Cote D’Ivoire Day 3: King Magnus reigns supreme and crosses 2900 elo!
Garry Kasparov was considered the greatest of all time not for his game quality (which was exceptional, by the way) but for his amazing streaks in tournaments. He crushed top GMs like paper and won by huge margins of 2 to 3 points in super tournaments! Now, his former student has taken over the mantle, and at the rate he is going, he might as well surpass his illustrious teacher! Magnus Carlsen performed brilliantly yet again, scoring two wins and a draw on the final day of the rapid to extend his sole lead by three points! The World Champion continues his brilliant 2019 and jumps above 2900 elo on the rapid list! Hikaru Nakamura had another solid day at the office, scoring 4 points and retaining slim hopes of catching Carlsen in Blitz. MVL and Wesley So too had a great day, grabbing three and two wins respectively to retain slim chances of overall tournament victory. A comprehensive report by Tanmay Srinath.
Cote D’Ivoire Day 3: Magnus finishes Rapid with a three point lead
This was a combative round, as we witnessed four decisive results yet again. Before we move on to the decisive game, we will look at the biggest Houdini act of the round!
Hikaru Nakamura vs Wei Yi
Hikaru Nakamura played a solid line against Wei Yi’s Reti opening and got a playable position out of the opening. The computers were not impressed with White’s play in the early middlegame, showing 0.00 from move 16 , but any decent human player understood that White is slowly turning the screws. Wei got a passer on d5 soon, and his b2 bishop started looking dangerous on the long diagonal. Naka soon cracked and blundered a super strong attack, but at the critical juncture Wei failed to find the silent killer:
Wei Yi - Nakamura
It doesn’t take us long to realise that White is winning here. All his pieces are in the attack and the f6-g6-h7 pawn complex looks draughty at best. Notice however, that the menacing queen on c7 and rook on d6 threaten to start an assault on the White king. It was time for prophylaxis! 28.f5!! kills the game off. White threatens Bxf6, and at the same time prevents Rd2, threatening mate on g2. Instead, Wei played the hasty 28.Bxf6? and lost all his advantage, because of the aforementioned threats.
Amin Bassem vs Magnus Carlsen
Moving on, the biggest game of the round was definitely Amin-Carlsen. The former has been the bunny in this tournament, as his games have often ended in his opponent’s favour. However, if there is one positive Amin can take away from this tournament, it is his opening preparation-he got an advantage against all the super GMs as White and equalised easily as Black. This game was no different – Amin essayed the Rossolimo as White and Carlsen repeated the line he used in his World Championship defence. There was a chance to change the narrative of the game as early as move 11:
In this complex position, White has given up the bishop pair and closed the position to a certain degree. He should have continued on that path with 11.Bxh6! The bishop won’t have much of a role to play in this position, while the black knight can threaten many things from d6 (as it did in the game). Baseem should have thus exchanged White’s worst piece for Black’s best piece, and after 11...Bxh6 12. Nbd2 continued developing. White then holds a small plus due to his compact formation and good outposts for his knights. Instead, after the lackadaisical 11.Na3?! , Carlsen took over with 11...Nf7 and won a fine game.
Veselin Topalov vs Maxime Vachier-Lagrave
MVL destroyed Veselin Topalov in a 6.Be3 Najdorf. Playing black, MVL equalised rather easily after Topalov chose a non-combative plan to counter Black’s aggressive kingside expansion:
Veselin should have played the committal but strong 0-0-0! followed by h4!, gaining sufficient play against Black’s weakened kingside. White should then be slightly better. Instead Qf2?! was too subtle, and black soon got comfortable queenside play, when it looked like White is struggling to fully equalise. Topalov soon blundered, and MVL finished him off accurately.
Ding vs Karjakin
Ding Liren vs Sergey Karjakin was a Closed Catalan where White had more space and thus the better chances. Black remained relatively solid for a long time, but defending passively is never easy, even for Karjakin. In Rapid, the task of fully equalising is usually very difficult. Thus, at the critical juncture, Ding’s incessant pressing paid off:
On Black’s 26th move, Sergey finally cracked, blundering with 26...Rcc8?. The point Sergey missed was that after 27.Rxe8!, he can’t recapture with the rook, as 28.Rxc6!! wins a pawn (28...Bxc6 29.Qxc6 is even worse, losing two pieces for a rook) and in such a position, a pawn is a decisive advantage. He played Qxe8, but after Re1! Ding was firmly in the driver’s seat and won a first-rate game.
