“It couldn’t have gone better” was Fabiano Caruana’s take on two brilliant attacks and one tense battle that saw him finish Day 1 of the St. Louis Rapid and Blitz on a perfect score, two points clear of the field. Maxime Vachier-Lagrave and Sergey Karjakin are in second place, while Wesley So, who dominated the rapid in Leuven and Paris, finds himself in last place after starting with two heavy losses to Shakhriyar Mamedyarov and Hikaru Nakamura.
You can replay all the games from the St. Louis Rapid and Blitz using the selector below:
And you can also replay the day’s live commentary from Yasser Seirawan, Jennifer Shahade and Maurice Ashley:
All the talk at the opening ceremony the day before had been about Fabiano Caruana and his World Championship challenge, but the suspicion was that when the chess action began we’d be talking about other heroes. Fabiano is notoriously unreliable, for a player of his level, when it comes to rapid and blitz, and had gone into the day rock bottom on the Grand Chess Tour standings after dire performances in Leuven and Paris. He could be expected to have his thoughts elsewhere, while the pairings had also given him Black for the first two rounds…
That’s where we have to stop ourselves, though, since the black pieces hold absolutely no fear for an in-form Fabi. His fantastic performances earlier this year in the GRENKE Chess Classic and of course the Candidates were built off winning with Black. In fact Fabiano’s opponent in Round 1 in St. Louis was Alexander Grischuk, the same player he’d beaten with Black, just for the hell of it, when a draw would have been enough in the final round in Berlin.
This time round there was none of the control of that game, with Caruana later describing his openings all day as “a bit random” and saying, with only a little hyperbole, that they were both on their own by move 3. The players castled on opposite sides, and at first it looked as though Grischuk would be the one to crash through. His attack ran out of steam, though, and it was the turn of Caruana to mass his pieces against the enemy king. He soon broke through with a sacrificial attack, and had foreseen the final blow:
White could still hold on here, if not for 31...Be3+!, and it was time to resign. The bishop makes way for the queen to reach h2, with mate to follow a move later.
That was a hard act to follow, but Caruana managed despite being surprised early on when Levon Aronian went for a pawn grab that was known to be risky. Fabiano gave Levon one or two chances to consolidate, but when those were squandered the black knights became executioners. First they took up menacing posts on the rim of the board, then they jumped into the fray:
23...Nf3+! 24.Kh1 Ng3+!!
Levon spent over half a minute in a position with only one legal move…
...probably deciding whether to resign on the spot. The problem is that after 25.fxg3 Qxg3 26.gxf3 there’s 26...Rg6! and it’s impossible to stop the threat of mate on g1. If the bishop moves it’s mate on g2 or h3 instead.
Levon did play on, though, since with the queen sac 26.Qe5 he at least managed to stave off mate. It was only a temporary stay of execution, though, since White’s two minor pieces were no match for a queen.
The final game of the day for Caruana was also crucial for the overall standings, since midway through the game the other pairings had all ended as draws, and it turned out that one of the players would lead after Day 1. For it to be him Shakhriyar Mamedyarov needed to win, but that looked a distinct possibility after he found a fine sacrifice in a fashionable opening line. It was only Fabi’s 20.Nd2 that deviated from an Anand-Mamedyarov game, while after 20...hxg4 21.hxg4 it was time for Shak to strike:
21...Nxb4! “An excellent decision on his part” (Caruana) 22.cxb4 Bxb4 23.Ba2. When a black pawn reached c4 a couple of moves later it was bad news: “The only problem is my bishop is completely trapped!”
It was by no means easy to convert that fact into a win for Black, though, and Mamedyarov began to struggle to make moves before going astray after 32.Rad1:
Here Mamedyarov played “too straightforward” (Caruana) with 32...Bxd1?. Wesley So agreed:
I don’t understand why Shak took on d1, because White can never play Bb1 anyway. Black can take on d1 at any time, and the bishop on c2 paralyses White’s position.
The worst was over for White, and a black blunder shortly afterwards meant the a2-bishop could make a triumphant return to force a won ending for White. Even then there were some scares, though, as Fabiano could find no way to win cleanly with zugzwangs and had to go for a pawn race instead. He was shocked by his own decision at the very end:
Fabi called his 56.bxc3 “a crazy move”, since although it was winning he could simply have queened the f-pawn immediately! There was no time to dwell on it, though, since Mamedyarov resigned. Fabiano had scored 6/6 on Day 1 of the tournament.
That was a tough pill to swallow for Mamedyarov, whose St. Louis debut was so close to being perfect. He started by repeating the trick from Paris of inflicting a defeat on perhaps the toughest player to beat in rapid chess – Wesley So. Wesley had a lot to do with his own downfall, getting caught out in the opening and making a losing decision on move 13. He was playing slowly as well, and later, after also getting ground down in a roughly balanced endgame against Hikaru Nakamura, would put it down to being somewhat rusty after a break from chess.
Mamedyarov, meanwhile, was inches away from winning a second game in a row. He had Alexander Grischuk on the ropes and in time trouble, but there’s perhaps no-one in world chess more dangerous in that situation:
38...f4! 39.Bxf4 g5! 40.Bxg5 Qxf3 41.Rb8? (41.Rd8! was essential to keep the queen protected) 41...Qh5+ and it turned out Grischuk’s desperate demolition of the cover around the white king was sufficient to force perpetual check. It took another dozen moves for Mamedyarov to accept the new reality:
As always on a day of rapid chess there were dramatic moments everywhere. Vishy Anand started with a smooth win over Hikaru Nakamura after the American grandmaster prematurely launched a break in the centre and soon found himself in trouble.
Anand told Maurice Ashley, “I’ve been dying to sac on f6 for a while already” and after 20...h5? “it was too good to pass up”:
21.Bf4! Qd7 22.Rxf6! gxf6 23.Bxc7 Qxc7 24.Qxh5 and in the play that followed Vishy brought the game to its logical conclusion with sadistic precision.
That wasn’t the launch pad for more for Vishy, however, since in the very next game he was impressively outplayed in the Berlin Ending by Maxime Vachier-Lagrave. The French no. 1 remains one of the few top players with an appetite for trying to topple that wall.
Maxime drew his other two games to find himself in second place with Sergey Karjakin, who got to show some real invention against Leinier Dominguez:
This is the same line Karjakin used to defeat Kramnik in the Berlin Candidates, though Dominguez went for the immediate 9...Nc6 instead of Vlad’s 9...cxd4. Sergey demonstrated more of the idea’s venom with 12.Rh3!? Rd8 13.Rg3 here and was clearly enjoying himself when he later put his bishop on b2 and queen on a1. The computer demonstrated an amazing defence for Leinier, but the Cuban no. 1 did what humans do and crumpled under the all-out assault on his king.
That leaves the standings as follows after Day 1 in St. Louis, though it goes without saying that a lot could still happen in the remaining 24 rounds. Plus, as Wesley So reminded us, “tomorrow’s another day!”
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