Reports Jun 29, 2019 | 9:10 AMby Colin McGourty

Croatia GCT 3: “Game on!” as Nepo hits 3/3

“It’s clearly game on”, said Magnus Carlsen, after Ian Nepomniachtchi scored a crushing KID win over Shakhriyar Mamedyarov to take a full point lead after three rounds of the Croatia Grand Chess Tour. For the second day in a row he was the only winner, with Fabiano Caruana weathering an opening surprise before putting Magnus under real pressure. Nothing could stop a 16th classical draw between the world’s numbers 1 and 2, however, with the remaining games drawn with much less drama.

For once Magnus is trailing by a point to the currently unstoppable Ian Nepomniachtchi! | photo: Lennart Ootes, Grand Chess Tour

For a second day in a row only Ian Nepomniachtchi scored a full point in Zagreb – replay all the games with computer analysis using the selector below:

And here’s the day’s live commentary:

Mamedyarov 0-1 Nepomniachtchi: Potkin’s birthday gift

Ian Nepomniachtchi had won his first two games from positions that were dubious at best, but Levon Aronian commented:

He’s playing very well. I won’t say he’s making the best moves, but he’s playing very fast, which is putting pressure on his opponents.

In Round 3 the Russian star stepped up his game by playing not only fast but powerfully, giving Shakhriyar Mamedyarov no chance to recover from his opening sins. Until move 8 the game was identical to the players’ encounter in Wijk aan Zee earlier this year, but Mamedyarov went for 8.b3 instead of the 8.Qc2, 9.b3 he’d played in Wijk. That earlier game had fizzled out quickly with no attacks by either side, but this time Nepomniachtchi played in the most direct manner possible, while Mamedyarov kept taking liberties. First he played 9.h3!? (Nepo pointed out the rule of thumb that White should wait until Black pushes his pawn to h4 before making that concession in the KID) and then he took two moves to put his pawn on b4. 

Ian Nepomniachtchi's fan club is growing! | photo: Lennart Ootes, Grand Chess Tour

Nevertheless, it might just have been a normal KID, where both players had their play on opposite sides of the board, if not for Shak’s 14th move:

14.Nd5?! Levon described this as “too hasty” and put the blame on the weather. When Maurice Ashley noted it was no longer so hot, Levon countered:

Yeah, but people are still shocked from two days of heat in a row! I guess that explains why such a great player like Mamedyarov has a very, very dubious position out of the opening.

Whatever the explanation, after exchanging on d5 Nepomniachtchi had an attack which ran like clockwork, though there was still no obligation for Mamedyarov to welcome the attack with open arms by playing 18.Qxc7:

After 18.Bxh3! there was a sense of inevitability to the outcome, with the way White’s queen ended up out of play on a4 and the black h-pawn started to roll reminiscent of Giri 0-1 Carlsen from Round 1. By move 27 Mamedyarov was a desperate man:

But although Nepomniachtchi could safely take the knight he instead played the stronger, and cooler, 27…h3! 28.Nxg4 Nxg4 29.gxh3 Nxe3 after which Mamedyarov only stumbled on another three moves before resigning.

For a blow-by-blow account of the game check out the following video by Spanish Grandmaster Pepe Cuenca:

That result meant Nepomniachtchi had raced to a perfect 3/3 in Zagreb, and had not only set a personal best live rating but surpassed Bobby Fischer in the pantheon of highest ever ratings:

What was his secret? Well, you might just say he was in good form after winning the Moscow FIDE Grand Prix knockout, but he was also glad that this was a very different tournament:

When I came here I was just very happy that I can play some normal chess, not this Grand Prix stuff when you cannot take any risk and so on. So I’m just enjoying playing!

He had an extra motivation:

Also my coach, Vladimir Potkin, celebrates his birthday today, so I had to do something!

