The revamped 7th Altibox Norway Chess tournament in Stavanger got underway on Monday with its now traditional preliminary blitz tournament that allows the players themselves to determine the pairings for the tournament. This self-determining, gladiatorial precursor to the marquee event all originates back to the Mikhail Tal Memorial tournament in Moscow in 2012 – a tip of the hat to Tal’s fondness for blitz, that has now set a trend with several major tournaments starting this way.
Previously, the pairings had been determined by drawing of lots, many in often ornate ways – one in the past I vividly remember, the Skelleftea World Cup 1989, seeing several of the players struggling to lift 16 gold bars that showed their pairing numbers on the bottom – though largely in the main by boring affairs.
Although you must play everyone in an all-play-all, the pairings are of considerable importance, for in a normal tournament with an even number of players, half the field (in Stavanger, numbers 1-5) will get an extra White, while the other half an extra Black. Another important thing that needs to be factored in is that blitz is now officially rated – and there’s not much between World Blitz champion Magnus Carlsen and Maxime Vachier-Lagrave at the top these days.
And it was the Frenchman who got off to a flyer and held a half point lead over Carlsen going into the final round match-up between the two blitz rivals. As often happens in blitz, there are thrill ’n’ spills with many mistakes – and the all-important game between the leaders proved no different, with the advantage swinging wildly one way then the next. In the end, Carlsen missed the win and then the draw, as MVL went on to not only win the blitz tournament by a big margin, but also the bonus of now leapfrogging the Norwegian in the live blitz ratings.
Blitz final standings:
1. Maxime Vachier-Lagrave (France) 7.5/9; 2-3. Levon Aronian (Armenia), Magnus Carlsen (Norway) 6; 4. Shakhriyar Mamedyarov (Azerbaijan) 5; 5. Ding Liren (China) 4.5; 6-7. Wesley So (USA), Yu Yangyi (China) 3.5; 8-10. Fabiano Caruana (USA), Viswanathan Anand (India), Alexander Grischuk (Russia) 3
Photo: MVL wins the blitz tournament; and also now becomes the new blitz world #1! | © Lennart Ootes/Altibox Norway Chess
GM Maxime Vachier-Lagrave – GM Alexander Grischuk
7th Altibox Norway Chess Blitz, (3)
1.e4 c5 2.Nf3 Nc6 3.c3 The legacy left to the game by the Russian master Semyon Alapin (1856-1923). The Alapin’s variation is not normally an opening you see at elite-level – but at club and tournament level, this is a very popular way to meet the Sicilian. 3…Nf6 4.e5 Nd5 5.Bc4 e6 6.0-0 d6 7.d4 cxd4 8.cxd4 Be7 9.exd6 Bxd6 10.Nc3 White often ends up with an isolated d-pawn in the Alapin – but in return, he gets very active piece-play and good chances of a promising kingside attack. 10…0-0 11.Re1 h6 Grischuk basically wants to avoid the easy developing move of Bg5. 12.Bb3 With …g6 from Black more or less ruled out now, MVL intends Bc2 and a potential battery down the b1-h7 diagonal with the bishop and queen. 12…Nf6 13.Ne5 A standard move in such IQP positions. Given half a chance, Black would like to play …b6, …Bb7, …Ne7 and …Ned5 with a big blockade of the d5 square. With Ne5, MVL not only prevents this but at the same time sets his stall out for the kingside attack. 13…Bc7 14.Be3 Bd7?! With just one slightly inaccurate move, Grischuk’s position becomes extremely difficult. It’s not easy for him to complete his development without allowing MVL to break open the position, but one radical try looks like 14…Nxe5!? 15.dxe5 Bxe5 16.Bc5 Bxc3 17.Bxf8 Qxd1 18.Rexd1 Bxb2 19.Rab1 Kxf8 20.Rxb2 Bd7 and with ..Bc6 and …Nd5 coming, Black has two pawns and a very solid position for the exchange, and I dare say Grischuk would have more easily have held this position. 15.Nxd7 Qxd7 16.d5! Not only jettisoning the IQP, but MVL also opens up the game for his active pieces. Grischuk will have to tread carefully now. 16…exd5 17.Nxd5 Nxd5 18.Qxd5 Rad8 Reducing the risk by trading queens was much better. After 18…Qxd5! 19.Bxd5 Rfd8 and the position is only nominally uncomfortable for Black. 19.Qh5! Rfe8 20.Bxh6!?! [see diagram] A pure blitz bluff from the Frenchman! As long as Black doesn’t panic, then it is just a draw – far stronger was piling on the pressure with 20.Rad1! Qe7 21.Rxd8 Nxd8 but I guess MVL gambled that Grischuk was already expecting all of this, and would have blitzed out all his moves anyway. Now, with MVL having the draw in the bag, the Muscovite has to stop and think – always a dangerous cocktail in blitz! 20…Rxe1+?? From pure bluff to pure panic from Grischuk! With the Muscovite’s flag on his digital clock metaphorically hanging by this stage, he fails to find the correct continuation of 20…gxh6 21.Qg6+ Kf8 22.Qxh6+ Kg8 23.Bc2 Re6! and there’s no mate, and White has to accept the perpetual with 24.Qh7+ Kf8 25.Qh8+ Ke7 26.Qh4+ Kf8 27.Qh8+ Ke7 28.Qh4+ etc. 21.Rxe1 As Grischuk is about to discover to his horror, the rook on e1 is now cutting off the Black king from escaping from the mate! 21…gxh6 22.Qg6+ Kf8 23.Qxh6+ Kg8 24.Bc2 1-0 Grischuk resigns, as there’s a forced mate coming with Bh7+, Bg6+, Qh7+ and Qh8 mate. And if 24…f5 25.Bb3+ is going to lose the queen.