Crowning my best 6 months to date with Zagreb GCT victory

| Chess
| Oslo, Norway

Irrespective of having scored slightly better both in Shamkir and Grenke Chess Classics, I left Zagreb at least as delighted with my own play and score. I’ve had two sensational tournaments in a row before as well, but adding another one just two months later feels terrific. That said, the most important thing is that it was such a joy to play classical chess in Zagreb, and I already look forward to Sinquefield Cup in August.

After the drawing of lots I was not particularly looking forward to two black games in a row in round 7 and 8, although it seemed a less intimidating after the rest day and my round 6 win against Nakamura. I knew I could match Nepomniachtchi and Ding despite never having beaten any of them in classical chess. My rapid and blitz score is fine, and chess is of course to some extent commutable, making rating somewhat relevant. Individual score against opponents you have played less frequently are not necessarily statistically significant. I try to use psychology only to my advantage, but at some point during a game historical score may influence you anyhow.

Against Nepomniachtchi in round 7 I chose an opening that is solid while having some potential if white becomes too optimistic. Already when he played Qa2 I was starting to expect that I might be able to take advantage of the potentially displaced queen.

I played confidently and fast, well, maybe too fast! It was satisfying to play 25…c4, as it is the kind of move that just invites to be played. Shortly after I played f5 too fast based on an oversight. However, I had probably not won the game if I had played another move, and this makes it impossible to be unhappy with f5. He blundered with gxf5 having missed gxf3 four moves later. 0-1.

Against Ding I was of course delighted to get the chance to play an interesting novelty in the opening. I was less happy ending up in a position that I knew was okay for black but which was clearly easier to play for white. Suddenly having to start thinking myself, I fortunately managed to pull my self together. We gradually reached a position that felt quite safe for black, and that was already a small victory. When he played Bc6 instead of the expected Nd8 I was starting to hope to be able to play for a win. The rest of the game went very smoothly and I was especially delighted with Bg8! and g4! 0-1.

Aronian played the Vienna against my 1.d4, and I was satisfied to get a fairly unbalanced and slight better position out of the opening. It is a line that has been considered reasonably good for black, but as the game showed white can still pose some serious questions. After my plan with h4 and Rh3-g3-g4 etc followed by king side pawn advances, I was very optimistic. His counterplay on the queenside always seemed somewhat inadequate. My rook came to f6 and it was only the fantastic resource 31….h6! that somehow kept him in the game. Aronian defended excellently throughout the game, and it is one of those draws that are both exciting and probably well played by both (and maybe especially by him).

In round 10 I was white against my main challenger for tournament victory, Wesley So, who was half a point behind. We repeated a line I had been in trouble with against Mamedyarov back in Wijk aan Zee in 2018. Unfortunately I didn’t remember the detailed analysis this time either. I thought I had solved blacks problem, and so did he. His post-game comments indicated that he had abandoned any real ambition earlier in the middle game partly due to my recent impressive results with black. Instead of 29.b4 he should have tried d6 and black is left with a passive rook on d7 for quite some time. I assume he would have tried this if he had spotted and delved deeper into the critical line. For me an early draw with black was fine, and I could focus on making a serious effort with white against Vachier-Lagrave in the last round.

Lagrave played his pet Grunfeld opening in which he has had a great score event against the elite. After a long think he deviated from the computers first choice 14…. b6 with Bxf3 which in retrospect turned out to create the structural problems that became his demise. His counterplay against d4, and after f5 against d5, was never sufficient. 28…. Rxd5 was losing tactically as in the game continuation, but I fully understand why a passive move as for instance Rb8 didn’t look tempting. With the bishop pair and passed e-pawn, black is doomed to defend a miserable position.

Tomorrow I’ll play banter Blitz against Premium members at Chess24, and otherwise I’ll continue to enjoy Norwegian summer in Oslo for some time.