Magnus Carlsen took maximum Grand Chess Tour points by duly winning the season-opener Côte d’Ivoire Rapid & Blitz in Abidjan on Sunday – but he can bless the reign down in Africa only because of the big lead he established in the rapid event, as in the blitz, the world champion was almost upstaged by a rampant Maxime “MVL” Vachier-Lagrave, with the Frenchman setting a frantic pace that almost sensationally toppled the Norwegian from the Blitz world #1 spot.
After closing the rapid event with three wins, MVL turned into MVP with five wins in the blitz to make it a remarkable eight-game winning streak, as he put pressure on Carlsen’s seemingly unassailable lead in the tournament. And although MVL was the only player to beat Carlsen – not once, but twice, winning both their head-to-head matches – the world champion rallied on the second day to be assured of winning to secure maximum tour points.
But in the process, although Carlsen won by a big margin, the damage was done. By round 15, MVL had sensationally supplanted Carlsen as #1 on the unofficial live list – but it was short-lived, because, with a brace of must-wins going down the home stretch of the final rounds against Wei Yi and Hikaru Nakamura, was just enough for Carlsen to dramatically snatch the #1 spot back – but only just!
When the dust had settled, and the rating points were finally calculated, Carlsen – scoring “only” 11.5/18, with a rating performance of “only” 2861 – had gone backwards in his quest to break the 3000-barrier in blitz, having haemorrhaged 31-points and hanging on by his very fingertips to the numero uno spot on 2700chesschess, that now shows: 1. Magnus Carlsen 2922.8 (-31.2), 2. Maxime Vachier-Lagrave 2921.4 (-11.6), 3. Hikaru Nakamura 2902.4 (-31.6).
Carlsen not only took the trophy and first prize of $37,500, but he also takes a maximum 13 tour points and the early lead in the chase for the 2019 GCT title. The GCT circus now moves to another new tour venue of Zagreb, with the Croatia Grand Chess Tour, the first of two classical events this season, running June 26 – 8 July, with a prize fund on offer of $325, 000.
Côte d’Ivoire Rapid & Blitz final standings:
1. M. Carlsen (Norway) 26½/36; 2-3. H. Nakamura (USA), M. Vachier-Lagrave (France) 23; 4. W. So (USA) 19½; 5. Ding Liren (China) 18½; 6. Wei Yi (China) 16½; 7-8. I. Nepomniachtchi (Russia), S. Karjakin 15½; 9. V. Topalov (Bulgaria) 11½; 10. B. Amin (Egypt) 10½
Photo: Magnus Carlsen receives his trophy from Paulin Danho, Minister of Sports of Côte d’Ivoire | © Lennart Ootes / Grand Chess Tour
GM Magnus Carlsen – GM Maxime Vachier-Lagrave
Côte d’Ivoire Blitz, (10)
Sicilian Najdorf, English Attack
1.e4 c5 2.Nf3 d6 3.d4 cxd4 4.Nxd4 Nf6 5.Nc3 a6 6.Be3 e5 A very old-school Najdorf reply – but this might have come as a little surprise to Carlsen, as MVL usually prefers the sharper 6…Ng4!? 7.Nf3 Be7 8.Bc4 0-0 9.0-0 Be6 10.Bb3 b5 11.Bg5 Nbd7 12.Re1 Rc8 13.a3 h6 14.Bxf6 Nxf6 15.Nd2 The main strategic battle for the game is over control of the d5-square – and Carlsen intends the mini-knight tour Nf3-d2-f1-e3 to stake his claim. 