Reports Jun 26, 2017 | 9:17 AMby Colin McGourty

Paris GCT, Day 5: Carlsen wins despite MVL surge

Magnus Carlsen has won the 2017 Paris Grand Chess Tour in a playoff against Maxime Vachier-Lagrave after the Frenchman scored a brilliant 7/9 on the final day of the blitz. Magnus scored a full 3 points less after losing 4 games, including 3 in a row at one point, but managed to pull himself together just in time to beat Wesley So in the final game and force a playoff. The old Magnus returned for the rapid playoff as he outplayed his opponent with White before holding with ease as Black. Hikaru Nakamura took 3rd place after a day laden with regret.

After a tempestuous five days Magnus gets the crucial win in the first playoff game | photo: Lennart Ootes

Replay all 137 games from the 2017 Paris Grand Chess Tour using the selector below (click a result to open the game with computer analysis or hover over a player's name to see all his or her results):

You can rewatch the 6-hour final from St. Louis and Paris below:

Carlsen keeps his fans on the edge of their seats

Sunday’s first round set the scene for a thrilling and unpredictable race. Magnus Carlsen had Black against Fabiano Caruana, a player who had returned to form after a disastrous rapid performance. What we got was one of the most uneven games you’ll ever witness at the highest level, with neither player able to navigate the complications in a time scramble. 

Pre-game niceties before they lunged at each other's throats | photo: Lennart Ootes

After many ups and downs they reached the position after Magnus played 43…Nxe5:


Fabiano said afterwards he’d missed this move, though it’s actually a mistake! However, allowing 44.Bxe5!! g4+ is a computer fantasy given the situation in which the players found themselves. It turns out that after 45.Qxg4 Rxg4 46.Rxg7+! Kf8 47.e7+! Ke8 48.Rg8+ White wins back the queen and is simply a piece up.

Caruana later realised he could have played 44.Rxg7+ here, but he was right when he said, “It’s probably good I saw it too late!” Instead he went for 44.Qf2?, which could have been swatted down with 44…Qc3!!, pinning the g3-bishop and stopping all the fun, but instead it was met by 44…Qd8?:


And now 45.Rxg7+! Kxg7 46.Bxe5+ did win the game. Caruana summed up:

To navigate this position with seconds is impossible, so I’m sure we both made some serious blunders… After the first two days of rapid I basically gave up any hope of anything. At least I can have an influence on who wins and in any case, playing good chess is a reward in itself!

Fabiano got to reenact his 2014 Sinquefield Cup triumph, though not on the board... | photo: Lennart Ootes

The good news for Magnus, meanwhile, was that his nearest rival Hikaru Nakamura also lost, and when he went on to beat Bacrot and Topalov he found himself with a 2.5-point lead with six rounds to go. Would he avoid all the drama of the day before? Not exactly...

Draws followed against Mamedyarov and Grischuk and then the wheels began to fall off. First Sergey Karjakin reminded us why he’s the current World Blitz Champion with a comprehensive victory, punishing some provocative play from Magnus and then converting impressively in 86 moves. Then Maxime Vachier-Lagrave played the Najdorf and seized the initiative with bold play. Although objectively Magnus retained an edge it was easier for Black to play and 57.b4? lost on the spot:


57…Nd5! both hit the queen and threatened Nc3 next move. Magnus had to resign and the scores were level.

Agony for Magnus... | photo: Lennart Ootes

The coup de grace was delivered by Hikaru Nakamura, in a game where the World Champion’s instinct to unbalance positions and fight for victory let him down. As he would later say:

I tried to focus for a few games, but everything just kept on falling apart. I was playing too slowly and I was just losing every time scramble.

