Paris Rapid & Blitz: Nakamura shines in Blitz

by Antonio Pereira
8/1/2019 – Day four of the Paris Grand Chess Tour finished with Vachier-Lagrave still in the lead, two points ahead of Alexander Grischuk and Ian Nepomniachtchi, with the latter collecting 5½ points on Tuesday. The best player in the first nine rounds of Blitz, however, was Hikaru Nakamura, who scored 'plus four' to bridge the gap with those atop the standings table. The current US champion is tied in fourth place with Fabiano Caruana and Vishy Anand. | Photo: Justin Kellar / Grand Chess Tour

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MVL still the favourite

Despite only getting 50% on day four, Maxime Vachier-Lagrave widened the gap in the lead of the Paris GCT. His closest pursuer after the Rapid, Alexander Grischuk, beat him in round two, but went on to lose a couple of games to give some ground in the standings table. Ian Nepomniachtchi thus tied his compatriot in second place after scoring 5½ out of 9 during the first day of 5'+3" action.

The American participants also had a good day in Paris. Hikaru Nakamura scored five wins, one loss and three draws to climb to shared fourth place after a forgettable performance in the Rapid. The four-time US champion only lost against his compatriot Fabiano Caruana, who also got five wins but lost thrice to go into the final day three points behind the leader. Nakamura and Caruana have as many points as Vishy Anand, who scored 4½ points on Tuesday.

The last day of action in France's capital starts one hour earlier, at 12:00 UTC (14:00 CEST / 8:00 AM EDT).

Maxime Vachier-Lagrave

Sole leader Maxime Vachier-Lagrave focusing | Photo: Justin Kellar / Grand Chess Tour

Grischuk: "Better lucky than good"

Alexander Grischuk came from having a great final day of Rapid but started the Blitz with a loss against Nakamura — meanwhile Vachier-Lagrave beat Dubov to increase his lead. Luckily for Grischuk though, he was paired up against the Frenchman the very next round, and he had the white pieces.

Vachier-Lagrave played the King's Indian Defence and Grischuk went for a quick 3.h4, signalling his aggressive intentions right off the bat. The position exploded when Black decided to go for a central pawn break:


Feel free to try your own variations on the diagram above

A highly double-edged sequence followed: 14...e5 15.g4 exf3 16.gxf5 exf2 17.xe2 g3 18.fxg6 xh1 19.xh1 f6 20.h5 ae8. Black has two pawns for the exchange and a very dangerous battery on the long diagonal to boot, but White's pawns on the kingside are ready to wreak havoc as well.

Grischuk faltered in the following position:


White needed to go for 21.gxh7 but played 21.h6 instead. Black was in the driver's seat after 21...xb2+ 22.xb2 xb2+ 23.d2 and kept his advantage during about twenty moves.

Grischuk defended tenaciously with the pair of bishops and an active king. He only needed Vachier-Lagrave to make one mistake to take over. And the French grandmaster did precisely that on move 41:


Black's previous 41...f4 was a huge blunder, as it allowed 42.g8+, when the h-pawn cannot be stopped. Vachier-Lagrave resigned seven moves later.

The ever-entertaining Grischuk talked to Maurice Ashley afterwards, and promised he would not play h4 again in the tournament (he did advance his h-pawn against Mamedyarov in round six, however). The Russian also proclaimed the maxim, "Better lucky than good!"


Alexander Grischuk

Alexander Grischuk facing Anish Giri | Photo: Lennart Ootes / Grand Chess Tour

Now let us take a look at the performance of Tuesday's best scorers.

Hikaru Nakamura: 6½ points

Nakamura won the 2018 edition of the Grand Chess Tour mainly due to his great performances in rapid and blitz. Furthermore, in Abidjan this year, he finished in second place behind Magnus Carlsen. However, in the rapid section of the Paris leg the American had a subpar 8/18 performance, which meant he would need a big comeback to fight for tournament victory. The quick-play expert did not disappoint in the first nine rounds of 5-minute games, though, as he closed the gap with the leader by two full points.

