The Open Rapid: Carlsen’s path to victory in Moscow
Carlsen set off on his path to victory with three wins and three draws in day one. He accelerated on the second day with four wins and two draws. The third and final day of the Open Rapid tournament was a day of reckoning, where certainty shattered hopes about turning the tables on the best player of the event. After getting in the pole position at the end of the second day, with 8/10 and half a point above the rest, on the third day of the Rapid Magnus Carlsen continued to improve his already confident performance and tightened his grip around the first place.
It wasn’t completely spotless for Carlsen, but it was more than enough. In Round eleven he drew with Maxime Vachier-Lagrave. Although managing to secure a better position, Carlsen missed a win when he went for a queen exchange. The situation on the board developed into a rook vs rook endgame, which did not give the Norwegian sufficient advantage to secure a victory over his French opponent.
In Round 12 Carlsen was White against Levon Aronian. In a tense endgame with queens, Aronian overlooked his strongest piece and lost. This was the moment when Carlsen increased his lead over everybody else to a whole point. A critical resource for the remaining three rounds.
Shakhriyar Mamedyarov was next to follow. Until playing Carlsen in Round 13, Mamedyarov was on six victories, five draws and had only one loss (to Vachier-Lagrave in Round Ten). His performance seemed confident, but all that confidence disappeared in the game against Carlsen where the Azeri GM played a line unnatural to his style and quickly lost. The Norwegian was now a point and a half ahead of everybody else. A face-paced game followed in Round 14 where Carlsen agreed to a draw with Leinier Dominguez Perez. Having finished this round first among the top boards, he was instantly now two points above everyone before the final game, which meant that if anyone wanted to catch him, they had to win in the 14th round. The only two to achieve that were Vladimir Artemiev, who defeated Vachier-Lagrave, and Hikaru Nakamura, who was better than Illya Smirin. Artemiev and Nakamura were now the only two players who had a chance. The key was in Nakamura’s hands: if he beat Carlsen, both would be on 11 points meaning there would be a playoff. Either because of being tired or thinking it was pointless to expect a victorious outcome over the Norwegian who was at the top of his game, Nakamura went for a quick draw after 22 moves, leaving Magnus to claim the title of the Rapid World Champion, one point above everybody else.
A surprise runner-up
The well-known Spanish GM Miguel Illescas said that FIDE should consider changing the pairing system it uses for big events and one of the reasons he highlighted was the unfairness of the Swiss System in which a player quickly goes down in the table if he loses a game. This well-known issue in chess was evident in the final round of the rapid as Alireza Firouzja (who recently left the Iranian chess federation and participated in the tournament under the flag of FIDE) emerged second although he got to the top board only in the final round. Firouzja, however, had a very good tournament, defeating Mamedyarov in the final round and finishing on 10.5/15. In the final standings table he was ranked first among those sharing second to fourth place. The remaining two were Hikaru Nakamura and Vladimir Artemiev, all on 10.5/15.
Places five to eleven were shared between seven players who all had 10/15: Aronian, Dominguez, Duda, Dubov, Korobov, Anton Guijaro and Yu Yangyi.
The rapid also saw a great performance by the 51-year-old Ilya Smirin who, having shared the first place after the first day (with Wang Hao), finished 15th with 9.5 points, but almost always playing at or close to the top boards.
Great turnarounds in competitions often happen when one side performs better than its opponent. Sometimes, however, changes happen not due to someone’s brilliance but rather because of their opponent’s oversight. This seemed to be the case in many of the games on the final day of the Women’s chess rapid.
After two days and eight rounds of play, there were four players sharing the first place, with 6.5/8: Irina Bulmaga, Tan Zhongyi, Lei Tingjie, and Mariya Muzychuk. The second tier, with 6/8 was made up of Humpy Koneru, Olga Girya, Kateryna Lagno, Harika Dronavalli, Ekaterina Atalik, and Anna Muzychuk.
Several of the key games on the final day were decided thanks to the blunders of players who were in significantly better positions.
