GCT Paris: Surging Sergey

by Marco Baldauf
6/24/2018 – Sergey Karjakin jumped out to a small lead after a stellar performance on the first day of blitz in Paris. Nakamura also had a good day and is second. Wesley So has slipped to third place, but along with Vachier-Lagrave and Aronian, remains in contention. | Photo: Lennart Ootes / Grand Chess Tour

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A lead that didn't hold

Wesley So once again showed his qualities as a rapid chess player in Paris. With 12/18 he finished first in the rapid tournament, one point ahead of Hikaru Nakamura and Sergey Karjakin. In the process, he picked up a further 15 Elo points, which he further stabilized his number two spot in the world rapid rankings and significantly reduced the gap to Magnus Carlsen. Although Carlsen's lead is still a whopping 28 points, it has typically been far larger in recent years.


Rapid ascent: Wesley So | Photo: Lennart Ootes / Grand Chess Tour

More important than the world ranking in rapid chess, however, is undoubtedly the opportunity to win another Grand Chess Tour after his victory in Leuven.

With two draws, So started solid, but one of his competitors could quickly reduce the gap. Sergey Karjakin beat his countryman Alexander Grischuk somewhat happily in a confusing game.


The position is extremely double-edged, but White's 32.g3 is technically a losing move, though of course hard to calculate in blitz. Grischuk missed the refutation 32...Qe3+ when gxf4 would be simply met by Qxf4 with an unstoppable mate threat. Karjakin would have had to play 33.Qh4+ Bh6 34.Qxh3  but Rd2 simply consolidates Black's position with a winning material edge. Instead of the immediate g3, Karjakin could best fight by 32.Qh4+ Kg8 and only now 33.g3.

Instead, Grischuk played 32...Qc5 and was lost after 33.gxf4 Qc2 since White can defend 34.Qh4+ Nh5 35.Qxh3, and now to stop the d-pawn 35...Rd2 36.Rxd2 Qxd2 is required but 37.fxe5 gave White an overwhelming position.


Beating Grischuk was the start of a great run for Karjakin | Photo: Lennart Ootes / Grand Chess Tour

Karjakin proceeded to go on a five-game winning streak. The first victim was called Vladimir Kramnik. Then Karjakin dispatched the leader So, before taking Fabiano Caruana down another peg. It is an open secret that rapid and blitz are not among the best strengths of Caruana. But he saved half a point against Aronian in a beautiful fortress, and in the following game he defeated Shakriyar Mamedyarov. Overall, however, he scored just 2½ points from his nine games.


Round 4: Karjakin overtakes So

The most important pairing in the battle for the top of the table was Karjakin against So. Despite the half-point advantage So attacked Karjakin with the risky Winawer system of the French Defence. A typical Winawer position came on the board, with a great space advantage for White and chances on the kingside, while for Black a better structure and hopes for strategically won endgames.


Karjakin has just advanced his passive bishop to h4, asking his opponent an unpleasant question. "Wesley, where does your horse go?" The correct answer is not very clear. Do I want to continue securing my king (... Ng8) or will the monarch manage it alone? The knight could then head for juicier pastures (c6-a5-c4). So probably was attracted to the king position after 26...Nc6 27.g5, so he decided for 26...Ng8. What he overlooked, however, is the weakening of the f7-square, which can no longer be covered by the king. So after the moves 27.Kg2 Qa4 28.g5 Qc4 29.Qd2 Karjakin set up the cunning threat 30.Qf4.


After So's mistake 29...b5, the pawn — and thus all the chance to hold his position — fell away: 30.Qf4!

There was an option that would have kept the game in balance via passive defense à la 29...cxd4 30.cxd4 Qc8, although White keeps the initiative.

Karjakin's next win in fifth round cemented his lead, while So was completely outplayed by Grischuk who returned to his old love, the King's Indian, with resounding success!



Alexander Grischuk | Photo: Lennart Ootes / Grand Chess Tour

Grischuk's performance today was quite variable. After his unfortunate game against Karjakin at the start, he lost again against Nakamura. But then he went on to beat So and Caruana back to back.

Caruana got into a bit of a funk after missing a golden opportunity to beat Karjakin in round five.


Instead of deflecting the bishop from the queening square, Caruana took 41.Bxf7 Kc7 and Black remained much better in the endgame.

Whatever works — Karjakin seemed to be unstoppable on the day overall. Against Vishy Anand he earned the fifth consecutive victory. The pursuers had a tough time keeping up, and after six rounds, Karjakin led Nakamura by 1½ points.

Round 7: Karjakin's run comes to a sudden end

But all good things must come to an end. Against Maxime Vachier-Lagrave he got into trouble in a sharp middle game had to try to save himself in a pawn-down ending.


The white king hurries to support the queenside. Karjakin stayed cool, got his king to g7 and waited. The Minister of Defense's strategy was: I wait until the white king is on the queenside, then sacrifice my knight and collect another pawn on the kingside. In the resulting "3 vs 2" on the kingside, MVL was struggling for a long time to make progress.


Ultimately, MVL found a strong manoeuvre. He fought for the seventh rank with his rook and placed his knight on d6 and rook on d7. The king, on the other hand, remained passive. With this arrangement, he pressurised f7, and Karjakin's position finally cracked.


The g7 square is now unavailable for the king, the rook will soon be forced off the f-file and Karjakin had to concede his first defeat in Paris.

MVL kicks back

Maxime Vachier-Lagrave MVL kicks back | Photo: Lennart Ootes / Grand Chess Tour

For the Frenchman, the first day of blitz was broadly satisfactory. Four wins, a loss and four draws mean a strong score of 6/9. With 2½ points behind Karjakin, the overall standings may out of reach, but anything's possible.

Anand, however, could not be satisfied. The Indian ex-world champion could not put his mark on the play and had to settle for just one win (against Alexander Grischuk) and 3½ / 9. The other former World Champion in the field, Vladimir Kramnik, is just as pale.

A strong comeback was made by Shakriyar Mamedyarov, by contrast. The day started very weak — after four rounds, just half a point scored. But he then bested Vachier-Lagrave and Nakamura, in the final round he even beat Karjakin to pull off a respectable 4½ / 9.


Shows his true face today towards the end: Shakriyar Mamedyarov | Photo: Lennart Ootes / Grand Chess Tour

Standings after nine rounds


Rapid final standings


Karjakin leads with 17½ points ahead of Nakamura (16½) and So (16). Day two of blitz stars at 12 Noon CEST (6:00 AM EDT).

Round-up show

GM Simon Williams checks in on the action from the first day of blitz.

Blitz games rounds 1-9


Commentary webcast

Commentary by Yasser Seirawan, Jovanka Houska, Alejandro Ramirez (St. Louis)
Maurice Ashley and Romain Edouard (Paris)

Translation from German: Macauley Peterson


Marco Baldauf, born 1990, has been playing since he was eight. In 2000 and 2002 he became German Junior Champion, in 2014 he became International Master. He plays for SF Berlin in the Bundesliga.


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