Carlsen Wins Croatia Grand Chess Tour, Back To 2882 Rating As 'Different Player'
Winning in Zagreb, Carlsen is over the moon and on top of the world. | Photo: Lennart Ootes/Grand Chess Tour.

Carlsen Wins Croatia Grand Chess Tour, Back To 2882 Rating As 'Different Player'

| 118 | Chess Event Coverage

Magnus Carlsen defeated Maxime Vachier-Lagrave on Sunday to reach 8/11 and win the Croatia Grand Chess Tour. Even his direct rivals were full of praise.

The world champion won his eighth straight tournament and earned $90,000 as well as 20 GCT points. He scored a 2943 performance and returned to his highest rating of 2882.

Carlsen finished a point ahead of Wesley So, whose 7/11 was good for a 2881 performance rating, $60,000 and 15 GCT points. The American GM said about Carlsen: 

"It feels like second place is already a victory whenever he's playing right now because it's like Bobby Fischer back in the '70s or '60s when he was playing the U.S. Championship and others are just playing for second place."

Anish Giri had his own, witty way of describing Carlsen's current invincibility, saying the others have to wait out the storm. "All storms come to an end. I am sure eventually he will be very old, very tired!"

Fabiano Caruana: "He is winning games with remarkable ease. Normally these things don't happen; like today, he ends the game with an hour on the clock.... I think that things are all falling together for him in every stage of the game."

Expressions of this sentiment have been around for the last few months and have now been put down in hard numbers as well. On the next FIDE rating list, Carlsen's Elo will be exactly the same as his highest published rating: 2882 as it was in May 2014. The gap with world number two Caruana will be 64 points.

Magnus Carlsen Maurice Ashley Croatia
Maurice Ashley wasn't afraid to make a reference to one earlier, unsuccessful interview with Carlsen as he described the latter's recent tournament victories as "smooth." | Photo: Lennart Ootes/Grand Chess Tour.

The 28-year-old Norwegian GM himself was over the moon after scoring six draws and five wins in Zagreb—all the more significant to him because of the two extra rounds compared to Norway Chess, for example, and especially the sheer strength of the field.

Carlsen noted that he "had never scored anything like plus five against such a field before" and later added:

"For me it's huge. It's the first time basically that I've played an event like this—12 players, all absolute elite. I really didn't know what to expect, I've been playing a lot recently and I felt a bit spent towards the end of Norway Chess. But's been a dream, especially the second half has gone so well."

Magnus Carlsen Croatia Grand Chess Tour trophy
Carlsen with his Croatia Grand Chess Tour trophy. | Photo: Lennart Ootes/Grand Chess Tour.

Comparing the winner to Fischer has a fine parallel—after receiving his trophy, Carlsen thanked the Croatian fans. "I always heard about the chess culture [in former Yugoslavia] and I have to say that it delivered in every way."

Almost half a century ago, in the same city, Yugoslav chess lovers saw another dominating player from the West. It was in Rovinj (first half) and then Zagreb (second half) where Fischer scored one of his great performances in 1970 as he won the Tournament of Peace, an 18-player(!) round robin, with 13/18, two points clear of the rest.

With his win in the last round over MVL, Carlsen has won his sixth classical tournament in a row and extended his unbeaten streak in classical games to 79. For this, he used the 8.Be3 line in the Gruenfeld against an expert in that opening.

Vachier-Lagrave rarely loses with the Gruenfeld and had never lost in this particular variation.

Maxime Vachier-Lagrave Croatia Grand Chess Tour
Vachier-Lagrave hadn't lost before against 8.Be3. | Photo: Lennart Ootes/Grand Chess Tour.

This endgame, which the now-retired 14th world champion Vladimir Kramnik liked to play as well with white, is the classic Gruenfeld fight between Black's pawn majority on the queenside versus White's passed d-pawn (coined "Delroy" by Jonathan Rowson 20 years ago in his classic Understanding the Grunfeld).

"I was definitely happy to get this position. It's not much for White but I thought for the tournament situation, there would be little risk so that's good, and maybe some chances to play as well," said Carlsen.

In this game, Delroy made the difference as MVL erred on move 28. The endgame is unpleasant but possibly lost only after he traded rooks.

Carlsen Vachier-Lagrave Croatia Grand Chess Tour
Vachier-Lagrave resigns, giving Carlsen victory at the Croatia Grand Chess Tour. | Photo: Lennart Ootes/Grand Chess Tour.

