Nakamura deservedly wins the 2018 Grand Chess Tour

by Antonio Pereira
12/17/2018 – After drawing the first seven games of the final match against Maxime Vachier-Lagrave, Hikaru Nakamura pulled off a very nice win to secure first place at the London Classic — given this year's format, this meant Nakamura also won the overall Grand Chess Tour. Third place went to Fabiano Caruana, who obtained three victories on Monday to take down Levon Aronian. Meanwhile, Gawain Jones showed a more than convincing performance to beat Luke McShane and become the champion of the 2018 British Knockout Championship. | Photos: Lennart Ootes / Grand Chess Tour

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A stunning final move

This year's edition of the Grand Chess Tour included three rapid and blitz tournaments and a single classical event before the grand finale in London. Hikaru Nakamura won two out of the three stages with accelerated time controls to arrive as seeded number one to London's final event, despite having had a disappointing performance in the Sinquefield Cup. The last hurdle in his path to first place was Maxime Vachier-Lagrave, the player who had the most regular performance throughout the year — he did not finish below fifth place in any of the events.

The players arrived in the final day with a tied score after signing two draws in the classical section. The previous trend continued as Nakamura held a draw with Black using the Berlin Defence in the first rapid encounter. In the next game, however, the American achieved a clear positional advantage, although he could not find a path to the victory:

 

This is one of the many positions where White could have put more pressure on his rival. Hikaru centralised the king with 51.Ke2, when 51.Rd5 could have been tried. Nonetheless, there was not a markedly clear plan for White, and credit should be given to Vachier-Lagrave’s stubborn resistance. A threefold repetition sealed the draw on move 61. 

During the post-game interview, Nakamura declared: "I was a little bit annoyed because I probably should have won this rapid game with White".

Nakamura showed great control | Photo: Lennart Ootes / Grand Chess Tour

Perhaps Naka's annoyance was a factor in the next game, in which MVL had an edge after the middlegame. The position was simplified to a bishop endgame with the same number of pawns, but White still had some hopes:

 

Black has all his pawns on dark squares, so there is always the chance to find some kind of zugzwang in the technical phase. Perhaps a better try for Maxime would have been to go for 41...bxc5 instead of 41...b5, as pointed out during the live commentary. The Frenchman went back and forth expecting some mistake by Nakamura, but Hikaru showed great confidence and speed to hold the balance.

Two more draws followed and there was only one game left "in regulation" —Armageddon certainly seemed like a real possibility. Nakamura had White and faced MVL's  Grünfeld. Quickly, White got the upper hand, especially after a strange queen manoeuvre by Maxime:

 

The black queen could have gone to b6 or a4 instead of f5 — its awkward placement was the deciding factor in the end. Nakamura started to create a web to trap the queen and managed to end the game with an astounding move:

 

Maxime resigned after 29.Bg4!, as Black cannot save his queen with 29...Qxg4 due to 30.Nh6+. It was a fitting final move to concede the first place to a player that demonstrated confidence and a steady hand in all the rapid and blitz tournaments of this year's tour. In fact, Hikaru did not win a single classical game in the 2018 GCT — he played nine in Saint Louis and four in London. Nonetheless, the commentary team, Fabiano Caruana and Maxime Vachier-Lagrave all agreed that he was a deserving winner. 

Looks good? | Photo: Lennart Ootes / Grand Chess Tour

Hikaru was happy with his final move:

Considering how stressful it was throughout the day, to finish like that feels great.

Nakamura took home the winner's trophy and accumulated $225,000 in this year's GCT. Vachier-Lagrave finished the year with $160,000 in winnings. The Frenchman lost his number one spot in the live blitz ratings list and explained: "Today I didn't pay nearly well enough. [...] In the blitz I definitely wasn't playing up to my standards, I felt".

Caruana's rapid skills

World Championship challenger Fabiano Caruana came from losing two rapid play-offs in London after drawing all the classical games he played at England’s capital. Furthermore, Levon Aronian did not fight to get an advantage with White in the second classical encounter of their match, trusting he would be able to take down Fabiano in rapid and blitz, like Carlsen and Nakamura had done before. 

However, in their second rapid game, after having drawn the first one, Caruana took the lead after showing great strategical skills to convert his positional advantage with the white pieces. Aronian defended with precise moves until he faltered on move 37:

 

Black needed to invite a rook exchange with 37...Rf7 to reach a bishop endgame that was holdable with best play. That is the verdict of the computers, but to take such a decision with a few minutes on the clock is undoubtedly difficult. Levon played 37...f3 instead, trusting that after 38.gxf3 g3 the passed g-pawn would offer enough counterplay. Fabiano, however, showed good technique to convert his extra pawn into a 53-move win that put him four points ahead in the match.

