Magnus Carlsen goes into 2020 as not only the World Champion in classical, rapid and blitz chess but also the no. 1 rated player in each of those disciplines after winning his 5th World Blitz Championship in a playoff against Hikaru Nakamura. 16-year-old Alireza Firouzja again led the wave of new young stars but was thwarted by the clock as he seemed about to beat Magnus, while “retired” veteran Vladimir Kramnik sensationally took bronze. In the women’s section Kateryna Lagno also managed to defend the title she won in 2018.
You can replay all the games from the World Blitz Championship using the selector below – click on a result to open the game with computer analysis or hover over a player’s name to see all his results:
And here’s the final day’s commentary, including a cameo appearance from Vladimir Kramnik during the second playoff game:
The World Blitz Championship featured two days of manic 3 minute + 2-second increment blitz action. Rather than trying to summarise the literally thousands of games let’s again draw some conclusions:
“What to say – he’s the best!” said Vladimir Kramnik after Magnus Carlsen won the second playoff game against Hikaru Nakamura to complete an almost perfect set of titles - only Chess960 has slipped from the Norwegian’s grasp! Magnus technically already had the “triple crown” after winning the World Rapid Championship, since he was the 2018 Blitz World Champion, but it would have been a very short-lived reign if he hadn’t defended his title:
The way he celebrated showed you just what it meant to him:
As Kramnik also commented:
I wish I had such motivation as Magnus! Of course he’s incredible, with his level and also with his motivation, because he won already basically everything which you can win, and I can still see how concentrated and motivated he is. Of course it’s quite remarkable (…) I already stopped counting some time ago how many events he won. It’s now more of a surprise if he doesn’t win - if he wins it’s like business as usual!
Magnus scored 16.5/21, a +12 score consisting of 13 wins, 7 draws and just 1 defeat, and there was, as always, plenty to admire. For instance, Bartosz Socko came into Round 10 as the co-leader after scoring 6.5/7 in his last 7 games, but 20…Ne7? was crisply punished:
21.Nf6+! gxf6 22.Rxd7! and Bartek’s 22…b5 would save the day after 23.Qxb5? Qb6!, but when Magnus played simply 23.Qxa7! it was game over.
Baadur Jobava was another high flyer on the first day and could have made a draw against Magnus by essentially doing nothing at the end, but instead he went after the a3-pawn with 47.Nb1?
Magnus was merciless as he seized the chance to play 47…Bb4!, planning Be1 and Bxg3. 48.Kxb4 of course runs into 48…a2! and the a-pawn queens, while in the game the blocking 48.Nc3 was met by 48…a2! 49.Nxa2 Be1.
It wasn’t only about beautiful chess, however, with Magnus describing the final day as “very, very tough” and adding:
Everybody makes mistakes – a lot of the games were rough, but at the end of the day the result is what counts and I cannot be unhappy with that.
Things actually worked out perfectly, since if not for the playoff Magnus would have been the world no. 1 in “only” classical and rapid chess. The extra two games were enough for him to take over in blitz as well:
It was the ideal way to round off a decade’s dominance of top-level chess:
Many players went on impressive runs of results in Moscow only to fail to maintain the same level over the marathon 21-round event. For instance, the only player other than Magnus to take the sole lead at any point during the World Blitz was Vladislav Artemiev, who began with 7/8 and was the sole leader after rounds 7 and 8. His time in pole position was put to an end by Hikaru Nakamura after 28…exd3?? left an open goal for the US star:
21.Bxa7+! Kxa7 30.Qxe6 picked up Black’s queen.
That took Hikaru into the shared lead, and although there were some shaky moments (for instance against Kramnik) the consistency he maintained was matched only by Magnus – in fact they scored exactly the same results, with Nakamura’s only loss coming against Alireza Firouzja in Round 3. Hikaru trailed by a point going into the last two rounds but beat Alexander Zubov and Rauf Mamedov on demand to force a playoff. That didn’t go as planned, though as Magnus himself noted, the margins were fine:
Here’s that moment:
51.Nc2! wins a piece, since 51...Rb3 runs into 52.Kc4, while in the game after 51.Rh7+ Ke6 the move 52.Nc2 is also threatening 52…Rb3 53.Nd4+, winning a whole rook. The same move was also good, if less so, a move later, but this was an idea that both players completely overlooked in what had already been a nervy encounter with serious chances for Magnus.
