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World Blitz Chess Championship Day 2: Vachier-Lagrave and Assaubayeva New World Blitz Champions
Maxime Vachier-Lagrave won a nerve-racking playoff to rightfully win the world blitz title. Photo: Maria Emelianova/Chess.com.

World Blitz Chess Championship Day 2: Vachier-Lagrave and Assaubayeva New World Blitz Champions

AnthonyLevin
| 98 | Chess Event Coverage

GM Maxime Vachier-Lagrave (also known as MVL) finished first in the World Blitz Chess Championship with 15/21 in the Swiss tournament, after defeating GM Jan-Krzysztof Duda in their third blitz playoff game. Duda finished in second and GM Alireza Firouzja finished in third, each with 15/21 as well. With the same controversial system as the rapid event in place, Firouzja did not play in the playoff games due to tiebreaks. 

17-year-old Kazakh IM Bibisara Assaubayeva continued a nearly unstoppable streak of wins to finish first with 14/17, having an entire round to spare. GM Alexandra Kosteniuk, the new women's world rapid champion, finished in second with 12.5/17 and GM Valentina Gunina finished in third with 12/17. IM Polina Shuvalova, who finished with 12 points also, had the inferior tiebreak and did not place in third. 

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The final day of the most prestigious blitz event in the world was the furthest thing from quiet. To start, three players unfortunately tested positive for the COVID-19 virus, a fan-favorite among them.

The identities of the other two players were not released, but according to FIDE, the affected players and opponents were contacted privately.

The beginning of the first round was delayed by 30 minutes initially, and finally an hour, as many players took the test before the round began and organizers met to discuss how to proceed. Of course, one concern for the players was getting back home to celebrate the new year, as it would not be possible to board a plane after testing positive.

Nakamura, who began streaming from his hotel room to cover the games, spoke to Dutch GM Benjamin Bok in a short interview. When asked if today's news affected his plans for playing in the Grand Prix (which will feature the last two open spots for the upcoming Candidates Tournament in Madrid) or other future events, Nakamura responded: "I was thinking about that too. There's some kind of horrible irony... out of everybody, I was more cautious [and did not play in over-the-board events]... I was worried about the COVID situation in Latvia... and the one event I try to play at, I get it [the COVID-19 virus]."

...There's some kind of horrible irony... out of everybody, I was more cautious.
Hikaru Nakamura

Nakamura, photographed on the previous day, was not present in day two of the blitz event. Photo: Maria Emelianova/Chess.com.

Nevertheless, the games commenced. Masks were recommended by FIDE, not required, and many players chose not to wear their masks during the games.

GM Levon Aronian, the leader on 10/12 after day one, started the tournament consolidating his lead after defeating the second-placed GM Amin Bassem in round 13, then drawing GMs Arjun Erigaisi and Ian Nepomniachtchi before beating GM Anish Giri in round 16 in a rook endgame.

Aronian had a strong start on the last day, but it was not meant to be. Photo: Maria Emelianova/Chess.com.

This was a tough blow to the Dutch number-one, who had just inflicted GM Magnus Carlsen's fourth loss of the event in a crushing attack. It featured a nice moment where Carlsen seemed to threaten Giri's b7-pawn on move 41, but GM commentator Jon Ludvig Hammer elucidated: "Carlsen makes a threat, and Anish ignores it!"

Giri (right) defeats Carlsen (left). Photo: Lennart Ootes/FIDE.

The world champion in two time controls (classical and blitz, but not rapid anymore!) had a tragic end to the day as he suffered two more defeats, to GM Alexander Grischuk in the next round and to Vachier-Lagrave in the final round 21 of the Swiss tournament.

This was just not Carlsen's day. Photo: Maria Emelianova/Chess.com.

Aronian seemed to be destined for victory after round 16. However, an incredible moment of crisis was his round 17-game against MVL. In a wild back-and-forth game where Aronian was actually winning for most of it, the Frenchman took the full point after a decisive blunder, 54...Ra1??

MVL was somewhat lucky against Aronian, but took full advantage of it after. Photo: Maria Emelianova/Chess.com.

Still, Aronian maintained a half-point lead above GM Daniil Dubov, but suffered a train-wreck, losing the next two games to 21-year-old Armenian GM Haik Martirosyan and Russian GM Vladislav Artemiev, once called the "Chuck Norris of chess" by Grischuk.

Dubov, the recent second to Carlsen against Russian compatriot Nepomniachtchi, suddenly took off. After mysteriously forfeiting his first round of the tournament (which counted as a full loss), he started the day with a forfeit-win over Nakamura. Once the pairing between them was published, it could not be changed, even though the American blitz-phenom had withdrawn from the tournament over an hour before the game's start.

Dubov with the world champion. Photo: Anna Shtourman/FIDE.

The tables turned as Dubov took the lead following a critical win against GM Jan-Krzysztof Duda in round 18. The Polish star-player, whom we will see return later, played an understandable but nevertheless losing blunder with 29.Rg1??, immediately resigning without making his next move.

In a dramatic hand-off of the top spot, Dubov switched places with Aronian, leading the tournament with 13.5/18 and the latter (at this point) tied at 13 points with  Vachier-Lagrave. Dubov maintained his lead by drawing the Frenchman in round 19, but suddenly lost to the youngest 2800-player in history and the world's number-two in classical chess, Firouzja.

