Reports Sep 17, 2020 | 12:09 PMby Colin McGourty

STL Rapid & Blitz 2: Carlsen’s perfect day

Magnus Carlsen bounced back from the disappointment of losing by disconnection the day before to power to three wins in three games on Day 2 of the St. Louis Rapid and Blitz. That gave the World Champion the sole lead, a point ahead of Wesley So and Ian Nepomniachtchi, with Nepo having an eventful day. The Russian no. 1 beat Harikrishna and Hikaru Nakamura, but between those games was lost in 10 moves against 19-year-old Jeffery Xiong.

Beating leader Levon Aronian was a great start for Magnus

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

And here’s the day’s live commentary from Yasser Seirawan, Jennifer Shahade and Maurice Ashley:

Maurice Ashley asked Magnus Carlsen about how difficult it was to lead a chess tournament, referencing the Los Angeles Clippers blowing a 3:1 lead to lose 4:3 in the NBA playoffs. It was clearly something Magnus had had plenty of time to think about!

I tell you what, it’s very, very difficult. Being a frontrunner in chess is unbelievably hard. I will just say that I think that just applies to everybody, and it’s very easy to play well when you’re winning and you don’t have too many scares, but as soon as you lead such a tournament and you lose one important game, then you make a draw, then you lose one more, even though you still might have the lead at that point it’s very, very easy to collapse. So I would say I still haven’t figured it out and I see a lot of other guys in tournaments that when they’re way up in the standings in these Rapid and Blitz events they sort of freeze. That’s about what I can say. 

My best advice is just don’t mess up at any point and you will be fine! But I’m telling you, as soon as you start messing up it’s a slippery slope.

That came on a day when co-leaders Levon Aronian and Harikrishna lost the lead in the first round of the day, before Magnus took over in the last. Let’s look at the World Champion.

Magnus Carlsen’s perfect day

Carlsen went into Day 2 of the St. Louis Rapid and Blitz on 50%, 3/6, but it would have been 4/6 if not for an unfortunate disconnection and loss on time to Ian Nepomniachtchi. Magnus commented:

I was obviously very upset yesterday, losing because of something that’s a little bit out of my control. So my main prep today was just making sure there were backups and backups and more backups in terms of internet!

Everything ran smoothly, just as it did on the chessboard. “I knew that the pairings were a little bit easier today, so I took advantage of that,” said Magnus, but playing leader Levon Aronian in Round 4 was potentially tricky. Levon hadn’t been too over-worked by a quick draw earlier in the day against Georg Meier.

Nevertheless, Magnus built up a huge advantage against his opponent’s Grünfeld Defence, until Levon came up with the inventive, or perhaps desperate, 12…Nd7!?

13.dxe6 Nc5! 14.Qd5 Nxd3+ is Black’s idea. Even there White is significantly better, but Magnus instead played the elegant 13.Bb1!, when Levon had nothing better than 13…Bf5 14.Bxh6 Bxh6 15.Bxf5 gxf5, and White had retained his central pawns as well as breaking up Black’s structure.

Magnus explained his reasoning:

First of all I’d missed 12…Nd7, but I guess it’s not the sort of position where you’re too worried that you’re missing anything, because it has to be good. The position just looks too good not to be, and after Nd7 my basic thinking was there must be something very, very good here, and I soon hit on this idea that I just move the bishop and then I thought putting it on b1 would be a little bit more accurate than putting it on c2. It came to me very quickly, but I think the engines say that there are a bunch of good moves, also 13.Be2 Bf5 14.0-0 is great, so I would not accept too much praise there, because anything works. But certainly, Bb1 from an aesthetic point of view is pretty nice.

Levon then gave up a pawn to try and disrupt White’s plans, but it just left Magnus with an extra pawn and all the compensation. The rest was very smooth, until Magnus tried to get Yasser to show a possible line on the board!

Magnus summed up his day, which included beating Harikrishna in the final game after the Indian GM blundered in a roughly equal position, “The 1st and 3rd games were sort of gifts, I would say, and the 2nd game was a lot of fun!” That second game was against Leinier Dominguez and featured Magnus playing the Philidor (1.e4 e5 2.Nf3 d6!?) with Black.

The players castled on opposite wings and launched attacks, though Magnus had misplayed an advantage and a draw looked the most likely outcome until Leinier played 37.Qe4?

I went 36…Kh7 and obviously a huge part of this was the trap that he couldn’t go 37.Qe4, which I’d seen, but I think if he’d defended better here he would have had some chances, especially keeping in mind my game against Alireza in the first Magnus Invitational, where there was a kind of similar position, where I sacrificed an exchange and I had this beautiful bishop on f6, and then Qg6 happened at some point and I was mated. So I was really a bit worried that the same thing would happen here, but fortunately it didn’t.

