Ian Nepomniachtchi is world no. 4 and the sole leader of the Croatia Grand Chess Tour after fighting back to win a lost position against Fabiano Caruana in Round 2. The remaining five games were all drawn, with the world’s top three players all squandering winning positions. Magnus Carlsen let Vishy Anand pull off a great escape in a knight ending, while Ding Liren also missed chances to win a topsy-turvy game against Sergey Karjakin.
You can replay all the games from the Croatia Grand Chess Tour, with computer analysis, using the selector below:
This time let’s start with the draws, on what was a quieter day in Zagreb. So-MVL was a 29-move non-event that began and ended with symmetrical play, but elsewhere there was always at least something of note.
Nakamura-Mamedyarov ended in only 25 moves, but not before what might have been a significant near-novelty in the 7.Bb5+ Grünfeld. 9.Nf3 may not look like much…
…but according to our database it had been played just 7 times, and not at all in the last 6 years, compared to 637 games for 9.Ne2. After 9…c5 10.0-0 cxd4 11.cxd4 Mamedyarov “exploited” the knight’s position to play 11…Bg4 (if the knight was on e2 you could reply f3), but Nakamura simply ignored any threats with 12.Rb1! At a glance it looks like a promising position for White, but in the game things fizzled out fast, with 17.Bc2!? perhaps the culprit.
There was almost a mirror image of that idea in Aronian-Giri, where on move 12 Levon didn’t play Nc3 (52 games, including Giri-Aronian, Tata Steel 2014) but 12.Nbd2 (1 relatively low-level game):
Levon showed a potential advantage of that move by doubling heavy pieces on the c-file (not blocked by a knight) and invading on c7, but again the game fizzled out, this time into a 3 vs. 2 pawns on one wing rook ending that finished in 55 moves.
The other games were much more lively, with Ding Liren finding himself in a tangle after allowing Sergey Karjakin to expand on the kingside with g5, g4 and Bg5:
19.bxc4 now runs into some little tactics with 19…Nc5!, so here the world no. 3 took the bold decision to sacrifice an exchange (the c1-rook) with 19.Nxc4!? It was a choice that seemed to bamboozle Sergey, who went astray fast, until Ding Liren had a close to winning position as well as an opponent in serious time trouble. Sergey had just over 2 minutes (with no extra time at move 40) when we got to another critical juncture:
Here 39.Bc4! would have given Ding Liren excellent winning chances, since if the bishops are swapped off on c4 the white pawns can soon become unstoppable, while 39…Bf3 is met by 40.Nf4!, when 40...Bxg4? loses on the spot to 41.Ng6!. 39...Qg5, the move prepared by 38...h6, leads to a lost pawn ending after White swaps queens, then bishops, then pushes the e-pawn and exchanges his knight for Black's rook.
Instead after 39.f4?! Karjakin remembered his Minister of Defence credentials and played 39…b5!, both taking away the c4-square and preparing Qa7+ and the perpetual check idea which soon led to a draw.
The remaining two games were the highlights of the day:
Vishy Anand has had a torrid time this year at the hands of Magnus Carlsen, losing in Wijk aan Zee, Shamkir, Lindores and the Norway Chess blitz and Armageddon, while pulling off great escapes in the Baden-Baden and Norway Chess classical games. It’s been a familiar pattern of accepting passive opening positions, and it was no different in Zagreb.
Magnus was surprised in the opening by Astrid Versto, the Norwegian Ambassador to Croatia
Vishy played the Vienna and Magnus showed his versatility by playing not 10.Nb5, as he’d played in their game in Norway, nor 10.Bd2!?, which he’d used to beat Levon Aronian in Baden-Baden, but the mainline 10.Bb5+. Up until 13…Qxc3 they were following lines covered by Jan Gustafsson in his A Repertoire against 1.d4 | Part 2: The Vienna:
As Jan noted this “very greedy” move has “been played by Radek Wojtaszek, one of the world’s very best theoreticians, so I’m not going to argue this move loses”. Wojtaszek, a former Anand second, even once played it against Grzegorz Gajewski, Anand’s current second. Jan felt it was hard for Black to fully equalise here after 14.Rb1, while the same would prove true after Carlsen’s 14.Qa4 in the game. In general, Jan was already against playing 10…Bd7 earlier:
I thought all these lines after Bd7 were a little thankless, so I’ve switched my attention to the move 10…Nbd7, as have many others at top level.
