On 2nd Try, Aronian Gets St. Louis Win
In the end, love wins.
On the final day of the St. Louis Rapid and Blitz, when several players brought their families to the tournament hall, GM Levon Aronian had to think about his significant other from afar.
Cover photo: Chess.com/Maria Emelianova.
When focus turned to chess, Aronian briefly stumbled out of the gate, allowing the still-surging GM Sergey Karjakin to get to within one point. The former's 0.5-1.5 start, coupled with Karjakin's two beginning wins (which made him 10.0/11 in blitz at that moment), put Aronian's lead in doubt.
As Aronian told Chess.com, the wine he drank the night before didn't help. After getting only four hours of sleep, his subconscious forced him awake for good.
But never underestimate a man in love. Asked midway through today if a tournament win would be a wedding gift to his fiancee, Aronian said, "There are not enough wins to give as a present to the person I love."
Wine, love, chess. For Aronian, only the music was missing.
Chess.com's interview with the tournament winner.
Aronian recovered in his third game; after botching the winning sequence his opponent GM Le Quang Liem inexplicably flagged in a better position. Aronian used that topsy-turvy game to regain momentum and he eventually clinched in round 25, with two games to go.
The winner signed every last autograph. | Photo: Chess.com/Mike Klein.
Fittingly, his decisive half-point in that round came against GM Garry Kasparov, the "other" man of the week. Aronian's final tally: 24.5/36 (slightly better than the winning score in the Paris Grand Chess Tour event but a little under Leuven). That bested Karjakin's and GM Hikaru Nakamura's shared second place total of 21.5/36.
"I thought people might think I am not very good in blitz or rapid, and I just wanted to show that I have some tricks up my sleeves," Aronian, the 2010 World Blitz champion, said.
For his part, Kasparov also recovered to string together some wins today. After his lone loss in the opening game, he recovered with 5.5/8 to close the day, easily his best afternoon.
St. Louis Blitz | Crosstable
|6||Le Quang Liem||2739||2757||00||00||½1||½0||1½||½½||½½||01||11||8.5/18|
Aronian didn't play the most inspiring chess today, but he didn't need to. He began up 2.5 points on Karjakin and 2.0 on Nakamura, who simply suffered too many losses mid-day to ever challenge.
The day seemed to be about Aronian protecting the lead. He told Chess.com afterward that he did play it safe, which is against his style (a video interview with Aronian will be posted here later).
An opening-round (technically, the 19th) draw as White against chaser Nakamura lasted only 15 moves. Nakamura told Chess.com later that if he were in Aronian's position, he would have done the same.
If you blinked, you missed it. The two leaders, GM Levon Aronian and GM Hikaru Nakamura, drew in about four minutes. | Photo: Chess.com/Maria Emelianova.
"I just thought it was good to start the day on a solid note," Aronian said. "It’s a decision, I can’t explain it. Let’s see if it works.”
Then Aronian allowed GM David Navara's king to sneak into his camp in what should have been a drawn ending.
Aronian then played another short draw against his new chaser, Karjakin (Nakamura had suffered some losses and slipped back to third).
GM Levon Aronian checks out Caruana-Kasparov. | Photo: Chess.com/Maria Emelianova.
Amazingly, that endgame "lesson" Navara showed in round 20 recurred in round 24, to Aronian's benefit.
His key win against GM Ian Nepomniachtchi atoned for the earlier loss in the R+4 vs. R+3 endgame. Just replace Navara's a-pawn for Aronian's b-pawn, and you've got instant karma:
Aronian's most important win, against GM Ian Nepomniachtchi, all but sealed the tournament. | Photo: Chess.com/Maria Emelianova.
Aronian then had his third sub-30-move repetition of the day, this one against Kasparov. That safeguard sealed the win mathematically since in that same round, Karjakin went down to Nakamura. The lead grew to 2.5 points with two games remaining.
Just for posterity and rating points, Aronian closed out the day with his best chess. Two straight wins made the final margin three points, the largest of the entire event.
Here's the first of that couplet. Against GM Fabiano Caruana, Aronian allowed his opponent's bishop to fianchetto in front of his own king, yet somehow survived.
The win is Aronian's second major championship win in St. Louis. He also won the 2015 Sinquefield Cup. It almost became a double present for his soon-to-be wife, except that in the 2017 Sinquefield Cup he couldn't quite keep contact with the lead on the final day. With today's effort he gets to travel back to the Caucasus with a tournament win after all.
Of course, if it's a double Aronian is after, he still has the World Cup before his nuptials. If he makes the finals and punches his ticket to the 2018 Candidates' Tournament, then his wedding five days later will make it quite an extended celebration.
GM Sergey Karjakin needed more than the same pink shirt to repeat yesterday's 8.0/9. | Photo: Chess.com/Maria Emelianova.
For the opening hour, Aronian must have felt he was up against a machine. Karjakin had won his first two games to continue his unprecedented streak from the day before. He'd run his blitz record to 10.0/11 and a blitz performance rating that nearly crested 3200.
Those are Stockfish-like numbers, and vaulted Karjakin over Nakamura as the main rival. Round 20 involved a pattern we saw yesterday with a correct bishop sacrifice on h3.
Late in the game, GM Leinier Dominguez fumbled a piece with one second left. He fixed it back upright and managed to hit his clock, but there was one glaring problem: The position was still lost.
"I just played a very good game," Karjakin said. "I think he blundered my sacrifice. Maybe he’d have seen it but he didn’t think that it’s strong but in fact I think that Black has a very good attack. I’m not sure that White can do something."
