Woes & Wildcards - First Move Chess -First Move Chess

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Spare a thought for the wildcards who played in the opening two legs of the new Grand Chess Tour season. Remarkably, Anish Giri and ex-world champion Vladimir Kramnik, the wildcard picks for Leuven and Paris respectively, and despite being top-level elite stars, were both out of sorts by uncharacteristically misfiring throughout, as they turned in a pair of nightmare performances in each event, and found themselves languishing firmly at the foot of the table in last place.

But all the action and the big bucks are to be found at the other end of the table. After the first two legs in Leuven and Paris, won by Wesley So and Hikaru Nakamura respectively, the American duo have the top two spots in the tour standings: 1. So 21-points; 2. Nakamura 20; 3. Karjakin 19; 4. Vachier-Lagrave 15; 5. Aronian 13; 6. Grischuk 9; 7. Anand 8; 8. Mamedyarov 7; Caruana 4.

The tour circus now moves to the USA for the last two legs of the regular season, with the Saint Louis Rapid and Blitz taking place from 10-16 August, followed by the Sinquefield Cup running through 17-28 August, with the players competing for a prize pool of $300,0000. Also, there’s a new format this year, and the top four tour finishers after the Sinquefield Cup will go on to contest the finals being held as the marquee event of the London Chess Classic in December; and contested over a series of knockout matches that will feature classical, rapid and blitz.

And with perfect timing, at the end of the Paris leg there came the official announcement of the two wildcards who will next enter the fray in Saint Louis: World Champion Magnus Carlsen(!) and Leinier Dominguez. The Cuban No.1 will play in the Saint Louis Rapid and Blitz, while Carlsen will play in the Sinquefield Cup – and this looks likely now to be the last scheduled tournament where the Norwegian will face his challenger, Fabiano Caruana, before their upcoming London title match in November.

Photo: After American victories in Leuven and Paris, So and Nakamura lead the tour standings | © Lennart Ootes (GCT)

GM Vladimir Kramnik – GM Hikaru Nakamura
Paris GCT Blitz, (5)
Neo-Catalan Opening
1.Nf3 d5 2.g3 Nf6 3.Bg2 e6 4.0-0 Be7 5.c4 0-0 6.Re1 c5 7.cxd5 Nxd5 8.d4 cxd4 9.Nxd4 Nc6 10.Nxc6 bxc6 If anything, Nakamura has emerged from the opening with slightly the better of it, with a little lead in development and the strong central knight on d5. But on the downside, long-term his a7 and c6 pawns could be vulnerable in the endgame. 11.Qc2 Qb6 12.Bd2 c5 13.Na3 Bb7 14.Nc4 Qa6 15.Na5 Bc8 16.Rac1 Bd7 17.a3 Bb5 18.e4 Nb6 19.b3 Bd3 20.Qc3 Rac8 21.Bf4 Rfd8 22.Red1 c4 23.bxc4 Na4 24.Qe1? [Woe is the wildcard! It’s the critical moment of the game and, somewhat suspiciously, it looks as if Kramnik has been caught out ‘ghosting’ (seeing something that isn’t there) in a somewhat complex position for blitz, as he inexplicably makes a huge blunder. He had nothing to fear and only had to play 24.Qb3! with an equal game, as Black is more or less forced into the line 24…Nc5 and here 25.Qb5! Qxb5 26.cxb5 Bxb5 27.Rxd8+ Rxd8 28.Be3 Nd3! 29.Rc3 Ne5 30.h3 a6 31.f4 Rd1+ 32.Kh2 Nd7 and equality. But it looks as if Kramnik was caught up in the blitz moment, by opting instead for the very ‘awkward’ retreating queen move, perhaps underestimating the strength of Nakamura next move. 24…Nb2! Nakamura didn’t even have to think twice about this move – it was played almost instantaneously. 25.e5 There’s nothing much else Kramnik can do now, as, embarrassingly for the ex-world champion, the obvious 25.Rd2? allows 25…Bxa3 and a big advantage to Black with his hyperactive pieces and threats to the c-pawn, and ultimately the passed a-pawn will swiftly run up the board. 25…Rc7 26.Qc3 Further proof, if ever needed, that Kramnik’s 24.Qe1 was a lemon – but he just has to suck on it now, as worse was 26.Rd2 Rb8! and White is left in a pickle of what he’s eventually going to do about the stranded Na5? 26…Nxd1 27.Rxd1 Bxc4! [see diagram] With tactical efficiency, Nakamura does a good job of clearing up now. 28.Rxd8+ Bxd8 29.Qd4 Bd5 30.Bxd5 exd5 31.Qxd5 Qc8 32.Nb3 The rest is somewhat academic, as Nakamura ruthlessly clears all the dangers from the board with some timely trades. 32…Be7 33.Nd4 Qd7 34.Qxd7 Rxd7 35.Nc6 Bxa3 36.Be3 a6 37.Kg2 Rc7 38.Nd4 Bc5 39.e6 Bxd4 0-1 Kramnik resigns, as the a-pawn is set to run unhindered up the board.

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