Magnus Carlsen lost to Maxime Vachier-Lagrave for a second day in a row in Abidjan, but that couldn’t stop him winning the opening event of the 2019 Grand Chess Tour with two rounds to spare. Magnus went on to win those last two rounds to finish 3.5 points clear of the field and in the process spoil what looked sure to be sole second place for Hikaru Nakamura. MVL took advantage to tie for second and finish as the top scorer in blitz.
There were dark moments for the World Champion over the final two days of blitz, but when the dust had settled it was a familiar picture. Magnus had blown away the competition with the highest points total ever scored in a Grand Chess Tour rapid and blitz event:
He became the only player rated above 2900 at rapid chess (2903) and still managed to retain a 2900 rating and the top spot on the blitz live rating list, even if that one was very close!
Magnus summed up how it had gone:
I think definitely in the rapid my play was good. It wasn’t great, but definitely very, very good, and then I had a big lead. Then at some point I just was playing so badly that I had to look over my shoulder a bit, which was unpleasant, because frankly I thought that the blitz would just be about enjoying it and trying to win as many games as possible. Fortunately it was ok in the end.
It meant that Magnus had won all four major events he’s played in 2019, crushing the field in the last three of them. Not bad?
The year has been great so far, and if not scoring as well as I like in blitz is the biggest setback so far, that’s pretty good!
Watch that interview (and the rest of the day's English commentary):
We heard a lot about the 2017 Paris Grand Chess Tour, when Magnus had led by 2.5 points with 6 rounds of blitz to go only to suffer a 3-game losing streak and go into the final round of the day actually trailing MVL by half a point (he scored a point, made the playoff and won the event anyway!). It soon became clear, however, that lightning wasn’t going to strike twice. Although Nakamura won in the first round he’d started the day trailing by 3.5 points. MVL, who had been 2.5 points back, lost to Wesley So, leaving both players with a mountain to climb. Neither made a consistent charge, while Magnus would have a good day at the office:
His 6.5/9 was slightly below his usual “par for 2019”, but a big improvement on his 5/9 on the first day of blitz, and a score that was only matched by Hikaru, while Maxime scored one point less. Perhaps the moment the ultimate outcome became clear was the 14th round of blitz:
Topalov made a one move blunder against Hikaru with 54…d4?, allowing 55.Ra5+!, and if Black didn’t resign 55…Kd6 56.Rd5+ wins a piece. Wei Yi, who had been winning at one point if he’d played more forcing chess, also made a one move blunder with 44.Qe8??, allowing MVL mate-in-2 with 44…Qf1+. The universe was on the side of Carlsen’s pursuers, but it wasn’t enough, as he won a very convincing game against Sergey Karjakin.
All games would then be drawn in the next round, meaning a draw against Wesley So was enough for Magnus to seal victory in Round 16. It made no difference that Maxime and Hikaru won again.
Becoming the only player to win an official game against Magnus Carlsen in 2019 is impressive, but to do it twice in a row is another level entirely! Maxime managed, after a strange decision by the World Champion on move 34:
34…Ng4 and it would be White with issues to solve, but 34…Nd3!? 35.Kf1! left the knight struggling to find an exit strategy. Fabiano Caruana, who joined the commentary in St. Louis, said, “Nd3 was amazing!”, and a couple more dubious moves left Magnus hanging on to the knight at the cost of his pawns. Soon he was desperate enough to give up the knight to try and force stalemate with a desperado rook:
Alas, even if Maxime had taken the bait White was still winning, and in the game it was plain sailing for the Frenchman:
There was to be no French streak on the final day of blitz, however, with the win sandwiched between losses. Maxime commented:
It’s bitter-sweet, because today I felt like not much was working for a while. I beat Magnus, of course, I actually played a fine game against him, but a lot of games I was not happy with. I lost three games, I should have lost another one to Bassem. At least I’m glad I recovered with a sort of fine win [against Nepo in the last round]… Of course I had higher expectations after my first day of blitz. I’m not really looking at the results, I’m looking at my games, and, like I said, today I felt like I didn’t play a good day of chess.
There were consolations, though. Maxime had bragging rights not only as a World Champion slayer, but for having won the blitz section:
And the win in the last round ended up being worth $2,500 and an extra Grand Chess Tour point.