15…Bg4 16.f3 Qb6+ 17.Kh1 Be6 18.Nf1 Rc5 19.Ne3 Rfc8 20.Re2 Rxc3!? Rather than sitting back and letting Carlsen dictate the agenda with his dominance of d5, MVL decides to throw a spanner in the works with a typical exchange sacrifice in the Sicilian. Apart from gaining the c3-pawn, Black’s idea is to open the game up for his bishops with …d5, hoping his activity and the crippled White queenside pawns will be good compensation for the material sacrificed. More importantly, regardless if this sacrifice is right or wrong, in blitz this is a good try against Carlsen, as it takes him out of his comfort zone. 21.bxc3 Rxc3 22.Qe1 Qc6 23.a4 Best, as on a3 the pawn could well become a liability for Carlsen – this way, he swaps it off. 23…b4 24.Nd1 Bxb3 25.Nxc3 Bc4 26.Nd1 Bxe2 27.Qxe2 d5 The whole raison d’être of Black’s exchange sacrifice on c3 – opening the game up to activate the Black bishop and knight. The engines will tell you that Carlsen’s material advantage is climbing up to +1 – but on a practical level, this is not an easy position for White to play. 28.exd5 Nxd5 29.Qe4 Qe6 30.Ne3 The obvious choice – and in blitz, the obvious move usually always prevails. But with just a little thought here, Carlsen might have realised that stronger and better was the alternative knight move of 30.Nf2!? with the idea of Nd3 hitting e5, b4 and preventing …Bc5. 30…Nc3 31.Qc4 Qg6 32.a5 Carlsen has a “healthy” material and now positional edge – but the danger signs were all there for him to be aware off, as MVL’s queen and knight combine for some serious threats. 32…Kh7 A handy prophylactic move to play in blitz in such positions – MVL just slips his king out of any possible awkward check that might stop a potentially game-saving, tricky surprise attack. 33.Re1 e4 34.fxe4 Nxe4 With the knight now threatening …Nf2+ and …Nh3+, Carlsen should have been aware to the tricks and traps here – but he fails to do so, and with the pressure of the clock ticking down, he misses a key move that would have left MVL fighting for his very survival. 35.Nd5 Right square, wrong piece! After 35.Qd5! Black really can’t prevent Qf5 trading queens, and now 35…Nf2+ 36.Kg1 Nh3+ doesn’t work anymore, as 37.Kf1 followed by 38.Qf5(+) leaves Black in dire straits. 35…Nf2+ 36.Kg1 Nh3+ 37.Kf1 Qf5+ 38.Ke2 Qe5+ 39.Ne3 Nf4+ Suddenly it has all gone “awkward” for Carlsen, as MVL’s pieces spring to life that gifts the Frenchman an unlikely win – but that’s the vagaries of blitz for you! 40.Kf1 Ne6 41.Qxa6? With the flags on the digital clock metaphorically hanging, and both players more or less living on the air of the 5-second increment here, I can only assume that Carlsen went into panic-mode, not quite seeing the danger that lurks. Sad really, as 41.Nd5! solves everything and leaves Black in a big hole, as now 41…Qf5+ 42.Kg1 Bd6 43.Qe4! forces the trade of the queens and an easy winning advantage. 41…Qxh2 42.Qd3+ I think in the mutual time-scramble, Carlsen may well have simply overlooked the fact that 43…Bh4 was a mating net. 42…Kg8 43.a6?? If you missed the key move, then there’s nothing you can do about it. Carlsen thinks that his a-pawn running up the boards is going to be a game-winner – but he’s in for a big shock. It wasn’t too late to stop what comes, as after 43.Nd5! Qh1+ 44.Ke2 Qxg2+ 45.Kd1 Bg5 46.a6 h5 47.Re4 (There’s no time for 47.a7 as 47…Qg4+ 48.Qe2 Qd4+ 49.Qd3 Qxa7 easily picks off the dangerous a-pawn.) 47…h4 48.Ne3 Qf3+ 49.Ke1 (Not 49.Kc1 as 49…Qh1+ 50.Kd2 Qa1! 51.Rxb4 g6 52.Re4 Qa5+ 53.Kd1 h3! White has an awkward position, as the a-pawn is going nowhere, and the h-pawn is now a headache.) 49…Qg3+ 50.Kf1 Qf3+ 51.Ke1 Qg3+ and a draw. 43…Bh4! [see diagram] Oops, Carlsen has inadvertently walked into a mating net, all of his own making! If 44.Re2 Qh1 is mate! And if 44.Rd1 Nf4! also mates. 44.Qd2 Nf4 0-1 Carlsen resigns, as the only way now to stop the mate involves losing the queen. ‘Que Sera, Sera’, as the late Doris Day would say.