Côte d'Ivoire Rapid & Blitz: Carlsen and Wei Yi start strong

by Antonio Pereira
5/9/2019 – Three rounds of Rapid were played on Wednesday at the Pullman Hotel in Abidjan to kick off the first leg of the 2019 Grand Chess Tour. World Champion Magnus Carlsen and Chinese prodigy Wei Yi are leading the ten-player field after getting two wins and a draw during the first day of action. GCT defending champion Hikaru Nakamura is the closest chaser and the only player to avoid a defeat against Carlsen. | Photo: Lennart Ootes / Grand Chess Tour

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Africa's first

For the first time in history, a reigning world chess champion is participating in an official tournament in Africa. After successfully organizing an all-African Rapid & Blitz Invitational last year, the city of Abidjan — the economic capital of Ivory Coast — gained the right to receive some of the strongest players in the world as part of the Grand Chess Tour. 

Seven out of twelve regular participants of the Tour are playing in the African French-speaking city. The favourites according to the URS™ (Universal Rating System), which combines Classical, Rapid and Blitz performances, are Magnus Carlsen and Hikaru Nakamura. Besides Wei Yi and Veselin Topalov, the organizers selected top African player Bassem Amin as a wildcard — the Egyptian dominated the 2018 Rapid & Blitz event in Abidjan.

Maurice Ashley, Magnus Carlsen

In good spirits before the start | Photo: Lennart Ootes / Grand Chess Tour

Round 1: Three winners

Russians Sergey Karjakin and Ian Nepomniachtchi got into a sharp line of the Sicilian Najdorf...but it all had been seen before. The players showed they can keep long theoretical lines in their heads as they signed a draw by perpetual check on move 30, when they were still in theory, with four games finishing exactly the same way in earlier outings. Veselin Topalov and Wei Yi also signed a quick draw out of a Petroff Defence.

Meanwhile, Magnus Carlsen continued his run of great form by making good use of his pair of bishops to take down Wesley So from a seemingly innocuous position. Wesley resigned after Magnus made his 40th move.

Magnus Carlsen, Wesley So

Carlsen 1-0 So | Photo: Lennart Ootes / Grand Chess Tour

In the biggest clash of the opening round, Hikaru Nakamura had the upper hand with White against Maxime Vachier-Lagrave. The Frenchman, true to his style, gave up a pawn in order not to defend passively for the rest of the game — he probably regretted this decision afterwards though:

 

After 24...d3 Hikaru simply captured the pawn and went on to expand on the kingside. After the minor pieces left the board, Nakamura convincingly converted the rook endgame a pawn up to get his first win of the tournament.

Hikaru Nakamura

A quick-play specialist, Hikaru Nakamura | Photo: Lennart Ootes / Grand Chess Tour

In the longest game of the round, Bassem Amin got a good position out of the opening but then faltered and ended up losing — a storyline that would repeat itself throughout the day. With his pieces clearly in place to attack the black king, Amin missed finding a strong sacrifice:

 

The computer gives 23.♘xf7 as the correct continuation, while the most natural 23.h5 — played by the Egyptian — is not as poignant. The game continued 23...hxg5 24.xg5 c7 25.xh4 xe5 and after the skewer 26.f4 Black has 26...e7, consolidating his position. Ding Liren was now in the driver's seat and never looked back until getting the full two points (in the Rapid, each win counts double).

Ding Liren

China's number one, Ding Liren | Photo: Lennart Ootes / Grand Chess Tour

Round 2: One queen too many

Vachier-Lagrave and Ding Liren signed a rather quiet draw; Topalov had two pieces for a rook and a pawn against So, but the players decided to call it a day with a triple repetition on move 45; while the third draw of the round saw Karjakin defending a knight endgame a pawn down against Nakamura...until move 103!

The highlight of the round, however, was Carlsen's win with Black over Nepomniachtchi. The world champion was a pawn to the good but needed to deal with White's advanced passer on the b-file. On move 29, 'Nepo' could have saved the day:

 

Instead of 29.h4, the Russian needed to get rid of the dangerous e-pawn with 29.xe4. He rejected this possibility due to 29...♝a6, when there is no way to save the exchange on f1 — however, the b-pawn gives White enough compensation. After the text, Carlsen correctly chose not to save his bishop and continued 29...e3! — the connected passers are too strong and, by move 34, Magnus already had two queens on the board.

Ian resigned in the following position:

 

Black's queens dominate the board.

Magnus Carlsen, Ian Nepomniachtchi

'Nepo' has been a second of Magnus in the past | Photo: Lennart Ootes / Grand Chess Tour

Finally, in typical style, Wei Yi left his king in the centre and went for the initiative from the get-go to take down Amin. The 19-year-old grandmaster never shies away from pushing his pawns:

 

White already has a pawn on g5, and now came 22.f4 ac8 23.f5 g6 24.f6+ d8 and Wei Yi was clearly better shortly afterwards (Black's knight on a4 is out of play). Amin resigned on move 35, when there was no way to avoid big material losses.

Wei Yi

Wei Yi is the top Junior in the world | Photo: Lennart Ootes / Grand Chess Tour

Round 3: Wei Yi wins Chinese derby

Karjakin and Vachier-Lagrave signed a relatively quiet draw after 37 moves. Topalov and Nepomniachtchi split the point after 42, except that this was a big miss for the Russian, who was three pawns up and fell victim to a perpetual check after playing too quickly in the decisive phase of the game.

Nakamura was Black against Carlsen and failed to make use of a sharp opportunity to get an advantage:

 

Hikaru captured a pawn with 16...xc5, when 16...♞b4 would have been a strong sacrifice — for example, after 17.axb4 axb4 White cannot play 18.♗xb4 due to 18...♝h6+ 19.♘d2 ♜a1+ 20.♕b1, losing the queen. Of course, White had stronger continuations, but would certainly be on the defensive, a situation harder to deal with in Rapid. In the end, a draw by perpetual check was signed after 30 moves.

Magnus Carlsen, Hikaru Nakamura

Avoiding eye contact? | Photo: Lennart Ootes / Grand Chess Tour

Wei Yi's tactical vision served him well on Wednesday, as he managed to take down his compatriot Ding Liren in round three to catch up with Carlsen on 5 out of 6 points. In the game, the material balance had been maintained, but Black had two very strong connected passers on the queenside. Wei Yi needed 45 moves to convert the following endgame:

 

Wesley So went back to 50% with a win over Amin, whose three losses show how tough it can be to face such strong opposition in rapid chess...despite an excellent opening preparation!

Bassem Amin

It's never easy against these guys | Photo: Lennart Ootes / Grand Chess Tour


Commentary webcast

GM Yannick Pelletier, IM Tania Sachdev, GM Alejandro Ramirez & GM Maurice Ashley


Standings after Round 3

 

All games

 

Links




Antonio is a freelance writer and a philologist. He is mainly interested in the links between chess and culture, primarily literature. In chess games, he skews towards endgames and positional play.
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