Reports Jul 6, 2019 | 11:07 AMby Colin McGourty

Croatia GCT 9: Aronian stops Carlsen… just!

Levon Aronian found some brilliant defensive resources to avoid becoming Magnus Carlsen’s fourth victim in a row after another paradoxical opening idea from the World Champion almost worked to perfection. The only victory in Round 9 of the Croatia Grand Chess Tour was a wild one for Shakhriyar Mamedyarov over Vishy Anand, while Ian Nepomniachtchi let a win slip against Wesley So. A lot now rests on Wesley’s game with White against Magnus in Saturday’s penultimate round.

When you're surprised in the post-game analysis! | photo: Lennart Ootes, Grand Chess Tour

Replay all the Croatia Grand Chess Tour games with computer analysis:

Carlsen ½-½ Aronian

A tough day at the office, but Levon Aronian stopped the juggernaut | photo: Lennart Ootes, Grand Chess Tour

For the second day in a row Magnus Carlsen managed to spring a novelty in a clash against a key rival. This time it must have felt even more like déjà vu for Levon Aronian, since in Baden-Baden earlier this year he’d played the Vienna against Magnus and then got hit by a new move (10.Bd2!?) in a position reached over 700 times. In Zagreb this position in the 7.e5, 8.Nxd4 line had been reached 45 times in games in our database:


On all but one occasion (15.h4) White had castled kingside, with Carlsen second Jan Gustafsson saying in his chess24 video series on the Vienna (after 15.0-0 Nc6):

Black has finished his development and we have the standard situation: Black has a weak king, White has a weak queenside, which one weighs more heavily?

It’s easy to see why the idea of castling on the weak side of the board, as Magnus did with 15.0-0-0, had never been tried, though it does feature among the first three options of Stockfish.

Levon commented:

I thought it’s an interesting concept. I felt it’s a very risky one, but I couldn’t figure out if I should just continue developing like I would develop in a regular line with Nc6, or I should try something like Na6. So from a practical point [of view] probably it’s a good idea – definitely worth playing for one game.

15…Na6!?, leaving the c-file open to attack the white king, may well be the greater test, but as in Baden-Baden, Levon chose a conservative approach, playing the standard 15…Nc6 after 11 minutes. Soon we got to see Carlsen’s idea, with the h1-rook free to go on a bold journey – h1-h3-g3-g4-f4-f6:


Levon said he'd underestimated this idea, and Magnus told Maurice:

It was definitely an interesting game. I had this very ambitious concept in the opening, but it’s not so stupid, as the game showed. I can easily get a very solid grip on the dark squares, and I felt like in the game I achieved everything I wanted and then I couldn’t find the killer blow, which was really quite frustrating, but I don’t know if it was there.

The danger, as the watching Anish Giri (and our French Twitter) realised, was that Magnus could follow in the footsteps of one of his idols, AlphaZero, and leave Levon completely paralysed, if Black went astray:


Aronian’s 27…Qf8! 28.Qxc3 Rc8! (“I thought I’ll put the rook on c8 and things should work out!”) seemed to have solved that problem, and in hindsight Magnus felt he should perhaps have tried to go for the slightly better ending with 29.Rxf7+. He barely considered that during the game, however, since 29.Qd3 forced 29…Qg7 and seemed to leave Black in deep trouble. Levon admitted he was worried at first, while Magnus felt there had to be a way for him to slowly win, but he couldn’t find anything: “It looks so beautiful, but apparently he just held on very nicely - it’s strange”.

Giri had the most memorable quote:

The biggest challenge for Levon is to overcome the temptation to resign here… I think the temptation is very big to just get sick and throw up all over the board!

Aronian resisted that temptation, with 31…h6! the key move:


The point is that 32.Rxh6? is met by 32…f5!, and suddenly it’s White who’s lost, with a rook stranded completely out of the game.

Magnus was frustrated, but it would turn out he'd missed nothing | photo: Lennart Ootes, Grand Chess Tour

The position was equal, computers tell us, but Magnus played on with 32.a3!, hoping to exploit his 15-minute lead on the clock. If Levon hadn’t kept a very clear head the following might easily have proven true, again:

But he made no mistake and the game was drawn in 49 moves. Magnus was forced to conclude, “maybe it was just a good game!” Levon, meanwhile, had some inspiration from his wife Arianne Caoili, who talked to Maurice on the live show (and said some cruel things about Levon’s dancing!):

Levon commented:

I think I’m still not managing to play my best. Despite having some great years, I’m still short of her expectations… she inspires me a lot to push harder and achieve more!

