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King Magnus wins the first leg of Grand Chess Tour 2019 in Cote D'Ivoire

by Tanmay Srinath - 13/05/2019

After Tata Steel Masters, Shamkir and Grenke it seemed like Magnus was simply untouchable in classical chess. But what about rapid and blitz? Would he be able to dominate in the same way against some of the short time control experts like Nakamura, Karjakin, Nepomniachtchi etc. Well, the answer to this question is a resounding yes as Magnus played tremendous chess in Abidjan to take home the first leg of Grand Chess Tour with a whopping 3.5 point difference over the nearest rival. The only bad news for Magnus fans is the fact that MVL beat Magnus in both their individual blitz encounters. But apart from this Carlsen dominated the tournament to register his fourth tournament victory of the year.

Cote D’Ivoire Day 5: The Mozart of Chess wins his 4th tournament in a row!

Before the last day of the blitz, Magnus Carlsen was in a bit of a spot. He had only scored two wins on day one of the blitz event, and his loss to MVL meant that the World Champion’s lead was cut down to 2.5 points (Magnus had three point lead after the rapid) going into the final day. MVL would have definitely been optimistic about his chances. But, what separates a champion from an ordinary player is his ability to play his best chess under pressure. Carlsen did exactly that, scoring a superb 6.5/9 on the final day to score one more point than MVL on the final day of blitz, and thus taking the overall title by a whopping 3.5 points!

 

Well, what more can I say? I pointed out that Magnus’s victory isn’t a question, but the margin is. The World Champion proved me right, but still took my breath away winning by a crushing margin of 3.5 points. Like Carlsen himself said, he hasn’t being playing this well in the last few years. Though he lost rating in Blitz (stratospheric ratings above 2950 are very difficult to maintain), his gains overall since the start of the year have been fantastic. It’s good to see the world champion take over the mantle as the best tournament player in the world currently, something he couldn’t boast of in 2017 or 2018, when Aronian and Caruana went on their amazing streaks.

 

Let’s now look at the critical moments from each round. This is not to find mistakes of the players who are terribly short of time in the blitz format, but to just learn and understand from the interesting games of some of the best players in the world.

 

In case you have missed Round 1-9 blitz report, you can click here to check it.

Round 10:

Carlsen started his resurgence in the tournament with a clinical demolition of Amin’s Breyer. The champion however could have finished the game off sooner:

Carlsen-Amin

Nf1? was an interesting plan by Magnus, aiming to bring the knight to the g4 square to target the dark squares in Black's position. Yet, he had much better options, owing to his pile of pieces that point towards Black’s monarch. When such effective pieces exist, a combination isn’t far off. hxg6+! was easy to see, but after fxg6 the killer move Nf5!! is sometimes difficult to spot. The point is that after gxf5 exf5! White attacks the queen and threatens a discovery on the black king. The most natural ...Qf6 is met with Re6! finishing off the game. Despite the trip, Carlsen eventually won.

Karjakin dismantled Topalov in a mere 18 moves, that too in a 5.Re1 Anti Berlin! Where did Veselin go wrong?

Karjakin-Topalov

White sacrificed an exchange for an attack. Already he has some serious threats on the weakened dark squares. Topalov had to find the only move 14...Qe7! to maintain the balance. The queen takes control of the e-file and forces White to capture on d6, after which Nxd6 returns the knight into play and takes control of the critical c4 and e4 squares. Instead, 14...dxe5? lost almost immediately to 15.Bg5!+-. The main point being that f6 doesn't work due to Bc4+.

Nepo’s dream run continued in the tournament after Ding Liren missed an straightforward simplification operation:

Nepo-Ding

Here Ding as black essayed ...Qe4?, losing all his advantage and giving White strong counterplay based on the far advanced c6 pawn. He even lost the game after a further blunder due to the increasing pressure and negative flow. Instead, had he taken a further step back with Qe5! he had excellent chances of pressing in the Rook+Bishop+4 pawns vs Rook+Knight+3 pawns endgame that arises after Qxb5 Qxb5 Nxb5 Rxc6.

The other two games were decisive as well-teammates So and Nakamura beat MVL and Wei Yi in contrasting styles to stay in contention. I would like to offer the readers a calculation exercise from Wei-Nakamura: 

 

Wei Yi - Nakamura

White to play and win

Answer: If you spotted Qh8+ Kg5 Qg7+ Kh4! (I hope you saw that Kxh5 loses to Bf7+ Kh4 Qh6+! Kg4 Bh5+ Kf5 Qg6#) Qf6+! Kg4 Be6+! give yourself a pat on the back! Black has to resign here, as he loses his queen. If he doesn’t, and plays Qxe6!? Qxe6 Bf5, then I hope you found the killer Qg6+!!, where White promotes his pawn faster. Wei Yi couldn’t find this in the game, and eventually lost.

