Reports Dec 17, 2018 | 12:28 AMby Colin McGourty

Grand Chess Tour comes down to rapid and blitz

All eight classical games have now been drawn in the Grand Chess Tour finale, meaning that the fate of the $300,000 in prize money will be determined in rapid and blitz on Monday. It’s a familiar story for Fabiano Caruana this winter in London, with his opponent Levon Aronian admitting he was being “practical” to take a quick draw with White in the second game, since he outrated Fabiano in speed chess. Meanwhile Gawain Jones again proved you can win classical games in a knockout, as he beat Luke McShane to take a 6-point lead in the British Knockout Championship final.

Fabiano Caruana had a wonderful 2018, but in the crucial last 16 classical games he's been held to 16 draws | photo: Lennart Ootes, Grand Chess Tour

Replay all the Grand Chess Tour final games using the selector below:

And here’s the commentary on Game 2 of the final matches:

Aronian follows the known recipe against Caruana

Fabiano Caruana has now drawn all 16 classical games he’s played this winter in London, and there’s been a pattern to almost all of them. When he’s had White he’s pressed for an advantage and his opponents have tried their luck on the counterattack, while when he’s had Black his opponents have got nothing and hurried to shut things down before they get into trouble.

Levon Aronian fear no-one, but he also knows where it's easier to beat a player like Caruana | photo: Lennart Ootes, Grand Chess Tour

First there was Magnus in the World Championship, then Hikaru in the Grand Chess Tour semi-final, and now Levon Aronian in the 3rd place playoff. The 1st game of the match saw Fabiano playing the Anti-Berlin and following an approach he’d taken in last year’s Sinquefield Cup against Sergey Karjakin:


This is where things got strange, as instead of 10…e4, as played by Karjakin, Levon went for 10…a5!? 11.b5 e4, when suddenly the whole board is on fire. Afterwards Levon implied that he’d simply forgotten the line he prepared here (10…e4 first), but it’s hard to know with the Armenian no. 1, whose post-game comments on his opening play are notoriously unreliable. What was certain is that Fabiano suddenly had attractive options, and instead of taking on e4 with the pawn immediately, as he’d done against Karjakin, he eventually went for 12.Ba3!? after a 23-minute think. 

That left Levon the chance to sow chaos with 12…Nb4!? or 12…Qf4!? - “something stupid but very romantic” as he later described those options – but after 15 minutes he chose the much more robust 12…Bc5. White was left with an extra pawn, but Fabiano admitted afterwards that his attempt to consolidate that with 17.f3 hadn’t been a huge success, since when the game ended in perpetual check on move 28 he still hadn’t managed to castle.

The game was noteworthy since it ensured Caruana would no longer be able to catch Magnus Carlsen on the rating list in 2018:

In the return game Caruana had Black and played his trusty Petroff, with Levon Aronian springing a small local surprise with 11.Bd3. Fabiano didn’t blink, though, and responded by showing his antidote, until both players felt the game essentially ended on move 15:


They separately called 15.c5 here “very, very complicated”. Levon said he would have played it if he’d prepared it especially before the game, but instead he went for 15.cxd5, queens were exchanged and the players managed to find an immediate draw by repetition. It had been a 40-minute non-game.

Fabiano was up first to talk about the game and claimed that his opponents are all “very ambitious” and always play for a win with White, adding:

Nobody is playing for a draw here, but sometimes you don’t get so many chances with White.

Shortly after that, though, Levon admitted there was a real temptation to play for a draw against Fabiano - if it means taking a match to rapid and blitz:

I’m usually not the guy to go for a short draw with White, but since it’s a match I thought to be practical. After all, I have a much higher rating in rapid and blitz than Fabiano. Mathematically it should be not a bad decision.   

Levon added the rating difference, “suggests that maybe he doesn’t feel that comfortable compared to regular chess”.

On the live rating list Aronian has 2791.2 in rapid and 2846.8 in blitz compared to Fabiano’s 2760.4 and 2760.6. Will Caruana manage to prove his doubters (and opponents) wrong in Monday’s speed chess showdown? In any case, by this stage he’s probably just looking forward to finally getting to relax after his London exertions!