Wesley So - Ian Nepomniachtchi
Wesley So has turned to 1.e4 almost exclusively in this tournament, and the American’s intelligent preparation is winning him good games. In a Quiet Italian against Nepo, So quickly expanded on the queenside with a3, c3 and b4. The flipside was that he irreparably weakened the d4 square. However, Nepo didn’t notice this drawback in White’s position after So’s 19.b5:
So - Nepo
Nepo had to play Nd4! to maintain the dynamic balance. The reason is that if White takes on d4, then Black gets a space advantage in the center and can slow down White on the queenside with c6. The position remains one of dynamic balance, with a lot still left to play for. Instead, Na5? was a mistake, and after 20.Nxa5! Wesley never looked back.
There were two decisive results in round 8. Amin Bassem picked up his second win of the tournament.
MVL vs Nepo
MVL continued his surge up the rankings, with a topsy turvy win over the luckless Nepo. The players debated the quiet Italian again, with Nepo taking the Black side for the second consecutive round. MVL deviated from So’s play quite early, and went for a kingside expansion policy. Here the inaccurate phase started for both sides, with the evaluation swinging back and forth. White finally took control, but it was the blunder on move 31 that gave him a decisive advantage:
Here Black has two recaptures possible. Had Nepo chosen the right 31...hxg6! Black would have had to suffer in a worse endgame, but he would have had real chances to draw the game. Instead, Bxg6? was the losing mistake. What is the difference? Black’s king is stifled on the back rank without escape! After 32.Rxd4! MVL soon conjured up a decisive attack and won.
Veselin Topalov vs Bassem Amin
Baseem Amin took some inspiration from Naka the previous round, and even went 1 up – he managed to swindle Veselin Topalov in a completely lost ending. In a Ruy Lopez Breyer, Topalov handled the position in superior fashion, and sacrificed a knight for two pawns deep into the middlegame. Black had defences available, but Baseem’s refusal to bring back some forces into play cost him dearly- White made him pay for his dubious defence. However, Veselin missed numerous chances to kill off the game, the best one appearing on move 37.
To challenge the readers, I encourage you to solve the following position: White to play and win with a bang!
Answer: Look carefully at the black king. He is cramped and devoid of extra escape squares. Look at White’s pieces. The rook is threatening to enter the field of action, but unfortunately it can’t do so immediately, as the c5 knight guards the a6 bishop. The Nc5 is clearly stronger that the Bishop on e3. The attackers to defenders ratio favours White. Only problem? The queen is attacked by the Nf8. If you didn’t give a damn for the queen and played 37.Bxc5!!, then give yourself a pat on the back! Veselin missed this golden opportunity in the game, and instead played Qf5? losing most of his advantage. He even lost the game later on because of acute time trouble. The full explanations of the sacrifice are given in the annotations below:
Nakamura vs So
Nakamura-So was a boring Anti Berlin Endgame where White tried to squeeze Water from stone, but was unsuccessful. There was a moment where Naka could have slightly improved his play:
Naka could have tried 27.Ng2! with the idea of 28.f4 e4 Be2! with ideas to break with h3 and g4. Black then struggles to fully equalise. Instead in the game 27.f4 was played immediately and So had no trouble holding the draw.
Carlsen vs Ding
Carlsen-Ding was a Semi Tarrasch Main Line where White quickly traded down to an endgame with light squared bishop and knight. Play resembled a Grunfeld Endgame, and Ding had no trouble neutralising Magnus’ activity and they drew a quiet game. Magnus had one chance to change the narrative though:
Magnus Carlsen - Ding Liren
Magnus chose the inferior plan with 19. Kd2 and took the king to the well defended queenside. Instead, 19.Ke3! was stronger, aiming to activate the White pawns on the kingside and expand slowly with f4 and e5. It should still only be slightly better for White, but I’m sure Ding would have been pushed back a bit more.
