tour. We draw some conclusions from Leuven and what we’ve seen of the Grand Chess Tour so far.
You can replay all 135 games from the Leuven Grand Chess Tour using the selector below:
Relive the final day’s action from Leuven, with commentary by Jovanka Houska, Yasser Seirawan, Christian Chirila and Maurice Ashley along with some cameos from Garry Kasparov and Nigel Short:
So let’s get down to it:
After Altibox Norway Chess we saw that even Magnus Carlsen himself has started to have doubts about his play in classical chess, though he was confident that wouldn’t affect his rapid or blitz. Events in Paris largely backed that up, though Magnus struggled with his time handling and saw that issue balloon on the final day as he lost three games in a row to blow a 3-point lead and need a playoff to finally beat Maxime Vachier-Lagrave.
In Leuven he lost to Wesley So after overpressing on the first day of rapid chess and went into the blitz trailing the leader by 3 points. After that, though, he never looked back. His 7.5/9 on the first day was phenomenal and saw him wipe out that lead, but if anything the unbeaten 7/9 on the second was even more impressive. This was a Magnus who was calm, ruthless and in complete control of both the positions and the clock.
Which chess player wouldn't be a little scared of Carlsen?
He started with a draw against Vishy Anand that allowed Wesley So to take the lead by beating Baadur Jobava, but then the drama was sucked out of the tournament by the very next round. Magnus easily refuted a wild piece sacrifice from Vladimir Kramnik while So was beaten by Anand. The Norwegian had the lead and never let it slip, producing a stunning sequence of games.
His clash with Maxime Vachier-Lagrave started unpromisingly as Magnus did what he’d done in his one blitz loss, to Anish Giri, the day before. He arrived late to the board with his clock already ticking and, instead of playing a move to avoid losing any more time, he proceeded to burn up a few more seconds adjusting his pieces. That was the only time he lost in the game, though, as he then rammed his g-pawn to g5 by move 5, followed up by putting his d-pawn on d6 by move 9 and then sacrificed a rook on move 19:
Maxime took the bait and lived to regret it, while if he’d had the luxury of half an hour to contemplate the position he’d no doubt have come up with the computer’s 19…Kf8!!. Perhaps Magnus would have pressed on with 20.Nxf6!?, but it seems he had nothing better than retreating the rook, when after exchanging knights on e4 the critical d6-pawn can be picked up by the black queen.
Magnus would later comment:
I burned my bridges pretty early on, so I just had to keep going. With his lack of development material doesn’t really matter that much, so I just tried to play as aggressively as possible… But at least there’s one theme I was always playing for, this pawn on d6 – without that there’s no point to my play.
MVL, who lost both blitz games to Magnus after winning both in Paris, commented, “against me apart from the opening he found some very unobvious moves”.
Jan Gustafsson takes us through one blitz game that is worth a closer look!
In the next round it was Magnus’s opponent, Vassily Ivanchuk,
who was very late, but Magnus insisted the arbiter wait until he arrived to
start the game. Strange things followed. First 2.Ne2:
Then a curious piece formation that was only spoiled by the World Champion's errant knights (the other rook could easily have been brought to d8):
But when Ivanchuk exchanged off into a knight and pawn endgame that should have been if anything slightly better for him he found himself lost in only a handful of moves – a fate he’d suffered more than once in the past at Magnus’s hands.
Ian Nepomniachtchi was the next victim, with his play, e.g. 27…e3, made to look very superficial by Carlsen’s precise responses. More than ever Garry Kasparov’s words seemed apt:
At the finale there was time to get in one very familiar tactic, just before Nepo managed to resign:
It was mate-in-3 with 34.Qxf7+!
With Wesley So already almost out of sight, Magnus came close to increasing the lead still further when he looked to be on the verge of winning another equal ending against Levon Aronian, but the Armenian managed to stabilise just in time. In fact, after losing the first two games of the day Levon didn’t lose another game.
A draw against Giri followed, and the title was already wrapped up with two rounds to spare. There was still time for one last flourish, though, against Baadur Jobava. The Georgian had shown his improved form by fighting back magnificently against Magnus’s sacrificial attack, but just when it looked as though the game would fizzle out the World Champion found one last way to turn the screw. His 42.h4 looks as innocent as Nigel Short’s 31.Kh2 did in a famous game against Jan Timman in 1991.
Back then, Nigel’s king continued one of the most famous king walks in chess history to assist in mating the black king, while in Leuven 42…b5? was already the losing move, since 43.h5! followed. After lifting his queen to play 43…Qe7 Jobava realised what was coming, but there was nothing he could do about it at that point even if he was allowed to pick up another piece. Magnus got to play 44.h6# - one of the nicest mates with a pawn you’ll see. Magnus was apologetic...
All that remained after that was what we’d all hoped would be the big showdown, So-Carlsen, but as it turned out by that stage a draw was fine for both players – in Grand Chess Tour terms it even suited Magnus that Wesley rather than MVL took 2nd place after his poor performance in Paris.
