Magnus Carlsen wiped out a 3-point lead to go into the final day of the Leuven Grand Chess Tour level with Wesley So. Garry Kasparov described the current World Champion’s style as a combination of Anatoly Karpov’s sense of where the pieces go and Bobby Fischer’s aggression as Magnus racked up seven wins and could even afford to blunder a whole rook against Anish Giri. Wesley So and Maxime Vachier-Lagrave scored 50%, while Baadur Jobava failed to bounce back in blitz, only ending as high as 0.5/9 courtesy of a peaceably inclined Vassily Ivanchuk in the final round.
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Magnus Carlsen was held to three draws on Friday, but more than made up for that lack of wins on the first day of blitz.
The opening game with Vishy Anand was perhaps the spark he needed.
Magnus seemed to have let his winning chances slip away until 54.d6 (54.Rf5 or 54.Rd7 draw) gave him one last opportunity:
54…Re5+! The only winning move. The king must move to the d-file and 55…Rd5+ will pick up the d6-pawn, so Vishy resigned.
Vladimir Kramnik held Magnus to his only draw of the day in the next round, but then the World Champion scored a crucial win over Maxime Vachier-Lagrave. The Frenchman had won both blitz games against Magnus in Paris, but this time round it was the Norwegian who got the better of a thrilling race:
Maxime’s earlier decision to sac a knight almost paid off, but here he needed to head for h8 immediately with 55.Ke3!, while 55.Kc3 Nh8! left Magnus winning the race.
It wasn’t just endgames Carlsen was winning. He won sharp tactical battles against Ian Nepomniachtchi, Baadur Jobava (although in better form the Georgian might have seized some great chances!) and Vassily Ivanchuk. The latter was lost as early as 20…Bf5?
21.b6! Nxd5 22.Qa2! forking the d5-knight and the b2-bishop. That game proved prophetic, since against Wesley So in the final encounter of the day Magnus also played the London System and also got a pawn to b6 and a queen to a7.
It was a formidable performance, with one stumble thrown in to prove Magnus is mortal. The World Champion arrived late to his game and was still arranging his pieces long after the clock had started, but Anish Giri identified the World Champion’s crucial strategic mistake as 20…a5, weakening the b6-pawn:
Six moves later only sharp tactics could have defended that pawn, and when Magnus missed them he was essentially lost, though that was still no reason to make the day’s most egregious blunder!
Wesley So was unbeaten in Leuven, had been the sole leader at the end of each day and had started excellently in the blitz section right up until move 22 of his Round 4 encounter with Maxime Vachier-Lagrave:
White has an overwhelming advantage and the computer recommends simply 23.Bg3, hitting the b7-bishop and leaving the c7-square for the rooks. If Wesley had gone on to win he would have matched Magnus’s 3.5/4 start and maintained a 3-point lead going into the remaining five rounds.
Instead he decided to win a pawn with 23.Bxb6!?, when suddenly Maxime was eyeing all kinds of counterplay. Sure enough, after 23…axb6 24.Rxb7 Bd6 25.Rxb6? Bf4! the Frenchman had won an exchange, and a few moves later the game swung completely in Black’s favour until resignation came on move 32. Kasparov said it made him feel better after blundering two knights against Wesley in their blitz games last year.
To Wesley’s credit he steadied the ship after that point with two draws and a win in his next three games, but then an inspired Anish Giri delivered the knockout blow in the day’s penultimate round. Anish said afterwards he played the way he did with the watching Garry Kimovich in mind, and although objectively White was better in the latter stages Wesley’s 31.Rh3? was the losing move:
31…Rg3! 32.Rxg3 fxg3 White resigned, as it’s impossible to hold both f3 and h4, and 33.Rxe3 Qxh4+ 34.Kg2 Qh2+ 35.Kf1 Bxe4! would indeed have been Kasparov’s bread and butter.
That meant the nightmare scenario had occurred in which Wesley went into the final game of the day, with Black against Magnus, only a single point ahead. You can watch what happened next in the recording of the live show, with commentary from Garry Kasparov:
Why was Anish Giri so inspired that he beat Carlsen and So in Rounds 7 and 8? Well, it could have been…
…but more likely it was that in Round 6 he managed to avoid the “irony” of being the only player to concede Baadur Jobava a draw again! Despite playing with the black pieces, Anish soon achieved a crushing position and had no difficulty finishing his opponent off.
Any dreams Baadur had of starting afresh in the blitz were soon in ruins and he’d suffered nine losses in a row before Vassily Ivanchuk took pity on him with a 30-move draw in the final game of the day. Vassily knew what it felt like to be a suffering wild card, since he’d started the day with four consecutive losses before consolidating with four draws in the last five games. The Ukrainian has now gone 12 games without a win.
With the publication of the July FIDE rating list Vladimir Kramnik is again officially world no. 2 at the age of 42, and on Saturday he had the 2nd best blitz score, scoring 6/9 with the day’s only unbeaten performance:
That’s not to say it was entirely smooth! In a time scramble in the 4th round of the day against Vishy Anand he rescued a game no less than four healthy pawns down. He could even have won it in a cute finale:
70.d8=Q loses to 70...Ne6+, but fortunately the game wasn’t played on an internet server with autoqueen selected and Vishy brought the show to an end with 70.d8=N+! and a draw was agreed.
Everyone saw the funny side!
Vishy, who lost the first two games painfully to Magnus and Wesley, went on to beat MVL in the next game (Ashley: “Does it give you satisfaction playing spoiler?” Anand: “No, but it gives me satisfaction winning! I was happy to finish it this time”) and didn’t lose any more games as he put in a much improved performance.
For Vladimir, meanwhile, that escape against Vishy was balanced by an unfortunate end to the day. He failed to take revenge for his loss to Levon Aronian in their rapid game:
66…h5, 66…Ke5 or 66…Kd5 and Black should be able to zugwang White into submission, but after 66…e3? there was an impenetrable fortress on the light squares. Not that Vlad didn’t keep trying!
Vladimir's most crushing win of the day came against Maxime Vachier-Lagrave:
29.Qh5! took advantage of the fact that 29…Qxe5 would be met by 30.Bh7+, though it says all you need to know about the position that the computer gives that as Black’s best option. There followed 29…Kg7 30.Bc2 Qb6 31.h4 Qxb2 and, although Vlad could also have saved the bishop, he played the crushing sacrifice 32.hxg5! The game might have ended sooner, but you don’t get extra points for finding the fastest mate.
That left Kramnik on 15/27, where at 3.5 points behind Carlsen and So you have to assume he’s out of contention for first place. Anish Giri is 3 points back, but although MVL made up a 3-point gap on the final day in Paris it’s hard to see lightning striking twice. MVL himself is “only” 2 points back.
Among the leaders Magnus must be the heavy favourite, but as he said himself:
Tomorrow I don't have the advantage of coming from behind!
It’s certainly going to be fun, and since they play in the same order but with reversed colours on Sunday it may matter that in the final round Wesley will have White against Magnus.
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