Reports Dec 18, 2018 | 6:12 PMby Colin McGourty

7 conclusions from the 2018 Grand Chess Tour

Hikaru Nakamura beat Maxime Vachier-Lagrave in the final blitz game of the 2018 Grand Chess Tour to win the trophy and the $120,000 first prize. 3rd place, and the last guaranteed spot in the 2019 Grand Chess Tour, went to Fabiano Caruana, who managed to end his London ordeal on a high. One of the talking points is that not only did the Grand Chess Tour final feature no classical wins, but Hikaru triumphed despite a winless -3 score in classical chess for the tour. Gawain Jones showed you can win slow games, however, as he dominated the British Knockout Championship.

Hikaru Nakamura won the Grand Chess Tour for the first time | photo: Lennart Ootes, Grand Chess Tour

You can replay all the games from the London Chess Classic Grand Chess Tour finals using the selector below:

And here’s the main live commentary on the day’s action:

We also had Magnus Carlsen and his team commentating during the 2nd game of the day (check out some highlights here):

Now let’s get to the conclusions     

1. Hikaru Nakamura was a deserved winner

Hikaru Nakamura pulled off one of the greatest achievements of his career when he broke Maxime Vachier-Lagrave’s resistance in the last blitz game. After getting chased around the board the black queen finally had to admit the game was up:

That crowned a brilliant season of rapid and blitz chess for Nakamura, who had won in Paris and St. Louis and finished in 4th, just one point off the pace, in Leuven. He finished the regular part of the tour as the top points scorer and went on to lose only a single game, in blitz against Caruana, in London:

Maxime Vachier-Lagrave had taken over the blitz no. 1 spot from Magnus Carlsen in the semi-final, but lamented that against Hikaru, “in the blitz I was definitely not playing up to my standards”.  Maxime had no complaints about the result, though, praising his opponent’s rapid skills: “it’s his speciality and where he plays his best chess”.

2. It wasn’t the finest hour for classical chess

Classical chess is even more in need of a break than Fabiano after events in London this winter! 12 draws in the World Championship match were followed by 8 draws in the Grand Chess Tour playoff, with both events featuring some games that caused questions to be raised: notably Magnus offering a draw in a very playable position to take Caruana to rapid chess, a ploy repeated by Levon Aronian, who claimed it was simple rating mathematics.

The deadlock in classical chess meant it all came down to rapid and blitz - the players had different ways of preparing... | photo: Lennart Ootes, Grand Chess Tour

The emphasis of the tour had already switched away from classical chess, with the days of three classical tournaments - Norway Chess, the Sinquefield Cup and the London Chess Classic - long gone. By 2018 only the Sinquefield Cup remained as a full-length classical event, and the Tour finalists didn’t cover themselves in glory there – Maxime drew all 9 games, which was sufficient for qualification for the finals in London. Hikaru also got a “sufficient” result, losing 3 games, winning none and tying for last place with Sergey Karjakin. Ironically his final round loss to Carlsen reduced the points earned by Aronian and meant he went into London as the top seed instead of Levon!

By Monday it was clear that we would have a tour winner who hadn’t won a classical game on the tour in 2018, and in Nakamura we had a player who ended the year ranked only 16th in classical chess and who found himself under serious pressure in 3 of his 4 classical games in London (once against Caruana, and in both games against MVL). In the end, though, it didn’t matter – resilience and speed chess skills decided the title.

For a second year in a row Maxime Vachier-Lagrave had to settle for 2nd place 

3. Gawain Jones was a beacon of hope

Despite the impression we may have got at times in London this winter, though, it’s not impossible to win a classical game of chess! Gawain Jones proved as much as he won with White against Alan Merry, then David Howell, then Luke McShane in the final. The 6 points for a classical win in the latter two matches gave Gawain a big edge, and in the final he more or less sealed the deal in the first rapid game, where he successfully repelled a sacrificial attack to take a 10-point lead. The 2nd rapid game was therefore must-win for Luke, but instead he lost again to leave the remaining 4 blitz games a formality. Gawain was taking home the £15,000 top prize.

Luke McShane was blown away by a 3-game winning streak from Gawain | photo: Lennart Ootes, London Chess Classic

The other match was all draws until Mickey Adams accelerated away from David Howell to win the first two blitz games. Mickey therefore only needed to draw the 3rd to seal 3rd place, which he did, even if it took 115 moves!

4. Fabiano Caruana isn’t doomed always to lose playoffs

After getting crushed in rapid by Magnus Carlsen in the World Championship match, then by Hikaru Nakamura in the Grand Chess Tour semi-final, the last thing Fabiano needed were Aronian’s comments after a quick draw in the final classical game:

I’m usually not the guy to go for a short draw with White, but since it’s a match I thought to be practical. After all, I have a much higher rating in rapid and blitz than Fabiano. Mathematically it should be not a bad decision.  

Jan asked Magnus if Fabiano would be annoyed if he lost again, or if he doesn’t care about anything but classical chess:

I think losing should bother him. I’m sure it does bother him, to some degree. If he loses again today that would be more or less two weeks of non-stop getting crushed in rapid and blitz and not winning any classical games. That must be pretty sad, but I’m sure he’ll get over it, and he’s not necessarily going to lose today.

In the end Levon’s calculations were the ones that proved mistaken, but it was a very close-run thing. Fabiano did well in rapid, winning the second game, but then he went on to lose the first two blitz games, in both of which he had some chances to hold even late on in the games.

He described himself as “pretty demoralised”, but it all turned on the next game. Fabiano commented, “Luckily I played a sharp line in the 3rd game and I was better the whole game”, though it was probably more accurate to say, as Levon did, “I had an advantage out of the opening and then I just played some very bad moves”.

