As the 2018 Grand Chess Tour season ends in overall victory for Hikaru Nakamura of the US, who beat Frenchman Maxime Vachier-Lagrave in a dramatic final blitz game at the London Chess Classic to take the title and $120,000 winner’s purse (boosting his season earnings to $225,000), everyone in the game is now looking forward to what promises to be an even more exciting 2019 season, with the recent announcements of six regular-season events spread over four continents, an expanded number of players, and even more prize money.
There will be six regular-season events in the 2019 roster. Staying in the rotation will be the rapid and blitz tournaments in Paris and Your Next Move (Leuven), the Sinquefield Cup classical event in St. Louis, and once again the season culminating with the year-ending Final held as the marquee event of the London Chess Classic for the top qualifiers from the regular season.
The Saint Louis Rapid & Blitz tournament is to be replaced by two new rapid and blitz events that will be held in India and Cote d’Ivoire, as well as the addition of a new classical event in Croatia. Ten players will be offered full tour contracts for 2019 and the prize fund will be increased by 42% to $1.5 million. Also appointed as an official sponsorship and branding partner will be Gameplan Sports Pvt. Ltd, one of India’s foremost corporate and sports branding agencies.
Apart from World Champion Magnus Carlsen missing from the tour, the only major criticism of the 2018 season was that it was dominated by too many speed events. Now, with the inclusion of a new classical event in Croatia, and now no back-to-back US events in St. Louis, the 2019 tour looks to have a more balanced schedule – and with the addition of legs in Africa and Asia, a bigger global reach for media/fan appeal.
Three automatic invitations for the 2019 GCT season go to Nakamura, Vachier-Lagrave and Fabiano Caruana as the respective winner, runner-up and third-place finisher in the 2018 season. Further player invitations are expected to be announced early in the new year – and the tweak to the format, additional venues and extra prize money could well tempt Carlsen to rejoin the tour after the Norwegian declined his 2018 invitation to concentrate on defending his title.
Photo: After recent disappointments in speed events in London against Carlsen and Nakamura, Fabiani Caruana rallied to win his final two blitz games to beat Levon Aronian for third-place finisher in the GCT | © Lennart Ootes / GCT
GM Fabiano Caruana – GM Levon Aronian
10th London Chess Classic / GCT Final, (2.4)
Ruy Lopez, Berlin Defence
1.e4 e5 2.Nf3 Nc6 3.Bb5 Nf6 4.d3 This is Caruana’s quieter, less ambitious way to avoid the dreaded ‘Berlin Wall’ endgame that Vladimir Kramnik so famously rehabilitated in 2000 that so bamboozled Garry Kasparov in their title match also in London. 4…Bc5 5.c3 d5 6.exd5 Both players have history this year in the GCT with this line. Back in June, play went 6.Nbd2 0-0 7.0-0 dxe4 8.dxe4 a5 9.a4 Qe7 10.h3 Ne8 11.Re1 Nd6 12.Bd3 Caruana-Aronian, Leuven GCT 2018. 6…Qxd5 7.Bc4 Qd6 8.b4 Bb6 9.Nbd2 0-0 10.a4 Bf5 At Saint Louis 2017, Caruana faced Karjakin’s immediate pawn sacrifice with 10…e4!? But here, Aronian wants a more refined version of Karjakin’s plan. 11.Ba3 e4! This should lead to easy-equality for Black. 12.dxe4 Nxe4 13.Nxe4 Bxe4 14.Qxd6 cxd6 The isolated d-pawn is an easy target – but Black has excellent prospects with the active bishop-pair and better development. 