Reports Jul 8, 2019 | 10:08 AMby Colin McGourty

Carlsen conquers Croatia: 7 conclusions

Magnus Carlsen’s simply “insane” (Giri) year continued as he beat Maxime Vachier-Lagrave in the final round to win the 2019 Croatia Grand Chess Tour by a full point. That made it 8 tournament victories in a row, 79 classical games unbeaten and will symbolically return Magnus to his record 2882 FIDE rating on the August list. Wesley So’s unbeaten +3 gave him a deserved 2nd place both in Croatia and in the tour as a whole, as Hikaru Nakamura and Maxime Vachier-Lagrave spoiled their excellent starts in Abidjan.

Carlsen receives his trophy for winning the Croatia Grand Chess Tour | photo: Lennart Ootes, Grand Chess Tour

1. Carlsen is stronger than ever

Magnus Carlsen’s 9.7 points gained in Zagreb took him to 2881.7 on the live rating list, a number that will be rounded up to 2882 on August 1st to match the peak rating the World Champion set on the May 2014 list. If anything, though, this new version of Magnus Carlsen is even more dangerous than before:


In Zagreb only the latter stages of the win over Ding Liren or the spoiled masterpiece against Vishy Anand were about the astounding technique that Magnus used to climb to the top of the chess world, while the wins over Giri and Nepomniachtchi featured brave opening choices with Black and ruthless attacks when the chance arose. Hikaru Nakamura was beaten in the kind of slugfest where the US player might previously have been considered almost a favourite, while the final game against Maxime Vachier-Lagrave was an incredibly smooth demolition of arguably the world's best Grünfeld player:

2-time French Champion Laurent Fressinet shows us the game:

The feeling was that if anything Magnus could have scored more, though after missing the win against Vishy he had three games in a row against Caruana, Mamedyarov and Karjakin where at some stage he was significantly worse. As he told Maurice:

In this tournament I had a bit of a rough patch, if I may call it that, in the first half, but it seems to be the trend in almost every tournament right now that I fight really hard in the first half and I’m really tired before the free day, then when I get that free day and that rest I usually pick it up in the second half. I’ve never scored anything like +5 against such a field before, so yeah, it’s going well!

Click any game in the table below to open it with computer analysis, or hover over a player's name to see all his results:

It’s been “going well” for a while now…

Watch the interview with Magnus (and the rest of the final day’s live show):

Anish Giri commented that, “the form he’s in right now is insane, and I think that is very hard to maintain for too long”, but the Dutch star noted a few theoretical wins had convinced Magnus of the benefits of opening preparation and, “he’s simply become one of the best prepared players in the world”.

Levon Aronian also thought that was a crucial factor in Carlsen’s recent success:

He started going into the main lines, which he was usually not doing in previous years, but he trained pretty well for his match with Fabiano, so now he does something that is unusual for him – he plays very critical opening lines from the start… He plays “central” chess and it works well for him. For example today, this was a very direct and very good game. It’s good to see that he’s working on himself. I think it’s a good example to follow!

Caruana joined in the praise:

His tournament here was extraordinary, but his play throughout the year has been really excellent, and he’s winning games with remarkable ease, which normally these things don’t happen, like today, he ends the game with an hour on the clock. I think that things are just all falling together for him, at every stage of the game.

Magnus, who isn’t playing the FIDE Grand Prix or in the Paris Grand Chess Tour, will next be in action in Saint Louis in just over a month’s time, when he plays first the Rapid and Blitz and will then try to set a new classical rating record against the same 11 players as in Croatia in the Sinquefield Cup.

Here he is receiving the trophy:

In case you thought that trophy looks kind of familiar, you're not alone!

 2. Wesley So is back

Wesley So's toughest challenge may have been withstanding Levon Aronian's shirt in the final round | photo: Lennart Ootes, Grand Chess Tour

Wesley So had found himself somewhat in the wilderness since the heavy blow of losing 3 of his first 7 games in last year’s Berlin Candidates. Although he retained his solidity – most events were spoiled only by a single loss – he’d dropped to world no. 14 on the June FIDE rating list and you could easily wonder if he was ever going to return to the form that saw him arguably the world’s best player for parts of 2016-17. The signs were good in Norway Chess, where he scored an unbeaten +1 in classical chess, while in Zagreb we finally saw a return to the “unbeaten +3” that was his trademark at that time. The score was richly rewarded both financially and in Grand Chess Tour points…


Note that Aronian, Caruana, Giri, Mamedyarov and Anand didn't play in Abidjan

…while it also catapulted him back into the world’s Top 5 on the live rating list:


He was lucky to survive after blundering against Sergey Karjakin, while Ian Nepomniachtchi allowed a perpetual in a winning position, but otherwise it was an impressive display, featuring wins with White against Ding Liren, Mamedyarov and Nakamura. Caruana led the praise:

He did great. He played well throughout and he was very consistent. The games that he won were excellent quality. Against Mamedyarov was an excellent game, also the game he won against Hikaru, besides some minor slip in the endgame seemed like an excellent game as well, so he played very well throughout, and maybe with a bit more luck could have fought for first.

It seemed only at that point Fabiano remembered who had finished first and checked himself, with Wesley commenting:

Obviously the way Magnus is playing in recent months we don’t want to break his streak of winning all tournaments this year, so we just let him win it! But it feels like second place is already a victory whenever he’s playing right now, because it’s like Bobby Fischer, back in the 70s or 60s - when he was playing the US Championship and others are just playing for 2nd place.

Wesley’s decision not to push in the penultimate round made perfect sporting sense, but let’s hope if he can maintain this form for a while he’ll start to think about really challenging Magnus as well.

3. Aronian, Caruana (and Karjakin) looked good

Levon Aronian and Fabiano Caruana shared third place a further point back, and both gave glimpses of why they're considerd among Carlsen’s main rivals. Levon didn’t get to sit on the chess Iron Throne…

…but he was the only player other than Magnus and Wesley to finish unbeaten: “When you don’t lose any games it’s generally a good time!” It’s still hard to believe he failed to beat Mamedyarov, while his draw against Carlsen was one of the games of the event. 

Fabiano Caruana perhaps recalled during the final round that Benoni means "son of sorrow" | photo: Lennart Ootes, Grand Chess Tour

Caruana also gave the World Champion a run for his money, and picked up wins over Nakamura and MVL, but his event was spoilt by losing a winning position against Nepomniachtchi. Fabi commented, “I really was trying hard in each game, and it’s just that my form was off from the start”. The desire to win was obvious when he played the Benoni against Sergey Karjakin in the final round:

I don’t know how to explain this game. I played the Benoni, so I guess that pretty much explains everything that happened afterwards! It’s just such a bad opening, but I was tired of my bad games and I wanted to get some kind of fight…

The missed chances in that game were a familiar story for Sergey Karjakin in Zagreb:

If I would have played better in the good positions I would certainly score much more, because I was almost winning today, much better against Magnus and winning in one move against Wesley. At least one game I had to win out of this three. I’m not happy, but it’s good that I outplay these guys sometimes, so if I work on my technique I should score more.

Technique traditionally hasn’t been Sergey’s problem, and we included him here since despite scoring -1 (10 draws and 1 loss, after being out-prepared by Aronian) he showed that a 2748 rating and no. 17 in the world is a poor reflection of his true potential. Don’t bet against an upswing in results now that Candidates Tournament qualification is again at stake!

Sergey jokes with Anand, Giri and Chuchelov at the closing ceremony | photo: Lennart Ootes, Grand Chess Tour

4. Not all 50% scores are created equal

It wasn't only his hair choices that Nepo would live to regret | photo: Lennart Ootes, Grand Chess Tour

Three players finished on 50%, but they got there in very different ways. Ian Nepomniachtchi rode his luck and took his chances to start with 3/3 against Anand, Caruana and Mamedyarov despite having been lost in two of those games, but ultimately the universe, in the form of Ding Liren and Carlsen, took revenge. Then Anish Giri delivered the fatal blow in the final game, when Anish and his helper had seen the folly of a line of play that only looks good for Black at a relatively low depth of analysis:

Jan Gustafsson looks at where it all went wrong for Nepo:

Anish Giri has had a topsy-turvy year – an excellent Wijk aan Zee, a terrible Shamkir, an excellent Shenzhen, a terrible (but quick) Moscow Grand Prix, and now… “I had two entirely different tournaments in one!” The first began horribly with a car-crash game against Magnus Carlsen, and was compounded by a loss to Ding Liren in Round 5, but the tournament was long enough to mount a recovery. A fine win over Shakhriyar Mamedyarov and the win we’ve seen above meant we could joke again about Anish and 50% - everyone was happy!

