Côte d'Ivoire Rapid & Blitz: A three-point lead for Magnus

by Antonio Pereira
5/11/2019 – Magnus Carlsen finished all three days of rapid chess in Abidjan with the same result — two wins and a draw. Now he goes into the blitz section with a three-point advantage over Hikaru Nakamura, although each game will now be worth only a point. Besides Naka, Maxime Vachier-Lagrave and Wesley So threaten to take down the Norwegian, as both had a great run on Friday — MVL won all three games, while So got two wins and drew Nakamura. | Photo: Lennart Ootes / Grand Chess Tour

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We can only applaud Carlsen's performances in the last six months or so, but other players also have admirable outings from time to time. On Friday, Maxime Vachier-Lagrave had a revival of sorts, as he defeated Veselin Topalov, Ian Nepomniachtchi and Bassem Amin, thus becoming the only player to get a whitewash in Abidjan; meanwhile, Wesley So, who had kept a 50% score throughout the first two days of action, took down Russians Nepomniachtchi and Sergey Karjakin to get to the Blitz tied in third place with Vachier-Lagrave.

If we go by blitz ratings, Nakamura and MVL are the most dangerous opponents for the apparently invincible leader in the last two days of action. Eighteen rounds of blitz await us this weekend, with a time control of 5 minutes for the whole game and a 3-second delay from the get go. Take into account that the action on Saturday and Sunday will kick off three hours earlier than the Rapid, at 14:00 UTC, with a half hour allocated for each blitz round.

Maxime Vachier-Lagrave

Mirrors all around | Photo: Lennart Ootes / Grand Chess Tour

Round 7: Four decisive results

This could have easily been the first round in Côte d'Ivoire to finish without any draws, as the tie between Wei Yi and Nakamura was inches away from favouring the Chinese, who had a strong attack but did not find the blow that would have given him the victory:


You can try your own variations on the diagram above 

White has all his pieces ready to bust open Black's king position, but some accuracy is needed here. Wei Yi needed to play 28.f5 and Nakamura's best response, 28...♝f8, could be followed by 29.♖e8, with a devastating attack. Instead, the Chinese opted for 28.xf6 and after 28...f8 29.e8 d1+ Black kept giving checks during the next ten moves, proving that there was no way for the white king to escape the perpetual — notice that 28.f5 creates a path for the white queen to return to the defence, thus escaping the checks. A close save by Hikaru!

Wei Yi, Hikaru Nakamura

Time to share a laugh | Photo: Lennart Ootes / Grand Chess Tour

On the other boards, Carlsen got a big advantage out of the opening against Amin and had no problems converting, while Ding Liren and Wesley So defeated Karjakin and Nepomniachtchi, respectively, in 35 moves or less — both Karjakin and Nepo had a forgettable day, as Sergey lost twice and Ian was defeated in all three encounters!

Meanwhile, two players known for their uncompromising styles, battled it out in a Sicilian Najdorf — as you might have guessed, the player leading the black pieces was Vachier-Lagrave. The Frenchman showed good preparation to get an edge in the middlegame against Veselin Topalov, and finished off his opponent with a thematic sacrifice:


White's king is stuck in the centre and Black's pieces are more than ready to attack, therefore MVL did not take long to play 27...xc3, and Topalov resigned after 28.bxc3 xc3 29.d2 b5+


The king has no good square to escape — 30.d1 ♛f1#; 30.♔f2 ♜f3+ 31.♔g2 ♛f1+; 30.♔e1 ♞f3+, etc. The former world champion's decision to give up was fully justified.

Maxime Vachier-Lagrave

The man of the hour, Maxime Vachier-Lagrave | Photo: Lennart Ootes / Grand Chess Tour

Round 8: Topalov blunders inexplicably

Karjakin v Wei Yi and Carlsen v Ding Liren were rather technical draws, with both Chinese players showing good preparation and good nerves to keep the balance with the black pieces. In the all-American clash between Nakamura and So, Hikaru once again was unable to make the most of a favourable knight endgame — in a similar situation, he could not convert against Karjakin in round two, albeit his edge was much smaller against So.

