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15 Jun

The Blitz Meltdown

When we left off in the previous column it was turning into ‘The Hikaru Nakamura and Magnus Carlsen Show’, as those two rivalling speed kings dominated the new Grand Chess Tour event in Paris with a neck-and-neck race for the Rapid title, that was narrowly won by Nakamura. And that two-horse race continued over to the Blitz event, where after the first day, it looked as if the fight for the overall title would go right down to the wire as both continued to match each other win for win.

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But stranger things have been know to happen, and when play resumed for the final day and another nine rounds of blitz, Carlsen got off to a bad start, and despite beating Nakamura twice in their blitz head-to-head, could only finish in a tie with the American only to lose out in the more important race for the overall title. Carlsen had, what he described later, as “a good old fashioned meltdown.”

Meltdown or no meltdown, Nakamura proved to be in good form throughout and deservedly walked away with the bragging rights for now as to who is the speed king, taking the overall first prize and 13 Grand Chess Tour points. Nakamura also won $37,500 and Carlsen $30,000 out of a total prize fund of $150,000 - but the rivalry looks set to carry over to this coming weekend!

The Grand Chess Tour circus now moves to the Belgian university town of Leuven for the second Rapid and Blitz four-day tournament supported by the Your Next Move foundation. At stake again will be another $150,000 in prize money and more GCT points. It’s the same players doing battle, with the exception of Laurent Fressinet being replaced by the five-time ex-champion, Vishy Anand!

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And if you thought the historic Maison de la Chimie in Paris was an impressive venue for a top-notch chess tournament, then the Your Next Move GCT event takes place in the even older and grandiose surroundings of the Leuven Town Hall, which dates back to the 15th century.

Photo © | Paris Grand Chess Tour

 

Final blitz standings: 1-2. Carlsen, Nakamura 11.5/18; 3. Vachier Lagrave 11; 4-5. Aronian, Caruana 10; 6. Giri 9; 7. So 8.5; 8. Topalov 8; 9. Kramnik 5.5; 10. Fressinet 5.

Final combined standing
1. Hikaru Nakamura (USA) 25½/36; 2. Magnus Carlsen (Norway) 24½; 3. Maxime Vachier-Lagrave (France) 22; 4. Wesley So (USA) 19½; 5. Levon Aronian (Armenia) 19; 6. Anish Giri (Netherlands) 18; 7. Vladimir Kramnik (Russia) 15½; 8. Fabiano Caruana (USA) 14; 9. Veselin Topalov (Bulgaria) 12; 10. Laurent Fressinet (France) 10.

GM Magnus Carlsen - GM Hikaru Nakamura
GCT Paris Blitz, (18)
Ruy Lopez, Berlin Defence
1.e4 e5 2.Nf3 Nc6 3.Bb5 Nf6 4.d3 Bc5 Unlike our previous column, The Paris Pizzazz, when Nakamura reached this position against French star Maxime Vachier-Lagrave in the rapid, Carlsen is happy to immediately swap bishop for knight to prevent Nakamura getting in the freeing ...d5 move that worked well for him. 5.Bxc6 dxc6 6.h3 0-0 7.Nc3 Re8 8.Be3 Bxe3 9.fxe3 While in classical chess bishops would normally have the advantage over knights, in blitz its the opposite, as knights can be trickier to deal with as your digital clock metaphorically ticks down - and with knights, there is no better player in the game today with them than Magnus Carlsen. 9...Nd7 10.0-0 Nf8 11.Qe1 f6 12.g4 There's nothing much in the position. Nakamura has no weaknesses, a solid pawn formation and a bishop, while Carlsen has an attack he can work with on the kingside that can potentially lead to some tricky knight situations. If this were classical chess, Nakamura would be more than OK here - but it is blitz, anything can happen, and those knights can become tricky. 12...Ng6 13.Qg3 h6 Stopping the immediate g5 push from Carlsen. 14.Rf2 Qe7 15.Raf1 Be6 16.h4! Qd7 17.Rg2 Also an option for Carlsen was the immediate push with 17.g5!? - but it not so easy as it looks: 17...fxg5! (The correct recapture, and not 17...hxg5? 18.hxg5 with carnage coming on the kingside.) 18.h5 Nf8 19.Nxe5 Qd6 however it is not so easy to continue the attack with threats of the queens being exchanged off - and indeed, if you can visualise this position with the queens off, you will see that in the long-term would have the advantage due to that lose pawn pawn on h5. So instead, Carlsen opts to keep Nakamura guessing on the kingside attack a little longer by maintaining the tension. 17...Rf8 18.d4 exd4 19.exd4 Carlsen may have got rid of his doubled pawns, but now his pawns on e4 and d4 are hanging and targets for Nakamura - but then again this is blitz, and such positional niceties is not so easy to exploit when your opponent begins to make threats in the general direction of your king. 19...Rae8 20.h5 Nh8 This retreat isn't bad, as it allows Nakamura to regroup with Nf7 to cover e7 and g5. 21.Rd1 Qd6! 22.Qxd6 Forcing the exchange of queens in a tricky position, as after 22.e5 Qd8! Black has his all pieces well-placed for any eventuality, and he has the bonus of control now of the all-important d5 square. 22...cxd6 As I said earlier, if this were a normal classical game, Nakmaura would have the long-term advantage here with those pawns on g4 and h5 - but it is blitz, and no matter how good a speed player Nakamura is, those tricky knights can cause maximum mayhem. 23.Nh4 d5 Perhaps better was the simple retreat with 23...Bd7!? and tie White down to defending the e-pawn. Now, Carlsen seizes his chance to take Nakamura's potentially endgame-troublesome bishop off and be left with the dominant knight. 24.exd5 Bxd5 25.Nxd5 cxd5 26.Kf1 Re4 27.Nf5 It's amazing how in the space of a couple of moves in blitz the assessment of a position can change dramatically - Black is the one now with the weak pawns (d5 and b7) and there's possible mating nets with the knight going to g6. 27...Nf7 28.Re1! (See diagram) Carlsen is very quick to spot the possibilities of a good endgame - and here, he's envisaged the board with the rooks exchanged and see's a big advantage in the ensuing knight ending, so he goes for it. 28...Rf4+ White's advantage dramatically increases with rooks being exchanged: 28...Rxe1+ 29.Kxe1 Re8+ 30.Re2 Rxe2+ 31.Kxe2 and White will soon pick off the d5 pawn with either Ne7+ or Ne3 with an easy endgame win. In such situations in blitz, keeping as many pieces on the board and confusion is the only option. 29.Kg1 Ng5 30.Re7 Rf7 31.Re8+! Kh7 If 31...Rf8 32.Ne7+ wins an exchange after 32...Kf7 33.Rxf8+ Kxe7 (33...Kxf8? 34.Ng6+ is a whole rook!) 34.Rb8 with an easy win picking off the queenside pawns. 32.Kh2 Ne4 33.Nh4! I did say those knights were tricky, didn't I? In the time scramble Nakamura has missed Carlsen's Ng6 setting up a mating net. 33...Nd6 34.Rd8 Rc7 35.Rxd6 1-0

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