Reports Aug 19, 2017 | 7:39 PMby Colin McGourty

STL Rapid & Blitz: Lev won | Garry was back!

Levon Aronian overcame a stuttering start on the final day to cruise to victory in the St. Louis Rapid and Blitz. He was home and dry with two rounds to spare, but won both those games anyway to finish three points clear of Sergey Karjakin and Hikaru Nakamura in second place. The best news on the final day, though, was that Garry Kasparov finally got to have some fun, winning with a whirlwind attack against Fabiano Caruana, outplaying Hikaru Nakamura and then getting what it crossed his mind might be a last win in the Najdorf against Leinier Dominguez.

Levon Aronian has won another major event in what's been a wonderful year so far for the Armenian no. 1 | photo: Lennart Ootes, Grand Chess Tour

You can replay all 135 games from the 2017 St. Louis Rapid and Blitz 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 results:

Let’s take a look at how things went for the players in the St. Louis Rapid and Blitz, with the emphasis on the final day:

1. Levon Aronian cruises to victory

Levon went into the final day of the tournament two points ahead of Hikaru Nakamura, and as fate would have it his first opponent was Hikaru. He had the white pieces, so would he go for a knockout punch? Not exactly! The players managed the impressive task of repeating the position three times for a draw by move 15.

If that was a disappointment, though, the post-game interview with Christian Chirila was wonderful. Levon, for once, wasn’t quite sure what he wanted to say. Or perhaps he was sure, but he wasn’t sure if he should say it. Or perhaps he really just hadn’t slept so well, even though he had 

Chirila: You took the quick draw, Levon. Take us through your strategy.

Aronian: There’s not much of a strategy. I just didn’t sleep well… I mean, I slept well, but my position was maybe slightly better, but I just thought that it’s good to start the day on a solid note, just to make sure… I don’t know. It’s a decision – I can’t explain it! We’ll see if it works.

Chirila: You bring your creative playing style also to your fashion. It almost seems like a lack of fear. Would you characterise it like that?

Aronian: Yeah, I don’t have any fear, in chess and, generally, in life.

You can watch that interview, and the whole of the day’s show, below:

Perhaps the unease (if not fear!) Levon felt explaining what he’d done followed into his next game, where he suffered only his second loss of the blitz, in a rook ending against David Navara. Sergey Karjakin was on fire and closed the gap to one point, and then in Round 3 Levon found himself a pawn down against Le Quang Liem. That was when it all changed for him, though, as the Vietnamese player lost on time while Navara took down Karjakin. Levon later commented:

That gave me the boost that even though I played terribly I’m still coming back.

From that moment on it went as smoothly as it could have done. Draws with Karjakin and Anand were followed by a win in a drawish ending against Ian Nepomniachtchi that put him on the brink of claiming the title. The mini-interview he gave after that game will be remembered for one question and answer, with his wedding to Arianne Caoili coming up on 30 September:

The title was sealed and delivered with a draw against Garry Kasparov, meaning the last two rounds had no sporting significance for Aronian. 

He’s always played best when the pressure’s off, though, and Aronian ended with wins over Caruana and Dominguez to finish with 9 wins, 2 losses and 7 draws in the blitz for an overall score of 24.5/36, half a point more than Carlsen and MVL in Paris and one point less than Magnus in Leuven:

Levon was having fun as he commented:

Let the trashtalk begin! | photo: Lennart Ootes, Grand Chess Tour

People might think that I’m not so good at blitz and rapid, but I just wanted to show that I have some tricks up my sleeves! People watch those videos on the internet of me playing Yasser and barely beating him, and they think that I’m that terrible, but they don’t realise that those games I was completely drunk and he was totally sober. I’m a good blitz player and I wanted to show it to people.

He also claims the maximum 13 Grand Chess Tour points, though MVL will be difficult and Magnus all but impossible to catch in the London Chess classic, the final event of this year's Grand Chess Tour:

Autographs from the man of the moment! | photo: Lennart Ootes, Grand Chess Tour

2. Kasparov finally makes it all worthwhile

Chess is tough, even for Kasparov! | photo: Lennart Ootes, Grand Chess Tour

After the first game of the final day, you had to feel for Garry Kasparov. Over the first four days he’d had his moments, played some good chess and shown he could live with the world’s current top players, but he had very little to show for it. The greatest attacking player of all time scored -2 in the rapid, was on -2 in the blitz and could only point to one rapid win gifted to him in absurd fashion when Le Quang Liem dropped a rook (“I have to thank Le for just giving up the rook. I couldn’t deliver - I was looking for the reliable delivery service!”) and one unspectacular blitz win over Leinier Dominguez. Then he got off to the worst possible start in the first game of the final day against Sergey Karjakin…

An in-form and hugely determined Karjakin | photo: Lennart Ootes, Grand Chess Tour

Sergey opened with 1.b3, one of the latest attempts of the players to dodge Garry’s principled opening preparation. Then, with the position already looking tricky, Kasparov had a “senior moment”. He picked up his queen to play 21…Qf6? and, after realising what was going to come next and putting it back down, he nevertheless eventually made the move:

Sergey gratefully accepted the gift with 22.Bxh5! (of course the knight fork of king and queen prevents Black recapturing), though it was a puzzling moment, since there were four better squares Garry could have chosen for his queen after touching it and being forced to move it.

