As the popular Geoffrey Chaucer idiom decrees it, all good things must come to an end, and that even includes the mighty Magnus Carlsen, who after a disastrous final two days of rapid play at the Saint Louis Rapid & Blitz being staged at the world-renowned Saint Louis Chess Club in Missouri, the World Champion not only looks set to see his tournament winning-streak come to a grinding halt but also, in the process, a dramatic rating collapse that will now see the Norwegian sensationally being knocked off his perch as the World No.1 in rapid.
Day two was nothing short of an unmitigated disaster for Carlsen – and even arguably his worst day since he became the World No.1. Looking unfocused and out of sorts, he was outplayed in successive rounds by Fabiano Caruana and Levon Aronian, losing to both; and then had to fight all the way to salvage a draw with China’s Yu Yangyi. And despite starting Day 3 by beating Maxime Vachier-Lagrave, there was no comeback as he then lost to Sergey Karjakin and had to salvage a draw against Shakhriyar Mamedyarov.
But the damage had well and truly been done: Carlsen found himself in the unfamiliar territory of languishing five-points adrift from co-leaders Aronian and MVL. Worse, his rating had gone into virtual free-fall, dropping nearly 40 rating points, while MVL had gained almost 24 points, and the Frenchman will officially become the new World No.1 in rapid with the publication of the September FIDE Rating List.
You can never say die with Carlsen, but he looks now to have too much ground to make up going into the blitz for what would be a remarkable comeback to continue his tournament winning-streak – and if so, his run of eight consecutive tournament victories looks set to end in Saint Louis. But as one tournament winning-run ends, another could well be starting.
Hard on the heels of his recent home win at the Paris GCT, MVL’s play in Saint Louis has been nothing short of revolutionary – a French Revolution, you might say! – with his games always exciting to watch, and the Frenchman could well be inspired now to go on to win in Saint Louis – possibly even knock Carlsen off the lead in the GCT standings – and virtually guarantee a place in the four-player GCT Final in December at the London Chess Classic.
MVL is the player ‘most likely’, as the saying goes, to willingly fall down a rabbit hole for a wild ride of a game. And one of his more creative and highly-entertaining efforts, against the equally creative – and a more than willing partner-in-crime in the rabbit hole department! – Richard Rapport (see today’s game), even had Tour creator and brainchild Garry Kasparov enthusiastically tweeting: “…a Frenchman playing against the French Defense, in the style of Labourdonnais in a city named for a French king!”
Rapid final standings:
1-2. L. Aronian (Armenia), M. Vachier-Lagrave (France) 13/18; 3-4. Ding Liren (China), Yu Yangyi (China) 10; 5-8. F. Caruana (USA), S. Karjakin (Russia), R. Rapport (Hungary), M. Carlsen (Norway) 8; 9. L. Dominguez (USA) 7; 10. S. Mamedyarov (Azerbaijan) 5. (In the rapid, a win counts for 2 points, 1 point for a draw; blitz will score as normal)
Photo: He may be laughing, but can MVL make it two back-to-back GCT victories? | © Austin Fuller / Saint Louis Chess Club
GM Maxime Vachier-Lagrave – GM Richard Rapport
Saint Louis Rapid & Blitz, (3)
French Defence, Advance variation
1.e4 e6 2.d4 d5 3.e5 Normally at elite-level, you would see the more popular option against the French, such as 3.Nd2 or 3.Nc3 but rarely the Advance Variation – however, at club-level, this is still a very popular way to meet the solid French Defence. 3…c5 4.c3 Nc6 5.Nf3 Qb6 6.a3 c4 Designed to stop White playing b4 – and with it, we now get the dynamic struggle of the kingside attack versus the queenside attack. 7.Nbd2 Na5 8.g3 Bd7 9.h4 0-0-0 10.Bh3 Some may wonder why not 10.Bg2, but the truth is that White’s bishop would just be biting into granite on d5. From h3, White has long-term plans to play f4-f5 to weaken e6. 10…Kb8 Prophylaxis, pure and simple as Rapport just wants to move his king off the h3-c8 diagonal, just in case of any breakthrough accidents with the Bh3. 