Wesley So leads Ian Nepomniachtchi by a point going into the 18 rounds of blitz on Monday and Tuesday after becoming the only player to win two games on any day of the rapid section of the Paris Rapid & Blitz. The US Champion brilliantly defeated Fabiano Caruana with the black pieces before taking advantage of a blunder by MVL in the next round. Nepo showed glimpsed of his brilliant best to take 2nd, while Etienne Bacrot beat Caruana to finish 3rd before he’s replaced by his blitz stunt double Vladimir Kramnik.
You can replay all the games from the Paris Rapid & Blitz, the 2nd event on the 2021 Grand Chess Tour, using the selector below.
When Peter Svidler was asked how he’d found getting back to playing rapid chess over the board he commented:
Difficult, mainly. I think most people are rusty and it shows in the play, but also a lot of fun!
That was a reasonable summary of the day, with Ian Nepomniachtchi also pointing out that not having the clocks always easily visible, or the possibility of pre-moves that use up no time, meant that the 10-second increment wasn’t the same as online.
In this OTB [over-the-board] chess a time scramble becomes real — you don’t see seconds on your screen, you’re uncomfortable with this 10-second increment, so things are getting a little bit shaky when it comes to the time trouble, but anyway it’s fun, and I hope it’s also fun to watch!
We saw even more wild swings than on the first day of the event, with only Wesley So (2.5/3), and Ian Nepomniachtchi and Etienne Bacrot (2/3) managing to score a plus score for the day. Once again the best approach to action is perhaps to focus on just some of the brilliancies and blunders we witnessed.
1. Caruana 0-1 So: 22…Kh8!
Wesley So has been his usual solid self, and in fact is not just the only unbeaten player in Paris but remains unbeaten on the Tour as a whole after not losing a game in Bucharest either. This game was the moment he began to stake a real claim to win the event outright, however, beginning by playing a new move-order in a hyper-sharp line of the Berlin Defence.
16…g5 (16…Bxb2 had been played a number of times) 17.Qe4 Bxb2 was a wild position where Fabiano thought for no less than 9 minutes, and his decision to play 18.Rb1!? looks to have been the start of a mistaken plan that culminated in 22.Rxb7?!
The fork 22…Nd6 is a move crying out to be made, and objectively it’s not a bad one, but after 23.Qxh4 Nxb7 24.Nxf6+, hitting h7, the black king is going to be driven around the board. Wesley dug deep and instead came up with the quiet sidestep 22…Kh8!, getting out of any checks.
Fabiano was granted a tempo to try and generate an attack, but it turned out he had nothing, and after 23.Bd3 Bg8! Black had everything under control — there was no stopping the fork on d6, which came next move, and Wesley went on to wrap up a comfortable and impressive victory.
2. So 1-0 MVL: 27.Rc8!
This game could of course be filed under “blunder”, since MVL’s 26…Rd8? (26…Qf7!, hitting the rook, and White is only slightly better) was a terrible move.
You have to be alert to spot tactical opportunities, however, and Wesley didn’t trust his opponent by capturing on e7 or moving his queen, when the game would again be drawish. Instead he moved to +3 with 27.Rc8!, when there was nothing to do but resign. There’s no way for Black to avoid ending up a whole rook down.
3. Rapport 1/2-1/2 Caruana: 36.d4!
Fabiano’s disastrous day in the office saw him also lose to Etienne Bacrot in the 2nd game of the day before he found himself completely on the ropes against Richard Rapport. The most memorable moment came after 35…Nxc2.
Here Richard played the wonderfully satisfying 36.d4!, putting his pawn on a square targetted by six of Black’s pawns or pieces. The watching Garry Kasparov was among the fans.
The main point is to block the black queen’s defence of the e5-pawn, but after 36…cxd4 37.c5 (37.Qxe5 was also strong) 37…Rc6 Richard seemed to forget about that, since 38.Qxe5! would have left him clearly winning. After 38.Rc7?! Rg8 39.Qd7?! (39.Qxe5! was the last chance) 39…Rxc7! White’s advantage had gone.
For one fleeting move in what followed Fabi was even winning, but in the end the game ended in a draw.
4. Nepomniachtchi 1-0 Radjabov: 23.Bxg6!
This game, between two players who met recently in the FTX Crypto Cup 3rd place match, looked set to be entertaining right from the start.
When Cristian Chirila later asked Ian when he’d lost control, he quipped, “I think I lost control at the start of the game!”
Nevertheless, he was also proud of a sparkling move.
23.Bxg6! was a fine sacrifice on a square defended twice, which Nepo described as “a nice piece of calculation”. After 23…hxg6 it’s easy to understand that 24.Qg4!, with the threat of Qh3+ and putting a piece on f6, leaves the black king in deep trouble.
After 23…fxg6, however, the key was the quiet follow-up 24.h4!. The h-pawn is ready to advance again, but the main point is that the g5-bishop is now defended, so that White is threatening Rxg7! while simultaneously attacking the queen on d8.
Nepo called it “a very nice practical decision” for Teimour to sacrifice back with 24…Qxe7!, and he called much of what followed “messy nonsense from both sides.” Radjabov almost trapped Nepo’s queen and was briefly even better, but in the end Nepo came out on top in 91 moves.
Rapport 1-0 Svidler: 14…Qf6?
