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Reports Dec 31, 2021 | 1:50 PMby Colin McGourty

MVL wins World Blitz despite COVID scare

Maxime Vachier-Lagrave beat Jan-Krzysztof Duda in a playoff to claim the World Blitz Championship, with Alireza Firouzja this time missing out despite scoring the same number of points and bagging the same $50,000 as his rivals. The event was almost stopped halfway after Hikaru Nakamura tested positive for COVID-19, but in the end it was only delayed an hour. The top earners in Warsaw ($70,000 each) were 17-year-old Bibisara Assaubayeva and Alexandra Kosteniuk, with Bibisara taking Blitz gold to her rival's silver, while Valentina Gunina made it double bronze.  

Jan-Krzysztof Duda, Maxime Vachier-Lagrave and Alireza Firouzja receive their trophies | photo: Adam Nurkiewicz, chess24

You can replay all the World Blitz Championship games using the selector below.

And here’s the day’s live commentary from Jan Gustafsson and Peter Leko. 

COVID strikes

The chess world had been relatively lucky with the return to over-the-board action in the second half of 2021 after a year and a half hit heavily by the pandemic. There were isolated incidents at the World Cup but no mass spreading, and the Grand Swiss, another big, long event, went off almost without a hitch. Chess and the world seemed to have turned the corner, but in the run-up to the World Rapid and Blitz the emergence of the Omicron variant suddenly greatly increased the chances of infection again.

For a while it seemed it might all be called off, but Hikaru Nakamura was the only star forced to drop out, with Daniil Dubov picking up a full point for their planned Round 13 game | photo: Anna Shtourman, FIDE

The event itself had to be moved to Warsaw, Poland at the last minute after COVID regulations tightened in Kazakhstan, with the organisers clearly doing a great job to secure a good venue and hotel for the players. The rush meant not everything could be planned to perfection, however, and the first sign that something might be afoot on the last day came when there were grumblings about waiting for tests in a testing facility across the road from the hotel.

The final round of the World Blitz was set to start an hour earlier than on previous days, but suddenly everything was cast in doubt when it turned out that Hikaru had tested positive. It was very unfortunate for the US star, who had taken the caution of staying in the US rather than playing the Grand Swiss when Latvia was hit hard a couple of months earlier. 

FIDE, who for privacy reasons couldn’t name names, soon confirmed the news.

It would later be explained that three players had tested positive in total, though most of the focus was on Hikaru. While a sub-par first day of the blitz had seem him face relatively low-rated opposition, his final day of the rapid had been a who’s who of the world chess elite.

Stopping the tournament looked a real possibility, especially as players were being tested at the very last moment, but when no more positives showed up the decision was taken to press on. Ian Nepomniachtchi, who went on to score a modest 4/9 on the final day, including six draws, had his doubts.

Maxime Vachier-Lagrave would also later mention that perhaps all the players should have undergone PCR tests, but the final day went on, with the difference that it ultimately started an hour late, i.e. at the same time as on the previous four days.

A tough start for the underdogs

The first day of the World Blitz Championship had mainly been about some unlikely heroes. 54th seed Bassem Amin, 39th seed Parham Maghsoodloo, 16-year-old Javokhir Sindarov and 47th seed Martyn Kravtsiv were all flying high, with only one of the favourites really impressing — 2010 World Blitz Champion Levon Aronian, who was out in front with 10/12. 

In the end it wouldn't be the day of either Bassem Amin or Levon Aronian | photo: Anna Shtourman, FIDE

Round 13, the first of the final day, would give some indication of how the day was going to go. Bassem Amin was comprehensively outplayed by Levon Aronian, with the Egyptian doctor ultimately going on to score just 3/9. 

Parham Maghsoodloo would score 3.5/9, and started by getting crushed brutally by Magnus Carlsen. 17…c3? was already dead lost.

Magnus responded 18.b6! Qxe5 19.Nc4! Qd5 20.Nb5! and it turned out White was completely winning after the exchange of queens. 

Peter Leko put the blame on the French Defence — his point was not so much that the opening is bad (though that's also his view!), but that Magnus would have had to prepare it seriously for his match against Ian Nepomniachtchi, and giving World Champions the chance to demonstrate their match preparation is rarely a good idea.

The start of the day suggested that the underdogs would slip out of contention, but almost no-one would have guessed which three players would end tied for 1st place! 

Alireza Firouzja began in 21st place and lost to Sergey Karjakin, Jan-Krzysztof Duda started 16th and lost (“stupidly”, he said, after missing a win) to Haik Martirosyan, while MVL started 19th and got a huge slice of luck against Boris Gelfand.

Boris has just played 39.Kh4 and is of course the only player with winning chances, but here he lost on time!

