Reports Jul 2, 2019 | 1:19 PMby Colin McGourty

Croatia GCT 6: Carlsen and So catch Nepo

Magnus Carlsen scored a 14th classical career win over Hikaru Nakamura in Round 6 to catch Ian Nepomniachtchi, after the runaway leader was put to the sword by Ding Liren. They were joined in the lead by Wesley So, who took down Shakhriyar Mamedyarov, while the group half a point back includes Fabiano Caruana, who beat Maxime Vachier-Lagrave with the black pieces, and Levon Aronian, who toppled Sergey Karjakin’s Berlin Wall. The only draw of the round was between Anish Giri and Vishy Anand.

Ian Nepomniachtchi resigns after a brilliant game by Ding Liren and now it really is "game on!" in Zagreb | photo: Lennart Ootes, Grand Chess Tour

After a dramatic first round, then just three decisive games in the next four rounds of the Croatia Grand Chess Tour, the floodgates opened again in Round 6!

Did the players finally feel they could go all-out for a win with the rest day to follow, or was there another explanation? Here’s what three of them told Maurice Ashley:

Magnus watches Aronian torture Karjakin in the Berlin Endgame | photo: Lennart Ootes, Grand Chess Tour

Aronian: I think it’s kind of random. It’s hard to tell because some players are clearly not in good shape - you can see they’re tired. And some players are a bit stupid – I’m meaning myself!

Caruana: I’m not surprised. It’s clear that everyone’s playing both very risky, enterprising chess and a lot of people are off form, so I’m not at all surprised there were a lot of decisive results today.

Carlsen: It’s amazing that you have four decisive results on one day and five on another, and then the other days have been maximum one. It just shows, I think, the tournament has been very, very fighting all the way, and sometimes people defend well enough and sometimes they don’t.

Round 6 in Zagreb was a day when they didn't!

Carlsen 1-0 Nakamura

A razor-sharp battle would go the Norwegian's way | photo: Lennart Ootes, Grand Chess Tour 

Although Hikaru Nakamura has largely stopped the bleeding in recent years, he still has a shocking score against the World Champion, with 13 losses and 1 win (in the 2016 Bilbao Masters) before they met in Zagreb:

That didn’t stop the US star sticking to his guns and playing the sharp line of the Queen’s Gambit Declined in which he’d suffered an opening disaster against Fabiano Caruana in Round 1. This time again the game exploded into life, and after 20…Nxe4!, which had caught Magnus by surprise, 21.Rd3!? was a slight inaccuracy (21.Qe2!) in a wild position:


This proved to be the critical moment of the game, with Magnus commenting:

Here I felt for sure he was going to go 21…Bf6, that was my main line, and then we’ll see what happens. When he went for 21…Rc8?! I was shocked, because I thought that was just losing.   

Magnus side-stepped the pin down the c-file with 22.Qb2!, and suddenly Black had only bad choices. Hikaru told Magnus that his plan had been 22…Bxb3 before he realised that runs into 23.Nd5!, and when the dust settles White will be up a piece. Carlsen felt the right Plan B would be to go for an ending with 22…Rxc3, but playing a bad ending against the World Champion is few people’s idea of fun. After 22…Nc5 Nakamura put up good resistance, for a while, but he couldn’t avoid falling into a technically lost position.

For much more on that game, including some real opening nuances, check out this analysis by one of Carlsen’s seconds, Jan Gustafsson:

And here’s Magnus on the game (you can go forwards or backwards to watch the whole show from St. Louis and Zagreb):

Ding Liren 1-0 Nepomniachtchi

That would have been a big win for Magnus in any case, but it was doubly sweet as Ian Nepomniachtchi’s luck finally ran out, against Ding Liren. With a one-point lead over the field most players would aim to play solidly against the world no. 3, but that’s not in Nepo’s nature, and the Russian began playing with fire with the black pieces. 

After a shaky start in Zagreb Ding Liren is now looking right back in control | photo: Lennart Ootes, Grand Chess Tour

Ding commented:

I should be better since I didn’t go wrong and he played some very strange moves, but the position is still very complicated.