Wesley So’s lead slipped away when he failed to spot an unlikely chance in a bad position against Vishy Anand:
32…Nxh3+! was a move Vishy had dismissed as he thought his knights must be able to stop perpetual check after 33.gxh3 Qxh3, but as he waited for Wesley’s reply he realised they didn’t cover the right squares. He was contemplating whether to risk 33.Kf1, but in that case he would need to be careful not to end up worse. Instead Wesley went for 32…Qg6?, and after 33.Nxf4! exf4 34.Qb8! the game was gone.
Magnus had quipped the day before that he didn’t have, “the advantage of coming from behind,” after becoming the co-leader, but it seems such chases don’t motivate Wesley, who is more of a frontrunner. His focus switched to the task of holding on to second place, and of his remaining seven games no less than six of them were uneventful draws. The one exception was against his direct rival, Maxime Vachier-Lagrave, when the attempt to simplify a tricky position into a draw instead allowed Maxime to score a potentially crucial win.
In the end, though, it wasn’t enough for Maxime, and Wesley’s approach justified itself. He took the 10 Grand Chess Tour points and $25,000 for 2nd place.
Magnus had shown he was a speed chess player with more gears than Wesley, but that was already known, and So had the consolation of having won their mini-match, since the win in rapid chess counted double the loss in blitz. He’d increased his score from 20.5/36 in Leuven in 2016, when he finished 2.5 points behind Magnus, though of course the more immediate improvement was from Paris, where he finished on 15 points in 7th place. His tournament ended not with a bang, but a whimper, but it was an excellent recovery for the world no. 3.
This year’s innovation of having an extra day for the rapid section of the tournaments worked out to perfection, meaning that each day we had an intense four hours of action rather than the painfully long 6-7 hour sessions we had in 2016. The blitz was also subtly changed so that there was no lunch break, which again shortened the day and gave everyone – fans, players and production team – a fighting chance to recover.
One innovation was much less successful, though.
The decision to replace the increments used in the 2016 event with delays met with almost universal criticism and bemusement. Why suddenly decide to use a time control even the American players might only recall from their distant youth?
One suggestion was the delay was easier for viewers unfamiliar with chess to understand, but it’s unlikely the way the “Bronstein” delay worked in Paris and Leuven – players got the extra time added and the clock counted down, but if they moved before that additional time was over their clock returned to its starting time – was any easier for “lay people” to understand than it was for chess fans. And in any case, how difficult is it to explain that after each move x seconds are added?
Another is that the decision was to limit the amount of time games could last, though if that was the reason it might have been better to reduce the time given to the players instead, and in any case, a game can also go on for a very long time with the delay.
Perhaps the most likely reason was to try and create more time trouble, blunders and therefore “excitement” by forcing players to end up in perpetual time trouble, since when your clock drops low with the delay it can never climb back up again. If that was the plan, to some extent it worked, since we got some fun time scrambles (though we also did in 2016 as well):
On the other hand, isn’t part of the point of the long time controls adopted by the Grand Chess Tour (25 and 5 minutes rather than, for instance, 15 and 3) to ensure quality chess and justify the rapid and blitz events being worth as much as their classical counterparts? Alexander Grischuk, the world’s greatest fan of speed chess, summed up that the time control “very much gravitates to bad games”, and it seems after being burned once he adopted a more conservative approach than usual to try and avoid issues with the clock.
The unfamiliar delay may also have influenced the scoring in the tournaments. The players coming straight from Paris all finished in the Top 3 in Leuven – was that at least in part because they’d got used to the time control and had an advantage over the “newcomers”?
Back to chess, and who personifies the game better than Vassily! The Ukrainian defied expectations by not suffering too many clock issues, but the first four days were still a write-off. He scored 2 wins but 4 losses in the rapid, then 5 losses and only 4 draws on the first day of the blitz, going 12 games at one point without a win. Suddenly, though, something clicked on the last day and his 6.5/9 was the day’s second best result after Magnus’s:
It was all the more remarkable given how Vassily started:
Eccentricity or health issues? Whatever the reason, it added a little spice to the final day that it was an unknown quantity when Vassily would arrive and how far he’d find himself down on his clock. While Magnus delayed the start of his game, Wesley So gained over a minute’s advantage, though on the other hand, while Magnus set out to crush Vassily’s soul Wesley displayed no huge desire even to win the game
The final round of the day was amusing for Vassily. On Day 1 of the blitz he’d granted Baadur Jobava the Georgian’s only draw of the day. This time he also seems to have been ready to repeat moves:
But instead of repeating with 36.Rc7 Jobava went for the “winning attempt” 36.Rc6? only to get a cold shower instead when 36…bxc6 37.dxc6 Rc8 38.b7 was met by 38…Kd8! and Black gives up the rook for a trivially winning pawn ending.
