The inaugural Grand Chess Tour (GCT) finished earlier this week with a scintillating playoff to decide the winner of the London Chess Classic, and, in the end, the Tour itself.
About the Grand Chess Tour
The GCT is comprised of three Super-GM tournaments: Norway, the Sinquefield Cup, and the London Chess Classic. The three events each have the same nine players alongside a wildcard nominated by the local organizer. The nine players that made up the field for the Grand Chess Tour were Grandmasters Magnus Carlsen, Hikaru Nakamura, Fabiano Caruana, Alexander Grischuk, Veselin Topalov, Viswanathan Anand, Maxime Vachier-Lagrave (MVL), Levon Aronian, and Anish Giri. Players earn points from each tournament along the tour and, in the end, the top three point getters get bonus prize funds.
The first tournament in the GCT was Norway Chess, which saw two amazing results. First, GM Magnus Carlsen, on his home soil, had his worst tournament ever as World Champion, scoring 3.5 points out of 9, to tie for 7th place out of 10 participants! Many speculate how Magnus does not play well on home soil (pressure from the locals?) and was simply not playing his best. The other (pleasant) surprise was the great play of 40-year-old Bulgarian, GM Veselin Topalov. Topalov and Carlsen met in round 1, and something very strange happened. Carlsen, in a likely winning position, believed more time would be added to the clocks after move 60, and simply let his time run out, losing the game! This would have a huge psychological effect on both players, as Magnus played miserably the rest of the event and Topalov found a second youth, winning the tournament with a fine score of 6.5 out of 9.
The second stop along the Tour was the Sinquefield Cup, held in Saint Louis, Missouri, otherwise known as the chess capital of the United States. The local player nominated was Wesley So, who was actually the highest rated player in the world who was not in the GCT! This was clearly the strongest chess tournament of 2015. With so many top rated players, it would be very unlikely any player would win all three stops of the Grand Chess Tour, with the possible exception of the World Champion; however, since Magnus did poorly in Norway, the GCT was anyone’s game. This proved to be the case in Saint Louis, since Topalov could not maintain his form from Norway and finished with 50%.
In a complete surprise (to me!) the winner was Levon Aronian. Levon was the #2 player in the world for a long time, with a rating climbing the lofty 2800s and more, but, recently, his rating and results have suffered and he has gone from #2 to barely keeping his ELO in the top 10. Levon scored an undefeated 6 out of 9 which resulting in winning the event by a full point. In a strange pattern, Levon won his three games against the three American participants: Nakamura, Caruana, and a brilliant victory over So. Once again, by his own standards, Magnus finished poorly, with a score of 5 points out of 9, but he still tied for 2nd place. Amazingly, Anish Giri had not lost a game in either GCT tournament, winning one and drawing eight (!) in each event. Nakamura won the longest game of the event against Grischuk to also score 5 points and tie for 2nd place with Carlsen, then welcoming Giri and MVL to the five point group. Anand, who did quite well in Norway, an undefeated 6-3 score and clear 2nd, finished quite badly, winning 0 games and losing two, finishing a disappointing 8th place.
The first two events were quite interesting for the fans. With nobody clearly dominating the field, it would ensure that several players had a chance to finish well in the GCT if they could catch fire in London, the final leg of the GCT.
London Chess Classic
The London Chess Classic was a bit disappointing for the fans, until the very end! It was a draw-fest, with only 4 decisive games in the first five rounds! Each round seemed to have 4 draws and 1 win, and the lone win was usually against tail-ender Topalov, who simply was not playing up to his usual standard. Topalov, who won Norway, and had good chances to win the whole GCT ended up in last place with 5 draws and 4 losses! In fact, two players, Caruana and the local invite Michael Adams (formerly a top ten player) drew all of their games!
However, the tournament finished at an amazing pace, with a probable world record, as the last day saw top-level chess end just a few minutes before midnight! The wins started flowing, and Carlsen, who drew his first six rounds, and looked to have no chances to even finish in the top three of the GCT suddenly caught fire! He won two of the last three rounds, winning a slightly better ending against Nakamura in round 7 (the game was over 6 hours long!) and then winning an up-and-down game in the final round against Grischuk, and tied for first place with 2 wins and 7 draws. Magnus beat two undefeated players at the end of the event to earn a playoff spot with the other players on +2, MVL and Giri.
Since there were three players in the playoff, it was time to dust off the rules of the London Chess Classic, to see what happens in such an event. Some Super-GM tournaments simply have a three way tie for first and no playoff, but, with GCT implications, a playoff was necessary. The rules indicated that the person with the best tiebreak would wait, whereas the the other two would have a knockout match to determine who would play the player with the best tiebreak. However, that first match would have no effect on second and third place, just who would play for first.
It turned out Magnus had the best tiebreak, so, he would wait for the winner of MVL verse Giri. The match was fantastic, as Giri won game 1 with black, and, only needing a draw with white, seemed like a huge favorite to win the first match. However, MVL had other ideas, and he was able to win a slightly better ending with black, and force a blitz armageddon game. White started with 6 minutes, black with 5 minutes, with black getting draw odds (in case of a draw, black wins the match!). MVL won the coin toss, choose black, and won quite easily, knocking out Giri.
It was getting quite late in the day, and MVL and Carlsen started their match to see who would win the London Chess Classic. There was a lot at stake. If Carlsen won the match, he would also win the GCT! If MVL won, he would win the London Chess Classic, but, he would tie for first in the GCT with Magnus, and they would have another playoff the next day!
Magnus won the first game, winning a drawn rook and pawn ending. MVL had no winning chances in game 2, and a draw was agreed, earning Magnus Carlsen the London Chess Classic title, and conjunctively the GCT first prize of $75,000! An amazing finish to the the GCT, finishing just before midnight local London time!
The end was bittersweet for MVL, who, by rating does not qualify for the 2016 GCT and ends up finishing fourth place in the 2015 GCT, with the top three automatically qualifying for next year's GCT.
The following players will play in all three events in the 2016 GCT: Carlsen, Nakamura, Kramnik, Giri, Aronian, So, Anand, Caruana, and Topalov. Grischuk and MVL are replaced by Kramnik and So. There will be three Americans playing in the 2016 GCT!