Reports Aug 15, 2019 | 2:20 PMby Colin McGourty

St. Louis Rapid & Blitz Winners & Losers

Levon Aronian has won the St. Louis Rapid and Blitz for a second time after a nerve-wracking final round in which Yu Yangyi could have forced a playoff if he’d found a win in the final position. Instead the Chinese star took a draw and finished half a point back, where he was joined by his compatriot Ding Liren and Maxime Vachier-Lagrave. The French no. 1 had suffered a Paris-style collapse but salvaged something by winning his last two games. Magnus Carlsen finished 6th and lost the world no. 1 blitz spot to Hikaru Nakamura.

The smile of a winner! Aronian is the 2019 St. Louis Rapid & Blitz Champion | photo: Crystal Fuller, Grand Chess Tour

You can replay all the games from the 2019 St. Louis Rapid and Blitz using the selector below:

And here’s the live commentary on the final day’s action:

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Now, as we did for Paris, let’s take a look at some of the event’s winners and losers.

Winners

1. Levon Aronian

The Armenian no. 1 went into the final day in St. Louis trailing Maxime Vachier-Lagrave by half a point and was well-beaten by Sergey Karjakin in the first game of the day, but from there on things began to go his way. It’s not often you’re winning by move 11 against a 2750+ player, but that’s what happened against Shakhriyar Mamedyarov in Round 2. Here’s the critical position after 12…Qf5:


It looks like White is struggling to defend his e5-pawn and pieces, but 13.g3! protected everything and introduced the unstoppable threat of 14.Bh3!, winning the queen. Mamedyarov stumbled on to move 55, but it was a hopeless task.

In the very next round the usually unflappable Ding Liren hesitated and lost on time in a drawish position:

Levon missed an easy win against Caruana in the next round, but while Maxime Vachier-Lagrave was crashing and burning Aronian moved steadily towards tournament victory:


He seemed to have things all but wrapped things up when he beat Richard Rapport to lead by 1.5 points with 2 rounds to go, but as he would later comment:

The single time that I won the World Championship in blitz I also think I lost the last two games, so I have this tendency of committing suicide and then winning!

He didn’t quite lose the penultimate game against Magnus Carlsen, but it felt that way, after he spoilt a position where he was two pawns up and could have picked up a third at will. Winning the title with a round to spare by beating the World Champion – even a malfunctioning Magnus who had lost his last three games – would have been quite a statement. Instead he rushed to simplify and only drew.

Levon should have sealed the deal with a win over Magnus | photo: Crystal Fuller, Grand Chess Tour

That meant a draw in the final round would guarantee victory, but Levon described what followed as “a terrible game” where he was soon worse with White and allowed Maxime Vachier-Lagrave to finish in some style:


27…Nxf3+! was crushing, since 28.exf3 runs into 28…Qg6+, picking up the rook on d3.

It wasn’t a glorious end to the tournament for Levon, but his smile told the story when his second Manuel Petrosyan let him know that he’d won the event!

He later explained how he felt to Maurice:

Extremely happy! At this point I already don’t care if I blundered anything. The win just brings relief. I was thinking before today, ok, I’m playing so badly maybe I’ll have trouble catching up with Maxime, so the win is a great feeling for me!

It was a deserved triumph based on a brilliant start in rapid and a solid 50% in the blitz, and gave him 13 Grand Chess Tour points and the $37,500 top prize.

2. The Chinese matadors

Peter Svidler used the phrase the “Chinese matadors” when he phoned into the Russian live show and commented that the painful struggle of Levon and Maxime to maintain the lead made him wish for one of the Chinese players to emerge and steal the title at the end. It very nearly happened, with world no. 3 Ding Liren losing the fewest games overall (4) of any player and finishing with a 4.5/5 streak.

Yu Yangyi (right) got the better of Ding Liren at the start of the day | photo: Austin Fuller, Grand Chess Tour

The player who most deserves the limelight, however, is Yu Yangyi, who had already shown earlier in the year in Norway Chess that he’s a formidable speed chess player. He emphasized the point when he started the day by inflicting only the 2nd loss of the event on Ding Liren:

39…Re1+! was the move, when either 40.Kxe1 Qe2# or 40.Rxe1 Qg2# ends the game. Ding commented:

As I told [you] yesterday, he’s very strong when he’s in good shape. First he defeated me to prove that my words are right!

Yu Yangyi had ups and downs, but he went on to beat Magnus and then, critically, MVL:


18.Nxh7! was a fine tactical blow, though after 18…Bxh7 19.Bxf7+ Kxf7 20.Rxh7+ Black is no worse. Not for the first time in St. Louis, however, Maxime tried to complicate when hit by a tactic and only found himself in a lost position after 18…Qa6+? 19.Be2 Qd6 20.Nxf6+! and White later emerged with two extra pawns.

