Magnus Carlsen described his play as “better, but not perfect yet” as for a third day in a row he scored 2.5/3, crossing 2900 on the rapid rating list and taking a 3-point lead into the 18 rounds of blitz this weekend. Hikaru Nakamura said he played “very good chess” to remain the closest pursuer, while it was a day of big winners and losers. MVL scored 3/3 and Wesley So 2.5/3 to move a mere 4 points back from Magnus, while Russian stars Sergey Karjakin and Ian Nepomniachtchi crumbled with 0.5/3 and 0/3 respectively.
You can replay all the games from Abidjan using the selector below:
And here’s the day’s live commentary from St. Louis:
Magnus Carlsen told Jan Gustafsson in their recent interview:
The problem is that I keep upping the bar for myself now, so that I felt that after I made 7/9 in Shamkir I should really try and go for 7.5 this time.
Magnus could have upped the bar still further with 8/9 on the last day of rapid chess in Abidjan, but had to settle for 7.5/9 again, a 3042 rating performance that took his live rapid rating to 2903:
It all started with Black against world no. 35, Bassem Amin, who was made to look like a diligent but callow schoolboy by the World Champion. The Egyptian had done his homework, but in yet another Sicilian sideline Magnus played 6…e5 instead of the 6…Nf6 he’d played in half a dozen previous games.
Bassem admitted he was out of book, and he went on to play a mixture of ideas from different lines that left him dropping a pawn and essentially lost by move 13. “After that it wasn’t so difficult”, Magnus would later say, while there was more evidence for the theory that people play worse against a player on a streak:
The one that got away was the game against Ding Liren, where Magnus was quickly playing for two results, with more space, better piece coordination and an active king:
Ding would eventually hold a draw in 49 moves, with Magnus lamenting:
I think against Ding I got a very, very nice position but I forced it a bit too early and there were no chances any more. He defended very well, which I thought was a bit of a shame. I thought otherwise I would have had a very decent chance to win that game.
It wasn’t all bad, though, since when Nakamura was held to a draw by Wesley So that meant he’d sealed victory in the rapid section with a round to spare. The World Champion's stunning streak even sparked conspiracy theories...
There aren’t any separate prizes for different formats, however, so there was still the goal of maintaining the biggest possible lead over his rivals going into the blitz. His next opponent was 19-year-old Chinese star Wei Yi.
This was a mouth-watering clash, since Wei Yi has already become famous for smashing the Sicilian Defence, while Magnus has been remarkably consistent in playing the opening since the London match. He didn’t disappoint, but it was Wei Yi who sprung the first surprise with 3.c3, a move he’d never played in his previous 26 games in the position. Magnus did pause for thought, but then he decided to outdo that surprise with 3...Qa5!?
The offbeat move had the virtue of getting Wei Yi to start burning up time, a known weakness of the Chinese player. For a long time White was doing well, and Magnus admitted, “I was definitely a bit worse”, but then the advantage fizzled out and the World Champion solved all his problems with the clever 23…a6!
Now was perhaps the time for Wei Yi to play solidly and settle for a draw, but he decided to “call his opponent’s bluff” with 24.Rxa6?! Rxa6 25.Rxa6 which was hit by 25…Nf4!, exploiting White’s weak back rank.
I definitely felt there was absolutely no risk for me, so I thought it was pretty senseless of him to go for it.
26.Qf3 was met by 26…Qf5!, a move he felt his opponent had missed, and suddenly the Norwegian had yet again gone on the attack in the Sicilian. After 27.Ra1 (27.h4! may have been best, but Magnus pointed out if you need to play something like that “it’s already a sign that things are going wrong”) 27…Ne2+ 28.Kf1 Qc2 we reached perhaps the last critical moment:
If Wei Yi had played 29.Be3 he’d lose the b3-pawn as well as the c3-pawn and have to suffer, but the drawing chances are real. Instead he gave up his queen with 29.Qxe2!? Rxe2 30.Kxe2 and it was “challenge accepted” by the World Champion, who went on to show why he doesn’t believe in fortresses.
