Levon Aronian leads at Saint Louis start

by Venkatachalam Saravanan
8/11/2019 – "The chess world is a better place when Aronian is playing well!" These words of Garry Kasparov in 2015 reverberated on day one of the Saint Louis Rapid 2019 as the Armenian GM went on to score wins against MVL, Karjakin and Mamedyarov. Aronian now leads the event with a 6.0/6 score. Magnus Carlsen suffered a shock defeat against Ding Liren but came back to score two wins. We bring you an on-site report by VENKATACHALAM SARAVANAN, with photos, player's quotes and analysis.

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"...when Aronian is playing well!"

The event carries a total prize fund of USD $150,000 with the winner's prize being $37,500. The rapid event will be played with the time control of 25 minutes per game per player, with a time delay of ten seconds per move. The blitz event will be played with five minutes per player per game, with a time delay of three seconds per move.

Levon Aronian overcame his jet-lag of arriving just a day before in North America, refused to despair in the face of two minor pieces on the back rank in a scary endgame in the first game, refused to be unsettled by having just 22 seconds on his clock against an opponent hailed as the 'Minister of Defence' in a slightly better endgame in the second and scored a clinical win against Shakhriyar Mamedyarov in the third game — three emphatic wins and thus leads the tournament with six points out of a maximum six. (In the Rapid & Blitz events of the Grand Chess Tour, a win in the Rapid carries two points and one point in the Blitz).

Levon Aronian leads day one with a score of 6.0/6 | Photo: Austin Fuller / Grand Chess Tour

The much awaited Magnus Express started off with a disaster (relatively speaking) when he lost his very first game of the day to Ding Liren. From his modest and self-deprecating humour about his chances in his pre-tournament prediction about stopping the world champion in his excellent current form, the Chinese ace played a beautiful game to score a win in the first round. But Carlsen came back very strongly to win the next two games and trails Aronian with 4 points out of a possible 6.

Everyone is watching the World Champion's play! | Photo: Crystal Fuller / Grand Chess Tour

Equanimity and balance, was the way Aronian's play could be described on the first day of the Saint Louis Rapid & Blitz event. In the first game, he defended a slightly worse position in an endgame, which prompted a quip at his expense from GM Romain Edouard:

Planning to work hard to get [Aronian to] write a book for ThinkersPublishing on how to activate his pieces. Stay tuned!

However, in a post game chat with ChessBase, Aronian claimed he wasn't really perturbed with his position, and benefited from a blunder by Vachier-Lagrave. Asked how he assessed his position with a knight on h8 and bishop on b8, whether he still perceived it as defendable, Aronian announced confidently, “I still feel I was totally fine. I just missed some ideas before that position, that's why I overestimated my position”. And he exploited an unexpected blunder by Vachier-Lagrave — especially with his fine form in the previous leg of the Grand Chess Tour — to score an important win in the endgame:


In the 2nd round, pushing a slight edge in an endgame against the 'Minister of Defence', Aronian benefited from an unexpected blunder:


Aronian’s skilful play is all the more remarkable considering he had only 20 seconds left when they reached move 38. At this point, Aronian looked nervous to me, but he dismissed the idea.

“Not really. Of course, you get nervous because it is the blitz, (and) you don't want to miss anything. But, generally the body language of some players is incredibly nervous, but they are quite chill inside. Like, take Grischuk for example, he almost shows as if he is going to get a heart-attack!”

Levon's third scalp of the day was Mamedyarov | Photo: Crystal Fuller / Grand Chess Tour


Looking back on the day, Aronian agreed that his clock handling was one of the main reasons for his steady play. He came up with a typical Aronian explanation for this: “I am still kind of jet-lagged, so I don't really feel the clock. So I didn't really feel nervous at any point”.

In the first explosion of the day, Magnus Carlsen looked uncharacteristically twitchy against Ding Liren, pulling quizzical faces in the opening itself. He even left the table unexpectedly in the opening phase to visit the toilet, coming back and sort of apologizing to Ding with a simple gesture. But he got into trouble in the middlegame, and never recovered:


A calm Ding — himself coughing often — slowly built up his advantage to score an important victory, which he delightedly claimed was the first in his career against Carlsen with white pieces, in any time control! “When I found the move 24.♖d3! With the idea of 25.♖g3, he is under pressure”, opined Ding Liren.

Ding improved upon his 2:18 head-to-head score against Carlsen | Photo: Austin Fuller / Grand Chess Tour

But Carlsen showed his class, winning the next two games with strong play. After the defeat from the first round, Yasser Seirawan picked 20...g5 as the moment Carlsen started fighting back a little too aggressively — what Poker players would call a 'tilt', when a player starts playing poorly due to prevailing anger, caused by a combination of any number of events, obviously the defeat in the previous round here:


20...g5!? The moment when Carlsen started playing. But how it all developed further reflected his determination in due course:


But by the third round of the day, there were neither tilt nor anger, as Carlsen went on to beat an obviously off-form Dominguez in a beautifully creative game, provoking a random spectator to shower praise on him: 

Kasparov aptly picked the pivotal moment:


8.h4!? 0-0 9.h5!? h6 10.g4! Earning Kasparov's praise.

Playing seemingly easy moves, Carlsen coasted to a smooth victory: 


It almost doesn't look like a game between top players of the planet! Simply, there is an ocean of a difference between both sides' pieces. Carlsen went on to win the game easily.

Seirawan aptly described Carlsen's moves as 'nettlesome', borrowing a term used by Jonathan Rowson to describe erstwhile Kasparov's play. The mysterious British term simply means 'irritating' — a common term elsewhere!

Commenting on his play, Carlsen admitted that 'anybody could see that this was far from his best day'. “I will just focus on playing better in the remaining games and everything will be fine!” So, nothing to worry about for the world champion, it's all part of life.

One of the best efforts of the day came from Maxime Vachier-Lagrave, the winner of the Paris leg of the GCT, who sacrificed his queen for two pieces in a topsy-turvy game to win against Richard Rapport. Vachier-Lagrave's play came in for tongue-in cheek praise from Aronian, who commented on his good buddy's play as, “Yes! Beautiful game — I am proud of him!” Vachier-Lagrave's final position in the game was humorously described by Aronian as “You can see that we have learned this (kind of play) from Bughouse — advanced pawns are a threat!”

It's always a pleasure to see Aronian in a good mood! | Photo: Austin Fuller / Grand Chess Tour


The players' refreshments are ready | Photo: Crystal Fuller / Grand Chess Tour

The chess fever is growing in Saint Louis! | Photo: Crystal Fuller / Grand Chess Tour

Now those are some really battle hardened pieces! | Photo: Austin Fuller / Grand Chess Tour

Current standings


Results of Rounds 1-3


Live commentary by GM Yasser Seirawan, GM Maurice Ashley and WGM Jennifer Shahade
from 18:00 UTC (20:00 CEST, 14:00 EDT)

All games


Please Note: Detailed analysis by IM Saravanan Venkatachalam will be uploaded later in the day.


Saravanan is an IM from Chennai, the southern-most state of Tamil Nadu, India. He has been an active chess player in the Indian circuit, turning complete chess professional in 2012, actively playing and being a second to strong Indian players. He has been consistently writing on chess since late 1980s and is a correspondent to national newspapers and news channels.


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