The World Champion, Magnus Carlsen, started Day 3 of the Saint Louis Rapid & Blitz in much the same way as he stormed day two, as he continued his winning streak by beating 17-year-old Alireza Firouzja to make it four-in-a-row, further extending his lead at the top. But just when everyone expected the Norwegian to run away with the tournament, it dramatically turned into a two-horse race as he hit the buffers.
Another teen on the rise, Jeffrey Xiong came close to beating Carlsen in round 8, but his young opponent lost his way amidst a frantic mutual time scramble in a very complex position, as he let Carlsen escape with a draw with just seconds left on his clock. And with Carlsen’s winning streak coming to an end, this allowed nearest rival Wesley So to play catch-up by beating Levon Aronian.
But the best was saved to last, and the final day of the Rapid witnessed high-drama as Carlsen lost to Alexander Grischuk, as the Russian managed to successfully outwit the world champion with a near-flawless performance. And with it, the lead dramatically change hands, as an unbeaten So turned up the heat by beating Pentala Harikrishna.
But with So only carrying a slender one-point lead over Carlsen heading into the double-round of Blitz, and the chasing pack off the pace, we now have a two-horse race between the runaway leaders. And indeed, in-between some remarkable thrills ’n’ spills, that’s how the first day of the Blitz unfolded, with the lead shared and changing hands between So and Carlsen, only for the Norwegian to just get in front with an even more slender half-point advantage, as the two go neck-and-neck down the home stretch.
Rapid final standings:
1. Wesley So (USA) 13/18; 2. Magnus Carlsen (Norway) 12; 3-4. Ian Nepomniachtchi (Russia), Alexander Grischuk (Russia) 10; 5-7. Pentala Harikrishna (India), Hikaru Nakamura (USA), Levon Aronian (Armenia) 9; 8. Jeffrey Xiong (USA) 7; 9. Leinier Dominguez (USA) 6; 10. Alireza Firouzja (FIDE) 5.
Blitz Day 1 combined standings:
1. M. Carlsen, 18.5/27; 2. W. So, 18; 3. I. Nepomniachtchi, 15; 4-5. H. Nakamura, A. Grischuk, 14.5; 6-7. P. Harikrishna, L. Aronian, 12.5; 8. J. Xiong, 11.5; 9. L. Dominguez, 9.5; 10. A. Firouzja 8.5.
Photo: The body language says it all, as a shocked Carlsen crashes to Grischuk | © Saint Louis Chess Club live stream
GM Alexander Grischuk – GM Magnus Carlsen
St. Louis Rapid & Blitz, (9)
1.e4 c5 2.Nf3 d6 3.d4 cxd4 4.Nxd4 Nf6 5.Nc3 g6 This must have come as a big surprise from Grischuk, as Carlsen is not known to being a Sicilian Dragon aficionado. 6.Be3 Bg7 7.f3 The crux of the problem for Dragon diehards is the Yugoslav Attack and Bobby Fischer’s maxim of prising open the h-file with h4-h5 and “sac, sac…mate!”. 7…a6 Another surprise, as this is neither one thing nor the other, a genuine cross between two of the sharpest Sicilians in the box, the Dragon and the Najdorf, a hybrid imaginatively christened the “Dragondorf”. 8.Qd2 h5 The early 8…b5 is thought to be too risky. 9.Bc4 Nbd7 10.Bb3 Nc5 11.0-0-0 Grischuk continues in the traditional Yugoslav Attack plan – but what’s not to like here, as all his pieces are now developed, his king has safely castled and his rooks connected? 11…b5 12.Kb1 A necessary little bit of prophylaxis, as not only does it get the king off the potentially dangerous semi-open c-file, but with Black playing …h5, suddenly in the mix there are possible tricks of …Bh6 potentially pinning queen and king. 12…Bb7 13.a3N A novelty from Grischuk. Previously, the way ahead for White has been the standard plan of 13.Nd5 Rc8 14.Bg5 e6 15.Nxf6+ Bxf6 16.h4 with a dynamic struggle ahead for both sides. That said, I’m amazed in the age of AlphaZero-thinking that the speculative engine punt of the remarkable 13.Nf5!? hasn’t been tested yet. The idea being that 13…gxf5 14.Bxc5 and Black is more or less forced into 14…Nxe4!? (The bishop is taboo: if 14…dxc5? 