Hikaru Nakamura and Maxime Vachier-Lagrave both won four of their last five rapid and blitz games to reach the final of the 2018 Grand Chess Tour, with Maxime also overtaking Magnus Carlsen as the blitz world no. 1. Their opponents, Fabiano Caruana and Levon Aronian, scored only a single consolation win each and will now play a 3rd place playoff. The British Knockout Championship final will be between Luke McShane and Gawain Jones after they overcame favourites Mickey Adams and David Howell.
Replay all the games from the London Chess Classic GCT final using the selector below:
And you can also replay the commentary on the final day of the semi-finals:
There must have been an element of déjà vu for Fabiano Caruana, who once again found himself in London, having drawn the classical games of a match and with his fate depending on rapid and blitz. Just to emphasise the fact Hikaru Nakamura, like Magnus Carlsen, opened with the white pieces and started 1.c4:
For the moment, though, the parallels stopped there, since unlike in the World Championship match tiebreak Fabiano managed to defend a difficult position and draw the first game. Initially things were also looking good in the second, since he reached move 23 with a 7-minute lead on the clock and a highly promising position:
Now was perhaps the time to stop and think, with 23.Rc1! or 23.Nd4! both giving White an excellent position. Instead Fabiano played the surprising 23.Rd1!?, which looked like preparation and caught Hikaru off-guard, but if it was preparation Caruana had forgotten the point, and after 23…Qxa3 24.Rd7 Nd5! he sank into an 8-minute think. He found nothing better than 25.Nd4?! and soon found himself a pawn down for no compensation.
Hikaru’s conversion wasn’t entirely smooth, but he got there in the end, and was surprised afterwards to learn that meant he would take a 4-point lead into the blitz - simply to tie the match Fabiano would now need to win two of those four games.
Caruana is a fighter, though, and in his 20th competitive game in London this winter he snatched a first win:
That meant it was match on, but not for long, since in the second game Fabiano missed a chance to seize an advantage early on and was defending an unpleasant position until blundering with 43.Kf1? (43.Kg1!)
After 43…Nh3! White had to give up a piece to stop immediate mate, but there was no stopping Hikaru re-establishing a 4-point lead. That meant Fabiano now had to win both the remaining games, but instead Nakamura crashed through with an attack for the easiest win of the match:
Hikaru would later describe the last two games as “pretty straightforward”, but although there was no longer anything at stake it’s worth at least noting that he was dead lost at one point in the last blitz game:
It was fiendishly difficult to see 25.g5!!, the only clearly winning move. It threatens a queen sac and mating net after taking on f6, while crucially also allowing the bishop to reach h5 in some lines. In the game Fabiano instead played 25.Qc1, which felt as intuitively wrong as 24.h3 instead of 24.Qh6! in Game 8 of the World Championship match. Sure enough, Nakamura went on to win in some style.
So it had been a convincing win for Nakamura:
He said afterwards that his main plan on the rest day before the final is to go to the Russian Embassy and try and get a visa to travel to St. Petersburg for the World Rapid and Blitz Championship in two weeks’ time. First, though, some refuelling!
Magnus Carlsen said on Wednesday of his plans for the World Rapid and Blitz Championship, “no usurpers are going to be left alive!” That means Maxime is likely on the hit list, after an almost identical performance to Nakamura's:
One blitz win was enough to make Maxime the no. 1, and after the 2nd he had a 13.6 point lead:
It’s not entirely clear if the remaining two blitz games will count for the ratings, since by that time Maxime had already won the match, but if they do the French no. 1 still has a 9.2 point lead at the top. He was downplaying the achievement:
It’s nice, but blitz ratings come and go. Magnus is the best blitz player in the world – it doesn’t matter the rating.
It was hard to foresee the crushing outcome of that match when the day began with Maxime needing to hold on desperately for a 3rd game in a row. In Game 4, though, the tide finally turned, as Levon Aronian ran into trouble. What had changed? Maxime commented, “It took definitely what I lacked so far – preparation!” He played a novelty and by move 19 felt he had “a very nice version of the Berlin endgame”. Levon failed to put up much resistance and found himself, like Caruana, trailing by 4 points going into the blitz:
It went from bad to worse as Levon lost with White in the first blitz game, meaning he needed to win the next three to take the match to a playoff. He played a risky opening with Black, managed to survive and could briefly dream of converting an extra pawn into the win he needed. It wasn’t to be, though, since a knight fork brutally ended the match:
With nothing at stake anymore Levon finally got a win in the third blitz game, but by Game 4 normal service had been resumed. Once again Maxime ended a time scramble with a killer knight fork:
So the battle for the $120,000 Grand Chess Tour first prize will be between the rapid no. 2 and blitz no. 3 Hikaru Nakamura and the rapid no. 6 and blitz no. 1 Maxime Vachier-Lagrave. The loser of that battle still earns $80,000. At stake in the 3rd place playoff between Fabiano Caruana and Levon Aronian is the difference between the $60,000 prize for 3rd and $40,000 for 4th. The matches have the same format as the semi-finals, with the first classical games beginning at 14:00 London time on Saturday.
The British Knockout Championship final will also start on Saturday, with Luke McShane taking on Gawain Jones. The rapid section of the semi-final matches there got off to a dramatic start, as Black gave mate in both games.
That meant Luke McShane taking a 4-point lead by beating Adams and David Howell cutting the deficit to 2 points against Gawain Jones.
That was the high point for David, who went on to lose the first three blitz games, with Gawain clinching the match with a 104-move win in a Rook vs. Bishop ending. The other match was even more spectacular, as Luke won the second rapid game as well to take an 8-point lead going into the blitz, meaning that Mickey would need to win all 4 games simply to force a playoff. That looked impossible, but it’s not for nothing the English no. 1 is in the blitz Top 10, and he won the first three games. Admittedly, one of those needed a lot of help from his opponent, who played 36.a6??, leaving the e6-rook en prise:
Mickey was the final player to blunder, though, with 23…Qd5?:
That was a clever move in a tricky position and Black would be clearly better... if not for the minor problem of 24.Ne7+! and Adams stumbled on for a few more moves before resigning.
Jones and McShane will now fight it out for a £15,000 first prize, with £10,000 for the runner up, while £6,000 and £4,000 are at stake in the Adams-Howell match for 3rd place.
Watch all the action live here on chess24 on Saturday!
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