Things got worse as Sergey went about converting his advantage, since for one fleeting moment Garry could have turned the tables:

Tony Miles once described Kasparov as “a monster with a thousand eyes who sees everything”, but here he missed that 31…e4! wins the bishop. It can’t move or this time it’s Black who wins the queen with a knight fork, on e2.

It goes without saying that Kasparov’s Achilles’ heel, time management, was also a factor, and the moment went unnoticed as Garry played 31...Ke7 and sank to defeat. 

Karjakin: "It was nice to play against chess legend Garry Kasparov, and beat him in one of the games!"

Repeating moves in what seemed a good position against Ian Nepomniachtchi in the next round suggested the legend might have had enough of his comeback and would simply try to minimise the damage as he played out the final games – hopefully avoiding the ignominy of last place. If we wanted an example of that scenario we didn’t need to look far – Vishy Anand finished an unbeaten 2nd in the classical Sinquefield Cup, but had a miserable rapid and blitz. A win over Nepomniachtchi in the first round would be his last of the day, and in fact a player who was long the undisputed speed king only managed two wins in the whole 27-game event!

Caruana-Kasparov - this was more like it! | photo: Lennart Ootes, Grand Chess Tour

As we said, though, fortunes would turn for Kasparov in the next two games. In Round 12 of the blitz he faced Fabiano Caruana, who was the only player in with a chance of scoring a clean sweep of wins against him. It could easily have happened, since for a moment a truly wild game was Fabi’s for the taking:

Here 56.Nc5! threatens either Ne6 or Nd7, queening the f-pawn and soon giving mate. There’s no real defence, since 56…Nxf6, eliminating the f-pawn and hoping to win the g7-rook, runs into 57.Ne6+ and the rook is protected. The players were in a huge time scramble, though, and Fabi instead got his rook to safety with 56.Ra7? – which was also the losing move. After 56…Rf5! the bishop on f1 can’t be defended for long. 

Garry’s killer instincts finally broke through and made him forget all the pressure, the watching eyes, the rationalisations and regrets. He was out for blood, and it was a joy to watch!

Here’s the final position:

Fabi had no wish to see 66.Kg1 Nf3+ 67.Kf1 Rf2# on the board, though it would have been nice!

Suddenly Kasparov was recognisably his old self, and in his next game against Hikaru Nakamura he managed to outhustle the hustler and convert an extra pawn despite the game reaching an opposite-coloured bishops ending. For the second year in a row Garry had won his mini-match against Nakamura, which may have been all the sweeter after some mild trash-talking in the run-up to the event (to be fair, Hikaru was proven right that Kasparov wouldn’t be challenging for the top places).

In the remaining rounds Garry scored four draws and got one last win, taking his score in the blitz to 50%. He played a line with 8…g5 that was popular back when he was at the top of chess:

Dominguez played passively and Garry made it look very easy, though he revealed afterwards that he’d been anything but relaxed. Going through his mind was the thought that this might be his last Najdorf.

In the end Garry finished in eighth place, two points ahead of Vishy Anand and three ahead of Navara, while only half a point behind a 3-player tie for 5th. 

If not quite fulfilling the fantasies we had at the start, the former World Champion had still shown he could live with some of the very best of the current crop of grandmasters. Could this be just the start of a comeback?

Alas, it seems not, with one word repeated again and again in the post-event interview: 

It’s so much pressure… it’s really just too much pressure… it’s too much, it’s really huge pressure.

Add to that the most memorable incident of the whole event – the loss to David Navara from an utterly winning position (sorry, Garry!):

Garry couldn’t help coming back to it:

I’m afraid it will be haunting me for the rest of my life… It’s still painful, the Navara game. I couldn’t sleep afterwards… It was about having fun, but I’m not sure it was much fun. The Navara game killed the fun… I can even laugh now. I couldn’t laugh yesterday, or especially the day before yesterday.

He claimed his return to chess hadn’t been about his own career:

It’s not my comeback. It was my attempt to help publicising the Grand Chess Tour. It did work! Also it’s the way to express my gratitude to St. Louis, the organisers, especially to the Sinquefield family for what they've been doing for chess.

And on Twitter:

It was mission accomplished but, as ever, we want more! Perhaps in his heart of hearts, so does Garry...

