Cote D’Ivoire Day 4: Red Hot MVL starts the day with 5/5, leads by a point at the halfway stage with a performance of 2937
When one thinks of clinical performers and streaks in recent times, the players that usually come to my mind first are Carlsen and Caruana, the former for his current tournament winning streak, and the latter for his amazing 7/7 in the 2014 Sinquefeld Cup. Well, add one more player to that list! Maxime Vachier Lagrave was on the fire on the first day of blitz , starting out with an amazing 5/5 by beating players like So, Carlsen(!), Nakamura, Amin and Wei Yi. He did slow down towards the end, making three draws and losing a drawn game against Topalov, but his amazing start meant that he leads second placed Ian Nepomniachtchi by a full point at the half way stage. A massive report by Tanmay Srinath. Photo: Lennart Ootes/Grand Chess Tour
Maximus Maxime on Day 1 of Cote D'Ivoire Blitz
Today’s blitz games were diverse, rich and mostly full of twists and turns. The players experimented with various openings today, and White’s main tries included the Reti, the e3 poison(!) and King’s Indian attack, two openings that are really underestimated by today’s engines. It was heartening to see players eschewing the main lines and aim for fresh positions rather than a theoretical advantage. While I wish this trend starts in classical tournaments, I’ll not be too greedy for now!
Since this is blitz I’m not going to analyse the games in detail, but will instead point out some critical moments where either side could have played better. While I understand that the accuracy of the players might be low due to the lack of time on the clock, some games amazed me with the percentage of first choice engine moves, so it is realistic to suppose the players would have found all these improvements with a reasonable amount of time on their clocks. We shall now progress round by round and get into the thick of things:
Hikaru Nakamura can consider himself one lucky guy after saving a hopeless position against Wei Yi:
Nakamura - Wei Yi
Here the logical plan would be to improve the king with 50...Kg7! followed by supporting the advance of the kingside pawns. White has some counterplay with the passed a-pawn, but without the support of all his pieces all he can get for it is a little time to delay the loss. Instead, Wei hurried (this is a concerning aspect of his play, which if rectified will propel him above 2800) with 50...g5? and after 51.a6! Naka had enough counterplay to draw.
MVL started the fun with a comeback win over one of the tail enders (at the end of the day) Wesley So.
MVL - So
So missed Bxb5! multiple times before this, and this was his last opportunity. After axb5 Bg1 the Black win is no longer in doubt. Instead, So allowed MVL to get his knight back and consolidate, and even blundered later on to lose the game. Blitz is harsh sometimes!
The other notable game of the round featured a fortress – Baseem Amin showing us all the art of defence against Carlsen:
Amin - Carlsen
Baseem has cleverly set up his pawns on the light squares, and by shuffling his king and knight held the draw. This is something the computers don’t understand – they think Black is better owing to his two pawn breaks. Well, even if Black breaks with b5 and g5, all white has to do is continue shuffling, and without an entry for the king Black cannot win.
This round witnessed the anomaly of the day – Magnus Carlsen finally lost a game! As white against MVL he was clearly winning at one point, then blundered and had to defend against Black’s counterattack. This proved to be an onerous task even for Magnus:
Magnus blundered with 43.a6?? (Nd5 was the only move to maintain dynamic equilibrium) overlooking the vicious 43...Bh4!, and resigned after 44.Qd2 Nf4! which forces White to give up his queen for the bishop to avoid mate.
Nepo might have finished sole second at the end of the day, but he must be counting his lucky stars, as he managed to claw out of the jaws of defeat umpteen times today! This was one such opportunity for his opponent Topalov:
Nepo - Topalov
Having missed clear wins before this, Topalov now missed the efficient h2! trading the h-pawn for the f-pawn, and maintaining a near decisive advantage, in lieu of the better minor piece and extra pawn. Instead, Rd3? by Veselin allowed White to escape to level ground.
So-Ding could have been a classic had Wesley found the clearance sacrifice in this position:
So - Ding
Here Wesley had to play d5! and after exd5 Bd3 he would retain a tangible advantage, as Black’s forces are trampling upon each other for good squares. White would then also have a free hand on the kingside, as the extra d5 pawn impedes Black’s counterplay along the d-file. These kind of sacrifices were made popular by Garry Kasparov in some Queen’s Indian lines as White, where he went d5! followed by e5! when he had a d4-e4 pawn centre against the e6 pawn.
