By Tatev Abrahamyan
After nine more blitz games, the Leuven leg of the Grand Chess Tour came to an end. World Champion Magnus Carlsen started the day with a lead over the rest of the field and had no trouble sealing the deal with three rounds to go. As Carlsen will not play in the rest of the Tour, he is automatically disqualified from winning the entire tour, hence the big battle became over the second place and Grand Chess Tour points. The race to second place was between American Wesley So and the Armenian Levon Aronian, who started and finished the day half a point apart. So's "don't lose any games" strategy seemed to pay off, as he bested the Armenian by half a point, collecting 10 Grand Chess Tour points and $30,000. Aronian was awarded 8 Grand Chess Tour points and $15,000 for his third place finish.
In the Rapid games each win is 2 points, a draw is 1 and a loss is 0. In the Blitz games each win is 1 point, a draw is ½ a point and a loss is 0.
The world champion started his day off convincingly with 2.5/3. Unlike the first day of blitz, his wins weren’t just lucky breaks and his play was smooth and deadly, reminiscent of the days when he plays at his highest level. After 5 games, the world champion had a commanding 3 point lead over his closest rival, Wesley So. Although it was still mathematically possible for So to surpass Carlsen, it was clear that the world champion was not going to collapse. After one more game, he extended his lead to 3.5, clinching the title with 3 rounds to go. Carlsen won both the rapid and the blitz portion of Leuven, thus winning the entire event. His only loss today came from Anish Giri, after he played too ambitiously when had already guaranteed the tournament win. His most remarkable game was against Vladimir Kramnik, when he marched his king to the center with queens still on the board. The most memorable game in chess history where this occurred was played in 1991 between Nigel Short and Jan Timman. The fans were thrilled to see such a rare idea unfolding right in front of their eyes. The world champion finished off the day with a draw against Hikaru Nakamura.
As it became clear that there was no stopping Carlsen, the big interest was the tight race between So and Aronian. The Armenian was always a striking distance behind Wesley So, but wasn’t able to pass the super solid American. Even after realizing that he has no realistic chances of winning the event, his love of chess became apparent as he vowed to fight until the end, even when there is nothing at stake. In the post-tournament interview, the ever-so-humble So was quite happy with his result and was very grateful to the organizers and sponsors for the event. He felt that he could have done better, but in this own words, “everyone could have done better.”
The big surprise of the tournament was Hikaru Nakamura’s disastrous result after winning the Paris Grand Chess Tour. The chess world was anticipating another close race between Nakamura and Carlsen, but throughout the past four days he never found himself in the top half of the standings. He shared that the secret to success in these tournaments where there are no long breaks between the rounds is to “stop the bleeding”, meaning not to allow one loss to turn into a streak. Unfortunately, he wasn’t able to follow his own advice on the day 1 of the rapid and was not able to find the same form he had in Paris. Maxime Vachier-Lagrave also wasn't able to repeat his Parisian performance, where he finished in third place. Anish Giri, did not fare well either, as he found himself barely short of finishing dead last. Since all three are participating an all of the Grand Chess Tour events, they can drop their lowest score. Vishy Anand, had a strong start, but wasn’t able to keep the energy levels up and finished in fourth place.
The biggest treat of the day was the exclusive interview with living legend Garry Kasparov. The former world champion praised Carlsen and admired the fact that every loss brings him suffering and the desire to keep improving. He believes that this quality will help Carlsen to keep working on his chess game and never be bored of it. In his own words, “when Magnus plays chess, he makes it look easy.” Kasparov himself has no desire to return to competitive chess but enjoys being a spectator.
The rapid and the blitz portion of the Grand Chess Tour are over as we move on to classical chess. The next stop will be the Sinquefield Cup, held in the chess capital of the U.S., Saint Louis, from August 1-16. Unfortunately, due to scheduling conflicts, the world champion won’t be able to continue the Tour. When asked about who is the favorite to win, he logically picked the frontrunners—So, Nakamura and Aronian, but choose the Armenian as the favorite. There is still a lot to play for in the remaining of the Tour, as the overall Grand Chess tour points are still up for grabs. The chess world waits in anticipation for August to see these giants clash yet again in classical chess.
Information on the dates, standings and photos are available on www.grandchesstour.org.