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Karjakin Nearly Perfect But Aronian Extends Lead In St. Louis

Karjakin Nearly Perfect But Aronian Extends Lead In St. Louis

Today was a day for short sleeves and short memories.

At day four of the inaugural St. Louis Rapid and Blitz, the time control shrank to five minutes per side with a three-second delay. That means, unlike with increment, once in time pressure, always in time pressure.

Many players dressed the part, arriving in polos instead of long-sleeve dress shirts. Not GM Levon Aronian -- even a little extra (stylish) fabric couldn't slow him down. He began the day up one on GM Hikaru Nakamura. The lead was never trimmed, and the Armenian ended the afternoon by doubling the margin.

Cover photo: Chess.com/Maria Emelianova.

When elite players contest 45 games over nine rounds in this kind of time control, nearly anything can happen. And today, everything did, which produced 27 winning games.

In the first two rounds alone, a whole tournament's worth of action unfolded. The day's hero, GM Sergey Karjakin, went down to one second several times against GM Garry Kasparov, at one point fumbling his queen before righting her just in time. In the opening games, those two players also both moved their white kings to e2 within the first six moves.

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GM Sergey Karjakin plays a series of checks to no avail against GM Garry Kasparov. His missed win came at the beginning of the checking. | Photo: Chess.com/Maria Emelianova.

We had a 1.b3, a sort of Reverse Blumenfeld Gambit, and a 147-move game where a veteran arbiter invoked a rule for the first time in his career. And there were still seven rounds to go.

Karjakin's magical day netted him an astounding seven wins and two draws. The 8.0/9 catapulted him from sixth to third in the standings, and boosted his blitz rating more than 60 points to go to world number-two.

"It is a great day," Karjakin said. "Almost perfect result for me."

It could have been even better, but in round 10, the day's first, Kasparov showed creative all-or-nothing defense from a worse position. He even showed ingenuity on his second move.

Prior to today, Kasparov had not ever played a King's Gambit in a rated game of any time control according to Chess.com's research. Our own IM Danny Rensch took a deep dive:

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"I was actually very angry that I didn't win my first game, against Garry, because I was completely winning but I was down on time and he used it, some tricks, and I didn't know if I'm still winning in the final position," Karjakin said at the close of the day. "At least it was impossible to understand."

Also in the opening round, the two leaders met, but Nakamura and Aronian didn't stray far from equality.

"Playing solid is sometimes important," Aronian said. How did he prepare? "The same [as] I did for rapid. Absolutely nothing!"

Round 11, the day's second, featured a blitz game that lasted around 20 minutes. The 147-move marathon that was Aronian-GM David Navara saw the final 100+ moves played nearly exclusively on delay. Both players drained their clocks to the minimum possible, four seconds, for the technical endgame.

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Long sleeves, loud shirt, no problem for GM Levon Aronian. | Photo: Chess.com/Maria Emelianova.

Aronian kept trying to drive Black's king far enough away to sacrifice for the bishop and pawn, but he couldn't quite seal off the monarch. Round and round they went, with the Czech player's king oscillating within an imaginary line that he tried not to cross.

Aronian never got the distance he needed, or at least he didn't realize it when he did, but since there was no notation of course; he just kept trying. The online audience knew that the pair had easily crossed into the 50-move rule (and possibly even a stray repetition too at some point), but Navara just kept defending.

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Well, OK, maybe a little "147-move problem." | Photo: Chess.com/Maria Emelianova.

That's when IA Chris Bird, who is afforded the ability to track moves via computer, sprang up from his chair. He had calculated when the two would reach 75 moves, and that threshold gives the arbiter the ability to intervene even without a claim. Bird told Chess.com this is from a rule change in 2014 (as Peter Doggers expertly explained/predicted back then). It's the first time Bird has employed it. He also cheekily said that they may have made more than 75 moves, since it takes him a few seconds to get from his computer to the board itself and to do the math!

Trusting the relay, it appears the last capture was on move 64, and thus Navara's well-earned draw required 83 moves, none of which could last longer than a few seconds.

While it may appear that Navara was either ignorant of the possibility of 50 moves or just a bad estimator, nothing could be less true. He told Chess.com afterward that he was going to just keep playing moves until a piece was about to be captured. For example, if he allowed a fork of his king and bishop, he'd stop the clock at that very moment, and try his hand then with the claim.

As it turned out, Bird cashed in this insurance policy for him.

Karjakin won his first of seven games against GM Leinier Dominguez then followed up by mating Navara in blitz round 12. Still, no one was quite noticing yet since he began so far back.

That same round, Aronian had had enough of his "phony Benoni" and played the "traditional" version. Whereas in the rapid he'd trotted out a Czech Benoni and a Reverse Benoni, today it was just plain old vanilla. Well, that is, until his pawn got to e5 anyway.

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After sacrificing on h3, Aronian got to have some fun against GM Le Quang Liem. | Photo: Chess.com/Maria Emelianova.

