Features Dec 15, 2015 | 10:59 AMby Colin McGourty

London Chess Classic: Winners and Losers

The London Chess Classic is over, and with it the 2015 Grand Chess Tour. The overall winner is, of course, World Champion Magnus Carlsen, whose smash and grab raid at the finish couldn’t have gone any better. There were other winners — and losers — though, and we take a look at some of them, including Vladimir Kramnik, who didn’t even play, and the Grand Chess Tour regulations, which puzzled and dismayed chess fans and players in equal measure.

Levon Aronian makes his move at the closing dinner, catching Jennifer Shahade by surprise | photo: Ray Morris-Hill


1. Magnus Carlsen

Well, where else can we start? Magnus’ final day exploits earned him $75,000 for 1st place in the London Chess Classic, $75,000 for 1st place in the Grand Chess Tour and even saw the World Champion stretch his lead on the live rating list. 

Magnus holds aloft his trophies | photo: Ray Morris-Hill

What’s amazing is how close he came to failure. If Alexander Grischuk had spotted a win in time trouble in their final game Magnus would have earned nothing from the Grand Chess Tour and perhaps $20,000 from the London Chess Classic, a $130,000 drop in income, not to mention prestige. A draw, perhaps the fairer result of the game, would have meant much the same.

Garry Kasparov pointed out Carlsen’s Grand Chess Tour performance had been less than stellar:

Magnus’ overall performance was quite a lousy one. He was lucky at the end of this tournament, but let’s not forget he made 50% - his overall score is 50% in 27 games! Ironically Giri has +5 and he now has to play Vachier-Lagrave to challenge Magnus. Rules are the rules, but this Grand Tour actually demonstrated that Magnus’ advantage over other players is not as big as we all thought before. Hopefully it will give him an extra psychological reason to work harder and show his best form next year.

But there’s also a strong case to be made in Magnus’ defence:

  • While not a great score, he did actually score +1 over the series (-2 in Stavanger, +1 in St. Louis, +2 in London), not 50%
  • Magnus came close to scoring more at the end, held back by the 50-move draw issue against Topalov
  • He gambled and won in the final game against Grischuk, going for an extremely sharp position in his opponent’s time trouble — his rivals ultimately paid the price for playing it safe
  • He is the World Rapid Champion, so despite the issues with the playoff rules — of which more later — he was always going to be the favourite if he made it into a playoff
  • Most people wouldn’t mind bad years like this! Magnus won the Tata Steel Masters, Shamkir Chess, the GRENKE Chess Classic and the World Rapid Championship

Plus if you're involved with Maria Sharapova and Muhammad Ali in making a commercial for Porsche something has clearly gone right:

2. Vladimir Kramnik

Sometimes the only winning move is not to play…

While his professional colleagues were engaged in a slugfest in London, Vlad could put his feet up somewhere back in Switzerland and watch as Vishy Anand and Veselin Topalov suffered and he climbed the live rating list:

Source: 2700chess 

Kramnik qualified by rating for the 2016 Grand Chess Tour...

...though before that he’ll meet Carlsen, Giri and co. in the Qatar Masters Open.

3. Anish Giri

Giri and his wife Sopiko Guramishvili at the prize-giving dinner | photo: Ray Morris-Hill

There was a brief temptation to put Giri among the “losers”, since despite outperforming Magnus by most objective measures he finished behind the World Champion. That would be churlish, though, since so much went right:

  • Unbeaten in 27 classical games across the Grand Chess Tour
  • Five wins for a +5 score compared to Magnus’ +1, scoring the same or more points as the World Champion in each tournament
  • A rating rise up to 2794 and 3rd place on the live rating list, in the process confirming his place in the 2016 Candidates Tournament
  • 2nd place in both the London Chess Classic and the Grand Chess Tour for a combined $100,000

4. Levon Aronian

It wasn’t spectacular, but Levon’s unbeaten +1 in London (one crushing win over Topalov) built on his unbeaten +3 in St. Louis to give him third place in the overall Grand Chess Tour and qualification for next year’s tour. 

