Côte d'Ivoire Rapid & Blitz: Magnus triumphs

by Antonio Pereira
5/13/2019 – After scoring five wins on the final day of action at the first leg of the Grand Chess Tour in Abidjan, Magnus Carlsen won yet another event, this time by a margin of three and a half points. Tied in second place finished Maxime Vachier-Lagrave and Hikaru Nakamura — the latter could have finished in sole second had he not lost from a rather equal position against the champion in the last round. | Pictured: Magnus Carlsen with Côte d'Ivoire's Minister of Sports Paulin Danho | Photo: Lennart Ootes / Grand Chess Tour

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Will he ever stop?

In a little over a month and a half the first half of 2019 will be over, and so far Magnus Carlsen has won all the tournaments he has participated in. He finished 2018 with a triumph at the World Blitz Championship, and has cruised to victory in all four events he has played this year — Tata Steel, Shamkir, Grenke Classic and Abidjan. In the next couple of months, he will play the Lindores Abby Tournament, Norway Chess and the second leg of the GCT in Zagreb (a twelve-player classical event) — will he be able to keep up this amazing pace?

In Abidjan, he scored 26½ out of 36 points, which, as Tarjei J Svensen pointed out, is the best score ever achieved at a GCT Rapid & Blitz event:

[Tarjei later added Leuven 2017, where Magnus scored 25½, and Saint Louis 2017, where Levon Aronian got 24½ points.]

A rather disappointing first day of blitz for the world champion allowed Maxime Vachier-Lagrave to take over as the highest rated player in the live blitz ratings list, but after Sunday's nine games Carlsen has gone back to be number one across all formats. MVL did surpass Hikaru Nakamura and is now number two in the blitz ratings, as the Frenchman actually got the best score in the Blitz.

Final standings - Blitz


Anyhow, Magnus scored no less than five wins on Sunday (and lost against MVL once again). In round thirteen, Veselin Topalov was putting a lot of pressure on the champion, but suddenly blundered into a mating attack:


Topalov's 26.e6 gave way to 26.xg3!, and after 27.hxg3 ♜xf5 the Bulgarian allowed his opponent to reach a mate-in-one position by capturing with 28.xf5 — Veselin only resigned after 28...♜xg3+, when 29...♕e3 will be mate.  

Magnus Carlsen

"I can find mate, if you allow it..." | Photo: Lennart Ootes / Grand Chess Tour

As usual, Magnus was very objective about his play during his post-tournament interview with Maurice Ashley. This is how he summed up his performance in Abidjan:

The Rapid was very good and the Blitz wasn't, but fortunately I had a big lead. [...] At some point, I was playing so badly that I had to look over my shoulder a bit, which was unpleasant because frankly I thought that the Blitz would be about enjoying it and trying to, you know, win as many games as possible...but fortunately it was okay at the end.

The interviewer naturally mentioned the fact that he had won every single tournament he had taken part in during 2019. Magnus quipped:

If not scoring as well as I'd like in the Blitz is the biggest setback so far, that's pretty good.

And all that was left was to celebrate. Carlsen took home $37,500 and 13 GCT points for ending up clear first. The champion was congratulated by the President of the Ivorian Chess Federation Dr. Essoh Essis — who also did a great job as the main organizer of the tournament — and by Côte d'Ivoire's Minister of Sports Claude Paulin Danho. As both Nakamura and Carlsen mentioned during their interviews, people from the Ivory Coast and from neighbouring countries showed great enthusiasm throughout the event, as the pictures from the closing ceremony demonstrate...  

Magnus Carlsen, Dr. Essoh Essis, Paulin Danho

With the authorities | Photo: Lennart Ootes / Grand Chess Tour

Magnus Carlsen

With the press | Photo: Lennart Ootes / Grand Chess Tour

With the fans | Photo: Lennart Ootes / Grand Chess Tour

Naka and MVL share second place

Although Vachier-Lagrave came from having a great run on Saturday, he was still a long way from catching up with Magnus, with only nine rounds to bridge a gap of two and a half points. Furthermore, MVL had to deal with the fact that Nakamura — a long-standing blitz specialist and GCT defending champion — was breathing down his neck in the fight for second place.

Maxime was paired up against Carlsen and Nakamura in consecutive rounds at the start of the day (specifically, rounds two and three). First, he took down Carlsen for a second day in a row, now with White. When MVL already had a winning position, the world champion tried to set a trap for the Frenchman:


Magnus played 49...d1, and if White captures with 50.xd1 it is almost stalemate — the computer shows that White can escape the checks, giving up the knight, and still end up with a winning rook endgame...but to find such lines in blitz is definitely difficult. Naturally, Vachier-Lagrave opted for 50.g4+ instead, and went on to get the full point five moves later.

Maxime Vachier-Lagrave, Magnus Carlsen

Resignation | Photo: Lennart Ootes / Grand Chess Tour

Maxime Vachier-Lagrave, Magnus Carlsen

You could have guessed who won with this picture | Photo: Lennart Ootes / Grand Chess Tour

Then came Nakamura. The current US Champion had defeated Maxime in the Rapid and had lost his first blitz game against the Frenchman on Saturday. Hikaru had the white pieces, expanded in the centre and finished the game with a flourish:


White's attack is unstoppable. Nakamura followed 36.e6! and Black opened up the all-important f-file with 36...fxe6. And now came 37.♕f8+ xf8 38.exf8♕+ h7 39.e4+ g6 after which Black resigned:


It is mate-in-three after 40.♗xg6+ ♚xg6 41.♖f6+ ♚h7 42.♖xh6#.

Hikaru Nakamura, Maxime Vachier-Lagrave

A key game | Photo: Lennart Ootes / Grand Chess Tour

After their direct encounter, both Nakamura and Vachier-Lagrave went on to get three wins before the final round (although Maxime also lost one game, unlike Hikaru). Naka was a point up, but had to face Magnus, while MVL was set to play Ian Nepomniachtchi. The American seemed to have things under control, as it is not hard to imagine two top players drawing the following position with symmetrical pawn structures:


But Hikaru mishandled the position and went on to lose in 45 moves. Maxime took advantage of the situation and, by defeating Nepo, managed to tie for second with Naka — a rather important accomplishment given the fact that only four players will qualify to the final leg of the GCT in London, and Nakamura will most likely be his direct rival in that pursue. 

Nakamura declared afterwards (first, he is referring to his game against Carlsen):

I kind of just fell asleep on the board and then let it progress in an unpleasant way, so it's very costly to lose clear second, but considering the situation going into today it was pretty good, 'cause yesterday was really, really bad for me...I mean, I played some moves I should never play.

Hikaru Nakamura, Magnus Carlsen

The tournament is over | Photo: Lennart Ootes / Grand Chess Tour

Maxime Vachier-Lagrave, Ian Nepomniachtchi

And MVL managed to share second place | Photo: Lennart Ootes / Grand Chess Tour

This was just the first leg...out of seven! The Grand Chess Tour will go to Croatia, France, United States (two events), Romania and India before the finale in London, so everything is still up for grabs!  

Commentary webcast

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

Final standings - Rapid and Blitz combined

All games - Blitz



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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