It worked. Aronian's win against GM Le Quang Liem was one of four wins for black of the round. He borrowed a page from the King's Indian Defense to win this one.

The real news of the round involved the arbiter team again, and did not sit well with several players. 

Here's the scene: GM Viswanathan Anand and Nakamura are tidying up a harmless draw by agreement. But they've only played 28 moves. This is unbeknownst to them, and also to the first arbiter that arrived at their board. As instructed earlier in the event, the players did not place their own kings on the requisite center squares, but the arbiter did.

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Arbiter Hendrik du Toit in conversation with GM Hikaru Nakamura about the 30-move rule. | Photo: Chess.com/Maria Emelianova.

After that, the arbiters corrected themselves, and instructed the players they had to play a few more moves, and he restarted the game at move 28. Nakamura discussed the ruling with Bird; in Nakamura's memory, there had been no 30-move rule for the blitz portion of the Grand Chess Tour's Paris leg (and the Tour strives for uniformity in pretty much every facet of all events).

For this event the rule is in place, as the club showed Nakamura later.

"As I recall in Paris, we didn't have the 30-move draw in place in blitz," Nakamura told Chess.com. The regulations from Paris say that the Sofia rule will be in effect "throughout the event."

"Frankly it's just an idiotic idea, because first of all, it's blitz, and secondly, you can't even see the screen to see if you have any idea [of the move number]."

He said he's now been informed the rule does exist here. "But it's a stupid rule. For rapid it's fine, but for blitz it shouldn't exist...You're not going to have quick draws in blitz, that's just not what's going to happen."

Things didn't end with just those two players. Much of the dissemination of the ruling with Bird and Nakamura took place right at the board, which noticeably disturbed Kasparov on an adjacent board (there's really no extra room in the playing hall, but there is a private kitchen/snack room for the players that is off-limits to fans).

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Kasparov expresses his incredulity at the commotion, which took place right behind GM Fabiano Caruana's chair. | Photo: Chess.com/Maria Emelianova.

Kasparov's clock dwindled down to 20 seconds when he was first seen waving his arms in response to the commotion. The scene seemed to affect him for the remainder of the game, and he lost on time in a hopeless position.

The closing moves to Kasparov's game didn't allow him to hold a tough position:

"I think the position after the opening is very unclear," Caruana said. "I might have been in a lot of danger at some point because I didn't have much counterplay and he was attacking me. But I didn't see a very strong continuation for him. I think c4 was an important move. He probably reacted not so well after that. Then it got a bit crazy but I think the finish was pretty nice."

Afterward, several meetings took place with club officials, Kasparov's team, and Nakamura's team. They all wanted to discuss the rules and the handling of the affair.

Coincidentally, Kasparov and Nakamura were slated to play the next round. As they filed in upstairs, both of them had a chat with Bird, as did Kasparov's manager and the Grand Chess Tour spokesperson Michael Khodarkovsky.

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Kasparov manager and Grand Chess Tour spokesperson Michael Khodarkovsky. | Photo: Chess.com/Maria Emelianova.

Chess.com verified the facts of the events with Bird and Nakamura, but could not speak with Kasparov, who left the club for the second day in a row without speaking to independent media or going on the live broadcast.

Once play resumed for round 13, which Kasparov has said is his lucky number (he's the 13th world champion), he regrouped to hold the balance. As you might expect in a game with the fastest player against the elder statesman, Kasparov didn't have much time to find the fortress (2:20 for Nakamura against 30 seconds for Kasparov). Despite attempts to chip away at it, the wall held.

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Nakamura and Kasparov played in the round after the noise. | Photo: Chess.com/Maria Emelianova.

Particularly creative was Kasparov's offer of one rook, then the other just after. Nakamura's fusillade ended when he lost control of the dark squares.

Also in that round, GM Leinier Dominguez won the shortest game of the day against Caruana, who never got going today (scoring only 3.5/9). We'll fast-forward over the first 21 moves in favor of the 22nd and final, a cruncher:

In round 14, you could forget about the 30-move draw. There were no draws at all. Black again won four of the five games, with Karjakin, the outlier of the day, also being the outlier of the round. His streak of five straight wins to close the day began here, against countryman GM Ian Nepomniachtchi (who didn't have a bad day at +1, but still lost ground).

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GMs Sergey Karjakin and Ian Nepomniachtchi. Friends have to play too. Three times this week, in fact. | Photo: Chess.com/Maria Emelianova.

Nepomniachtchi tried the North Sea Opening. Like GM Magnus Carlsen's attempt at using it, along with many sailors traveling through it, he was quickly capsized. These are not opening moves he will be replaying any time soon.

Chess.com's interview with Sergey Karjakin.

Just when it looked like Aronian would make his first bagel and come back to the field, he turned the zero into a one by hanging around. Sometimes in these events, just keeping pieces on the board and ensuring a few more seconds than your opponent is all it takes. Anand spoiled a better position with a bad blunder late.

