Magnus Carlsen looked set to blow away the field on Day 1 of the Paris Grand Chess Tour blitz when he won his first four games and stretched his lead to 3 points. It was, dare we say it, smooth, but then things suddenly got much more interesting. In a dramatic sequence of games he lost on time to Alexander Grischuk, missed a win and drew against Sergey Karjakin, then missed a win and lost to Maxime Vachier-Lagrave, while a resurgent Hikaru Nakamura might have caught him if he’d won their 110-move encounter. Instead it was drawn and Magnus takes a 1-point lead into the final day on Sunday.
The intrigue on Day 4 of the 2017 Paris Grand Chess Tour began early, with Sergey Karjakin tweeting:
That was a tweet liked by Hikaru Nakamura, and it was soon clarified that the missing man was none other than World Champion Magnus Carlsen, who had asked and been given permission to skip the children's event. It looks as though fun was had by all, but it’s questionable if it was the perfect preparation for a hugely intense four hours of blitz.
What followed was a lot of fun, but although the time control was an apparently generous (for blitz), 5 minutes + 3 seconds, the use of the delay instead of an increment again had an impact on the quality of play. Speed demon Alexander Grischuk managed to lose on time in the first round, while Fabiano Caruana summed up:
I’m not playing well today. I don’t think anyone’s playing well. There’s weird stuff going on! I don't think anyone is totally happy about their games today.
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It wouldn’t make too much sense to go into any deep analysis of blitz, but let’s look at some of the main storylines:
It looked ominous for his rivals. Carlsen started with spotting some sharp tactics against Caruana, then squeezed something out of nothing against Bacrot and comprehensively outplayed Topalov. Nakamura pointed out Magnus had played the outsiders up to that point, but then in Round 4 he simply blew away Mamedyarov with the black pieces in only 24 moves - at the time we didn’t know Shak was going to follow that loss with three more losses and two draws. The final position:
There were only two options for the rest of the world. To marvel:
Or, of course, to troll! The “smooth” interview with Maurice Ashley the day before was still in the back of everyone’s mind, with Yasser Seirawan asking, “Can we call this a smoothie?” of the first round win over Caruana. Maurice himself commented later, “It’s all Magnus just now – he is the epitome of smooth!”, while Tatev Abrahamyan on the official twitter account joined the fun:
Maxime Vachier-Lagrave’s interview on his win against Mamedyarov took the biscuit, though!
Alexander Grischuk had a bad day at the office, admitting that his first-round loss to Veselin Topalov had shaken him up (it may have had the same effect on Veselin, who didn’t win another game!), and that he then tried to play more safely. Three draws in a row were followed by the Round 5 clash with Black against Carlsen, and they soon reached a complicated minor piece ending. It was Magnus who emerged on top, but in mutual time trouble he missed the path to victory:
82.Ng4! intending Nf6-Nd7 and queening the b-pawn can’t really be stopped, but instead after 82.Kxe6? Kc7 83.Bd5 Nc3 the position was likely drawn. 84.Bc6 is the only winning attempt, and perhaps Magnus spotted that after having picked up his king to play 84.Ke5. Playing on the delay a moment’s hesitation was all it took for him to lose on time!
A couple more moves followed until the players realised what had happened.
Nakamura won in the same round to cut Carlsen’s lead to two points, and from there on the World Champion had lost control. He later commented:
I think it started out really well and then after my game with Grischuk it kind of collapsed and most of the games after that are garbage… I was playing well but also too slowly, and at some point it caught up with me.
The always significant clash with Sergey Karjakin saw another wild endgame, with Magnus, as in their rapid game, missing a tricky win at the death:
59.Ke6! puts Black in zugzwang, while in the game 59.Re3? allowed 59…g2! and there was nothing better than a draw after 60.Rg3+ Kf7 61.Rf3+ Kg6 and a repetition of moves.
Things went from bad to worse for Magnus, as he then lost to Maxime Vachier-Lagrave, although only after missing a winning shot when Maxime got a little too clever with 29.Qc4:
The French no. 1's point was that 29…gxh6 is met by 30.Qxd5! Qxd5 31.Nf6+ and White has reached a roughly equal ending, but simply 29…f5! would leave White with two pieces en prise. Instead Magnus meekly offered a queen exchange with 29…Qc6 and, for once, was the player to get ground down in the ending. Nakamura took full advantage by annihilating Mamedyarov in just 26 moves.
With Nakamura now trailing by only a point the fate of the tournament hinged on the Carlsen-Nakamura clash in Round 5, and it didn’t disappoint. Initially the advantage seemed to be on Carlsen’s side, but then Nakamura picked up three pawns for an exchange. He decided to exchange queens and… well, it’s hard to summarise what followed, except that it seemed as though both players were fighting for a win and the initiative kept swapping sides. There was one moment where Carlsen could have caught Nakamura’s knight and eventually won it with his rook, but instead the game ended in bare kings on move 110!
The fans loved it
The status quo wasn’t changed by the final round, where Nakamura inflicted only the second loss of the day on Sergey Karjakin, while Magnus eventually broke through in a position where Wesley So had been doing better. Wesley’s 43.Qg4? was a mistake:
43…Qa1+! 44.Kh2 and with no queen on the e5 square there was 44…Ne5!, forking the white rook and queen and winning the game.
The standings with 9 rounds of blitz to go look as follows:
Of course there were lots of other curious stories. We’ve already touched, for instance, on tough days for Mamedyarov, Grischuk and Topalov, while Fabiano Caruana’s luck finally turned. After the opening loss to Carlsen, making his tournament haul at that point 7 losses and 3 draws, he finally scored his first win in Paris this year, from a losing position against Karjakin. He enjoyed that so much he did the same again in the next round against MVL, and then added three more wins and two draws.
He would have been the day’s top scorer if he’d spotted a chance to defeat Nakamura:
It’s asking a bit much for blitz, but 40.Ne7!! not only hits the g8-rook but has the beautiful threat of Ng5+! next move, when the mating threats with Qg6+ force heavy material losses. Instead 40.Nc5? paved the path to Nakamura’s victory.
Etienne Bacrot always knew he was going to have a tough time, and at one stage he’d suffered 7 losses in a row. He ended the day last, since Caruana leapfrogged both Etienne and Topalov, but spare a thought for Wesley so in 7th place. He’s now gone 16 games without a win, scoring only 3 draws and 1.5 points in the blitz!
Sunday’s action starts two hours earlier at 12:00 CEST, and the colours are reversed from Saturday’s games. That means it’s quite likely Magnus will get off to another flying start, although Fabiano Caruana in Round 1 no longer looks like the easy opponent he did after the rapid games!
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