Zagreb GCT: Carlsen grabs the lead

by Antonio Pereira
7/4/2019 – A big blunder by Ian Nepomniachtchi gave his round seven rival, Magnus Carlsen, a second straight win at the Croatian Grand Chess Tour in Zagreb. Thanks to this victory, Carlsen is now in sole first place on 5 out of 7. The rest of the games finished drawn — three of them were rather lifeless, while Fabiano Caruana and Anish Giri fought on until move 54 and Sergey Karjakin missed a simple chance to take down former co-leader Wesley So. | Photo: Lennart Ootes / Grand Chess Tour

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The perennial favourite

When Garry Kasparov was asked to comment about Ian Nepomniachtchi's strong start in Zagreb, he explained that he still thought Magnus Carlsen was the favourite, as the world champion had not yet faced his Russian colleague. About a week later, the results in Croatia have proved Kasparov's prediction right, after Nepomniachtchi lost two in a row and now shares third place while Carlsen got two straight wins (the latest against 'Nepo') and is now alone atop the standings table.

The main clash of the day saw Nepomniachtchi and Carlsen closing up the position out of the opening and getting into a battle of manoeuvres that seemed to be destined to either lengthen the struggle or eventually finish in a draw. Out of the blue, on move 27, however, Nepomniachtchi blundered, allowing Carlsen to get the full point only four moves later. By that time, four draws had already been signed, including Sergey Karjakin vs Wesley So, where the Russian missed a huge chance to score. Fabiano Caruana and Anish Giri were still playing but also split the point later on. 

Results of Round 7

Magnus Carlsen

World champion Magnus Carlsen got his first win ever over Ian Nepomniachtchi | Photo: Lennart Ootes / Grand Chess Tour

Before today's match-up, world champion Magnus Carlsen had never defeated Ian Nepomniachtchi in a classical game — furthermore, the Russian had beaten the Norwegian star four times, in '02, '03, '11 and '17. So, given the recent rise of Nepomniachtchi in the ratings list and their aforementioned personal record, it is not out of place to call Russia's number one a likely threat to Carlsen's supremacy.

But in Zagreb things went the world champion's way. Out of a Sicilian, a structure arose similar to one seen in a game between Carlsen and Maxime Vachier-Lagrave. When the Frenchman was interviewed by Maurice Ashley after his draw with Shakhriyar Mamedyarov, he assessed the position as not worse for White, but also confessed that he had found a way to get in trouble in said game. 

It must be added that the world champion had much more time on the clock than his opponent, someone who is well-known for playing particularly quickly.

Ian Nepomniachtchi, Shakhriyar Mamedyarov

Some players featured new haircuts after the rest day — here Ian Nepomniactchi and Shakhriyar Mamedyarov | Photo: Lennart Ootes / Grand Chess Tour

The pawn structure was practically shut down on the kingside by move 25:


Carlsen was the one looking for breaks, as he played 25...c4 here. The game continued 26.xf4 exf4 27.ad1, and the world champion decided it was time to speculate a bit with 27...f5:


28.exf5 is perfectly playable after the pawn push, as White can neutralize the infiltration of Black's queen through the e-file. But Nepomniachtchi opted for 28.gxf5, a massive blunder which was swiftly punished by his formidable opponent:


The point is that Black can play 28...g4, opening up the d8-h4 diagonal for his queen. Nepomniachtchi, after thinking for a little over three minutes, continued with 29.d4, and here came 29...h4+ 30.e2 h2+ 31.f2:  


The Russian resigned after 31...gxf3+, as White is losing material in all lines.

Ian Nepomniachtchi, Magnus Carlsen

It is over | Photo: Lennart Ootes / Grand Chess Tour

A big miss for Karjakin

It often happens to coffee-house players that, right after the game, when it is time to leave the playing hall, a realization comes to mind: there was a winning shot that went unnoticed. This rarely happens on the elite, especially when the winning combination is a simple, forcing capture. In round seven, Sergey Karjakin only noticed what he had missed when he was talking to Maurice Ashley after the game.

Wesley So played a Berlin Defence and everything was going according to plan until the middlegame — the position seemed dynamically balanced, it was a normal grandmaster fight. Suddenly, however, So gave his opponent an unexpected gift:


Karjakin played the innocuous 21.e2 instead of 21.♖xf5 — of course, after 21...♜xf5, 22.♕xg4+ would follow and White would get back the piece and continue the game two pawns to the good; also, in case of 21...♝xh2+, 22.♔xh2 is bad due to 22...♛h4+, but 22.♔h1 gives White a large advantage.

The game continued, and Karjakin never realized what he had missed while at the board. The draw was signed on move 30 after a triple repetition:


Wesley So, Sergey Karjakin

Wesley So analyses the game on the computer while Maurice Ashley interviews Sergey Karjakin | Photo: Lennart Ootes / Grand Chess Tour

Wesley So

The American is in sole second place | Photo: Lennart Ootes / Grand Chess Tour

The longest game of the round was seen in Fabiano Caruana vs Anish Giri. A strategical battle left Black with a slightly more comfortable position in the middlegame, but Caruana never lost control, and the draw was signed after 54 moves. The rest of the games lasted between 27 and 31 moves, as the players showed good preparation and cautious play after the rest day.

Sole leader Magnus Carlsen will play with Black against Ding Liren in the eighth round, while Wesley So — the only player chasing half a point behind — will have the white pieces against Hikaru Nakamura.

Anish Giri

Anish Giri is on 2½/7 | Photo: Lennart Ootes / Grand Chess Tour

Standings after Round 7


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Commentary by GM Yasser Seirawan, IM Jovanka Houska and GM Alejandro Ramirez

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Round eight takes place on Thursday, July 4th at 16:30 CEST (14:30 UT / 10:30 AM EDT).



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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