Aronian went against his word, again, by playing 2. Bf4, the London System. He said in the rapid he told himself he'd never put his bishop there, and yet, he's done it twice now in one week. It wasn't the only London of the round, but it worked cleanly against Nepomniachtchi.

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Aronian's one major slip today cost him the game. The clock times played a big role. | Photo: Chess.com/Maria Emelianova.

On the other end, Caruana's London burned against the unstoppable Karjakin:

You'd have to reach very far back in the annals to find a day where Caruana lost two games as White in anything close to 22 and 26 moves.

Meanwhile, Nakamura's second Larsen Opening worked just fine against Navara as he kept pace with Aronian and kept holding off Karjakin for second.

White players righted the ship in round 16, winning three of the four decisive games. Karjakin's straightforward win over Nakamura, his third in a row, got the reigning world blitz champion officially into the leadership discussion.

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Karjakin in the middle of his great run prepares to face Nakamura. | Photo: Chess.com/Maria Emelianova.

Kasparov's heartache continued when he lost a better position late against Aronian, who seemed to take advantage of all of his second lives today. Just trying his best to keep up with Karjakin, this was Aronian's third straight win.

The next round was the only spot of trouble for Aronian. He went for the gusto, launching many pieces at the white king along the long diagonal and f-file. Eventually Caruana muddled the position with a correct exchange sacrifice. Later, they were both reduced to four seconds, the minimum possible without losing on time.

Aronian then just hung a rook, just like Le did yesterday, for his only blitz loss of the day.

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Kasparov won his only game of the day and got to show some of the old magic at the end with a pleasing finishing idea:

In the 18th and final round of the day, Karjakin and Anand repeated the rook endgame position three times, but neither claimed it (correctly!), so Anand played on, only to play a losing move immediately after.

So what happened with the repetition?

"It's really a pity how this last one went," Anand began, "because I made my move (57...Ra4) and then claimed the draw, but of course I just forgot [the correct procedure is] that you threaten to make the move."

The bigger pity: as you can see in the game analysis, even after the incorrect claim (you're supposed to announce only your intention to make the repetition if your move will cause it), then White played 58. Kb3 which is yet another repetition. Anand could have make a second, correct claim, which was confirmed later by a very busy Bird!

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Karjakin and GM Vishy Anand. They would later wear out the arbiter's shoes even more. | Photo: Chess.com/Maria Emelianova.

That turnaround paled in comparison to Nakamura, who won after playing with two paperweights as pieces. "Caruana is essentially two pieces up," GM Yasser Seirawan said about White's two healthy knights against Nakamura's two dead bishops.

In the hands of a lesser 2867 blitz player, that would be a problem:

"I think I played pretty well," Nakamura said to Chess.com about the day. "Obviously, I shouldn't have won this last one against Fabiano. Both of us were a little bit tired after we played for so long...Once I got this ...Bg5 I suspect it's still winning [for White], but it's just too much counterplay. Fabiano had a complete grip on the position, but it was just too much for him.

"Points come and go but at least I'm still in second place despite Sergey [Karjakin] playing out of his mind."

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Nakamura and his girlfriend, Maria De Rosa. | Photo: Chess.com/Maria Emelianova.

Aronian recovered his point from the last round, meaning the three leaders all closed the day with wins. He said that he, too, was tired, but not from the playing.

"Nine games is not that difficult to play, but it's the wait that drains you, waiting for the next game to come," Aronian said. "Generally when we get together, you've seen those wild nights, we play 20, 30 games. But I go to the gym, I go to the pool, I try to keep in shape."

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A pretty good day for Nepomniachtchi, a really good day for Aronian, and the day of days for Karjakin. Image: 2700chess.com.

The field gets 18 hours of rest after these 18 games and will do it all again tomorrow, with nine more blitz rounds (with colors reversed from today). Aronian, at two points clear of the Nakamura, is the only player to control his own destiny. Karjakin played tremendously today at 8.0/9 but still only picked up 1.5 points. He still trails by 2.5 and will need close to perfection tomorrow to overcome both Aronian and Nakamura.

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The two most successful men of the day smile at each other, Aronian in the suit jacket and Karjakin, in the pink shirt. | Photo: Chess.com/Maria Emelianova.

"If I play as good as today, I think it should be good enough for at least second," Nakamura said to Chess.com. "If I play better, maybe I can play for first place as well."

Chess.com's interview with the tournament leader.

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You can follow the games live at Chess.com/Live and watch the live broadcast at Chess.com/TV with commentary by GM Yasser Seirawan, GM Maurice Ashley and WGM Jennifer Shahade. On the final day, the games start at 1 p.m. local time (11 a.m. Pacific, 2 p.m. Eastern, 8 p.m. CET).

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Peter Doggers contributed to this report.


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