Maxime Vachier-Lagrave took over the blitz no. 1 spot and became the first player to beat Magnus Carlsen in an official game since Alexander Zubov in Round 7 of the World Rapid Championship on December 27th last year. The win in Abidjan came in an 8-game winning streak that had Magnus anxiously looking over his shoulder, but in the end, although the World Champion commented, “I’m just happy that it’s over,” he takes a 2.5 point lead into the final day of the Côte d’Ivoire Rapid and Blitz.
You can replay all the games from Abidjan using the selector below:
And here’s the live commentary on the day’s action:
After the last few months it’s a relief finally to be able to talk about someone other than Magnus Carlsen dominating a run of games in a tournament, and the events of the first day of the blitz in Abidjan can best be summed up by a glance at the blitz live rating list:
Maxime Vachier-Lagrave was the hero of the day and is now the live blitz no. 1, with his 6.5/9 taking him into clear second place in the tournament. He started 4 points back, however, and could cut that only to 2.5 points since Magnus still posted a "plus one" 5/9 score. Hikaru Nakamura had been in 2nd place at the start of the day but scored half a point less to find himself an almost hopeless 3.5 points back. But let’s now focus on Maxime!
The French no. 1 had won all three of his final rapid games and kept that momentum going in the blitz by defeating Wesley So, but Maxime had no illusions about the game:
Today things really went my way, especially against Wesley in the first round. I was probably completely lost and thanks to good fortune he actually forgot to take my knight, after which I might already be winning, strangely enough.
This was that moment, and 43…Bxb5+! is indeed completely winning for Wesley - White can’t handle passed pawns on both sides of the board. After 43…Bg1? 44.Nc3! Bxh2?! 45.e3 White was on top and all it took was one inaccuracy from Wesley for Maxime to go on and win.
That left him 3.5 points behind the leader before they met in Round 2, in a game where only one player’s bravery would be rewarded. On move 20 Maxime dared to go for the famous Sicilian exchange sac on c3:
20…Rxc3!? 21.bxc3 Rxc3 was playing with fire against Magnus, who to no-one’s surprise came very close to completely consolidating his material advantage. Just when the game looked almost over, however, the World Champion allowed a knight check which could have meant an instant draw by perpetual check:
He definitely could have repeated moves, right before the end. He didn’t - his fighting spirit cost him dearly, for once!
Magnus rejected the repetition by putting his king in the middle of the board, made a dangerous pawn grab and then finally overstepped the mark with 43.a6?
43…Bh4! carried the lethal threat of Qh1+ and Qxe1+, and there was no escape. 44.Qd2 (44.Ke2 Nf4+) was met by 44…Nf4! and Magnus resigned, since he could only stop mate by giving up his queen.
That defeat for Magnus came after 70 official games unbeaten in all formats, a run that began after a Round 7 loss to Alexander Zubov in the World Rapid Championship in St. Petersburg on 27th December last year.
For Maxime that was just the start, as in the next game he cemented his new second place in the tournament by defeating Hikaru Nakamura. The US star had the misfortune to run into some deep prep in the Berlin endgame. Where did it end?
Basically when I was a piece up, so I thought it’s a good enough moment!
In a theme we’ll see elsewhere, Maxime’s first move of his own seems to have been inaccurate. He could here have played 29.Rd7!, since 29…Bf5 is met by 30.e6!, and the temporary pawn sac is repaid with total positional domination. Maxime went for the reasonable 29.Rd8+ but admitted, with some understatement, that “the conversion was not really smooth”. Hikaru seemed to have equalised at various points, and if the Frenchman hadn’t won this would have been a moment to regret!
Instead of picking up the bishop with 78.Nf8+ he continued methodically with 78.Nd4?, but finally won anyway in 98 moves. That took him to within two points of Magnus.
In a way Maxime was just warming up (the players had started three hours earlier than on the previous three days, which may explain some of the erratic results), and he followed up with good wins over Bassem Amin and Wei Yi.
Magnus also won in those two rounds to stay two points clear, however, and Maxime’s winning streak was to end on eight games.
Ding Liren held a draw in Round 6 and in Round 7 Maxime went astray in a tricky position against Veselin Topalov:
23…Rxe4? was the logical follow up to the Frenchman’s previous 22…Qc6, but it was a self-pin, as Veselin cleverly emphasised with the quiet 24.Kg2!. Topalov soon took the pawn on a7 and the white queenside pawns were too strong.
That was the one serious slip-up as Maxime ended the day with draws against Karjakin and Nepomniachtchi.
