Reports May 10, 2019 | 10:38 AMby Colin McGourty

Côte d’Ivoire, Day 2: Magnus is relentless

“If players stop committing suicide against him that would be one way to stop him”, commented Fabiano Caruana, after Magnus Carlsen punished a Maxime Vachier-Lagrave blunder in Round 5 of the Côte d’Ivoire Rapid and Blitz in Abidjan. In the same round Hikaru Nakamura crashed and burned against Bassem Amin to leave the World Champion with a 3-point lead over the field, though Hikaru got back within touching distance by beating Ding Liren while Veselin Topalov held Magnus in the final round of the day.

"Today I felt that there was definitely flow to my play" | photo: Lennart Ootes, Grand Chess Tour 

You can replay all the games from the Côte d’Ivoire Rapid and Blitz using the selector below:

Let’s take the day’s action round-by-round:

Round 4: Carlsen back in the sole lead

In the good old days, Magnus Carlsen would grind you down in an endgame where he had no real advantage, but at least before that you’d have a decent chance of surviving and even thriving in the opening and early middlegame. From the 2018 World Championship match onwards, however, he’s adopted the Sicilian with Black, and his plan – that he keeps on stating – is to give mate on the kingside. You can choose your poison, and Sergey Karjakin decided to follow Peter Svidler’s “solid” approach from GRENKE with 3.Nc3 rather than heading for the incredibly sharp tabiyas fought over in the match.

Magnus Carlsen has made double-edged Sicilians his weapon of choice | photo: Lennart Ootes, Grand Chess Tour 

He followed Peter until playing 8.a3, in a position where Svidler had gone for 8.Nd5 and Harikrishna even more recently played 8.Ne3 against Nihal Sarin in a game that will live on in the memory!

As against Svidler, Magnus got in the f5-break, while Karjakin pursued the dubious plan of putting his bishop on c6 and queen on a4. Carlsen was a happy man after playing 21…Nf6:

I felt like from the opening I got kind of a nice position for rapid chess, in that essentially at some point I’m just abandoning the queenside and playing on the kingside, and it’s kind of easy to play this way because you’re playing for an attack. I thought in general what he did with bringing the bishop to c6 was really risky, because unless he can get something quick his bishop is just awfully out of the game, and his queen is as well, so when I got this Nf6 I was very, very happy.

Karjakin went for what Magnus called “the logical way to continue”, though it was also a losing plan: 22.bxc5!? bxc5 23.Rxf5? and here 23…e4! already left White in deep trouble. 23…Nh4 was even stronger, and the line with 23...Ng4 that Magnus felt was a draw was winning, as he discovered after the game. Although the black knights and queen went on to terrorise the white king the World Champion was shown to be mortal in this phase of the game. He commented:

I’m sure I could probably have won with a direct attack, but what I did just looked very, very nice. Maybe, as the engine says, there are some chances for him, but what do I know?

Sergey, who has drawn all his other games in Abidjan, failed to put up real resistance, with 31.Qb2?, 32.Bd7? a tactical try with a flaw that Magnus spotted:

32…g6! 33.Rf6 Nd3! and it was all falling apart for Black. 34.Be6+ runs into the refutation 34…Qxe6!, while after 34.Qc3 there was a free piece to be taken with 34…Rxd7. Sergey stumbled on one more move with 35.Re6 Qf4+ and then resigned.

Magnus commented, ominously:

I think my game with Hikaru was absolutely awful, but apart from that it’s better and today I felt that there was definitely flow to my play, so hopefully it’s going to be a good day.

Maxime Vachier-Lagrave has been making a lot of local fans | photo: Lennart Ootes, Grand Chess Tour 

He took on Simplice Degondo, at 2115 the Ivory Coast's top-rated player | photo: Lennart Ootes, Grand Chess Tour 

That win took Magnus into the sole lead, since Maxime Vachier-Lagrave’s first win came against the co-leader at the start of the day, Wei Yi. Playing the Petroff Defence, the Chinese star hurried into an endgame where White had the bishop pair but a crippled pawn structure:

White’s last king move looks innocent, but it’s the start of a winning march to a6 that exposes Black’s weak pawns and bad bishop. 27…Nh4 might have put up some more resistance than Wei Yi’s 27…Kg8, but it was an instructive game by the French no. 1.

Wei Yi started badly, but the two draws that followed left him in 3rd place after two days | photo: Lennart Ootes, Grand Chess Tour 

Meanwhile Hikaru Nakamura kept up the pressure with a smooth win over Veselin Topalov after an early tactical flurry, while Ian Nepomniachtchi made it four losses in a row for local hero Bassem Amin. The finish was crisp:

31.Ne7! fxe4 32.Qf7! Black resigned

Round 5: Meltdown

In Round 5 Maxime played closer to his footballing level... | photo: Lennart Ootes, Grand Chess Tour 

This was the most dramatic round of the tournament so far, though to begin with it followed a traditional pattern. Magnus showed he can’t only play the Sicilian with Black as he also got a promising position against MVL’s Najdorf.

The Frenchman is famous for his natural feel for the dynamics of such positions, however, and he fought back to come to the verge of holding a draw:

Magnus has just met 32…Ra3 with the clever 33.g4!, based on the point that 33…Qc4 can now be met by 34.Qa7+! and with more checks the queen comes to d5 to defend a2. Nevertheless, this was Maxime’s chance to almost force a draw on the spot with 33…Qc5! After an exchange of queens there’s little White can do with such weak pawns, while if White tries to avoid an exchange he can’t stop Re3 or Rg3 – 34.Qg2? now actually would lose to 34…Qc4!

