Aronian leads, Carlsen falters, Caruana shines

by Venkatachalam Saravanan
8/12/2019 – Rapid rounds four to six at the St. Louis Rapid and Blitz yielded no change at the top of the leader board, but Levon Aronian is now being closely pursued by Maxime Vachier-Lagrave, who won all three of his games on Sunday. Perhaps even more surprisingly, World Champion Magnus Carlsen lost two more of his rapid games, including to world number two Fabiano Caruana. IM VENKATACHALAM SARAVANAN reports from Saint Louis. | Photo: Justin Kellar / Grand Chess Tour

Endgames of the World Champions from Fischer to Carlsen Endgames of the World Champions from Fischer to Carlsen

Let endgame expert Dr Karsten Müller show and explain the finesses of the world champions. Although they had different styles each and every one of them played the endgame exceptionally well, so take the opportunity to enjoy and learn from some of the best endgames in the history of chess.

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Caruana beats Carlsen to start Day 2

The second day of the Saint Louis Rapid & Blitz began with a lot of expectations, and it heated up right away, exciting the Sunday crowd at the Saint Louis Chess Club. It was none other than their American hero, Fabiano Caruana who played like a man possessed to get Magnus Carlsen in trouble from early on in their mutual encounter in the first game of the day and went on to score a memorable win in a tactical battle in the fourth round.

Carlsen followed up this loss with another to Aronian in the very next round — with white pieces too — being swindled and ending up in a losing position instead of nursing a steady advantage. Clearly, it has been a nightmare for Carlsen who has lost three games in this event so far, the same number of games he lost way back in the World Rapid championship in 2018, from a total of 15 games. After that, he had not lost a single game in rapid chess — he was undefeated both at Cote d'Ivoire and the Lindores Abbey Stars events in 2019.

Not a very pleasant outing for the world champion | Photo: Austin Fuller / Grand Chess Tour

Carlsen's travails almost overshadowed other remarkable performances of day two: Levon Aronian's sole lead with 10 points from a maximum of 12 with a +4 score, Vachier-Lagrave's all-win day — and four wins in a row — to bounce back to 9 points (+3) and Caruana's steady climb to the top to 8 points (+2). At the same time, two of the best tactical players of our times are having a very tough time here at Saint Louis: Richard Rapport and Shakhriyar Mamedyarov are suffering from rare moments of blindness over the board. Both are languishing at the bottom of the table with 3 points each (-3).

When Carlsen and Caruana clashed against each other at the Sinquefield Cup a year ago, there was electricity in the air. They were scheduled to play against each other in their World Championship in November 2018, and a bulk of American press had descended on the Saint Louis Chess Club on a crowded Sunday.

A prelude to the match: Carlsen vs Caruana, Sinquefield Cup 2018 | Photo: Lennart Ootes / Grand Chess Tour

Asked if he felt any of the pressure today compared to that distant day, Caruana told me after the game, “Oh, it was very different last year. Before the game, there was lots of tension and lots of anticipation, being before the [World Championship] match. It is very different this year”.

Was that the reason for his much more confident display against Carlsen today?

I don't know if that was the reason, I just liked my position and felt confident for the entire game. At some point I felt he was okay, so I wasn't sure I would win the game. But I also felt he was very off-colour, and in the second game (of the day) also shows it was the case (with him). He was not playing with confidence or his usual strength today.

Very candid and confident words, typical of Caruana!

The encounter between the top two players of the world was followed keenly | Photo: Austin Fuller / Grand Chess Tour

But Caruana's judgement on Carlsen's play looked spot-on, as the world champion indeed conducted the game bafflingly from the beginning: 

 

9...d6?! 10.exd6 e5 11.b2 g4 12.e2 and Caruana's subsequent play in the centre proved overwhelming.

 

17.xe5!

Bam! Taking advantage of the black bishop on g4 being trapped after a subsequent f2-f3. Carlsen's position went steadily downhill from this point on.

 

And here's a moment that would leave any spectator in disbelief; has anyone ever seen Magnus Carlsen's pawn structure in tatters like this?

 

Dominguez and Caruana had an interesting theoretical battle | Photo: Crystal Fuller / Grand Chess Tour

Caruana also went boldly into a long theoretical line against Dominguez in the fifth round, only to find himself in trouble:

 

Both the players had played rapidly up until this point, and — hold your breath — it was all theory for a few more moves yet! Was it a conscious decision to go into such opening lines? After all, the majority of the players do not wish to get into theoretical battles in rapid and blitz, for fear of being 'ambushed'.

Caruana once again spoke candidly after the game:

I have very often experimented a lot (in rapid and blitz), but recently I am trying to be more principled. But I must say my choice against Leinier wasn't very good. He was better prepared. I knew the line but didn't know the details he did, and the line wasn't easy for rapid and blitz, as you have to know the line move by move, and I didn't!

It's not every day that you hear a top player talk so honestly about his craft!

But in his next round game, even with black pieces, Caruana adopted a quiet opening setup, and played confidently when he got his chances:

 

23.b2?! This is not the Richard Rapport we are used to. It is simply not clear what the bishop is going to do on b2 in the future. 23.♗b4 followed by exchanging the rooks on the c-file would have given a solid edge. In this tournament, just like his play against Magnus Carlsen in the second round, Rapport plays quite tentatively, giving Caruana his opportunity to build up an attack:

23...h7 24.f2?!

Once again, white's move seem to be lacking aggression.

24...h4!? and Caruana started a direct attack on the white king which ultimately netted him the point.