All it took was one inaccuracy – Ding noted 17…Qg6?! instead of 17…h5 immediately just wasted a tempo – and after 18…h5 Ding was able to go in for the kill:


19.e4! h4 20.exf5! Qxf5 21.Rae1+ ensured the black king would have no refuge, and after 21…Kd8 22.Ne4! Qg6 23.Nxd6 cxd6 Liren could choose how to finish things off:


He said he was worried about miscalculating something and went for the “strategic idea” of 24.d5! c5 25.a4! Bxa4 26.Qa3! Re8 27.b4!, though as you can see, strategy for Ding is the equivalent of high-level tactics for most of us. The rest of the game was a massacre.

Ian Nepomniachtchi below the ruins of his position (28.bxc5 followed) | photo: Lennart Ootes, Grand Chess Tour

That was a second win in a row for Ding Liren, who commented, “I felt much better after yesterday’s game and I was in a fighting mood!” After an opening defeat he’s now back up to +1, following on from his +2 in classical chess in Norway. His last four wins have come against Top 10 players – Caruana, Mamedyarov, Giri and Nepomniachtchi – with Ding beginning, perhaps, to prove Magnus Carlsen wrong (this is from an interview with Jan last December):

I like Ding, he’s a great player, but then on the other hand I had some fun in our little match in St. Louis, and his streak and his results recently speak for themselves, he’s doing great, but I think he himself would admit that he hasn’t really proven it in the very top tournaments yet. I think he’s eager to get the chance and prove his worth. In the last Candidates he showed that he could fight on equal terms with everybody, but he didn’t really show anything more, and I think he’s certainly eager to do that. Whether he will – I remain sceptical until I’m proven otherwise.

Magnus has been full of praise for Ding in Zagreb:

So 1-0 Mamedyarov

Wesley So is the one player who’s beaten Ding so far in Zagreb, and he’s now quietly moved up to join Carlsen and Nepomniachtchi in the lead, and also returned to the world’s Top 5. He did it against Shakhriyar Mamedyarov, who is one of the players Aronian and Caruana clearly had in mind when they talked about people being out of shape. The Azeri’s -2 score perhaps flatters him, considering the positions he had against Carlsen and Aronian.

Wesley So has matched Carlsen's unbeaten +2 | photo: Lennart Ootes, Grand Chess Tour

Against Wesley, Shak decided to play the hyper-sharp 4…e5!? pawn sacrifice line that Daniil Dubov had used to torment Anish Giri on the first day of the recent Moscow Grand Prix. Wesley had been there and was of course aware of the idea, but he wasn’t expecting it and spent 20 minutes on his next two moves. He later explained that wasn’t the only reason he took his time:

You have two hours and 10 minutes, so I spend some time to get into the rhythm, to get into the competitive mind-set.

What So then came up with was the novelty 7.Bd3!?:


In contrast to 7.d3, as played by Giri against Dubov and Aronian in an early game against Grischuk, that left Mamedyarov the option to play 7…Nxe4 instead of the 7…d5 seen in all the earlier games. He took it immediately, but while the ensuing position wasn’t terrible for Black it never looked equal, until Wesley seized his moment to go for the jugular after 19…g5?!:


20.c6! was a nice trick, and after 20…Bxc6 21.Nd4 Bb7 22.Nb5 it turns out Black can’t defend the a7 and c7-pawns. Wesley, sounding slightly surprised with himself, said he was, "very proud" of the move, which he called "a brave decision". 

It's been another tough event for Shakhriyar Mamedyarov | photo: Lennart Ootes, Grand Chess Tour

He was also very happy with his decision after 25…d4:


In playing 26.Qe7! he had to be sure that after 26…dxc3 27.Qxd7 cxb2 he didn’t need to grovel for a draw with 28.Qb5 but could deliver mate after 28.Qd8+! In the game, Mamedyarov played 26…Qf7 but resigned three moves later with decisive material losses inevitable.

