Vachier-Lagrave wins Paris GCT, Anand surges to second place

by Antonio Pereira
8/2/2019 – The Paris leg of the Grand Chess Tour had a final day full of ups and downs, as Maxime Vachier-Lagrave kept the lead all throughout despite a topsy-turvy performance. No player had a long-enough winning streak to overcome the Frenchman, with Ian Nepomniachtchi and Alexander Grischuk missing chances to catch up repeatedly. In the end, it was Vishy Anand who surged ahead to second place after scoring four wins in the last six rounds. | Photo: Lennart Ootes / Grand Chess Tour

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"A horror show"

Maxime Vachier-Lagrave had famously surpassed Magnus Carlsen in the blitz ratings list after defeating him three times in that format during the first semester of the year. After finishing the rapid section of the Paris GCT in clear first place, it was reasonable to think that he would not have many problems in defending his lead in the blitz phase of the tournament. Unless, of course, someone over-performed in the last two days of competition.

But, in the end, he neither performed as expected nor gave up the lead. As it turned out, the blitz section was too much of a tight race for anybody to take his spot — the best score after 18 rounds was 10½ (or +3). Furthermore, the winner of the event astoundingly lost 102 rating points and fell to the third spot in the ratings list. Talk about a high Elo expected score!

After clinching first with a draw against Mamedyarov, the champion talked to Maurice Ashley. He was asked about his sense of joy after the victory, and for those following the event live his answer was not unexpected:

I mean, it is joy of course, but right now it's mostly relief because today and even yesterday was something of a horror show, and I'm really not pleased with the way I played. [...] It's too soon to call it joy.

Maxime Vachier-Lagrave

Le champion — Maxime Vachier-Lagrave | Photo: Lennart Ootes / Grand Chess Tour

Perhaps the only one that truly left the playing hall with a big smile on his face was Vishy Anand, who obtained four wins and a draw in the last nine rounds of blitz to end up in sole second place with 20½ points out of 36. He had a balanced performance throughout, getting 10/18 in the Rapid (+1) and 10½/18 in the Blitz (+3). 

The Indian legend will turn 50 this year, but he has not lost his strength at quick-play formats — Anand won the World Rapid Championship twice, in 2003 and 2017. For comparison purposes, the second oldest player in Paris was Alexander Grischuk, who will turn 36 later this year.

Grand Chess Tour Paris 2019

The veteran gets the most comfortable spot? Vishy Anand is certainly respected by his colleagues | Photo: Lennart Ootes / Grand Chess Tour

Grand Chess Tour Paris 2019

A jumbled final day

Only by looking at the headlines and standings tables after each day of action in Paris, it would be impossible to realize how close Vachier-Lagrave was to lose the leading spot at the third leg of the 2019 GCT. In fact, the Frenchman did not even share first place all throughout the eighteen rounds of Blitz...but he described this phase of the tournament as a "horror show" anyway — let us find out why.

He had a two-point lead over Grischuk and Neopmniachtchi going into Wednesday's action, and all three contenders for the title kicked off the day with a win. When Daniil Dubov resigned against Vachier-Lagrave, his king was on e4:


It is always nice to finish the game with a king hunt: 47...e1+ 48.f3 g3+ 49.e4 h4+.

After having lost against Grischuk on Tuesday, France's number one was on the worse side of a draw with Black in their direct encounter of round eleven. Meanwhile, Nepomniachtchi lost against Jan-Krzysztof Duda. Only Grischuk was trailing by two points now.

Alexander Grischuk

A true fan of the game — Alexander Grischuk | Photo: Lennart Ootes / Grand Chess Tour

Fabiano Caruana, who had been having an overall good performance, defeated the leader in round twelve, while Grischuk took down and under-performing Anish Giri — only one point separated first and second place. In the very next round, Nepomniachtchi joined the race, as he beat Mamedyarov (on time, from a position that was completely drawn) while Grischuk lost against Anand; Vachier-Lagrave also got a win, so he had a two-point lead over the two Russians.

Round fourteen saw the direct clash between Nepomniachtchi and Vachier-Lagrave. The Russian, who came from getting a lucky break, played aggressively with White and won the game in merely 22 moves:


21...h7 was a bad idea for Black, as it allowed an immediate infiltration with 22.f7 and resigns.

