7th London chess classic; 9th round

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Carlsen vs Maxime Vachier-LagraveTo adapt Gary Lineker’s famous football quote (and not for the first time): chess is a simple game. The players play longplay, rapidplay and blitz and in the end Magnus Carlsen wins. The final day of the London Classic had the lot – a mind-numbing, eight-hour extravaganza of chess in three different formats, brilliant moves, crazy strategies, outrageous slices of luck – and somehow you just knew that Magnus Carlsen would come through it all to snatch first place in the tournament and in the inaugural Grand Chess Tour. He did so and deserves the plaudits.

 John Saunders reports:

But let’s also hear it for his co-stars in the last-day drama – Alexander Grischuk, Anish Giri and Maxime Vachier-Lagrave – who deserve to share some of the winner’s stardust.

London Classic, final scores: 1 Magnus Carlsen 5½, 2 Maxime Vachier-Lagrave 5½, 3 Anish Giri 5½, 4 Levon Aronian 5, 5-7 Alexander Grischuk, Fabiano Caruana, Michael Adams 4½, 8 Hikaru Nakamura 4, 9 Viswanathan Anand 3½, 10 Veselin Topalov 2½. Rapidplay Play-off Semi-Final: Maxime Vachier-Lagrave beat Anish Giri 2-1 (after an Armageddon decider); Rapidplay Play-off Final: Magnus Carlsen beat Maxime Vachie-Lagrave 1½-½. Grand Chess Tour, leading final placings: 1 Carlsen 26, 2 Anish Giri 23, 3 Aronian 22, 4 Vachier-Lagrave 20, 5 Nakamura 19, 6 Topalov 18, etc.

London Classic Stats Round-Up: This was Carlsen’s fourth Classic victory, adding to his wins in 2009, 2010 and 2012. Other Classic winners have been Kramnik (2011), Hikaru Nakamura (2013, rapidplay k.o. format), Anand (2014). Carlsen’s first Classic victory in 2009 took him to the top of the rating list, where he has stayed ever since. His 2012 victory, with a TPR of 3021, took him over Garry Kasparov’s peak rating.

Carlsen vs GrischukMost pundits expected Carlsen-Grischuk to be the game of the round, given that the world champion needed to win to have any chance of winning the tournament and the Grand Chess Tour. The players did not disappoint and it proved to be the only decisive result of the last round. This was a gripping encounter, if not necessarily a well-played one. Sometimes, when he’s gung-ho for a result, Carlsen can vary his style from the relentless Capablanca/Karpov model, to something resembling Tal at his mercurial best, following slightly crazy plans and beguiling opponents into errors they wouldn’t usually make against anyone else. And Carlsen playing in the last round of a London Classic tournament, as we know from past occasions, is in his element.

Carlsen didn’t have the best of luck in the earlier legs of the Grand Chess Tour but Caïssa smiled on him today. He played a suitably imbalanced opening to ensure there were no easy routes to a draw and soon established a comfortable edge. It looked as if he would smooth his way to victory but he then embarked on a crazy plan to snatch a queenside pawn, whilst leaving his kingside wide open to invasion by Grischuk’s forces. Commentators were incredulous as he compounded his error by misdirecting another of his pieces away from the key sector of the battlefield. It suddenly looked odds-on for Grischuk to draw at the very least, if not win. Carlsen was a very lucky boy, however: Grischuk failed to find what seemed a fairly obvious plan to draw, blundered and was gone. So Carlsen won to tie for first and go into a three-way play-off with Maxime Vachier-Lagrave and Anish Giri.

