The small vacuum left by Wesley and Alireza, combined with the pressure of taking down the tournament leader was all Carlsen needed to remind everybody that he’s still the best. While energy reserves start to deplete for most players, it seems Carlsen has only been getting stronger. He seemed poised for a rampage today, but a misstep in round 7 forced him to leave half a point on the board.
Uncertainty at the top
A weakness is finally revealed in what up until now had been a monolithic performance by Wesley So. In his post-game interview, Wesley noted that the positions he's been getting with White are holding him back. Sure enough, this problem could have cost him dearly if not for his superb defensive skills. He managed to transform two losing positions into draws, against Carlsen and Mamedyarov no less. Aside from that, he continues to make the Berlin Defense look easy and should be a favorite going into the Blitz. However, it’s unclear if the shorter time control will aid or amplify his problem with the White pieces.
Wesley So had to make some contortions today, but he still came out the other end in one piece | Photo courtesy of Grand Chess Tour, Lennart Ootes
So - Carlsen
Here Carlsen played 44…Nf3? (44…Kh7 would have been enough) and allowed the following tactic:
45.Ncxe4! dxe4 46.d5+ f6 47.dxe6 and Black’s exposed king was all the counterplay Wesley needed. Draw
It seems there is no middle ground with Ian Nepomnichtchi. We either get the seemingly invincible version we saw in the Candidates, or total collapse after a hard blow. Following his crushing loss to Van Foreest in Round 6, things did not get any better for him in Round 7, allowing Ivan Saric to score his first win of the tournament:
Saric - Nepomniachtchi
22.fxe5! cxb3 23.axb3 Nc5 24.Rhf1+- gave White a crushing attack. 1-0
Nepomniachtchi still looking for consistency. Here getting ready to begin a fateful game against Saric | Photo courtesy of Grand Chess Tour, Lennart Ootes
However, when it seemed everything was spiraling out of control, he managed to right the ship and finish the day with two nice wins:
MVL - Nepomniachtchi
After 37...Qb8! 38.Rxg7 Nf2+ MVL resigned in view of 39.Kh4 Qh2 mate! 0–1
23...g6?? (23...Be6 would have been fine for Black) 24.Ra6! Topalov resigned since after White plays Rb6 next, one of his bishops will be lost. 1–0
Magnus had missed his chance against Wesley in Round 7, but now he would get to test Van Foreest under pressure. After a catastrophic result in the opening, Jorden was soon on the defensive and Magnus began to display his strategic mastery.
Carlsen-Van Foreest | Photo courtesy of Grand Chess Tour, Lennart Ootes
Here Magnus played the strategically devastating 38.Rd5!, now the knight on c4 is dominated. It was eventually lost. 1-0
Saric - Carlsen
37...Qc7!! Black realizes the queen is misplaced on the queenside and begins to redirect it to the other side of the board. 38.Qe2 Qd8 39.Nb2 Qg5 40.Nd7 Ng3 41.Qf2 Be4+ and the queen will mate on c1 next! 0–1
Another important show of character came at the hands of Jorden Van Foreest, who had to overcome a loss to Magnus that cost him his lead. He had to do it against none other than tournament leader Firouzja, who was one point ahead of him. His victory helped him leapfrog over the French superstar and has put the tournament standings in disarray. As it stands, Jordan Van Foreest is in clear first going into the Blitz. Despite enjoying this format the most, in the post-game interview he confessed a greater aptitude for the Rapid. We shall see, as this event has been full of surprises so far.
Tomorrow will also be the first day in which Firouzja does not start as tournament leader. It will be interesting to see how it impacts his game. And Jorden's as well, for that matter. But they better figure it out quick, because there is a shark in the water.
Van Foreest and Firouzja faced off in a decisive Round 9 game, both seeking the lead | Photo courtesy of Grand Chess Tour, Lennart Ootes
Van Foreest - Topalov
[Black just played 36…a5??, when he could have kept the game alive with 36...Bxd4+! 37.cxd4 Qf2+] 37.Qf5+ Qg6 38.Qxd5 and White swept up the pawns and won. 1-0
After playing a fantastic opening preparation against the Berlin (one wonders “what would Wesley have done?”) Jordan puts the game away in style with 32.c6! Now the king cannot escape via d7, so the threat of Bf6+ becomes decisive. 1–0
The standings after the first nine rounds of rapid games
Blitz Pairings for Round 1