It was a bad round for the leader, but it could have easily been worse, as Grischuk failed to make the most of an advantageous position against Duda, and even ended up losing the game. 

Ian Nepomniachtchi

It was a crazy day for Ian Nepomniachtchi | Photo: Lennart Ootes / Grand Chess Tour

In round fifteen, both pursuers drew their games with Black (Nepomniachtchi had a winning position against Dubov, but failed to convert), while Vachier-Lagrave was facing Giri. The Dutchman had been sitting in last place all throughout the event, but nonetheless had defeated the leader in their first blitz encounter, and apparently wanted to leave Paris at least with a positive score against the champion — Giri played the kind of novelty you usually keep in lock-down for a classical encounter:


Giri played the surprising 17.gxf3 and went on to win the game in 32 moves...and then tweeted:

With three rounds to go, Vachier-Lagrave had a half point advantage over Nepomniachtchi and was one and a half points ahead of Grischuk. All three players drew in round sixteen, albeit from very different positions — the biggest shock was seen in Nepomniachtchi versus Giri, as the Russian went all-in against Giri but was completely lost by move 22:


Black is two full pieces to the good, and his 22...g8 retains a huge advantage — nonetheless, the simpler 22...♜c4 would have eased Giri's task, as the white queen would have to step away from its attacking position or simply agree to simplifications after 23.♘xh7+ ♚f7 24.♕g5 ♛b6+, etc. Anish kept on missing chances afterwards until the draw was agreed on move 33.

Anish Giri

Anish Giri | Photo: Justin Kellar / Grand Chess Tour

So Nepomniachtchi had both missed chances and got lucky...after having won on time from a drawn position. And now he was up against Grischuk in the key match-up of the penultimate round. 

Luckily for Vachier-Lagrave, the Russian who was further from him in the standings table won the game, as Grischuk outplayed his younger opponent with the white pieces. Had Nepomniachtchi obtained the victory, he would have climbed to first place, as the leader lost against Duda, but not without missing a huge chance to get a winning position:


Vachier-Lagrave had 24...b5 here, winning a piece by force (after 25.♗xb7 bxc4, White's bishop and knight are under attack), but opted for 24...xg2 instead. Three moves later, Duda took over and ended up getting a 56-move win.

Jan-Krzysztof Duda, Maxime Vachier-Lagrave

Jan-Krzysztof Duda finished in fifth place | Photo: Lennart Ootes / Grand Chess Tour

We could not have asked for a more dramatic final round: Vachier-Lagrave had a half-point lead over both Nepomniachtchi and Grischuk for the first time and came from losing three of his last four games. Nonetheless, a win over Mamedyarov would be enough to secure tournament victory. 

The first one to go down was Nepomniachtchi, who reached a losing endgame against Anand at around move 40. Meanwhile, Grischuk was in the midst of a messy struggle against Caruana, and Vachier-Lagrave had played a couple of over-optimistic moves against Mamedyarov. The Azerbaijani could have upset the Frenchman had he found a nice manoeuvre:


Black could have completely opened up White's king position with 27...♝xh3 28.gxh3 ♞xh3 but went for 27...d3 instead. Soon enough, Vachier-Lagrave equalized the position while keeping a large edge on the clock. The Frenchman even had time to go and check how his direct rivals were doing. When he saw Nepomniachtchi had lost and Grischuk did not have realistic chances to win, he agreed to a draw in a completely equal endgame. 

Caruana ended up defeating Grischuk, allowing Anand to leapfrog both Russians and reach second place. The local had won the event, but only after going through a emotional roller-coaster! It was a thrill for the spectators, no doubt about it.

Maxime Vachier-Lagrave

Checking your rivals' results while playing blitz? | Photo: Lennart Ootes / Grand Chess Tour

Shakhriyar Mamedyarov

Shakhriyar Mamedyarov smiles as he probably suspects his rival has won the event | Photo: Lennart Ootes / Grand Chess Tour

Final standings

Grand Chess Tour Paris 2019

Blitz standings

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WGM J. Shahade, GM P. Svidler, GM A. Ramirez and GM M. Ashley

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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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