Carlsen walking

Round 9

  1. Carlsen A. Grischuk

1.Nf3 c5 2.e4 d6 3.Bb5+ Nd7 4.0‑0 a6 5.Bd3 Carlsen has been this way before. 5…Ngf6 6.Re1 b5 7.c4 g5 7…Ne5 was played by Nakamura against Carlsen in the Zurich Rapidplay 2014. 8.Nxg5 Ne5 9.Be2 bxc4 10.Nc3 Carlsen played 10.Na3 against Topalov in the 2015 Sinquefield Cup, which he lost. After the text move we are in new territory. 10…Rb8 11.Rf1 h6 12.Nf3 Nd3 13.Ne1 Nxb2 13…Nxc1? is poor here as 14.Bxc4! cleverly postpones the recapture of the knight and brings White’s position to life. The analysis engine suggests the intriguing 13…Rg8!? 14.Bxd3 cxd3 15.Nxd3 Bg7 16.Nf4 Ng4, giving up a pawn for some activity. 14.Bxb2 Rxb2 15.Bxc4 Rb4 A waste of a move: 15…Rb6 immediately seems better. 16.Qe2 Bg7 17.Nc2 Rb6 18.Rab1 0‑0 19.Rxb6 Qxb6 20.Ne3 e6 21.f4 Kh8 22.f5 a5 23.a4   White has a pleasant advantage here, and was well ahead on the clock. Consequently most pundits expected Carlsen to win smoothly from here. But last rounds always have unexpected twists. 23…Qd8 24.h3 Qe7 25.Ba6 The plan is simple enough: to get the queen to a6 and mop up the a-pawn. It is corroborated by the analysis engines and yet human spectators, from the humblest woodpusher up to the GM commentators, were suspicious. Wouldn’t this plan leave the queen out of play? Couldn’t Black conjure up something interesting on the kingside while the queen is looking the other way? 25…Bxa6 Black used 7 of his remaining 19 minutes on this move. The alternative is 25…Bd7, which would prevent the queen invasion. So it seems Grischuk at least shared the spectators’ assessment of the merits of Carlsen’s plan. 26.Qxa6 Nh5!

Grischuk played this quickly. The knight on the rim isn’t dim. It opens diagonals for both queen and bishop and also has ideas of jumping to g3 at an appropriate moment. 27.Rf3 Rg8! Grischuk lines up another piece against the white king. Surely Carlsen must attend to the situation on the kingside… 28.Nb5? What? You can judge what GM Julian Hodgson thinks of a move by the pitch of his voice, and I think he hit a soprano top C hereabouts. Nobody could quite believe their eyes here. Black is lining up four pieces for an attack on the white king, yet Carlsen moves one of his pieces away from the action, as well as blocking the queen’s return to defensive duties. 28…Be5 29.Ng4 Qh4 The slight breeze wafting round the white king is now a howling gale. Analysis engines weren’t expecting White to be mated here, but nor did they think he had much chance of winning. Most pundits thought a draw was probable now, which would have ended Carlsen’s hopes of tournament and tour victory, of course. 30.fxe6!?  30.Nxe5 allows perpetual check with 30…Qe1+ 31.Rf1 Rxg2+! 32.Kxg2 Qg3+ 33.Kh1 Qxh3+, etc. Perhaps Carlsen saw that and decided to gamble. 30…fxe6? Grischuk still had 8 minutes’ thinking time left, which, for a world blitz champion, you would have thought might be long enough to discover 30…Rxg4! 31.hxg4 Qh2+ 32.Kf2 Nf4 33.Rg3 Nxe6!, with decent winning chances for Black. 31.Nxe5 dxe5 32.Qxe6 Qe1+? 32…Qg5! should draw here. 33.Kh2 Rxg2+ 33…Qxd2!? is a hard move to evaluate when short of time: 34.Qxe5+ Rg7 35.Rf8+ Kh7 36.Qf5+ Rg6 37.Qf2 and White probably wins anyway. 34.Kxg2 Qxd2+ 35.Kg1 Qe1+ 36.Rf1 Qe3+ 37.Rf2 Qe1+ 37…Qg3+ 38.Kf1 Qd3+ 39.Ke1 Qe3+ 40.Kd1 Qxf2 41.Qxh6+ Kg8 42.Qxh5 38.Kg2 1‑0 Hereabouts Grischuk’s face registered shock as he realised there was no perpetual check: 38…Qxe4+ 39.Kh2 and it’s over, while 38…Nf4+ 39.Rxf4 exf4 40.Qxh6+ Kg8 41.Qxf4 also wins.




“I’ve created a monster!” Not a quote from the fictional Doctor Frankenstein, but Alexander Grischuk’s rueful comment on the negative part he played in securing Magnus Carlsen’s passage to the play-offs. Negative from the point of view of Messrs. Giri and Vachier-Lagrave, anyway. They were probably gearing up for their two-game rapid play-off when they discovered that a 2834-rated cuckoo had just dropped into their nest. To add insult to injury, they found they were now playing off, not for tournament and tour victory, but for the right to compete in a further play-off with Carlsen. How so? By beating Grischuk, Carlsen had not only tied with his two rivals but bettered their tie-break score by virtue of his last-round victim having a higher finishing score than those of his rivals – a cruel twist of fate. It meant that, within an hour of the end of the last round nine game (which ended about 3 hours 45 minutes into the session), MVL and Giri would be back at the board for two 25m+5s games (and possibly an Armageddon decider) whilst Carlsen had at least two hours to have some dinner and chill out. His second big slice of luck on the day.