Fabiano ended his stay in London with a win | photo: Lennart Ootes, Grand Chess Tour

In the last game Levon had to win with Black to force a playoff, but it proved a mission impossible as Fabiano won again to finally win a match in speed chess. It was a small consolation for the World Championship defeat, but at least the world no. 2 had ended the year on a high: “I’m not too proud of 3rd place, but I beat a very strong player”.

Aronian’s year was dominated by his collapse in the Berlin Candidates, and he summed things up:

5. Players are no longer afraid to "burn" prep in rapid and blitz

Perhaps the most interesting conclusion on the final day was that the players are now taking rapid and blitz very seriously, and are willing to demonstrate their best opening preparation. In the first rapid game between Aronian and Caruana we even got a glimpse of the bullet Magnus had dodged in Game 2 of the World Championship match:

Hit by Fabiano’s rare move Magnus had a very human first reaction...

He then took a 17-minute think before deciding not to play the obvious 11.Nd2 – a move recommended by Stockfish, AlphaZero and indeed simply the main line in human games. The World Champion didn’t want to go there against a fully-armed opponent, and opted for the meek 11.Be2, when it was later White who had to show precision to make a draw.

Levon, meanwhile, had done his homework and went for it, with both players blitzing their way past the piece sacrifice 11…d4 12.Nb3 Qb6 13.Na4 Bb4+ 14.axb4 Qxb4+ 15.Nd2 and not pausing when 21…b5! appeared on the board:

It was time for White to give back the piece, since 22.cxb5? Be6! would be serious trouble. Spectacular stuff, but with both players prepared for the line it still ended in the seemingly inevitable draw. 

The theoretical discussion continued in the second rapid game, where Levon perhaps played the move he’d meant to play in an Anti-Berlin in the first classical game (10…Bf5 11.Ba3 e4 instead of 10…a5 11.b5 e4), though he ended up in a bad position and, not without some adventures, eventually lost. 

The most notable theoretical discussion, however, came between Maxime Vachier-Lagrave and Hikaru Nakamura. Jan mentioned that Etienne Bacrot had rushed back from the Bundesliga weekend to help Maxime as a second in London (his French teammate Fressinet quipped, “I think for the celebration party tonight!”), but in the end it seems Kris Littlejohn’s presence proved more important for Hikaru.

Team Hikaru and Kris worked to perfection | photo: Lennart Ootes, Grand Chess Tour

In the 2nd rapid game Hikaru followed an English Opening setup in fact last played by Fressinet against Nepomniachtchi in the 2015 World Cup, until 11…cxd4 12.cxd4 Re8 were new moves:

Hikaru played 13.Ne5 and after 13…Qa5 14.Qb3 he impressed Magnus with how he handled the position, though he couldn’t quite pull off a victory. Maxime is nothing if not stubborn, though, and repeated the line in the second blitz game as well. This time Hikaru varied with 14.Nxc6, but got nothing. Then, in the crucial final blitz game, it was third time lucky, as Hikaru went for 13.Rc1 – Maxime again brought out his queen with 13…Qa5, but with no knight to target on e5 it turned out the queen was simply a target itself. After 14.Qb3 Nd7 15.Bb4! the queen hunt was underway, and we’ve already seen how that ended.

Maxime's queen has nowhere to hide | photo: Lennart Ootes, Grand Chess Tour

Hikaru confirmed afterwards, “In the last game I found this little idea before the game and it went a lot more smoothly than I thought”.   

6. The new format was a success, but could be tweaked

So how did the 2018 Grand Chess Tour finale go overall? Well, it was fun, and in principle having only players who could win the event present was a positive, though perhaps we missed the bigger field we’re used to seeing in the London Chess Classic. Or perhaps it’s more the absence of Magnus, with the World Champion always making a difference to an event.

The familiar London Chess Classic stage, but with big changes this year | photo: Lennart Ootes, Grand Chess Tour

You could suggest various improvements: for instance, why not use a faster classical time control, like the FIDE standard 90 minutes for 40 moves, then 30 minutes to the end of the game? Why not give some love to the British Knockout Championship, which was played in the same venues, with exactly the same format, but was almost ignored in the live commentary? Would a standard sudden-death knockout system be more exciting than the clever but convoluted points system that seemed designed to ensure a match would go to rapid and blitz even if a player won both classical games? Is there any point in matches continuing even after the winner is decided?

Feel free to add any thoughts of your own in the comments below!

7. The 2019 Grand Chess Tour is expanding

2019, meanwhile, is looking like a good year for the Grand Chess Tour. Michael Khodarkovsky announced during the live show that the series is growing, with a new classical event in Croatia and two new rapid and blitz events in Asia and Africa - specifically India and Cote d’Ivoire.

Those will replace the St. Louis Rapid and Blitz, so players won’t get the feeling that with that and the Sinquefield Cup they’re living in St. Louis for a month of the year! The total prize fund will increase to $1.5 million, the number of players on full contract will grow from 9 to 10 (if additional events aren’t added) and the organisers will no doubt be hoping to get Magnus back now that he’s retained the World Championship title.

So 2019 is already looking like being an exciting year, though before that we have the World Rapid and Blitz in St. Petersburg. Carlsen is again the world no. 1 in classical, rapid and blitz chess, but can he regain the “triple crown”? You’ll be able to watch live here on chess24 on December 26-30: Rapid Open, Rapid Women, Blitz Open, Blitz Women  

First, though, on Friday we have a Banter Blitz debut for 2-time French Chess Champion Laurent Fressinet. Challenge him from 18:00 CET!

See also:

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