Croatia GCT 1: Nepo storms into lead

World Championship Challenger Ian Nepomniachtchi justified his position as top seed in the Croatia Grand Chess Tour by beating Anton Korobov and Shakhriyar Mamedyarov to leave the rest of the field trailing in his wake. He was held to a draw by Vishy Anand, with the former World Champion having an eventful return to the board as he won an dramatic first game against Jorden van Foreest before losing the next to MVL. No less than 7 players join Vishy on 50%, with only the Dutch duo of Anish Giri and Jorden on a minus score.

The Croatia Grand Chess Tour is taking place in Zagreb from Wednesday July 7 to Sunday July 11, with three days of rapid chess followed by two days of blitz. You can replay all the games, and check out all the pairings, using the selector below.

For the first three days there are three rounds of 25+10 rapid chess each day, with Ivan Saric playing as the local wildcard — for the blitz he’ll be replaced by a certain Garry Kasparov.

Round 1: Bluffing, deliberate and accidental

The highlight of the first round of the Croatia Grand Chess Tour was seeing 15th World Chess Champion Vishy Anand back in over-the-board action. As he explained to Maurice Ashley, the pandemic had made it a long time since he’d even left India.

I landed in Chennai from Bangalore on the 6th June (2020) and I flew out on the 16th June (2021).  So that was 375 days, but ok, that’s a couple of weeks back and the flight was no problem, but playing, that’s another story!

Vishy admitted to “the usual attack of nerves” before playing again, and added:

It started to come back, but the first game felt very strange. There were several moments where I realised, oh, I have to make a move now, because when you’re sitting at home you’re always in analysis mode and suddenly you actually have to make a decision, and I may have two good continuations, but I have to choose one. But ok, I’m happy that I got through today!

Vishy’s first game was an emotional rollercoaster for both Vishy and his fans. At first it seemed he was going to bulldoze Jorden van Foreest off the board in a Sicilian, but Vishy missed the moment to execute a decisive attack and instead had lost control by the time he played 29.Nxf5?!, which strictly speaking was a losing move!

The problem is that 29…Rh8! wins for Black, though you have to have spotted some details in advance. For instance, that after 30.Nd6+ Bxd6 31.exd6 Rxh2 32.dxc7 White would be winning, if Black didn’t have a killer move.

32…Bd3+! turns the tables. If the king goes to the a-file it’s mate-in-2, if it goes to the c-file Rxc7 comes with check, and of course 33.Rxd3 loses an exchange to 33…Rxh1.

Vishy had guessed at something like that by the time he made his move, but as he explained:

It was kind of consequential, because by the time I got here, I went 28.Qh2, which is a mistake, I guess, the comp says 28.Rh6, but in fact my queen is doing a great job defending here, so I don’t need to go there. He went 28…Kf7 and now I was in this thing of having said A, I’m going to say B, and the hell with it, because by now I’d see Bd3 appear in my thing, and I knew that I’d bungled it, but I just went ahead!

It worked to perfection, since after 29…exf5? all the tactics were working out for Vishy: 30.Qh7+ Ke6 31.Qxg6+ Bf6 (for 31…Kd7 he was planning 32.Qxa6!) 32.Bc3!

After finding this stabilising move Vishy knew it was all good, with 32…Qg7 33.Rh6! Qxg6 removing queens from the board. Nine moves later the former World Champion finally took on f6 and converted the two-pawns-up endgame.

Another bluff paid off in Round 1, with World Championship Challenger Ian Nepomniachtchi admitting, “in the first game I scored probably one more point than I deserved”. He continued:

I really misplayed the opening and I quickly got into trouble, but ok, at some point I just bluffed with this Ng5, Ne6, f5. Maybe it was my best chance, maybe not, but ok, the result is alright, but you know, the play can always be improved!

In fact the computer claims White was still somewhat better in a French Defence until 22.Ng5?

Now Anton Korobov would have been clearly winning if he’d played 22…Nxd4! immediately, but after 22…h6? 23.Nxe6 Bxe6 24.f5! Nxd4?! 25.fxe6 any advantage had gone. Anton would later comment:

After Nd4 I saw that it’s over, or close to over, and then I had to defend with precise moves and then failed, so that is logical: when you overestimate your position punishment is coming very, very quickly!