Those gains for Maxime came at Hikaru Nakamura’s expense. The US Champion had gone into the final round after scoring an unbeaten +7 in his last 14 games, and needed only a draw to seal sole 2nd place. He was facing Magnus Carlsen, which wasn’t ideal, but Magnus showed few signs of wanting to rock the boat as 1.d4 (not 1.e4? c5!, as Magnus had replied to every 1.e4 in the tournament) led to a Queen’s Gambit Declined so dull that the live commentary team switched to the less critical MVL-Nepomniachtchi. It just seemed a matter of time before hands were shaken, until move 25:
Here 25.Qc7!? was a move you couldn’t class as a blunder, but it ended up giving needless chances to Black. Things escalated with startling speed until Magnus had created connected passed pawns on the queenside and won in 45 moves.
The tournament probably shifted on two games. First of all, this last game, which was absolutely ridiculous. I traded queens in this endgame for literally no reason. I could have played 25.Be2, traded the bishops and then it’s impossible to ever lose, but I traded the queens and then it’s still probably a draw, but I kind of just fell asleep at the board and let it progress in an unpleasant way. It’s very costly to lose clear second, but considering the situation going into today it was pretty good, because yesterday was really, really bad for me. I played some moves that I should never play. This game against Bassem, for example, I played this g5 move, which just hung a pawn and the game. He didn’t even have to do anything after that. Yesterday was just bad, today was much better, but of course just falling asleep at the wheel in this last round was really unfortunate. But a tie for second is still fairly decent.
Bassem Amin was Nakamura’s nemesis, since Hikaru scored 0.5/4 against the Egyptian while MVL picked up all 4 points and Magnus 3.5, but it’s hard to argue with Hikaru’s assessment of his tournament. Despite the sucker punch in the final round he did well in both rapid (+3, or +6 if you include double points for rapid) and blitz (+4) and only suffered the usual problem modern chess players have of living in the same era as Magnus.
Fabiano Caruana had commented during the day:
I have a feeling that Hikaru will somehow grab second place. He’s always very consistent. I’ve never seen him have a bad blitz or rapid event. He doesn’t always win them, but he always has a very high, very consistent level. But then again, it’s very close between him and Maxime, so anything can happen!
Anything did happen, but the assessment stands.
The Grand Chess Tour had swung towards rapid and blitz in previous years, but the belief that speed chess is the future has always run into practical issues. The main one is that even a top grandmaster can’t really follow multiple fast games at the same time, never mind the average chess fan. Take, for instance, the first round of the last day, which also happened to be the only round in which all the games were decisive:
It was jam-packed full of talking points. For instance, Sergey Karjakin pulled off what you would think is the impossible by scoring an 18-move miniature win in the 5.Re1 Berlin! Admittedly he did it with an exchange sac on move 10, and one you might want to try in your own blitz games:
Magnus Carlsen’s win over Bassem Amin had the feel of a miniature, but for a moment it looked as though the World Champion was in shaky form again:
He took an almost 2-minute think here before letting his edge slip with 27.Nf1?!, while 27.hxg6+! fxg6 28.Nf5!! would have taken full advantage of the c2-bishop targeting the king on h7 and the e1-rook lining up against the queen on e7. There was no need to criticise Magnus, however, since a few moves later he did pounce after 30…Rxa4?:
The key here was seeing a potential king and rook fork from c2! 31.hxg6+ fxg6 32.e5! Ndxe5 33.Bxg6+! Nxg6 (33...Kxg6 34.Qc2+!) 34.Rxe7 Nxe7 35.Qc2+! followed, and Bassem resigned a few moves later.
Meanwhile So relatively smoothly outplayed MVL, and it seemed Nepomniachtchi did the same against Ding Liren after the Chinese player misplayed a good position. Even there, though, you could find moments when Black could have saved himself:
49…Bb6! was the last, and there would be no choice but for Nepo to go for 50.Qxb6 Qxe1+ and Black should draw. Instead Ding gave a check on h2 and went on to lose.
