The first two events of the 2018 Grand Chess Tour (GCT) took place in Leuven from June 12-16 and Paris from June 20-24. After 10 grueling days full of brilliance, blunders and inspiring chess, two Americans are leading the tour, putting themselves in an excellent position to qualify for the finals in London at the end of the year.
The Americans — Wesley So and Hikaru Nakamura — are no strangers to the winner’s circle in the Grand Chess Tour. So was completely unstoppable in 2016 when he won two of the tournaments and finished second in one — just behind world champion Magnus Carlsen — thus winning the entire tour.
So’s victory in Leuven this year was the most dramatic one yet in GCT’s history. Both Paris and Leuven consist of nine rounds of rapid followed by 18 rounds of blitz. So completely dominated the rapid portion of Leuven, finishing three points ahead of the field. He slowed down during the blitz, entering the last round with only a half-point lead ahead of Sergey Karjakin and Maxime Vachier-Lagrave. The American only needed a draw to guarantee a tie for first place but instead stumbled and lost to Hikaru Nakamura. Unbeknown to So, Karjakin and Vachier-Lagrave had also lost their games, crowning So as the winner.
The 24-year-old was overcome with joy when he found out he was the champion after all. In the postgame interview, he admitted that after resigning, he felt like crying because he didn’t think he even qualified for the playoffs after leading the whole tournament. So earned $37,500 and 13 GCT points for his efforts.
Nakamura’s win in Paris was also quite eventful, but not quite as dramatic. After a short three-day break, the players moved on to Paris for the second leg of the tour. Once again, So came out on top in the rapid portion but was quite unimpressive in the first day of blitz.
Going into the last day of the tournament, Sergey Karjakin emerged as the leader by a full point ahead of Nakamura. The American is well known for his blitz skills and made the decision to draw Karjakin and try to beat everyone else. His approach paid off, as Karjakin did not manage to repeat his previous day’s performance. Nakamura took the reins entering the last round with a full point lead. Just as it was in Leuven, the champion was crowned without his knowledge – Karjakin drew his game quickly, thus settling for second place with no hope of catching Nakamura. The American was unaware of this while he was trying to survive against his Olympiad teammate Fabiano Caruana. After surviving the storm, Nakamura decided to play for the win instead of choosing a safer approach. He went on to win the game and received praise from Levon Aronian, who complimented his nerves of steel. Nakamura also collected $37,500 and 13 GCT points.
So is currently leading the tour with 21 points with his Olympiad team member Nakamura only a point behind. Closely behind them is Sergey Karjakin with 19 points, while Maxime Vachier-Lagrave is further behind with 15 points. Which person qualifies for the finals in London will be decided in St. Louis, as it is the stage for the two finals stops of the tour. The next event will be the St. Louis Rapid & Blitz taking place from Aug. 10-16, followed by the only classical event of the 2018 GCT, the Sinquefield Cup from Aug. 17-28. World champion Magnus Carlsen has confirmed his participation as the wildcard in the Sinquefield Cup. Not only will his participation make the event even more competitive, but it will also be the last scheduled encounter between him and the world-championship challenger Fabiano Caruana. These are not events to be missed.
Tatev Abrahamyan started playing chess when she was 8 years old, after her father took her to the 1996 Chess Olympiad in Yerevan, Armenia. There she met grandmaster Judit Polgar, arguably the greatest female player of all time and the only woman in the tournament. Currently the third-highest-rated female in the U.S., Abrahamyan has represented the United States in four Olympiads, two World Team Championships since 2008, and has played in every U.S. Women’s Championship the St. Louis Chess Club has hosted. She continues to play competitive chess, coach and work as the journalist for the most elite chess tournament circuit, the Grand Chess Tour.