Magnus had White in the second game but later admitted that he’d “made a very simple mistake” in the opening. Hikaru perhaps misread that as Magnus deliberately playing for a trademark microscopic edge, avoided exchanges and overpressed. Carlsen explained:
I think he took some chances that he didn’t need to take by not exchanging queens, and then after I gave up a pawn I think it’s a very strange practical situation, because you know it’s going to be decided right there and then. It’s not going to end in a draw, and for both players it’s unpleasant.
The point of no return came after 21.Nd6:
There seems to be no punishment for 21…Qxb2, but instead Hikaru went for what the watching Vladimir Kramnik described as a “desperado” move, 21…Nb3? The former champion wondered where the black queen was going, and it turned out to be nowhere good: 22.Rc2! Qa4? 23.Rc4! Qa6 After 24.g5! it was all over bar the shouting.
So Hikaru had added silver in blitz to bronze in rapid and there’s one thing he can boast of that even Magnus can’t match – he also finished on both podiums in 2018! The flip side of that consistency, however, is the strange fact that one of the world’s most renowned rapid and blitz players has never won a gold medal in a World Rapid or Blitz Championship.
Even the sun has spots, and in that final game Magnus missed something that Vladimir Kramnik had foreseen before 24…Nd7 was met by 25.Rh4! – that after 25…Nbc5 the point is that 26.Rxh7+! is mate-in-3! (26…Kxh7 27.Qh5+ Kg8 28.Ne7#)
Kramnik and Leko were shocked and disappointed that Magnus didn’t end with the kind of flourish we saw in the last game of the 2016 World Championship match, but 26.Nxf7+ soon got the job done anyway.
On the first day Magnus was briefly losing games he won against Saleh Salem and Radek Wojtaszek and was well-beaten by Dmitry Andreikin, but perhaps the most human moment came when he blundered badly against 15-year-old Nodirbek Abdusattorov with 33.Nf4?
33…Rxe4!, exploiting the fact the e1-rook can't move as Qxd1 would be mate, produced a visceral reaction in the World Champion:
After that, however, Magnus refocused and came closer to winning the game than to losing it. It recalls what Vassily Ivanchuk said that Garry Kasparov taught him:
From Kasparov I learned, in moments of stress, to allow myself quickly to explode and then calm down just as quickly i.e. that quality which is absolutely inherent to him. It’s important in particularly stressful periods not to keep your emotions inside.
If there was anyone who was capable of getting under the World Champion’s skin in Moscow it seemed to be the youngsters who will try to claim his throne. As well as Abdusattorov, who went into that game level with Magnus on 5/5 but later fell away, that was above all 16-year-old Alireza Firouzja. The Iranian, now playing under the FIDE flag of convenience, ended the Moscow event with a silver medal in rapid chess, 6th place in blitz and a 2700+ rating in classical, rapid and blitz… and he was clearly disappointed!
In the blitz tournament he beat heavyweight stars such as Nakamura, Duda, Grischuk, Andreikin, Artemiev and Giri and would have had six wins in a row if not for losing this position to Daniil Dubov:
The rook is lost but that was fine – all Firouzja needed to do was play 45.Kg6 or 45.Kg7, take on f6 and queen the g-pawn. Instead after 45.g5? fxg5 46.f6 Kxc5 47.f7 Ra8 the f-pawn was stopped and Dubov could go on to play g4, e4 and sacrifice one of those pawns to make a passed pawn of his own.
The biggest fish to get away, however, was Magnus Carlsen, in what was perhaps the turning point of the final day. After a topsy-turvy game where Firouzja had an edge from the opening but then was outplayed, the Iranian managed to provoke Magnus into a blunder that led to a position where White was “playing for two results”, a win or a draw:
Here 66.g6! is winning – Black can’t cope with both the e and g-pawns – but White would still have had good practical chances after 66.Kg4 – if Alireza hadn’t knocked over his king and used up his final 3 seconds putting it back in place!
Alireza would have escaped with a draw if the position was one in which Magnus had no way of giving mate, but he does. It requires absurd levels of assistance from Alireza – for instance, putting his king on h8, his bishop on h7 and promoting his g-pawn to a knight, when Black can give mate with the bishop. Firouzja wasn’t convinced and insisted the chief arbiter show him the relevant law of chess. Article 6.9 on losing on time includes:
However, the game is drawn, if the position is such that the opponent cannot checkmate the player’s king by any possible series of legal moves.