Ding Liren - no rest for the wickedly talented | photo: Lennart Ootes, Grand Chess Tour

Ding Liren, meanwhile, beat both of his fellow 50% players in Rounds 5 and 6, but lost in Round 1 to Wesley So and in Round 8 to Magnus, as well as almost losing to Mamedyarov in the final round:

I played well in the middle of the tournament but I didn’t do well at the start and the end of the tournament. My level of play dropped a lot in the last games. I got so tired, since I have been in Europe for more than one month and I’ve played 4 tournaments in a row.

Ding played Abidjan, Norway Chess and a match vs. Navara before Croatia, and when Maurice asked if he’d now be taking a break he commented, “about a week”, since he’s playing a match against Dmitry Andreikin in Wenzhou, China!

5. Give the players a break!

That brings us to one topic that recurred again and again in Zagreb – fatigue. Ding isn’t alone in having a tough schedule. Sergey Karjakin, who along with Nakamura, So, Giri, Mamedyarov, Aronian and MVL will play in the Riga FIDE Grand Prix from Friday, commented, “I think that this year a top chess player doesn’t rest at all.”

The players need some quiet time... | photo: Lennart Ootes, Grand Chess Tour

Of course lots of tournaments are good for chess fans and the bank balances of the players, but there was one area where the Grand Chess Tour could, and probably should, have done better. Having an expanded and even stronger than usual 11-round classical event, but still keeping just one rest day, was asking for trouble. When that was compounded by difficult weather conditions and a lack of air-conditioning in the venue the tournament became a test of endurance and not just chess.

The current plan for the Sinquefield Cup is to play 5 rounds and then after the rest day potentially play chess for the next 7 days in a row | source: Grand Chess Tour

If the organisers can add one more rest day (and if the schedule is otherwise too tight they could make use of the day set aside for playoffs) it would be better for all concerned, including commentators and chess writers 

6. The Berlin is also back

In a tournament of comebacks one of the most notable was for the Berlin Defence, arguably the bane of top-level chess for over 15 years after Vladimir Kramnik unleashed it on an unsuspecting Garry Kasparov in the 2000 World Championship match. In the last couple of years, however, the Petroff had taken over as the rock-solid defence against 1.e4, with Fabiano Caruana even making it look like the holy grail of a solid defence that retained great counterattacking chances. The stats in Zagreb?

  • Petroffs: 0
  • Berlins: 9

Only the Queen’s Gambit Declined was played more often, with the Berlin played by Aronian, Karjakin, So and Nakamura…

We blame Laurent:

But the games Aronian 1-0 Karjakin and So 1-0 Nakamura give us some hope that this might not be the start of a full-blown revival! 

7. For some to win others must lose

No-one suffered a truly horrific tournament in Zagreb (ratings losses were limited to 10 points), but the remaining four players will all want to move swiftly on. Maxime Vachier-Lagrave’s second painful last-round loss to Magnus this year left him on a winless -2, where he was joined by Vishy Anand. Hikaru Nakamura, the winner of the 2018 Grand Chess Tour despite scoring a winless -2 in classical games, did nothing to salvage his reputation in classical chess as he finished rock bottom on a winless -3.

Neither Nakamura nor Anand showed their best in Zagreb | photo: Lennart Ootes, Grand Chess Tour

Shakhriyar Mamedyarov, meanwhile, hit rock bottom early, with some terrible openings leaving him arguably lucky to be on only -3 after 8 rounds. Like Giri, however, he staged a recovery, beating Anand and coming close to beating Ding Liren in the final round. It’s early to judge, but it looks as though his game might be getting back to normal.

A final group photo from Zagreb, where everything went Carlsen's way | photo: Lennart Ootes, Grand Chess Tour

So that’s all for the inaugural Croatia Grand Chess Tour. We hope you’ve enjoyed our coverage and will stick around for upcoming events. As well as the next FIDE Grand Prix kicking off on Friday we have Dortmund from Saturday (Nepomniachtchi, Dominguez, Rajdabov, Wojtaszek, Rapport…) as the chess action comes in relentless waves! Watch it all here on chess24 – and you can also check out our 2019 Chess Calendar for more details. 

See also:


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