Round 11:

MVL beat Magnus for the second time in two meetings, getting a comfortable position as White in a symmetrical English and capitalising on Carlsen’s mistake on move 38:

 

MVL - Carlsen


Here Magnus played the flawed Rb2? and eventually lost after MVL perfectly converted the extra pawn. Instead, Rxb3!! was to be preferred. It looks like Black loses his rook after Ne1, but Nxf4+!! gxf4 Rxd2+ Kxd2 Rh3! reduces the game to a drawn R+N vs Rook endgame by force after Nd3 Rxh2+ Ke3 g5!

Carlsen vs MVL in pictures:

The customary handshake before the game | Photo: Lennart Ootes/ Grand Chess Tour

The time pressure stress! | Photo: Lennart Ootes/ Grand Chess Tour

Carlsen resigns like a gentleman | Photo: Lennart Ootes/ Grand Chess Tour

But then he is livid with himself! Look at MVL, who is pretty pleased with his achievement! | Photo: Lennart Ootes/ Grand Chess Tour

Magnus is not happy! | Photo: Lennart Ootes/ Grand Chess Tour

Wesley So continued his comeback from a minus score on the previous day by slaughtering Ding Liren with the Black pieces. He failed to find the following pretty finish though:

 

Ding-So

Solve the above position - Black to play and win!

Answer: So as black played Qd4(?) a move that doesn’t throw away the win, but makes it harder. He then converted in a few more moves. Instead, Rg3! was better, intending after Rd1 to sacrifice the exchange with Rxg2+!!. Black then wins after Kxg2 Qg3+ Kh1 Qxh3+ Kg1 Qg3+ Kh1 Qf3+! Kg1(forced, as Kh2 loses to Ng4+ Kg1 Qf2+ Kh1  Qh2#) h3!-+ forcing White to give up his rook, and eventually his king as well!

Round 12:

MVL’s oscillations continued, this time losing to Nakamura in a complex Sicilian Sideline:

Nakamura-MVL

MVL as black had to play Nd7 in order to retain a fighting position. Instead, Rc7?! was a meaningless retreat which was the beginning of the end. 

Nakamura finished off the game here with a flourish! What did he play?

Re6! Defending the pawn and threatening Qxh6. Black to took the rook but Qf8 was game over!

So-Topalov

...Rd5! is immediately decisive, taking the game after Nc6! (forced, the bishop can’t move due to the pin on the queen) Qd6 Qxd6 Rxd6 into a technical conversion of an extra exchange. Instead Rd6? played in the game lost the majority of the advantage.

Wei Yi was the beneficiary of an extra pawn after Amin missed an intermezzo:

Wei-Amin

The simple Ba3!= completely equalizes the game after Rb3 Rxb3 axb3. Instead, Amin went for more with c4? and was punished after Nxb2 Nc3!? Nxc4!( Baseem probably overlooked this move) Rxb1 Nd6+ followed by Nxe8. Wei Yi won a pawn and converted rather easily with Bishop against Knight.

Round 13:

MVL finally got the house back in order, reaching 2/4 for the day, after Amin first blew his large advantage and then self-destructed:

 

MVL-Amin

Baseem blundered with Qc6?, overlooking after Qg4! g5 Qf5! that he has no way of preventing mate on h7 or g7. Instead, the counterattacking Re5! forces the queen trade and saves the day, as Qg4? is impossible because of Qb1+ Kg2 Qc2+! Kg1! Rg5 where Black takes control.

Magnus Carlsen drifted into a bad position against Topalov, but took advantage of the latter’s carelessness in defending his kingside:

 

Topalov-Carlsen

First, Magnus removed an important defender with Bxg3!, and after hxg3 sacrificed an exchange with Rxf5!!. Topalov resigned after Qxf5 Rxg3+, as it is mate next move.

Round 14:

Carlsen’s hot streak continued this round as well, with Sergey Karjakin losing to the champion for the 4th time in four meetings, and for the third time in this tournament:

 

Carlsen-Karjakin

Sergey probably underestimated the storm that arrives after Kf7? g5!. Magnus went on to win with near perfect chess after that. Instead, Nh4! was better, so that after g5 Black has f5!, with equal chances.

