John Henderson
By John Henderson

After missing out on all the action at the recent Paris Chess Grand Tour – won by local Parisian hero Maxime Vachier-Lagrave – Tour leader Magnus Carlsen returned once more to the fray, as the World Champion topped the 10-player elite bill for the Saint Louis Rapid & Blitz, the opening leg of what on paper looks set to be an exciting GCT double-header that will run through August at the world-renowned Saint Louis Chess Club in Missouri in the American midwest.

But with Carlsen’s return, he didn’t have it all his own way as usual, in what turned out to be a fireworks-fuelled opening day of dramatic action, tactics, sacrifices and decisive games – and amidst all of this, the day all started with the World Champion seeing his 2019 unbeaten streak in rapid games come to an end. In Round 1, Carlsen was outplayed by Ding Liren in what became a complex struggle for the Norwegian, as the Chinese No.1 held his nerve to convert his decisive advantage with a stunning queen sacrifice. The early Carlsen loss – especially against a “good customer”, someone he has a dominant score against – could well blow the tournament wide open, and the likelihood now of a close finish.

Despite the early setback, Carlsen quickly bounced back with two equally dramatic wins against Richard Rapport and Leinier Dominguez respectively, and by the end of the day, he shared second place alongside Ding Liren, with both players on 4/6 – though crucially two points behind the on-fire early leader Levon Aronian, the only player in the tournament with a perfect score of 3/3 and a maximum six points.

There were no fewer than nine exciting, decisive games for the fans to rave about by the end of the opening day, with the standouts including: Ding v Carlsen, MVL v Aronian, Rapport v Carlsen, Carlsen v Dominguez, and pick-of-the-bunch MVL v Rapport that led Tour creator and brainchild Garry Kasparov to enthusiastically tweet: “…a Frenchman playing against the French Defense, in the style of Labourdonnais in a city named for a French king!”

Day 1 standings:
1. Levon Aronian (Armenia) 6/6; 2-3. Magnus Carlsen (Norway), Ding Liren (China) 4; 4-6. Fabiano Caruana (USA), Maxime Vachier-Lagrave (France), Shakhriyar Mamedyarov (Azerbaijan) 3; 7-9. Yu Yangyi (China), Sergey Karjakin (Russia), Richard Rapport (Hungary) 2; 10. Leinier Dominguez (USA) 1. (*In the rapid, a win counts for 2 points and a draw 1 point; blits scores as normal)

Photo: Magnus Carlsen returns – but he doesn’t have it all his own way | © Austin Fuller / Saint Louis Chess Club

