Maxime Vachier-Lagrave credited defence as he lost just one of 18 blitz games on the way to winning the Croatia Grand Chess Tour by a full two points. After a last-day collapse for Ian Nepomniachtchi, Maxime’s greatest challenge came from 51-year-old Vishy Anand, who beat Garry Kasparov at the start of a 4-game winning streak that ultimately gave him sole 2nd place. Garry called himself an “amateur”, and despite landing a win he scored 2/9 and deprived us of any last-round drama by losing on time to MVL in a drawn position.
You can replay all the games from the 2021 Croatia Grand Chess Tour using the selector below.
These were the final standings after 27 rounds.
And here’s the prize money and Grand Chess Tour points.
Maxime has had a tough year since he got an unexpected invitation to play in the 2020 Candidates Tournament and went into the year-long break as the leader. His struggles in online chess would all have been forgotten if he’d gone on to win the Candidates, but two losses in the first four rounds after the resumption essentially ended his challenge — though he did come back to take 2nd place.
Maxime’s disappointing Tata Steel Masters and Superbet Chess Challenge have seen him drop out of the Top 10 on the classical rating list, and when 18-year-old Alireza Firouzja finally made the switch to the French Chess Federation he simultaneously became the French no. 1. That’s great news for the French Olympiad team, but also a personal challenge for Maxime to regain some bragging rights.
Maxime’s fans needed something to cheer, and the Croatia Grand Chess Tour ended up providing it, as Maxime top-scored in the blitz, with the second day ultimately matching his +4 from the first.
The endgame wins against Giri and Duda were key, though Maxime also pointed to another factor when asked what had enabled him to win:
I think defence — defence is essential, especially in blitz, and I lost only one game. I should have lost probably four or five, but yeah, defensive skills let me escape with only one loss.
The most important escape came against Ian Nepomniachtchi, who could have regained the lead if he’d won their clash in the 4th game of the day.
41.Nf5! would have won a clear exchange for Nepo (41…Rxc5?? 42.Nxe7+ is mate-in-2): 41…Ng6 42.Bxf8 Nxf8 43.Ne7+ Rxe7 44.Rxe7, but after 41.Bd6 in the game Maxime managed to hold on in 99 moves.
As it was, Maxime never lost the sole lead and clinched victory with a round to spare when Garry Kasparov froze and lost on time in the following drawn rook endgame.
Maxime put the icing on the cake by beating Anton Korobov in the final round — a curiosity is that Anton’s only draw in 18 games of blitz was against Maxime on the first day.
In an event that might be best remembered for the cruel ravages wrought by time on a chess legend, 51-year-old Vishy Anand showed that it’s still possible compete with the world’s very best players in your 6th decade. Vishy posted the second best performance in blitz as he clinched overall 2nd place.
His final day was noteworthy for a 4-game winning streak, though that didn’t tell you how good the day had been.
In the blitz I was apprehensive, because when you’ve been away for a long time you don’t know how you’ll play, but it went fabulously yesterday — already I was pleased with the +2. And today I started off brilliantly. I should have beaten both Anish and Duda, completely won positions, and I drew both. Then, as they say, if you don’t score your opponent will, so I was kind of nervous, but this four wins in a row — I’m happier than anyone else, I can tell you!
The first two games of the day were arguably more impressive than the wins that followed, with the game against Duda in particular giving a great chance for a grandstand finish.
43…Rg1+! is only temporarily giving up a rook in order to pick up both the e2-rook and the e4-knight with check after 44.Kxg1 Qd1+ 45.Kg2 Qxe2+ and so on — in fact the rook sacrifice is mate-in-9. Instead after 43…Rd4? 44.Qe8+ Duda forced a draw by perpetual check.
Vishy was a point behind Maxime going into the penultimate round, and if he could have ended the tournament tied with MVL we’d have got a playoff. Instead, as we’ve seen, Kasparov self-destructed to give Maxime a win, while Anand fell just short of beating Mamedyarov for a 5th win in a row.
39…Kf6! and Vishy picks up the f5-pawn with great winning chances. Instead after 39…Rc3 40.Rd1 there was no longer time, and Shakh went on to hold comfortably — in fact it was the Azeri no. 1 who managed to post a 5-game winning streak on the final day as he took 6th place.