15.Qg5! Bh6 16.Rxd8+ Rxd8 17.Qxf5 c4 18.Nxb5! and Black’s in trouble.) 15.Nxe4 fxe4 16.Qg5 Be5 (It’s not so obvious, but 16…Bf6? 17.Qf4! and Black is on the verge of imploding, with Bxd6 being the main threat.) 17.fxe4 Qc8 18.Bd4 Qg4 19.Qd2 and Black is walking a tightrope with no obvious safe haven for his king. 13…Nxb3 14.cxb3 Rc8 The most natural, Sicilian-like move. 15.Nc2 A somewhat strange but strategical retreat from Grischuk, who is looking to stop …d5 blowing the game open for Black’s double fianchettoed bishops. 15…Qc7 16.Bd4 Yet again looking to further clampdown on any …d5 breakout for Carlsen. 16…0-0 Grischuk’s stifling plan has clearly flummoxed Carlsen, who misses his best shot for dynamic equality with 16…e5! 17.Bf2 (It’s much the same for 17.Be3 ) 17…d5!? forcing 18.Nxd5 Nxd5 19.exd5 Bxd5! 20.Qxd5 Qxc2+ 21.Ka2 and only now 21…0-0 with complete equality. But in missing his “moment”, Carlsen suffers. 17.Qf2! Yet again another nice prophylaxis touch from Grischuk, as the Russian not only removes his queen from the centre opening up but by linking up with his bishop, he gains a vital tempo. 17…e5 Such are the vagaries of chess, as this breakout comes just a move too late. Objectively he should have tried 17…e6 but after 18.Rhe1 d5 19.e5 Nd7 20.f4 Nc5 21.Bxc5 Qxc5 22.Qe2 Black’s bishops will be locked out of the game – but Carlsen doesn’t like being squeezed, so rather than that, he opts instead for desperate measures. 18.Bb6 Qd7 19.Nb4! Grischuk totally dominates the all-important struggle for the control of the d5 square. 19…Rxc3!? Carlsen simply had to act fast, because if Grischuk managed to establish a knight on d5, Black’s game will be strategically lost. And at least with this exchange sacrifice, Carlsen does create some vague chances to keep his hopes alive of saving the game. 20.bxc3 Qe6 21.Kb2 Rc8 Now …d5 comes with some dangerous tricks – but Grischuk stays calm and easily fights off Carlsen’s imaginative attack from nowhere. 22.Ba5! Not just stopping the awkward …a5, but more importantly indirectly defending the potential weak-point of c3. 22…d5 23.Qa7! Grischuk stays brave, and with it, Carlsen’s position is on the verge of collapse. 23…Ba8 24.Nxa6 Again the best move, as Grischuk’s knight plugs the danger on the half-open c-file. 24…Bf8 Even the tactics were working in Grischuk’s favour. After the more obvious punt of 24…dxe4 25.Nc7 Qc6 there comes 26.Nxa8 Rxa8 27.Qxa8+! Qxa8 28.Rd8+ winning, hence the need to cover the back-rank with the bishop retreat. But it is all to no avail for Carlsen. 25.Nc7 Carlsen’s attack has been thwarted, and in its wake, his position will now soon collapse. 25…Qe7 26.Nxb5 Qe8 27.Nc7 Qe7 28.Bb6! [see diagram] It’s effectively ‘game over’ now: The c-file has been successfully plugged, and a3 is also defended now by the White queen. 28…dxe4 Desperate times call for even more desperate measures from Carlsen, but with the forced trade of queens, his position is simply resignable. 29.Nxa8 Qxa7 30.Bxa7 Rxa8 31.Bf2 Bxa3+ With the queens on the board, there would still be danger for White. But sans the ladies, no such worries for Grischuk. 32.Kc2 Be7 33.Ra1 Rc8 34.Rhd1 Only a little typical Grischuk time-trouble drama allows Carlsen to play on for a few more moves. 34…exf3 35.gxf3 e4 36.fxe4 Nxe4 37.Bd4 f5 38.Kb2 Kf7 39.b4 g5 40.Kb3 g4 41.Ra7 Ke6 42.Ra6+ Kf7 43.c4 Bd6 44.Bg1 Ke7 45.c5 Be5 46.Rd5 1-0