After scoring 7/9 in the last 9 rounds of Wijk aan Zee, then 7/9 in Shamkir, 7.5/9 in the GRENKE Chess Classic and 7.5/9 in the rapid in Abidjan it was a return to earth for Magnus to score 5/9 on the first day of the blitz:
It wasn’t the results, which kept him in a healthy lead, that were the problem, however, but his overall play. As he told Maurice Ashley:
I felt pretty early on that it was going to be one of those days, so I’m just happy that it wasn’t worse!
He went on:
There’s no flow. I wouldn’t say my games were solid after my loss to Maxime. I think the results were ok, but in most of the draws I played quite terribly, so I’m just happy that it’s over and I’ll try to regroup tomorrow. For me it’s not that much about winning the tournament either, it’s just a very unpleasant feeling when you’re doing a lot worse than you know you’re capable of. I’ll try to play better tomorrow, and if I do hopefully I’ll be fine.
The warning signs were there for the World Champion in the first game of the day, when on move 9 against Bassem Amin he sank into a 1 minute 17 second think, a rarity for a player known for almost instantly evaluating positions. That could have been forgotten if the second game had gone differently…
…but as we’ve seen, some over-ambitious play at the end led to disaster again Maxime. The next game against Ding Liren was about consolidation, while it seemed a corner might have been turned when Magnus was recognisably himself in the 4th game of the day, a crisp defeat of Veselin Topalov:
Sergey Karjakin was then beaten in the next round, but the positive narrative hides the fact that the Russian had a winning opportunity of his own:
40.d5! Qc7 41.Nd4! uses the potential fork on e6 to turn the white knight into an octopus on e6! Black would already need a miracle to survive. In the game Karjakin went for the other tempting option, 40.h6+, but soon lost the thread and then completely lost the plot:
There was no need for any drastic measures, with 45.Kg2 or 45.Qxb7 fine for White, but Sergey went for the impulsive 45.Rxf8+? Kxf8 46.Qxf6+, only to rapidly discover after 46…Kg8 that it’s the white king that’s in real danger. Magnus went on to win in 66 moves, with both players looking shell-shocked by the end:
That was his last win of the day and, as he mentioned, the draws that followed were anything but smooth! We noted earlier that Maxime misplayed a position after deep prep ended, and in the next round Ian Nepomniachtchi played the same 16 moves as Anish Giri had against Magnus on the way to losing in 24 moves in the first round of the final day of the World Blitz Championship. Magnus varied with a possibly more accurate move (17.Rb1), but then sank into an extraordinary 2 minute 56 second think before making a doubtful move and going on to let his advantage slip away.
The variance could have gone both ways. Wesley So had winning chances if he’d pushed a passed pawn more aggressively, while Wei Yi was down a pawn in 13 moves and, though he put a good fight, should have been put to the sword at the end:
You can understand mere mortals not daring to go for 35…Rd1!, but you also suspect that correctly assessing that White’s threats to the black king can be parried is the kind of thing an in-form Magnus could do in his sleep.
Only the final game against Hikaru Nakamura was uneventful, and it was a game that sealed a worse day for Nakamura, who ended 3.5 points behind the leader.
The signs that things might not go to plan for Nakamura were there in the first blitz game of the day, where he would have lost an endgame to Wei Yi if the Chinese player had found the correct path. Hikaru then badly overpressed and lost to Bassem Amin (who's now beaten him twice) before losing the game we’ve already seen to MVL.
From that point on he scored a creditable two wins and four draws, but there were some horror moments. For instance, Nepomniachtchi has just attacked his queen with 48.Bc5:
48…Qa4! was the move, covering the e8-square long enough for Black to queen a pawn first, but instead Hikaru saw a tactical “solution”: 48…a2?? 49.Bxa7 a1=Q+, but when going for this he must have overlooked 50.Bg1 and Black isn’t winning a piece.
There were tales of woe wherever you looked. After missing a relatively easy win against MVL in the first round of blitz, Wesley So would go on to fail to win a game all day. The most tragi-comic moment was against Nepomniachtchi:
No doubt short on time and depressed with how the game was going, Wesley overlooked that Nepo’s 51.Kd3?? had been a terrible blunder, since 51…Rd2# is actually mate-in-1! Instead he played 51.Nc5+?? and the game went on, with Nepo later missing the chance to fork Wesley’s rook and king (63.Nc4+) before the madness ended in a draw on move 74.
There were of course far more interesting moments than we can cover, so let’s just give the standings with one day of the Grand Chess Tour event in Abidjan to go:
Barring a complete and total meltdown by the World Champion – and you would instead bet on a much better day at the office – only MVL and Nakamura have a chance of overhauling the leader, but there are still Grand Chess Tour points and money at stake for the players.
Don’t miss all the action, with live commentary in four languages, from 16:00 CEST here at chess24!
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