11.0-0 h6 12.Re1 Ne7 13.Rb1 Nc8 14.Nf1 Qc7 15.h5 Black’s strategy here is to try and trade pieces and head to the ending, as in the ending, White’s queenside pawn structure could well be a liability. So for White, the plan is to prevent trades by keeping as many pieces as possible on the board; trying to make some headway on the kingside with his pieces. 15…Nb6 16.Be3 Ba4 17.Qe2 Be7 18.N3h2 Here comes White’s reply: push f4, get his knights on e3 and f3, and push on with f5. 18…Qd7 19.f4 g6 20.Bf2 Rdg8! With White’s queenside paralysed, Rapport has the upper-hand and now turns his attentions to how things might break on the kingside. This is all a risky strategy for MVL because if he mistimes his breakthrough, Black’s rooks will be ready to strike down the g-file. 21.Ne3 Nc6 22.Kh1 Bd8 23.hxg6 If MVL doesn’t play this now, then Black could have …Ne7xg6 and then push …h5-h4 to open the g- and h-files for his rooks to pile pressure on the White king. 23…fxg6 24.Qg4 Qh7 25.b3! Well-timed! This is the sort of dynamic play you would expect from these two adventurous players – so fasten your seatbelts, because things are now set to take a dramatic wild turn. 25…cxb3 Safer was capturing with 25…Bxb3 26.Qxe6 Re8 27.Qg4 h5 28.Qe2 Be7 29.Be6 h4! with chances for both sides. But Rapport adds a little more spice to the game, and MVL doesn’t think twice about accepting his invite! 26.Qxe6 Nxd4 27.cxd4 Bd7 28.Qxd7?!?! Well, this is going to get messy – and we don’t mean in the silky skills way of the Barcelona & Argentina soccer striker! The “safe” option was 28.Qd6+ Bc7 29.Qc5 Bxh3 30.Nxd5 Be6 31.Nf6 Nd7! 32.Qxc7+ Kxc7 33.Nxh7 Rxh7 but where’s all the fun in that? 28…Nxd7 29.Rxb3 This is where you have to sit back and take stock of the position and the dramatically changed circumstances. Sure, all the engines will tell you Black has a big material advantage here – but if d5 falls, and White can quickly mobilise his pieces to attack, then it will not be so easy for Black to defend. 29…Nb6 30.a4 The d5-pawn is more important than the a-pawn. 30…Nxa4 31.Nxd5 g5 Opening the kingside looked right, but I think I would have preferred instead to consolidate first with 31…Nb6 32.Nxb6 Bxb6 33.Ng4 Qd7! 34.Kh2 although the position is still “tricky” for Black, despite the engines giving it a big -2 assessment. 32.f5 g4 33.Bg2 Nb6 34.Ne3 h5 Rapport just wants to bludgeon the kingside open before MVL can co-ordinate his pieces and pawns. But kudos to MVL for voluntarily agreeing to go down the rabbit hole – it is not every day you see an elite-level game with such a wild material and positional imbalance! 35.f6 h4 36.Kg1 Bc7 37.Rc1 Qd7 38.Rd1 hxg3 39.Bxg3 The trouble for Rapport, is that although he now has lines open on the kingside, MVL’s pieces are all working together as a unit, both simultaneously attacking and defending. 39…Rh3?! Rapport’s ‘phantom attack’ proves to be a wasted move, just giving MVL a crucial tempo to mobilise his forces. He needed to bring some coordination to his pieces, and better was 39…Rg5! with the idea of 40.Rc3 Rc8! to contest the c-file. 40.Nhf1! Rh5? Rapport blinks, and with it, MVL’s pieces now spring to life. The engines all think Black is “better” here, and want to play the unhuman-like 40…Ka8 followed by …Bb8, as it will be too dangerous for White to take the rook. Although the engines still believe Black to have the upper hand here, in practical terms it is much easier – and more fun! – to play the White side of the ride. 41.Rc3! [See diagram] With one very accurate and good move, the pendulum has very dramatically swung in the favour of MVL. 41…Rc8 42.Rdc1 The big threat is 43. Rxc7 Rxc7 44.Rxc7! and no answer to e6. 42…Qxd4 43.Rxc7! Rxc7 44.e6 Two passed pawns on the sixth rank beat everything up to a royal flush, according to the Aussie GM and chess writer Ian Rogers! 44…Rhc5 The pawns win in all lines now. If 44…Qxf6 45.Rxc7! Re5 46.Nxg4! is killing. 45.Rxc5 Qxc5 46.e7 Qh5 47.Nf5 All roads lead to Rome here, but the clinical path to get there was with 47.Bd5! Nc8 48.Be6 Qg6 49.Bd7! and one of the pawns will queen. 47…Nc8 48.N1e3 Qg6 49.Nd5 Rapport’s last hope now evaporates, as MVL both defends f6 and further attacks the pinned rook. 49…Qxf5 50.Bxc7+ 1-0