Croatia GCT 2: Saric shocks Nepo

Croatian no. 1 Ivan Saric beat World Champion Magnus Carlsen in the 2014 Olympiad, and on Day 2 of the Croatian Grand Chess Tour in Zagreb he got to celebrate defeating World Championship Challenger Ian Nepomniachtchi as well. That win with the black pieces allowed Ivan to join Vishy Anand and Maxime Vachier-Lagrave in moving to within just a point of the leader on a day when no-one managed to win more than a single game.

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Nepo stopped

Ian Nepomniachtchi, who went into Day 2 of the Croatia Grand Chess Tour as the only player on a plus score, was threatening to run away with the event. The Russian Champion began with a smooth win over compatriot Alexander Grischuk, after 22…Be7? allowed a simple tactic.

23.Bxc6! Rxc6 24.Bxd4! (not 24.exd4 Bf6!) picked up a pawn and, with some precision (45.Be5! was later the only winning move), Ian converted.

The World Championship Challenger then drew comfortably with Black against Jan-Krzysztof Duda before going into the final round with White against bottom seed Ivan Saric. It looked like a great chance to end the day with a 3-point lead but, just as against Anish Giri in the last round the previous day, Ivan showed he wasn’t in the mood just to be the token local player.

It all began to go wrong for Ian when his 17.Bg2?! was met by 17…a5!

Saric explained White had no choice but to go for 18.Nxe7+ Qxe7 19.Nd5 Qb7 — “my queen is forced to a better square”. There was also no way to avoid Ivan then exchanging on d5 with 20.g4 Bxd5 21.Qxd5 Qxd5 22.exd5 Bf4!

Ivan explained:

As soon as you lose control of the d5-square with the white pieces in the Sveshnikov you’re immediately fighting for equality, so after Nd5, Qb7 he can’t really defend this knight, so he will eventually recapture on d5 with the pawn, and that position is just strategically bad. Of course he knew this, and he was at that point already quite unhappy with his position. Afterwards I was playing good. I think the endgame over the board is very hard to hold with the white pieces, because you just have to wait and you have no idea what to do.

Ivan thought he had the game won with 34…Rb4!, but was impressed by Nepomniachtchi’s 35.a5!?

Black’s threat is 35…Rxe4! 36.Kxe4 f5+! and the c7-rook will take the rook on h7. Nepo had seen that, but after 35…Rxe4 went for 36.a6! instead. The a-pawn went on to cost Black a rook, but although Nepo was an exchange up, the black pawns were just too powerful and Ivan went on to score a convincing win. He commented afterwards:

I feel great, especially after today. I played good chess today, and in the last game I took his gift in the opening and I converted a slightly better position, maybe a much better position, but anyway I’m very happy, since now besides the World Champion I’ve also beaten the World Championship Challenger, so in my career those two are big victories!

Anand and MVL close the gap

On Day 2 there was no stand-out player, and no-one collapsed. Four players scored 2/3 (Giri, Saric, MVL and Anand), two players scored 50% (Duda and Nepo) and four players scored 1/3 (Korobov, Van Foreest, Grischuk and Mamedyarov). Nepo’s slip in the final round allowed Ivan Saric to move within a point, where he was joined by MVL and Anand.

Maxime Vachier-Lagrave’s win, against Jan-Krzysztof Duda in the first round of the day, was a rollercoaster ride. The French no. 2 — Alireza Firouzja has now been granted French citizenship, though he hasn’t yet switched chess federations and is still playing under the FIDE flag — commented on his play:

It’s been going up and down. I’ve had a few blunders, so that’s always annoying because it didn’t happen to me until very recently and now it seems it cannot stop happening. I’m trying to solve that and play a bit more solidly.

He admitted 22.Bb3? was simply a blunder (he needed to move his queen).

Duda pounced with 22…Bxf2+!, when 23.Kxf2 would run into 23…Qf4+, winning back the piece with an extra pawn. Maxime nevertheless played on with 23.Kh1 and ultimately took over to build up a winning position. It then looked like he blundered again with 40.Qf4!?

