Reports Apr 30, 2019 | 1:13 PMby Colin McGourty

Year of the GOAT? 7 Conclusions from GRENKE 2019

World Chess Champion Magnus Carlsen beat Maxime Vachier-Lagrave in the final round to win the 2019 GRENKE Chess Classic with a spectacular 7.5/9 that took him to 2875.2 on the live rating list. Afterwards Magnus commented that a 2900 rating has become at least a “half-attainable” goal. Fabiano Caruana finished 1.5 points back in clear second place, while Arkadij Naiditsch took third with a last round victory over Georg Meier. We look at 7 conclusions from the tournament.

Magnus Carlsen with GRENKE AG CEO Antje Leminsky at the closing ceremony | photo: Eric van Reem, GRENKE Chess

You can replay all the games from the 2019 GRENKE Chess Classic using the selector below:

And for a quick summary of the final round action check out the following recap from our very own Jan Gustafsson, who was talking to Eric van Reem (again thanks to the guys from E&R Solutions for their top quality videos from the event):

Let’s get straight to the conclusions:

1. Fabiano Caruana won the tournament

Fabiano Caruana may not have matched his 4 wins in 2018, but 3 wins, no losses and a 2839 rating performance was the kind of result that regularly wins supertournaments. He finished a full point ahead of the next players, Arkadij Naiditsch and Maxime Vachier-Lagrave, and though he didn’t beat any 2700 players he did give Magnus a scare in the opening before needing to defend well to hold a draw in their individual encounter. Fabiano regretted a slow start that had also held him back in the US Championship, where despite 4 wins and no losses he likewise had to settle for 2nd place.

Magnus said Fabi is still "very, very good" and the clear no. 2 in world chess | photo: Eric van Reem, GRENKE Chess

Fabiano went into the final day with a mathematical chance of forcing a playoff against Magnus, but it was obvious very early on that his game against Levon Aronian would end in an uneventful draw. The World Championship challenger explained the day before that he’d already lost any hope, since the prospect of Magnus losing was highly unlikely:

I don’t think any disaster will happen, and Magnus’ opponents are basically falling on their swords at this point!

2. Magnus Carlsen won the exhibition!

When Magnus saw Caruana-Aronian was heading for a draw he knew even a loss wouldn't stop him becoming the GRENKE Chess Classic champion | photo: Oliver Koeller

In fact in the final round it was more a case of Maxime Vachier-Lagrave throwing himself on his sword, with the French no. 1 suddenly, in a normal English opening position, deciding to jettison a pawn:

10…b5?! was a move that everyone was struggling to understand. Peter Leko noted that he’d observed the same thing when Garry Kasparov was on a roll and his opponents would play below their usual level against him. There were other theories:

Magnus himself told Jan and Peter on our live show:

After the game [MVL] said he just snapped. Sometimes he does this, he makes these impulsive decisions. He very much likes to give up pawns for the initiative, but the problem is that there is no initiative - it’s just a free pawn!

Magnus added that fatigue had worked in his favour (for the record Maxime took 2 minutes 25 seconds to play 10…b5 and Magnus took 2 minutes 3 seconds to grab the pawn):

If I’d been in perfect shape today I probably would have thought for a long time after b5 to see what his plan is, but now I thought, I’m just going to take the pawn and think later! It looks like a free pawn, so I’m just going to spend one minute and take it.

What followed may not have been perfect from either side, but the game ended logically in victory for Magnus, who had therefore won a 4th game in a row, a 6th in total, and claimed tournament victory by 1.5 points with a 2984 rating performance.

It had truly been an exhibition, and if anything it could have been even better, since Magnus would certainly have found the win at the end of the game against Vishy Anand if he hadn’t mistakenly thought the move he chose was winning as well.

3. Year of the GOAT?

Magnus Carlsen has been a beast, and perhaps the GOAT, this year | photo: Georgios Souleidis, GRENKE Chess

It’s hard to imagine right now, but until just recently Magnus had been making very hard work of classical tournaments. Norway Chess 2017 was a particular nadir, when after losses to Aronian and Kramnik only a fortunate late win over Karjakin saw the World Champion avoid finishing in last place. He lamented:

It was a strange feeling. Somehow I managed to build myself up at least a bit for each game, but then it would all disappear very quickly… Basically I know that I can play, but I’m not so convinced about my ability to win games.

Although that was an unusual low for Magnus he never really hit the heights of his earlier years, and the 12 classical draws in a row in the World Championship match in London were of course frustrating. Then even this year the first four games in Wijk aan Zee all ended in draws, so that with an unwelcome record of 21 draws in a row Magnus was again on the verge of losing his world no. 1 spot to Fabiano Caruana. Then Jorden van Foreest created a monster!

As Magnus commented, “since then it’s kind of just clicked”. Magnus won the next game as well, and then all his remaining white games in Wijk aan Zee, to pick up 9 rating points and win the tournament. If that was good, Shamkir Chess would get even better, with the final three games all won in brilliant style against some of the most battle-hardened players in chess. 16 more rating points had been racked up, and Magnus still had the chance to play as “only” a 2845-rated player until the May FIDE rating list was out.

Could he keep up the pace? Well, as we’ve seen, he could, and after digging out wins with the black pieces against some of the tournament underdogs Magnus again hit full stride at the end, ending with another trio of major scalps and winning all four of his games in Baden-Baden. Where did he play better?

I still feel like the quality of my play in Shamkir was a bit higher, but clearly the last four rounds have been great. Before that it wasn’t too brilliant, but the trend is very, very positive.

That meant that in just 27 games Magnus had gained 40 rating points to climb to 2875.2, a live rating that will be rounded down to 2875 on the official FIDE May rating list, just 7 points below his 2882 peak he hit exactly 5 years previously.

