The rapid portion of the first leg of the Grand Chess Tour came to an end in Paris, and what a day it was!
Report by WGM Tatev Abrahamyan
Going into the second half of the event, world champion Magnus Carlsen was tied for first place with American GM Hikaru Nakamura. On paper, Carlsen had an easier schedule as two of his remaining four opponents were the lowest rated players in the tournament—Laurent Fresinet and Veselin Topalov, who had really been struggling to find his form.
On the other hand, Nakamura had to yet to play Maxime Vachier-Lagrave, who was trailing right behind him, Levon Aronian and Fabiano Caruana. After a dramatic day of some really nail biting games and close calls, Nakamura was able to score a phenomenal 3.5/4, surpassing the world champion and clinching first place.
Carlsen seemed to be happy about his result but he must really be regretting his first round carelessness of letting his time run out costing him a full point. Nonetheless, both played some fantastic chess and were worthy top 2 finishers.
Magnus Carlsen started the day off right by beating Veselin Topalov, who had really struggled the day before. Magnus simply outplayed his opponent by putting his pieces on good squares and going after Topalov’s weaknesses.
Nakamura did not manage to put too much pressure on his compatriot Wesley So and drew the game, giving Carlsen the lead.
Anish Giri managed to break his streak of draws and beat Fressinet in less than 25 minutes, punishing the Frenchman for forgetting about king safety.
U.S. Champion Fabiano Caruana couldn’t shake off yesterday’s mediocre result and lost a very complicated game to Maxime Vachier-Lagrave with the white pieces.
Vladimir Kramnik and Levon Aronian played a rook endgame, where Kramnik’s extra pawn wasn’t anything significant and eventually drew the game.
Carlsen was unable to beat Giri, who not only has a reputation for not losing many games but also for having a plus score against the world champion! In a postgame interview Giri explained that Carlsen stays away from main openings and plays rare sidelines that are generally viewed as non-threatening. However, unlike the other players, Giri was alert from move one as Carlsen always finds some kind of weakness in the position, even when the computers think it’s nothing.
In order to find some active play, Vachier-Lagrave gave up couple of pawns to Nakamura, which the four-time U.S. champion had no problem converting into a full point to catch up with the leader.
The round was disappointing for the French fans, as Kramnik found a very pretty tactic to free his pieces and almost checkmated Fressinet. The Frenchman resigned facing the inevitable.
Aronian and Caruana played a very interesting strategic game, but after many misses and inaccuracies from both side, Aronian prevailed. Topalov recovered a little bit with a draw against Wesley So in a pretty even game.
This was the most dramatic round, as we finally saw a change in the standings. Having the slight edge, Nakamura put enough pressure until Aronian had to give up a pawn. Nakamura had no trouble in the rook endgame and won a clean game.
On the other hand, Carlsen had quite the adventurous game against Fressinet, who interestingly enough has been his second during a world championship match. Carlsen had a winning advantage with his king marching all over the board and collecting his opponent’s pawns, but after several imprecise moves, Fressinet survived miraculously.
The Parisian fans had to pleased as Vachier-Lagrave scored yet another win with the Black pieces against Topalov. Winning one game with the Black pieces as this level is impressive; Vachier-Lagrave’s feat of 3.5/4 is nothing short of phenomenal.
Kramnik played a beautiful positional game maneuvering his pieces around to perfect squares to score the full point against Caruana.
Anish Giri drew Wesley So quickly and offered his insights about the Fressinet vs. Carlsen game. He joked that anyone who has ever worked with Carlsen worships him because they know firsthand how great he is whereas he has never worked with Carlsen and therefore has no idea and doesn’t fear him as much. Now that he has revealed his secret, maybe we will see a collaboration between the two.
Going into the last round, Nakamura had the lead over Carlsen and the Black pieces against Caruana. Carlsen had the White pieces against Kramnik, who was a striking distance behind.
Nakamura could have secured at least a tie for the first place with a draw. Carlsen proved yet against why he is a world champion by winning in a typical Carlsen fashion of getting a slight edge in the endgame and slowly building up his position until his opponent collapsed. Carlsen called his score “very good” and his play “decent”. He didn’t dwell on his first round fiasco and seemed quite pleased after the game.
The game between the two Americans was a real nail biter. ‘Nakamerica’ and ‘Fabination’, the nicknames the two earned on social media, battled it out until the very last second keeping the fans, commentators and the world champion on the edge of their seat. The tides turned many times but, as Nakamura put it, they both made many mistakes but Caruana made the last one. Thanks to his second to last mistake, Nakamura emerged as the winner. The U.S. champion simply couldn’t find his form as he walked into a mating net and had to resign.
In the remaining games, Aronian beat Topalov and Wesley So beat Fressinet. In the postgame interview, So said that rapid is the most sophisticated form of chess. Players have enough time to think but not enough to think deeply. It’s a mixture of “good playing chess” and “fast playing chess.”
The only draw was between Vachier-Lagrave and Giri, who played the wildest game of the round. At different points of the game the commentators thought that one of them would get checkmated, but they both survived and split the point.
Many congratulations to the winner of the rapid, Hikaru Nakamura, who played very high level of chess and showed nerves of steel. Over the next two days, the players will battle it out in the double blitz portion of the event, where they will face each other twice with both colors and faster time controls. The weekend promises to be thrilling for the chess fans!