Magnus Carlsen began the World Rapid Championship in St. Petersburg with two shock defeats, and though he went on to win the next three games he later said he couldn’t remember ever playing so badly. That left him in 76th place, 1.5 points behind the leaders Ian Nepomniachtchi, Dmitry Andreikin and 15-year-old rising star Alireza Firouzja from Iran. The Women’s World Champion had no such problems, with Ju Wenjun beating Olga Girya and Valentina Gunina on the way to becoming the sole leader on 4/4 after Day 1.
The 2018 World Rapid and Blitz Championship is taking place from 26-30 December in The Manege, an exhibition centre (and once a riding hall for the Imperial House Guards) bang in the centre of Russia’s former capital, St. Petersburg:
That means that beautiful but sub-zero wintry scenes are greeting the participants instead of the warmth of Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, where the event was held in 2017 and was expected to be held in 2018.
Back then the ACP President (now FIDE General Director) Emil Sutovsky was vociferous in his opposition to the tournament when it became clear that Israeli and Iranian players would be unable to obtain visas to play. The event went ahead, however, and was impeccably organised – with an unprecedented $2 million prize fund that meant a $250,000 1st prize in the Open events and $80,000 in the Women’s tournaments.
The contract with Riyadh was to hold the event for three years, but it looked a strong possibility the tournament simply wouldn’t take place in 2018 after the Saudis were unable to give guarantees over visas for all players. Magnus Carlsen was one of those threatening to boycott the event in such circumstances, while the murder of Jamal Khashoggi in Turkey made a Saudi Arabian venue even more unpalatable.
When former Russian Deputy President Arkady Dvorkovich won the FIDE election it became possible to switch the event to Russia at the last moment, though the surprise is the diplomatic solution that it retains Saudi Arabian sponsorship and remains the “King Salman” World Rapid and Blitz Chess Championship. The prize fund has been halved, with first prizes cut from $250,000 and $80,000 to $60,000 and $40,000, but that still compares well to the $40,000 and $10,000 on offer in previous years.
There seem to have been some casualties due to the late change. Blitz world no. 2 Maxime Vachier-Lagrave already had other plans, while Pavel Eljanov felt now was the wrong time for a Ukrainian to be playing a tournament in Russia. Fabiano Caruana and Wesley So are among the other big missing players (they've tended to stay away from the event in the past as well), but the majority of the world's elite are competing in St. Petersburg.
The one minor controversy in the run-up to the start was the implementation of a strict dress code, with the organisers insisting that “smart casual” couldn’t include jeans. The explanation that it was less strict than in the previous year was somewhat disingenuous, given the code had only been so strict in Saudi Arabia to avoid the need for women to wear Muslim dress. It seems, however, that although the dress code has inconvenienced players dealing with the St. Petersburg snow and somewhat reduced the colour in the venue, it hasn’t been too much of a burden. Plus some unconventional players have sneaked through, more or less unscathed!
But enough about the technical details… let’s get to the chess! You can replay all the games using the selector below:
And here’s the commentary on Day 1 from Evgeny Miroshnichenko and Peter Leko:
World Champion Magnus Carlsen had posted his intentions for St. Petersburg during a brief holiday before the event:
He would be the one to end up turned upside down, however, as what was looking like a routine start against 30-year-old Ukrainian Grandmaster Adam Tukhaev ended in disaster. Playing Black and pushing for a win, Magnus lost on time as he rushed too late to play 72…Rfd7:
In a way Carlsen had been here before, since he lost on time in Round 1 of the 2017 World Rapid Championship as well, but back then he’d been outplayed and was about to get mated by Bu Xiangzhi. This time it was a complete own goal:
In a Russian post on the ChessPro forum we got the winner’s side of the story:
It was already good luck for me to be playing against Magnus, so I was extremely satisfied with the draw. When I saw that according to yesterday’s list I was going to meet him I began to worry that someone would be added in the morning and spoil everything, but they weren’t. I mistakenly sat down at the top women’s board at first, but they told me mine was the one beside it. I look up and there’s a heap of cameras. I saw Lennart [Ootes] and told him that I wasn’t expecting to be so popular, and he laughed. To Magnus I said, “Actually, it’s a win-win for me because you’re on my fantasy team” – there’s a site, chessdraft, and people there choose a team of six players (the total Elo is limited) and compete to see which team scores more. Magnus knew what I meant and smiled. We played the Sveshnikov, but of course I didn’t play Caruana’s 6.Nd5 but the main line (6.Bg5) as it’s easier to hold the position there. The problem was that all the theory slipped my mind, so that Black soon seized the initiative, and then I also blundered the pawn push 16…d5. By that moment I was a long way behind on the clock, something like 4 minutes to 14, but I sped up and started to put up some kind of resistance. Exchanges took place, and we got a heavy-piece 2 vs 3 ending, and I cheered up. I realised that it should be holdable, but then I blundered the exchange on f5 and thought it was all over, but what could I do? I started to give checks, and then put my king on h3, so that if I got the chance I could trap him with stalemate with a rook on the second rank. Then all of a sudden he made a move in a rush and for the first time in a long time I looked at his clock and saw zeroes. Magnus was in shock, of course, but he held out his hand. I told him, “Sorry”. The end.
