Magnus Carlsen wins his 3rd triple crown | photo: Lennart Ootes, FIDE
Magnus Carlsen goes into 2023 as the Classical, Rapid and now Blitz World Champion for the 3rd time in his career, after finishing a point clear of Hikaru Nakamura (silver) and Haik Martirosyan (bronze). Bibisara Assaubayev delighted local fans by defending her Women’s World Blitz title with a stunning last day comeback, bettered only by Humpy Koneru, who scored 7.5/8 to finish ahead of Polina Shuvalova (bronze).
Let’s end the chess 2022 by drawing some conclusions from the World Blitz Championship.
2023 is the year when Magnus Carlsen will end a decade as the classical World Chess Champion. If things had gone badly in Almaty it might have meant that by April or May, when Ding Liren and Ian Nepomniachtchi are set to play their match, Magnus would be left with no titles at all.
Instead he clinched his 4th World Rapid Championship on Wednesday, and now two days later has picked up his 6th World Blitz Championship. In both cases he won without the need for a playoff, picking up a combined $120,000. Add his five classical World Championship titles and it’s getting hard to count!
He explained that Blitz is perhaps the title that matters to him most.
To some extent the blitz title is very important, because it’s more rounds than rapid, and although rapid is extremely gruelling as well, this one feels even tougher. As for the classical World Championship, I’ve won it, but it wasn’t dear enough to try and hold on to, so to some extent now this is really big.
It wasn’t just that Magnus won, but that he did it in style, making no draws at all on the final day.
Magnus entered the final day trailing Hikaru Nakamura by a point, but wins in the first two games wiped out that advantage. Even when things went badly, such as losing on time to Ian Nepomniachtchi in the following game, the damage was limited.
Ian Nepomniachtchi was the 1st player to beat Magnus in the 2022 World Blitz Championship | photo: Lennart Ootes, FIDE
Magnus pointed out that Hikaru Nakamura (vs. Artemiev) and Daniil Dubov (vs Martirosyan) also suffered their first defeats of the tournament in the same round.
While there was briefly a 5-player leading pack, Magnus put his foot on the accelerator again, and could afford to lose to Alexey Sarana and still keep a half-point lead. He talked about his emotions with two rounds to go:
It’s hard to have energy at this point, but I was really calm, and I could see that my opponent was extremely nervous, that he was shaking, so even though the position was completely equal I was not worried at all. I thought I may or may not win, but I thought he wasn’t playing for a win. If I could put pressure on him then he could potentially blunder.
That’s just what happened, as Aleksandr Shimanov overlooked the killer blow 42…Bxb2!
After 43.Nxb2 Black has 43…a3, and the knight is helpless to stop the pawn from queening. Magnus continued:
So I was lucky in the sense that both my losses, even though they were really poor games, coincided with some lucky results in other games, and obviously for the last round it was a difficult decision what I was going to do, but at the very least it was a nice problem to have. I’m really happy with the way I struck back and played in the last couple of games.
In the final round Magnus still led by half a point, over Hikaru Nakamura and Jan-Krzysztof Duda, so that he knew if he drew with his opponent, 2021 World Rapid Champion Nodirbek Abdusattorov, he’d at worst have a playoff for gold, while a win would mean gold whatever happened elsewhere.
Magnus at one point looked paralysed, as he spent 1 minute and 16 seconds, an eternity for a blitz game, on 19.Nf1!?
I would say that staying calm in the decisive moments is very, very hard and I don’t always manage. In the last game my heart was pumping, it was really tough, so I would say having experience helps, but only to some extent. Regardless of how many times you’ve been in a certain situation it’s still not easy to perform at your best.
Nodirbek could have asked serious questions with the forceful 19…Qc7! 20.Ne3 f5! 21.exf5 e4!, but instead he went for 19…Bg4 and, after a few inaccuracies later on, Magnus was suddenly completely winning. His relief and joy at the end was visible for all to see!
In the end it turned out a draw would have been enough for clear first, but this way had to feel more satisfying. Magnus was asked about the formula for his success:
Nothing special! Just being slightly better at chess than the others generally helps over the course of a long tournament.
Another two trophies for Magnus Carlsen's collection | photo: Lennart Ootes, FIDE
It’s also helped over the course of a long career, but there’s no sign of that career coming to an end just yet.
We skimmed over Magnus’ second game of the day, but it was absolutely stunning. Even before the real action began, there were wild swings in evaluation, but the finale was amazing. Both sides queened a pawn and Richard Rapport was completely winning — to the extent the computer announced mate-in-7 — but a couple of misjudged moves and Magnus got to play a beautiful winning move, 66.g8=Q!