I don’t know how irrational or superstitious Giri and Vachier-Lagrave can be but they could be forgiven for sensing that Caïssa wasn’t playing ball with them. Let’s face it, this rule whereby one player can sit out the first two hours plus of a play-off is very unfair. My personal view is that they should play a three-way round-robin at a blitz time limit, just to get the damned thing over with. Four hours plus seems exorbitant (especially when compared with the five or ten minutes of a football penalty shoot-out) and provides yet another example of chess being too slow. However, it has to be said that the play-offs, long as they were, did provide the spectators with a wonderful spectacle by way of an encore.

Maxime Vachier-Lagrave, Anish Giri
For Anish Giri the equation was relatively simple (even if the task wasn’t): he needed to beat his two rivals to win the tournament and the tour. For Vachier-Lagrave it was more complex. He needed to beat Giri and then Carlsen to win the tournament. But (and a very big ‘but’)… that wouldn’t give him tour victory but put him into a tie for the Grand Chess Tour with Carlsen. So they would have to play off a second time! That didn’t happen as things turned out, but had it happened, the players would have to have played their second play-off on the Monday. Phew! These rules are so complicated that they probably need looking at again for subsequent years, not least for the fact that players can have no clear idea of their desired result when they sit down at the board.


The semi-final would have brought joy to Hungarian GM Andras Adorjan’s heart. Black was more than OK, winning three straight games. Game One was a London Wall (OK, Berlin Wall, then, for those unfamiliar with my previous reports) but, of course, the joy of rapidplay chess is that draws aren’t quite so inevitable, given the part that the clock and time-induced errors play in proceedings, even when quite arid positions arise. Vachier-Lagrave’s 15.Ned4 was a new move but perhaps not an improvement as Giri established a positional grip and then won a central e-pawn. Giri also enjoyed a substantial time advantage. It was actually a beautifully played positional game by Black, causing one to wonder momentarily if the top players of today really need the luxury of slowplay time limits to weave their magic. It is well worth seeking out the download of this game to play through – check it out at the website.

Anish Giri vs Maxime Vachier-Lagrave, Armageddon 3rd game
Game two built up to a crescendo, with Giri playing carefully to keep the draw in hand but Vachier-Lagrave eventually securing a lasting initiative which secured him the win he needed to force an Armageddon. But there were plenty of mistakes along the way as the time, and the players’ energies, started to dwindle. As so often with rapidplay chess, and in contrast to the first game of the semi-final, the moves don’t look too pretty on the page but they are incredibly exciting for the live audience. Here’s the denouement, with the result in doubt until the very end when Giri, after 28 games unbeaten in the Grand Chess Tour, misses a crude tactic.



So, to Armageddon: White with 6 minutes to Black’s 5 minutes, with an increment of 3 seconds from move 61. Firstly, the all-important coin toss, which MVL won. He chose Black as expected; most GMs think that the Armageddon system favours Black. However, Giri’s opening choice, a double fianchetto, wasn’t the most dynamic and he never looked too likely to draw the game, let alone win it. Soon MVL was all over him like a cheap suit and the game was over. Giri, unbeaten throughout the tour, had finally lost two games in the space of half an hour.



After the semi-final MVL had half an hour to compose himself for the final rapidplay play-off with Carlsen, who no doubt benefited from the two-hour break. Carlsen ran short of time striving to gain an advantage from the opening, but Vachier-Lagrave defused his threats and it came down to a completely drawn rook and pawn ending. Except for the fact that, with time running low, and the enormous strain of the situation, there is no such thing as a completely drawn rook and pawn ending…