Nakamura seized the initiative and we got a weird and wonderful position, with a line of pieces all along the 6th rank, as Hikaru brought home the full point:

The darkest hour comes just before the dawn, and it doesn’t get much darker than this for Magnus:


However, Magnus was only a half point behind Maxime Vachier-Lagrave and had the white pieces against Wesley So. Earlier in the tournament it was the kind of game Magnus could simply be sure to win, but Wesley had finally come to life on the final day of blitz, beating Nakamura, Grischuk…

…Bacrot and Topalov. He commented that the day before he couldn’t see any moves, and, “This tournament has been one of the worst tournaments of my life”. He added, “the mind is a funny thing and every person has the same brain and sometimes it stops working”. 

Wesley's Paris GCT 2017 will mostly be remembered for his sunglasses | photo: Lennart Ootes

Luckily for Magnus, though, this was to be another bad game for Wesley. In a tough position he cracked, and though he couldn’t match Mamedyarov’s earlier blunder…

24…Be6?? simply ended the game on the spot (24…Rxa5 and the fight goes on):


You don’t need to be Magnus Carlsen to spot 25.Bxb6, which was enough for a place in the tiebreak!

Everyone seems happy with the Grischuk-MVL draw that meant a playoff | photo: Lennart Ootes

Going into the final day Hikaru Nakamura was trailing by a point, and the best that can be said about what followed is that he matched Magnus in scoring -1. It may take some forgetting!

Nakamura’s horror show

Hikaru Nakamura’s day started with a loss to Maxime Vachier-Lagrave, but while many others would suffer that fate, losses to the struggling Wesley So and Etienne Bacrot were hard to take. It wasn’t just the losses, though:

Why was Nakamura so miserable? He’d allowed himself to fall for Caruana’s inspired bluff 35…Bxg3?!


After a long, long think, for this time control, Hikaru opted for 36.Rd8+? Kg7 37.Qxe6 fxe6 38.Kxg3 Rxb7 and a rook ending that lived up to its drawish reputation. Instead there was nothing wrong with grabbing a piece with 36.fxg3!, and even after 36…Qg4 White has everything covered.

Mamedyarov's chances of tournament victory slipped on a bad first day of blitz, but at least he got to play one of the event's most memorable games... | photo: Lennart Ootes

If that was bad, what followed a couple of games later against Mamedyarov reached historic proportions. It was a tragi-comedy in three acts. First, something that could happen to anyone:


Three moves win here, 75…f2+, 75…Ke1 and 75…Kg1, but Nakamura’s 75…Kg2? doesn't. Then, after 76.Ke3! f2+ 77.Ke2 we got one of the most remarkable moves of the event:


To draw Black can simply queen the pawn, or take on h5, but, perhaps dreaming of a Ng3+ fork, or simply picking up the closest piece to the board, Nakamura played 77.f1=N?!?!:

Mamedyarov commented, “it was like he wanted to play for a joke with one knight. It was really a very interesting moment in my career. I’ve never seen it…”

The hand probably doesn't belong to Hikaru... | photo: Lennart Ootes

After 78.Rf2+ Kg1 79.Rxf1+ the position was still drawn, but with an extra pawn it was only White who could play for a win. Mamedyarov had missed one win by the time he was given another chance:


Only 88…Kh2! still draws – Black keeps the white king from the action and shuffles his king from h2 to h3 for eternity. Instead 88…Rh6 allowed the white king to advance towards g8 and it was game over. An extraordinary loss for Nakamura.

It’s testimony to Hikaru’s fighting spirit, though, that he managed to end by beating Carlsen and Karjakin in his final two games, salvaging 3rd place from a traumatic day’s chess!

MVL’s surge

Despite the famously “unsmooth” last day of the rapid Magnus’ +5 score, or +10 if you count it in "blitz points", left the rest of the field trailing in his wake. Alexander Grischuk was closest, but would go on to score only 50% in the blitz section of the tournament. Maxime Vachier-Lagrave, meanwhile, was a full three points back, and after matching the World Champion’s +3 score on Day 1 of the blitz was unable to narrow the gap. Hikaru Nakamura took over as the closest rival, but as we’ve seen, he went on to score -1, like Magnus.