Veselin Topalov’s lack of match practice told. After playing a brilliant game of chess against Nakamura, he blundered a piece and had to resign immediately. Wei Yi similarly blundered mate in two against MVL , after nearly neutralizing Black’s pressure totally. Baseem Amin’s win was noteworthy:

 

Amin-Ding

Activity often compensates for material. Here Ding had to go Ra2+! and after the critical Kh3! Ra3+ Kh4 hxg4! ensuring the draw after Rxg4+ Ke5 f7 Rf3 and Rxf7. Instead, hxg4? looks natural, but loses after f7!

Round 15:

Though all 5 games ended in draws, Karjakin and Amin missed huge chances against Naka and Topalov respectively:

 

Karjakin-Nakamura

Karjakin played Ne3? a miscalculation. After Ne1! Ke4 Kf6!= Black is set up perfectly to defend against the passer on the h-file. Instead, Nh2! was immediately decisive, the point being that Ne1 is no longer possible because of Kxe5 and the f3 pawn is protected! A huge scare for Naka, but a bad slip by Sergey.

Topalov-Amin

Baseem repeated twice with Re8? Rd7 Rd8?, then chose the wrong plan of action involving invading along the f-file, thus losing all his advantage and overlooking an exchange sacrifice followed by perpetual check. However, Ra1! in the diagram is immediately decisive. After Rxa1 Bxa1, Rxe4? for example leads to b3! Rxc4 b2! Rb4 Rd1-+ followed by winning the rook. The connected passers become very strong in the absence of a back rank defender.

Round 16:

MVL stretched his lead over Carlsen to 1.5 points, but he really needed a miracle to ensure tournament victory at this point-Carlsen lead him by 2.5 points in the overall table, and MVL needed him to lose twice and himself score 2/2 to try catch him in the last round. He did himself no harm by winning against under-fire Topalov:

MVL-Topalov

Having been under the pump the entire game, Veselin finally threw the draw away with Re7??, missing the fact that after Qf8 Kd5 Qd8+ White takes the rook with check. Instead, c3! promised Black an easy draw.

Carlsen drew against So, and thus now trailed MVL by two points in the Blitz portion. However, he now knew that a half point in the next two rounds was enough to win the overall tournament. Nakamura continued his late tournament sprint by disposing of the falling Nepo:

 

Nakamura-Nepo

White is clearly in the driver’s seat here, but after the precise Kg6! from Black, he would need a miracle to win. Naka instead got Caissa’s blessings in this position, when Nepo blundered with Rd6?. After Naka’s accurate f5! the pawns were unstoppable.

Karjakin was benefitted by Amin’s misjudgement in the late middlegame:

Amin-Karjakin

Black is definitely better, but after Qb1! Rd2 Rb2! it is not clear how he must progress. Amin instead got greedy with fxe3, and after dxe3-+ his king was pathetically weak. Sergey played the rest of the game to perfection, won a nice game.

Round 17:

The big news of the round was that the question of overall first place was decided. MVL lost and with it his chances of 1st place. However, whoever followed Shamkir and Grenke would have observed that Carlsen doesn’t care for such details - he aims to win every game! Wei Yi was shown that he still has a long way to go towards the top:

Carlsen-Wei Yi

Carlsen has got a position of the type he enjoys best - clear plan of improvement with the second player in passivity. Here Wei had to go b6! with the idea of breaking with a5 after axb6 Qxb6. If Magnus blocks the advance with Ra2, then Ra8! Ra5(Natural) Nd6= equalizes completely. Instead, Wei’s unhurried Kh8? was perhaps the decisive mistake, considering Magnus’s form currently. The World Champion immediately won a pawn with Nxb7! Rxb7 Qxf5, and eventually won the game.

Nepo-Amin

Which piece to exchange? Baseem Amin answered the question wrong, and found his advantage reversed against Nepo:

Here Baseem inexpicably played Bxc5? probably thinking about winning a pawn after bxc5 Qxc5, but completely missing Rxa4! bxa4 Bxa4! winning the two bishops for rook and pawn, an advantage big enough for Nepo to easily convert. Instead, Nxc5! was much stronger, intending after Rxe5! (bxc5? Bxc5!-+ is immediate destruction for White) Ne6! to consolidate his extra pawn. Despite White’s two Bishops, his destroyed pawn formation on the kingside ensures Black the much better game.

Karjakin was the spoilsport to MVL’s ambitions, winning a beautiful positional game in the Najdorf:

Karjakin-MVL

MVL broke too soon with d5, and was soon made to pay for his lack of central control. The comps instead suggest a5! with the idea of cementing the b3 pawn and thus freeing the rook to come to d8. Black should then be fine. Instead, he suffered in a worse endgame and eventually lost.