That was nothing compared to Wei Yi–Nakamura, however, where Hikaru not only gave his opponent chances to draw but a gilt-edged chance to win:
63.Qh8+! here and the computer announces mate-in-14, but Black would be forced to give up material to stop the mating threats of the white queen and bishop long before that. Instead after 63.Bf3? Qe7! there was no longer mate and Black went on to win a thriller, though again not without giving Wei Yi chances to survive:
In short, there was just too much drama to even hope to grasp while it was happening, though you could argue that without the blitz format we wouldn’t have had so much to talk about in the first place. To really work as a spectator sport the maximum number of blitz games that should be live at any moment is probably “one”, but in any case, this year the Tour is putting more emphasis on classical chess. The next event will be an 11-round classical tournament in Croatia, while we still have the Sinquefield Cup to look forward to later in the year.
There’s some overlap between chess and geopolitical superpowers, but while you could say the USA did well (although Wesley So kept a low profile, with 2 wins in 18 blitz games, he still finished in 4th place), China and Russia had less to celebrate. Wei Yi was the highest finisher among the wild cards, but yet again failed to make a convincing case for a regular seat at the top table. Ding Liren finished 5th, but as the world no. 3 we’re hoping to see more from him. On the final day he didn’t win a game until a surprisingly smooth victory over Sergey Karjakin in the final round.
It’s the Russians who really disappointed, however, with their tournament chances ruined by their rapid performances. Karjakin scored a winless -3 (it took him 12 rounds to win a game), while Nepomniachtchi, the Russian no. 1, world no. 7 and a player known for his speed chess, scored -5, after losing all three games on the final day. Some of those game e.g. against Magnus, were beautiful, but there seemed to be a problem with motivation or focus. When the two Russians began to perform at closer to their normal level in the blitz it was already too late. Perhaps at least they've warmed up for the upcoming Grand Prix!
Egypt’s Bassem Amin ultimately finished in sole last place on 10.5/36, but at no point on his supertournament debut did he crack. He continued to play enterprising chess and was ready to punish players who underestimated him. He memorably won his mini-match against Nakamura, picked up the scalp of Ding Liren on the final day and had a number of near misses. Let's hope he can keep his rating above 2700 and we get to see him in some more top events.
Former World Champion Veselin Topalov is semi-retired, but remains a favourite of the Saint Louis organisers. In the last few years he’s played in most of the rapid and blitz invitational tournaments, despite always having considered speed chess the weakest part of his game. In Abidjan he failed to win a rapid game, won only two blitz games and at one point lost six games in seven. You might question if a younger and hungrier player shouldn’t have played in his place.
On the other hand, many of those players will get their chance as wild cards in future events, and Veselin did at least provide spectacular chess in some of those defeats. We’ve already seen the 18-move loss to Karjakin, while the loss to Carlsen on the final day was also memorable. Topalov had already somewhat misplayed a good position by this point, but there was no need for 26.Ne6?:
Magnus unleashed 26…Bxg3! 27.hxg3 Rxf5! 28.Qxf5 Rxg3+ and it suddenly seemed to dawn on Topalov that 29.Kf2 runs into 29…Qe3#, so he belatedly (or prematurely) resigned.
Topalov blundering mate when he had like 4 minutes on the clock was kind of unnecessary, but again it wasn’t an easy position. I never got the feeling that he would convert his extra pawn easily.
There was a late scheduling change to the rapid days, and Nakamura hinted at some organisational issues, but overall the first Grand Chess Tour event in Africa seemed to run like clockwork. Magnus Carlsen was asked for a message for his hosts:
Just keep up the good work, guys. I saw so much enthusiasm for chess here from local people, from the Côte d’Ivoire and also from neighbouring countries, so I’m very impressed by the love of chess that you have here and the programs for chess in Côte d’Ivoire. It’s definitely got a bright future.
The global expansion of the series will continue later this year with a rapid event in Kolkata, India, while the classical tournament in Zagreb, Croatia is also a new beginning. That starts on June 26th, but there’s going to be a lot of top chess before that. The first FIDE Grand Prix knockout is coming up from Friday, with Nakamura, Nepomniachtchi, Karjakin, So and Wei Yi all having only a few days to make it from Abidjan to Moscow. They’ll be joined by the likes of Giri, Mamedyarov, Grischuk and Aronian.
Even sooner, though, there’s more rapid and blitz action, this time in China:
We’ll be covering it all here on chess24!
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