Magnus Carlsen has won the London Chess Classic and the Grand Chess Tour in an incredible end to what had been a lacklustre year and series for the World Champion. Alexander Grischuk said he “created a monster”, since it was his missed win and then draw that enabled Carlsen to sneak through into a 3-way playoff. Maxime Vachier-Lagrave took out Anish Giri in rapid games but was running on empty when he faced Carlsen in the ultimate decider.
For the final round it was fitting that we got the signature result of the 2015 London Chess Classic – four draws and a single win: (note you can play through all games in the tournament, including the tiebreaks, below)
The win was a spectacular game, but let’s quickly whizz through the other action:
1) Anand ½ – ½ Giri: Anish Giri knew a draw would almost certainly give him a playoff place at worst, so he decided trying to beat Vishy Anand with Black would be unnecessary heroics. He played the Berlin and the first 26 moves followed a draw from the 2014 Carlsen-Anand World Championship match. The first absolutely new move came a move later, while by move 33 the players were shaking hands. Solid.
2) Adams ½ – ½ Caruana: Both players ended with a “perfect” nine draws, and this 5…Bc5 Ruy Lopez never really threatened to spoil either of their records.
3) Aronian ½ – ½ MVL: Queens disappeared from the board early on, but this remained a sharp and entertaining struggle. The curiosity was that Levon Aronian, who needed a win to challenge for the tournament and tour, was in some trouble with the white pieces. His ingenuity was sufficient to survive, but it was Maxime who joined Anish in a playoff.
4) Nakamura ½ – ½ Topalov: The forgotten game of the round – first, because it was the one game in the round where nothing was at stake, and second, because they also played the Berlin Wall. A draw by repetition on move 37 did nothing to make that neglect seem undeserved.
So that leaves the game of the day, or as Grischuk himself said afterwards, perhaps the game of the tournament.
Both players knew they needed a win to have any chance of reaching a playoff, so neither seemed too disappointed when they followed the Sicilian line with an early 7…g5!? sacrifice that Topalov had used to beat Carlsen in the Sinquefield Cup. Magnus varied with 10.Nc3, but although Grischuk spent over 16 minutes on his response he explained afterwards it wasn’t new to him:
10.Nc3 I analysed a long time ago… I analysed it a long time ago before Topalov’s game.
After 10…Rb8 Magnus then spent 22 minutes on 11.Rf1, making a curious impression:
But Grischuk was deeply impressed that Magnus had found that
move at the board and described his opponent’s play from moves 11-23 as
In the opening he played very well… at the moment when I thought I had everything completely under control the computer thinks it’s +0.90.
The tension was high, though, and Maxime Vachier-Lagrave was also very happy with Black’s dynamic position, despite the computer assessment. All it took was a slip or two for Grischuk to get a real chance:
30…Rxg4! now was very strong, with 31.hxg4 Qh2+ 32.Kf2 Nf4! leaving White struggling for moves, while Black can methodically improve his position. Instead Grischuk, who was of course seriously short on time, went for 30…fxe6. He was still drawing in various ways, but missed the clearest chance after 31.Nxe5:
The chance was clear because Grischuk had seen 31…Qe1+! 32.Rf1 Rxg2+! and was about to play it, but both he and Carlsen noticed 32.Kh2 Ng3 33.Ng4 and thought it turned the tables – what they’d missed was 33...Ne2! and it’s mate-in-5.
Just after that Grischuk went for a perpetual check, but it no longer worked, and on move 38 he had to admit defeat.
That meant a three-way tie for first, and for the first time in the Grand Chess Tour we got to see the tiebreak rules in action. There would be a 3-way playoff, and since Magnus Carlsen had beaten a player who did well (Grischuk) he had a better Sonneborn-Berger tiebreaker. That technicality gave him the huge bonus of being able to sit back and watch as Anish Giri and Vachier-Lagrave fought for the right to play him in a final match.
Hikaru Nakamura was one of many players, fans and observers to feel that was unfair:
Nevertheless, rules are rules, and Anish and Maxime had to prepare for two 25-minute rapid games followed, if necessary, by Armageddon. It was a feast for chess fans, with the commentary including Alexander Grischuk and later Levon Aronian on the official website...
...and Peter Svidler and Jan Gustafsson commentating on all the playoff action from Hamburg, where they'd played in the Bundesliga earlier in the day:
The first game of the tiebreak saw Anish Giri play the opening that has arguably been the bane of the London Chess Classic, the Berlin Defence, but if his plan was to lull Maxime into a false sense of security it worked perfectly! The Frenchman stumbled into a position where the natural moves would see his king get mated in the very middle of the board, as Peter Svidler demonstrated in commentary:
Maxime avoided immediate disaster, but he couldn’t stave off defeat.
It looked like we were all set for a grudge match between Giri and Carlsen, but then Maxime came back with a brilliant game. Despite getting nothing out of the opening he always kept just enough material on the board to retain chances and then gradually outplayed his opponent. It finally ended in a crushing knight fork:
59…Rxe5! (with Ng6+ to follow).
Maxime was on a roll, and chose Black for the Armageddon game where he needed only a draw. In fact he was soon doing better than that, and could easily have won quicker than he did. So Anish Giri’s Grand Chess Tour had come to an abrupt end, and after an unbeaten 27 classical games and a +5 score (compared to Carlsen's +1) he finally tasted (playoff) defeat:
For Maxime, meanwhile, the night went on, with a rested Carlsen awaiting.
The most remarkable feature of the final was perhaps how fast Maxime played, as if he was still in Armageddon mode in the 25-minute games. At first it appeared it might work in his favour, since he'd steered a dangerous position to a theoretically drawn rook ending and had plenty of time on his clock. One false step, though, and the merciless computers – and, of course, Magnus Carlsen – pointed out the win.
Alexander Grischuk had an explanation:
It’s clear that Maxime lacks energy. Some people, when they lack energy, play super slow, while some play super fast, without thinking, which is what Maxime is doing now.
The second game was an anti-climax, since Maxime’s attempts to push for a win soon backfired and it was obvious early on that only Magnus could win. The game dragged on for a long time, but eventually there was nothing better than for the French no. 1 to offer a draw.
Magnus had won it all (two titles and $150,000), against the odds, despite no lesser figure than Garry Kasparov having commented that his "overall performance was lousy". Magnus was interviewed shortly after his triumph:
The list of the qualifiers for the 2016 Grand Chess Tour contains some stories and controversy that we'll return to later...
...but for now let's end with a fitting response to the question of how Magnus so often ends up winning whatever the format or his current form: