After comfortably winning the Paris Grand Chess Tour rapid leg with an unbeaten score, and then off to a flying start in the blitz leg of 4/4 as along the way he recorded the highest live rating ever, it looked as if Magnus Carlsen had finally put all his recent poor form behind him and was cruising to his first tournament victory of 2017. But the world champion then suffered yet another inexplicable collapse that almost saw the title being snatched from his grasp by local hero Maxime Vachier-Lagrave.
In round 5 of the blitz, Carlsen looked to be heading for 5/5 and possibly breaking the 3000 blitz rating barrier, only to suffer a sore loss on time in a completely winning position to Russia’s Alexander Grischuk. And that loss also hit Carlsen's confidence, as he suffered yet another slump in form that has led many pundits to openly question the Norwegian’s growing vulnerability as numero uno.
Going into the final day, though, Carlsen still managed to hold on to a slim leads at the top of the overall standings, for only to be hit in rounds 15 through 18 (for the first time in his professional career) with the triple whammy of a trifecta of losses respectively to Karjakin, Vachier-Lagrave and Nakamura.
And with Vachier-Lagrave giving the vocal home supporters in Paris something to cheer about with a phenomenal winning run in the blitz, the Frenchman sensationally moved into the lead going into the final round. However, it wasn’t to be for MVL, as he was held to a draw by Grischuk while Carlsen effortlessly beat Wesley So to see both players tied in the overall standings, and the title going to a rapid playoff (10 minutes + 5 seconds per move) for all the marbles.
But luckily Carlsen is to chess playoffs what Germany is to soccer penalty deciders, and he beat MVL 1½-½ to win every playoff he’s been involved in since 2007 (taking the score now to a perfect 8 out of 8!), as he scooped the title and $31,250 first prize. Carlsen also takes 12 tour points to lead the GCT standings as the circus now moves to Leuven, Belgium for this week’s Your Next Move rapid and blitz leg.
Final standings (Blitz)
1. Vachier-Lagrave 13/18; 2-3. Nakamura, Caruana 11; 4-5. Karjakin, Carlsen 10; 6-7. Grischuk, Mamedyarov 9; 8. Topalov 6½; 9. So 6; 10. Bacrot 4½
Final standings (Overall)
1-2. Magnus Carlsen* (Norway), Maxime Vachier-Lagrave (France) 24/36; 3. Hikaru Nakamura (USA) 23; 4. Alexander Grischuk (Russia) 22; 5. Shakhriyar Mamedyarov (Azerbaijan) 20; 6. Sergey Karjakin (Russia) 18; 7. Wesley So (USA) 15; 8. Fabiano Caruana (USA) 14; 9. Veselin Topalov (Bulgaria) 11½; 10. Etienne Bacrot (France) 8½.
(Note: In the rapid, a win is worth 2 points, 1 point for a draw. In the blitz, a win is worth 1 point, a draw a ½ point)
GM Magnus Carlsen - GM Maxime Vachier-Lagrave
Paris GCT Rapid Playoff, (1)
1.d4 Nf6 2.Bf4 g6 3.e3 Bg7 4.Nf3 d6 5.Be2 The London System can be all about nuances in the opening. While some like to play here 5.h3 so they can hide the bishop on h2, some also like to play 5.c3 to avoid what comes next. 5...Nh5!? Putting the question to the bishop, which doesn't have a bolt-hole on h2 to retreat to. 6.Bg5 h6 7.Bh4 g5 8.Nfd2 Nf4!? Vive la difference! If White had played 5.c3 instead of 5.Be2, then he could simply play here 9.Bg3 and Black wouldn't have the possibility of 9...Nxe2 with an equal game. However, although Black now voluntarily shatters his pawn structure, he at least has compensation with the bishop-pair. 9.exf4 gxh4 10.c3 c5 MVL now has to open as many lines as he can to make his bishop-pair a potent force. 11.dxc5 dxc5 12.Na3 0-0 13.0-0 Nc6 14.Re1 h3 For now, the Black pawn on h3 means White has to be wary of back-rank mating threats - but long-term, going into the endgame, that pawn could very well be a liability if White can successfully cut off support for it. 15.g3 e5! MVL continues to look to open the game up for his bishops, the only hope he has in the game now as he's voluntarily crippled his kingside pawns. 16.fxe5 Nxe5 17.Nf3 Nxf3+ 18.Bxf3 Qf6 19.Nc4 Rd8 20.Qe2 Be6 21.Bg4! The first sign that MVL could very well have troubles in the endgame, as Carlsen successfully cuts off the support to the vulnerable h3 pawn. 21...Bxg4 22.Qxg4 b5 23.Ne3 Rd2 24.Re2 In Grandmaster-level chess, games are often decided on small endgame advantages. What they do is try to envision the board without any pieces on it, reducing it to merely king and pawns - and it they see that position is winning for them, they then systematically go about exchanging off as many pieces as they can. And here, this is what Carlsen puts in operation. 