Watch Carlsen and Aronian being interviewed after the game:

And here’s Grandmaster Daniel Fridman, who was a live commentator on our German stream, with a move-by-move account of what was an exceptionally high-level draw:

Mamedyarov 1-0 Anand

This was the only decisive game of Round 9, and we should have seen it coming! All four of Shakhriyar Mamedyarov and Vishy Anand’s supertournament clashes this year have been decisive, with Vishy winning a crunching game in Wijk aan Zee and then a game Shakh described as “one of the most interesting of my life” in Shamkir, when the Azerbaijan player lost a winning position. You could speculate that his whole year might have been different if not for that game, with Shakh noting that he’s been unlucky as well as out of form in 2019. 

Arindam Bagchi, the Indian Ambassador to Croatia, played the opening move for Mamedyarov | photo: Lennart Ootes, Grand Chess Tour 

Then in Norway Chess, Vishy blundered and lost in what was Mamedyarov’s only supertournament win of 2019 (he also beat Sam Shankland in the Bundesliga). That brings us to Zagreb, where yet another line of the Vienna (6.Bxc4) was played. Who better than Jan to take us through what was a fantastically complicated and entertaining encounter:

The moment for which the game will be remembered was an exchange sacrifice that recalled how Vishy Anand beat Garry Kasparov in Game 9 after the first 8 games of their 1995 World Championship match had ended in draws:

This time it was Mamedyarov who repaired his structure with the sacrifice, and it may have been doubly sweet, since Vishy had also used that sacrifice against him personally:

After an energetic if far from flawless win, Shakhriyar Mamedyarov had climbed out of bottom place and was feeling better about life:

After this win I believe maybe it will be much better. I will start to win like two years ago, or one year ago. Sometimes it happens to many grandmasters, to anyone, only not to Carlsen! Only he, but all the players that were in world no. 2 – Caruana, So, Aronian, Nakamura too – many chess players lose 60-70 Elo and come back again. My mood is good and I think I will try to change my chess and come back again.

As Giri had pointed out earlier in the day, Magnus did also suffer a big drop from his earlier peak at 2882, but he’d remained the world no. 1 and, “people will keep fearing him even when he drops 50 points”. It had been a different story for Shakhriyar.

Let's hope Shakh and Šah get back to being synonymous! | photo: Lennart Ootes, Grand Chess Tour 

So close

Elsewhere there was a quiet draw in Karjakin-Giri and an only slightly less quiet one in Nakamura-MVL. Although the Maroczy Bind structure in that game didn’t hold for long it still seemed to be a case of two players who are counting down the hours until Zagreb is over and they can refocus for the Riga FIDE Grand Prix.

Caruana-Ding Liren was one of those games that serve as a reminder of just how tough chess is | photo: Lennart Ootes, Grand Chess Tour

“This game was completely beyond me” said Giri of Caruana-Ding Liren, and it’s hard to know what to say about such a complicated, unbalanced draw. The best quotes relate to the fruit of Fabi’s first real think of the game. After 30 minutes he produced 13.Qa4!?


“From which kind of universe is that?” asked Giri, who compared it to his own play against Magnus in Round 1, while Fabiano confessed it was, “just a mistake, a horrible move - I’m kind of ashamed I made that move!” 13…Na7 followed, but no lasting harm was done, and Fabi even felt as though he was outplaying his opponent until the world’s numbers 2 and 3 eventually drew in 58 moves.

Another great escape for Wesley So | photo: Lennart Ootes, Grand Chess Tour 

That leaves one critical game for the standings, Nepomniachtchi-So, where, after beating Nakamura in a Q+R vs. Q+R position the day before, Wesley So seemed set to lose it this time. Ultimately it all came down to the position after the last roll of the dice, 35…Qh3:


36.Qd5! was winning, but after 22 minutes Nepomniachtchi played 36.Qe2?, when 36…Qh2+ saw Wesley escape with perpetual check. Ian explained:

Qd5 is the obvious move. I wanted to play it a-tempo, but I started to calculate, and this is not a good sign, if you’re calculating simply easily winning positions!

“Right now I’m just very fortunate”, was Wesley So’s verdict, since he’d been unable to find any salvation for himself while Nepomniachtchi pondered the critical position. That draw could be of great significance for the final tournament standings, since Wesley remains only half a point behind Magnus:


In Saturday’s penultimate round it’s So vs. Carlsen, with Magnus knowing a win will bring yet another supertournament victory with a round to spare. Wesley, meanwhile, was one of only two players to beat Magnus Carlsen in 2018 (in Norway Chess), and if he can do the same in Zagreb we’ll have a very different narrative. Magnus commented:

It’s clear that only the two of us are contending for tournament victory now, so it’s going to be huge, but I feel quite good and I’m ready for a fight.

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!

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