Yu Yangyi noticed after the game that he had a chance for more than a draw | photo: Crystal Fuller, Grand Chess Tour

Yu Yangyi’s third win in a row, against Sergey Karjakin, meant he went into the final round of the day as the only player who could still catch Levon, and in fact right up until the moment he offered Shakhriyar Mamedyarov a draw he could still win and force a playoff for the title. It turns out, as the Chinese player suspected afterwards, that he was still winning at the end, though working all this out in blitz is almost mission impossible. Here’s analysis from Spanish IM David Martinez:

1. e4 c5 2. ♘f3 ♘f6 3. e5 ♘d5 4. ♘c3 e6 5. ♘xd5 exd5 6. d4 ♘c6 7. c3 d6 8. ♗b5 cxd4 9. ♘xd4 ♗d7 10. exd6 ♗xd6 11. ♕e2+ ♕e7 12. ♕xe7+ ♔xe7 13. ♘f3 a6 14. ♗e2 h6 15. ♗e3 ♗e6 16. O-O ♖he8 17. ♘d4 ♔f8 18. ♖ad1 ♘xd4 19. ♗xd4 ♖ac8 20. ♗f3 ♗c5 21. ♖fe1 b5 22. ♔f1 ♖ed8 23. ♗xc5+ ♖xc5 24. ♖e5 a5 25. ♖d4 ♖c4 26. ♔e1 ♔e7 27. ♗e2 ♖xd4 28. cxd4 b4 29. ♔d2 g5 30. ♖e3 ♔d6 31. g3 ♖c8 32. ♗d3 ♖g8 33. ♖f3 ♔e7 34. ♖e3 h5 35. f4 gxf4 36. gxf4 ♔f6 37. ♖g3 ♖g4 38. ♖xg4 hxg4 39. ♔e3 ♗f5 40. ♗e2 ♔g6 41. ♔f2 ♗d7 42. ♔g3 f5 43. a3 bxa3 44. bxa3 ♔f6 45. ♔h4 ♔g6 46. h3 gxh3 47. ♔xh3 ♔f6 48. ♔h4 ♔g6 49. ♗h5+ ♔f6 50. ♗f3 ♗e6 51. ♔h5 ♗f7+ 52. ♔h6 ♗e6 53. ♗h5 ♗g8 54. ♗e8 ♗e6 55. ♔h7 ♔e7 56. ♗b5 ♔f6 57. ♗c6 ♔f7 58. ♔h6 ♔f6 59. ♗e8 ♔e7 60. ♗b5 ♔f6 61. ♗c6 ♗f7 62. ♗d7 ♗g8 63. ♔h5 ♗f7+ 64. ♔h4 ♗g6 65. ♗c6 ♗f7 66. ♗b7 ♗e6 67. ♔h5 ♗f7+ 68. ♔h6 ♗e6 69. ♔h7 ♔f7 70. ♗c6 ♔f6 71. ♗e8 ♔e7 72. ♗b5 Here Yu Yangyi offered a draw, giving up on his chance of forcing a playoff. In order to win the ending the bishop needs to go to h5 to prevent the black king having the f7-square.

72. ♗g6 ♔f6 73. ♗h5 1st zugzwang. One of the black pieces must move and allow the king to pass. Advancing the pawn would only delay the process a little and would also leave the pawn on a light square, converting it into a weakness. 73... ♗d7 74. ♔g8 ♗b5 (74... ♗c6 75. ♔f8 ♗b5 76. ♗f7 ♗c6 77. ♗g8 Zugzwang) 75. ♔f8 ♗c6 76. ♗f3 A 2nd zugzwang. 76... ♗b7 77. ♔e8 ♔e6 78. ♔d8 ♔d6 Plugging the holes. 79. ♗d1 ♗c6 80. ♗c2 ♗d7 81. ♗d3 A 3rd zugzwang. 81... ♗e6 82. ♔e8 And a 4th! Finally the white king manages to approach the black pawns. 82... ♗d7+ 83. ♔f7 And the f-pawn will soon fall.

72. ♗h5 ♔f6 73. ♔h8 is similiar.

1/2-1/2

So there was disappointment, and Yu Yangyi could of course also point to missing mate-in-2 against Levon the day before, but it was still a great performance by the Chinese player, who was the top scorer on the final day of blitz:

6: Yu Yangyi
5.5: Caruana
5: Ding Liren, Karjakin, Aronian
4.5: Carlsen, Mamedyarov
4: MVL
3: Dominguez
2.5: Rapport

He got to share the honours and prize money with Ding Liren and Maxime Vachier-Lagrave:


3. Hikaru Nakamura

We made Magnus Carlsen a winner in Paris after he snatched the blitz no. 1 spot without playing a game, so it’s only fitting to give Hikaru Nakamura a mention here, since he’s now taken over:

Losers

1. Magnus Carlsen

Frankly the only reason for choosing this Winners and Losers format again was to take advantage of the rarest of opportunities to place Magnus among the “losers”! You could argue that sixth place is far from catastrophic, and that his 50% score in the blitz section was as good as Levon’s and better than MVL’s, but Magnus is held, and holds himself, to higher standards than that. He’s never scored less than 10/18 in Grand Chess Tour blitz, and since the 2018 World Rapid Championship, where he finished half a point behind the winner, he’d won eight tournaments in a row. It wasn’t just about winning, but doing it in the dominant style of a Bobby Fischer or Garry Kasparov at their best.

