Hikaru Nakamura caught Fabiano Caruana, Levon Aronian and David Antón in the FIDE Chess.com Grand Swiss lead with just two rounds to go after overpowering Vladislav Kovalev with the black pieces. The big clash of the day, Carlsen-Caruana, was a dramatic but short draw, while Wang Hao missed a great chance to take pole position in the Candidates race when he spoilt a brilliant grind against Nikita Vitiugov. Elsewhere 14-year-old Vincent Keymer finally became a grandmaster after so many near misses in the last year.
You can replay all the FIDE Chess.com Grand Swiss games using the selector below:
Let’s start this time with the standings, since with just two rounds to go there are realistically now just 15 players in with a good chance of winning the tournament, and since those include Magnus Carlsen and Fabiano Caruana that means 13 fighting for the place in the Candidates Tournament:
The new entries in that group of players within half a point of the lead are Maxim Matlakov, who beat Boris Gelfand, Alexander Grischuk, who bounced back from his loss to Antón with a fine win over Alexei Shirov, David Howell, who defeated Rustam Kasimdzhanov for his 5th win of the event, and 30-year-old Russian Grandmaster Aleksandr Rakhmanov, who beat Markus Ragger.
Those players on 6 points will all be targeting two wins in the last two games to have a chance of the Candidates spot, with the odds of a tie for first place high. In that case there won’t be a playoff, but instead the first prize and the Candidates Tournament place will be decided by the mathematical tiebreaker of the average rating of a player’s opponents, excluding the lowest (TB1 in the table above). Hikaru Nakamura explained the system after his 3rd win in 4 games, since he was well-aware that his slow start on the Isle of Man means that he’s not going to win any tiebreaker battles. The solution? Outscore everyone but Magnus and Fabiano!
He set about that against Vladislav Kovalev with the Rossolimo Sicilian (1.e4 c5 2.Nf3 Nc6 3.Bb5 g6) and things couldn’t have gone better. Nakamura commented, “I think he was trying to figure out which line he could surprise me with,” since Kovalev burned up a huge amount of time in the opening. That was despite the players following Caruana-Nakamura from the 2017 US Championship until move 10 and then a recent Anand-Gelfand game from the Levitov Chess Week that Peter Svidler described as “quite significantly theoretically important” until move 14. Vladislav varied with 14.Be3!? from Vishy’s 14.b4, but the response was the same, 14…g5:
White’s best option here seems to be to hold onto his extra pawn with the somewhat artificial-looking 15.Bd4, though Nakamura was ready for that, saying afterwards, “I would have kept blitzing out the moves”.
With just 21 minutes remaining (against Hikaru’s more than 1 hour), Vladislav instead went for 15.Nh2?!, but as Nakamura summed up:
He wanted to find some way to simplify, but Nh2 doesn’t actually simplify… the problem is it just keeps going on.
After 15…Bxe5 16.Bd4 Bxh2+ 17.Kxh2 Qc7+ 18.Kg1 e5! the black pawns were rolling down the board and, with no time on his clock, Kovalev was unable to put up much resistance.
The day got better for Nakamura as none of the three leaders at the start of play were able to win. Aronian-Antón was a fierce battle where it was hard to guess who was better prepared in the opening. The players entered the hyper-sharp Giuoco Piano line with a sacrifice on f2 that Ding Liren had played this year with Black both against Vishy Anand in Norway Chess and Kirill Alekseenko in the World Cup. David played the first new move (17…c5 instead of Ding’s 17…Qa6), but Levon didn’t blink. Soon David was tempted by a bishop sacrifice on h3, but it ended up as no more than exchanging Levon’s h3-pawn for his own c5-pawn. The ending with two minor pieces against a rook offered chances for Aronian, but Antón found a radical solution to his problems:
44…Rxc3! 45.Bxc3 Rxc3 46.Ne3 Rxa3 47.Rxb5 and with just one white pawn remaining the extra knight did no good. A draw was agreed on move 61.
The other co-leader was Fabiano Caruana, but with the black pieces against Magnus Carlsen his thoughts were more on survival.
That became even more the case after Magnus repeated the English line with 8.Qf3 Nxc3 9.bxc3 that he’d used to crush Anish Giri at the start of the final day of the 2018 World Blitz Championship. He’d also used it to get a winning position against Ian Nepomniachtchi in a blitz game in Abidjan earlier this year, though that game had ended in a draw:
In both those cases Black played 9…Be7!? and immediately found himself in trouble after 10.Qg3, while Fabi instead went for 9…Ba5, when the continuing pressure on c3 means that 10.Qg3 isn’t yet threatening to take on g7. Caruana took almost 20 minutes on his move, explaining later that it was “kind of silly” since the line was no surprise but he, “couldn’t remember anything”.
