Reports Jun 29, 2017 | 8:51 AMby Colin McGourty

Leuven GCT Day 1: So leads after beating Carlsen

A reborn Wesley So put “one of the worst tournaments of my life” in Paris behind him to take the lead after Day 1 of the Your Next Move Grand Chess Tour in Leuven. He did so by grinding down current and former World Champions Magnus Carlsen and Vladimir Kramnik, and drawing with Maxime Vachier-Lagrave. Maxime is second alongside Ian Nepomniachtchi, who was the sole leader until losing to Vishy Anand in Round 3. Don’t miss a recap by Radio Jan, while we also hand out prizes for the day’s best move, worst blunder, biggest fashion statement and more!

Things are looking up for Wesley So! | photo: Lennart Ootes

Barely had the Paris Grand Chess Tour ended when it all started up again in Leuven, Belgium. Radio Jan gives his carefully considered thoughts on the new line-up and why he’s willing to accept an invitation to play himself:

There were only four draws in 15 games on the first of three days of 25+10 rapid chess in Leuven. You can replay all the action using the selector below – click on a result to go to the game with computer analysis, while hovering over a player’s name will show you his results so far:

Once again there was live commentary from Yasser Seirawan, Jovanka Houska and Christian Chirila in St. Louis, while Maurice Ashley was on the scene in Leuven. Nigel Short is commentating for the local audience at the venue, but made some cameo appearances:

Rather than go through the day round-by-round, let’s instead hand out some prizes for the day’s action:

Comeback kid of the day: Wesley So

Lest we forget, Wesley So is the defending Grand Chess Tour Champion, but it didn’t look that way in Paris, where he finished in 7th place and at one stage managed to go 18 (eighteen) games without a win. Only a streak of four wins in five games on the final day of blitz added some respectability to his score, and it seems it’s that revived Wesley who has turned up in Paris.

In the first game of the day he faced Vladimir Kramnik and, as he’d done in their game in Shamkir this year, managed to apply pressure. Big Vlad cracked on move 28, when Wesley rejected a draw by repetition by playing 28.Ng1:

The knight is threatening to head to e5 via f3, but it would have been sufficient to play 28…Bc6 to be able to remove the knight from the board if it landed on f3. Instead Kramnik lashed out with 28…g5, when it seems after 29.fxg5 he must have been planning 29…f4. That fails to 30.Bxf4! Nxf4 31.Rf6+ and White is two pawns up. Kramnik instead complicated matters with 29…a3, but there was nothing he could do against So’s remorseless technique.

Only Maxime Vachier-Lagrave managed to stop Wesley on Day 1 | photo: Lennart Ootes

In Round 2 Maxime Vachier-Lagrave also ended up down a pawn, but he was able to find salvation in a rook ending. Then in Round 3 it was the big one: Magnus Carlsen, a player Wesley had only ever beaten in last year's Paris Grand Chess Tour.

Ivanchuk takes an interest in Carlsen-So | photo: Lennart Ootes

He admitted afterwards, “of course I was happy with a draw”, but without making any clear blunders the World Champion’s attempts to win a drawish heavy-piece position landed him in real trouble, and Wesley was again ruthless in converting his advantage. 

In fact, the only curious moment was perhaps when Carlsen resigned. If So had played 51…Qb5+, offering a handshake would have been a very reasonable option, but after 51…Qb3+ it would have been a good idea to wait one more move:

52.Ke4! now sets a trap, since the “simple” 52…Rc4? actually allows a draw with 53.Rh1+! and perpetual check. Of course there were plenty of moves to avoid that trap and win the game.

On the live stream you could be forgiven for thinking Maurice was in St. Louis, but in fact it looks like this, with Nigel Short commentating for the local fans | photo: Lennart Ootes

Asked how he’d managed to turn things around, Wesley commented, “I cleared my mind” and, “I tried not to worry too much about the tournament”. Whatever he’s doing it’s working so far. You might point out that he also started Paris with two wins and a draw on Day 1, but back then his play was very shaky and he scraped wins from bad positions against Fabiano Caruana and Etienne Bacrot, who would finish at the bottom of the table. Make no mistake, we saw a different So in Leuven!

