GCT Zagreb: Three out of three for Nepomniachtchi

by Antonio Pereira
6/29/2019 – Ian Nepomniachtchi was the sole winner in Zagreb for a second day in a row, as he took down Shakhriyar Mamedyarov with the black pieces at the Croatian Grand Chess Tour. The Russian grandmaster now has a one-point lead over Wesley So and Magnus Carlsen, after the world champion finished on the bad side of a draw against world's number two Fabiano Caruana in the stellar match-up of the day. | Photo: Lennart Ootes / Grand Chess Tour

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Still perfect

Magnus Carlsen is not the only player that is having a remarkable 2019. Ian Nepomniachtchi finished the Tata Steel Masters in shared third place, scored '+2' at the World Team Championship (in six games) and won the first leg of the FIDE Grand Prix in Moscow. His only subpar performance was seen at the Abidjan GCT event, where he did not fare well in the Rapid section. 

And now, in Zagreb, at the second leg of the Grand Chess Tour, he could not have dreamed of a better start, as he is currently leading the event on a perfect 3 out of 3 score. His good results in classical chess have propelled him to the fourth spot in the live ratings list, where he is already closing on the 2800 mark. The fact that all four games that did not have him on one side of the board finished drawn in rounds two and three has helped him get a one-point lead in the standings table.

Results of Round 3
 

Ian Nepomniachtchi, Maurice Ashley

The man of the hour, Ian Nepomniachtchi | Photo: Lennart Ootes / Grand Chess Tour

Nepomniachtchi's rivals from the first two rounds got the upper hand out of the opening, which perhaps incited Shakhriyar Mamedyarov to try something risky right off the bat. The structure that ensued was double-edged, with White having doubled pawns on the d-file and the initiative on the queenside, while Black built up his army on the kingside. Mamedyarov's greedy decision on move 18 was a turning point in the game:

 

Black has just put his queen on h5 and his light-squared bishop is threatening to take on h3. Thus, it was high time White defended his king's position with 18.♔h1 or 18.♔h2, but Mamedyarov was in the mood to go for a win and played 18.xc7. The game continued 18...xh3 19.f1 f8 20.xb7 f6 21.a6, and Black decided to push White to further weaken his pawn structure on the kingside by chasing the queen through light-squared diagonals, starting with 21...c8:

 

After 22.a4 d7 23.d1 g4 White had nothing better than 24.f3, which opens more lines for Black's attack. Three moves later, Mamedyarov tried to muddy the waters with a knight sacrifice:

 

White went for the slightly desperate 27.e5, as after 27...dxe5 28.dxe5 the d and e-pawns combined with the queen and dark-squared bishop might give White some chances. Although this was a perfectly playable alternative for Nepomniachthi, going for 27...h3 was even more alluring, continuing the attack while avoiding unnecessary risks. 

It all went Black's way from that point on and Mamedyarov resigned on move 32.

Ian Nepomniachtchi

Ian Nepomniachtchi building up his attack | Photo: Lennart Ootes / Grand Chess Tour

Not a Sveshnikov

The stellar match-up of round three was the game that faced world's numbers one and two, Magnus Carlsen and Fabiano Caruana, who also were the contenders of the 2018 World Championship match in London. A day after Caruana had employed the Sicilian Sveshnikov — Carlsen's main weapon against 1.e4 during the last semester or so — the world champion steered away from the Sicilian by going for 1.e5. The players delved into a Spanish Opening which left theory on move 12.

Black had the pair of bishops and an active rook in exchange for a pawn, but on move 19 Caruana decided to give back his material edge in order to get some activity:

 

White could have gone for 19.♕f3, defending everything but also allowing Black to further improve his pieces with 19...♜be4. Instead, the American chose 19.c4, when his rival needs to give up his dark-squared bishop if he wants to restore material equality. There followed 19...xe3 20.xe3 xe3 21.fxe3 xc4 and now each of the players had a queen, a rook and bishops of opposite colours.

By move 36, the queens had left the board and it seemed like only White had some chances to fight for more. Not long afterwards, Carlsen offered a rook trade, trusting he would be able to defend the pure opposite-coloured bishops endgame:

 

It did not take long before White's d-pawn and Black's counterpart on the h-file were captured. Around that time, Hikaru Nakamura wrapped up his game against Sergey Karjakin and was interviewed by Maurice Ashley. The US champion declared that he felt White had a winning position, but the commentators thought the endgame was closer to a draw. 

Caruana kept trying until move 68, but Carlsen defended accurately and managed to get the half point. Stalemate put an end to the game:

 

Caruana played 68.f4 and a handshake quickly followed.

Magnus Carlsen, Fabiano Caruana

A modern day classic, Magnus Carlsen vs Fabiano Caruana | Photo: Lennart Ootes / Grand Chess Tour

Players that are tough to beat

After a bloody first round, five out of six games on Thursday and Friday finished peacefully, with elite grandmasters showing good preparation, stubborn defensive technique and some degree of unwillingness to take unnecessary risks. In round three — besides Carlsen and Caruana — the players that fought the longest were Sergey Karjakin and Hikaru Nakamura.

Nakamura played a pet line of his in the Queen's Gambit Declined, which led to him getting an uncomfortable position with the black pieces. Karjakin converted his positional advantage into a tangible one when he chose to go into a rook endgame with 3 v 2 on the same flank:

 

Nobody thought White had much of a chance of winning this endgame, but Karjakin is known for his fighting spirit and kept trying until move 77. Nakamura later declared that these endgames require correct play to keep the balance, but that they should generally end up with the players splitting the point.

Grand Chess Tour Zagreb 2019

The elite of the chess world is back in Croatia | Photo: Lennart Ootes / Grand Chess Tour

Maxime Vachier-Lagrave and Levon Aronian signed their third straight draws of the event, against Ding Liren and Vishy Anand, respectively. Meanwhile, Wesley So only needed 33 moves to get a half point with Black against Anish Giri — the American is currently sharing second place with Magnus Carlsen, thanks to his first round win over Ding Liren.

Anish Giri, Wesley So

Well-prepared pros, Anish Giri and Wesley So | Photo: Lennart Ootes / Grand Chess Tour

Grand Chess Tour Zagreb 2019

A crowded playing hall in Zagreb, with enthusiastic kids in the mix | Photo: Lennart Ootes / Grand Chess Tour

Standings after Round 3

 

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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.