Round Nine began with a Chinese-derby, where Lei Tingjie was white against Tan Zhongyi. This turned out to be the key game of Lei’s path to the top in the Rapid. Tan achieved a significantly better position but then got into time pressure which led to her first losing the advantage and then, in a drawn position, overlooking a bishop and losing. Lei Tingjie joined Irina Bulmaga at the top after Round Nine.
In the eleventh round, Lei Tingjie secured a comfortable position against Anna Muzychuk and was slightly better in a queen and rook vs queen and rook endgame. But then a turnaround happened – Lei overlooked a loose pawn on the b-file while Anna Muzychuk secured her advanced pawn on c3. It was now Lei Tingjie’s turn to play catch-up and fight to save the position while having to deal with about 20 seconds remaining on her clock. The game ended with a draw.
The final round of the women’s rapid started with Lei Tingjie alone at the top with 9/11, followed by Tan Zhongyi on 8.5 and no fewer than five players on eight points. Ekaterina Atalik sprang to board one for the final 12th round, to face Lei Tingjie’. Atalik quickly secured a piece up in the opening and was poised to win, which would have been a major upset on the scoreboard. After a blunder by Lei Tingjie, Atalik managed to win a bishop in the opening, but the compensation was at the risk of having her queen trapped behind black lines. Atalik simplified: she sacrificed a knight to end with two-pawns up and a winning position with White. She then missed a chance to win. While this drama was unfolding on the top board, things were heating up on board two: Koneru vs Zhongyi. With both players having a couple of seconds on their clock, Tan Zhongyi offered a draw to Humpy Koneru who immediately refused. A few seconds later, under time pressure, Zhongyi blundered and lost. Ekaterina Atalik immediately looked over to see what had happened. She knew that she had to try everything to squeeze a victory against Lei. Eventually, she got there: the Chinese player Lei lost her final game although she needed a draw to be first, while Humpy Koneru - who managed to win in the last two rounds – sprang to the top. This meant that three players were now tied for the top place: Lei Tingjie, Humpy Koneru, and Ekaterina Atalik.
The score-data showed that the tie-break of two blitz games should take place between the Koneru and Lei. The match included two games played with a time control of 3 minutes + 2 seconds increment per move, starting from move 1. There was a drawing of lots to decide which player starts with white pieces. Koneru lost the first game with white but managed to recover in the second after Lei made an oversight. The final decision was made in the “Armageddon” – the sudden death game – in which Koneru was better of the two.
Koneru: “It was a gamble”
In an interview after winning in the tie-break, Humpy Koneru said that the result was beyond her expectations from the day: “When I started my first game on Day Three I did not imagine I would be at the top. My hope was to reach the top three. I didn’t expect to play the tie-break games. I lost the first game on time, but came back in the second game. It was a gambling game, but I won. In the final game, a better position and it was a comfortable win.”
The hero of the women’s tournament
Regardless of the fact that she did not win the tournament, the hero of the Women’s Rapid was Irina Bulmaga. With 2383 rating points she was ranked 24th in the players' list, but her performance was much better, showing that her ELO is more a reflection of a lack of top tournaments than her actual strength.
Bulmaga started well, winning all four games on the first day and becoming one of the leaders. She slowed down in the second day, with three draws but a critical win against none-other than Humpy Koneru. Bulmaga’s performance on the second day (with 6.5 points altogether) was sufficient to keep her in the top position after eight rounds. Bulmaga continued to play confidently on the third day, setting off with a victory against Mariya Muzychuk. She was leading until round ten, but then her luck ran out: she suffered her first defeat at the hands of Olga Girya. In the next, 11th Round, Bulmaga played against Ekaterina Atalik (with whom she prepared for this tournament) and opted for a quick draw. The outcome of other top games in that round meant that Bulmaga was half a point behind the second-placed and a whole point behind the first placed player. In the final round, she lost to Natalija Pogonina and finished ninth on 8/12.
Text: Milan Dinic
Photos: Lennart Ootes, Maria Emelianova, David Llada
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