The title of course comes from one of the many memorable and iconic lines in Michael Curtiz’s fabled 1942 movie Casablanca, but here it’s not so much as an ode to Rick and Ilsa’s ill-fated romance in the City of Love, but rather for the welcomed post-pandemic return of over-the-board action and the opening leg of the Grand Chess Tour’s Paris Rapid & Blitz.
The tournament is split into two, a rapid and a blitz (with wins in the rapid counting double) and time-sharing wildcards Etienne Bacrot (rapid) and the former Parisian-dwelling ex-world champion Vladimir Kramnik (blitz) playing separately in each event though sharing the same score. And amidst many players stumbling, the one constant proved to be the reigning US champion Wesley So, who didn’t put a foot wrong to win the rapid a full point ahead of the Russian world title challenger, Ian Nepomniachtchi.
The decisive moment in the rapid proved to be the closing rounds all-American clash between So and Fabiano Caruana that was crucial for the standings. It only took one unlikely mishap from Caruana for the world #2 to find himself forced constantly on the back-foot, an eventually something had to give as So replied with a series of near flawless moves for a vital win.
There was also one ‘diagram moment’ of French flair in Paris in the rapid. Looks can often be deceptive in chess, and the country’s #1, Maxime Vachier-Lagrave, is three pawns down and facing a seemingly dangerous discovered check, only for Nepomniachtchi in today’s diagram to be hit with the spectacular 26.Nd7!! that forced his immediate resignation, as 26…Nh3+ (If 26…Rxd7 27.Qf8+ Rd8 28.Rxc5+ Kd7 29.Qf7#) 27.Kg2 Rxd7 28.Qf8+ and mating as in the previous note.
Rapid final standings:
1. Wesley So (USA), 12/18; 2. Ian Nepomniachtchi (Russia), 11; 3. Etienne Bacrot/Vladimir Kramnik (France & Russia) 10; 4-5. Maxime Vachier-Lagrave (France), Peter Svidler (Russia), 9; 6-9. Fabiano Caruana (USA), Levon Aronian (Armenia), Teimour Radjabov (Azerbaijan), Richard Rapport (Hungary), 8; 10. Alireza Firouzja (FIDE), 7.
Photo: A near flawless Wesley So impressed to win the rapid | © Lennart Ootes/Grand Chess Tour
GM Fabiano Caruana – GM Wesley So
GCT Paris Rapid & Blitz, (7)
Ruy Lopez, Berlin Defence
1.e4 e5 2.Nf3 Nc6 3.Bb5 Nf6 4.0-0 Nxe4 5.Re1 Sidestepping the dreaded ‘Berlin Wall’ endgame after 5.d4 Nd6 6.Bxc6 dxc6 7.dxe5 Nf5 8.Qxd8+ Kxd8 which, at the elite-level praxis, ever since Vladimir Kramnik dramatically revived the venerable old Berlin Defence during his successful World Championship Match against Garry Kasparov back in 2000, has practically become the tabiya of the Ruy Lopez. 5…Nd6 6.Nxe5 Be7 When the Berlin Defence was first popular in elite-level circles, during the the mid-to-latter part of the 19th Century, the first world champion, Wilhelm Steinitz, also favoured the 5.Re1 line, but it would have been followed up with 6…Nxe5 7.Rxe5+ Be7 and continuing with Bd3 and adventurous ideas of Nc3, b3, Bb2 to launch a swashbuckling kingside attack – all of this I remember reading in a wonderful August 1979 article by Jimmy Adams in the venerable British Chess Magazine. But in today’s more modern game, 6…Be7 is the preferred way to handle the black side. 7.Bf1 Nxe5 8.Rxe5 0-0 9.d4 Bf6 10.Re1 A few years ago, Anish Giri’s suggested novelty of 10.Re2!? was briefly popular, even being adopted by Magnus Carlsen during his World Championship Match against Sergey Karjakin in 2016. 10…Re8 11.Nc3 Rxe1 12.Qxe1 Bxd4 13.Bf4 Caruana has good compensation for the pawn with the easier development and better potential for his pieces, while So has a slightly awkward job to unravel his pieces. 13…Ne8 14.Nd5 d6 15.Bg5 Taking advantage of the back-rank mating threats. 15…f6 16.Bh4 g5 17.Qe4 Bxb2 18.Rb1?! I was more than just a little perplexed by this call from Caruana – I thought the more obvious placement for the rook was the more direct 18.Re1!? Be5 19.Bd3 f5 20.Qc4! and equality due to the discovered check tricks, as Black can’t counter with 20…Be6 21.Bxf5 Bf7 22.f4! gxh4 (If 22…c6 23.fxe5 cxd5 24.Qg4 Ng7 25.Bg3 dxe5 26.Rxe5 Nxf5 27.Qxf5 Bg6 28.Qe6+ Bf7 29.Qh6 Qb6+ 30.Qxb6 axb6 and the game should eke out to a draw.) 23.fxe5 dxe5 24.Rxe5 Ng7 25.Bd3 and despite retaining the extra pawn, it is all still a little awkward for Black – though nothing that with careful play he shouldn’t easily be able to hold. 18…Be5 19.f4 gxh4 20.fxe5 dxe5 21.Bc4 Be6! I wonder if Caruana simply underestimated the strength and the hidden defensive resources of this move when he opted for 18.Rb1? 22.Rxb7 Caruana’s attack looks dangerous, a potential minefield, but in reality it is all smoke and mirrors that So easily sees through. 22…Kh8! The easy solution in case of any tricks on e6 that comes with an added defensive resource – but just as good was 22…Nd6 23.Qxh4 Nxb7 24.Nxf6+ Kf8 25.Qh6+ (There’s no perpetual drawing hopes whatsoever. After 25.Nxh7+ Kg7 26.Qg3+ Kh6! 27.Bxe6 Qd1+ 28.Kf2 Qxc2+ 29.Kf1 Qb1+ 30.Ke2 Qb5+ 31.Kf2 Qb6+ 32.Ke1 Qxe6 etc.) 25…Ke7 26.Qxh7+ Kd6 27.Qd3+ Kc5 28.Ne4+ Kc6 and White runs out of checks and all hopes. 23.Bd3 Bg8! It’s the old adage in chess that a retreating move is the most difficult to spot in chess – and the retreating bishop here covers everything, and now leaves Caruana in dire straits with more material set to be lost. 24.Nxc7 Nd6 25.Qxh4 Nxb7 26.Nxa8 Nc5! With Caruana’s knight stranded on a8, So just goes about exchanging pieces to be left with a big material-winning advantage. 27.Bf5 e4! So is in no hurry to win the a8 knight, as it is going nowhere. 28.h3? Ultimately fatal as it loses the bishop, but then again no better was 28.g4 e3! 29.Nc7 Qd4! 30.Kg2 e2 and there’s no stopping the e-pawn without losing more material or seeing the king being mated with 31.Qe1 Qe5 32.Nb5 Bd5+ 33.Kf2 Bc4 34.Na3 Qf4+ 35.Kg2 Bd5+ 36.Kh3 Qf1+ etc. 28…Qd4+ 29.Kh1 Qa1+ 0-1 And Caruana resigns as 30.Kh2 Qe5+ and the Bf5 drops.