London Chess "Classic", Day 3: Slapstick Chess
Thursday, December 13, 2018 at 7:51PM
Dennis Monokroussos in 2018 Grand Chess Tour, 2018 London Chess Classic, Fabiano Caruana, Hikaru Nakamura, Levon Aronian, Maxime Vachier-Lagrave

I'm still not completely sold on the draw problem, but I am sure that blitz chess is garbage chess, and it should have as little place as possible - preferably none - in events with a classical component. Don't get me wrong: I enjoy playing blitz chess as much as the next person, even bullet chess. It's fun to play and fun to watch. But it's garbage chess, or to coin a phrase here, it's slapstick chess. The ideas are shallow, and blunders and wild swings of fortune are commonplace. (This isn't the rant of a curmudgeon who wants three hours per move. I've always been a very good blitz player - certainly compared to my classical rating, and back when ICC was THE chess server I made it onto almost every one of their "best" lists.)

The latest confirmation of this obvious fact was today's play in the London Chess Classic. Both semis were tied 1-1 after draws on days 1 and 2 (but for those who say, "Seeeeeeeeeeeee? Draws are a problem!", I say the "problem" was great defense: three of the four games could have been decisive), so today's agenda was a pair of rapid games followed by four blitz slapstick games.

The rapid games made sense. Starting with the Fabiano Caruana vs. Hikaru Nakamura match, game 1 was well-played. Nakamura pressed with White, Caruana defended well, and it was a long draw. Game 2 was a little odd: Caruana had some deep prep and had an advantage and a nice lead on the clock after 22 moves. Unfortunately for Caruana, he blitzed out his 23rd move as well, and it was inaccurate. (Maybe he forgot his prep, or misremembered, or just thought it was a good move.) Perhaps out of psychological inertia he kept playing as if he had the advantage when he went for 25.Nd4, but 25...Bf6 was a cold shower. Nakamura played well after that, and gradually brought home the full point.

The first rapid game between Aronian and MVL was a repeat of the two classical games: Aronian had excellent preparation and obtained a serious advantage, but at some point let the advantage slip and Vachier-Lagrave escaped with another draw. Finally, in game 4, the first part of the script was repeated - but with the roles reversed: MVL won the theoretical battle; not to the point where he was winning, but enough to have some play. Aronian didn't play the defender's role as well as his opponent had, however, and eventually lost the game.

On the scoring system in play, both Nakamura and MVL led by four points, with four blitz games - each worth two points for a win and one for a draw - to go. In a heartening surprise, Caruana managed to win the first game against Nakamura, with Black, taking advantage of a rare tactical oversight by Nakamura. (That's blitz slapstick chess!) Game 2 was wonderful. The position was equal after the opening, but Nakamura's 16...Qe8 was an error, and White would have been clearly better after 17.Nxd7 Nxd7 18.b4. Instead, he played 18.Ne4??, and after 18...Rxc1 19.Rxc1 Black could win a piece with 19...e5 (20.Bg3 f5 21.Nd2 f4 is the basic idea). But he missed it (blitz slapstick chess) and the game was equal again. Both sides played well after that, with Nakamura pressing for the win until Caruana blundered with 43.Kf1; 43.Kg1 would have kept the result in doubt.

In the post-match interview Nakamura called games 3 and 4 "routine", and he's right about game 3. Needing to win twice to force a playoff Caruana took some excessive risks in the opening, and was duly punished. But game 4 wasn't routine at all: Nakamura was worse from the get-go, losing for a while, and stone cold absolutely busted for a few moves. The win was quite nice, and Caruana would have found it in classical or even in rapid. It was a big ask for a blitz slapstick game though, and he didn't manage.

Instead of the clearly bad 25.Qc1, the right way was 25.g5(!). Here's the point: 25.Qxg7+ almost works, but the Black king can escape to e8 if White keeps checking. For the attack to work, White needs to get the bishop to h5 (and ideally, g6). That gives rise to the idea of playing Nf5. But 25.Nf5 won't work, because 25...gxf5 26.gxf5 is illegal. Therefore 25.g5!, and after 25...fxg5 then 26.Nf5! gxf5 27.Bh5!, and it's mate in no more than four more moves. Beautiful, but hey, it's better to watch the players step on rakes repeatedly if the alternative is a time control that could result in a draw, right?

Caruana didn't find it, lost the thread of the game, and lost badly. On to the other match.

It wasn't completely clear who the favorite would be between Aronian and Vachier-Lagrave in the blitz. Yes, MVL came into the competition as #2 on the rating list in blitz, just two points behind Carlsen, but Aronian is a former world blitz champion who was #4 on the list and whose recent results in online blitz were as good as MVL's. (Plus, he won their rapid & blitz playoff in the 2017 World Cup, in an Armageddon game.) It didn't work out for Aronian: Vachier-Lagrave won games 1, 2, and 4 (and lost game 3) to win the match and take over the top spot on the blitz list. MVL is 2948.2 there, Carlsen "only" 2939. (Nakamura is third at 2895.4, and Aronian is #4 at 2846.8. And Caruana...#16. Go here and click on the blitz tab.))

The question, though, is how good the games were. Game 1: MVL was outplaying Aronian, but the game was far from decided until 31.Rf3?, blundering a second pawn. Game 2: MVL missed a pretty win in the early middlegame (it's blitz) and the game was equal for 23 moves or so, and then Aronian walked into a one-move knight fork. Blitz Slapstick chess. Game 3 was a normal blitz game: Vachier-Lagrave had no time to work things out at a critical moment, and his position immediately collapsed. Game 4 was another comedy: what was a good, clean win by MVL turned into a shambles in the time scramble. Aronian was two pawns down and completely busted, but soon had managed to win a pawn back and achieve objective equality. No matter: it was Aronian's turn to err - repeatedly - and Vachier-Lagrave again obtained a winning position. This time, he cashed in.

The blitz games weren't terrible. We can always see glimpses of what makes the great players great, their deep preparation, and their outstanding knowledge of the game. But they are blitz games, and so along with the glimpses of greatness we see moments of utter foolishness, too - not to mention countless missed opportunities and spoiled brilliancies. Again, don't get me wrong: I enjoy blitz, and after Christmas I'll spend as much time as I can watching the World Blitz Championship. But blitz is its own thing; it's weird to tack it on to a classical event, even a classical and rapid tournament.

Rant over - for now. The players are off tomorrow, and then on Saturday they'll do it all over again: Nakamura and Vachier-Lagrave will play for first, and Aronian and Caruana will play for third. The format is the same: a classical game on day 1, another classical game on day, and then two rapid and four blitz games on day three, with a two-game blitz tiebreaker followed by Armageddon if necessary. There's the drama of the event, and the rating drama remains, too: it's possible that the event will end with Caruana rated #1 in the world in classical chess and Vachier-Lagrave #1 in blitz. Carlsen will have a chance to fix the latter at the end of the year, but won't be in action in classical chess until Wijk aan Zee starting January 12.

Event website here.

Article originally appeared on The Chess Mind (http://www.thechessmind.net/).
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