3. The chasing pack: Karjakin, Naka, Nepo, Fabi

One player stood out in the blitz - Sergey Karjakin. He continued right where he’d left off with 8/9 on Day 4 by beating Kasparov, as we’ve seen, and then scoring a fine win over Leinier Dominguez with a bishop sacrifice right out of an opening he may have prepared for Magnus. His performance was simply stunning:

He’d already done a Caruana with 7 wins in a row and moved to within a point of the lead. Could he make 8+ wins “a Karjakin” and catch Levon? No! David Navara spoiled another dream with a crunching win with the black pieces, a round after he’d beaten the leader Aronian. From that point on normal service resumed, and Sergey scored 50% in the remaining rounds – enough for a phenomenal performance, but not enough to give Aronian a run for his money:

The key game in what followed was Nakamura-Karjakin, where Sergey had slightly misplayed a dominant position but still had things under control… at least until his reaction to the 44.e5 break:

There’s no need to be Tigran Petrosian to see that 44…Rxe5! is a good exchange sacrifice, with the knight on d6 a match for any rook. Instead “Sergey completely lost his mind against me when he didn’t need to” (Nakamura) and played 44…Nf7, when you also didn’t need to be Mikhail Tal to see that after 45.d6 (as played), or various other moves, Black’s position was falling apart. The significance of that win was that Hikaru Nakamura would finish tied with Karjakin in 2nd place.

Leinier Dominguez beat Nakamura in a beautifully dominant game, though Hikaru saw it differently, calling it "not even a game" | photo: Lennart Ootes, Grand Chess Tour

Overall that was probably a fair outcome, since Nakamura had played a solid tournament apart from a sequence of three losses in four games on the final day. Hikaru summed up:

I think my performance outside of today was pretty decent. My performance today was just pathetic, frankly.

Nakamura felt that Aronian “played the best from start to finish”, but added “there were moments when Ian Nepomniachtchi was the best player, but he wasn’t consistent”. On the last day the young Russian scored three wins and two losses, but never looked like getting into the fight for first. One reason was his start to the day, which was a continuation of the prizes we awarded him for worst opening the day before. Vishy was in the calmest of moods, but when Nepo started their game 1.e4 e5 2.d4, a line he’d used to lose to Carlsen in 19 moves in Leuven, it was like putting your head into a tiger’s mouth.

Nepo had duly given up a central pawn on move 9 and was busted before move 20, with the way he lost his bishop rather sad...

28…f6 29.Bb8 Rb6 The end.

Fabiano Caruana wondering if he'll ever draw a game of chess again | photo: Lennart Ootes, Grand Chess Tour

Meanwhile, we included Fabiano Caruana in this section because he started the day with an outside chance of challenging for first (4 points behind Levon), while he was 2.5 points clear of Le Quang Liem and Dominguez. He would end the day level with those two players, after a blitz section of the event which verged on the deliberately comical. His draw against Vishy Anand in the 2nd round of the blitz was his only draw in that section i.e. 16 decisive games followed! The score wasn’t particularly flattering, with Fabi only managing 1 win in the last 7 games. We know he’s often a shadow of his normal self in blitz, but that takes some doing for a player of his level.

4. The wild cards enhance the show

The fact the four wildcards finished in the last five places (only Anand kept them company) might suggest they were out of place in St. Louis, but we’ve already said enough about one of those players – Garry Kasparov! And in fact they all had plenty to shout about, as can be seen from the fact they’ve all featured prominently in this and earlier reports. Last-placed David Navara of course gave us that unforgettable game against Kasparov, while lighting up the last round with his wins over Aronian and Karjakin. His eccentricities, such as resetting the pieces after every game and getting up from his seat to resign, also added some variety to proceedings.

Kasparov said he had nightmares about his rapid game against Navara, but he may also remember this blitz game, in the final round, if it becomes the last officially rated chess game he plays  | photo: Lennart Ootes, Grand Chess Tour

Le Quang Liem and Leinier Dominguez shared 5th place with Fabiano and were both as dangerous as you’d imagine for players who had won the World Blitz Championship in the past. Le Quang Liem’s solid performance was only spoiled by losing his last two games, while Dominguez, like Kasparov, can boast of having beaten Caruana and Nakamura in consecutive rounds on the final day.

Le Quang Liem beat Fabiano Caruana here - they finished level on points | photo: Lennart Ootes, Grand Chess Tour

After a marathon month of chess in St. Louis it’s still not quite over! On Saturday, two hours later than the usual start of the rounds, we have the Ultimate Moves trash-talking challenge… actually that last bit may not be part of the official title, but that’s the main goal of an event that sees Rex Sinquefield take on his son Randy with some help from the star chess players and even retired American football player John Urschel. It should be a lot of fun!

Enough! | photo: Lennart Ootes, Grand Chess Tour

We may have a final, final report on that, but if not, thanks for sticking with us through the event. We hope you enjoyed it! There’s lots and lots of chess going on, but the next blockbuster show will be the World Cup in Tbilisi, with Magnus Carlsen and simply everyone playing. That starts on 3 September, and you’ll of course be able to watch it live here on chess24.

See also:

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