His peak live rating, from April 2014, is 2889.2, and suddenly the 2900 barrier is beginning to loom again. As Magnus comments:

If you’d asked me a few weeks ago I would still have said no, that 2900 isn’t possible, but now it’s 25 points away, but to get there I’ll have to keep performing the way I have recently, which I very much hope to, but it’s not very realistic. Now it’s an at least half-attainable dream, which is really all I could hope for. I don’t think too much about it yet. I just want to keep going in the same way. For now it’s going great.

Whether Magnus gets there or not he’s the only player ever to have been at such rating heights, and regardless of inflation the level of his play right now invites comparisons with only two players: the Bobby Fischer who beat Taimanov and Larsen 6:0 on the way to the match against Boris Spassky, and Garry Kasparov. The latter has still spent more time at the very top, for now, and can claim some other records…

…but you could certainly argue that no-one has ever played the game of chess better than Magnus is doing right now.

4. Team Magnus didn’t do so badly with their match preparation

Of course one reason why comparisons down the generations don’t really work is that chess knowledge is constantly improving, with the process dramatically accelerated by computers. Magnus also now seems to be reaping real benefits from the work put into preparing to face Fabiano Caruana. As he commented,

It helps me that I still have ideas and concepts from the World Championship and I feel well in general, so the conditions are there, but obviously I never dreamed that it would be this good.

During the match itself it often seemed as though Team Magnus weren’t justifying their trip to Thailand, with Carlsen’s press conference claims that he was happy with his team’s work sounding like the dreaded “vote of confidence” a football chairman sometimes gives his manager. The World Champion often looked to be on the back foot, getting little with White and running into novelties even in their Sveshnikov Sicilian with Black. There were still real fights in those games, however, and since then Fabiano has paid his opponent the ultimate tribute of switching to the Sveshnikov himself, while Magnus has racked up wins over Jorden van Foreest, David Navara and Sergey Karjakin this year.

Of course during the match vast swathes of the preparation went unused, so we can expect deep ideas to keep surfacing for a while yet. Levon Aronian’s only defeat of the event came when he was hit by the completely new 10.Bd2!? in the Vienna, one of those moves which in hindsight it’s a surprise no-one had tried before.

It may of course not only be about the concrete preparation, but the relief of being able to relax without the pressure of the match situation:

 5. Naiditsch was the only other clear winner

Arkadij Naiditsch earned his place on the podium alongside Magnus and Fabiano | photo: Oliver Koeller

Arkadij Naiditsch has had a hectic schedule of late – he memorably stood in for Ljubomir Ljubojevic to commentate on Shamkir, then rushed to Germany on the rest day to help his team Baden-Baden clinch the German League, then a few days later was playing in China. That final leg of the trip cost him rating points, but in the GRENKE Chess Classic he undid a lot of the damage with three wins with the white pieces, one of those over Vishy Anand, giving him a plus score and 3rd place ahead of MVL on the tiebreak of most wins. The final game was played in his favourite element – chaos, with 15.Ne6!? a visually appealing move:

Of course the knight can’t be taken because of the Nxc7 fork. Soon White had knights on c7 and e6, and although Georg Meier had chances in the remainder of the game Arkadij’s ambition was rewarded with a win.

6. It was a tournament to forget for some star players

Paco Vallejo finished on -1, but after not having played in supertournaments for some time he perhaps had most reason to be satisfied with his performance among those who finished at or around 50%. He lost only to Magnus Carlsen and Vishy Anand, and had some chances in both games, before picking up a first win in the last round against Keymer:

That meant every player in the tournament scored at least one win, but most could be unhappy with how things went. 

Aronian dazzled in the commentary studio a few times, but we didn't get to see his best on the board | photo: Oliver Koeller

MVL’s tournament was spoiled by the last-round fiasco, Levon Aronian won only one game (after an opening blunder by Svidler), while although Vishy Anand and Peter Svidler both won two and briefly took the lead, their events went downhill after that as they dropped back to 50%. It was particularly bitter for Vishy, who lost to Naiditsch and Meier in consecutive rounds. Peter only lost to great players, Carlsen and Aronian, and at least got to enjoy the final stages of his game against Magnus!

7. Vincent Keymer will be back

14-year-old Vincent Keymer was a fan favourite at the GRENKE Chess Classic, and not just among local German fans. Everyone likes to root for an underdog, and for an IM to be playing five of the world’s Top 10 in his first supertournament was the definition of a baptism of fire. So it proved, though even the bare results still represent a slight rating gain for the youngster:

His coach Peter Leko felt the first round clash with Magnus was the most important game not only for Vincent but the tournament as a whole, since after a great Shamkir he felt the pressure would be on the World Champion to win with Black against a player 300 points lower… and that would give Vincent real chances. So it proved, and you could argue that Magnus was in the most danger in that game, just as he was in the most danger against Teimour Radjabov in Round 1 in Shamkir. 

The 81-move win for Magnus will be a game Vincent won’t forget in a hurry:

I think the first game was clearly the most important – the longest and also the game which took the most energy. It was very, how to say, amazing!

It’s back to school on Thursday for Vincent, while the chess world never sleeps. The Russian Team Championship starts tomorrow in Sochi, TePe Sigeman & Co. (Malmo, Sweden) and the Capablanca Memorial (Havana, Cuba) start on Friday, and in one week’s time the 2019 Grand Chess Tour will be kicking off with a Rapid & Blitz event in Abidjan, Cote d'Ivoire. Check out more details in our 2019 Chess Calendar!

Magnus Carlsen seized his chance to become the first reigning World Champion to play in Africa, but before that he can afford a little time to relax after 15 years on the job...

We hope you’ve enjoyed our coverage of GRENKE Chess and will stay tuned to chess24!

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