That trio of players who started the final day with 8/12 on boards 8-10 would in fact all go on to score 7/9 and tie for first place, but after Round 13 was over it was Levon Aronian and the rest. The new US star had a 1.5-point lead over six players… but this is where we’re going to fast-forward to the final blitz round of the day.

A big boy’s fight

By the time we entered the final normal round of the day everything had changed, with six players tied for the lead on 14 points, while Magnus Carlsen on 13.5 was the only other player in with a chance of winning the title. 

All seven players were established blitz stars, with Maxime Vachier-Lagrave later commenting:

A big boy’s fight — that’s what you’re here for, of course!

Let’s take a quick look at how the final day went for each of them, in the order they finished. 

Magnus Carlsen (13.5 points, 12th place)

It’s a curiosity that despite a lacklustre first day that featured three losses, Magnus Carlsen started the day as the highest ranked player among our seven apart from leader Levon Aronian. On 8.5 points he’d started half a point ahead of MVL, Duda and Firouzja, which tells you that things went wrong on the final day. 

Magnus wasn’t sugar-coating it. 

The wheels came off in Round 15, when Anish Giri won a fine game with the black pieces, one of just two wins for the Dutchman all day.

That loss was compounded by a completely unnecessary loss to Alexander Grischuk in the next game, when Magnus' attempt to grind out a slightly better endgame went disastrously wrong.    

Even then Magnus fought his way back, including with a smooth defeat of his World Championship opponent Ian Nepomniachtchi, but the game that really hit his hopes was against Kirill Alekseenko. The Russian blundered a key pawn on move 31 and could essentially have resigned on the spot, but instead the game was drawn in 71 moves. Magnus missed chances even at the very end.

The game was drawn after 71…Rc3 72.Kh2 Rc2+, but 71…Nf1+! 72.Kf2 Nd2+ promotes the pawn and should win. 

That meant that Magnus went into the final game against Maxime Vachier-Lagrave knowing that even a win with the black pieces would give him a playoff for 1st only if none of the other five leaders won their games. We got to see another wild line that might have occurred in the World Championship match, though neither player demonstrated a mastery of the details. 

It could all still have turned as late as move 44.

Here 44…e3!, preparing Rd2+, is close to winning for Magnus, while after 44…Rc5?! 45.Qf7 Rxc3? 46.Be5 Rd2+ 47.Kh1 he resigned, with no way to stop mate. 

A great fight, and a fitting way for MVL to reach the playoff — the loss was somewhat costly in financial terms, but that’s not the kind of detail Magnus needs to worry about. He at least has one early goal for 2022 — to return to no. 1 on the blitz rating list.

Vladislav Artemiev (14 points, 7th place)

Vladislav is a feared blitz player, but a 0.5/3 start ensured he kept a low profile on the first day. A run of 8 wins in 9 games set him up for the final day, however, when he was his formidable self, only falling at the very last hurdle. 

It’s not hard to identify the precise moment at which his hopes disappeared. Jan-Krzysztof Duda has just played 21.Qd1.

21…Nxa2? was a rush of blood to the head, and after 22.Rxc8 Rxc8 23.Qg4! Black is suddenly in deep trouble. Duda went on to cut through the black position like a hot knife through butter. 

Levon Aronian (14 points, 5th place)

The 2021 World Blitz Championship was Levon Aronian’s to lose. As we saw, he had a 1.5-point lead after the first round of the final day, and he was still a point ahead of Daniil Dubov when he beat Anish Giri in Round 16. Then disaster struck. 

If one game determined the outcome of the 2021 World Blitz Championship it has to be the clash of two great friends and rivals, MVL-Aronian. After a good opening for White, Levon took over and had a position which he should have won and would need to work very hard to lose. He did begin to drift, but as late as move 51 he could have ensured nothing could go wrong.

White’s one threat is the passed a-pawn, but here 51.Bd8! leaves Bxa5 next move unstoppable. Black is winning, but in any case isn’t going to lose. Instead after 51…Bd6? 52.Nb4 precision was suddenly required to stop the a-pawn, and Levon failed to show it. 

Levon was still in the sole lead, but losses often follow one after another in blitz, and he fell to his countryman (or former countryman in chess terms) Haik Martirosyan, then Vladislav Artemiev. Daniil Dubov had taken over in the lead, but it was greatly to Levon’s credit that he managed to hit back and beat Javokhir Sindarov and go into the final round with as good a chance as anyone of still winning the tournament. 

Alas for Levon, he came up against an Alireza Firouzja who had won his last four games in a row, and then fell into a deep opening trap. 9.a4 in the Italian was a line Alireza used against Sergey Karjakin in Norway Chess, and our commentators explained that the inclusion of 9.a4 a5 meant that if White could get his queen to b5, as Alireza did, Black was in trouble. 