Caruana ½-½ Carlsen: No more Sicilians

The battle goes on | photo: Lennart Ootes, Grand Chess Tour

The last 15 classical games between the world’s two best players had been drawn, with the players becoming very familiar with each other…

…but those games had rarely been less than enthralling, and this was no exception. Once again Magnus came with a surprise in the opening, finally abandoning the Sicilian and switching to 1…e5, something he’d played only in two classical games, against Radjabov in Shamkir and Vallejo in Karslruhe, since last year’s Sinquefield Cup. The surprises continued as after 2.Nf3 Nc6 3.Bb5 a6 4.Ba4 Nf6 5.0-0 Nxe4 6.d4 he picked not 6…b5, but the rare 6…Be7!?

The most notable game in which that occurred recently was the blockbuster Aronian 0-1 Mamedyarov that gave Azerbaijan victory over Armenia in last year’s Olympiad. Levon commented in Zagreb:

This line is generally considered to be bad. Mamedyarov played it against me and he got a completely losing position out of the opening, but Fabi maybe wasn’t well-prepared against it and he chose a cautious approach. There are like a zillion better lines for White to play here…

That’s not really telling the whole story, though, since the latent strategic advantages Black had with the bishop pair made the position tricky for White to play, before Mamedyarov found a brilliant sacrifice:

23…Bxg2!! and although White is still nominally better a shaken Aronian was losing a few moves later.

In Zagreb, Caruana followed Aronian’s play until choosing 14.Nc3 instead of 14.Qe1, after a 14-minute think, only to immediately regret it when he saw 11…0-0:

Fabiano said it was only now that he realised that 12.Rxd5 would see his rook misplaced after 12…Bd6 and 13…Be6, but perhaps there was also a subconscious desire not to give Magnus the scope for his bishops that we saw in the Round 1 game against Giri. Whatever the reasoning, Fabi played the “plausible” (his word) 12.Re1!?, which had the virtue of getting Magnus thinking for the first time in the game. Playing passively can be a liability against the World Champion, but it turned out that after 12…Bd6 Caruana’s idea was the dynamic 13.Qh5!?. A fascinating passage of play followed, with 13…a3!?, a move both players were happy with, leading to a doubled-edged struggle.

The top clash of the day would again be the last game to finish | photo: Lennart Ootes, Grand Chess Tour

After a while it was Black who was pressing, until a move both players condemned, 31…Rc4!?, though the computer, for computer reasons, feels it changes nothing:

The reason they felt it was a blunder was that after 32.Re2! White could seize the initiative by pushing his e-pawn.

Caruana: I think he was playing quite well and here he made a very bad move, Rc4. If he plays Qg6 it remains unpleasant for White. After Rc4 I was very happy – I get e4. I was no longer thinking about equalising, I thought only I can be better. At least I have no risk.

Carlsen: Later on I think I just blundered when I went Rc4. I missed that he had Re2 and I have to fight for a draw, which was a bit unfortunate, because before that I think I was a little bit better.

It was Carlsen’s turn to switch to damage control, and although ultimately he did it successfully it wasn’t without some tricky moments. Caruana called 38…h5?! “a very careless move”:

Carlsen agreed:

I steered towards this ending, which I thought was a straightforward draw, and then I just missed completely that he could play 39.Bb2! and then there was still some struggle.

The threat of the white rook entering the game on e5 or e7 forced concessions, and although Fabiano felt it was “very close to winning”, and the watching Hikaru Nakamura said, “my gut tells me that this should be winning for White”, it seems there was no path to victory in the opposite-coloured bishop position. The encounter eventually ended on move 68:

The players had a similar overall assessment of the encounter:

Carlsen: This was a little bit like some of the games from the match where the quality was a bit up and down. There were many twists and turns to the game, and not necessarily for the better. It wasn’t a great game, but the draw is ok.

Caruana: It wasn’t a great game, I guess.

But it had been a great battle, while elsewhere none of the games really flared into life.

