Speed Chess Championship: Caruana Upsets MVL, Meets So In Quarterfinals
Fabiano Caruana won a nail-biter against Maxime Vachier-Lagrave

Speed Chess Championship: Caruana Upsets MVL, Meets So In Quarterfinals

| 36 | Chess Event Coverage

GM Fabiano Caruana beat GM Maxime Vachier-Lagrave with a score of 13.5-12.5 in the last match of the first round of the 2021 Speed Chess Championship Main Event. He will face GM Wesley So in the quarterfinal match, which starts on Thursday, December 9 at 10:00 a.m. Pacific / 19:00 Central European Time.

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2021 Speed Chess Championship Main Event

The live broadcast of the match.

The former challenger for the world title took a break from his job as a commentator for the current FIDE World Chess Championship match to cross swords with Vachier-Lagrave (MVL), who was a clear pre-match favorite with 78% winning probability versus Caruana's 22% according to SmarterChess match prediction. However, at almost no point in the match was it certain that these predictions would come true. It was a rather close match that could go either way. 

It started off with two wins for both players in the 5+1 segment. The third game was particularly curious as the French grandmaster opened the game with 1.e3!?. Commentators GM Daniel Naroditsky and GM Aman Hambleton were wondering whether this was a mouse-slip or a serious move during the broadcast, but it was very likely the former since Vachier-Lagrave pushed the e-pawn two squares forward in almost all of his remaining white games. Be that as it may, after about 15 moves, White got a position that Naroditsky described as: "One of those positions where in the 1960's the black player would resign, take a cigarette out of their mouth, and applaud."

In game six, Caruana evened the score again, but the game was marked by an unusual mutual blunder in a position where both players had enough time to see it.

We did not see a draw until game seven after MVL failed to convert a winning endgame. Then, Caruana clinched the 5+1 segment with a very stylish win in the eighth game. He carried on this form into the 3+1 segment, taking a 7-4 lead after 11 games. Things looked dire for MVL at that point, but he made a brilliant comeback, starting with a beautiful win with black pieces in game 12.

In his next game as White, MVL switched to the Italian game instead of the usual Ruy Lopez, which brought him immediate dividends as he won in a convincing positional fashion. In games 14 and 15, he repeated the winning recipe: the French defense with Black and Italian game with White, and voilà—he was up by one point!

He completed the turnaround as he won the last game of the blitz segment, carrying a solid 9.5-7.5 lead into the bullet segment. With such great form, and especially after winning the first bullet game, MVL was surely seen as a huge favorite to win the match by many but Fabiano delighted his fans as he fought back and never let the match run away from him.

After a couple of nice wins by Fabiano, game 23 was perhaps the crucial turning point of the match. He was on a brink of losing but managed to completely turn it around in the time scramble and equalize the score at 11.5-11.5.

With the time limit for the bullet segment running out, Vachier-Lagrave took another lead when Caruana pre-move blundered in a completely drawn rook and bishops endgame.

In the penultimate game of the match, Caruana reminded us of his psychological resilience which he displayed so well in the recently finished U.S. Championship. In a must-win game with Black, he displayed fantastic technique in a very sharp endgame and evened the score once again.

So, the match came down to the wire and it was either going to be decided in the final, 26th, game or in the tie-break if the game ended in a draw. It was a nail-biter because the American masterfully built a winning position and gained a big advantage on the clock, but MVL defended valiantly and kept posing practical problems. 

With this game, Caruana had won the match! He is not considered to be such a specialist in speed chess, but he has shown that he has made big improvements in this area of his game and is capable of beating one of the world's fastest and strongest players in a match.

When asked about his result in the post-match interview, Caruana said: "I didn't have many expectations going into it today. I didn't think that I would do very well in the openings, but I was actually getting pretty playable positions with Black. The big surprise is that I overperformed in one-minute segment, which is usually not my strong point."

Caruana promised that he would keep making trips to Danny Rensch's office for the future SCC matches because it is his lucky charm

MVL also shared his view on the match: "Overall, it was quite a deserved win for Fabi because I made far too many mistakes in all segments, but especially in the bullet where I just wasn't playing well. I had good positions, but Fabi played very stubbornly and saved a couple of very difficult positions. I just made too many blunders and that's what cost me the match."

Caruana agreed that it came down to ''some moments in the one-minute section,'' primarily referring to the ''crunch" game 23 which, as he admitted ''was dead-lost and I somehow won when my pawns started going". He now sets his sights on the quarterfinal match against Wesley So, whom he considers "a bit of a favorite, but hopes that he has his chances, too.''

Vachier-Lagrave earned $961.54 based on his score percentage, while Caruana will receive $2,000 for the victory plus $1,038.46 on percentage ($3,038.46 total). He advances to the quarterfinals where he will play GM Wesley So.

All Games

The 2021 Speed Chess Championship Main Event is a knockout tournament among 16 of the best grandmasters in the world who will play for a $100,000 prize fund. The tournament will run November 8-December 19, 2021 on Each individual match will feature 90 minutes of 5+1 blitz, 60 minutes of 3+1 blitz, and 30 minutes of 1+1 bullet chess.

Find all information about the Speed Chess Championship here.

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