That walked into 40…Rf6!, but it turned out this was no blunder from MVL.

No, this was voluntary! I thought this endgame was close to winning, then later it went on to be a drawn pawn endgame. I thought it’s not practical to keep queens on the board, because he has lots of counterplay, and also there are many occasions where he will just exchange one pair of rooks, get one of my pawns on the queenside, and then it’s a draw despite what the computer will say, so I thought this was a more practical decision.

Subsequent play vindicated Maxime’s choice, though only after both players misplayed a king and pawn endgame until Duda blundered last and lost. 

Maxime then ended the day with draws against Ivan Saric and Anish Giri. He felt there were “some encouraging signs” in his play, and explained his focus is now on the FIDE World Cup, which he’ll start playing in under a week’s time.

I’m trying to qualify for the Candidates and avoid all the nightmares I’ve had in the past few years, so it’s definitely not going to be easy, but I just want to get to the final — what I’ve very often been so close to achieving, but never quite managed.

Vishy Anand isn’t playing the World Cup, but also had a good day at the office, drawing against Mamedyarov and Grischuk and beating Anton Korobov. While on Day 1 he’d played a dubious knight sacrifice on f5, this time he got to play a correct one that solved all his problems.

After 27.Nf5! the knight can’t be taken (the d7-rook is hanging), so there was nothing better than 27…Rxd2 28.Nxe7+ Qxe7 29.Rxd2 Rxd2 30.Qxd2

Queens were soon exchanged and it turned out that Vishy’s queenside pawns were able to start marching up the board while Korobov’s kingside pawns could be held by White’s bishop. This was the final position where Anton resigned.

The other player to improve his position on Day 2 was Anish Giri, who got back to 50% with two draws and a win over Anton Korobov. That was a Vienna Game, 1.e4 e5 2.Nc3!?, and featured some amusing tactics. Anish took over when Anton failed to exploit Black’s back-rank weakness with 21.Re1!, and after 21.c4 Be4 22.Qa3 the fun began with 22…Bb4!

The point is that 23.Qxb4?? loses to 23…Qf3! and you can’t stop mate on h1 or g2. The theme continued with 23.Qe3 c5! 24.Bb2 Bd2!?, though soon Anish decided enough was enough and exchanged queens before going on to convert his extra pawn.

Duda’s double focus

One player who had a mixed day in Zagreb was Polish no. 1 Jan-Krzysztof Duda, who started with that loss we’ve seen to MVL but ended with a fine win with the black pieces over Shakhriyar Mamedyarov. That meant Duda was only 50% for the day and the tournament, but elsewhere it had been a great day!

Before play started in Zagreb, he won a shortened semi-final of the San Fermin Banter Blitz Cup by beating Adhiban twice with the Indian star’s own weapon, 1.b3!

Then late at night it was back to 1.d4 in the final against Liem Quang Le, where he stormed to victory with wins in the final four games.

Liem Quang Le gains a place in the Meltwater Champions Chess Tour while as winner Jan-Krzysztof chose the alternative prize of playing in the €50,000 San Fermin Masters Final. The 8-player field features Magnus Carlsen, Ding Liren, Wesley So and Levon Aronian. 

That means that on Saturday not only will Duda play blitz against 13th World Champion Garry Kasparov in Zagreb, but he’ll also take on Wesley So in a best-of-8 blitz quarterfinal, where the winner is likely to face current World Champion Magnus Carlsen. Magnus, who plays from Pamplona — the San Fermin festival is world famous for the bull run which has again been cancelled this year due to the pandemic — will take on Eduardo Iturrizaga.

So it’s going to be tough for Duda, but if he can hit the kind of form that made him the 2018 World Blitz Championship runner-up he could still have an amazing weekend. For now these are the standings in Zagreb.

There are three more rounds of rapid chess in which the players can jockey for position before the 18 rounds of blitz at the weekend. Tune into all the action from 15:00 CEST here on chess24.

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