Reports Jun 13, 2016 | 10:51 AMby Colin McGourty

11 conclusions from the Paris Grand Chess Tour

Hikaru Nakamura won the Paris Grand Chess Tour after a spurt of three wins in four games gave him the title with two rounds to spare. Magnus Carlsen described his own performance as “a good old fashioned meltdown”, but he could at least claim the bragging rights of having beaten the winner in both blitz games. We take a look at some of the other highlights of the event, including Mr 50% finishing on 50% and Vladimir Kramnik showing what a meltdown really looks like.

Nakamura's rivals can only look on as Hikaru holds the Paris Grand Chess Tour trophy | photo: Lennart Ootes

You can replay every game from the Paris Grand Chess Tour, with computer analysis, using the selector below – note hovering over a player’s name will show you all his results, and you can also click through to a game from there:

And here’s Peter Svidler and Jan Gustafsson’s full commentary on the final round (we embedded the earlier rounds in our previous news reports – see our News page):

Now let’s draw some conclusions from a spectacular event:   

1. Nakamura’s speed chess reputation is deserved

Hikaru Nakamura first built his reputation on phenomenal internet blitz and bullet play, but since he became a fixture of the classical chess elite he hasn’t quite won the blitz or rapid titles you might have expected. In Paris, though, he played well from start to finish, losing no rapid games and only three blitz games in the whole event, two against Magnus Carlsen and one to Maxime Vachier-Lagrave. Our commentary team noted his play was by far the best on the final day even before he’d opened up a lead. He avoided blunders and showed fantastic tenacity and drive to save bad positions and win drawish ones. 

A good case in point is the diagram position - beating Anish Giri from there (with White) is something special, and was perhaps the crucial win of the day. The final standings slightly hide how impressive Nakamura’s performance was, since when he won the tournament with two rounds to go he was leading by a full 2.5 points.

Hikaru talked to Maurice Ashley after the final round loss to Carlsen:

On Twitter he was referencing fictional divinities:

2. Carlsen is human

Sometimes it's tough to be a World Champion... | photo: Lennart Ootes

Magnus Carlsen’s Paris Grand Chess Tour performance will perhaps be remembered above all for his singing about Dimitri Payet… but he was neck-and-neck with Nakamura for the whole event. In fact, when he won the first game of the final day, to Wesley So, it was his 6th win in 7 and brought him level with Hikaru. In hindsight, though, as our commentators pointed out, it wasn’t really a sign of good form but a somewhat fortuitous turnaround in a bad position. Wesley’s 28.Qd7? was to blame for his only loss of the day:

28…Qxd1+!! was the brilliant refutation, based on 29.Bxd1 Re1+ 30.Kg2 Bf1+ 31.Kf3 Ne5+!, forking the king and queen.

Immediately after that Carlsen was well-beaten by Caruana:

Since Nakamura lost as well, though, it was only a run of three losses in blitz rounds 13 to 16 that decided the title, since Nakamura won three games in the same period.

Magnus commented:

That was perhaps a bit harsh, since the wins for Aronian and Giri were both beautiful games.  

Magnus ended on a high, winning his mini-match against Nakamura 2.5:0.5 to leave him close enough to point to his first round loss on time in a won position, though Magnus was well aware his opponent’s overall victory was deserved. Carlsen’s outside chance of cheekily winning the Grand Chess Tour despite only playing in two events looks to have gone.

Magnus seemed to have got over his difficult day by the time of the closing ceremony | photo: Lennart Ootes

3. Fressinet is a good second

Laurent Fressinet was within a whisker of beating his boss | photo: Lennart Ootes

With the title out of his reach and second place long since sewn up, Magnus perhaps didn’t enter his penultimate game against his second Laurent Fressinet in the perfect frame of mine. He played what Jan Gustafsson described as “a troll opening” and got his just deserts… up to a point!

Simply 38.Bc8 and queening the a-pawn would have completed Magnus’ misery, but instead Fressinet traded rooks with 38.Rc8?, when the knight could stop the pawn. He even went on to lose… Another Carlsen second Jon Ludvig Hammer summed things up:

4. Giri is willing to work for his 50% reputation

Talking of trolling… the problem with trying to do so with Anish Giri is that he always gets there first himself!

Yes, with 36 points on offer Anish was the only player to reach the dream target of 18, and even managed to score 50% in the rapid and blitz taken separately. The only possible criticism you could make is that he scored seven wins and seven losses along the way…  

5. When Kramnik plays badly he plays very badly

After Day 3 we produced a selection of blunders, but on Day 4 you simply need to play through Vladimir Kramnik’s games. After one normal draw against Anish Giri he lost with the black pieces to his arch-rival Veselin Topalov and then, it seems, he went on tilt. 

