He was full of vim and confidence, riding high in the ratings and looking imperiously invincible, but Magnus Carlsen was hit by a dramatic double whammy that brought the world champion crashing back down to Earth by the end of the Saint Louis Rapid & Blitz – the first of two back-to-back Grand Chess Tour legs running through August at the world-famous Saint Louis Chess Club in Missouri – as he turned in what many commentators believe to be the worst tournament performance of his career.
After a bad day at the office in the rapid event, and subsequently losing his Rapid World #1 spot to Maxime Vachier-Lagrave, there was no comeback for Carlsen as his bad run continued through to the blitz event, where another sensational collapse saw the Norwegian having combined loses of 10 of his 27 games to uncharacteristically finish with a poor mid-table performance.
“When things start to go wrong, it is easy to doubt oneself,” commented Carlsen at the end of his ordeal, and who looked clearly stunned. “I tried to play more aggressively rather than trying to play safer, but it doesn’t really seem to work out any more,” he said. “I am constantly doubting myself. I don’t really care any more. I’m just waiting for the classical [the marquee event of the Sinquefield Cup, that kicks-off Saturday] to start.”
Eerily, at the opening press conference, when asked about going for a possible ninth consecutive tournament victory, Carlsen may well have predicted his own demise, noting, “I think once I start playing poorly again people will smell blood, so it won’t be easy.” – and it certainly wasn’t easy, as streak comes to an end at eight consecutive tournament victories, as Carlsen’s poor showing opened the door for what proved to be a most unlike victory for Levon Aronian.
The always affable Armenian contrived to lose twice to MVL in the blitz, and even in the last round, yet he still managed to come away smiling as he top-scored on 22-points to edge out the Frenchman and the Chinese pair of Ding Liren and Yu Yangyi to take the title and maximum Tour points.
Final standings (combined):
1. L. Aronian (Armenia) 22/27; 2-4. Yu Yangyi (China), Ding Liren (China), M. Vachier-Lagrave (France) 21.5; 5. S. Karjakin (Russia) 19.5; 6. M. Carlsen (Norway) 17; 7. R. Rapport (Hungary) 16.5; 8. F. Caruana (USA) 15; 9. L. Dominguez (USA) 13.5; 10. S. Mamedyarov (Azerbaijan) 12. (The rapid scored 2 points for a win and one point for a draw; the blitz scored as normal)
Grand Chess Tour standings & winnings:
1. M. Carlsen ($137,500) 38 points; 2. M. Vachier-Lagrave ($90,000) 33.3; 3. L. Aronian ($72,000) 24; 4. W. So ($75,000) 22; 5. Ding Liren ($49, 833) 21.3; 6. F. Caruana ($52,500) 19; 7. I. Nepomniachtchi ($42,333) 18; 8. S. Karjakin ($33,000) 14.5; 9. H. Nakamura ($40,000) 14; 10. V. Anand ($35,000) 13; 11. A. Giri ($24,833) 8; 12. S. Mamedyarov ($25,000) 7.
Photo: He may have lost twice to MVL (and also in the last round), but Levon Aronian comes out smiling in Saint Louis! | © Crystal Fuller / Saint Louis Chess Club
GM Maxime Vachier-Lagrave – GM Levon Aronian
Saint Louis Blitz, (9)
1.e4 e5 2.Nf3 Nc6 3.Bc4 Bc5 4.c3 Nf6 5.d3 a6 6.0-0 d6 7.a4 Ba7 8.Re1 0-0 9.h3 b5 10.Bb3 b4 11.Nbd2 bxc3 12.bxc3 Na5 13.Bc2 Rb8 14.Nf1 Be6 15.Bg5 h6 16.Bh4 g5 17.Nxg5?!? This is a speculative sacrifice that many lesser-rated players find hard to come to grips with. For an experienced player, in a normal game, the sacrifice and the long-term pin is not so difficult to counter – but in blitz, at any level of chess, this – in practical terms – is an ideal sacrifice to punt! 17…hxg5 18.Bxg5 Kg7 19.Qf3 Rh8 A better way to react was with 19…Rb2 20.Re2 as now 20…Nb3! 21.Rae1 Rh8 22.Ne3 Bxe3 23.Qxe3 Kg6 and you have a better version of what you get in the game. 20.Ne3 Rb2 21.Re2 Kg6? You can understand Aronian wanting to find a way to break the pin – but in his haste to do so, he missed a better tactical solution with 21…Bxe3 22.Qxe3 Ng4! 23.hxg4 f6 24.Qc1 Rxc2 25.Qxc2 fxg5 and Black has the obvious big advantage with the two minor pieces for the rook, not to mention the White king potentially a target down the open h-file. 22.Nf5 Kxg5?! Aronian is either brave or fool-hardy, as 22…Nb3 looked the best way ahead. 23.Qg3+ Stronger was the immediate 23.Bd1! Bxf5 forced, as otherwise, Qg3+ is going to be winning. 24.Qxf5+ Kh6 25.Rxb2 Kg7 26.Rab1 Rh6 and Black still has problems trying to defend his king, as his pieces lack coordination. 23…Kh5 24.Bd1 Bxf5 25.Rxb2+ Kh6 26.exf5 Nh7? Aronian was over the worst of it, but now he errs badly with the wrong knight move. Understandably, he has his heart set on playing …Qg5 to try and trade queens to lessen the danger but has missed an unexpected shot. Had he more time to think carefully here, he would have surely seen that centralising the knight with 26…Nd5! covers the crucial b4 square, threatening …Nf4 or …Nxc3 was the move he had to play, forcing White to work hard to save the game by having to find 27.Bh5!? Qf6 (If you like to live on the edge, Black can take the bishop with 27…Kxh5 but after 28.Qf3+ Kg5 29.Qxd5 Bb6 30.Qxf7 Qf6 31.Qa2! Qxf5 32.Rd1 with d4 coming next, and the king is still wandering around in no man’s land, this is not the scenario you want to have in blitz!) 28.Bf3 Nxc3! 29.Rc2 (The rook lift doesn’t work now: 29.Rb4? Bd4!) 29…Bd4 30.Rac1 Rb8 31.Rxc3 Bxc3 32.Rxc3 e4! 33.Rxc7 exf3 34.Qxf3 and the engines assess this as being “0.00” and equal – but there’s still danger lurking, as Black hasn’t yet managed to secure the king. 27.Rb4! [see diagram] Aronian has missed the rook lift, and now 27…Qg5 loses to 28.Rh4+ Kg7 29.Rxh7+! winning the queen. 27…Ng5 28.Rg4! More clinical than 28.Rh4+ winning. 28…f6 29.h4 Rh7 30.Rb1 Kg7 1-0 Aronian resigns, as he just can’t extricate his king quickly enough from the danger zone with 31.hxg5 Qh8 32.Kf1 Kf8 33.gxf6 Qxf6 34.Rg8+ Ke7 35.Ra8 Bb6 36.Qg8 mating.