GM Magnus Carlsen – GM Leinier Dominguez
St. Louis Rapid & Blitz, (3)
Queen’s Gambit Declined,
1.d4 d5 2.c4 e6 3.Nc3 Nf6 4.cxd5 Nxd5 5.e4 Nxc3 6.bxc3 c5 7.Rb1 Be7 8.h4!?N The new “normal” in the era of AlphaZero! Instead of a standard developing move, such as 8.Nf3, we’re almost living in a time where we can’t tell the difference between a beginner playing here or the world champion, with the caveman plan of h4, h5, queen out, and knight out via h3, all before castling – and in the first 12 moves! 8…0-0 At least Dominguez is brave enough to pick up Magnus’ gauntlet – but could he be castling right into the eye of the storm? 9.h5 h6 10.Qg4 f5 This looks dangerous, as it seems to open too many lines towards the Black king; and indeed, from here in, Dominguez is on the back-foot. But what else is there? The obvious 10…e5 11.Qg3 doesn’t really resolve anything for Black, as he’s still going to be attacked in much the same way as in the game. Some suggested that the best way to go was with 10…Kh8!? but after 11.e5 cxd4 12.Bd3 Qd5 13.Rb5 Qc6 14.Ne2! it looks as if Black is going to be forced to play 14…f5 now anyway to prevent Nd4 shunting the Black queen off the white diagonal before Qe4 winning. 11.Qg3 Kh8 12.Nh3 It’s the route one approach: Ng1-h3-f4-g6+ 12…cxd4 13.Nf4 Kh7 It had become clear by now that Dominguez looked a little rattled, perhaps fearing he had walked right into a line that Carlsen and his team had crunched with Sesse at home – and his fears might well be justified, especially as the engines now indicate that Black’s best try was 13…dxc3 14.Qxc3 and only now 14…Kh7 the subtle difference being that at least Black has temporarily lured the White queen over to the queenside – but even this position looks a tad dangerous to my eyes. 14.Bc4 Pawns are just a mere bagatelle to Magnus in this position – he’s cutting straight to the chase by launching an all-out attack on Dominguez’s king. 14…Bg5 15.0-0 Nc6?! Better looked 15…fxe4!? 16.Nxe6 Bxe6 17.Bxe6 Nc6!? where at least the position looks double-edged with any three results possible after 18.Rxb7 e3!? 16.Ng6! Re8 17.Rd1 Carlsen just has too many active pieces in the game now – and if Dominguez doesn’t do something pretty quickly, his position is in danger of collapsing. 17…Bxc1 18.Rbxc1 Qg5 19.exf5 exf5 That “something” Dominguez had to do was to try to find a way to trade queens. He’s trying his best to do so, but the only trouble is that after 19…Qxg3 20.fxg3 dxc3 21.Rxc3 exf5 22.Bf7! Rd8 23.Rxd8 Nxd8 24.Nf8+! Kh8 25.Bd5! Black is just all tied-up with no way to escape. Now, if 25…f4 26.Ng6+ Kh7 27.Be4 Be6 28.Nxf4+ Kh8 29.Nxe6 Nxe6 30.Bxb7 Rd8 31.Kh2 White not only has an extra pawn for the endgame, but he also has the more active pieces, and the threat next move of Be4 will tie Black’s rook to its own back-rank to prevent any mating aspirations. 20.cxd4 Bd7 21.Qc7? It doesn’t look so obvious, but Magnus, thinking that keeping the queens on here was good for him, has just blundered away his advantage! The clinical win was with 21.Bf7! Re4 22.Qxg5 hxg5 23.d5 Nd8 24.Rc7 Ba4 25.Rdc1 Nxf7 26.Rxf7 Kh6 27.Rcc7! Kxh5 28.Rxg7 and Black’s king is in grave danger, and there’s also the little matter(s) of the d-pawn running/rooks winning more pawns. 21…Rad8? And fortunately for Carlsen, in the heat of battle, Dominguez makes the all-too-human mistake of unwisely opting to defend his bishop, and in doing so, missed his only practical saving shot with 21…Nxd4!! 22.Qxd7 (Unfortunately you can’t take the knight, as 22.Rxd4 Qxc1+ not only picks up the exchange but now after 23.Kh2 Re1! White’s king is in danger of being mated.) 22…Nf3+ 23.Kf1 Nh2+ 24.Kg1 Nf3+ and a draw by perpetual – all relatively easy to see…when you have the engine chugging away in the background, as I have! That said, White does have the humbling retreat 22.Qg3 – but after 22…Qxg3 23. fxg3 Re4 you end up in a rook v two minor piece ending.  Although the engine says White is +1, it’s difficult to win the ending as Black easily gets in …a5 and …b5 to liquidate White’s a-pawn. 22.d5 Nd4 Such are the vagaries of chess!  This comes a move too late now, the difference being that Carlsen can indeed trackback to g3 with his queen to stop …Nf3+ – and any queen-less ending now is going to be bad for Black with White’s passed d-pawn, not to mention the potential Rh8 mating threats. 23.Qg3! Re4 24.Qxg5 hxg5 25.f3 Ne2+ 26.Kf2! Nxc1 27.fxe4 Rc8 28.Rxc1 b5 29.e5! [see diagram] Carlsen finishes the game with a touch of élan, as the central pawns running up the board prove too powerful. 29…Be8 There’s nothing that can be done now. After 29…bxc4 30.e6 Be8 31.d6 Bb5 32.a4 Bxa4 33.d7 the pawns win easily. 30.d6 1-0 Dominguez resigns, as 30…Bd7 31.e6 Bxe6 32.Nf8+! Rxf8 33.Bxe6 Rd8 34.d7 and there’s no stopping Rc8 winning on the spot.


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