MVL 0-1 Caruana

Levon watches the exciting MVL-Caruana battle | photo: Lennart Ootes, Grand Chess Tour

Perhaps the most impressive win of the day was by Fabiano Caruana, who said afterwards:

A win with Black, especially, always makes you feel like the tournament is going well, but before this round I thought I was just playing really badly. Yesterday [vs. So] I thought I played a shameful game, and I thought that my play was worse than my result suggested, but today it looked like I calculated reasonably well and I beat a very tough player with Black.

The game, perhaps inevitably between such fearsome calculators, became unbalanced early on, with Fabiano describing his Ruy Lopez as follows:

I also for some reason decided to play a line I don’t normally play which is extremely sharp, extremely risky. It’s a line that Vishy played against Maxime recently. It’s supposed to be a risky line, it has a dubious reputation, but it’s not altogether bad!

There were a number of points you could mention at which Maxime may have gone astray (for instance, Caruana didn’t like the 19.Bxf7+ bishop sac, though at low depth the computer approves), but what Fabi called the “big mistake” of 27.Qd3? looks like a good candidate as the start of the end for White:


Caruana instead recommended 27.h4, breaking up the black position, while in the game Black was able to respond with 27…e4! 28.Qc3 Ne5! 29.f4 Nd5! and White was suddenly in a world of hurt. The computer points out some moments at which Maxime could have put up more resistance by sacrificing a piece, but in the end Fabiano went on to score a relatively smooth victory:

Aronian 1-0 Karjakin

Levon Aronian the magician | photo: Lennart Ootes, Grand Chess Tour

Sergey Karjakin had said the day before that you often get punished in sport for failing to convert your chances, and after two rounds in which he had Nepomniachtchi and Carlsen under early pressure everything went wrong against Levon Aronian. Karjakin played the Berlin Endgame despite having lost with it to Aronian in the Sinquefield Cup last year, and after 11 moves the players had reached a familiar position:


As you can see, Laurent Fressinet subtitled this part of his chess24 video series on the Berlin, “MVL vs our Berlin”, and it’s easy to see why. Maxime Vachier-Lagrave had this exact position 7 times, scoring 5 draws and wins over Mickey Adams and Levon Aronian (with 12.Re1 in a rapid game in the Grand Chess Tour final in London last year). In 23 games, however, no-one had yet tried Levon's move 12.f4. He commented:

Some old prep worked! Once in a while I get to use some of my knowledge, which is very limited, but in some openings I have some.

Sergey spent over 40 minutes on his next few moves, but didn’t manage to stop the trademark Berlin e6-break, before after 26…Bf6 there was a chance for Levon to show off!


He seized it with 27.Rxf6! and after 27…gxf6 the game might have ended sooner if the Armenian had immediately pushed 28.e7!, with the white minor pieces poised to assist that pawn before Black has time to untangle. Instead after 28.Nf4 the pawn only reached e7 on move 32, and things became unclear. What was clear, however, was that Sergey was also suffering on the clock, and he failed to show his usual precision in defence. The black rooks ended helplessly dominated by White’s e-pawn and pieces:

A new clean-shaven Levon Aronian is poised to fight for first place in the second half of the tournament!

Just as in Round 5, where Anish Giri saved us from a day of all draws by losing to Ding Liren, in Round 6 he avoided a day of all decisive games by drawing against Vishy Anand. It was quite a game, even if not for pure chess reasons!

Here Vishy spoilt everything with 34…Rxe3+ but, although he had to suffer a little over the next 25 moves, karma forgave him.

The one and only Vishy Anand | photo: Lennart Ootes, Grand Chess Tour

So it’s all change in Zagreb, with the standings after six rounds looking as follows - note the neat symmetry of three players at +2, three at +1, three at -1 and three at -2:


Tuesday is the one and only rest day, but on Wednesday we have what we were looking forward to as a crucial decider: Nepomniachtchi-Carlsen. It’s less so now, but Magnus still has the monkey on his back of an incredible -4 score (0 wins and 4 losses) against Nepo. Karjakin-So is the other game featuring one of the leaders. 

Don’t miss all the action here on chess24, where we’re going to have commentary in English, Russian, German, French and Spanish from 16:30 CEST!

See also:


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