In hindsight it was arguably a blunder for Peter Svidler not to meet 1.d4 Nf6 2.c4 g6 3.h4!? with 3…Nc6!?, a near novelty recommended in his Chessable Grünfeld course. Instead he went for 3…c5 after a 5-minute think! Peter explained:
I don’t think I’ve played every single line against h4 yet. After today, I’ve almost covered all the bases apart from Nc6, so I think the next time I might be contractually obliged to go Nc6. But I haven’t played the Benko yet, so I played the Benko and it did not go well… It’s very playable here — if the Benko isn’t playable after h4 it’s just unplayable, obviously, but I’m not very accustomed to those structures and I’m probably not making the best decisions.
The clear blunder was 14…Qf6? (14…Nc6! and after the game Richard told Peter he thought Black might be better).
Here Richard went for 15.h6! Bh8 but then not the 16.Rh3 that Peter expected but 16.Rh4!, when there’s just nothing Black can do about the combined threats of capturing on e4 and playing Rf4.
Peter wanted to resign, but continued 16…Bxf3 17.Rf4 Qd8.
White has a winning ending after capturing twice on f8 and then picking up the bishop on f3, but Richard instead played the sparkling 18.Bxd7!, when Peter could resign with a clean conscience. 18…Qxd7 is met by a choice of mates on f8, while 18…Nxd7 19.Qxe6+ is mate-in-2. The threat of Bxe6+ leaves no way to continue.
I was kind of happy he played Bxd7. Now it will be a diagram associated with this line. Still after Rxf8 I would have lost slower, but I definitely would have lost as well.
Firouzja 1/2-1/2 Aronian: 40…Ng6?
Alireza Firouzja hasn’t been richly rewarded on the score table, but he’s treated us to at least one epic game every day in Paris. This time he sacrificed two pawns against Levon Aronian, but the Armenian star responded in kind with a fine exchange sacrifice. The position was close to dynamic equality until Alireza allowed Levon a winning attack along the h-file.
40…Qh4+! here is completely winning by force — 41.Kf4 g3+! 42.Ke3 Nc4+!, and in fact Black has much better than to take the rook on b6, since the only move to avoid mate in 1 or 2 moves is 43.Kd3, and then 43…Nb2+ forks the king and queen.
Instead Levon blitzed out 40…Ng6? threatening mate on both f4 and h4. What had he overlooked? 41.Qd4! simply pinned the black queen and, with the mating threats gone, White is just a rook up.
Firouzja 1/2-1/2 Aronian: 48.Kd3?
That wasn’t game over, however. We’ve seen again and again in Paris that Alireza Firouzja still has flaws in his game. One seems to be a lack of instinctive knowledge of how to play some common endgames — he would pay for that against MVL in the last round of the game — and another was highlighted by Garry Kasparov: time management. Alireza had 21 seconds on his clock and got down to two seconds in this position before he made his move.
Three king moves are good and two are bad (48.Ke2? Re5!), and Alireza picked one of the mined squares, 48.Kd3?, which lost his extra rook on d6 to the simple double attack 48…Qxg3+. You might add nerves to the list of things for Alireza to work on, since he was clearly extremely nervous when he made the mistake.
It meant torture for the rest of the game, but despite it lasting 122 moves and Alireza making an incorrect claim for a draw by 3-fold repetition (the penalty was that Levon gained 2 minutes on the clock) he managed to hold a draw.
Aronian 0-1 Svidler: 14.a4?
Epic games are often followed by collapses in the next, and that was the case for Levon Aronian, whose 14.a4? left him lost against Peter Svidler in the final round.
14…Nc5! was a move it cost Peter no trouble to find, since, as he explained, that had been one of the ideas behind his previous move 13…Qa5, and leaving the b3-square unguarded simply made it stronger.
The point is that 15.dxc5 Bxc3 is winning a full rook. Peter commented:
I don’t know how typical it is, because you don’t normally get the rook on e1 as unprotected as it is here. The whole tactical justification for this is that the rook on e1 is actually protected by nothing, because otherwise this wouldn’t work, and I don’t think you get many positions by move 14 in any kind of opening where the rook on e1 is actually attacked by two pieces and protected by none.
Levon tried to stagger on with 15.Qd1 Qxc3 16.Ba3 but Peter was clinical with 16…Bxd4! 17.Rb1 Bxf2+! 18.Kxf2 Qxa3 and White was soon just three pawns down in an endgame. There was no miracle save.
That leaves Peter in the tie for 4th place with MVL going into the blitz, and he was looking forward to it.
Now that I say this, I obviously will tank horribly, but I probably by this point like blitz more than I like rapid. There’s a lot more scope to have fun and just enjoy it, which I think by this point is really what I’m looking for in the game, so yeah, very excited to have two days of blitz ahead of me, and nobody seems to be completely running away with it, so I’m in with a shout.
The standings look as follows going into the blitz.
It’s now going to be back to a normal 1 point for a win, so with Wesley in the sole lead we can expect him to once again play solidly to keep that edge unless provoked, for instance by someone else surging forward. There are 18 rounds, however, so anything can happen, and we’re also going to have 14th World Chess Vladimir Kramnik joining in place of Etienne Bacrot.
Kramnik finished 3rd in the 2019 World Blitz Championship despite his retirement from classical chess, so he can be a formidable force. Will being more rested and motivated than the other players help him, or will he be rusty after parachuting into a tournament that’s already in full flow?