Baadur Jobava was always going to struggle with a lack of experience playing such rapid and blitz events against elite opposition, but few could have predicted the disaster that would follow. He notched up two draws in the first four days, or 19 games. It says something that his big improvement on the last day was to score two draws, in one of which his piece sacrifice against Nepo was a successful bluff (or miscalculation), and then, finally, a single win over Vladimir Kramnik.
Vlad had been better and then it was a draw, until:
51…Kc5? (51…Kxd5!) 52.b6 and there was no stopping the b-pawn. Baadur told Maurice Ashley that the secret to his improved form was that, still waiting for champagne from the organisers for his first draw, he’d decided to hit the bars of Leuven the night before in search of “beautiful Belgique beer”. His mission was a success and he “slept like a baby”.
Alas, the day didn’t end with that win and Jobava went on to lose the last four games, often in amusing fashion. We’ve already seen what happened against Carlsen and Ivanchuk, while his loss to MVL from a much better position took some real creativity:
The poor rook is trapped, since 66.Rc8 runs into 66…Bd7+. Sometimes it’s just not your day… or week. On the other hand, it was yet another great escape for MVL!
For all the suffering Baadur and Vassily endured on the first four days it’s hard not to feel they added to the entertainment value of the event. Instead of last year’s fixed fields the expansion to three rapid and blitz events, of which the players need only play two, made it possible to add a little variety - though it’s worth pointing out that a wildcard named Magnus Carlsen did ok back then!
The wild cards were also by no means all punching bags this year. Shakhriyar Mamedyarov and Alexander Grischuk finished 4th and 5th in Paris, while Anish Giri took clear fourth in Leuven:
He would of course be right at home as a regular tour player, as would Vladimir Kramnik, who only turned down the offer to play the full series because he couldn’t commit to playing all the events. He ran out of steam somewhat on the final day, but still finished 5-6th.
Just a couple of moments from the day’s play to make Baadur feel better, if the $7,500 cheque, the same earned by Nepomniachtchi, Anand and Ivanchuk, hasn’t already done so. In a better position Nepomniachtchi played 26…Rb8?, setting Aronian’s spider senses tingling, as Yasser might put it:
27.g4! doesn’t trap the queen, but after 27...Qxh4 the 28.Qxe5+! fork does win a full rook! Nepo had a disappointing debut in the Grand Chess Tour after his arrival from Siberia, but he had an explanation:
The gift was returned to him by Vladimir Kramnik with 49…Be3??
50.Nf5+ was a fly in that ointment.
Well, only if his classical chess slump continues, since the current Grand Chess Tour standings make sobering reading for his rivals:
Maxime is currently in 2nd, but with all tournament results counting this year the 7-point gap will be hard to bridge in St. Louis and London, especially if normal service is restored and Magnus gets back to finishing 2nd even after bad tournaments (of course he might also win one, so Radio Jan doesn’t need to wonder if you stay World Champion without winning a classical event in a year!). Wesley So is still further back after his poor Paris performance.
The other players have only played one event so far and have the significant bonus that Magnus won’t play in the 3rd rapid and blitz event in St. Louis after the Sinquefield Cup! It’s perfectly realistic, therefore, that Hikaru Nakamura can score 13 points and reach 21, but the rest underperformed. It would be no surprise to see Fabiano Caruana or Vishy Anand win one of the two classical events to come, but their chances of finishing in the top two of the 2017 Grand Chess Tour look very slim.
Once again the folks in St. Louis, and roving reporter Maurice Ashley, put on a spectacular show. Yasser Seirawan was his silkily smooth self, Jovanka Houska is a natural and has built on her success in Gibraltar, while Christian Chirila did a fine job as an apprentice Maurice Ashley. Alejandro Ramierez and Ivette Garcia also commentated in Spanish, while Tatev Abrahamyan kept the buzz and info flowing with constant tweets and later reports.
Of course the man himself did a great job interviewing the players and star commentators, with the “smooth” Magnus interview only adding to the fun. Hatchets were buried, by the way:
At times, though, it was simply too much for a rapid and blitz tournament. We kept being taken somewhere else, there were two competing computer analysts and we missed the main thing – live video of the players. That absence was largely fixed by the final days of blitz in Leuven, where the wise decision was taken to focus on one game and keep almost constant video of the players. If chess is to be a TV sport – and that was the ambition of the production in Paris – then when available the focus surely has to be on video of the action, with the commentary team blending a little more into the background.
Magnus Carlsen played an awesome day of chess, but it seemed when the adrenaline had gone at the end of it he hit a wall after two weeks of chess. Hence we got one of the least joyful looking champions you’ll see at a closing ceremony, while the on-stage interview with Maurice Ashley was a series of thankfully short awkward moments:
But we could all share one sentiment!
Maurice: Are you looking forward to the Sinquefield Cup?
Magnus: I'm looking forward to a rest!
Of course there’s plenty more chess coming up, which you can check out in our 2017 Chess Calendar and watch on our Live Tournaments page – note the search option at the top there which lets you look for individual players as well as tournaments!