Nakamura escapes MVL’s clutches – twice

Nakamura and MVL back on the familiar London Chess Classic Olympiad Conference Centre stage | photo: Lennart Ootes, Grand Chess Tour

The other match-up was a much better advertisement for classical chess, with Maxime Vachier-Lagrave pressing almost from start to finish in the two games. In the first he played the Grünfeld and had Hikaru on his own and in deep thought by move 15. The US star afterwards admitted that he “just missed a couple of tactics”. He overlooked that his original plan of 19.Rxc1!? would put him on the defensive after 19…Nc6! 20.Qe3 Qa3!, and then that after 23…Rc2 in the game he couldn’t easily challenge the rook:


His planned 24.Rd2? would be hit by 24…Qb4! and the threat of mate on e1 means Black is suddenly winning a piece. Hikaru changed track, but later took a risky decision with 33.Rxa5!? (33.Nf1! is the move Maxime and the computers expected, though Hikaru was worried he was simply losing the ensuing ending):


Maxime here could have gone for 33…Rd1+ 34.Kf2 Rd2+ 35.Kg1 Ra2 36.Rxe5 a5 37.f4 a4, when the a-pawn looks very dangerous, but both players had concluded that after 38.f5 White has enough counterplay to draw. Instead the French no. 1 went for what he considered a better winning chance with 33…f6, but Hikaru’s well-timed h4, g4 and g5 pawn pushes proved to be enough to secure the draw.

New jacket, same result | photo: Lennart Ootes, Grand Chess Tour

The second game followed a similar pattern, even though Maxime now had White. He went for the 15.a3 line Vladimir Kramnik introduced against the Berlin Endgame in the Berlin Candidates, and succeeded in surprising Nakamura with 17.Ne4. He then got in the traditional e6-pawn break:


It was only around this point that Nakamura realised that he’d again overlooked something, since after his planned 22…f5 23.Re5 fxg4? White suddenly gets a totally dominant position with 24.h4! He switched to 23…Nd5, aiming for a 4-rook ending that he only saw was critical after 28.h4 appeared on the board:


Hikaru commented, “I have to be super precise or I just lose, basically”, though it’s noteworthy that the computers approve of 28…Rh8 29.h5 g6 immediately, which Nakamura decided didn’t work. Instead he chose what he called the more “creative” 29…Ke8 30.Rxe7+ Kxe7 31.Kg2 g6, when Black was just able to create enough counterplay to defend.

Maxime lamented that he’d played too fast and overlooked a later check (39…Rg2+), but it’s not clear if he missed any clear chance for more. In any case, the players made up for the quick draw in the other game by playing on until bare kings!

That means both the final and the 3rd place matches in the 2018 Grand Chess Tour go to a speed chess showdown on Monday with the scores level. Once again there will be two rapid games (4 points for a win) followed by four blitz games (2 points for a win). Only if the scores are still level will we get two more 10+5 games followed, again if required, by Armageddon.

Gawain Jones shows how it’s done

Gawain Jones takes a 6-point lead into the rapid and blitz | photo: Lennart Ootes, London Chess Classic

The British Knockout Championship is being played on the same stage with exactly the same format, and from the semi-finals onwards Gawain Jones has been the only player to win a classical game. He’s done it twice, against David Howell in the semi-finals and now against Luke McShane in the final (he also won the quarterfinal in classical chess, though the format was slightly different there):

25.Bxf7+! Qxf7 26.Rxd6! Qxc4 (accelerating the end) 27.Nd2! Qb4 28.Qxb4 axb4 29.Ne4!, and with a fork on f6 to follow, Black resigned. That means that Gawain takes a 6-point lead into Monday’s speed chess, making him the clear favourite to take home the £15,000 first prize.

The Grand Chess Tour matches are being played for even higher stakes ($120,000 for 1st place, $60,000 for 3rd), and you can watch all the action live here on chess24 on Monday!

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