Carlsen vs Maxime Vachier-Lagrave

Play-Off Final, Game 1

  1. Carlsen M. VachierLagrave

1.e4 c5 2.Nf3 d6 3.Bb5+ Bd7 4.Bxd7+ Qxd7 5.c4 Nf6 6.Nc3 g6 7.d4 cxd4 8.Nxd4 Bg7 9.f3 0‑0 Carlsen has been here before. Anand, in Sao Paulo in 2012, played 9…Qc7 against him but lost. 10.Be3 Nc6 11.Rc1 Nxd4 This exchange is a bit unusual but perhaps not significant. 12.Bxd4 Rfc8 13.b3 Nh5 14.0‑0 Bxd4+ 15.Qxd4 Nf6 16.Rfe1 Rc7 17.Rcd1 Qc6 18.Nb5 Rd7 19.Nxa7!? Carlsen goes after his second a-pawn of the day (although he never actually snatched Grischuk’s a-pawn in the end, of course). 19…Qc5 20.Qxc5 dxc5 21.Nb5 Rxa2 Black regains his pawn but White retains some advantage. 22.e5 Rxd1 23.Rxd1 Nh5 24.g3 Rb2 25.Rd8+ Kg7 26.Re8 Rb1+ 27.Kg2 Rb2+ 28.Kg1 Rb1+ 29.Kg2 Rb2+ 30.Kh3 No chance of a draw, of course. Carlsen still thinks he has something here. 30…e6 31.Re7 Now the computer thinks White has a substantial advantage after 31.Nd6!? Rxb3 32.Kg4 f5+ 33.Kh4!? Rb2 34.Re7+ but that looks very nebulous. 31…Rxb3 32.Kg4 Kf8 33.Rxb7 33.Rc7!?, keeping a tempo in hand, may be preferable: 33…h6 34.Nd6 f5+ 35.exf6 Nxf6+ 36.Kf4, etc. Still far from won, however. 33…h6 34.Rc7 Around here White had only 5 minutes left to Black’s 15 – a big difference and a worry for Carlsen fans. 34…f5+! An important defensive resource. Now Black seems to be able to match White’s play, move for move. 35.exf6 Nxf6+ 36.Kf4 g5+ 37.Ke5 Ne8 Momentarily threatening Re2 mate. 38.Rxc5 Re3+ 39.Kd4 Rxf3 40.Re5 Rf2 41.Rxe6 Rxh2 Black has fought his way to a level position. 42.c5 h5 43.Nd6 Nxd6 44.cxd6 Kf7 A dead draw – or so we thought. 45.Re3 h4 46.g4 h3? In the context of a rapidplay game, we can describe this as a decisive error. Black is not objectively lost after it but it becomes incredibly hard to find the right moves, to the extent that most of the spectators, including super-GMs, were unable to spot the flaws as they occurred in the following play. 46…Rg2! is safer: 47.Kc5 and now perhaps 47…h3!? 48.Rxh3 Rxg4 49.Re3 Rg2 and it should be reasonably easy to draw. 47.Ke5 Carlsen was now down to his last minute, although with 5–second increments, of course. Vachier-Lagrave still had ten minutes on his clock. But White has a relatively simple plan to try and win, whereas Black has a lot of hard work to draw. 47…Rh1 48.d7 Ke7 49.Kf5+ Kxd7 50.Kxg5 Kd6 50…Rf1 was the move the commentators (including Grischuk) recommended, but it seems they were mistaken: 51.Rxh3 is a tablebase win. 51.Kh5 Rf1? This error almost had to happen, given the complexity of the position. Hardly anyone, including the GM commentators, realised it was the final error as it was played, nor for a move or two after. Tablebases confirm that the rook must go to a1, b1 or c1, or else the pawn advance to h2, to reach a draw. 52.Rxh3 Ke7 53.Kg6! One organic brain in the building had locked onto the winning plan. Unluckily for Maxime, it was the man sitting opposite him. 53…Rf6+ 54.Kg7 Rf7+ 55.Kg6 Rf6+ 56.Kg5! Ra6 After this, it’s an easy win for a super-GM but even Grischuk was initially puzzled as to what happens after 56…Rf1. The tablebases revealed the awful truth: 57.Rh7+! Kf8 58.Kg6 Kg8 59.Rg7+! Kf8 (59…Kh8 60.Rf7! forces off the rooks for a standard K+P win) 60.Ra7 and the black king will be forced away to the e-file after which the white king shepherds home the g-pawn. 57.Rf3 1‑0 Now the black king is cut off and it’s a copybook R+P v R win.


