Magnus Carlsen has retained his World Rapid Championship title after a thoroughly professional performance on the final day of the event. He eased to victory by a full point with two wins and three draws taking him to 11.5/15, while his rivals struggled to match that consistency. Ian Nepomniachtchi and Teimour Radjabov took silver and bronze on 10.5/15. Vladimir Kramnik was the only player other than Magnus to remain unbeaten, but a 16-move draw with the World Champion conceded the title in the penultimate round.
For the benefit of Norwegian television Magnus Carlsen played every game of the World Championship on Board 1, even before he’d earned that right by his play on the board. It became symbolic of his consistency – while shooting stars like Kovalenko, Kryvoruchko, Zhigalko or Ivanchuk briefly burned brightly in the chess firmament, Carlsen simply kept on grinding out half points and points. He explained afterwards that rapid chess is all about practical skills:
I think there were many games which could have gone either way for me, but I always had a little more time and a little bit more control of the position at critical junctures… I didn’t blunder much and I usually took the opportunities when they were there, and I usually had more time. My form was decent, but it was more a triumph of practical strength. You can see that players at the top like Ian [Nepomniachtchi], for instance, are very strong practical players and that’s no coincidence.
How tough such a “simple” approach is can be seen from the fate of some of the top names in Berlin, who failed to finish anywhere near the top of the standings:
Let’s take a brief look at how the players at the top fared in the final five rounds:
Sergei Zhigalko, live-rated 96th in the world, beat Ian Nepomniachtchi in Round 10 to find himself leading a tournament with world no. 1 Magnus Carlsen with only one day to go. The problem with such a dream situation, though, is that you then encounter the harsh reality – you have to play the most feared player in world chess.
The scenario that unfolded was familiar. For a long time Zhigalko was slightly to significantly better with the white pieces, but he fell behind on time and later missed a trick to allow Carlsen a powerful passed pawn that completely tied down the white army. Magnus was ruthless in converting his advantage, while Sergei would go on to lose one more and draw three of his final-day games, ending in 18th place.
There were big wins with Black for Leinier Dominguez over Shakhriyar Mamedyarov and Dmitry Bocharov over Boris Gelfand, with the significance of those results becoming clear later on: Dominguez ultimately finished fourth and Bocharov fifth.
The development that most delighted chess fans, though, was that despite his hands visibly shaking before each move Ivanchuk managed to find the only way to finish off his game against high-flyer Igor Kovalenko:
44…Re4! 45.Qc3 Rf4+! 46.Kg3 Qe1+ and it was mate in 2.
It wasn’t just that it was good to see fan favourite Ivanchuk win – it also meant he’d moved into clear second place half a point behind Magnus and would play the leader in the next round.
This was perhaps the key moment of the day. Vassily Ivanchuk had the black pieces and didn’t disappoint, playing the opening well and pressing hard for a win. When he allowed a queen exchange, though, he gradually ended up on the defending side of a rook ending, although it looked as though he would hold on for a draw.
It all turned on move 61, when Ivanchuk made the fateful decision to enter a pawn (and later queen) ending:
As you can see, the merciless machine with its tablebase truth immediately announces mate-in-90! To a human eye it was far from clear, though, and Jan Gustafsson and Peter Heine Nielsen in the commentary booth weren’t sure of the outcome until Ivanchuk offered his hand in resignation 14 moves later. How tough such endings are to play was evident in the fact that it appears for one moment (with 72.c5) Carlsen once again allowed a draw against perfect play.
Nielsen also quipped that it would be funny if Carlsen won a 2 vs. 2 pawn rook ending while Vladimir Kramnik failed to win an almost identical ending where he had two pawns to his opponent’s one. That’s just what happened, though! Kramnik had done everything right until move 50. Once again, the computer is announcing mate (this time in a mere 39 moves):
It seems Kramnik went wrong by cutting off the black king on the f-file with 50.Rf4, since it turns out it was more significant that Sergey Zhigalko could now cut off the white king with 50…Rg2. Or at least that sounds like a logical explanation, though nothing is straightforward in the realm of the tablebases! That missed chance was perhaps the story of Kramnik’s tournament and final day, since although he went unbeaten he ended with a sequence of five draws, missing out on the medal places.
Leinier Dominguez is a feared rapid player and had Carlsen under some pressure, but Magnus successfully went for a position where although a pawn down he might even have been better. A draw by repetition was reached in only 28 moves.
The draw Kramnik achieved against Ivanchuk was a little less convincing...
17.Nb6! won a pawn for Ivanchuk. If Kramnik had simply blundered that he put on a good poker face and played as if it was a deliberate attempt to win some time for a kingside attack. That never quite materialised, but there was enough counterplay for a draw.
Meanwhile Nepomniachtchi survived a tough position to all but mate Boris Savchenko, while Radjabov beat Bocharov.
For a brief, shining moment it looked like we might get an epic conclusion to this World Rapid Championship. Kramnik, one of Carlsen’s greatest historical rivals, was paired to play him in the penultimate round and could blow the competition wide open with a win. True, Vladimir had the black pieces, but he needed a win to boost his own chances of a medal or perhaps even overall victory. Alas, what followed was the Berlin Defence, the notoriously drawish 5.Re1 line and a handshake on move 16.
A subplot emerged after the game, with Magnus revealing he’d worked with Kramnik before the tournament:
First Aronian, now Kramnik – who’s next? Anand?
To dampen the chess spirits of the watching crowd still further Ivanchuk managed to lose on time in a position he had been – and perhaps was still – winning against Radjabov. It wasn’t that he was in desperate time trouble either. He took 1 minute and 38 seconds over his final move, simply forgetting about the clock.
Although the spoilsport Norwegian press and some busy calculators had announced that Magnus Carlsen would win on tiebreaks even if he lost and others won in the final round, we at least had pairings that promised some intrigue. Nepomniachtchi and Radjabov had White, while Carlsen was Black against one of the most feared wielders of the white pieces, Shakhriyar Mamedyarov.
The players didn’t disappoint, but after 54 moves Mamedyarov acknowledged defeat in his Carlsenesque attempt to exploit a slight but persistent advantage - making Carlsen the Champion with no need to resort to tiebreaks.
The draw fever spread to the top five boards, although
Vladimir Kramnik was left kicking himself once more.
37.Qe5!! (the g6-knight is pinned) would have left Dmitry Bocharov dead and buried, since after 37…exf5 38.Qe8+ Kg7 39.Qxd7 none of Black’s threats can alter the outcome of the game, with Qa4 always an option to keep an eye on the c2-pawn and the potential d1-queening square.
So after 1,183 games the final standings at the top looked as followed:
There’s no rest for the players, though, as the time control simply speeds up as the World Blitz Championship starts at the same time on Tuesday. Nepomniachtchi was asked who he expects to challenge:
I’ll try to do my best because last year I had some really good chances to become champion, but I got really tired in the end and maybe I only scored 1.5 out of the last three rounds. Meanwhile Magnus scored 3/3, so that was a big difference, but in general there are so many strong blitz players here besides us two – our French friend, Maxime, is always dangerous in blitz, Chucky is a really great player, so I really think that everything can happen. It depends really on the condition. If you sleep well, if you eat well and you’re in a good mood, you can win every game in blitz. That’s the way I think about it.
Magnus took those words to heart as he prepared with Peter Heine Nielsen
You can rewatch the whole day's action, including a press conference with Carlsen and Nepomniachtchi at the end, below:
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