Caruana showed he is also dangerous in rapid and blitz | Photo: Lennart Ootes / Grand Chess Tour

Aronian needed to hit back, and he needed to do it quickly. And that is precisely what he did! He won the first two blitz games to even the score before the final two games.

Game three of the blitz section saw both players going for a line that left theory on move 5. Caruana, with Black, played confidently and handled the singular position effectively until achieving a clear edge on the queenside. He pushed in an opposite-coloured bishops middlegame until a capture sealed the deal in his favour:

 

Black took with 48...Nxd4 and the passed c-pawn decided the game in his favour after 49.cxd4 c3 50.Nf3 Rb2+.

Levon was once again in need of a win, but this time he could not recover from the previous blow and ended up losing the last blitz game for a final score of 16:12. Aronian will be hoping for a better 2019, as he stated:

"Well, it was a terrible year, but being here is good. I hope next year will treat me better".

Levon had a great 2017 but was disappointed with how 2018 went | Photo: Lennart Ootes / Grand Chess Tour

Caruana, on the other hand, showed he can compete in rapid and blitz at the top level. He was happy with his victory, but would have preferred to fight for first place:

"I'm not too proud of third place, but I beat a very strong player. Winning against Levon is always an accomplishment, so I'm very proud of that. But when we're not fighting for first it doesn't feel the same".

Colleagues and friends | Photo: Lennart Ootes / Grand Chess Tour

The GCT gets bigger

In the final day of this year's tour, the organisers announced that the Grand Chess Tour will expand its reach in 2019. A new classical tournament will be played in Croatia, while Asia and Africa will receive the tour for the first time, as rapid and blitz events will be organised both in India and Cote d'Ivoire. Also, it was announced that the prize fund will reach at least 1.5 million dollars and that the minimum number of regular tour participants will be ten. In a year without Olympiad nor a World Championship match, more elite action will be kindly welcomed by the chess community.


Live commentary webcast

Yasser Seirawan, Jennifer Shahade, Maurice Ashley and Alejandro Ramirez


All games - GCT London Classic

 

Gawain Jones impressive in British KO

After winning the second classical game in the final match against Luke McShane, getting a six-point lead before the final day, Gawain Jones impressed by showing great nerves to take advantage of McShane's adventurous play and win the British Knockout Championship with a swashbuckling 21:7 score.

Gawain secured first place with two consecutive wins in the rapid games. In the first one, his rival played a speculative sacrifice that did not quite work:

 

McShane has his pieces concentrated on the kingside, so understandably went for 19...Ngf4 trying to open some lines against the king and take advantage of the dark-squared bishop’s awkward placement. Jones thought for seven minutes before taking with 20.gxf4 and put his bishop in the only safe square available after 20...exf4 21.Ba7.

Luke kept trying to create something against the white king, but Gawain showed remarkable defensive skills and eventually used his piece advantage to force his opponent's resignation.

A friendly handshake before the start | Photo: Lennart Ootes

Already ten points behind in the score, McShane could only afford one draw in a blitz game to tie the match. Therefore, he needed to win the second rapid game. That explains his approach — he played 1.b3 and looked for imbalances at all costs all throughout the game. Nevertheless, Jones played pragmatically and simplified to a position where White's best chance was to go for a perpetual:

 

White could have forced a repetition with 47.Nh7+ Kg8 48.Nf6+ — the black king cannot go to g7 due to the discovered check with d5, nor to the e-file where the rook would pin the queen from e1. That was Luke's only saving line, but he tried to play for more with 47.Qa3+?, only to resign two moves later after 47...Kg7 48.Qb4 Bd7.

The finalists traded two wins apiece in the blitz games. Jones received a £15,000 prize, while McShane took home £10,000.

The champion | Photo: Lennart Ootes

In the duel for third place, Mickey Adams overpowered David Howell by a 16:12 score, after winning the first two blitz games of the match — the rest of the games finished drawn. The veteran received £6,000 for his efforts; Howell was left with £4,000.   

