The first leg of the third annual Grand Chess Tour took place from June 21-25 in Paris. As it did last year, the tour kicked off with a rapid and blitz event. Five grueling days and 29 games later, World Champion Magnus Carlsen emerged as the winner. He collected 12 tour points and $31,250 for his efforts.
At the first glance, the favorite competitor of the event coming in first place doesn’t seem exciting or interesting, but the final standings don’t tell the whole story.
The finale of the event was one the most nerve-wrecking matches in the history of the Grand Chess Tour. Carlsen started the tournament very strongly, winning seven out of the possible nine games in the rapid round. However, the tables turned during the last two days of the blitz tournament when the World Champion seemed to have run out of steam and even lost three games in a row – an unprecedented result for him. Local hero, Maxime Vachier-Lagrave didn’t miss his opportunity to strike and won enough games to surpass Carlsen before the last round. Then, in the last round, Carlsen won quickly and caught Vachier-Lagrave, who only managed to draw his game. The two were to meet in the playoffs, where they would battle it out for the first-place tour points.
Although the Frenchman proved himself to be a phenomenal blitz player, he still had a very difficult task ahead as Carlsen hasn't lost a playoff since 2007. In the two-game playoff rapid match, the Norwegian didn’t give his opponent any chance of getting a leg up. He delivered the first blow in Game One. He then drew the second game in a better position to secure the win. Even so, Vachier-Lagrave impressed the chess world with his blitz skills and will be a force to be reckoned the rest of the tour. He also collected $31,250 but only 10 tour points for the second place finish.
As it was last year, the United States is represented by Hikaru Nakamura, Fabiano Caruana and Wesley So, the 2016 Grand Chess Tour winner. Nakamura, who won in Paris last year, finished in third place, after an unfortunate loss towards the end. Caruana, in his own words, had the worst result of his career by only making three draws out of the nine rapid games. He found his form in the blitz portion and even defeated Carlsen, but because of his poor start, he wasn’t able to get enough points to improve his rank in the standings. Wesley So, on the other hand, had the opposite result by doing decently in the rapids but collapsing in the blitz. So and Caruana finished in seventh and eighth places respectively. Unfortunately for them, unlike last year, they cannot drop their lowest score.
The next stop of the tour is Your Next Move, which will take place in Leuven, Belgium, from June 28-July 2. The format will be the same as it was in Paris, but with several new faces. This year, the players only have to play in two out of the three rapid and blitz events, so Nakmura, Caruana and Sergey Karjakin will be skipping the second leg and will play in the St. Louis blitz and rapid match in August instead. Levon Aronian, Viswanathan Anand and newcomer Ian Nepomniachtchi will start their tour in Belgium. The wild cards of the event are Vladimir Kramnik, Anish Giri, Vassily Ivanchuk and Baadur Jobava.
Anand and Kramnik are former world champions; Vassily Ivanchuk is the current rapid world champion and Levon Aronian just won the strongest tournament of the year in Norway. The question on everyone’s mind is whether Carlsen, Vachier-Lagrave and So have had enough time to recover from Paris. Will Carlsen be able to keep his lead or will he be toppled by his longtime rival Levon Aronian? Will last year’s winner find his form and deliver the same results to which the chess world is accustomed? This is a tournament not to be missed.
Tatev Abrahamyan started playing chess at eight 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., she has represented the United States in four Olympiads and two World Team Championships since 2008.