Aronian said about Carlsen:

"He started going into the main lines, which he was usually not doing in previous years. I think he trained pretty well for his match with Fabiano. Now he does something that is unusual for him: he plays very critical opening lines from the start. He plays central chess, something he wasn’t doing. And it works well for him. For example today, this was a very direct and very good game. It’s good to see that he’s working on himself and I think it’s a good example to follow."

Levon Aronian Croatia Grand Chess Tour
Aronian was among the players pointing out that Carlsen is going for the critical opening variations these days. | Photo: Lennart Ootes/Grand Chess Tour.

Giri also made this point about Carlsen and openings.

"I think what has changed is, he won a few games after repeating a lot of lines at home. Such preparation takes a lot of energy and effort. You have to analyse and afterwards you have to look at these lines and you have to make sure you remember them. That takes a lot of effort, and I think before he thought that wasn't worth it. Now he won a few games this way, he felt, oh wait, that's actually worth it. So now he is not only having walks in the rain like today, but at some point he also sits with his laptop in his room, puts on his headphones and stares at the screen for a couple of hours and does his job. That makes him a different player and people have to still get used to it but I think right now they really understand. He has simply become one of the best prepared players in the world."

Carlsen Aronian So Croatia Grand Chess Tour
Carlsen checking out Aronian vs. So. | Photo: Lennart Ootes/Grand Chess Tour.

Second-place finisher Wesley So ended with a draw against Levon Aronian. For So, 7/11 was an excellent score, and he would have done fine with 50 percent since his rating was lower than the monstrous average of 2781 in Zagreb, as he himself pointed out.

"It's definitely one of my best tournament results as all the best players are here," he said.

So was pleased with his play and gave an interesting explanation for his good form: "I am trying to play chess well; sometimes I don't even care about the result. I just wanna make some good moves."

Aronian described his tournament as "decent," and it would have been better if he had scored one more win.

This game is below (with draws in Shakhriyar Mamedyarov vs. Ding Liren and Hikaru Nakamura vs. Vishy Anand):

Wesley So Croatia Grand Chess Tour
Plus three was excellent for Wesley So in Zagreb. | Photo: Lennart Ootes/Grand Chess Tour.

Anish Giri joined the group of players on 50 percent as he finished with a win against Ian Nepomniachtchi. The latter went for an all-out attack straight out of the opening which, despite having been prepared at home, just wasn't working.

Giri: "First of all I would like to thank, for this game, someone I never really thank, and I definitely should. My helper, who is always there, always helping me, day and night, working in the most unhumane conditions, never asks for anything and keeps on doing his thing: my personal computer. I think it did a good job here."

Although Nepo's 9.e5 was new, Giri had checked everything in advance, and apparently more recently and with a stronger engine than his opponent: "My helper did this a long time ago and I knew that this stuff doesn't work. A while ago a weak engine said White is just crushing and basically it's just a case of him being badly prepared." 

Anish Giri Croatia Grand Chess Tour
Giri thanked his computer for his win. | Photo: Lennart Ootes/Grand Chess Tour.

Fabiano Caruana was in trouble at some point against Sergey Karjakin but managed to avoid a loss. The American player summed it up as follows:

"I played the Benoni. I guess that explains pretty much everything that happened afterwards. It’s such a bad opening!"

It wasn't just the opening that was to blame, as Black was only slightly worse after 22 moves. But 23...Nb5 was a big mistake.

While Caruana called it "borderline lost," Karjakin felt he was "much better" after playing 26.b4. "The problem was that the position is tricky and he was playing fast; I was a bit down on time. I was trying to play very precisely but it wasn’t simple."

It was another missed chance for Karjakin, after he had been much better against Carlsen and winning against So.

"It’s good that I outplay these guys sometimes, so I hope that if I work on my technique I will score more points," the Russian GM said.

Croatia Grand Chess Tour Final Standings
Carlsen strongly leads the Grand Chess Tour after this event and is risking to spoil the intrigue early if he does well next month again.

2019 Grand Chess Tour Standings

Also on Sunday, the Norwegian Chess Federation turned down a $5.8 million deal with Malta-based gambling giant Kindred Group against Carlsen's wish. (More about that here.) According to Norwegian reporter Tarjei Svensen, Carlsen had been adding new members to his club during the tournament in Zagreb but as it turned out, they couldn't make a difference in the vote.


The 2019 Croatia Grand Chess Tour took place June 26 to July 8 at the Novinarski Dom in Zagreb, Croatia. This was one of the two classical events on the tour this year. The time control was a new one with 130 minutes for each player with a 30-second delay from move one.

The next stop on the tour will be the Paris Rapid and Blitz starting on July 27. Carlsen's next GCT appearances will be next month at the Saint Louis Rapid and Blitz followed by the Sinquefield Cup.

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