With the pawn on a7 Black could drive the queen away with a6, but as it is the position already seems to be objectively winning for White. Powerful piece play followed from Alireza, and if it wasn’t quite flawless it was more than enough to win a blitz game. 

Daniil Dubov (14.5/21, 4th place)

It seems that every last round of these events leaves a puzzle, and in this case it was why Daniil took an 8-move draw with White against Anish Giri. That saw him miss out on the playoff and a shot at the title, though you can say at least two things about it. First, it was a strategy he’d used all day, drawing with Artemiev in 7 moves in Round 17 and taking a quick 18-move draw against MVL in Round 19. 

Secondly, the financial ev of the decision was good. In the end the maximum possible number of his fellow 14-pointers (three) won their games, but even then he earned $30,000 for clear 4th place. If you ran the final round again you’d expect some draws, when his earnings would have increased, while a perfectly plausible three draws would likely have seen him reach the playoff for gold.

Before that, things had gone as well as you could hope. Daniil banked a free point when Hikaru Nakamura was unable to play and took the sole lead with three rounds to go after defeating Jan-Krzysztof Duda. He would have gone into the final round as the sole leader still if not for losing to Alireza Firouzja’s King’s Indian Defence. 

That brings us the podium.

Alireza Firouzja (15 points, 3rd place)

Great things are expected of Alireza Firouzja whenever he’s involved in a tournament, and for four days it had been a surprise not to see him making an impact on the World Rapid and Blitz Championships. That all changed on the final day, as he shrugged off two defeats to win seven games and force his way into contention. 

It was a case of ambition being richly rewarded, since for instance against Arjun Erigaisi he managed to win a lost position, but his last two clutch wins in particular were brilliant. As Magnus suggested, it would have been wonderful to see him also involved in the playoff for first place, but the regulations hadn’t been altered since the blitz.

The final standings saw Alireza miss out on a playoff due to Buchholz tiebreaks (which depend on the performance of all your opponents), just as Magnus Carlsen and Fabiano Caruana had in the Rapid.

Rk.SNo NameFEDRtgPts. TB1  TB2  TB3 
18Vachier-Lagrave MaximeFRA278715,0244,0251,52660
26Duda Jan-KrzysztofPOL279215,0242,0249,52640
34Firouzja AlirezaFRA281015,0237,0245,52609
414Dubov DaniilCFR274914,5253,5262,02670
515Aronian LevonUSA274014,0256,0264,52682
612Mamedyarov ShakhriyarAZE275414,0249,5258,52640
73Artemiev VladislavCFR283014,0245,0253,52646
8133Sindarov JavokhirUZB245213,5259,0269,52689
922Fedoseev VladimirCFR269013,5258,5267,02674
1076Oparin GrigoriyCFR258013,5256,0266,02678
1119Martirosyan Haik M.ARM270713,5252,5262,02659
121Carlsen MagnusNOR289213,5252,0262,52664
1347Kravtsiv MartynUKR263813,5250,5258,52641
1411Grischuk AlexanderCFR275713,5248,5257,02665
15105Kobalia MikhailCFR253213,5247,5257,52677
169Giri AnishNED277813,5247,5256,52651

With only 3 players tied for first they all shared a very healthy $50,000. You might have predicted some raging against the regulations, but this time Alireza took it in his stride… and was among the first to congratulate his French countryman. 

Jan-Krzysztof Duda (15 points, 2nd place)

In the end Duda would fall just short, but it had been another great rapid and blitz performance by the Polish no. 1 | photo: Lennart Ootes, FIDE

When the World Rapid and Blitz was switched from Kazakhstan to Poland the pressure on Polish no. 1 Jan-Krzysztof Duda increased immensely, and for much of the event it seemed as though it might be hindering him from finding his full flow. In the end, however, he did his country proud, becoming the highest earner in the open section after tying for 5th place in the Rapid (~$15,000) and finishing in the tie for 1st in the Blitz ($50,000). 

There were two heavy losses for Jan-Krzysztof on the final day, but just like Firouzja, he won his remaining games. 

The run of results took him all the way to a playoff, though for Duda it didn’t match the stunning 16.5/21 he scored in what he called “the tournament of my life” when he almost caught Magnus Carlsen (17/21) and also finished runner-up in the 2018 World Blitz Championship in St. Petersburg. 

Duda commented:

It kind of surprised me to win so many games today — I was not thinking I was playing very well. 

Duda reaching the playoff for gold was the perfect end to the Warsaw event, and as he tweeted afterwards, “it was close!” 

Maxime Vachier-Lagrave (15 points, 1st place)

Maxime Vachier-Lagrave could be compared to Hikaru Nakamura — a great rapid and blitz player who had never won an official world title. Unlike Hikaru, the second most prolific medalist after Magnus, Maxime has also never finished on the Rapid podium, while he made it just once in Blitz — finishing runner-up to Alexander Grischuk in Berlin in 2015. 2021 turned out to be Maxime’s year to change that!