Sergey Karjakin finished second last at the end of the day, but he probably wouldn’t have, had he found the win against Wei Yi as Black:
Wei - Karjakin
Sergey unfortunately repeated thrice with Nf6? Qf4 Nd5? Qg4?. Instead, the crushing Ne3!! virtually decides the game. Black wins the two queenside pawns by force and the pieces remain equal (in the best defense for White). The point of Ne3!! is that after fxe3? Qxe3+! followed by Bxf3 White loses his d2 rook. Had Sergey seen that the rook was a little loose, he would have instantly played out such a sequence.
MVL won another crazy game, this time against Nakamura as White. There were two interesting points in this game:
MVL - Nakamura
Naka was probably counting on Nf8+ followed by Nxh7. Then, after b4! followed by c1=Q, Black wins the sacrificed pawn and reaches an endgame where White has the bishop and knight. In blitz, mating with the aforementioned pieces within 50 moves is very difficult, and Naka would have thus obtained practical chances of a draw. Instead, Maxime maintained the tension in the position with Nd4(!).
MVL - Nakamura
Naka finally blundered here with Ka6?, a mistake that is ALMOST IMPOSSIBLE to understand, especially during a blitz game. MVL though found the correct Nc5+! and forced resignation in a few more moves. Now, why is this move (Ka6?) a mistake? It allows White to cover the a6 and d3(the more important one!) squares with CHECK! He can then bring his king up and advance his a pawn. Black must sooner or later concede the a8 square, and the bishop can’t help in the battle because White has covered the e4 square as well. Instead of the game move, black should just pass with Bg6!! of Bf5!!. There is nothing White can do to break through, because he has the bishop of the wrong colour!
Nepo paid for his blunder in full after obtaining a completely winning position against Sergey Karjakin:
Karjakin - Nepo
Here Nepo as black must have been in severe time shortage, which explains the bizarre Bh6?? Sergey found Qf5+! Kg8 Rd7! winning the black queen and forcing resignation in a few moves.
Baseem Amin too lost the thread in a completely winning position against Wei Yi:
Amin - Wei
Kd1?? here is an unfortunate mistake, as after Rxg2! Black threatens mate in one, forcing White to give up a piece. Instead, c4!! forces Black’s resignation- the discovered check Ra2 is met by the exchange sacrifice Rxa3!! and White’s pawns are too strong for the two rooks.
Before we go to MVL’s win (remember, 4th one in a row!) let’s take a look at Naka’s wonderful positional exchange sacrifice:
Nakamura - Ding
Here Rxd5! is a simple exchange sacrifice for experts, but for intermediate players who don’t immediately see the point - White gets a pawn for the exchange, Black’s pawns are horribly weak, and White’s knights gets really good outposts in the center. All these factors are worth much more than an exchange!
Nepo made a fine comeback from the last round horror-show by outplaying Wei Yi
Wei - Nepo
White blundered with Qh5? (even after the best Qb1 black is a whole piece up and should win) and Nepo finished in style with Rxf3!, forcing resignation as he is winning another piece after gxf3 Qc1+.
MVL was worse against Amin’s KIA yet again, but managed to find equality and then more after the latter’s mistake:
Amin - MVL
h4! was the only way for White to maintain dynamic equality, but Amin instead continued Nc4? losing a pawn and eventually the game after Nf6 and Nfxd5!
MVL got lucky yet again! When one is playing well things like this happen a lot, and for Maxime it occurred against Wei Yi here:
MVL - Wei
Wei is a pawn down, but has the superior minor piece, more active king and a blockade on the a4 pawn. He should have passed with his bishop to a square on the long diagonal where it can’t be attacked (say h8!) and it is really not clear to both me and the engines how White can break through here. Instead, Bf6? took play into a losing rook endgame after Nc7+! Kd6 Ne8+!.