Here there clearly was a possible series of legal moves.
In general Alireza seemed shocked that his time had run out,
which is perhaps understandable for a phenomenally fast internet blitz player.
Sergey Shipov had said earlier in the game in the Russian commentary:
You won't believe it, but Alireza is simply faster, physiologically faster than Magnus. Magnus is already slow - not a dinosaur, he's still in the prime of life, but for Firouzja he's a dinosaur - a top class chess player, but he plays very slowly.
There was one more complaint, however, that cost 300 euros as Firouzja appealed for a replay on the grounds that Magnus had been darkly muttering to himself in Norwegian at the critical moments and thereby causing a distraction. It was the flimsiest of straws you could try and grab hold of, and the video replays showed that Magnus had merely had one brief outburst when he realised he’d blundered. You can watch the whole pantomime in the following video:
In the end the result stood and, from a position where he could have closed the gap to half a point, Firouzja now found himself 2.5 points behind the leader with two rounds to go. It was no surprise that he also went on to lose the next game and ultimately finish 6th – a fine result, but a big drop financially, since 15 players on 13.5 points shared the prize money equally.
Regardless of how it ended, however, Firouzja had shown again that he has the potential to be one of the absolutely top players in the years to come. He’ll get his first chance to play a classical supertournament in Wijk aan Zee in under two weeks’ time, and there’s little doubt he means business!
The player who beat Firouzja in the penultimate round was Vladimir Kramnik, who did it in style:
29.Rxe6! was a bold positional exchange sacrifice that eventually paid off.
The 14th World Chess Champion won the same number of games as Carlsen and Nakamura, which was not bad at all for a player who’d retired almost a full year earlier. Kramnik explained afterwards that his strategy had been to play “extremely fast” to avoid time trouble in which he’d be “too old and too rusty to compete with young players”. But still, his expectations hadn’t been high:
First of all, I just came here to enjoy, to see my old friends and former colleagues, and somehow at some point today I started to feel that my head is working better and I was a bit lucky in a couple of games. Quite a surprising result for me, because I really came here just to enjoy the atmosphere and to play a bit of blitz… It’s quite nice, actually, quite nice, so maybe I will still keep on playing a bit of blitz! I don’t promise anything else, but blitz probably I can still do and play decent chess.
Magnus Carlsen isn’t the only player to have achieved the impressive feat of defending a Blitz World Championship title, since Kateryna Lagno duplicated her performance in St. Petersburg to take gold in the women’s event. She also remains the only female player with a blitz rating above 2600.
Kateryna ended the first day with a one-point lead after defeating World Rapid Champion Humpy Koneru in the last round of the day from what should have been a hopeless position. Despite a shaky second day Kateryna went into the final round level with 2014 and 2016 Women’s World Blitz Champion Anna Muzychuk and 1.5 points clear of the chasing pack. When she blundered a pawn against Antoaneta Stefanova things were looking bleak, but Lagno held on for a draw and took gold after Anna suffered her first defeat of the whole event against Tan Zhongyi.
The Chinese Grandmaster was rewarded with a bronze medal, with Valentina Gunina sharing the prize money but missing out on the podium.
Here’s Kateryna telling the story:
You can see from the final standings of the open that some of the favourites such as Maxime Vachier-Lagrave and Alexander Grischuk did make it close to the top by the end, but they’d made very hard work of the event and applied no pressure to Magnus:
Some had achieved personal goals (only Fedoseev finished higher and didn't play Magnus)...
...while others, such as Sergey Karjakin and Ian Nepomniachtchi, finished further adrift, with Ian no doubt speaking for most of the chess elite when he welcomed the chance to finally take a rest after an insanely packed year:
We hope you enjoyed the World Rapid and Blitz Championship and have a very Happy New Year! There’s not long to wait for more top action, with the Women’s World Championship starting in Shanghai on 5th January before Magnus Carlsen and co. meet again in Wijk aan Zee for the Tata Steel Masters on 11th January. 2020 is going to be another exciting year, with the Candidates, Olympiad and of course another World Championship match to come. We’ll have it all here on chess24!
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