Instead, though, Maxime played the disastrous 33…Rxa4?? and after 34.g5! the black king was simply too exposed to survive. Magnus had told Jan Gustafsson recently:

It’s very clear that when you’re playing well, when you’re playing confidently, your opponents are just going to play worse. There’s very little doubt in my mind about that. It’s been seen when Garry was at his best streaks, also with Topalov a few years ago. It’s quite apparent that people just play worse when you’re on a good streak.

We saw that with Maxime in the last round of the GRENKE Classic as well as in Abidjan, and Fabiano Caruana, who dropped into the studio in Saint Louis just after this game, agreed:

Magnus is dominating so far. His last game was really surprising to me. Some of the games he played were really great, like against Nepo - I thought that was an amazing game in rapid, it was an incredibly high level. He’s been doing everything right, but the last game, that Maxime took on a4 was kind of… I tried to come up with an explanation for that move! I sort of managed - I think he wanted at some point to play b3 and then the rook swings to e4 and then it goes to e5 and it looks kind of solid, but after g5 Black is just not in time. It’s a very strange move from a player like Maxime, who really values initiative a lot, to give away the initiative and just take a pawn which isn’t actually doing anything.

Fabiano Caruana could relax, observing the goings on in Abidjan from Saint Louis

Just nine moves later Maxime had to resign.

Fabiano was asked how you can stop Magnus:

I think if players stop committing suicide against him that would be one way to stop him!

Tania Sachdev asked Fabiano whether he agreed when Magnus named him his main challenger:

I guess from his point of view I’m like the only player right now who’s not losing every game against him - so that’s something! I haven’t really been able to win a game against him in a long time - it’s something I’ve struggled to do. Like in the match, I had chances, but I struggled to take them. In GRENKE I had some advantage, which is not the full story, because I was also very close to losing that game, but at least our score is very balanced. Last year we made pretty much all draws and he won a game in Norway, but to actually consider myself a legitimate challenger I have to at some point start beating him.

You can rewatch Fabiano’s appearance on the show below:

Meanwhile, back in Abidjan, Ding Liren won a truly wild game against Ian Nepomniachtchi, but the greatest drama of the tournament so far came in Amin-Nakamura. 

One of those "what would Magnus do?" moments for Nepo | photo: Lennart Ootes, Grand Chess Tour 

Hikaru Nakamura had talked about this game as a must-win the day before, and it was even more so after Bassem Amin came into it on the back of four losses in a row. Although the Egyptian handled the opening well one false move, 22.f4?! Bh6!, was enough to have Nakamura scenting blood, and it looked as though the US Champion would go on to win. 

This was to be Bassem Amin's moment to shine | photo: Lennart Ootes, Grand Chess Tour 

Suddenly, though, things got out of hand, and after 60.b6 it was critical:

Nakamura now needed to think about survival, and active play with 60…Rh1! looks to be the best way to hold the balance while retaining some winning chances if his opponent went astray. Instead after 60…Ra8? 61.b7! the b-pawn would cost Black a rook. There was still dangerous counterplay with Black’s connected passed pawns, and both players were forced to play on the delay, but Amin held his nerve to score a famous win!

A very relieved Amin commented:

I hope the tournament will start now for me… Tomorrow will be a new day with much less pressure than today, I hope!

His spirits would be further boosted by a draw against Karjakin in the last round of the day, and he can boast of having more wins than Karjakin and Topalov combined.

Hikaru, meanwhile, explained away his loss as, “a by-product of Magnus winning every game”, since, “you kind of feel like you have to do everything to win”. With one round to go he was level with Ding Liren and Wei Yi a whopping three points behind the World Champion.

Round 6: Hope for Hikaru

Ding Liren unexpectedly collapsed against Nakamura | photo: Lennart Ootes, Grand Chess Tour 

The final round couldn’t match that drama, but it was just what the doctor ordered for Nakamura. Ding Liren repeated an opening that had gone badly for him in Round 1 against Amin, but varied with 12…Nc5 instead of 12…Bb7 and surprised Hikaru by continuing to blitz out his moves, all the way until he made a losing blunder:

28…Be4? was the move Hikaru was hoping for, and after 29.Rxe4 Nxe4 30.Qxe4 Rfe8 we got to see one of the points (the other is that 30...c5 runs into 31.Bd3!, breaking the pin with the threat of mate):

31.Nxc6! and after 31…Rxe4 32.Rxd8+ Qxd8 33.Nxd8 the black rook was absolutely no match for White’s bishop and knight. Ding Liren resigned a few moves later with over 17 minutes left on his clock. Nakamura summed up, “It’s very nice to get the gift, but it was just very strange and confusing!”

Veselin Topalov was in no mood to become Carlsen's latest victim | photo: Lennart Ootes, Grand Chess Tour 

That win proved even more precious when Magnus was confidently held to a draw by Veselin Topalov, with the Bulgarian former World Champion quipping, after mentioning the Sicilian, “I was lucky I had to play him with Black!” Wei Yi also failed to win a position in which he had Ian Nepomniachtchi in close to zugzwang, so that the gap at the top of the table was reduced to two points – a significant margin, but one which could vanish in a single round:

On the last day of the rapid Magnus is Black against wild cards Bassem Amin and Wei Yi and has White against Ding Liren, while Nakamura’s opponents include Wesley So and Ian Nepomniachtchi. It’s hard to bet against the World Champion, but anything can happen, and the main goal for the rest of the field will be to keep within firing range before the 18 rounds of blitz over the weekend.

Day 3 also starts at 19:00 CEST, so don't miss all the games and live commentary in four languages here at chess24!

See also:

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