I could have been a contender... | photo: Lennart Ootes, Grand Chess Tour

MVL-Ding Liren saw a repeat of the fantastically complicated Giuoco Piano line Maxime had used to end Ding Liren’s 100-game unbeaten streak last year. This time the novelty came on move 17, when Ding’s 17…cxd6 varied from Jorden van Foreest’s 17…Qg7 in the French Top 12 last month, but it was Maxime who had the deeper preparation. He knew it was objectively a draw, but by move 26 the Chinese no. 1 was already on his own (he said he was “very lucky” that 25.Qg4, which he’d missed, wasn’t winning):

Here 26…e3! was an only move, and after 27.Nxe3 Rxe3 28.Rxf2 Qxf2 29.Qxg5+ the game was drawn by perpetual check.

Who doesn't love a heavy theoretical battle? | photo: Lennart Ootes, Grand Chess Tour

Anand-Aronian was also a Giuoco Piano, but this one lived up to the “quiet” part of the name. The entertainment came in the post-game press conference with Levon. For instance, there was his take on the Giri 0-1 Carlsen game in Round 1:

Levon: I was looking at the game episodically, because I was playing my own game, so when I saw the knight on e2 and the pawn on c3 I was like, “what kind of bribe you should give somebody to make those moves, to kill the knight on e2?” So it was a very strange game from Anish, but what can I say, I also play very strangely against Magnus. Maybe it’s not just Anish!”

Maurice: Is he hypnotising folks or just playing strong move after strong move?

Levon: More or less hypnotising. I think he’s into some juju business!

Anish Giri was celebrating his 25th birthday, and he almost gave himself a gift with his enterprising 14.d4!? in yet another Giuoco Piano:

That offers a pawn sacrifice as Black can take twice on d4 and then on b4, but Wesley So instead retreated with 14…Re8!?, after which Anish couldn’t quite find a path to a significant advantage and the game was drawn in 33 moves.

Giri-So... that awkward moment when they spot the cameraman | photo: Lennart Ootes, Grand Chess Tour

Giri was asked if he felt he was getting old:

Not the way I play! There’s no wisdom in my play - you don’t feel that I’ve learned anything in these 25 years.

The first round loss to Magnus was still weighing on him, though he saw a silver lining:

It was a very painful game, obviously. I like that everybody rubs in that I lost in 23 moves, but then I just remembered that I beat Magnus in 22 once, when I was a little baby. At least we had a shorter encounter!

Giri noted that the 11 rounds instead of the usual 9 give more time to “forget your sins”. He can start in Round 4:

I told Maxime, who I play tomorrow, I’m also fine accepting belated birthday gifts!

Three draws so far for Sergey Karjakin | photo: Lennart Ootes, Grand Chess Tour

The remaining game was Karjakin-Nakamura, which for 18 moves was a repeat of Karjakin-Anand from Round 1 of the Lindores Abbey tournament. Nakamura varied with 18…Qa6 instead of exchanging queens immediately, but ultimately the game followed the same course, with Karjakin obtaining an ending with an extra pawn that should still have been a draw. The difference this time was that Hikaru played accurately and held on, while Vishy had gone on to lose the rapid game. Life was good!

Those results mean that Ian Nepomniachtchi has a remarkable 1-point lead after just three rounds:

Magnus commented:

There’s not a whole lot you can do about that, but yep, it’s clearly game-on! +3 is a huge score in 9 or even 11 rounds, so to have that already sets the tone for the rest of the tournament.

Magnus finds himself in the unusual position of having to chase their leader - he has Black against Nepo in Round 7 | photo: Justin Kellar, Grand Chess Tour

In Round 4 Nepomniachtchi has White against Karjakin, while Carlsen has White against Mamedyarov. The 2800 regular for the last couple of years has now plummeted out of the Top 10 and it’s hard to imagine Magnus won’t be scenting blood.

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!

See also:

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