Round 18:

With the question of 1st place already decided, the battle for second raged on, with Naka in sole second before the round’s commencement. However, he could do little against the Carlsen bulldozer:

 

Nakamura-Carlsen

fxg5+ was necessary, following the classical rule that the worse side should trade pawns. White then has some hopes of salvation. Instead, Rc6+? lead to a dead lost endgame after Kg7!-+. Carlsen ended the tournament clinically, with 2.5 in the last 3 games, and the onus was now on MVL to win his game to reach a tie for 2nd place.

MVL put immense pressure on Nepo’s passive black position, and the latter finally broke down in the early endgame:

MVL-Nepo

Qd6 was the best choice for Black, though after Re4! the only question is the time that it will take White to win. However, Nepo went fishing for counterplay with Rd2?? which was an appalling lapse. After Re8! he had no choice but to sacrifice his rook and hope for a mistake after Rxg2+ Kxg2 Qd2+, but MVL successfully avoided the perpetual and won elegantly, thus taking sole first in the blitz portion with an impressive 12.0/18! 

Ding Liren ended his tournament on a winning note, against Sergey Karjakin:

 

Ding-Karjakin

It is hard to believe, but after Bf3! Black is already lost! His lack of development and the pathetic knight on b4 will result in severe material losses, and Ding brought the point home after a protracted struggle.

The final standings show the current power balance in the world of chess:

The final Grand Chess Touring standings after the first leg with points and prize money

Rapid crosstable

Rk.NameRtgFED12345678910Pts. TB1 
1GMCarlsen Magnus2869NOR*½11½11½117,57,5
2GMNakamura Hikaru2824USA½*½11½½1016,06,0
3GMSo Wesley2801USA0½*½½½1½115,55,5
GMVachier-Lagrave Maxime2800FRA00½*½1½1115,55,5
5GMDing Liren2760CHN½0½½*01½115,05,0
6GMWei Yi2698CHN0½½01*½½1½4,54,5
7GMKarjakin Sergey2781RUS0½0½0½*½½½3,03,0
GMTopalov Veselin2781BUL½0½0½½½*0½3,03,0
9GMAmin Bassem2617EGY010000½1*02,52,5
GMNepomniachtchi Ian2785RUS00000½½½1*2,52,5

Blitz crosstable:

Rk.NameRtgFED12345678910Pts. TB1 
1GMVachier-Lagrave Maxime2933FRA***1 11 0½ 1½ 0½ ½1 01 11 10 112,012,0
2GMCarlsen Magnus2954NOR0 0***½ 1½ ½1 1½ ½½ ½½ 1½ 11 111,511,5
3GMNakamura Hikaru2934USA0 1½ 0***½ 1½ ½1 ½1 1½ 10 ½½ 111,011,0
4GMNepomniachtchi Ian2778RUS½ 0½ ½½ 0***0 ½1 1½ ½1 ½1 1½ 110,510,5
5GMKarjakin Sergey2816RUS½ 10 0½ ½1 ½***0 0½ ½½ 11 10 19,59,5
6GMDing Liren2773CHN½ ½½ ½0 ½0 01 1***½ 0½ ½1 01 ½8,58,5
GMSo Wesley2744USA0 1½ ½0 0½ ½½ ½½ 1***½ ½½ ½½ ½8,58,5
8GMWei Yi2641CHN0 0½ 0½ 00 ½½ 0½ ½½ ½***1 11 ½7,57,5
9GMAmin Bassem2662EGY0 0½ 01 ½0 00 00 1½ ½0 0***1 ½5,55,5
GMTopalov Veselin2682BUL1 00 0½ 0½ 01 00 ½½ ½0 ½0 ½***5,55,5


All hail Magnus!

Journalists flock around Magnus to get his thoughts on the victory | Photo: Lennart Ootes/ Grand Chess Tour

Selfies abound in plenty! | Photo: Lennart Ootes/ Grand Chess Tour

Now that's a prized possession! | Photo: Lennart Ootes/ Grand Chess Tour

The trophy that Magnus Carlsen won! | Photo: Lennart Ootes/ Grand Chess Tour

With the minister of sports of Ivory Coast! | Photo: Lennart Ootes/ Grand Chess Tour

About the author

Tanmay Srinath is an 18-year-old chess player from Bangalore, Karnataka, currently pursuing both chess and engineering at BMSCE Bangalore. Tanmay is also a Taekwondo Black Belt, who has represented the country in an International Tournament in Thailand. He is a big fan of Mikhail Tal and Vishy Anand, and sincerely believes in doing his bit to Power Chess in India!


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