Ding Liren managed to win a completely losing position against Baseem Amin:
Ding - Amin
Ding’s Kh1 was a bad bluff, turning a balanced position into a lost one. Amin went one up with Bc8?? though, completely missing tactics based on the king on g8 and the bishop on c3- he lost after Nxc6!! exploiting the weakness of the d5 pawn. Instead of the gaffe in the game, Amin had Ne5! overprotecting c6 and bringing one more piece into the attack, with a winning position.
Nepo’s lucky streak ended (for now!) when he missed a golden opportunity to win against So:
Nepo - So
Here Nepo played Kf2? a move that can only be explained by acute time shortage, which allowed So to successfully blockade and win the h6 pawn and hold the draw. Instead, Bg6! is immediately decisive-White advances the h pawn inexorably and supports it with his active king and knight. So would have then resigned almost immediately.
Magnus Carlsen won a streetfight against Karjakin after the Russian first missed a win and then a draw:
Karjakin - Carlsen
One has to only look at the throttled king on g7 to understand that White is winning. The cleanest way to finish would be d5! Qc7 Nd4! creating insurmountable threats. Instead h6+? allowed Black to consolidate, and in the rest of the game Sergey lost control and finally the game as well (The effects of negative momentum).
Topalov played really well, but failed to use all his chances against the erratic Nakamura:
Topalov - Nakamura
Even after previous errors, White should win here after Nc8+! and Rb2. Sooner or later black loses all his pawns, and if he gives up an exchange to stop the b7 pawn from queening White is a whole rook up, and should win easily. Instead, Topalov retreated with Ne4? Rxb7 Kf3 and here a draw was agreed.
MVL’s streak finally ended with a draw against Ding Liren, but the peaceful nature of the round (all games were drawn) meant that he retained his massive lead. He found a pretty fortress draw against Ding:
MVL - Ding
After White’s move Bf3, it becomes clear that Black has no way to breakthrough, and Ding soon agreed to a draw.
Carlsen missed a great chance to reduce the gap against the slippery Nepo:
Carlsen - Nepo
Here c5! guarantees a nearly decisive advantage for Magnus. Instead, his game move Qf3 retained some pressure, but the worst was over for Black, and he soon managed to draw.
Karjakin was not in his element in his game against Nakamura:
Nakamura - Karjakin
Because Naka’s king is so far away, Rg3! is nearly decisive. The point is to tie up White’s rook to the defense of its knight, thus freeing the black king to advance and win the e5 pawn either directly or indirectly (White gives it up in some lines to maintain piece equality). Then the two extra pawns guarantee an easy win for Black.
Baseem Amin crushed Topalov in a KIA against the Slav setup. Amin quickly expanded in the center and won a exchange in the following position:
Amin - Topalov
After Rc1 Black has to give up an exchange after Rxc6 Bxc6 Qxc6 Rc5! followed by Rxc4. Amin soon forced resignation with a brutal attack on the black king.
Nepo’s charmed life continued, as he successfully swindled a draw from a losing position against Hikaru Nakamura:
Nepo - Nakamura
Here Naka as black played a2? Giving up a pawn for free and a draw was the logical result after Bxa7! a1=Q+ Bg1!=. Instead, Qa4! forces immediate resignation, as a2 is threatened and White loses his queen after Qa2 Qd1+ Kh2 b3! Qxa3 b2!
Karjakin finally got another win after Baseem Amin missed a critical move:
Karjakin - Amin
Black had to play Nf2! retaining control over e4 and ensuring that the game goes on, with great chances to hold fort. Instead, Nf7? allows Bxg4! and after fxg4 White wins a second pawn with Nf6+ and the endgame is trivial.
Wesley So played the opening and the middlegame excellently against Carlsen’s Pelican, but couldn’t apply the finishing touches:
So - Carlsen
Rc6! kills off greater part of the resistance - White threatens b5-b6 and Rc7. After the forced f4 gxf4 exf4 b5! Nf5 b6! f3 Rc7! Rd7 b7!! White has a decisive advantage. Instead, So’s Qa6?! let his advantage trickle away.
