After the opening ceremony on the 9th of August, the action at the Saint Louis Rapid & Blitz 2019, kicked off in Saint Louis, United States of America, on August 10th. The fourth event in the current cycle of the Grand Chess Tour, the event left classical chess behind, in favour of a few days of speed chess. World Champion, Magnus Carlsen (NOR 2882), headed the tournament as top seed.
Carlsen, leading the Grand Chess Tour going into this tournament, has been in spectacular form so far this year and would surely be setting his sights on some more Grand Chess Tour points. The Saint Louis Rapid & Blitz offered 13-points for winning the event outright, (12 if on tiebreaks); but if Magnus wanted the points, he was going to have to best some tough competition.
Also competing at this event, are: Fabiano Caruana (USA 2818), Ding Liren (CHN 2805), Maxime Vachier-Lagrave (FRA 2778), Levon Aronian (ARM 2765), Shakhriyar Mamedyarov (AZE 2764), Leinier Dominguez Perez (CUB 2763), Yu Yangyi (CHN 2752), Sergey Karjakin (RUS 2750), Richard Rapport (HUN 2747).
The first three days of the tournament concentrate on rapid chess. The rapid section is a round-robin, with 3 games played each day. In a break with the norm, it also sees 2 points for a win and 1-point for a draw.
When play got underway, Magnus Carlsen had a bit of a stumble out of the blocks. He lost his first game to China’s Ding Liren. The game was a Ragozin Queen’s Gambit Declined, which was quite balanced until Carlsen blundered rather uncharacteristically with 24…Qe7(?).
The problem with this move, is that it allows 25.Nc6. And this is what Ding played, probably without too much hesitation. Although the fork on Black’s Queen and rook is easily solved, with 25…Bxc6, after 26.Rxd8 Rxd8 27.bxc6, White has obtained a rather nice passed pawn. There followed: 27…Nb6 28.Be5 Qg5 29.c7 and here, Carlsen chose the active 29…Rd5(?!), rather than blockading the c-pawn with 29…Rc8.
The pros and cons of this decision can be debated until doomsday, but …Rc8 seems to lead to a rather natural line that sees White much better, a pawn up and although he would lose the advanced passer on c7, he would still be left with the one on c3, which would be no less influential. This is the kind of thing that Magnus evaluates in a flash and I think he probably decided that his only chance was to give Ding a chance to mess up. For example, after 29…Rd5, came 30.Qe4+ Qg6 31.Qb4 and here, after Carlsen’s 31…Qd3, Ding has to be very careful. Very careful indeed.
The issue is his back rank, which is only guarded by the rook on e1. As this rook also defends White’s bishop on e5, that piece becomes vulnerable also. For instance, Black has the threat of …Rxe5 and if White would play Rxe5, then he gets mated with …Qd1+, Re1 Qxe1 mate. This would of course be very embarrassing.
However, …Qe2 is also a serious possibility for Black, forking rook and bishop, with the rook unable to capture the Queen due to the same back rank threat, (now from the Rd5). If White would have a brain fart, and lunge at 32.Qxb6(??), with the idea of queening on c8 next, for example, then Black would be laughing after …axb6, c8=Q Qe2(!!) completely winning.
For me, regardless of the textbooks and computer evaluations, Magnus made the best over-the-board choice to try and save the game. However, Ding wasn’t to be hoodwinked, played 32.h3 and didn’t look back. He took a little while to wrap things up, but had the point in 45.
Not the best of starts by Magnus Carlsen, then, but he did manage to shake this loss off and win his next two games in this round. These were against Richard Rapport and Leinier Dominguez Perez. Ding consolidated his point, with draws against Dominguez Perez and Fabiano Caruana.
The star of day one, though, was Levon Aronian. The Armenian Grandmaster notched up a perfect 3 wins from his first 3 games. This included two wins with the black pieces, the first over Maxime Vachier-Lagrave of France. Their game was a Giuoco Pianissimo, and was quite balanced until Vachier-Lagrave’s error, 29.Nc4(?).
The move chose to maintain the tension, rather than exchanging light-squared bishops. It was a bit of a strange decision, especially because it would have doubled Black’s c-pawns. Unfortunately, it proved very costly and allowed Aronian to seize a very nice initiative, with 29…Bxd5 30.exd5 Nf4(!). This move immediately pounces on White’s pawn on d5, of course. And although this pawn is defended simply enough, with 31.Ne3, White’s c3-pawn would fall to 31…Ne2+.
This was a careless oversight by Maxime Vachier-Lagrave. It is the kind of thing that one can’t afford to do against Levon Aronian, who converted his advantage without much trouble.
Another win followed for Levon in his second game, in which he was White against Sergey Karjakin of Russia. Karjakin must have had his ‘minister of defence’ credentials revoked, because he didn’t seem to put up much resistance. Karjakin traded queens on his 25th move and Aronian looked to have his tail up from this point. He certainly out-played his opponent in the endgame, leaving him 2 for 2.
In his last game of the day, Levon defeated Shakhriyar Mamedyarov of Azerbaijan, though it is perhaps truer to say that Shakh defeated himself. Mamedyarov played rather impatiently as White in their Queens Gambit Declined. Indeed, some might say recklessly, throwing pawns forward a little too nonchalantly and giving himself too many weaknesses.
This left him with an endgame in which he had 3 isolated pawns and little resistance to Aronian’s lovely connected passers on the Queenside. The final position, below, shows the bleak situation in which Mamedyarov resigned.
With the double-points scoring system of the event, the standings at the end of day one are as follows:
Aronian — 6
Carlsen, Ding — 4
Caruana, Vachier-Lagrave, Mamedyarov — 3
Yu, Karjakin, Rapport — 2
Dominguez Perez — 1
The Saint Louis Rapid & Blitz was held between August 9th and 15th, in Saint Louis, United States of America. Part of the 2019 Grand Chess Tour, it featured a round robin rapid tournament, played over August 10th, 11th and 12th. There followed a double-round-robin blitz event, played over August 13th and 14th. Prize fund: $150,000 (£123,447 / €135,202), 1st prize: $37,500 (£30,861 / €33,800). Official website: https://grandchesstour.org/2019-grand-chess-tour/2019-saint-louis-rapid-blitz