PlayerRatingNorway ChessSinquefield CupLondon Chess ClassicTotal
1Magnus Carlsen28344101226
2Anish Giri2784761023
3Levon Aronian2788213722
4Maxime Vachier-Lagrave277357820
5Hikaru Nakamura279388319
6Veselin Topalov2803134118
7Alexander Grischuk274735614
8Viswanathan Anand2796102214
9Fabiano Caruana 2787634.513.5
10Michael Adams27374.54.5
11Jon Ludvig Hammer269511
11Wesley So277511

More importantly, perhaps, the Armenian is well and truly back where he belongs at the top of the world chess ladder after falling out of the Top 10 earlier this year. No more training camps with Magnus:

Chess Training Camp: Behind the Scenes

In training. #Southampton #SinquefieldCup

Posted by Magnus Carlsen on Tuesday, 18 August 2015

The revival is well-timed given Levon’s wildcard place in the 2016 Candidates Tournament.

5. The London Chess Classic

David Howell with his trophy for winning the £20,000 British Knockout Championship | photo: Ray Morris-Hill

A common criticism of the Grand Chess Tour is that it hasn’t brought anything new to the chess world — great tournaments have joined forces, but they’re no greater together than they were apart. That may be largely true, but if one tournament was significantly improved it was London, where the main event had shrunk in 2014 to only a six-person single-round robin. The 10-player, 9-round format of the Grand Chess Tour made it the most impressive tournament organised on British soil since the 2013 Candidates Tournament — although in pure average rating terms it also beat that!

We still had the strong side events such as the FIDE Open won by a point by Benjamin Bok with 8/9, the Super Rapidplay Open won by Luke McShane on 9.5/10 (after a 9/9 start!) and the new British Knockout Championship won by David Howell after a 6-game match against Nicholas Pert. Perhaps the organisers were unlucky Nigel Short had to withdraw from that event at the last moment and that the main tournament featured so many draws, but such details are of course outside of their control. It was a great celebration of chess.


1. The Grand Chess Tour rules (aka MVL)

To cut a long story short here you might want to listen to Grandmaster Jan Gustafsson during his latest Banter Blitz session:

Otherwise it’s hard to know where to start... so why not at the beginning with the selection procedures? The very first item of the tour regulations reads:

Invitations: The organizers of the Grand Chess Tour started with the January 2015 FIDE Rating List and sought players that demonstrate the highest levels of sportsmanship and professionalism. We invited the top-10 players in the world, eight of whom have confirmed their participation

That raised more questions than it answered. If you invite all the players, why mention the players’ behaviour? Then when the announcement was made we were told one player had yet to be decided, though the website already included a profile of Maxime Vachier-Lagrave, who was below Sergey Karjakin on the January rating list mentioned (both were outside the Top 10). Karjakin, who won the Norway Chess tournament in both of its previous editions, had every reason to feel aggrieved that he was left out, whatever your opinion of his politics.

Maxime was fortunate to take part in the Grand Chess Tour, but his luck didn't hold quite to the end | photo: Ray Morris-Hill

The section entitled “2016 Qualification” only included, “The top-three players from the 2015 Grand Chess Tour qualify automatically for the 2016 Grand Chess Tour” in the run-up to the London Chess Classic (check out an internet archive). Then more was added:

The next six players by rating shall also be invited to participate in the 2016 Grand Chess Tour. Ratings will be the average of each monthly FIDE supplement from February through December inclusive, as well as the live ratings after the 2015 London Chess Classic

That change to what might be the expected approach (using the January 2016 rating list) altered the chances of players to qualify. Perhaps it was the plan all along and had been communicated to the players, but the lack of transparency makes a bad impression.

Then minor issues cropped up. Magnus Carlsen lost a game in Norway Chess because he’d failed to note the unusual time control used for the event, while the Sinquefield Cup highlighted potential unfairness in the way points were distributed after ties. Four players scored 5/9 for 2nd place, but Magnus scored 10 to Giri’s 6. Giri's mistake was to win only one game (and remain unbeaten), though in an ironic twist (given later events) he had the best Sonneborn-Berger tiebreaker of all four players. The FIDE Grand Prix shares points between players who tie.

And then we got the final day of the event. London Chess Classic Tournament Director Malcolm Pein struggled valiantly to explain all the possible scenarios and was eventually helped out by the fact that almost all of them took place! Giri, Vachier-Lagrave and Carlsen all finished tied for first place and would have to play a playoff. 

NrNameRatingFedScoreTPRGames wonSB
1Carlsen, Magnus28345.52859224.00
2Giri, Anish27845.52864223.00
3Vachier-Lagrave, Maxime27735.52865222.75
4Aronian, Levon278852827121.25
5Grischuk, Alexander27474.52788119.25
6Caruana, Fabiano27874.52784020.25
6Adams, Michael27374.52789020.25
8Nakamura, Hikaru279342740116.75
9Anand, Viswanathan27963.52703015.00
10Topalov, Veselin28032.52616011.50

The rules stated that the player with the best tiebreaks would qualify straight for a “final”, while the other two played a match to meet him. Since the format was two 25-minute per player rapid games and then Armageddon that gave almost an extra three hours for the lucky leader to relax.

