Saint Louis Rapid & Blitz 2019: Vachier-Lagrave Snatches Lead After First Day Of Blitz

Karjakin and Ding have a strong day as the pace quickens. Vachier-Lagrave beats Aronian in final round of the day to make the top of the standings his own.

Saint Louis Rapid & Blitz 2019, opening ceremony. | Image © Austin Fuller / Grand Chess Tour.

After three days of rapid chess, the Saint Louis Rapid & Blitz tournament, switched it up a notch and moved to blitz chess. This section of the event would see the 10 players playing a double-round-robin, held over two days. Unlike the rapid section, which saw 2 points for a win and 1 for a draw, the blitz section would revert back to normal scoring.

The standings going into the blitz section, were as follows:

Aronian, Vachier-Lagrave — 13
Ding, Yu — 10
Rapport, Carlsen, Caruana, Karjakin — 8
Dominguez Perez — 7
Mamedyarov — 5

Day one of the blitz saw quite a different situation than the rapid. It was dominated by Sergey Karjakin and Ding Liren, who scored 6.5/9.

Scores, Blitz Day 1:

Ding, Karjakin — 6.5
Rapport — 6.0
Yu — 5.5
Carlsen, Vachier-Lagrave — 4.5
Aronian — 4.0
Dominguez Perez — 3.5
Mamedyarov — 2.5
Caruana — 1.5

As can be seen, Magnus Carlsen did not have a good enough day for his cause. This is even though the World Champion started the day encouragingly, using the white pieces to beat Maxime Vachier-Lagrave. The game was a King’s Indian, in which Carlsen perhaps had a slight edge, but nothing telling. Vachier-Lagrave had been playing catch up in development (nothing unusual there for Black in the opening) and perhaps felt that he had to do something. What he did was quite drastic.

The game arrived at the position shown above, with Magnus having played 17.Nd2 as shown. Here, Maxime decided to give the exchange with 17…Rxe3. In hindsight, this is a rather questionable decision as it is a pure sacrifice and without compensation. Normally one would like to take a good look at things before taking such an action, but that is not possible in blitz of course. Had it been a classical game, I have little doubt that the Frenchman would have taken another route. There was 17…Bxe2+ for example, when after 18.Qxe2 Re8, White is better but Black does not have major problems.

After 17…Rxe3 18.fxe3 Bxe2 19.Qxe2, however, Carlsen did not look back. A big part of this was that the endgame arrived soon after and White’s extra rook was much more potent than Black’s extra piece. In the end, the game was fought between Carlsen’s King and Queen and Vachier-Lagrave’s King and rook. It was no contest, Magnus finished it off in rather instructive fashion.

Unfortunately for Magnus, the wheels came straight off his bus in the next game, when he came up against Sergey Karjakin. The game was a French Defence and after some inaccuracies from both sides, Sergey ended up getting the better of the endgame. As you can see in the diagram, below, the Queenside was Carlsen’s undoing, the position of the Kings especially telling.

And this really summed up Carlsen’s day of blitz, for his wins there was a loss. Three draws in the mix, meant that he was out of the running for this tournament and it was now damage limitation time. Magnus had been quite frank about this, commenting that his confidence was low and that he just wanted this tournament to be over. His focus now was the Sinquefield Cup, played at the same venue and immediately following this tournament.

Karjakin’s day was slightly better. Along with the win over Carlsen, the Russian took points from Fabiano Caruana, Shakhriyar Mamedyarov, Yu Yangyi and Leinier Dominguez Perez. He would end the day with an impressive 6.5/9 score. His only loss in the 9 games, was against Richard Rapport, who was also having a very good day. Rapport started the day very confidently, with back-to-back wins over Fabiano Caruana and joint-leader, Maxime Vachier-Lagrave.

It was not the best of games against Vachier-Lagrave, however. He got himself into some trouble with White in a Trompowsky Attack. I feel that the Trompowsky is the kind of opening that suits Rapport down to the ground. It is a great weapon for blitz especially, with its relatively light theory and room for creativity and traps. However, the Hungarian almost ended up trapping himself in this game.

In the above position, Rapport has just played 20.Rd1, rather taking his eye off of his bishop on a4. Here, Vachier-Lagrave had at his disposal, 20…g5. After 21.Bg3 Kg7 (freeing the f-pawn to advance), White’s bishop is a horrid piece and quivering in its boots. Maxime, however, chose a different route, 20…Re4 21.Rd4 g5. Now, due to the placement of the rook, Richard has a tactical get out — 22.Bxg5(!).

Here, 22…hxg5 would be met by 23.Nxg5+, forking King and rook. I think it highly unlikely that Vachier-Lagrave had missed this, and 23…Kg8 24.Nxe4 fxe4 looks ok for him, but something made him play 22…Rxd4(?) instead. This was a mistake, allowing White to simply retreat his bishop from g5 to e3, saving his bishop and pinning the e4-rook to its Queen.

All of a sudden, White’s situation was much improved, to the point that he had a huge advantage. And this advantage increased when Vachier-Lagrave (no doubt rather ticked off at himself) decided to put his rook back on e4 and let Rapport have his Queen for the bishop. He had the point not too long after and would end the day on 6/9.

This meant that Maxime Vachier-Lagrave started the day with two losses. However, he bounced back, winning four out of his next seven games. Crucially, one was against Levon Aronian. It was in the final game of the day and saw Aronian blunder a piece as Black. The diagram, below, shows the moment of the error.

Here, Aronian had a few moves for consideration, but the most productive was probably 26…Nd5. The move targets the c-pawn of course, but the real point is to allow the black Queen access to the Kingside. White then has very little. Unfortunately for Levon, he chose the wrong way to do this and played 26…Nh7(?) instead.

This was a costly mistake, demonstrated by his opponent’s 27.Rb4(!). The threat is of course Rh4+, which under the current circumstances would win Black’s Queen, …Qxh4 being obligatory. There followed: 27…Ng5 28.Rg4 f6 29.h4 and White’s mate threats along the g-file prevent the knight from moving. The game ended swiftly.

This result meant that Maxime Vachier-Lagrave, would finish the day as sole leader of the event. Going into the final day of play, it was obviously going to be a fight between him and Levon Aronian, with Ding Liren and Yu Yangyi looking to be spoilers.

Ding’s 6.5/9 put him in sole third place, a half point behind Aronian and just a point off the lead. Bearing in mind that Aronian and Vachier-Lagrave had been 3-points clear at the start of the day, nothing could be taken for granted.

Combined Rapid & Blitz Standings:

Maxime Vachier-Lagrave — 17.5
Levon Aronian — 17
Ding Liren — 16.5
Yu Yangyi — 15.5
Sergey Karjakin — 14.5
Richard Rapport — 14
Magnus Carlsen — 12.5
Leinier Dominguez Perez — 10.5
Fabiano Caruana — 9.5
Shakhriyar Mamedyarov — 7.5

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

About John Lee Shaw 273 Articles
Total chess nut! I enjoy following the chess world and giving my two-penneth. I don't pretend to be an expert, I'm more a knowledgeable enthusiast. My chess writing can also be seen at www.chessimprover.com.

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