Meanwhile, MVL got his second win of the day against a hapless Nepomniachtchi, who lost the thread in an open position and was duly punished by the Frenchman:


34.e5 gives White the win by force, as after 34...xf3 35.c8+ h7 36.g8+ h8 37.xd4 White's rook and pair of bishops are perfectly positioned to create a mating attack. Nepo resigned after 37...xh3 38.e6+ h7 39.c7:


Maxime Vachier-Lagrave, Ian Nepomniachtchi

"Now I know I missed that..." | Photo: Lennart Ootes / Grand Chess Tour

The biggest story of the round, however, was Topalov's inexplicable blunders in a winning endgame against Bassem Amin. The Egyptian talked to Maurice Ashley after this game and mentioned how he was about to resign, but kept on playing, waiting for a miracle...and a miracle is precisely what was seen on the board:


White has three passed pawns, while his opponent has the lone passer on the e-file as the only source of counterplay. Why not to play the perfectly reasonable 71.♗xe3 then? Furthermore, why did Veselin considered it necessary to give up his rook with 71.xe5+? Now the position is equal and perhaps any other day the Bulgarian would have managed to show how to get the draw with the white pieces, but not this time...


Topalov blundered again with 73.g1, when the capture that would have given him a win a couple of moves ago was called for in order to get the draw: 73.♗xe3 — after 73...♚xe3 74.g5, White's three passed pawns are enough to get the draw against the rook. The game continued until move 81, when the Bulgarian accepted his defeat.

Veselin Topalov, Bassem Amin

A friendly chat before the game | Photo: Lennart Ootes / Grand Chess Tour

Round 9: Magnus beats Wei Yi

For a second round in a row, Topalov wasted good winning chances, this time against Ding Liren — in the final position, Veselin is two pawns up but there is no way to make progress in the rook endgame. On the other hand, an in-form Vachier-Lagrave made the most of Amin's mishandling of an equal position to finish the day with yet another win. And, much like Amin, an out-of-sorts Nepomniachtchi missed a chance to simplify into a drawn position and ended up losing against Nakamura.

Number three in the live rapid ratings list Wesley So, meanwhile, took advantage of a blunder by Karjakin to get his second win of the day:


With the natural-looking 49...d6? Sergey is doubling on the d-file and looking to exchange a couple of pieces...except that White now has 50.xc5, pinning the rook, and after 50...b6 51.g5+ it is time to resign, as ...c5 will come in the next move, getting a huge material advantage. A painful loss for the former World Championship challenger.

Wesley So

Wesley So | Photo: Lennart Ootes / Grand Chess Tour

Much more entertaining was the game between Wei Yi and Carlsen, in which the Chinese obtained a positional advantage in the middlegame — would he become the first player to defeat the Norwegian in Abidjan? When the commentators were talking about this possibility, though, the 19-year-old did not find a quiet move that would have kept his edge alive:


Instead of 23.d3, Wei Yi needed to opt for 23.h3, avoiding back rank tricks that would later give Carlsen tactical chances to get the initiative. And that is precisely what Magnus did, first giving up a pawn and then infiltrating with his knight and queen...until provoking White to give up his queen:


Very low on time, the Chinese played 29.xe2, when 29.♗e3 was a better try. From this point on, Carlsen showed good technique to end up the rapid section with a victory. The game lasted 60 moves.

With this win, Carlsen finishes the rapid tournament with an Elo of 2903. For those keeping score, his peak all-time is 2919 set back in July 2017.

Magnus Carlsen

Another good day at the office for Magnus | Photo: Lennart Ootes / Grand Chess Tour

Commentary webcast

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

Standings after Round 9


All games



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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