His reaction was the most incredible of the day…
Don’t miss Jan Gustafsson’s attempt to make sense of it all:
Hikaru Nakamura started the day with a 1-point lead, but Magnus, who knows a thing or two about that, pointed out how tough leading can be:
I somehow didn’t feel that he would have as commanding a performance as he did yesterday. For people who have never been in this situation, they should know that leading the tournament is extremely tough, and while he’s used to winning tournaments he’s never won this one, and I think getting the 1st is extremely difficult, and when he started a bit shakily then of course I knew I had a chance.
Hikaru did a lot right on the final day, later saying his one real regret was not taking a draw with White against Vladislav Artemiev in the 3rd game of the day and instead going on to lose.
Hikaru hit straight back, however, spotting a trick to grab the f7-pawn against Alexander Grischuk.
Black had to resign, as Nxe6+ will win the queen.
Hikaru then checkmated Dmitry Andreikin, and although he was outplayed by Alexey Sarana in the next game there was one moment that could have altered the course of the whole event. 43.gxf5? was a blunder in a winning position.
If you’re told there’s a win here for Black you don’t need to be Hikaru Nakamura to spot the absolutely forced 43…Qc4+! 44.Kg1 (44.Ke1 Qe2#) 44…Qg8+ then check on g2 and g1 and picking up the queen on b1.
Hikaru went into the final round of the day half a point behind Magnus and knowing that a win over Harikrishna would give him excellent chances of a playoff for 1st place, as he had against Magnus in 2019 in Moscow, or even for outright gold. In the end, not that it mattered, Hikaru drew in 179 moves, after coming much closer to a loss than a win.
Duda beat Martirosyan, but it was his opponent who won a medal | photo: Lennart Ootes, FIDE
It wasn’t just Hikaru who went into the final round with excellent chances of gold, but Jan-Krzysztof Duda, who had a tough time in Almaty but strung together four wins in a row at the perfect moment to get within half a point of Magnus.
The Polish no. 1 had pushed Magnus all the way in St. Petersburg in 2018 before taking silver and had reached a playoff against Maxime Vachier-Lagrave in 2021, so that between them Duda and Nakamura had taken silver in the last four World Blitz events. Such things are no accident, and it’s perhaps only Alireza Firouzja and Magnus himself who can enter a blitz event with higher expectations.
It wasn’t to be for Jan-Krzysztof this time, however, since he lost to Alexey Sarana and had to settle for a tie for 4th place with Sarana, Anish Giri and Daniil Dubov.
The surprise medallist of the event was 22-year-old Armenian Grandmaster Haik Martirosyan, who made no draws in his first 16 games as he won 12 and lost 4. On the final day he beat Vincent Keymer, Daniil Dubov, Vladimir Fedoseev, Alexey Sarana and Fabiano Caruana, making it fitting that Hikaru congratulated him “for finishing 3rd like a boss!”
Illustrious company for Haik Martirosyan | photo: Anna Shtourman, FIDE
Haik himself pointed out that in his 1st ever World Blitz, a year ago, he’d drawn Magnus Carlsen on the way to finishing 11th. He commented:
I feel very great, because to play this tournament with all the strong players in the world and finish 3rd place, of course I’m very happy now.
He also earned the same $45,000 as Hikaru, money which you imagine means a whole lot more to the young star.
If one of Martirosyan’s wins was the most impressive it was perhaps to defeat Alexey Sarana, since his fellow 22-year-old was in incredible form after a disastrous start to the tournament. Alexey lost his first three games with the white pieces, and 5 of his first 8 games, but then scored 11.5/13, beating Sadhwani, Dubov, Nakamura, Carlsen and Duda in an insane finish.
Most of the games weren’t even close, including almost ruining Magnus’ day.
The World Champion’s bishop is suddenly trapped, and Magnus confessed he was bewildered.
The second loss was a bit weird, because I was just crushed in that game. I didn’t really have time during the game to even realise that I was losing.
Only the loss to Martirosyan denied Sarana a medal.
When Daniil Dubov won the World Rapid Championship in 2018 he nearly got into serious trouble after expressing a negative opinion on Russia’s seizure of Crimea. Since then, the political situation has got immeasurably grimmer in Russia, and at times you wonder if Daniil simply wants to avoid becoming a propaganda tool by winning a major international event.
Daniil Dubov has made 4th place his own | photo: Lennart Ootes, FIDE
At least that would be one explanation for why Daniil has combined fantastic, battling wins with a willingness to force quick draws with the white pieces — enough to finish very near the top, but not to challenge for medals. The approach has given Daniil a share of 4th place in the last three events, the 2021 World Blitz in Warsaw and now both the 2022 World Rapid and Blitz in Almaty.