Karjakin-Wei was a game that wouldn’t matter so much even if it weren’t played – Sergey chose a peaceful line in the Queens Gambit Accepted as White, got an equal endgame, and liquidated into a draw.
Wei Yi vs Magnus Carlsen
Carlsen solidified his lead over the rest with a crushing win over Wei Yi, who chose the 3.c3 Sicilian as White (Avoiding Magnus’ pet Pelican). The players then took play into a French Exchange structure, where White had potential to advance in the center and pressure on the a7 pawn, but Black had a solid king position and controlled the central e-file. Wei missed a chance for a substantial advantage after outplaying Carlsen:
Wei Yi - Magnus Carlsen
Had Wei talked to his pieces here (Rowson Terminology!) he would have noticed that his king badly needed air, and instantly played the prophylactic 23.h3! removing any back rank tricks from Carlsen’s arsenal, and condemning the World Champion to a difficult defence. Instead, the Chinese phenom rushed (this is something which he needs to improve at – the ability to time his advance and prophylaxis) with 23.Qd3?!, allowing Magnus to sacrifice a pawn favourably with 23...a6! and take over the initiative. Eventually Wei lost because of his fragile kingside.
Amin Bassem vs MVL
In another game Amin lost to MVL after completely out preparing and outplaying the Frenchman. In a Kings Indian Attack against MVL’s Sicilian, Amin got in b4, a4, b5 and c4 under favourable circumstances, and Black’s hole on d5 was a juicy target for White’s knights and bishop. Blacks dark squared bishop was useless as well (due to the c5-d6-e5 chain).So, MVL tried to confuse matters with f5, breaking on the kingside, but Amin stood firm, and on 21 had a chance to get a near decisive advantage:
Amin essayed 21.Ncd5?! that lost most of his advantage. The reason? Black gets sudden counterplay on the kingside by exchanging knights on e3 and bringing the queen to f7. Instead, 21.Ned5! retains an enormous advantage for White, which leaves the knight on f5 without purpose, and the bishop stranded on h3. The c3 knight can also find a better square on e4, which isn’t possible for the e3 knight in case of Ncd5?!. After this, it would have taken enormous skill from MVL and mistakes from Amin for the game to even end level. Instead, Amin later blundered in the face of an attack on the f-file, and soon lost.
Nepomniachtchi vs Nakamura
Nepo’s heartbreak continued against Hikaru Nakamura. In a Reversed Dragon mainline, both players blitzed out theory, and soon Naka was on level terms as Black. He soon started inching forward, and Nepo had to take urgent measures on move 21, something which he failed to do:
White should seek to equalise the game here with 21.Rxc6! Rxc6 22. Bxc6, entering a level endgame that should be drawn with accurate play. Instead Nepo went searching for an advantage with 21. Bxe7?!, but was soon worse. Things spiralled after this, and Naka won his first game of the day to maintain a catchable distance with Magnus.
Wesley So vs Sergey Karjakin
Wesley So didn’t get much out of an Anti Berlin as White against Sergey Karjakin. In a long manoeuvring game, So held a small initiative, and he kept searching for ways to break through till he decided that he had had enough and sacrificed a bishop for three pawns. The game then turned in White’s favour, and although So missed various chances for a greater advantage, it didn’t cost him too much as Sergey soon blundered:
So - Karjakin
Here all Sergey had to do was move his queen to c7, and So wouldn’t have more than perpetual check. Instead, Rd6?? was a terrible mistake, as after Qxc5 White wins the black queen for the White rook by force, and soon Sergey threw in the towel.
As the table clearly shows, Magnus Carlsen is in pole position to win the first leg of the Grand Chess Tour. All Carlsen has to do is to make sure that he stays ahead of Hikaru on aggregate. With the form Magnus is in, I believe that there shouldn’t be questions about the winner anymore, but about the margin. Hikaru, MVL and So still have a shot at the title, but as of today Magnus Carlsen is favourite to win the blitz portion and the overall tournament starting today.