The man of the hour — Paris Rapid and Blitz winner Maxime Vachier-Lagrave | Photo: Justin Kellar / Grand Chess Tour

Unlike Caruana, Vachier-Lagrave's victories did not come so smoothly. The Frenchman, fresh from his win at the Paris leg of the Grand Chess Tour had ended the first day with an equal score, and wasn't seem to be making much headway against the solid Karjakin:

 

Here, Karjakin unexpectedly played 42...bxc4 handing the game on a platter to Vachier-Lagrave. The simple 42...b4 would have maintained equality, as the white king will not have an entry into the black position. And the climax was a delightful show of chess geometry:

 

It's Zugzwang! If black moves his bishop, the g7-pawn falls, and if he moves his king, white's king is able to reach the f7-square and win the game.

Afford to be happy — Maxime Vachier-Lagrave | Photo: Austin Fuller / Grand Chess Tour

 

The position has reached an imbalanced and complicated endgame, with the inevitable assessment by chess engines of 0.00 — which of course means that it is simply unfathomable by human judgement! Subsequently, Shakhriyar played better and even reached a winning position at one point:

 

Black's king is in trouble, and he is forced to play 51...♚f8 52.♔c2 (The rook on b2 is trapped) 52...♜b2+ 53.♗xb2 axb2 and the game would reach a complicated rook and bishop versus rook endgame.

But instead, both the players traded blunders with 51...g2+?? 52.e3?? [52.♔e1 wins the game, as the forced 52...f6 will be met with 53.♗c4+ winning the rook on b3] 52...f5 and black has an overwhelming position, which he went on to win.

Shakhriyar Mamedyarov — just not his day | Photo: Crystal Fuller / Grand Chess Tour

But in the sixth round, the Frenchman was in his element, slowly pressurizing Ding Liren and finally delighting the spectators in the endgame: 

 

42.c5! It is always a delight to see a king and pawn ending appearing in a top quality game, as it indicates a player's confidence about his calculation. Vachier-Lagrave went on to win the resultant pawn endgame.

MVL delighted everyone with his endgame endurance | Photo: Crystal Fuller / Grand Chess Tour

Thus, while Caruana and Vachier-Lagrave were having uneven times over the board, the overnight leader Aronian did not show any such tentativeness in his play:

 

Both the players were down to their final minute, and though white may (or may not) have a chance to continue applying pressure, Aronian took a practical decision and offered a draw, thus minimizing risks with less time to play.

Both Carlsen and Aronian are in deep thought | Photo: Crystal Fuller / Grand Chess Tour

But against Magnus Carlsen in the fifth round, he faced more of a problem:

 

Having just lost a game to Caruana, Carlsen was in a fighting mood and the position indicates his adrenaline levels right now: a rook on h4 shows his kingside intent and a pawn pushed to a4 reveals he has no inclination to castle in the near future. Logically, Black's play should resolve around reaching for the white king in the centre, and thus Aronian went for 15...xe5 16.fxe5 d7?

If this was his intention, black should not have captured on e5 in the first place. 16...♞e4!? was the way to go, sacrificing a pawn with 17.♘xe4 dxe4 18.♗xe4 ♝xe4 19.♕xe4 b5!? and black will try to open lines towards the white king. After the text, black's position rapidly went downhill.

 

White is clearly better here, and just needs to consolidate the position with 20.♕e2 [watching over the e5-square] or even 20.0-0-0!? But Carlsen fell for something known to mankind since stone-age: The cheapo! 

“I saw this cheapo! And whenever I see the cheapo in the position, I sit there and pray!” Of course, his prayers were answered:

20.h7+?! h8 21.h4? White seems to be winning, doesn't he?! 21...xf4 22.g6+ xh7 23.xe7+

 

23...e4+! and that's the Cheapo that Aronian saw and Carlsen missed. White's advantage has simply vanished. 24.xe4 (24.♔f2 ♜e8 nets the white knight) 24...dxe4 25.xc8 xc8 and black went on to win the endgame. Thus, Aronian got to keep his lead of the tournament after the second day.

Levon Aronian — the power of praying | Photo: Justin Kellar / Grand Chess Tour

Asked to speculate on Carlsen's play in this tournament where he has already lost three games, Aronian tried to put it in perspective:

He is trying to play aggressively, and (that's why) losing lots of games. But this is an event everyone looks forward to. Everybody wants to be here; everyone loves to play in Saint Louis. I guess that is (everyone's) extra motivation.

Overall, compared to the first day, there were lots of tactical errors, many of them fatal. We have already seen those by Karjakin, and Mamedyarov's blunders (against Vachier-Lagrave), and Aronian's clever work against Carlsen. But the most horrible blunder of the day came from Rapport in yet another game:

 

The position is simply level and white could have played 24.♖d2 here holding the position. He unexpectedly blundered with 24.d7?? and resigned immediately after 24...a6 as black wins after 25.♕xa8 (otherwise white loses his queen) ♜xe2 and white gets checkmated.

Clearly, it has been a nightmarish event for Rapport and Mamedyarov so far. 

Rapport vs. Dominguez — a single move blunder | Photo: Austin Fuller / Grand Chess Tour

Standings after Round 6

 

Results of Round 4-6

 
 
 

All games

 

Live commentary by GM Yasser Seirawan, GM Maurice Ashley and WGM Jennifer Shahade
from 18:00 UTC (20:00 CEST, 14:00 EDT)

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Saravanan is an IM from Chennai, the southern-most state of Tamil Nadu, India. He has been an active chess player in the Indian circuit, turning complete chess professional in 2012, actively playing and being a second to strong Indian players. He has been consistently writing on chess since late 1980s and is a correspondent to national newspapers and news channels.
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