Firouzja made a tremendous comeback in the last five rounds. Photo: Maria Emelianova/Chess.com.

We had not heard as much as expected about the 18-year-old prodigy, who had back-and-forth results in the first half, but spectacularly won all of his last five games in the tournament. The win against Dubov, however, was a showstopper as the young super-grandmaster finally got his due. In the game, Dubov was under pressure, but blundered with the unfortunate 12.Ra4??, which got his rook trapped. Firouzja gave him zero chances from there.

After this game-changer, the gates to first broke wide open. There were six players tied with 14/20 going into the last round, and all six of them had chances to win the championship! They were Aronian, Dubov, Artemiev, Duda, Vachier-Lagrave, and Firouzja. Just behind, by the way, was Carlsen, with 13.5!

Artemiev, one of Russia's finest. Photo: Anna Shtourman/FIDE.

The Norwegian had just earned an important game, on a personal level, against Nepomniachtchi.  Having a more active knight and rook against bishop and rook, he converted exceptionally, but by this point was too far from the top of the standings.

Carlsen deep in thought. Photo: Lennart Ootes/FIDE.

Going into the final round, commentator and GM Irina Krush expected: "Everyone should be going all-out in the final round."

Everyone should be going all-out in the final round.
—GM Irina Krush

While a victory alone would in no way earn the world title—with six players competing, this was clear by now—it could earn one of two spots in the playoff. Identically to the rapid event, the final playoff games would be settled between only the top two players with the best tiebreaks.

Inexplicably, Dubov agreed to a draw with Giri (who was on 13 points and had no chance to win) after eight moves, ending the former's chances.

Meanwhile, Duda beat Artemiev, Firouzja won against Aronian, and Vachier-Lagrave managed to serve Carlsen's sixth (!) and final defeat. Finally, the players with 15/21 were Vachier-Lagrave, Duda, and Firouzja (in tiebreak order). As such, the promising young player, who had just produced a fiery comeback, was unable to compete with the other leaders in the end.

The Frenchman could not be stopped today. Photo: Lennart Ootes/FIDE.

The Polish and French grandmasters were to play blitz games with the standard time control of 3+2. According to the tiebreak regulations, if the first two games ended in an even score, they would continue playing blitz games (ad infinitum) until one win.

Thus, the first person to win game three or onward would become the world blitz champion without a follow-up game.

The playoff was incredibly tense, with numerous spectators. Photo: Maria Emelianova/Chess.com.

Before the game started, there was a drawing of lots. Duda, selecting between two white boxes, selected one with a black pawn inside, so he would play with the black pieces.

We saw a Ruy Lopez in the first game. Despite being in some trouble in the middlegame, Duda was able to trade pieces and liquidate the position into a drawn rook endgame.

The stakes could not be higher. Photo: Maria Emelianova/Chess.com.

The second game featured a Queen's Gambit Accepted, which was somewhat a surprise as the Frenchman is better known to consistently play the Grunfeld with the black pieces against 1.d4. It also ended in a draw that was well-played by both sides.

In the third and decisive game, which started as another Ruy Lopez, MVL achieved a "bone-in-the-throat" bishop on c6 that paralyzed the black position, preventing the activation of both black rooks. Even despite the trade of queens, Black was never able to wriggle out.

The French super-grandmaster can finally take a breath. Photo: Maria Emelianova/Chess.com.

The winners pose for the camera. Photo: Maria Emelianova/Chess.com.

In another stroke of irony, Nakamura is now the highest-rated blitz player in the world. Image: 2700chess.com.

2021 World Blitz Championship | Final Standings (Top 20)

Rk. SNo Fed Name Rtg Pts. TB1 TB2 TB3
1 8 GM Vachier-Lagrave Maxime 2787 15 244 251.5 2660
2 6 GM Duda Jan-Krzysztof 2792 15 242 249.5 2640
3 4 GM Firouzja Alireza 2810 15 237 245.5 2609
4 14 GM Dubov Daniil 2749 14.5 253.5 262 2670
5 15 GM Aronian Levon 2740 14 256 264.5 2682
6 12 GM Mamedyarov Shakhriyar 2754 14 249.5 258.5 2640
7 3 GM Artemiev Vladislav 2830 14 245 253.5 2646
8 133 GM Sindarov Javokhir 2452 13.5 259 269.5 2689
9 22 GM Fedoseev Vladimir 2690 13.5 258.5 267 2674
10 76 GM Oparin Grigoriy 2580 13.5 256 266 2678
11 19 GM Martirosyan Haik M. 2707 13.5 252.5 262 2659
12 1 GM Carlsen Magnus 2892 13.5 252 262.5 2664
13 47 GM Kravtsiv Martyn 2638 13.5 250.5 258.5 2641
14 11 GM Grischuk Alexander 2757 13.5 248.5 257 2665
15 105 GM Kobalia Mikhail 2532 13.5 247.5 257.5 2677
16 9 GM Giri Anish 2778 13.5 247.5 256.5 2651
17 30 GM Alekseenko Kirill 2663 13 247 257 2619
18 52 GM Vidit Santosh Gujrathi 2628 13 238.5 247 2594
19 20 GM Nihal Sarin 2705 13 236 244 2584
20 28 GM Sarana Alexey 2672 13 234.5 243.5 2576

(Full final standings here.)

All World Blitz Championship Games