Shakhriyar Mamedyarov was one of the players Magnus beat before the wheels came off, again! | photo: Crystal Fuller, Grand Chess Tour

The first hint we got that things might be different in St. Louis came with an opening round loss to Ding Liren. Although he hit back that day, three more losses in rapid followed and he had to concede the no. 1 spot on the rapid live rating list to Maxime. Another three losses on the first day of blitz left Magnus in the very unusual position of being completely out of contention going into the final day. He forewarned us:

To be honest, my no. 1 wish now is for the tournament to be over. It cannot come soon enough, so you’re probably going to see more of the same tomorrow. I just cannot really be bothered at this point.

At first on the final day, however, it seemed the champion’s spirit nevertheless obliged him to keep on fighting, and there were glimpses of his best:

The crunch came in one of the games he’d least want to lose, against world no. 2 and World Championship challenger Fabiano Caruana. If one diagram sums up Magnus’ tournament…


His queen is almost comically stranded behind enemy lines, but Magnus could have struggled on. Instead he went for 25…d5? 26.Qd3 dxe4 27.Qd7! and to save the queen the e7-bishop falls. Magnus played on to move 62, but couldn’t avoid losing the mini-match against Fabi 3.5:0.5. Once again he started doing things that even a World Champion can’t easily get away with, especially when out of form:

He followed that with a loss to Dominguez, a game he should have lost to Aronian and a missed win against Rapport in the final round. The big question now is whether this was just a blip and Magnus can return to top form when the Sinquefield Cup starts on Saturday.

2. Maxime Vachier-Lagrave

Maxime Vachier-Lagrave won the final game, Levon Aronian won the title, everyone was more or less happy! | photo: Austin Fuller, Grand Chess Tour

Although Maxime won the Paris Rapid and Blitz we were sorely tempted to put him among the “losers” at the time for the painful way in which he crawled over the finish line after losing four games on both days of blitz. Surely one of the world’s best blitz players couldn’t suffer like that again? But no, after a brilliant run in the rapid there was an almost exact repeat performance in the blitz in St. Louis, with Maxime losing a comically huge (185.2!) number of rating points from the events combined to drop from no. 1 to no. 20 (!) on the live rating list:


This time the universe didn’t conspire to allow Maxime to win the tournament anyway, but after scoring 0.5/5 in the middle of the day he did hit back in the last two games to make it clear that we’re nevertheless being a bit unfair to put him among the losers! Joint second place added to Maxime’s Grand Chess Tour points haul:


Having played more events than any other player, however, he still needs to do well in the Sinquefield Cup to be sure of qualifying for the London finals in December.

3. Richard Rapport’s shirt

It seemed that Richard had learnt from the master and would be unstoppable on the final day of blitz with a new secret weapon:

Alas, after scoring 6/9 on the first day of blitz he posted the worst score of the second day, 2.5/9. Sometimes the shirt gambit can backfire!

Who needs a garish shirt when you have a jacket and trousers like these? | photo: Austin Fuller, Grand Chess Tour

4. The 2019 chess calendar

On the final day Peter Svidler repeated Garry Kasparov’s theory that the only plausible explanation for some of the blunders and uneven play was fatigue. As an illustration of that, take MVL’s summer (and before this he’d played in the Côte d’Ivoire Rapid & Blitz and the French Top 12 in May):

Norway Chess: June 3 – 15
10 days’ break
Croatia Grand Chess Tour: 26 June – 8 July
3 days
Riga FIDE Grand Prix: July 12 – 24
2 days
Paris Rapid and Blitz: July 27 – 1 August
8 days
St. Louis Rapid and Blitz: 10-14 August
2 days
Sinquefield Cup: 17-28 August

We can’t expect the players to be at their best all the time.

5. Caruana and Mamedyarov

Fabiano Caruana had a good first two days and last day in St. Louis, but inbetween something went badly awry! | photo: Austin Fuller, Grand Chess Tour

Nevertheless, that’s probably an insufficient explanation for a couple of the world’s top chess players, Fabiano Caruana and Shakhriyar Mamedyarov, both managing to lose five games in a row, not once, but twice in the same tournament! They finished with wildcard Leinier Dominguez sandwiched between them at the bottom of the table:


Still, they both finished well, with Shakh scoring 50% on the final day while Caruana’s 5.5/9 was the day’s second best score, and included that win over Magnus that we already mentioned. The suspicion is they were both just taking things easy to recharge their batteries for the upcoming 11-round classical marathon of the Sinquefield Cup. That begins on Saturday, and sees tour regulars Anish Giri, Wesley So, Ian Nepomniachtchi, Vishy Anand and Hikaru Nakamura return.


You’ll be able to follow all the action right here on chess24, where the pairings are already out! The Opening Ceremony, which is also the Closing Ceremony of the St. Louis Rapid and Blitz, can be watched live at 18:30 St. Louis time Thursday, 01:30 Friday CEST, below:

See also:


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