Maxime Vachier-Lagrave ensured the final day was a thriller for French fans | photo: Lennart Ootes

That was Maxime’s chance, and on the final day the Frenchman reigned supreme, notching up a +5 score to make his final blitz result: 10 wins, 6 draws and 2 losses, for 13/18. His play was as good as the result, and it saw him climb to no. 2 on the live blitz rating list, within 10 points of you know who:

The only lingering regret must be that he failed at the end to win one of his final two games. He went into the game against Karjakin level on points with Magnus and perhaps had in the back of his mind that he’d lost to Sergey on the first day of blitz. In any case, he took a forced draw starting on move 13 of a Giuoco Piano. That looked inspired when he got to watch Carlsen lose his game, while in the final round it was a hard ask to win with Black against Alexander Grischuk, who was fighting for the top places himself. 

We made it... | photo: Lennart Ootes

The draw was just what the doctor ordered for Magnus, who had stumbled through to the playoff:


As you can see, Hikaru nevertheless took 3rd place, wild cards Grischuk and Mamedyarov justified their selection, while the remaining players have various tales of woe to tell.

Carlsen the playoff king

That meant a playoff for first place to see who would take the 12 Grand Chess Tour points (the 13 on offer for finishing in sole first place were no longer available). There was bad news for Maxime. First, Carlsen’s playoff record was formidable, to put it mildly (Seier = victory):

Second, part of that record was achieved against Maxime himself, who was beaten over two games in the playoff for the 2015 London Chess Classic. Third, while Maxime had been stunning in the blitz section, where he scored 2:0 against Magnus, the first two games of the playoff were to be a rapid time control of 10 minutes + a 5-second delay. Add to that Magnus getting White in the first game and things were looking tough.

Different approaches before the start | photo: Lennart Ootes

Magnus played the London System, and although Maxime managed to simplify he did so at the cost of a pawn and giving himself the kind of static weaknesses the World Champion enjoys playing against. Still, things looked as though they could still end happily ever after for the French no. 1 until he let his grip of the position slip:


White’s king is cut off and Black seems to have enough threats to keep the position balanced if he does nothing, but 41.Ra1+?! let the king escape and freed the knight from defending the h-pawn. With his coordination crumbling Maxime was unable to put up much resistance and the end was swift:


54.g7! Bxg7 55.fxg7 a1=Q 56.g8=Q+ saw White queen with check and Magnus went on easily to convert his extra piece.

He would say afterwards:

I think I found some life again after I won the last game with Wesley, and during the playoff I was a lot calmer than I’d been before and I think that helped a lot.

That new-found confidence was visible in the final game which, as in London in 2015, was an anti-climax. Maxime, who worked as one of the World Champion’s seconds for the Karjakin match, allowed Magnus to play the Marshall, and the opening lived up to its drawish reputation. Maxime played the first new move but it was easily defused and, to no-one’s great surprise despite all the ups and downs of the last few days, Magnus Carlsen was the Champion!

The winner in the CANAL+ TV studio | photo: Lennart Ootes 

For Maxime the consolation was that the prize money was shared:


A final group photo at the closing ceremony | photo: Lennart Ootes

Magnus with the winner's cube | photo: Lennart Ootes

So where now for the players? Well, perhaps there's a little time to relax...

...then for Magnus, Maxime and also Wesley So it's time to do it all again in the Your Next Move Grand Chess Tour event in Leuven! That starts on Wednesday and has exactly the same format, but a very different line-up of players:


As you can see, tour regulars Aronian, Anand and Nepomniachtchi (fresh from Khanty-Mansiysk) join the fray, along with wildcards Kramnik, Giri, Ivanchuk and Jobava. Will the players from Paris be exhausted, or will the experience of handling the delay time control prove invaluable? How many games will Ivanchuk lose on time? Will Nigel Short manage to improve on Maurice Ashley when it comes to handling the sometimes feisty World Champion?

We’ll soon find out! 

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