It’s hard to argue with a 5-time World Champion, who was still in his preparation, but what followed was certainly a thankless task for Vishy. He couldn’t pinpoint exactly where he’d gone wrong, if at all, but he noted 24.Ra3! and 27.Rd3! were moves that interfered with his plans, while the general problem was that, “despite appearances, despite the fact that the queens are off, Black’s king is still very weak”. By move 33 he already felt doomed (a feeling backed up by our silicon oracles):
And round about here I assumed I was just lost. He’s won harder positions than this and I’ve lost easier positions than this… I basically just assumed it was over and thought I’d prolong it as long as possible.
What followed was an example of just how tough chess is, with Magnus Carlsen, who had played like a chess god for the first 44 moves of the game, making an imperceptible mistake, it seems, on move 45:
45.Kg4 allowed 45…Ke5!, with the black king eventually getting round to the base of the white pawn chain, while the black h-pawn survived just long enough to thwart White’s plans. 45.f3! still seems to be "mathematically" winning.
It was Vishy’s turn to remind us what a great champion he is as he found all kinds of study-like ideas and had the clarity to see that he could allow Magnus to have a queen and knight against his lone pawn:
“I was very happy that I’d seen this idea that exactly at the h7-square the knight is too far”, said Vishy, and he’s right, since if you put the knight on g6 instead it suddenly is winning for White. The game could have lasted a while longer, but on move 75 Magnus decided to have a little fun:
75.Ke5 “blundered” the queen, but after 75…Qe8+ 76.Kd4 Qxe2 77.Nc3+ the queen was won back with a draw.
Vishy was asked what he thought about that little trick:
I was very grateful, because I assume 75.Kc6 was a draw, but still my head was spinning! I was grateful he got it over with.
A great game and a good outcome for Vishy and his many fans.
Don’t miss Vishy Anand’s commentary on the game, including some beautiful variations he’d calculated:
And here’s Spanish Grandmaster Pepe Cuenca taking us through the whole encounter:
So despite some near misses there were no other decisive games, and the winner of this encounter would take clear first on 2/2. It began with Fabiano Caruana once again swapping sides from the World Championship match and playing the black side of the 7.Nd5 Sveshnikov Sicilian. Nepomniachtchi came armed to the teeth, however, with a new move 10.Bd2, and all the way up to 19…Bd7 he could be happy with the job he’d done:
He explained, “the general idea is that the rook on g6 is misplaced badly and doesn’t take any real part in the game”. His next move, 20.0-0-0?!, perhaps was meant to emphasise that fact even more, but it turned out to be a very bad idea. After 20…Bf6! Black was immediately on top, and Nepo admitted his next 15 moves or so were “really ugly”:
I thought that I’m playing some coffeehouse player at some point, but sometimes these coffeehouse guys they are getting very lucky!
The problem for Fabiano was trying to choose between all the enticing options. If anything, he was let down by his ambition, since he could have played very safely for a win with 31…Rxa5, and then finally in this position:
After 34…Qxd5 Black will likely end up in a better ending when the only question will be whether he can win, but instead he played “for more” with 34…Bg5? 35.Qxf5 Qf1 36.Qg4 Rf8 37.Kb2! (The move Fabi had missed, expecting only 37.Qe2) 37…Rxf2+ 38.Bc2:
This was the last chance saloon for Fabiano, who could still have rescued half a point with 38…Bc1+!! (to deflect the knight from defending c2) 39.Nxc1 Qg2. Nepo had seen this, but knew he could draw with perpetual check. Fabi instead played 38…Qc4? and after 39.Qe6 there were no second chances.
“It was just really bad decision-making,” was Fabiano’s summary, as he also used the adjectives “stupid” and “horrible” to describe his choices. Nepomniachtchi, meanwhile, is flying high at 2785.5 on the live rating list, now over 10 points ahead of 5th place Giri. He wasn’t claiming his wins over Anand and Caruana had been classics:
I’m not very satisfied with my play. Of course I’m satisfied with the result, but the play should be improved!
For now he tops the Croatia Grand Chess Tour standings:
In Friday’s Round 3 Nepomniachtchi has Black against Mamedyarov, while all eyes will be on Caruana-Carlsen!
Don’t miss all the action here on chess24, where we’re going to have commentary in English, Russian, German and Spanish from 16:30 CEST!
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