Grand Chess Tour Paris: Wesley So leads after day 2; Vishwanathan Anand tied for fourth
Vishwanathan Anand, who had struggled dismally at the first leg of the tour, was at the top of the leaderboard after the dust of the battles of day one had settled down.
From Leuven, the Grand Chess Tour moved to the ‘city of love’, the French capital of Paris. As in Leuven, nine rapid games and eighteen blitz games are scheduled to be played over four days. Time control for the rapid games is 25 minutes per player with a 10-second delay from move 1 while in the blitz, players get 5 minutes with a 3-second delay. The total prize fund for the event is a handsome $150,000.
At the end of the first day, a surprise leader had emerged. Vishwanathan Anand, who had struggled dismally at the first leg of the tour, was at the top of the leaderboard after the dust of the battles of day one had settled down. Anand had scored two draws against Mamedyarov and Aronian with the black pieces and had made the most of having the first move against his old pal and rival, Vladimir Kramnik.
But Anand wasn’t the only one at the top. He was joined by Levon Aronian, who had also finished the day with two draws and a win, and Wesley So, who came back strong after a loss against Mamedyarov in round two to finish the day with two wins.
Despite being on the top spot, Anand could not have been the happiest. His first-round game against Shakhriyar Mamedyarov was a disaster in some ways. Of course, a draw against someone of Mamedyarov’s calibre is desirable, but when one goes over the game, it becomes clear that Anand, in all likelihood should have won easily. In fact, after the game, Anand himself noted that it was a position he should have won with his eyes closed but wasn’t able to even with his eyes open. "The first game is going to bug me for a while," he added.
Both players had tried to push in this game. The opening was a very sharp line of the Queen’s Gambit Declined which could have fizzled out in a draw right out of the opening, had Mamedyarov allowed a repetition of moves. But Mamedyarov chose to fight on, avoiding the available move repetition. And this did look like a logical decision as the Azerbaijan GM enjoyed a meagre but pleasant edge in the position. However, as play progressed, Mamedyarov missed some tactical complications around move 30 and had to shed a pawn to keep the damage to a minimum. The endgame, as mentioned before, looked like an easy win. But Anand messed up horribly converting this and even with about 10 seconds remaining on his clock Mamedyarov clung on to a draw.
In his game against Kramnik, in round two, the two former world champions discussed a line of the Anti-Berlin. Anand gave up his dark-squared bishop for Kramnik’s knight on his 14th turn and seemed to have achieved a nice active position. But Kramnik soon demonstrated that there was more to the position that what met the eye at the outset. The position soon turned razor sharp as both players found their chances against each other’s king to keep the game dynamically equal.
On his 33rd turn, Anand found the resource 33.Rb1 which stopped the black king from reaching a safe haven on the queenside while also allowing a rook lift that laterally defended his loose knight on the other side of the board. By this point, Anand was clearly better. Kramnik tried to keep some pieces on the board by avoiding the exchange of rooks. But this backfired badly. Anand doubled his rooks and generated a monstrous attack. By the 42nd move, Kramnik was forced to give up his queen to avoid getting mated. He resigned at this point.
Anand’s final game of the first day against Aronian wasn’t as interesting as the previous two. The two played a rather tepid draw in the third round. Play began with an Italian Opening that led to an early exchange of queens after a few skirmishes in the centre. More exchanged followed in the dead equal position that had subsequently arisen. Aronian tried generating some play against Anand’s weak pawn on d6 but after Anand had defended correctly, peace was signed.
Having drawn in the final round of the first day, Anand entered day two as one of the leaders of the tournament. But by the time day two came to a close, the Indian ace found himself on the fifth spot on the leaderboard, a full point behind Wesley So who was co-leading the tournament with Anand at the start of the day. It wasn’t that Anand had played badly in the course of the day; his play just seemed jaded. Meanwhile, Wesley So pulled out two wins and a draw out of his three games to steer a point past Anand.
Much like in the final round of the first day, Anand’s fourth-round game against Karjakin was a sedate draw. With the white pieces in a Berlin Defence, Anand avoided going into an endgame by not choosing the main line. However, queens were traded anyway on the 11th move and this was followed by the exchange of two more sets of minor pieces. The resulting position hardly offered any chances to either side. After shuffling around for a few moves, players decided to draw by mutual agreement.
The fifth round game against Caruana wasn’t much different either. This game also began with an Anti-Berlin. Even though this game didn’t feature an early queen trade, other pieces were traded in mass. By the seventeenth move, an equal position was reached where white had a queen and two bishops against Black's queen, bishop and knight. Caruana tried to make something of his bishop pair but the position hardly offered much. On his 39th move, Anand settled matters once and for all giving up his bishop to achieve perpetual checks.
Anand had the white pieces in the final game of the day against Maxime Vachier-Lagrave. In the previous leg of the tour, Anand had lost to Vachier Lagrave. In Paris, Anand was in a much better state in terms of form. The Frenchman answered Anand’s king’s pawn opening with his favourite Sicilian Najdorf. And, as could have been expected, Vachier-Lagrave had some new tricks in the opening for his Indian opponent. Out of the opening, he was able to equalize and even get a better position eventually. The queen exchange induced by Anand on the 29th turn had left him with a structural weakness. And even though Anand was able to exchange another pair of rooks following this, Vachier-Lagrave was definitely the one pushing for a win.
Anand had, however, correctly assessed that this was safe. Vachier-Lagrave tried making progress by creating a passed pawn on the kingside but Anand simply gave up a pawn temporarily to hold the position to equality. In the series of moves that followed, players exchanged everything until bare kings remained on the board.
With all three of his games drawn on day two, Anand was overtaken by both of his rivals – Wesley So and Levon Aronian – as he slipped down to the number five spot. While Aronian drew two and won one to keep the second spot, Wesley So won back to back games in the first two rounds and drew his last round game to establish a half point lead over the field. Sergey Karjakin also won two games on the second day to catch Aronian in the second place while Hikaru Nakamura caught up with Anand scoring one win and two draws.
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