Going into the final day there were a host of teenage stars in contention for medals, but in the end we saw established names at the top, with even Haik Martirosyan and Alexey Sarana in their 20s and very much known quantities. It seems experience may still matter more than sheer speed and energy.
Keymer's height means he stands out among the medallists — there were 11, as only Magnus won 2 medals, but Dinara Saduakassova, who skipped the Blitz, was missing from the stage | photo: Lennart Ootes, FIDE
The top teenager was again 18-year-old Vincent Keymer, who capped a fine event by finishing 13th on 13.5/21, though half a point back, in the tie for 15th place, we had 16-year-old Denis Lazavik, 17-year-old Daniel Dardha and 18-year-old Nihal Sarin and Nodirbek Abdusattorov.
The one teenager to have a fantastic blitz event was 18-year-old Bibisara Assaubayeva, who defended the title she won a year earlier as a 17-year-old in Warsaw, Poland.
Bibisara is congratulated on her win | photo: Lennart Ootes, FIDE
Of course defending a blitz title against all the world’s best players is incredibly difficult, though on the other hand the best players manage it. Magnus won the event 3 times in a row from 2017 to 2019, while in women’s chess Anna Muzychuk did it in 2014 and 2016 (there was no 2015 event) and Kateryna Lagno did it in 2018 and 2019.
Bibisara’s joining such company was especially sweet, since she both did it on home soil, and also despite starting the day 1.5 points behind leaders Valentina Gunina and Polina Shuvalova. She beat Valentina, who dropped away, then lost to Polina, only to storm back and claim the title with 5 wins in a row.
In a way that was nothing, however, compared to Humpy Koneru, who had started the Women’s World Blitz Championship with two losses to much lower-rated Kazakh players. Humpy went into the final day in 44th place, 2.5 points behind the leaders, only to storm to 7.5/8 and snatch silver.
21-year-old Polina Shuvalova could rightly feel she’d been ambushed. After 13 rounds she led Tan Zhongyi by a point, with the Chinese World Rapid Champion also a point ahead of her nearest rivals, but Round 14 would end that 2-horse race.
Ultimately Tan Zhongyi just missed out on a 2nd podium finish — a feat only Magnus would manage — while Polina held on to take bronze.
Humpy Koneru (silver), Bibisara Assaubayeva (gold), Polina Shuvalova (bronze) | photo: Anna Shtourman, FIDE
It was noteworthy that despite Russian players being more numerous than those of any other country, Polina’s bronze was their only medal.
The intensity and speed of the World Rapid and Blitz Championship can produce the strangest incidents, such as Alireza Firouzja’s appeal against Magnus Carlsen, or when Ernesto Inarkiev made an illegal move and then tried to claim a win because Magnus replied rather than claiming a win himself…
We seemed to get an endless supply of weird situations in Almaty, most involving kids. For instance:
A commentator on YouTube heroically attempted a summary.
On the final day of the event we had a long delay during Round 17, which saw Norwegian TV interviewing two players while their game, it would turn out, was still in progress.
12-year-old Nikolay Averin had won on time, but Egyptian GM Ahmed Adly complained that a friend of his opponent’s had shouted something at the critical moment, making him lose on time. Nikolay countered that his friends were far away, and that if Ahmed had more time there would have been no issue.
The arbiter came up with the solution of giving the experienced GM another chance with two seconds on his clock, and this time the game ended in a draw.
Whatever the arguments over the arbiter’s decision, allowing TV interviews with the players while the game wasn’t resolved felt insane, and later there would be a more serious protest at a cameraman being given access to photograph the critical final round. The final announcement of the women’s places and medals was delayed an hour after Alexandra Kosteniuk appealed over being disturbed in the game she lost to Meri Arabidze.
Matters were complicated by Alexandra’s husband Pavel Tregubov being the Chairman of the Appeals Committee, so that he would have to step aside. In the end it seems the appeal bore no fruit, as the results remained unchanged.
So some questions were raised about the arbiters, and behind the scenes the handling of the move transmission from the venue left a lot to be desired, but overall the World Rapid and Blitz was once again a great celebration of chess.
Magnus Carlsen is familiar with this post-title crowd | photo: Lennart Ootes, FIDE
That’s almost all for 2022 in chess, but as always there’s not long to wait until one of the top events of the year, the Tata Steel Masters in Wijk aan Zee. Magnus Carlsen, Ding Liren, Fabiano Caruana and a small army of teenage stars will be in action from January 14th.
Happy New Year!
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