Not to be confused with a match for second place... | photo: Ray Morris-Hill

The tiebreaker that determined Carlsen won that prize was Sonneborn-Berger, which Dennis Monokroussos convincingly argues doesn’t suit round-robin tournaments. Another minor detail was pointed out by Peter Svidler: 6 minutes vs. 5 minutes Armageddon has largely been replaced by 5 vs. 4, which gives White a better chance.

Play hadn’t been started early, so the final match didn’t ultimately end until around midnight, with the tour organisers deciding that the Grand Chess Tour playoff that would be needed in case Maxime won would take place the next day. Of course Magnus avoided that issue.

There was one last sting in the tail, though. Despite having beaten Anish Giri in a playoff match it seems the regulations (at least as contained in the player contracts) stated that the playoff would only affect 1st place. So amazingly Anish still finished 2nd in London on the standard tiebreakers while Maxime was knocked down to third. That had serious consequences, since it meant the Frenchman missed out on a Top 3 finish in the Grand Chess Tour that would have meant both instant cash and, more significantly, qualification for next year’s series. Giri began to believe in his luck again:

While Nakamura was even more unimpressed:

Still, it would be harsh to consider Maxime Vachier-Lagrave a loser. Despite his disputed qualification for the 2015 event he was given a chance and eventually used it as a springboard back into the Top 10. Let’s hope the Tour can learn the lessons of 2015, since despite some qualms about the same guys meeting in multiple events it’s hard to argue with the star power and popularity of the series among chess fans.

2. The veterans

Veselin Topalov and Vishy Anand both started the Grand Chess Tour in brilliant form in Norway Chess, finishing 1st and 2nd. Then Veselin beat Carlsen and Nakamura in the first two rounds in the Sinquefield Cup, but it was all downhill from there. He lost two games to finish on 50%, and although he entered the London Chess Classic leading the tour he finished rock bottom in London with four losses.

Needless to say, Vishy had nothing to prove here - while his thoughts were partly on events in Chennai | photo: Ray Morris-Hill

Vishy fared no better, losing his first two games in the Sinquefield Cup and then three in London Chess, with a victory over Topalov his only consolation. He was brief when asked to sum up his tournament:

What can I say — it’s the sort of result you slink out quietly from. I don’t have much to say for myself. It’s disappointing to keep losing so many games. I’ll see if I can fix that.

3. Hikaru Nakamura

Up to a point it was all going so well for Hikaru in London — after beating Anand in Round 4 the US no. 1 was the joint leader and world no. 2. That didn’t change until Round 7, when it all went wrong… again. He lost a brutal game (his 12th without reply) to his nemesis, Carlsen, and then went on to lose to Giri the next day. He could only finish 8th in London and 5th in the tour as a whole.

Hikaru did at least finish as a winner, beating Aronian and business partner in the final game of the Pro-Biz Cup | photo: Ray Morris-Hill 

4. Fabiano Caruana

This wasn’t quite as dramatic for Nakamura’s great rival as US no. 1 (they’re currently separated by 0.1 points on the live rating list!). After his final round draw Fabiano joked:

Nine draws — it’s impressive, isn’t it?

Of course it was more impressive for his opponent, Mickey Adams, who with nine draws had bucked the trend for the wild card in the Grand Chess Tour to lose four games, win one and finish last — as both Jon Ludvig Hammer and Wesley So had done before him.

For an ambitious young star it was a lacklustre performance, even giving Anish Giri some ammunition:

It might slightly contribute to changing my image as the guy who draws all his games. I never, ever had a tournament where I drew all my games, and now we have two guys who are doing it!

Super Rapidplay winner Luke McShane with Fabiano Caruana, Sopiko Guramishvili and Anish Giri at the prize-giving | photo: Ray Morris-Hill

What should perhaps be said in defence of Anand, Topalov, Nakamura and Caruana is that the real test awaits in Moscow in March, when they play the Candidates Tournament for the chance to play a World Championship match against Carlsen. It’s understandable their thoughts may be elsewhere. 

Do you have any other winners or losers you’d add for the London Chess Classic or the tour as a whole? Let us know in the comments!

See also:

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