A disappointing rapid event was followed by a slow start to the blitz, but after suffering three losses in the first 10 rounds Maxime would then go unbeaten for the rest of the event.

It was only after Round 1, and then Round 20, that Maxime found himself sharing the lead, and when he was paired against Magnus Carlsen in the final round his fans must have feared the worst. This time, however, MVL did it, keeping his nerve to snatch victory in the final moments. He felt it was a theme, saying, “today I think I played great chess”, and noting, “in the last few seconds I was always turning things in my favour”. 

It was Maxime who went forward to a gold-medal playoff against Jan-Krzysztof Duda, during which he was the player dictating the action. In the first game he found himself slightly better in a Ruy Lopez with d3, but couldn’t avoid the game fizzling out into a draw. 

Then in the second he managed to take over with the black pieces, but seemed to hesitate at the key moment. 

19…e4!, with the knight ready to jump into the freed-up e5-square, was strong and natural, but neither player was in the mood to burn bridges, and perhaps Maxime feared opening up the b2-bishop and the d4-square. After 19…Ne4?!, and another inaccuracy or two, it was Maxime who had to play carefully to hold. 

A curiosity for the playoff was that despite the rationale that only having two players would ensure it was over relatively quickly, the regulations also allowed for an infinite number of blitz games — since they’d play on and on until one side won.

Maxime Vachier-Lagrave would pick up one of the gold medals on offer in Warsaw | photo: Lennart Ootes, FIDE

Perhaps the risks aren’t too high in blitz, and in any case we needed just one more game, with Maxime explaining that he’d come up with an improvement in the brief time between the games — “I realised in my head I had a better try!” 

Maxime had no time to check with a computer, which perhaps worked in his favour, since he might have been dissuaded from playing 17.Qc2!? instead of his 17.d4 from the first game. 

17.d4 is the clear computer choice, since it thinks 17…Ne6! solves most of Black’s problems after the queen move. That was the only move that did, however, and Duda burnt up 49 seconds, almost a third of his time, before playing 17…Bg4?! 

A few moves later and we got the critical moment of the whole game.

It seems Duda had to stay passive and save his rook with the awkward 20…Ra6, since after 20…Bxb5? 21.axb5 Bxc3 22.Qxc3 a4 White had a huge positional advantage, with the only question being when to go for the e5-pawn break. Maxime made no mistake as he clinched the game and his first World Blitz Championship title!

Maxime deserved all the praise he swiftly got.

And it had been all the more remarkable since earlier in the event Maxime had led some criticism of how things were organised. 

Maxime had also criticised the dress code and a lack of metal detectors, but now switched tones!

Not everyone felt it was an improvement!

Assaubayeva another teenage sensation

17-year-old Nodirbek Abdusattorov stunned the chess world by winning the World Rapid Championship, but another 17-year-old, Bibisara Assaubayeva, almost eclipsed him. In terms of podium finishes and prize money she certainly did, since she followed Rapid silver and $30,000 by winning gold in the Blitz and another $40,000. She was one person from Kazakhstan with no reason to regret the event being switched to Poland!

Bibisara had already done most of the work with a brilliant 8/9 first day, and she wasn’t slowing down on Day 2. 

The one tough moment, as you can see, came when with three rounds to go and a 2-point lead, she lost a tough endgame to reigning World Blitz Champion Kateryna Lagno. She remained the heavy favourite, but was then paired with Black against the highest-rated active female player, Aleksandra Goryachkina.

Bibisara feared the worst and was under pressure early on, but 35.b3? was a blunder.

35…Nxe4! won Bibisara  piece, due to the unfortunate fact that 36.Nxe4?? Qe1# is checkmate! There was then no stopping Assaubayeva winning the tournament with a round to spare. Not bad for someone who says she’s not so good at blitz… and it's no surprise that she’s now targeting the Women’s World Championship title.

The podium was remarkably completed by the same players as in the Rapid, with Alexandra Kosteniuk ending with 5.5/6 to take silver to add to her Rapid gold (and matching Assaubayeva's $70k earnings)…

…while Valentina Gunina had a shaky finish but won her last game to pick up a second bronze medal.

So that’s all for the chess year 2021! We hope you’ve enjoyed it and will be back with us in 2022. The next huge event on the calendar is the Tata Steel Masters from January 14th, but we’re going to have a packed year with a new Candidates Tournament and the Olympiad to look forward to, as well as the Meltwater Champions Chess Tour! 

One bronze medal wasn't what Magnus was hoping for in Warsaw —but he'll be back in action in Wijk aan Zee in two weeks' time | photo: Anna Shtourman, FIDE

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