In the second game, Maxime never really made any impression on Magnus. Once Black had found an ingenious sequence of moves to exchange material off, he had to go out on a limb, sacrificing a rook for a piece and pawn to try and generate something but it never looked like working. Draw agreed, so Carlsen had taken the tournament and the tour. Congratulations to him, and heartfelt commiserations to the gallant runner-up.

Carlsen vs Maxime Vachier-Lagrave


Let’s just round up the other four Round nine games. Anand-Giri was not expected to be one of the more exciting games of the round. The odds on a draw increased exponentially when the two players started building a London Wall. Anand was repeating a game he played as Black against Carlsen in their 2014 World Championship match, and which was drawn in 122 moves after Carlsen tried and failed to win a R+N v R endgame. Giri varied with 26…b6 but the game soon petered out to the inevitable draw.


Adams-Caruana was the clash of the two draw-meisters, as the tournament director somewhat tactlessly described them when welcoming them on stage for the final game. But accurately, as it turned out. This was an orthodox Ruy Lopez, which diverged from theory on move 13. Mickey had to surrender a pawn temporarily but he soon won it back. Before long an opposite bishop endgame ensued and the two players agreed a draw. Have two players drawn all their games in the same tournament before? Probably, and even if they haven’t, it’s not a stat to set the pulse racing.

Nakamura-Topalov: given their tournament situation, this one was hard to predict. Would the players be trying to win a game as consolation for an unhappy tournament, or would they be content to draw and try to forget the pain? It felt more like the latter, especially when we saw them opt for the London Wall. One for connoisseurs of that system only.

Aronian and Vachier-Lagrave had lots to play for so we expected a full-blooded encounter on this board. This was not the case: instead there ensued a line of the English which had appeared in the games of both players during the past year until Blacked varied with 7…dxc6 and allowed a queen exchange. The position reached, with Black having doubled c-pawns and White enjoying a pawn majority on the kingside, looked ominously like the aforementioned London Wall. After a number of exchanges it came down to a fairly sedate rook ending which was drawn well within the first time control.



Alex Lenderman, Luke McShane, Rd 10, Super Rapidplay

The weekend also featured a very strong rapidplay event, featuring a galaxy of grandmasters amongst the 300+ players, over ten rounds. The favourites were Matthew Sadler (with a startling rapidplay rating of 2800, based on a conversion from his national rapidplay rating), former FIDE champion Rustam Kasimdzhanov, David Howell, Alex Lenderman, Eric Hansen, Jonathan Hawkins, Hrant Melkumyan, Christian Bauer, Mark Hebden and Nick Pert, all weighing in at 2657 or more at rapid. Surprisingly ranked a little lower than the above was Luke McShane, 12th highest rated on 2650. Luke proceeded to demonstrate that the rating list is not such a reliable indicator as he reeled off a Fischer-esque nine wins out of nine to secure the £2,500 winner’s cheque with a round to spare. A draw in the final round against Alex Lenderman put hims a point clear of the field.

McShane’s victims included David Howell, Hrant Melkumyan and Eric Hansen. Matthew Sadler, despite his stratospheric rating lost games to Aaron Summerscale, Eric Hansen and Jonny Hector to finish on 7/10. There were a number of grandmaster scalps for lesser rated players, including David Eggleston’s fine finish of 2/2 against Rustam Kasimdzhanov and Christian Bauer, whilst Alex Lenderman lost in round two to English amateur David Coleman. (Players left to right above, Jonny Hector (SWE), Ketevan Arakhamia-Grant (SCO), Jon Speelman (ENG) and David Howell (ENG), with Matthew Sadler (ENG) in the background.)

Alex Lenderman, Luke McShane, Rd 10, Super Rapidplay

Super Rapidplay Scores: 1 Luke McShane (ENG) 9½/10, 2 Hrant Melkumyan (ARM) 8½, 3-11 Alex Lenderman (USA), Eric Hansen (CAN), Nick Pert (ENG), Romain Edouard (FRA), Jon Ludvig Hammer (NOR), Sergey Grigoriants (RUS), Rinat Jumabayev (KAZ), David Eggleston (ENG), Tamas Fodor jnr (HUN) 8, etc.


I think that’s all I’ve got room for. Hope you’ve all enjoyed the reports, which I have enjoyed writing. Good health to everyone for the festive season and the new year, and I look forward to reporting on the tournament again in 2016.

John Saunders

London Chess Classic Reporter (@johnchess)


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