World Championship Challenger Fabiano Caruana is the sole leader of the GRENKE Chess Classic with two rounds to go after beating Maxime Vachier-Lagrave with the black pieces in Round 7. Magnus Carlsen summed up “bad game, good point!” of his win over Arkadij Naiditsch that helped him stay just half a point behind, where he’s joined by Nikita Vitiugov. The Russian will have a big say in the final outcome as he has Black against Magnus in the penultimate round and then White vs. Caruana on the last day.
Check out some more impressions from Baden-Baden:
At some moments it looked like being an even more impressive day for the players with the black pieces, but in the end there were “just” two wins, for the world nos. 1 and 3:
You can relive the day’s action, and watch the players talk about their games, in the live commentary from Jan Gustafsson and Peter Leko:
This was the big clash between the co-leaders, and with the white pieces it was Maxime Vachier-Lagrave who you might have expected to make a claim for overall tournament victory. Instead it was a shockingly one-sided game, with Maxime apparently caught off-guard when Fabiano Caruana played 4…Bb4 for the first time in his career in a 1.c4 e5 English.
He spent 10 minutes on the next two moves, with Fabiano later commenting:
I thought he was surprised in the opening. I normally don’t play 4…Bb4 and he was very clearly unfamiliar with the line, and we were both on our own after 9.Qc2, I guess.
The curiosity here, though, is that the highest rated player to have had this position with the black pieces (according to the chess24 database) is… Maxime Vachier-Lagrave, who played it 10 years ago against Loek van Wely in the French Team Championship.
They were still following that game until Maxime played 12.Bf4 instead of Loek’s 12.Rb1, and after that things fell apart at an astonishing speed. 17.Bf1 already seemed a decision born of desperation, 18.a4!? surprised Fabiano, but not as much as combining it with leaving that pawn unguarded with 19.Rac1?!, when 19…g5! was the start of a dangerous attack. How dangerous became clear after 20.Bd2 Qf5 21.f3 Qc5+:
Fabiano pointed out afterwards that the plausible 22.Kg2?? loses on the spot to 22…Bxf3+!, when 23.exf3 is mate-in-4 after 23…Re2+!, while the “best” move 23.Kxf3 is mate-in-10 after 23…Qg1! Even after 22.Kh1 in the game 22…Bxf3+! 23.exf3 Qf2! was strong, though Caruana’s 22…Bd5! was possibly even stronger.
He felt he missed some things in the play that followed (that was to be a theme at the winners’ post-game interviews), but Maxime didn’t even make it to the time control.
Watch Peter Leko go through that encounter and recap the rest of the day’s action:
That win took Fabiano Caruana within a rating point of becoming not only the challenger but the world no. 2, with no sign of the post-Candidates Tournament hangover we might have expected:
Fiona Steil-Antoni asked him where he was getting the energy from:
I can’t say I’ve had much energy throughout the tournament. I’ve felt a bit burnt out, but I haven’t really put any stress on myself. I guess it’s working out, and obviously I was lucky in a bunch of games, specifically my game against Magnus. I was very lucky to survive that, and my game against Hou Yifan, and also my wins were kind of random, but I guess I took my chances!
Magnus Carlsen needed to win to stay just half a point behind, and he had the ideal opponent for such a situation. It’s not that Arkadij was going to be easy to beat – after all, he had a 2.5/3 score against Magnus in their last three classical encounters – but he was going to be at least as keen as Magnus to play for a win.
Naiditsch chose the 6.g3 variation against Carlsen’s Najdorf and began to take a series of provocative decisions, beginning with 13.f3, then 16.f4 and 17.Kh1:
Magnus hesitated but chose not to take on f4, and when he instead played 17…Bf8, a move he felt sure wasn’t the best, Arkadij pushed the pawn to f5. The next major provocation was then 25.Nd1!?
This was too much for Magnus, who said it “felt so strange I just wanted to punish him”, though his 25…e4!? was at least double-edged. It seemed to work out, though, with our commentary team singing the praises of the black position:
It was the time situation that would drive the last nail in Naiditsch’s coffin, though, since despite making a number of best moves with almost no time remaining he faltered just as the time control approached:
38.Qd1! was a last resource for White, since if queens are exchanged White has excellent drawing chances. Instead 38.Kg2?! allowed the pin 38…Rc3!, when playing 39.Qg4+ was the last chance to get out of that, even if White’s survival chances were probably slim (the d5-pawn will also fall). Instead 39.Rd1 h5! both stopped the queen check and prepared for the bishop to enter the game, with Arkadij resigning after a few last desperate moves.
Afterwards Jan asked Magnus how it felt to be only half a point behind Fabiano, which brought a sharp reply that gradually mellowed:
It’s actually not too different from yesterday, or this morning… It feels better to have won a game, even though I don’t think the game itself was very good. It’s not in my hands, but I have a chance. When you win one out of your first six games that’s pretty much all you can hope for!
Fiona had an even tougher task, but the “bad game, good point” summary of the encounter was worth it!
The other three games were drawn, with Levon Aronian failing to keep pace with Magnus when his English Opening was very professionally neutralised by Nikita Vitiugov.
Hou Yifan had been slightly better out of the opening against Matthias Bluebaum, but after playing 19.Qb2?! she was forced on the defensive:
White is targeting the g7-pawn, but 19…Qf5! made the threat of Rc2, Qxf2 and giving mate a more urgent matter. The women’s no. 1 ended up going for the miserable 20.Qe2 Rc2 21.Qf3 Qxf3 22.gxf3 but went on to hold the ending relatively easily.
The most dramatic draw of the day by far was Anand-Meier, a battle between two players who had lost the day before. It looked as though it might end as a case of both players licking their wounds with a quiet draw, until move 29:
Vishy commented afterwards, “Black’s lynchpin is this knight on d5,” and although he said his first instinct was to take a draw with 29.Raa7 he eventually decided to get rid of that lynchpin once and for all with the exchange sacrifice 29.Rxd5!?
He commented, “I thought this was a very serious winning chance,” but the fun only lasted a few more moves:
Vishy said he had to play 33.h3!, with full compensation, but instead went for 33.f4?!, when Black got in his counterplay such as Ra2-d2-d3 and h4 with tempo. Anand summed up his feelings as, “two moves ago I was fighting for an advantage, and now I’m worse”, but it’s not clear Georg missed anything in what followed. “Somehow I escaped”, was how Vishy put it. The former World Champion has an interesting end to the tournament coming up, as first he’s Black against Naiditsch and then White against Carlsen in the final round.
Round 7 shook up the standings with two rounds to go, with Fabiano Caruana now out in the sole lead:
As we already mentioned, Nikita Vitiugov still has his fate in his own hands since he plays Carlsen in Round 8 and Caruana in Round 9. Caruana’s Round 8 opponent is Levon Aronian, a player he beat twice in Berlin. Maxime Vachier-Lagrave suffered a blow, but with Black against Bluebaum and White against Meier in the last two rounds he still has an excellent chance of fighting for the title. Remember that it’s traditional in the GRENKE Chess Classic for a rapid playoff to be held if players are tied for first.