What followed was a fine combination that works like clockwork! 37…Rxb2+! 38.Kxb2 d3+ 39.Kc1 Qc5+! 40.Kd2 Qc2+ 41.Ke1:

Here White would actually be winning if not for the sting in the tail, 41…Bh4+! and, with the d1-rook falling with check, Leinier resigned.

When Magnus takes the lead in these Rapid and Blitz events it tends to be bad news for his rivals.

I’m just trying to have fun and play well. I feel like when I’m in decent shape I generally get a lot of points, so I’m not too worried about this.  

The first goal of his rivals will be to ensure Magnus doesn’t go into Friday and Saturday’s 18 rounds of blitz with a lead that will be hard to overhaul.

Ian Nepomniachtchi as Robin Hood

There are different ways to approach chess tournaments. Wesley So, in joint second place, has been absolutely true to his style. Both days so far he’s won the first game – on Day 2 pouncing on a mistake by Dominguez in a tricky position – and then drawn the next two with little fuss, including draws in 21, 20 and 21 moves. It’s not the most exciting style to watch, but, as we’ve seen in multiple events in the past, can be very effective. Plus, there was the cat…

And then there’s Nepo. Admittedly he did score one win (Magnus’ disconnect) and two draws on Day 1, but Day 2 was the kind of rollercoaster we’ve come to expect from the Russian. First he put co-leader Harikrishna to the sword, using nice tactics and an advantage on the clock to convert a passed pawn into winning a piece.

Then in Game 2… 19-year-old Jeffery Xiong played Alekhine’s Defence (1.e4 Nf6!?) and was winning on move 10 when, after under two minutes’ thought, Nepo grabbed the b7-pawn with 10.Qxb7?. Jeffery’s reply 10…Ndb4! was already the winning move.

The youngster commented:

I think it was certainly a gift from Nepo, because ok, I played the Alekhine’s Defence just hoping to get a game, not imagining anything like this. But basically I think he wanted to punish me, so he decided to take on b7, because it’s probably the only way he can hope for an advantage, and unfortunately for him it’s just busted after Ndb4.

Play continued 11.Bb5 Nxc2+ 12.Ke2 0-0 13.Bxc6 Rb8 14.Qxa7 Nd4+ 15.Ke1 Nc2+ 16.Ke2:

The computer’s choice, that Jeffery had spent the last almost 10 minutes trying to calculate, was 16…Bc4+!, but as he explained:

I was sure that Bc4 has to work somehow, his king is all the way up the board and I have queen, knight, bishop and my two rooks can come in, but I didn’t actually figure out how to do it during the game, so I started looking for maybe more cleaner ways, I guess to just restore the material and then I should have a decisive attack. So that’s what I ended up going for.

16…Rb6 17.Na3 Nd4+ 18.Ke1 Nxc6 19.Qa4 Nxe5 was exactly what Jeffery was hoping for:

Material is equal, and White would only be slightly worse after 20.0-0. Alas, the king has already left its starting square, twice, so that’s illegal and White is doomed. 20.Bh6 Qd5! 21.f3 Rxb2! and Nepo had seen enough and resigned. His best move of the game, quipped Yasser!

After the day was over Nepo would comment:

He’d given to the poor (that was Jeffery’s first win), and had already taken from the rich by picking up a point from Magnus on Day 1. Now to end Day 2 he was facing another giant of online chess, Hikaru Nakamura. Nepo had the black pieces, but by move 19 things were going his way:

It looks like White is winning material, but the white knight on b3 is undefended, and after 19…Bxf5! 20.exf5 Nxb6 Hikaru couldn’t play 21.axb6 without 21…Qxb6+ picking up the b3-knight with check. 21.c5! was an attractive move by Hikaru, however, and he held things together until he came very close to forcing a draw. 29.Bd5! first would have done it, but the US star went for the immediate 29.Qh6?

Nepo replied 28…Nd6! and Black would be on top after 29.Qxg6+ Bg7. With the bishop on d5 White could reinforce his attack with 30.Rd3, but with the bishop under attack there’s no time for that. In the game Hikaru played the desperate 29.Nd4? and was lost after 29…Qe4!, but the way Nepo went about converting felt like a cat playing with a mouse. Hikaru was given real hope, but in the end fell into a mating net – Rg6+ and Rh5+ would cost him his queen.

The standings after Day 2 of the St. Louis Rapid and Blitz are as follows, with some surprising players at the bottom of the table. 17-year-old Alireza Firouzja's struggles continued as he slipped to last place after losing on time to Leinier Dominguez in a position where he had the winning chances.

We’ve got Firouzja-Carlsen, Nepo-So and Aronian-Nakamura in the first round of Day 3, so don’t miss the start from 20:00 CEST

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