Magnus summed up his play:
It’s better, but it’s not perfect yet. It’s a bit up and down, to be honest. I’m playing a bit more practically - that’s a good thing - but I still need to speed up quite a bit for blitz... I don’t think about the lead at all. I just want to try and enjoy it, and if I play well I will win. If not, then we’ll see!
Of course with a 3-point lead the chances of Magnus winning the event while playing badly, by his standards, would be good, but the rest of the field still have plenty to play for. As the commentators were forced to point out a little earlier than they might have expected, since this year’s Grand Chess Tour is about qualifying for the Final Four in London it doesn’t really matter if Magnus is a runaway winner before then - there would still be three more places up for grabs.
Hikaru Nakamura maintained his no. 2 spot in the tournament and on the rapid live rating list with another good day in Abidjan, drawing against Wei Yi and Wesley So and beating an out-of-sorts Ian Nepomniachtchi. He was happy with how it went:
I thought today I played very good chess. I got some great positions. Unlike the other days it felt like I just got good positions and then my opponents defended very well. For example, my game against Wesley I was pressing the whole game but he defended very well.
We can’t pass over the game against Wei Yi, however, since it was a thriller! Hikaru had gone astray and been forced to find the last-ditch defence 27…f6!
It wouldn’t have been enough if Wei Yi had played 28.f5!, which stops what happened in the game, but that would have deprived us of seeing 28.Bxf6 Bf8 (an absolutely only move played by Hikaru after a minute’s thought during which he looked on the verge of resigning) 29.Re8 Rd1+! 30.Kf2 Rd2+ 31.Ke1:
Black would now have to resign if not for 31…Rd1+!, with Black having Qd7+ and the threat of taking on e8 if White captures. After repeating once Wei Yi decided to test out his opponent by following Qd7+ with Bd4, but Nakamura was up to the task and went on to force a draw by perpetual check.
Some star names finally did good on the eve of the blitz. Maxime Vachier-Lagrave has been followed by a film crew in Abidjan and seems to have had some busy days.
There was some speculation it had all affected his chess, but he brushed that aside to score three wins on the final day of rapid chess. First he crushed Topalov in a Najdorf, then he punished a slip by Nepomniachtchi and finally it was Bassem Amin who missed a chance to put his rook on f4. Instead he tried to hold the second rank, but that failed spectacularly!
34…Qf2+! and the b2-bishop will eventually drop with check.
Wesley So also woke from his slumbers to score 2.5/3, beating Nepomniachtchi and then Karjakin in the final game of the day. 49…Rd6 was a terrible blunder by Sergey:
50.Qxc5! pinned the rook and threatened to win it with e5, while after 50…Qb6 there was 51.Qg5+!, and now next move c5 will fork the black queen and rook. Karjakin resigned.
Sergey Karjakin and Ian Nepomniachtchi have already featured enough above for it to be clear that they had terrible days at the office, while Veselin Topalov, like Karjakin, has yet to win a game in Abidjan. Bassem Amin may be bottom of the table, but he’s having a lot of fun and has played two of the most memorable games so far. First he defeated Nakamura from a lost position, and then he did the same against Topalov, who had only himself to blame for squandering countless winning chances. It all came down to this:
All Veselin needed to do here was take the pawn with 71.Bxe3, and even if he somehow failed to win with his three extra pawns it would be inconceivable for him to lose. Instead he went for 71.Rxe5+?? Kxe5 72.c6 Ke4 and here missed the last chance to take the pawn, with a draw. After 73.Kg1? e2 he found himself resigning 8 moves later.
“I shouldn’t depend so much on my luck but I’m glad I was lucky in this game!” was the summary of Bassem Amin, who’s both entertained chess fans and made sure he’ll come away from the event with some happy memories.
That leaves the standings as follows before the blitz:
There are 18 games to go, and Hikaru pointed out the last day of the 2017 Paris Grand Chess Tour, when Magnus let a 2.5 point lead with 6 games to go slip after losing 3 in a row. Back then Maxime Vachier-Lagrave took advantage to force a playoff. Will we get similar drama, or will it be Magnus vs. Magnus on the road to 3000?
Another question: can those who suffered in rapid chess make a comeback in blitz?
Don’t miss all the action that now starts 3 hours earlier at 16:00 CEST for the final two days. Tune into live commentary in four languages here at chess24!
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