On Chess: And after all that, Magnus Carlsen is still the best

Dec 16, 2015

It's been a strange year at the top of the chess standings. Going into the year before the first Grand Chess Tour stop in Norway, the elite had distanced themselves quite a bit from the rest of the pack. There was a marked difference in rating between those in the top-10 and those below; a significant gap of 30 or so points. And yet, it wasn't a good year for basically anyone at the top.

Grandmaster Magnus Carlsen, World Champion and world's #1, plummeted precipitously in rating, but he still retained his spot clear of contention as his closest rivals also tumbled down the rating pole. When Carlsen had a disastrous appearance in Norway, people started whispering rumors of weakness in his play. Was he losing his passion? Was he in love? Were his extra-chess commitments taking a toll (such as his Porsche commercial, in which he stars next to Maria Sharapova and Muhammad Ali)?

Magnus Carlsen with the London Chess Classic trophy after he won.
Credit Spectrum Studios

All of the above were questions that persisted going into the final leg of the Grand Chess Tour. The London Classic was the last super tournament of the year, and it was clear that the world was expecting some kind of resurgence from Carlsen – especially since the tournament right before it, the European Team Champ, was as disastrous for the World Champion as Norway Chess was.

The tournament itself in London was rather weird. A resurgence of a very dry variation of the Spanish Opening, combined with the long time controls and London fog made the first seven rounds of the event rather dull. And yet, somehow, at the end of the day, the finish was very dramatic! Maxime Vachier-Lagrave, the Frenchman who started the year with very mediocre results one after another, had an amazing comeback in the second half of the tournament cycle. He catapulted himself back into the top 10 in the world, and he entered the final round with a +2 score (two more wins than losses, of which he had zero), tied for first place with the most consistent player in the chess tour: Anish Giri, from the Netherlands, who also happens to be the youngest at only 21!

A pack of suitors followed them half a point behind: Levon Aronian, the winner of the Sinquefield Cup, Alexander Grischuk who is always a strong player in any situation, and World Champion Carlsen. As fate would have it, these players mainly played each other. Carlsen played Grischuk; Aronian played Vachier-Lagrave; and Giri played Anand, who had a disappointing event. Drama was added by the fact that, mathematically, any of Carlsen, Giri, MVL or Aronian could win the event AND the Grand Chess Tour based on results in the last round!

Maxime Vachier-Lagrave during the London tournament
Credit Spectrum Studios

With draws between Aronian and Vachier-Lagrave as well as between Giri and Anand, it was all down to the Carlsen-Grischuk game, and what a topsy-turvy affair that was!

Grischuk, in severe time trouble, first let go of a very advantageous position, and then further spoiled it by declining a draw and going for a win: this backfired as the Russian player miscalculated, lost and allowed Carlsen to tie for first.

The playoff tiebreaks were on! The top three players played a rapid tiebreak that was rather unfair. The bottom two on tiebreak score (given by a complex mathematical formula) pitted against each other to challenge the player that had the top tiebreak score, which happened to be Carlsen. Giri and Vachier-Lagrave played to the death, going to an exciting and exhausting Armageddon blitzoff.

Vachier-Lagrave passed, but his energy reserves were depleted. He faced the best, Magnus Carlsen, who put the pressure from the get-go. The Frenchman resisted, and even had drawing chances, but he cracked at the end. With this win, Magnus Carlsen won the London Chess Classic, and he obtained enough points to be the winner of the inaugural Grand Chess Tour.

It is clear that some things need to change in the tour. For one, the time controls seem excessive for this day and age, and for another there needs to be some serious tweaking of the tiebreak rules so the situation we saw in London does not repeat itself. But barring that, we were blessed with three amazing events; three fantastic and titanic struggles between the best of the best in the world, and, if anyone had any doubt, it was Magnus Carlsen who emerged victorious yet again.

Thank you again to the Grand Chess Tour commentary team based in Saint Louis as well as the tournament organizers at Norway Chess, Sinquefield Cup and London Chess Classic to put on a great inaugural tour. We are all looking forward to the action that the 2016 Grand Chess Tour will bring to St. Louis.

Alejandro Ramirez is a frequent guest of the Chess Club and Scholastic Center of St. Louis, through roles as both the Club’s Resident Grandmaster rotation and as a player in the nation’s elite events. He will coach the Saint Louis University chess team. On Chess is provided by the Chess Club and Scholastic Center of St. Louis.