15.0-0-0 Rac8! More ambitious than 15…Bxf2 16.Rxd6 Rac8 17.Bd5 Be3+ 18.Kb2 Bf4 19.Rd7 Nb8 20.Bxb7 Nxd7 21.Bxe4 Rfe8 22.Bf5 Rc7 23.Nd4 which isn’t so clear for Black, as White has a lot of activity for the exchange, and potentially it could become difficult if those queenside pawns start pushing up the board. 16.Bd5! Caruana has to act now to stop Aronian getting a commanding position. 16…Bxd5 17.Rxd5 Ne5 Marginally better than 17…Bxf2 18.Kb2! (Taking on f2 only really works if White falls down the rabbit hole of 18.Rxd6 Na5! 19.Bb2 (Not 19.bxa5? Rxc3+ 20.Kb2 Rxa3!) 19…Nc4 with a big advantage.) 18…Rfe8 19.Rxd6 Bb6 20.Kb3 and White is safe. 18.Nxe5 dxe5 19.Kb2 Bxf2 Also worth a thought was 19…e4!? 20.Re1 f5 21.b5 Rf7 22.Re2 a6 and trying to keep as many pieces and pawns on the board. 20.Rxe5 Bh4 21.Rd1 Bf6 22.Re3 Caruana has weathered the storm and now is very marginally better as his rooks dominate the middle of the board. 22…Rc7 23.b5 Rfc8 24.Bb4 After successfully unravelling his position, Caruana now looks to try and take advantage of his queenside pawns being further up the board. But there’s nothing really in the position – and it only takes a couple of small slips from Aronian for the position to become problematic. 24…h5 25.Kb3 b6 26.Rdd3 Caruana is planning Re3-e4 and then pushing with c3-c4 – but stronger looked like the idea of 26.Rd5! g6 27.a5 Bg7 28.Red3 and following up by trading a set of rooks either on d8 or d7. The ending after a set of rooks gets traded dramatically increases White’s chances of cracking the queenside. 26…g6 27.Re4 Bg7 28.Rde3 f5 29.Re8+ As in the above note, Caruana’s mind is firmly set on trading a set of rooks and looking to win on the queenside. That said, there was much merit to the alternative plan of 29.Re6!? g5!? (This looks like the only try for survival. Not so good is 29…Kh7? 30.h4! Rf7 31.a5 bxa5 32.Bxa5 Bf6 33.Rh3 Kg7 34.c4! and with the queenside pawns running, and the unstoppable threat of Bc3 trading the bishops, Black is in serious trouble here.) 30.Rf3 Rf7 31.h3 Black looks to be hanging on here, but those Black kingside pawns can either save or lose the position – they look vulnerable, and should one drop off, others could follow; but if Black can push them far enough up the board, it could stop White’s plan of pushing his queenside pawns. Both plans of 29.Re8+ and 29.Re6 have their merits – but on the whole, I tend to go with Caruana’s plan. 29…Rxe8 30.Rxe8+ Kf7 31.Ra8 g5 32.c4 Be5 33.h3 g4 34.a5 f4 There really shouldn’t be anything in this position, as both sides are equally pushing pawns on the wings where they have a 3:2 advantage. But things can go wrong. 35.hxg4 hxg4 36.Rf8+ Ke6 37.Bd2 f3?? Far too ambitious from Aronian. Safe and drawing was 37…Ke7 38.Bb4+ Ke6 39.Bd2 Ke7 etc. 38.gxf3 g3 39.axb6 axb6 40.Be3! [see diagram] Both controlling the vital g1 queening square and targeting the weak b6-pawn. Did Aronian simply just miss this move? 40…Rd7 41.Re8+ Kf5 42.Bxb6 Rd3+ 43.Kb4 Rxf3 44.Rf8+ Ke4 45.Rxf3 Kxf3 The bishop ending is easily won for Caruana – all he needs to do is avoid Aronian trading the bishops for a few moves to further push his b-pawn up the board. 46.Bg1 Kg2 47.Bc5 Kf3 48.b6 Ke4 49.b7 White’s bishop and c4-pawn stops Aronian’s king from easily tracking back to cover the queenside. 49…g2 50.Kb5 Bf4 51.Bg1 Bg3 52.Kc6 Be5 53.Kd7 1-0