Magnus Carlsen beat Levon Aronian and Shakhriyar Mamedyarov as he ended a decade of domination of world chess by winning the World Rapid Championship for the 3rd time. Hikaru Nakamura settled for a draw in the final game to take bronze, while 16-year-old Alireza Firouzja may yet make the 2020s all about him after he took silver. Humpy Koneru claimed gold in the Women’s World Rapid Championship after winning a playoff against Lei Tingjie in Armageddon.
You can replay all the World Rapid Championship games using the selector below:
And here’s the live commentary on the final day of rapid chess in Moscow:
Let’s take a look at some conclusions from the 2019 World Rapid Championships!
19-year-old Magnus Carlsen took over from Veselin Topalov as the world no. 1 on the official FIDE rating list for the first time in January 2010:
It would take three more years until he won the classical World Championship title, but Magnus has dominated the chess world for the full decade. Now, as the 2010s draw to a close, he’s showing absolutely no signs of slowing down. For at least a couple of days he has the “triple crown” as the holder of the classical, rapid and blitz titles after winning the World Rapid Championship with an unbeaten +8:
It could have been more, after Maxime Vachier-Lagrave was allowed to escape in the first round of the final day, though Magnus could have no complaints after the way the second game finished. Levon Aronian is one of those players who aren’t afraid to trade punches with the World Champion, and Magnus admitted it was “a difficult game”.
The tactics were working in Carlsen’s favour after Levon gambled on complications, but the Armenian could later have made a draw and then still had fighting chances until a moment of chess blindness:
59.Qb7+?? Nxb7 was a brutal end to a great battle.
How did Magnus feel when he saw that?
Happy! I did feel that I was probably winning anyway, but it had gotten out of hand, so after such a tough game there’s no better feeling than to capture an opponent’s queen for nothing.
No-one had caught Magnus after his draw against Maxime since his closest rivals lost, while the win over Levon gave him a full point lead over the field. Round 13 all but sealed the deal as he extended that lead to 1.5 points by easing to victory over Shakhriyar Mamedyarov, a 5th win in six games. No-one else at the top managed to win:
The title could have been sealed with a round to spare, but Leinier Dominguez held a solid draw, meaning that Magnus still had to draw against Hikaru Nakamura in the final round to avoid a playoff for first place. In the end there was no drama, however, since a 22-move draw meant he won the tournament by a full point.
Afterwards Magnus noted that although he’d had some tough positions he was never in real peril and, “to go 15 games without being lost in a single one is something I take great pride in”. He summed up:
I feel very good. I’m very, very happy with the performance. I think today I handled it fairly well. I was not so happy with the game against Dominguez, because I knew that then the last round would be very difficult, as somebody who was one point behind could overtake me, but it turned out that Nakamura was happy to secure a possible medal and I’m thankful for that.
The post-game interview with a very happy Magnus Carlsen was memorable for the champion’s assessment of his rivals.
At first there was diplomacy, with an edge:
I would say that my opponents are very strong, they’re very solid, but I think some of them perhaps lacked the cutting edge. I think a lot of my opponents were very, very happy to finish in the top places to have a good chance for medals but I think in such a tournament sometimes in order to win it all you need to have even more of an attacking mindset, and I think there are a lot of people here who have good performances but they could have pushed even more.
But when pressed on how he was able to fight in every game he decided to give his honest verdict:
I think although these days are very long it’s possible to give your all in all the games, but I think it also helps that I’m better than the others! So for me it’s easier to play for a win. For the others, they maybe risk more if they have to play for a win. I think that’s just the brutal truth - that if you’re a bit better than the others you can afford to take more chances. Maybe some of the other guys playing several short draws had the optimum strategy for themselves, but in order to win it’s not the optimum strategy, I think. Probably in order to do well it’s not a bad idea, but again it’s not the way that I play, but it’s partly because I can afford it!
There were many players Carlsen’s words could have applied to – for instance, Leinier Dominguez won four games in a row on the first day and then followed that with 9 draws and one win to finish in the tie for 5th place – but one player implicated in not going all-out for a win was clearly Hikaru Nakamura. The last round draw had a double sense of déjà vu, firstly because the players had also played with the same colours in the final round in 2018, when a draw saw neither catch Daniil Dubov.
The other déjà vu was that the players repeated the Rossolimo Sicilian from their last classical game, in the Sinquefield Cup. Despite 16.Rb1 being an improvement on 16.Rf1 in that game perhaps the only real difference was that in the absence of any anti-draw rules the players could agree a draw on move 22 rather than wait to move 30.
Should Nakamura have gone all-out for a win? Probably not! Beating Magnus on demand is easier said than done, and in financial terms the potential costs were higher than the benefits. All prize money is shared if points are equal in Moscow and the scale is linear at the top - $60k for 1st, $50k for 2nd, $40k for 3rd, $30k for 4th. Hikaru won $40k for joint 2nd place. If he’d beaten Magnus he would have got $55k, while if he lost he would have won only $16,625 for an 8-way split of the 3rd – 11th place prize money.
When 16-year-old Alireza Firouzja took the decision to play the World Rapid Championship under the FIDE flag it reverberated around the chess world not just for political reasons. Yes, it was a bold means for Alireza, now living in France, to avoid the ban on Iranian players competing against Israeli opponents, but it mattered because Alireza is currently the most promising star in chess. The 16-year-old has reached the 2700 club in classical chess, and while he might still stagnate like Wei Yi did a few years ago it’s also possible that we’re about to see the kind of rise that took the likes of Vladimir Kramnik and Magnus Carlsen to the very top while they were still teenagers.
It’s no secret that Alireza is very good at speed chess, since he did, after all, finish 6th, half a point behind Magnus, in the 2018 World Rapid Championship. And you can see, for instance in his first appearance in the Banter Blitz Cup, just how fast he calculates variations:
In Moscow it looked like Firouzja might become a victim of his own success, since wins over Korobov and Karjakin on the first day saw the young Iranian playing a mini super-tournament – he also faced Duda, Aronian, Giri, Svidler, Yu Yangyi, Inarkiev, Le Quang Liem, Andreikin, Wang Hao and Mamedyarov, with losses to Duda and Svidler seeming to have taken the wind out of his sails.
He bounced back on the final day, however, with a little tactical trick providing the spark. At a glance Ernesto Inarkiev seemed to have everything covered when he offered a queen trade with 28…Qe6:
The eagle-eyed Alireza spotted 29.Nd6!, however, with 29…Qxd6 impossible due to 30.Qxc8. The extra exchange proved enough to win the game, and then Firouzja followed Carlsen and Aronian in beating Le Quang Liem, whose 31…Rxe4? was too ambitious:
32.Rxd7! Nxd7 33.Qe6! was a lethal pin, since 33…Kd8 was met by 34.Qxf6+ Ke8 35.Qe6+ Kd8 36.Nxe5 and Le Quang Liem resigned.
Firouzja then followed up a draw against Andreikin and a win over Wang Hao with a dramatic final round victory over Shakhriyar Mamedyarov. The best result yet for Firouzja (and FIDE!) may just be the start of things to come, with an early test for the young star coming in the Tata Steel Masters that begins on 11th January.
Vladislav Artemiev missed out on the podium, but in this case you couldn’t call that unlucky. The talented young Russian was arguably the player of the first few months of 2019 but has been much quieter since, and when he started with four draws and just one win on the first day in Moscow it looked as though this wasn’t going to be his event either. He never faced any of the world’s very best players until a penultimate round clash against Maxime Vachier-Lagrave, when it was the French no. 1 who did all the hard work!
It seems Maxime mixed up his lines, since after 13…Qxg2+? 14.Kxg2 Nxe5+ 15.f3 he never managed to come up with a good answer to the question of why he’d just sacrificed his queen for two minor pieces. Artemiev wasn’t complaining, and a 12-move draw against Daniil Dubov in the final round was enough to mean he’d come from nowhere to take joint 2nd place.
When Gata Kamsky started the event by crushing Vladislav Nozdrachev and then had a winning ending against Ivan Popov in the 2nd game it was hard to imagine what would follow, but by the end of the event the Russian/US Grandmaster had achieved the impressive feat of drawing 14 games in a row - in a rapid event!
While Magnus Carlsen had more or less wrapped up the open tournament with two rounds to spare the action in the women’s section went to the death… and even sudden death! Before the final round China was in the ascendency, with Lei Tingjie on 9 points and Tan Zhongyi on 8.5 ahead of five players on 8. Both Chinese players had Black, however, and Humpy Koneru won a dramatic game against Tan Zhongyi. That still left Lei Tingjie needing only a draw against Ekaterina Atalik to take sole first place and $40,000, and despite a shaky middlegame the endgame was drawn until 61…Ra6 (61…Rc1!, 61…Rc2! or 61…Rc4! were all ok):
Ekaterina seized the chance to play 62.h5! gxh5 63.Kh4 and from a6 the black rook was unable to stop White winning the h5-pawn, the game and a bronze medal.
That meant 22-year-old Lei Tingjie had to try and get over that disappointment fast as a 3+2 blitz playoff began against Humpy Koneru (who had better tiebreaks than Atalik), but it turned out to be Humpy who struggled to adapt as she played too slowly and lost on time. Needing to win on demand with Black, Humpy then went all-in with the Modern Defence and, objectively, was busted:
29.Ne5! here and Lei Tingjie would have retained a winning edge, but the Chinese player instead lost the thread of the game with 29.Kf1? Qg6! and just a few moves later Black had a crushing advantage, which she smoothly converted.
Humpy then had Black in Armageddon and was never in danger before taking a match-winning draw in a won position.
It turned out to be a first for the women’s no. 3!
I said to myself that this is one more chance to become a World Champion and this is my first world title, so I’m very happy and excited with this victory… People were expecting me to win the classical World Championship for many years, but every time I have been losing in the knockouts and my best was the silver medal, so for sure I can say that no-one expects me to win the rapid format. I was seeded 13th in the tournament and I was never so good in rapid, so it was an unexpected victory for me as well.
The king of Indian chess joined in the congratulations:
There was almost a riot in chat when the official English commentary team decided to focus on the last round of the women’s event, although that was an absolutely natural decision when there’s one live stream for both tournaments. While the shorter women’s event was ending, it was only the penultimate round of the open tournament.
On the other hand, the penultimate round of the open tournament could easily have decided the title, and the desire of chess fans to watch the world’s very best chess players is perfectly understandable (it’s another matter that the World Rapid and Blitz tournaments are impossible to watch or cover fully in any case, since there are simply too many fast and simultaneous games). The women’s events will naturally be starved of coverage if they coincide with the open, so in an ideal world they would be held at a different time and perhaps venue – that would have the bonus that some of the top female players could play in the open events without having to sacrifice significant potential earnings.
When asked if he would play football in the evening Magnus responded:
Maybe I will play football, but most of all, the job is half-done for me. I want to win the blitz as well, so there’s no time to rest on laurels. If I do play football it will be because I think it’s a good idea to unwind that way before the blitz.
He did play football…
…but we can also expect a hungry World Champion when the blitz begins. As mentioned before, Magnus currently holds the triple crown, but unless he wins the blitz he won’t be the undisputed champion of everything by the time 2020 begins. There’s also the matter of the rating lists, since while Magnus is now classical and rapid no. 1 he’s still trailing Nakamura on the blitz list. That can soon change over the course of 21 rounds of blitz!
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