Topalov finally got a win in Africa after MVL blundered in an equal position:
Topalov - MVL
Black should be fine here after the accurate Rb7! attacking White’s second weakness on b4 and distracting him from attacking his d4 pawn. Instead, Rxe4? looks natural, but cashes in too early and after Kg2! Black is in trouble with x-rays along the long diagonal and the e-file. Topalov went on to win this without too much fuss.
Nakamura won a pawn in the opening, but the game’s result was only certain after So missed an elementary drawing motif:
So as black played the absurd Rd2?? (lack of time?) missing the fact that after Qb8+ and Qxa7 White wins a second pawn. Instead, the simple Qd6 takes black out of hot water- the rook endgame with a pure 4 vs 3 on the kingside is drawn, and while the two pawns on the queenside favour the pawn up side, Black should have a lot less difficulty diffusing the plus than in the game.
Ding Liren showed excellent understanding of the subtleties of opposite coloured bishop endgames by transposing into a winning one against Topalov:
Ding - Topalov
Despite only a single pawn plus, White is easily winning this endgame due to the following reasons:
1. He can easily create a second passed pawn.
2. His king is much faster to the queenside.
3. His bishop has a wonderful blockading square on f5.
4. Black’s king and bishop have to defend two fronts-a physical impossibility.
5. Most importantly, Black has no ACTIVE COUNTERPLAY.
All these factors were in play after the above position was reached. What makes Ding’s endgame masterclass even more impressive is the fact that it was a blitz game!
Magnus Carlsen wasn’t at his best today. This game against Wei Yi might come back to haunt him:
Wei - Carlsen
The simple Rd1 guarantees Magnus a winning initiative, as White’s Queen is too passively placed to help in the struggle for counterplay. He had to see that after Re8+ Kg7 Re7+Kf6! Black is first in the attack on opposition kings, and White would have to give up the rook to avoid mate. After Qh4+ g5! Qh6+ Kxe7!-+ the king escapes to the queenside (the comps show a long line with the king finally ending up on a4, but that isn’t so important).
Fortune smiled on Nepo yet again after Amin missed the best chance to fight on in a worse position:
Amin - Nepo
d5! was essential to save the passed d-pawn, and keep some hopes alive. Instead, Rxd2?? is equal to capitulation, as Black’s two distant passed pawns are too much for the white pieces.
To avoid being repetitive, let me just say that if Nepo wins this tournament (he’s so incredibly lucky!), this game would have been the turning point:
Nepo - MVL
Had Qb6! been played by MVL, he would have had excellent chances of being a full 2 points ahead of the competition, and just 1.5 points behind Carlsen. The a5 pawn is secured, and Black will slowly advance it while defending his king against perpetual. The endgame is a technical win. Instead, Rf5?! prolonged the struggle, and White was barely able to escape, but only after further inaccuracies.
Caissa smiled on Ding Liren, who managed to win despite serious mistakes:
Karjakin - Ding
Qe2? threw all the advantage that was to be had after Ne2!, but Sergey returned the favour with Ra2??(Qb1! remains equal) and had to soon resign after Rxf2! Rxf2 Rxf2!
Baseem Amin is a super GM, but as he has shown throughout this tournament, he has to work on capitalising on chances:
So - Amin
Black has two wonderful bishops and a far advanced passed pawn for an exchange. If he had gone pawn grabbing here with Qxa4!, he would have retained excellent chances of winning. White’s build up on the central files is ephemeral at best, and Amin should have backed himself up in this endgame. Instead, Qxd3? even gave So some chances, but Baseem handled the defense accurately and a draw was a fair result.
Topalov is now playing chess purely for pleasure, but he would still be upset at missing a golden chance against Wei Yi:
Topalov - Wei
Veselin probably saw Rf6! here, but must have missed the paradoxical Qg5 Qg7+!. Then Qxg7 hxg7+Kxg7 Rxd6 is an effortless ending for a player of Topalov’s class. Instead, he played e5? and lost after further errors.
The tide has turned, and now MVL possesses the best chance of catching Magnus Carlsen, staying 2.5 points behind him with 9 rounds of Blitz still left to play. While Carlsen remains the favourite, the race has now become more competitive, and there is a lot at stake. I eagerly look forward to the last day of this brilliantly competitive tournament.