When asked if his play today was sourced from his 2016 world championship match, Karjakin admitted that that preparation for that helped, but he stopped just short of explaining the actual chess.
"Magnus (Carlsen) played this line for White and of course I knew something about it, but I cannot tell you more!” Karjakin said.
One round later, Karjakin ran into the same buzzsaw that Aronian had just been sliced by: Navara. The top Czech player's third win in a row derailed both Karjakin's undefeated streak, and also his chase of the lead.
GM David Navara played a big factor in the standings today by starting 3-0. | Photo: Chess.com/Maria Emelianova.
It's not clear what flows better in Czech Republic: the beer, or Navara's bishops.
After the loss, Karjakin would never again get as close to the lead. His battle with Nakamura for second consumed them both as Aronian breathed the leader's fresh air.
GM Hikaru Nakamura and Karjakin were too busy battling for second for either to make a run at first. | Photo: Chess.com/Maria Emelianova.
The final game to take Karjakin out of the running came in round 25, a loss to the American he was right beside in the standings.
Despite the late win, Nakamura couldn't find the flow. He began the day two points behind but after back-to-back losses, the margin became three and he never got closer again.
Nakamura called his play overall "decent" but the chosen adjective for today's play wasn't in the same family of synonyms: "pathetic."
"It was a long day obviously. Everyone started to blunder, everywhere."
One of his losses came against a resurgent Kasparov, who Nakamura said played noticeably faster today.
GM Garry Kasparov, cracking his knuckles as he readies his endgame win. | Photo: Chess.com/Maria Emelianova.
"I think I played a brilliant game with Hikaru," Kasparov said.
Nakamura's final take on Kasparov: "I think it was a decent showing."
He said two players stood out at the week-long event.
"[Aronian] played the best from start to finish," Nakamura said. "Ian Nepomniachtchi was the best player but not consistent enough."
Nakamura thought GM Ian Nepomniachtchi lacked only consistency. | Photo: Chess.com/Maria Emelianova.
Just prior to this game, Kasparov showed good technique with limited time. A round earlier he'd taken out Caruana with a late flourish of fast moves, making him an American crusher.
This game had a mess of moves late; the video is more enjoyable than looking for exactness in the moves.
Caruana never got it going today and in fact finished last among all players with 5.5/18 in the blitz.
"Blitz so far has been up and down but overall pretty bad," he said midway through the day, which only got worse.
For a moment, a confidence and determined temperament returned to Kasparov's body language. He would finish with an even score in the blitz. The 9.0/18 was fifth-best amongst the field.
It only seems proper that if today was in fact the end of the Kasparov chapter of rated tournaments, as he says it is, that the 13th world champion gets the last "word" (his moves will mostly have to suffice since he again gave no interviews to independent media the entire week).
"I was reminded before my game with Dominguez that it could be my last Najdorf!" he said. "So I had to play with all the energy."
Here it is, his final game with Black, and maybe his best:
"I was quite pleased that I at least ended in some style."
The quotes are all from his talk with GM Maurice Ashley on the live show, where we learned of the vicissitudes stemming from the rapid loss to Navara that he just couldn't shake.
"I still cannot imagine that I recovered after the game with Navara because... it's like a nightmare," Kasparov said. "I'm afraid it will be hunting me for the rest of my life..The Navara game killed the fun.
"It's a pity because I spoke to my mother that morning and she said, 'Play one good game.' I said, 'Yes, I will do.'"
GM David Navara's ...Qxc6+ from the rapids might never get out of GM Garry Kasparov's head, no matter how hard he squeezes. | Photo: Chess.com/Maria Emelianova.
During the taping of his MasterClass online educational video, where this reporter was on set, Kasparov repeatedly praised his mother's influence on him and his formative years in the game. It's clear she still plays a part in his chess.
Speaking of MasterClass, the trailer intones Kasparov saying: "It’s not about winning or losing, but of course at the end of the day it’s about winning or losing." Clearly, the losing still affects him greatly.
Great watching @Kasparov63 play well today! "It's not about winning or losing, but at the end of the day, it's about winning or losing."— Anish Giri ( @anishgiri) August 18, 2017
Throughout the week he lamented that his good moves were too scattered and not congealing into one solid effort.
"I don't know what happened but in every game I had some kind of paralysis. Totally blind spots...In so many games I was just one move short of delivering.
"I don't know if it's age, whatever many things I'm doing...Maybe it's the revenge of the chess goddess: 'You have to be involved with chess only. You cannot just come out of retirement, I play a few more games and come back. Do other things.'"
It seems Kasparov will go back to those other things, or will he? The door was left slightly ajar with his cryptic "if" statements to Ashley:
"It's too much pressure. It's too much, also studying the openings, maybe if we can eliminate opening theory, then I can play. You have to remember everything and they have so much practice. It's a huge disadvantage. I was learning a lot. If I could use this experience playing again, I would do probably better."
When will we see this scowl again? Next year? 2029? Never again? | Photo: Chess.com/Maria Emelianova.
Kasparov said that his comeback was largely to help promote the Grand Chess Tour, and he thought it worked. The live show announced that more than one million viewers had watched this week's tournament.
Still, for most of the week Kasparov navigated and exited the club via back doors and little-used staircases. While not at the board, he was an apparition. As he ascended the broadcast's basement stairs one last time, a nylon divider separated him from the waiting crowd. He didn't acknowledge fans or address media. Kasparov and his manager walked quickly into club offices, followed quickly by one last closed door.
No one will mind if he opens it again.
Peter Doggers contributed to this report.