Fashion statement of the day – Vassily Ivanchuk

There were no sunglasses on display in Leuven, as far as we’re aware, but Vassily Ivanchuk came to the rescue with his summery choice of legwear:

Baadur Jobava just couldn't compete... | photo: Lennart Ootes

Move of the day – Nepomniachtchi’s 37.Rh4!

When Maurice Ashley suggested Ian Nepomniachtchi’s win over Anish Giri “wasn’t the cleanest victory in the world” the Russian resisted the temptation to reply in outrage, “what do you want me to do?” and instead confessed that his giving away central pawns had had more than a hint of blunder about it. He explained his strategy from that point onwards, “I’ll try at least to threaten him with mate-in-1 a couple of times, here and there!” In fact he soon realised that the position had become unclear and was easier for him to play in time trouble. 

Nepo was king, at least for two rounds | photo: Lennart Ootes

He also got to unleash some great shots, such as…

37.Rh4!! If 37…Qxh4 then of course 38.Qxe6, and the e5-pawn is also falling, while after 37…Qxg6 38.b5! White had equalised and soon went on to fully exploit control of the h-file. In the final position the black queen has nowhere to go:

We have some runners-up in this category. You can pigeonhole Vladimir Kramnik’s move here against Vishy Anand under methodical, thematic and even beautiful:

Vishy is attacking pawns on a4 and h3, but who cares about pawns? 27.e5! led to a crushing win, which Vishy accelerated with 27…Qxh3? 28.exd6, when after exchanging a pair of rooks on e3 he saw nothing better than retreating the queen to d7. 

Vladimir Kramnik seems to be enjoying himself in Leuven | photo: Lennart Ootes

Actually, that game also provides one more candidate for move of the day:

On his last move Kramnik had nudged his king from g1 to g2. His choice here? 39.Kg1!, politely asking Black what he plans to do next. Moves like 39…g6 or 39…Qf8 run into 40.Qxf6! and 41.Nc6!, while e.g. 39…Kf8 is met by 40.Qa3! Vishy had seen enough and resigned.

Finally there was Aronian’s shot against Jobava in Round 2. The Georgian had sacrificed a piece on g4 and then tried to make a virtue of it by this fork on e3:

Levon swatted that away like a fly with 26.Bxf7+!, when you don’t need to calculate to see that after 26…Kxf7 27.Ng5+ Kf6 28.Rxe3 Kxg5 the king won’t survive its expedition. Jobava played 26…Kf8, but after 27.Qf2 and exchanges Aronian was up material as well as having a crushing attack. That brings us to:

Never say die attitude of the day: Jobava

Baadur Jobava ensured some entertaining chess | photo: Lennart Ootes

You can’t knock Baadur Jobava for trying, though his 0/6 score was a fair reflection of how his first experience of the Grand Chess Tour went. Hikaru Nakamura commented during Round 1:

When the two met in Round 3 fireworks seemed guaranteed, and the players didn’t disappoint! By move 19 Jobava had already sacrificed (?) a pawn:

There was no holding back as he launched everything he had at the black king: 20.Rxg7+!? A rook. 20…Kxg7 21.Qh4 h6 22.Re1 Re8 23.Nxe6+!? A knight 23…fxe6 24.Bxh6+ A bishop.

Ok, this one you can’t take without getting mated, but after 24…Kf7 Black had a winning position. There was still some intrigue as the cool-as-you-like 25.Kb1!!? provoked 25…Rg8 (25…Bg3! is crushing), when after 26.Bg6+ White actually came within touching distance of a draw. 

It needed total precision against a player of Vassily Ivanchuk’s class, however, and instead Baadur had to resign his 3rd game of the day on move 33.

Not this time, Jobava! | photo: Lennart Ootes

Blunder of the day: Aronian’s 28…Qf4?

The key clash of Round 1 was Carlsen-Aronian, and it saw a fascinating struggle in which White gave up a pawn for an attacking initiative. 

Carlsen and Aronian share a joke before their game | photo: Lennart Ootes

After a fierce middlegame struggle Magnus said the game should have ended in “a more or less logical draw”, but instead we got 28…Qf4?:

Magnus Carlsen accepted the gift with 29.Rxf6! gxf6 30.Bxd5 Qxf3 31.Bf3 and he had a technically winning two bishops vs. rook position that he went on to convert with ease. Ok, we admit that move won the prize partly for the players involved, since it wasn’t trivial to see what Levon should have done instead. However, it was well within the ability of the Armenian no. 1 - and famed trickster - to spot 28…Qd1+! 29.Kh2 Nf4+!, when the game would probably soon have ended in perpetual check after mass exchanges.

