Zagreb GCT: Carlsen amazes with yet another triumph

by Antonio Pereira
7/8/2019 – We saw history in the making, as Magnus Carlsen won his eighth tournament in a row at the second leg of the Grand Chess Tour in Zagreb. The world champion defeated Maxime Vachier-Lagrave from the white side of a Grünfeld to finish in clear first place a full point ahead of his closest pursuer with a 'plus five' score. Carlsen's official rating in August will equal his own peak rating of 2882 points — the highest ever achieved. Wesley So finished in sole second place. | Photo: Lennart Ootes / Grand Chess Tour

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Hats off to the champ

We can already talk of a perfect semester, but it remains to be seen how far Magnus Carlsen can go during the second half of a mind-boggling 2019. The Norwegian won his eighth tournament in a row in Zagreb, where his 8 out of 11 score left him a full point ahead of second-placed Wesley So. Not only did he score five wins with no losses (his undefeated streak has reached 79 games, in fact) but he also missed a couple of winning chances in the meantime. 

In the post-tournament interview, Carlsen talked about how he had never had a chance to show his strength at a lengthy elite event, with most first-class competitions lasting nine rounds. His commanding performance added 9.7 points to his rating, which means he will reach the 2882 mark in the next official list, the highest-ever published rating in history (his own). The world champion also gained 20 GCT points and $90,000 in prize money.

Besides the Norwegian's victory, one more game finished decisively in round eleven — Anish Giri showed better preparation than Ian Nepomniachtchi to get a closing win in Zagreb with the black pieces.

Results of Round 11

Magnus Carlsen

The man of the hour — the day, the month, the year — Magnus Carlsen | Photo: Lennart Ootes / Grand Chess Tour

Carlsen concluded 2018 with a triumph at the World Blitz Championship in Saint Petersburg. There followed first places in 2019 at the Tata Steel Masters, Grenke Classic, Shamkir Chess, Abidjan GCT, Lindores Abbey, Altibox Norway Chess and now the Zagreb GCT. He scored another 2900+ performance in the Croatian capital, extending his undefeated streak to 79 games in classical chess. 

The latest world champion's triumph, naturally, only increased his lead in the overall Grand Chess Tour standings table:

Zagreb Grand Chess Tour 2019

On Sunday, the twelfth day of a jam-packed eleven-round schedule with a single rest day, he had the white pieces against world number five Maxime Vachier-Lagrave. The Frenchman used his pet Grünfeld Defence, and the players followed well-trodden paths until move 13. The queens had already left the board when Vachier-Lagrave took a committal decision after thinking for almost half an hour:


Black voluntarily gave up the bishop pair with 14...xf3. From that point on, Vachier-Lagrave started targetting White's centre, focused on attacking the d4-pawn, while White mobilized his agile bishops through the accessible diagonals. Carlsen was playing precisely, forcing his opponent to make positional concessions with accurate manoeuvres:


White defended the d5-pawn tactically with 20.g5, prompting his opponent to go for the weakening 20...f6. Vachier-Lagrave tried to muddy the waters by advancing his kingside pawns, while Carlsen continued to attack Black's rooks with his bishops. By move 28, the Frenchman's position was critical:


The computer suggests the ugly-looking 28...♜b8 here, keeping a rook on the eight rank. Instead, Vachier-Lagrave chose 28...xd5, and after 29.exd5 e4 30.c8+ White went on to combine threats against the black king with the relentless advancement of his d-pawn until  pushing his opponent to resign on move 37.


Magnus Carlsen

World champion Magnus Carlsen hard at work | Photo: Lennart Ootes / Grand Chess Tour

Before the final round, the only player with a chance to spoil Carlsen's triumph was Wesley So, who had the tough task of facing Levon Aronian with the black pieces in a must-win situation (if he wanted to fight for first). The players delved into a line of the Italian Opening that was recently seen at the Norway Chess supertournament — Anand was White and none other than Aronian had the black pieces.

Both well-known specialists of 1.e4 e5 structures showed their expertise, keeping a dynamically balanced position all throughout. It was not a dull draw by any means.


Wesley So

Wesley So had a great tournament in Zagreb | Photo: Lennart Ootes / Grand Chess Tour

While talking to Maurice Ashley after the game, So expressed his happiness for having finished in second place, which he explained felt like a victory when Carlsen is in the field. The American even went on to compare his colleague's domination to that of Bobby Fischer.  

The Philippine-born took home $60,000 and 15 GCT points, while Aronian shared third place with Fabiano Caruana, thus collecting $35,000 and 11 GCT points.

Levon Aronian

Levon Aronian keeps looking at chess after having faced elite opposition during eleven rounds | Photo: Lennart Ootes / Grand Chess Tour

Giri beats Nepomniachtchi, and other stories

It was a dream start for Ian Nepomniachtchi in Zagreb, getting lucky breaks and showing good chess when it mattered the most to get a 3/3 score in the first phase of the event — the second half of the tournament, however, was not at all memorable for the Russian. On the other hand, Anish Giri did not fare so well at the start, but wins over Shakhriyar Mamedyarov and now 'Nepo' were enough to bounce back to a respectable 5½/11 score. 

Out of a Sicilian, the players got into a sharp tactical battle right off the bat. On move 13, Nepomniachtchi spent a little over five minutes before giving up a piece for an attack:


The game continued 13.xh7 xh7 14.h5+ g8 15.xg6 and White needed to prove his attack was sound if he did not want to suffer later on, when Black's material advantage would become increasingly relevant to the assessment of the position.

Giri hid his king on d7, with a pawn wall on d5-e5-e6 keeping the danger away while he pushed for exchanges whenever possible. His precise calculations in defence kept frustrating White's attempts to find a way to break through until Nepomniachtchi decided to throw in the towel after 36 moves. 


At the post-game interview, Giri jokingly thanked his computer for all the work it has done for him, noting that his opponent probably thought the sacrifice was sound, as the computers show it as good for White before reaching certain depth of analysis.

Anish Giri

A witty character — Anish Giri thanked his laptop | Photo: Lennart Ootes / Grand Chess Tour

The biggest misses of the day were seen in Sergey Karjakin v Fabiano Caruana and Shakhriyar Mamedyarov v Ding Liren. The players that had White in these games — who incidentally are also good friends — failed to make the most of considerably better positions. Nonetheless, we must add that they faced resilient defenders, whose fighting spirits were not hampered by the gruelling eleven-round schedule.


Click or tap the second game in the list below the board to switch games

Fabiano Caruana

Fabiano Caruana saved a half point  | Photo: Lennart Ootes / Grand Chess Tour

Zagreb Grand Chess Tour 2019

A final group photo | Photo: Lennart Ootes / Grand Chess Tour

Final 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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