Riyadh roller coaster ride
The King Salman 2017 World Rapid & Blitz Championships in Riyadh was organized at the highest level, and my family and I were treated with great hospitality throughout our stay. The quality of my play was more of a roller coaster until the last day. The great last day change was reminiscent of the Berlin 2015 Championship, with opposite signs. In Berlin I had 4 quite or very good initial days (including winning the Rapid) and a very poor 5th day finishing 6th in the Blitz despite an early 9/10 on day 4. This time I generally struggled throughout day 1-4 intermingled with some good games especially with the black pieces, and finished with an extraordinary 9/10 streak against world class players on the last day to win the Blitz.
Planning to enjoy the event and not have concrete ambitions was easier said than done, having done well in the previous four World Rapid and Blitz Championships (2012, 2014-6) I’ve participated in. (2nd, 1st, 1st and 3rd in Rapid, and 2nd, 1st, 6th and 2nd in Blitz).
Losing the first Rapid game was a small blow, but with 3.5/5 for the day I was more or less on target. Despite too many blunders I was leading after 12 out of 15 rounds and in shared lead before round 15. I played Grischuk with the white pieces; a very difficult opponent. I knew a draw was likely enough for a play-off (and co-leader Anand indeed took an early draw). Playing for a win in critical games has brought me many triumphs in the past, and I decided to be true to style and try to decide the championship myself. I was not happy with the opening and was under pressure after his e3!-push. Not handling the uncomfortable position well, I missed the few chances I had to get back in the game and went down in flames ending at 10/15 and 5th place. Anand won the play-off against Fedoseev to take the title and trophy. Congratulations!
While it is easier to perform consistently well in Rapid with more time available and less erratic play, I’ve had such a good year in Blitz that aiming for anything else than victory didn’t make sense initially.
Round one was weird, really weird. The game was interesting, and low on time my opponent Inarkiev made an illegal move (checking me while his king was in check). On reflex I moved my king out of check, reaching a legal position (where only his king was in check and it was his turn to move), instead of claiming a win by pointing out his illegal move. Next he stopped the clock and claimed a win arguing that I had no legal moves as his king was in check! Somehow the arbiter agreed to this preposterous idea and round 2 was delayed more than 30 minutes as I tried (and fortunately managed) to convince the chief arbiter that the game should continue in the final and fully legal position both based on the rules, and the 2014 Dubai World Blitz precedent where my trainer Peter Heine Nielsen had a similar experience!
Highly agitated I was thoroughly outplayed by Sjugirov in round 2. Three wins in row followed by a disastrous finish scoring 50% in the rest of the games, where I blundered badly in every game, left me trailing leader Karjakin by two points in 20th place.
In the morning on the last day I wasn’t as confident as usual, and more or less accepted that 1st might be out of reach. Against Grishuk with black in the first round I immediately noticed that my brain worked better. He played a topical Queens Gambit line and I decided to deviate from theory after his Qa4. He missed the best continuations, and I was slightly better with my rook and queen on the e-file. After Qc5+ he had to play Qd4 with compensation for the pawn. Moving his king instead he was simply a pawn down with a worse position, and the rest was a matter of technique. 0-1. Against Harikrishna I had a pleasant advantage and continued to put pressure on him throughout the game. I made a few inaccuracies and he defended well, and it was only short on time he blundered and lost. Quite a good game by both I think.
Next as black against Mamedyarov I managed to equalize and tried to tempt him into playing for a win in the queen and rook ending. He did, and when I counterattacked he blundered badly with Qd5 allowing Re1+!
Karjakin drew his first three games and with very few victories on the top boards I was back at the top board in round 4. He allowed an opening that has worked well for me in the past. My kingside attack consists mainly of natural moves while his defense is more difficult. He went wrong with Qf7 and his position collapsed quickly. I was suddenly sole leader!
I drew with white against Vachier-Lagrave in round 5 and managed to win the next four games by putting pressure on my opponents both on the board and on the clock to secure clear first with a round to go. When Aronian offered a draw with white in the last round I saw no reason to play on and try to interfere with the distribution of the other medals. It was great to feel once again that winning can be such an all-encompassing emotional experience. This is probably the Rapid or Blitz victory I’ve enjoyed the most!
Karjakin took 2nd and Anand 3rd after late game blunders by their opponents in the high-stake last round games.
We returned to Norway for New Years eve, and the Blitz victory is clearly a highlight of 2017 and a great prelude to the 2018 tournaments.
I’d like to wish all of you at Simonsen Vogt Wiig, your families, and your customers and contacts, a Happy New Year! I look forward to our continued (for the 9th year!) cooperation in 2018!
I’ll revert with a short summary of 2017 closer to my next classical event Tata Steel Chess starting on January 13th, but you might want to follow the final in the online chess.com Blitz Battle Championship Wednesday night. As last year, I face Nakamura in the final.