Côte d'Ivoire Rapid & Blitz: Carlsen still on top, MVL stuns

by Antonio Pereira
5/12/2019 – Despite confessing at the end of the day that his play was below his expectations, Magnus Carlsen still leads the Côte d'Ivoire leg of the Grand Chess Tour by two and a half points. His closest chaser is Maxime Vachier-Lagrave, who started the blitz section with five straight wins and is currently the number one player in the live blitz ratings list. The Frenchman took down Carlsen in what was the world champion's first loss since December. | Photo: Lennart Ootes / Grand Chess Tour

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"I'm just happy that it wasn't worse"

The last time Magnus Carlsen lost an official game was during last year's World Rapid Championship in Saint Petersburg. There, he lost against Adam Tukhaev (2556 Elo), Shamsiddin Vokhidov (2304) and Alexander Zubov (2681). After this subpar performance, the Norwegian went on to win the World Blitz Championship with an undefeated 17/21 score. Furthermore, he did not lose a single official game until Saturday in Abidjan...

Magnus finished the first day of blitz with 5 out of 9, after beating Topalov and Karjakin but losing against Vachier-Lagrave. He stated afterwards that the final score does not reflect the fact that he did not feel comfortable with his play:

I felt pretty early on that it was gonna be one of those days, so I'm just happy that it wasn't worse. [...] There was no flow, so I wouldn't say my games were solid after my loss to Maxime. I think the results were okay, but in most of the draws I played quite terribly, so I'm just happy that it's over.

He mentioned how it feels to under-perform for a first-class competitor:

It's just a very unpleasant feeling when you are doing a lot worse than you know you are capable of.

Just to illustrate what Magnus refers to, we can use his round eight game against Wei Yi as an example. The world champion played the Sicilian with Black and was a pawn up out of the opening. He went on to nurture his material advantage, but then missed to find the killer blow:

Magnus Carlsen, Maurice Ashley

Not particularly happy during the interview | Photo: Lennart Ootes / Grand Chess Tour

 

The logical 35...♜d1, doubling on the first rank with decisive effect, works for Black — it was only necessary to see that after 36.♖e8+ g7 37.♖e7+ ♚f6 38.♕h4+ Black has 38...g5 and there is no way to save the rook. Magnus opted for 35...c4 and White was fine after 36.e1. The draw was signed after 45 moves.   

Carlsen is still 2½ points ahead of MVL, with Hikaru Nakamura a point behind the Frenchman. But we all know anything can happen in blitz — MVL could end up getting first place after an astounding comeback, or Magnus might win the event by an even larger margin...

Combined standings after Round 9 of Blitz

Côte d'Ivoire Grand Chess Tour

Number one in the live ratings

With Carlsen showing such domination in all formats lately — as mentioned above, he is the current world blitz champion — it is worth noting that, at least temporarily, someone has surpassed him in the ranking. After scoring 6½ during Saturday's nine rounds, Maxime Vachier-Lagrave's live blitz rating is 2937.2 points.

Bassem Amin, Maxime Vachier-Lagrave

Time to work | Photo: Lennart Ootes / Grand Chess Tour

The Frenchman came from winning all three rapid games on Friday and continued his streak with a victory over Wesley So (from a completely losing position). His next rival? A certain Magnus Carlsen.

MVL was Black and, of course, played the Najdorf. White improved his pieces freely and was gaining control over the d5-square, but when Maxime realized he was about to get under heavy positional pressure, he decided that giving up an exchange was his best chance:

 

We have seen this before: there followed 20...xc3 21.bxc3 xc3

Patiently, Magnus consolidated his position and, although it was not easy to break through, it seemed like he was the one playing for two results. However, instead of keeping things under control, the Norwegian allowed Black to get some counterplay and, when the computers already evaluated the position as equal (White had given up his advantage), Carlsen blundered away the game: 

 

Magnus played 43.a6, when he needed to deal with the combined threat of ...h4 and...♞f4 (43.c4 or 43.d5 were obligatory). The game continued 43...h4 44.♕d2 f4 and White resigned, as only giving up the queen avoids mate.

When Maurice Ashley asked Carlsen how he felt while MVL kept winning game after game, the Norwegian replied:

Obviously it was concerning, and it still is.

Magnus Carlsen, Maxime Vachier-Lagrave, Hikaru Nakamura, Wesley So

The game of the day | Photo: Lennart Ootes / Grand Chess Tour

So Maxime had won five consecutive games (three on Friday, one against So and one against Carlsen), and in round three he was paired against none other than his direct rival in the standings table Hikaru Nakamura. Vachier-Lagrave had the white pieces and Nakamura fell victim to some deep home preparation. To sum it up, we can reproduce a snippet of MVL's post-game interview:

Ashley: Where in the game did you leave your preparation?

Vachier-Lagrave: Basically when I was a piece up, so I think it was a good enough moment.

Indeed, the Frenchman had a knight for two pawns when the players reached an endgame on move 30:

 

The commentators were now saying that it should not be much of a problem for a player of such calibre to convert this into a win, but it was blitz after all...and Hikaru is known for his resilience. 

Hikaru Nakamura

A fighter at heart | Photo: Justin Kellar / Grand Chess Tour

By this point, it actually seemed like Naka was going to save the draw: 

 

Notice that White has only one pawn now, and it is placed on the 'wrong corner' — as a8 is a light square and he has a dark-squared bishop. The presence of the knight, nonetheless, left some room for tricks.

Playing exclusively on delay, Hikaru could not find the precise continuation to keep the balance and by move 98 the a-pawn had reached the sixth rank:

 

There is no way to stop the pawn. In fact, Nakamura lost on time, but the result was not in doubt any more.

MVL went on to take down Bassem Amin and Wei Yi in the following rounds, thus getting eight wins in a row in Abidjan! 

Ding Liren was the first one to avoid a defeat against the Frenchman on Saturday and, in round seven, Vachier-Lagrave actually lost against Veselin Topalov. In his last two games of the day, Maxime drew Russians Sergey Karjakin and Ian Nepomniachtchi. Will he manage to catch up with Magnus on Sunday?

Magnus Carlsen

Magnus in sight | Photo: Lennart Ootes / Grand Chess Tour


Commentary webcast

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


Blitz standings after Round 9

 

All games - Blitz

 

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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Green22 Green22 5/13/2019 02:40
Ashley: Where in the game did you leave your preparation?

Vachier-Lagrave: Basically when I was a piece up, so I think it was a good enough moment.

lol! ya think oh man Ashley is the worst doing any type of interviews just Carlsen he dreads it.
Lilloso Lilloso 5/12/2019 11:20
Yannick, Alessandro, Tania and Maurice: a talented, entertaining and very pleasant quatuor !
Lilloso Lilloso 5/12/2019 11:02
Evviva Maxime !
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