In this case Anton probably didn’t overestimate his position, but by the end extreme precision was required, and 32…Kf7 was already the losing mistake. 33.Bh4! cut off escape squares for the black king, and though 33…Rxg2!? was a fine attempt to save the game, it had a clear refutation.

Nepo’s 34.Nxh6+! was the one clear win, with the point being to clear a path for the rook to give check from f1 and for the queen to target e6. After 34…gxh6+ 35.Rf1+ Black can put pieces in the way, but there’s no stopping Qxe6+ and Qxe7# in the near future. Anton resigned.

In the other games Grischuk-Giri was a quick draw, while Ivan Saric missed some chances in a 47-move draw against Jan-Krzysztof Duda. The other decisive game saw Shakhriyar Mamedyarov take down Maxime Vachier-Lagrave. The Frenchman got into trouble when he deviated from a Mamedyarov-Nepo game from the FTX Crypto Cup, but the game could have gone on for a long time if not for the huge blunder 31…Rc5??

You don’t need to be Mamedyarov to spot you can win a rook with 32.Rd8+ Kg7 33.Rxe7+ Kf6 34.Rf7+ Ke5 35.Rxh8. After the first move, Maxime resigned.

Round 2: Nepo takes the sole lead

It was a day of mixed fortunes for most players. Vishy seemed to know what he was doing in a Caro-Kann against Maxime Vachier-Lagrave, but after the players blitzed into an endgame, Maxime went on to convert an extra pawn with little trouble.

Korobov bounced back to beat Ivan Saric in a game where he felt his opponent overestimated the position, while once again there were two draws, in Van Foreest-Grischuk and Giri-Duda.

The key game was a brilliantly played win by Ian Nepomniachtchi over Shakhriyar Mamedyarov, though it’s noteworthy that the sacrificial idea with 16.Qxd6! and then 17.e5! had been played over 20 times before, though not by players at the very highest level.

The point was to follow 17…bxc3 not by 18.exf6? Rxe3 but by calmly developing with 18.Nxc3 Nh5 19.g4 Bf8 20.Qd2 Ng7 21.Nd5 and it was only here that 21…f6? (Nepo felt 21…Bb7! was “necessary”) condemned Mamedyarov to a world of hurt.

Ian commented:

When he played f6 I was surprised, to say the least. I don’t think Black is anything close to prepared to play in the centre, and opening up the king as well. Here I was a little bit speechless. 22.Rad1! was too tempting…

Nepo soon began to push his f-pawn until it was time finish things off.

29.Nb6! wasn’t the only win, but it was a very satisfying move to play.

We got to see the point played out on the board: 29…Nxb6 30.Bf6+! Bg7 31.Qxd8+! Qxd8 32.Bxd8 Bxg2 31.Kxg2 Nf8 32.Be7 and Nepo had correctly assessed that he was winning this endgame.

The rest was smooth, with Anton Korobov perhaps giving the most interesting assessment of the game:

He won a brilliant game against Mamedyarov. He’s very good in complications, and very strong mental strength, commitment — I like his commitment!

Round 3: The calm after the storm

It felt like most of the players had decided they’d had enough excitement for one day, so that we got quick draws in Mamedyarov-Korobov, Anand-Nepomniachtchi and Grischuk-MVL.

Duda-Van Foreest was a wild game that ended in bare kings on move 70 after Duda seemed to have won the game two or three times before Jorden managed to escape. On the other hand, what prevented Duda was serious time trouble, that could also very easily have seen Jorden snatch victory.

The one decisive result was a bitter end to the day for Anish Giri, who after two draws was pushing for a win against Croatian no. 1 Ivan Saric. Ivan, who could have scored more in the first two games of the day, summed up what transpired against Anish:

This last game it started very bad, he completely outplayed me after the opening, and I didn’t like my position at all, but at some point when we traded the queens I was feeling ok, I was thinking that I could save this game, and eventually he got a bit too optimistic and got carried away. Then we entered into a rook endgame with a pawn up for me, which was quite unpleasant to defend with such low time.

The extra pawn was doubled, but structurally speaking Black’s position was in tatters while Ivan was first able to tuck his king away on g2. It’s the kind of technical position that Ivan plays as well as anyone, and he won convincingly in 70 moves.

That leaves the standings looking as follows after the first day of rapid chess. Note two things: there are two points for a win and one for a draw in rapid, and Garry Kasparov will be starting from the blitz section, when he plays in place of Ivan Saric.

Tune into all the action from 15:00 CEST here on chess24. 

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