Ian Nepomniachtchi was the first player to take the sole lead in the Paris Rapid & Blitz after taking down Levon Aronian with a beautiful combination in Round 5, but in the very next round he spoilt a great opening position before falling for a stunning final move from Maxime Vachier-Lagrave. Maxime had suffered himself earlier in the day, playing 1.b3 before losing a rook endgame to his compatriot and second Etienne Bacrot. The day ended with Fabiano Caruana, Nepo and Wesley So tied for the lead.
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There were just four decisive games on Day 2 of the Paris Rapid & Blitz, and just two players, Ian Nepomniachtchi and Maxime Vachier-Lagrave, played more than one of them. They both got to suffer and celebrate.
Maxime suffered first as he solved the problem of what to play against his second, who knows all his opening secrets, by starting 1.b3 against Etienne Bacrot. All it got him, however, was a pawn-down rook ending, with Etienne trading the extra pawn for a lead in a race to queen. As late as move 64, Maxime could still have drawn by putting his rook on h6, h7 or h8, but 64.Ke5? was a losing move.
After 64…Ra2! Etienne was winning, though he mentioned afterwards that he’d assumed he was winning anyway before the blunder. It’s not so obvious at a glance that the white e-pawn, with so far to go, is enough to hold a draw in some lines where White is forced to give up his rook for the h-pawn.
That was the only decisive game of the first round of the day, while in the second the star performance came from Ian Nepomniachtchi. Levon Aronian decided he could grab a pawn with 26…Bxa3?, which armed with a computer initially looks like a crude blunder since Nepo could play 27.Rd7! and White is winning. However, there was nothing simple about spotting why the position after 27…Rf8 is so lost.
The World Championship challenger here uncorked 28.Be4! f5 29.Qxh6!! fxe4 30.Rd5!
The point is 30…exd5 loses the queen on b6 to 31.Qxb6, while 30…f6 runs into 31.Qg6+ Kh8 32.Rh5 mate, and 30…f5 is mate-in-4 after 31.Rd7. A shell-shocked Aronian thought for 3 minutes and managed to continue the game with 30…Qxe3 31.Qxe3 exd5, but although a rook and bishop can sometimes match a queen, in this case Black’s uncoordinated pieces and scattered pawns were sitting ducks. The game lasted another 7 moves before Levon resigned.
That game made Ian Nepomniachtchi the sole leader, and the way his French Defence went against MVL in the final round suggested someone was finally about to break well clear of the chasing pack.
It looked like White was busted, but although speed is one of Nepo’s big strengths we’ve seen time and again that he sometimes rushes critical decisions. In this case, according to the computer, Ian let things slip on move 14.
Here 14…Bxf2+! 15.Kf1 Bg3, threatening mate on f2 as well as hitting the knight on e5, is apparently best. There’s absolutely no shame in failing to work that out at the board, but you could criticise the Russian no. 1 for playing 14…Bxb5!? in a mere 2 seconds when he had almost 20 minutes on his clock.
Both players were handling the fiendishly complicated position at breakneck speed and for a while it seemed it would somehow fizzle out into a draw, but when Nepo finally did take on f2 it backfired in an incredible manner.
It perhaps doesn’t help the thesis that Nepo should spend more of his time that he came up with the losing 24…Rxf2? after four and a half minutes of thought. Play continued 25.Rxf2 Nxf2 and now Maxime played the showstopper, 26.Nd7!!
Ian found himself in exactly the same position as Levon had been against him, and could only laugh as he contemplated the sudden ruins of his position. 26…Rxd7 now runs into 27.Qf8+!, with White capturing on c5 with check and winning the game. Black can’t move his attacked queen as Rxc5+ will win the house.
The reason you might not even consider a move like 26.Nd7!! is that Black can give discovered check with his knight on f2, but nothing works. If 26…Ne4+ then again 27.Rxc5+ wins, while after 26…Nh3+ 27.Kg2 all Black’s problems remain. 27…Nf4+ would be the last check, and it’s simply met by 28.Bxf4.
There was nothing for Ian to do but resign, though the silver lining was that although he lost the sole lead he remains joint leader with Wesley So, who made 3 solid draws, and Fabiano Caruana, who scored the day’s only other win. Fabi admitted his win over Peter Svidler was “not my proudest game”, since the 8-time Russian Champion was doing well until 36…Rc8?
37.Be2! won essentially on the spot. Fabi thought Peter might only have considered e.g. 37…Rhh8 38.h5, when it’s roughly equal, but 38.Bg4! is crushing. Instead Peter gave up the exchange with 37…Rch8, but there was no way back.
The day wasn’t just about decisive games, however, since Alireza scored three draws and remains winless but was once again involved in arguably the day’s most exciting game. Firouzja-Caruana was almost a carbon copy of So-Firouzja the day before, except that the game never swung significantly in Fabi’s favour, but only from winning for Alireza to drawn and back, again and again.
Fabi’s 25…h5?!!, offering the h-pawn with check, shocked both the commentators and Alireza.
“I don’t think it’s a good move, because always after Nxb6 d3 I was having a problem where to put the queen – now I found a good place!” said Alireza, though there was method in the madness. 26.Qxh5+ immediately only gives White a slight edge after 26…Qh6, while after 26.Nxb6! d3 Alireza didn’t take the pawn with 27.Qxh5+! since he missed that after 27…Qh6 28.Qxh6+ gxh6 he had 29.Rxc5! Bxc5 and 30.Nbd7! is winning for White.
His 27.Re3 was a decent move, however, and soon he was winning again after spotting a brilliant resource.
33.Nfe5! is not so hard to calculate when you consider it, but you need to overcome the mental block of allowing Black to capture a pawn with check: 33…Qxf2+. It turns out, however, that after 34.Kh1 Black can do nothing about Qxh5+ next, and with the e5-knight controlling the g6-square the black king is in a world of hurt.
Instead Fabi bit the bullet with 33…Nxe3 34.Bxe3 Kg7 35.Qxh5 Rh8, and although White was winning, it’s very far from obvious that the quiet retreat 36.Qd1! was the way to go about things.
In the game Fabi fought back powerfully and seemed set to hold the ending, but 63…Bd6? was a blunder that Alireza pounced upon to regain the advantage, until the last twist on move 68.
White is winning, but as Alireza noted afterwards, it seems the only clean win was 68.Rb7+! Kc6 69.Nc4! when after 69…Kxb7 70.Nxd6+ the last black piece drops and the f-pawn queens. Even there Fabi could play on with other moves, but with just 8 seconds on his clock Alireza played 68.Ng4?, overlooking 68…Rc4+! completely.
Black was suddenly surviving, but only by the skin of his teeth: 69.Ke3 Rxg4! 70.Rxd6+! Ke7 71.Rd7+ Kf8 72.b5 Rb4 73.Rb7.
Firouzja was still on the verge of victory, but Fabiano found the only moves to hold the draw: 73…e5! 74.b6 e4! and later the e-pawn would make it to e2 before forcing liquidation and a draw. It had been a true thriller, with Alireza later commenting:
It’s always tough to play the top players in the world, but I’m trying to play some good games and some exciting chess… In general in this tournament I’m playing very good, I think, but I’m not converting the winning positions, but still there are many games to play and we’ll see.
The standings look as follows, with Firouzja in 9th place still just a single rapid win (worth two points) away from the leaders.
Sunday will be the final day of rapid chess, before 18 games of blitz on Monday and Tuesday. Tune into all the games from 14:00 CEST here on chess24.