Levon wasn't smiling afterwards... | photo: Lennart Ootes

Novelty of the day: Giri’s 8.b3!

Talking of gifts, it was Anish Giri’s 23rd birthday, and up to a point it wasn’t looking good. First he got the only draw of Round 1, then, as we’ve seen, he lost a close to winning position against Ian Nepomniachtchi. In Round 3, though, everything went his way, starting with 8.b3!

White was offering a piece, which Levon somewhat reluctantly accepted with 8…g5, but after 9.Bb2 Nxd5 10.cxd5 Nb8? 11.Qc2! it seems he was already busted, though at least he entertained us by taking the knight and showcasing the full power of White’s idea.

Giri told Maurice Ashley afterwards:

In the Candidates 2016 suddenly everyone started playing this line (with 4…Bb4) after Vishy did it successfully, and sometime around that time I prepared this novelty 8.b3 and I was sure this would occur any week, because everyone was going for it, but suddenly everyone stopped and I was thinking it’s not fair - I have a nice idea and nobody knows about it or goes for it anymore… It’s just very dangerous… it’s very hard to face.

Anish jokingly complained that Levon didn’t give him the birthday present of mate on the board with 21…Qe4 22.Qg5+ Kd7 23.Qd8#, but that would just have been the icing on the cake.

Chess character assassination of the day: Vishy & Anish on Nepo

Ian Nepomniachtchi’s dash from Khanty-Mansiysk to Leuven had proved worth it when he scored a second win of the day to move to 4/4, but his momentum was finally stopped by Vishy Anand in Round 3.

Nepo had Vishy puzzled... | photo: Lennart Ootes

 Vishy was asked what he thought about Nepo’s 14…Qg5+ in the Najdorf:

He played it, I thought it was a bad move, but he played it so confidently I couldn’t tell anymore. And this is the thing. During the game he made lots of, I would say, quite bad moves, but he made them with astonishing nonchalance! So I simply couldn’t tell. Quite often I would just sit and think to see if I’d missed something. When I went 19.Ne3 he went 19…Qf4 very confidently, as if it was the point of the whole line, but I take and Nf5 and it’s just a very pleasant ending!

Vishy went on to win a smooth game. Immediately afterwards it was Anish Giri’s turn to share his thoughts on Nepo’s style:

I played Ian, and as Vishy already said, it’s very hard to play Ian because he’s making bad moves, but he’s sitting there like it’s all part of the plan. It’s just very hard to face. I cracked, Vishy didn’t…

They're struggling with Nepo already and he hasn't yet brought out his monster sweater from the World Team Championship... | photo: Lennart Ootes

Great escape of the day: MVL vs. Kramnik

After losing to So in Round 1 and beating Anand in Round 2, the world no. 2 Vladimir Kramnik could have ended on a real high by beating Maxime Vachier-Lagrave. The game had already swung from side to side before it was Vlad who drew first blood:

28…Nxe4!! 29.Bxa2 Nxc3! 30.Qf3 e4! was absolutely crushing, but Maxime managed to bamboozle the former World Champion with 37.Qh5!:

The h6 and f7-pawns are attacked, but which one should you defend? Kramnik chose wrongly with 37…Bg5 and after 38.Qxf7+ Kh8  39.Qg6! (the key “quiet” move) 39…Re7 (there’s nothing better) 40.Rxh6+ Bxh6 41.Qf6+ Bg7 there was a draw by repetition. Instead 37…Qe7! was crushing, since, hard as it is to believe, nothing bad is happening to Black after 38.Qxh6+.

Maxime summed up succinctly:

That left the standings after three rounds (remember there are two points for a win in rapid) as follows:

It could all change very quickly, though, since although So may be favourite to beat Jobava in Round 4 the other leaders meet in Kramnik-Nepomniachtchi and MVL-Carlsen. Don’t miss all the action here on chess24 from 13:50 CEST onwards! You can also follow the games in our free mobile apps:


See also:

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