24...Rad8 25.Rae1 Rxe2 26.Rxe2 With the back-rank covered by Carlsen's knight, he's now threatening to simply play Qxh3 winning a pawn and will also have Nf5 coming to hit the weakened Black king. Faced with this, MVL exchanges queens to prolong the lifespan of the irksome h3 pawn. 26...Qe6 27.Qxe6 fxe6 MVL's pawns may well be more crippled now, but the pawn on h3 is still a major threat for Carlsen. If he can sort the safety issues, he has a promising endgame to look forward to. 28.Kf1 b4! It's critical here that MVL tries to exchange off as many pawns as he can now. If he can exchange off all the pawns, then losing the h3 pawn is less of a danger, because if White manages to win it, Black's worst-case scenario then is sacrificing his bishop to stop one of White's queening and a theoretically drawn ending of rook and knight v rook. 29.cxb4 cxb4 30.Rc2! Carlsen's rook takes up an active post on the open c-file, and crucially also clears a path to e2 for his king that will stop Black's rook getting to d2. 30...b3! MVL goes about his plan of exchange off as many pawns as he can - and this not only helps that, but it also brings his rook and bishop more into the game. 31.axb3 Rb8 32.Rc6 Rxb3 33.Rxe6 Rxb2 34.Nf5! Carlsen may not have much, but he expertly squeezes the most from his little advantage here. 34...Bf8 35.Nxh6+ Kg7 36.Ng4 Defending f2 and h2 is vital. 36...a5! With Carlsen's activity all on the kingside, MVL runs his interference on the queenside by quickly pushing his pawn up the board as fast as he can. 37.Ra6 Ra2 38.f4! And Magnus is equal to the possibilities here, with the threat being f5-f6+ and his own dangerous passed pawn that MVL will have to deal with. 38...a4?! MVL starts to lose the thread in what had become an intriguing playoff game between the two. He had to play 38...Bc5! to keep the pressure on the knight having to defend f2 and h2, and also would have covered the all-important a7 square from Carlsen's rook. Now, if 39.Rc6 Be7! Black covers the f6 square, where, if White pushes for f6+, then in the worst-case scenario he can sacrifice his bishop and then play ...Rxh2 and it is very difficult for White to win this. 39.f5 Bb4 40.Ra7+ We now see why ...Bc5 covering the a7 square was vital, as now Carlsen manages to conjure up mating threats as MVL's king is forced to the back-rank. 40...Kf8 41.f6 Ra1+? Ultimately the losing move, as it releases White's king from being locked in his own back-rank - a major blunder in such situations, as now the king marches up the board to support the passed pawns. MVL's only hope was to keep Carlsen's king on the back-rank and pushing his pawn up the board with 41...a3! Now, if 42.Ra4 Bc3 White can't win this, as Black has the f6-pawn under attack and also covers the queening square for the a-pawn. This will end in a draw very soon. 42.Ke2 a3 43.Nh6 Not only a mating threat but also now clearing the path for a second connected passed pawn to join the fray with g4-g5-g6 etc. MVL's position has suddenly become problematic, and ways to save it now become more and more difficult. 43...Re1+? This just helps Carlsen, as he want's his king off the back-rank and more active anyway! The players were down to their last minute or so here, so I can only imagine MVL blundered by thinking he had something with possibly ...Rg1 and ...Rg2+ - but there's the little matter of White's Ra8 mate! He simply had to play 43...Ke8 to first remove the mating threat, and now suddenly White has to deal with the threat from Black's a-pawn, a likely scenario being the game panning out now to a draw after 44.Kd3 Bc5 45.Ra5 a2! 46.Kc3 Bb4+!! 47.Kb2 Rh1! 44.Kd3 Re6 45.Ra8+ Re8 46.Ra6! Carlsen ruthlessly turns the screw here, as he now has the f-pawn protected, threatens the deadly push g4-g5-g6 etc, has his king in the open, and also covers MVL from pushing his passed pawn with a2. 46...Rc8 47.g4 MVL can do nothing now - the threat g5-g6-g7+ is unstoppable. 47...Rd8+ 48.Ke4 Ke8 49.g5 Bf8 50.Kf5! Rather than retreat the knight, Carlsen's king simply comes up the board in support of his passed pawns, leaving his rook to cover the a-pawn. 50...Rd2 51.Ra8+ Rd8 52.Rxd8+! The simplest win sees both pawns queen, but Carlsen emerging with an extra piece and a couple of pawns. 52...Kxd8 53.g6 a2 There's no time for 53...Bxh6 as 54.g7 not only wins back the piece but also queens with check to win the a-pawn after 54...Bxg7 55.fxg7 a2 56.g8Q+ etc. The rest needs no further comment. 54.g7 Bxg7 55.fxg7 a1Q 56.g8Q+ Kc7 57.Qg3+ Kd7 58.Qxh3 Qg7 59.Kf4+ Kc7 60.Nf5 Qb2 61.Qh7+ Kc8 62.Qg8+ 1-0