All games - British Knockout 

 

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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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Masquer Masquer 12/20/2018 07:36
Sampru makes an excellent point. More Elo rating diversity --> fewer draws.
Denix Denix 12/19/2018 09:16
Congratulations Hikaru! The tiebreaks are decided on faster time controls. There is big hope for you in the future!
Petrarlsen Petrarlsen 12/18/2018 08:15
Classical games, on the one hand, and Rapid and Blitz games, on the other hand, highlight different qualities: in Classical games, the main element is the quality of the play; in Rapid and Blitz, the ability to play well within a limited amount of time. A top-level Blitz (or Rapid) game is also a well-played game as well as a top-level Classical game, but the time element must be taken into account - obviously, the pure quality of play will be lower, but the level of play isn't lower: to be able to play correctly with an average of 5 to 10 s. per move is also something quite difficult; differently difficult, compared to Classical chess, but nonetheless quite difficult. What a Carlsen, a Nakamura, or a Vachier-Lagrave, for example, do in Blitz is quite a tightrope exercice; what they are sometimes able to do with such a small amount of time is properly incredible.
psamant psamant 12/18/2018 07:18
The comment 'In fact, Hikaru did not win a single classical game in the 2018 GCT' says it all. The GCT has lower standards than the classical tournaments. Rapids and Blitz is fun, non serious chess, where players push pieces, play on instinct, etc. and it gives you the thrills... but doesn't stand up to close scrutiny.
Petrarlsen Petrarlsen 12/18/2018 05:46
For round-robin tournaments, I think that to add some 2600+ players is a quite efficient way of reducing the draw rates (...I don't think there such a mixed-levels tournament have ever resulted in a high draw rate...).

But I think it is better to keep a majority of elite players, because, most of the time, the battle for first place will be between elite players (there aren't there for nothing... Elo points don't come all by themselves...), and it is more interesting if several players can play for the tournament win.
Sampru Sampru 12/18/2018 04:56
I continue to insist that my favourite format is a wide range of players, from élite down to 2500, with the mandatory inclusion of a couple of juniors and maybe a female player, plus a local player, in a 12-person tournament. The élite players would have to take risks against the lower-rated players and we'd have more decisive games and fresh faces. Like some others here, I'm a little tired of the élite inbreeding we've been seeing for years.
Petrarlsen Petrarlsen 12/18/2018 04:27
@ tigerprowl3:

"Why go to London if you aren't going to play British players?"

Following your reasoning, it would have been necessary to transform the last World Championship match into a tournament, with Carlsen and Caruana playing the best British players. The context wouldn't have been very different, as the GCT Final is the "Grand Final" of an international series of competitions, featuring only the players who qualified for the final (as the World Championship match participants).
tigerprowl3 tigerprowl3 12/18/2018 03:46
I don't understand the point in pairing the same players against each other, and I would have liked to have seen the British players play the non-British players. More players outside the "loop" means less chance you will get people to settle for a draw. Gawain Jones beat Aronian this year and it would be interesting to see how they all do against each other with mixed up pairings. They could have done a 4 man match on the internet. Why go to London if you aren't going to play British players?
Petrarlsen Petrarlsen 12/18/2018 03:27
I think that something should be done, for the next GCT Final, to avoid drawing strategies (à la Aronian or Nakamura against Caruana) in the "Classical games" part.

Perhaps simply to play the games in the reversed order: Blitz, Rapid, and, only last, Classical games?

This wouldn't have the negative side that it would have in a Classical match with a playoff (as in the World Championship, for example): in a Classical match with a playoff, if the playoff was to be played before the match, it would necessarily play a part in the final result (as it would give the draw odds to one player), which wouldn't be quite satisfying, because, in this context, Rapid and Blitz skills would take a rather important part in a Classical games' competition. While, here, as the Rapid and Blitz games would anyway be played, it wouldn't have any negative effect, in my opinion...
jsaldea12 jsaldea12 12/18/2018 02:35
A very contagious disease:

Now it is becoming a very contagious disease. Thanks to internet. The world is becoming awaken, aware what kind of disease is all about no doctor can cure. But Nakamura has exposed what this is all about. Congrats Nakamura for winning the London version, but there is still Carlsen on top of the heap waiting on St. Petersburg
Ajeeb007 Ajeeb007 12/18/2018 01:53
"...more elite action will be kindly welcomed by the chess community." Maybe so but not by me. I'm tired of seeing the same old players facing off yet again. I suspect this has something to do with their high drawing rate, and not because they play near perfect chess like Maurice Ashley seems to think. Gibraltar and IOM are much more interesting to watch.
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