The last leg of the 2017 Grand Chess Tour, the London Chess Classic, produced not one, but two winners. For the first time, the winner of the London tournament wasn’t also the overall tour winner. After a dramatic last round, St. Louis resident Fabiano Caruana won the playoff against Ian Nepomniachtchi from Russia to be crowned the winner of the London Chess Classic.
World Champion Magnus Carlsen, winner of the 2017 Grand Chess Tour, tied for third place in London.
The tournament got off to a slow start, with 19 draws in 20 games. In no way did the slow start set precedence to how the tournament would end. Caruana was first to score a full point by defeating last year’s World Championship candidate, Sergey Karjakin. He did the same the next day, this time defeating former World Champion Viswanathan Anand. Being the only player with decisive results made Caruana's path to victory look clear, while putting pressure on others to score points.
The next two rounds brought more action and introduced a surprising co-leader, Ian Nepomniachtchi. Curiously enough, neither Caruana nor Nepomniachtchi were successful in the previous stops of the tour. Caruana entered London ranked last in the overall tour standings, while Nepomniachtchi was only one spot above.
After seven rounds, both were leading, with Carlsen and Maxime Vachier-Lagrave trailing the by a half point. In the penultimate round, the standings were rattled when Carlsen blundered with the white pieces and lost to Nepomniachtchi. Caruana drew his game, allowing the Russian to leapfrog him by half a point. In the final day, the new tournament leader, Nepomniachtchi, made a comfortable draw in less than 30 minutes, handing the fate of Caruana’s tournament back to him.
After a six-hour battle, Caruana emerged victorious over England’s Michael Adams. Caruana had 30 minutes until the playoffs against Nepomniachtchi, who had all day to rest. Caruana was too tired from his game to feel any kind of pressure. The first two rapid games of the playoffs ended in a draw. Then, it was time for blitz. Nepomniachtchi blundered a piece but, even for the top players, there is no shame in playing out blitz games until the end. This decision paid off, as the American failed to convert and drew. Caruana played the last game beautifully by temporarily sacrificing a piece to hunt his opponent’s king. Nepomniachtchi’s last move was a blunder, but at that point the fate of the game was clear. Caruana ended his chess year on a high note by winning a prestigious tournament, rejoining the 2800 club and becoming the current second highest rated player in the world.
Carlsen’s path to victory was more topsy-turvy. Vachier-Lagrave and Carlsen were neck and neck in the tour standings going into London. The Frenchman was three points behind the world champion and needed to either win the event outright or at least make sure to score three or more points than his rival.
Carlsen was sick with a cold, but never used that as an excuse for his unimpressive play. It is uncharacteristic for him to miss tactics, blunder and not convert typical Carlsen-esque positions which he enjoys. Even so, he showed his true character in the last game against Levon Aronian by first not collapsing in a much worse position and then turning the tables and winning the game when the Armenian phenom erred. His win guaranteed a tie with Vachier-Lagrave in the London standings, shattering the Frenchman’s hopes of winning his first tour. Carlsen was awarded a bonus of $100,000 for winning the tour, while Vachier-Lagrave collected a $50,000 bonus.
This might have been the last time the London Chess Classic is a classical tournament. The organizers announced a change in the format of the 2018 GCT, in which London will host the finals. The top four scoring players from the tour will qualify to London where the winner of the tour will be determined by semifinal and final matches consisting of classical, rapid and blitz games. The new format promises to add an exciting twist to an already impressive tour.
Tatev Abrahamyan started playing chess at age 8 after her father took her to the 1996 Chess Olympiad in Yerevan, Armenia. Currently the third highest rated female in the U.S., she has represented the United States in four Olympiads and two World Team Championships since 2008. Abrahamyan also serves as the journalist for all Grand Chess Tour events.