He kicked off with a clean win over second-placed Grischuk, but then went on to blunder a piece and lose from the black side of a Scandinavian against Caruana. This was clearly Nakamura's lowest point of the day:


Black hallucinated that he could gain a pawn with 18...xe5. Caruana showed how capturing his rival's pieces in the correct order simply left him a bishop to the good — 19.xe5 xe5 20.xe5 xd3 21.xe8+ xe8 22.xd3. Nakamura fought on until move 41, but the result was never in doubt.

In round three, Nakamura drew a tough game against Nepomniachtchi, and his next rival was none other than Vachier-Lagrave — the American gained a pawn in the early middlegame out of a Sicilian with White, and got the better of his opponent in the technical four-bishop endgame that ensued. Two draws followed against Giri and Anand, but it was the final three-game victory streak which helped him climb in the standings table.

Not only did Nakamura got the best score on Tuesday but he also reached second place in the live blitz ratings list, as Vachier-Lagrave lost the first spot after scoring 'only' 50% against Mamedyarov in Riga and in his first nine blitz encounters at this event. Nakamura is currently 8.6 rating points behind Carlsen.

All Nakamura's games from Day 4


Hikaru Nakamura

In a fighting mood — Hikaru Nakamura | Photo: Lennart Ootes / Grand Chess Tour

Fabiano Caruana: 5½ points

After a strong start in Paris — he was sharing first with Anand after day one — Caruana lost some ground in days two and three of the Rapid. The American, who has more than once underperformed in blitz during his career, showed he has what it takes to face elite opposition in this format, as he scored no less than five wins on Tuesday. Nevertheless, unlike Nakamura, the former World Championship challenger also was on the losing side three times.

Caruana did not draw a single game until round nine, as he kicked off the day perfectly alternating a loss and a win until round six only to go on and get consecutive wins in rounds seven and eight. The American finished the day on the better side of a draw against Alexander Grischuk.

His victory over Jan-Krzysztof Duda in round six was a nice illustration of how to take advantage of an out-of-play knight 'on the rim': 


Notice how White allowed his opponent to promote first on the c-file, as he knew his king could escape the checks and hide on the queenside — meanwhile, the black knight on h4 is nothing but an spectator.

All Caruana's games from Day 4


Fabiano Caruana

Strong at all time controls — Fabiano Caruana | Photo: Justin Kellar / Grand Chess Tour

Ian Nepomniachtchi: 5½ points

The Russian ace scored 10 points in the Rapid, after merely signing two draws throughout the nine rounds of 25-minute games. In the Blitz, on the other hand, he ended up splitting the point more often than not, as he finished the day with three wins, one loss and five draws. He defeated Caruana, Dubov and Giri on Tuesday, and his only loss came in round four against Mamedyarov.

Against Dubov, in round seven, he showed good calculation skills when he captured a central pawn with his bishop — he had seen that the pin along the d-file was not dangerous:


After 19.xd5 c5 20.c4 b5 it seems like Black will be able to gain a piece for the d-pawn he has just given up, but Nepomniachtchi had foreseen that he could play 21.b4 here:


White also gave up an exchange temporarily after 21...xb4 22.b1 d3 23.xd3 xa1 24.xa1, but his bishops are too strong now — Dubov resigned after 24...bxc4 25.xc4 b2 26.g1 e7 27.h4:


After this game, Nepomniachtchi got a very important draw from what seemed to be a losing position an exchange down against Grischuk. In the final round, however, he kept it cool and signed a short draw with Black against Anand.

All Nepomniachtchi's games from Day 4


Ian Nepomniachtchi

Ian Nepomniachtchi is still in the hunt | Photo: Justin Kellar / Grand Chess Tour

As mentioned, the final day of action kicks off an hour earlier, at 12:00 UTC (14:00 CEST / 8:00 AM EDT). Will someone catch up with the local star? 

Overall standings

Grand Chess Tour Paris 2019

Blitz standings

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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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