Soon afterwards Adam would get a draw against Levon Aronian, while up next for Magnus was 16-year-old Shamsiddin Vokhidov from Uzbekistan. The evidence for Magnus being on tilt was strong when he opened 1.e4 e5 2.Qh5…
…but whatever you think of that move it ultimately gave the World Champion a winning position:
20.Ne8! wins an exchange (the problem is e.g. 20…Ra8 runs into the crushing 21.Nxg7 Kxg7 22.Bxh6+!), but instead after 37 seconds Magnus went for 20.f3?! Bb7! 21.Rae1 Rfc8 22.Bc3?, simply blundering a piece to 22…Bf8! Magnus eventually gave up his queen with 23.Nb5 and played on for another 14 moves, but it was a hopeless cause.
Shamsiddin gave mainly one-word answers when he was interviewed by Eteri Kublashvili afterwards, but he noted his achievements included winning the U14 World Championship and then the U16 Olympiad this year. He took team and individual gold there, with his 2709 rating performance bettered only by compatriot Nodirbek Yakubboev’s 2713 and Alireza Firouzja’s 2736. We’ll have more about Alireza soon!
Shamsiddin, like Tukhaev, didn’t beat anyone other than the World Champion on Day 1, but just look at those draws against formidable opponents:
Magnus had been amused before the event when he learned that Anish Giri was going to play:
Despite facing four Russians Anish would go on to finish on an unbeaten 3.5/5 for Day 1, and some payback was inevitable, even during the rounds!
The turning point for Magnus, however, came against the even younger 14-year-old Russian Stefan Pogosyan in Round 3. Again it hadn’t been a convincing game, but Stefan cracked when he tried to exchange off a piece with 29.Bxg4??
Even on a very bad day you can’t expect the world no. 1 to miss 29…Qf1+!, with mate next move. After that, relatively normal service was restored as Magnus beat 53-year-old Russian IM Nikolai Vlassov in Round 4, before rounding the day off with a somewhat bumpy win over 19-year-old US GM Andrew Tang, a player he’s met regularly in online chess.
So Magnus ended the day on a respectable 3/5, and he admitted it could have been much worse. Historically speaking, he could drop another 2.5 points and still have a chance of claiming first place:
That’s assuming, of course, that those out in front don’t go on a long winning streak…
We have two usual suspects among the leaders, with Ian Nepomniachtchi (who beat Hikaru Nakamura in Round 4) and Dmitry Andreikin (who beat Vladislav Artemiev in Round 4) both on 4.5/5 after drawing their Round 5 clash.
The wild card, and the biggest beneficiary so far of the event not being held in Saudi Arabia, is 15-year-old Iranian Alireza Firouzja, who also has 4.5/5 despite facing fierce opposition from the very first round. In the last game against Russian rapid and blitz specialist Vladislav Artemiev he spotted a mistake by his opponent in what looked like a harmless position:
29…Be4! suddenly deprives the white rook on f4 of squares, and after 30.Bd3 g5! 31.hxg5 hxg5 Artemiev was forced to give up the exchange. Alireza made no mistake in the remaining moves, and had a proud father watching on at the end as he took the lead (on the tiebreak of a 3067 rating performance!) after Day 1:
The leaders were almost joined by Daniil Dubov, who would have reached 4.5 as well if he’d found a beautiful finish:
Instead after 56.Qe1 Qxb7 the players agreed to a draw. Dubov gave an entertaining interview afterwards when he responded to a question on which time control he prefers:
I can say what I hate most. I actually hate rapid. Normally a classical game is a serious game – you prepare, you kind of need to sleep at night, you need to be in a very good physical shape. Blitz is exactly the opposite – you don’t care at all. You can be drunk, you can dance all night, whatever happens – you just need to be lucky and it will work. In rapid it’s not that you don’t care at all, but still it’s kind of not exactly a serious type of chess. I normally don’t know – should I party all night or should I sleep all night? Should I do Grischuk style and think with whom should I sleep all night and such stuff. I don’t know!
It’s worth pointing out that Dubov was the Blitz World Championship bronze medalist in 2016.
Some other star names had a tough day, with for instance Levon Aronian opening with a shock loss to his compatriot Robert Hovhannisyan, while Sergey Karjakin needed some inspiration, and luck, to swindle a stalemate draw against Maxim Matlakov:
At the start of Day 2 Firouzja faces Andreikin, Nepomniachtchi takes on Mamedyarov and, on Board 1 (for the purposes of Norwegian TV), Carlsen plays Spain’s Ivan Salgado.
Women’s World Champion Ju Wenjun is also the defending Women’s Rapid Champion, and she’s currently on course to defend her title after a perfect first day that included 81 and 70-move victories over Russian stars Olga Girya and Valentina Gunina:
Anna Muzychuk, who boycotted the event in Saudi Arabia in
2017, is among 6 players, including her sister Mariya, who are just half a
point back on 3.5/4. This year the women’s event is a shorter 12-round
tournament, with four games each day.
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