Magnus clearly could remember what to do, and it turned out he had another surprise up his sleeve. He responded with 10.Bf4 0-0 11.0-0-0!, repeating a concept that had nearly seen him beat Levon Aronian in the Grand Chess Tour event in Croatia this summer:
The lack of piece development by Black meant the white king was relatively safe, but Fabiano was still able to target the king directly enough to force White to focus on defence: 11…Qe7 12.Kb2 Rb8 13.Bd3 b5 14.cxb5 Bb7 15.Qh3 g6 16.Qe3 Rfe8!?
It was now finally time for Magnus to think, and here he spent 46 minutes before rejecting the chance to capture the a7-pawn. Fabiano felt that after e.g. 17.Qxa7 Bb6 18.Qa3 Bc5 19.Qb3 Bxg2 “maybe [Magnus] thought it would be too difficult to control if he went for this”. It seems neither player spotted it, but there was also an immediate draw by perpetual check there with 17…Ra8! 18.Qxb7 Bxc3+! 19.Kxc3 Qc5+ 20.Bc4 Ra3+.
In the game after 17.Rhe1 Fabiano was able to continue the absolutely direct play against the white king with 17…Bc6! 18.a4 a6!, and after 19.Bg5 he decided not to let Magnus force the perpetual with 19…Qf8 20.Bh6 but instead force it himself with 19…Bxc3+! 20.Kxc3 Qa3+ and checks from b4 and g4:
Neither player could be too disappointed with the draw. Fabiano remained half a point ahead in the standings, while Magnus is now just one game from matching Ding Liren’s 100-game unbeaten streak – of course that means he’s also two games from surpassing it!
The big miss of the day came for Wang Hao against Nikita Vitiugov, though for most of the game it had been a tour de force by the Chinese player. 9 years ago, when Wang Hao was becoming a regular on the elite circuit, Ilya Odessky described his play in the Tal Memorial as being like a boa constrictor:
He plays without external effects, but remarkably effectively. His victories with Black are particularly impressive. They almost always follow the same scenario: worse, equality, comfortable equality, perhaps an advantage, a tangible advantage and… where, exactly, did White go wrong in order to have to resign now?
That was how things went in Round 9, but just when Wang Hao had done all the hard work he faltered in a rook ending two pawns up. 69…Rf4! should have been a relatively easy win, while after that there was still a chance after 72.Kg3:
72…Kf6! turns out to be the only winning move, with Black ensuring he can take the opposition if rooks are exchanged on f3. Wang Hao had over three minutes on his clock, but used just six seconds to play 72…Rd3?, after which the win had gone. Vitiugov found the only moves 73.Rf1! Kf5 74.Re1! d5 75.Re8! (or 75.Re7) and the black king was cut off from both pawns while the d-pawn can never get to d3 without giving up the f-pawn.
A nice save, but another costly rook ending for Wang Hao, who also lost a drawn position against Levon Aronian. If those games had gone differently he’d be an almost unassailable sole leader by now, since he also has the best tiebreak of any player in the tournament. That means he still has a decent chance to qualify for the Candidates, but up next is Black against Vishy Anand.
The battle for the Candidates can only have one winner, but after nine rounds multiple players had already achieved one of the biggest personal goals of any chess player – the grandmaster title. We’d already seen after 7 rounds that 13-year-old Sadhwani from Indian was going to become the 9th youngest grandmaster in history if his opponents showed up for the last two rounds. They did, and although Markus Ragger won in Round 8 Sadhwani bounced back to beat former European Champion Alexander Motylev in the penultimate round.
15-year-old Danish star Jonas Buhl Bjerre had also met the requirements with a round to spare and duly became the youngest ever Danish grandmaster.
Earlier this year he played a two-game rapid exhibition match against Magnus Carlsen – that starts at about 2:44:00 in the video below, with commentary by Jan Gustafsson, though there’s also a simultaneous exhibition and an interview with Magnus before that:
The one final grandmaster norm hunt that did go down to the wire was that of Vincent Keymer. The now 14-year-old scored his first grandmaster norm with what was one of the greatest results ever by a junior: winning the massive 2018 GRENKE Chess Open with an amazing 8/9 despite starting as the 99th seed.
He scored a second norm in the Xtracon Chess Open in July and then had looked sure to wrap up the title on countless occasions since. He always fell just short but finally, with a draw against Vadim Zvjaginsev, he’s done it, and now he and his coach Peter Leko can chart a path to the top.
Ultimately what matters, of course, is a player’s ceiling and not how fast they move up the ranks!
So we’re down to the last two rounds on the Isle of Man and there’s no margin for error for any players dreaming of playing in the Candidates Tournament. The top eight pairings are the ones that are likely to matter, with Nakamura-Aronian the stand-out game:
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