Perhaps Kramnik spent too much time meeting old friends, since for many years he lived in Paris | photo: Lennart Ootes

Some of his blunders were simply mind-boggling, such as this one against Carlsen:

Can you spot White's cleverly concealed threat?  Vlad couldn't, and went for 31…c4???? 32.Nxd8, at least not affecting the title race, since he'd blundered to Nakamura in the previous round

The one bright spot came against Levon Aronian, where Kramnik drew a very tough position with some tenacious defence… except at one point he missed a trivial win! It all ended in fitting fashion, with a beautiful self-mate against Wesley So:

45…f5??! 46.Nc5! g4! (the exclamation mark is for not resigning – nothing saves Black here) 47.Ne6 mate.

6. No top player is simply “bad at blitz”

Two players in the field have a reputation for playing blitz massively below their normal chess potential – Fabiano Caruana and Veselin Topalov. In Paris, though, they went some way to rehabilitating themselves. Caruana scored nine wins in the blitz, including a sequence of four in a row and beating the World Champion. He climbed 78.8 points and 54 places on the live rating list to 2743.8.

Veselin Topalov also beat the World Champion as well as Vladimir Kramnik and only lost a single game on the last day to climb 49.2 points and 61 places to 2693.2.

7. Lennart Ootes is a great photographer

The Maison de la Chimie venue in Paris – and the Vivendi building used for the pre-tournament events – looked wonderful, but it still needed a top photographer to capture it all. For our reports we’ve been lucky enough to use photos by Lennart Ootes, who also handled the almost flawless upload of moves from the digital boards (in fact the one long break on the last day seems to have been due to a lack of disk space on a server on our side – those responsible have been taken outside and shot ).

Globetrotting renaissance man of chess, Lennart Ootes | photo: Fiona Steil-Antoni

Recognise any familiar profiles? | photo: Lennart Ootes

8. The chess world can learn a thing or two from the Grand Chess Tour

The Grand Chess Tour’s attitude has been a breath of fresh air to the chess world. The GCT welcomed the spread of the moves and video around the web, were happy to have four streams in three languages (and want more), encouraged social media and had sponsorship from a major media company capable of boosting the popularity of the game – Vivendi, who own the Dailymotion video platform and have annual revenue of over €10 billion. They also focused on the local audience, realising that despite the vast majority of chess fans watching on the internet it’s still essential for the look and atmosphere of an event to have local spectators. 

Almira Skipchenko and Yannick Pelletier were among the French commentary team at the venue in Paris, while the playing hall was packed with hundreds of fans | photo: Lennart Ootes

Here’s Grand Chess Tour organiser Malcolm Pein explaining their strategy:

9. MVL is a local hero

Back on the chessboard, the only other player in the event apart from the Top Two who impressed overall was local hero Maxime Vachier-Lagrave. The Frenchman lost fewer games than Carlsen, didn’t lose at all on the final day and was the only player other than Magnus to beat Nakamura. A few more wins rather than draws and he would have been right in contention for 2nd place at the end. In any case, his round of applause at the closing ceremony was richly deserved.

Maxime didn't let down his home fans, finishing on the podium | photo: Lennart Ootes

10. This format is tough

The kind of collapse suffered by as great a player as Vladimir Kramnik highlights just how tough the tournament in Paris was. The first day in particular, with five long rapid games spaced 1.5 hours apart, was hard on the players, commentators and chess fans, with none of the downtime you usually have during classical games, when all concerned can take a break from the action. The blitz was also a longer format than we’re used to seeing, with 3 minutes + 2 seconds a move much more common than 5+2. Some observers were scathing (check out Greg's blog post here):

On the other hand - the live numbers here at chess24 consistently show that the longer a game or event, the higher the number of simultaneous viewers (e.g. the 122-move draw in Game 7 of the 2014 Carlsen-Anand match hit levels only surpassed by the final game). Audiences build over time. There's also no perfect format. This one at least ensured that the element of randomness was reduced to a minimum, and if the time controls were accelerated that might accentuate another problem of blitz and rapid chess – the impossibility of genuinely following more than one game at a time. 

That problem of not knowing where to look | photo: Lennart Ootes

Vlad Tkachiev, perhaps the greatest advocate of speed chess, insists that there should only be one game on stage at any moment – as happened in the glory days of the PCA/Intel Rapid Grand Prix. Of course that means a knockout, which has its own issues.

11. The players have a lot to think about before Belgium

There’s only a short break before we do this all again! The second stage of the Grand Chess Tour takes place in Leuven, Belgium next weekend, from Friday 17th to Monday 20th. The format is exactly the same as in Paris, and this time our very own Jan Gustafsson and Anna Rudolf will be on scene to provide live coverage and interviews with the players.

For some, like Carlsen and Nakamura, there may only be a little fine-tuning to do, but others, like Wesley So and Levon Aronian, will be asking themselves what they can change to make more of an impact in the battle for first place. Everyone will be a little wiser and know what awaits them, though there will be one wild card… or rather, Grand Chess Tour regular Vishy Anand returns in Belgium and, as the world’s blitz and rapid king for much of his career, has the potential to upset the Parisian status quo.

Let us know your predictions in the comments!

See also:

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