It was disappointing to see the fight for first end with a round to spare, but even if things had gone differently it’s likely Maxime would have held on to first place. Vishy went on to secure second place with a Berlin draw against Grischuk in the final round, and is also now back in the world blitz top 5!
“Sometimes you just have the feeling that the wind is at your back”, said Vishy, who now goes on to play a “No Castles” exhibition match against Vladimir Kramnik in Dortmund. He commented:
This result gives me a lot of motivation to work again. Sometimes a good result just lifts you and hopefully I’ll be ready when some tournament comes up.
The surprise of the final day was that after being the sole leader or thereabouts for four days, Ian Nepomniachtchi fell back on the final day to take only a share of fourth place.
Things went right for Ian for just one game, when he pounced on Korobov’s blunder 32.Bd3?
32…Nb5! suddenly left the d4-pawn undefendable, since Nepo was also threatening Nd4+ and Nb3 next, forking the two rooks. After 33.Ke3 Nxd4 Ian went on to win, though it needed another major blunder from Anton.
That win saw Nepo extend his lead to a full point, but then he went on to lose to Mamedydarov and it was all downhill from there.
The big question before Day 2 of the blitz was whether Garry Kasparov could put his disastrous first day behind him and remind us of what a great chess player he was, and the answer was, not really, but at least there was one bright moment in the first game of the day.
Garry got to finish in fine style against Jorden van Foreest.
40.b7! Qxb7 41.Qxg5! Black resigns
Garry commented, “I was very proud — that was a great game, for blitz!”, and the other thing he could boast about was outscoring Jorden on Day 2.
For the next couple of games he had hope, even if the optimism may have led him astray. Against Grischuk in Game 2 he decided to reject some analysis he’d done with Yury Dokhoian 20 years ago and “make a brilliancy”.
Alas, the sacrifice was refuted with 18.Bxd4! (18.gxh3? Nf3+) 18…Bxd4 19.Rxe4! e5 20.gxh3 and the game didn’t last much longer. Garry used a revealing phrase when he commented, “I still had a little bit of esteem left” of his mood going into the third game of the day against Duda.
White is winning, and Garry said he wanted to play 26.Qb3!, when the knight is locked out of the game. Instead he “somehow touched” the bishop, and after 26.Bc4 Nb2 Black was right back in the game, before things went from bad to worse and Garry resigned on move 33.
After that it was another horror show, with resignation in the next game on a board full of pieces and an evaluation of only +1.64 in Korobov’s favour a nadir that was topped only by losing on time to MVL in a critical game for the tournament.
Vishy Anand had interesting views on his fellow veteran, pointing out that in the Saint Louis Rapid & Blitz in 2017 — the last time Garry needed to remember opening theory — he’d still fitted in with the world’s elite.
He seemed like a chess player, he seemed like a top chess player — he knew his openings, he knew everything, and he was playing fast. Of course some drama happened, but here he just seemed out of it completely. It was very surprising in the opening ceremony to hear him trying to lower everyone’s expectations, and I thought, is that the Garry we used to know? Maybe that was a kind of warning sign, but I mean it’s clear this is not the Garry we recognise.
Garry himself was still lowering expectations after it was over.
I think it’s easy to explain. It’s not just me being rusty, it’s just these guys are professional and I’m an amateur. So I spend a little bit of time with Peter Svidler, a few days before the tournament, just going through this opening theory, because in 960 I’m far more comfortable because I don’t have to overload my brain with all this opening theory.
I have to say that in the last few days I was shocked, because we looked at some of the positions that I analysed before some of the participants in this tournament were born, and then in one minute the engine tells you everything I did preparing for Nigel in 1993 is crap! It’s some kind of a shocking experience, because I have to go over it, and I probably could have done a better job preparing, but the problem is the shifting from totally different things, having a speech on cyber-security, or recording a message supporting dissidents in Iran, and then you have to play guys, they’re the best guys — this is their job.
Garry ended on a positive note when talking about the Chess960 event in Saint Louis that he’s planning to play later in the year.
I think in Saint Louis I will do much better. I don’t have to waste my energy memorising these lines!
So that’s all for the Croatia Grand Chess Tour. With the exception of Garry, Anand and Nepo, the players will now be making their way to Sochi, where the FIDE World Cup starts today! The top stars, including Magnus Carlsen, will be in action from Round 2, that starts on Thursday. Don’t miss all the games right here on chess24: Open | Women
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