World Rapid & Blitz and Tata Steel
Winning the World Chess Championship in Blitz at year-end was of course a great success in itself of which I’m proud and immensely satisfied with. As important is the boost it has given my spirits and hopefully will continue to provide for some time. Having successfully defended the Classical Chess World Championship title in the match with Caruana in London in November, after struggling a bit with my classical chess despite a couple of tournament victories in 2018 (Tata Steel, Shamkir and Sinquefield Cup), the Blitz was just what I needed to be really enthusiastic about and motivated for 2019.
The new FIDE leadership is already up and running and managed to stage a good Rapid and Blitz World Championship event in central St.Petersburg on short notice. I spent a few relaxing days in the sun far south prior to St.Petersburg. The extensive travel just before the event seemed to be more than offset by the benefits, also in retrospect.
A few elite names were missing from the starting list, most notably Vachier-Lagrave, Ding and Kramnik, but overall the competitions were particularly strong this time with the large number of strong well-known and less known Russian Grandmasters and rapid/blitz specialists.
Small margins are a known maxim in most sports, and despite the 15 rounds in Rapid and 21 in Blitz it certainly holds true also for Rapid & Blitz chess.
In round 1 of the Rapid I failed to convert a dominant position as black and the queen against two rooks pawn ending was maybe heading for a draw until he made an inaccuracy or two. I could escape the checks and would in practice have had winning chances, when I clumsily lost on time. That was no catastrophe, but losing round two with white against a promising young Uzbek was pretty close.
My play gradually improved, but still I was quite fortunate to win round 8 and 9 (and 10) to be back in contention before the last day of the Rapid. I did play well on the last day, but it was not enough. Slightly unfortunate pairing resulted in black against my World Championship Match second Dubov in R11, white against solid Anand in R12 and finally black against Nakamura in R15. Without having checked with the computer my impression was that I played at classical level this last round, seeing all the tactics and putting pressure on him. After failing to get an advantage in the early middle game he was (unfortunately for me) not ambitious and defended well to draw. All top boards ended draw, and I’m for once honestly thrilled to congratulate the winner. Daniil Dubov was such great help before and during the World Championship Match and I was so happy for him! Mamedyarov in 2nd, Nakamura 3rd and Artemiev 4th all edged me out on tie-break. While I’m not generally collecting 5th places, the nearly successful comeback after losing round 1, 2 and 7 was absolutely acceptable as part of my long term performance level in Rapid and Blitz, always fighting for medals.
In the Blitz the results were very good also on the first day although I’m not really happy with my performance. Against lower rated players I’m too tense and generally make more mistakes. Part of the explanation is that it is more difficult to predict their plans and moves. This is definitely not the full explanation as it is still possible to play good moves in return. I did beat Duda fairly convincingly in round 7 though, when we were both on 4.5/6.
On the second day my energy and play in general was everything I aim for. Managing to let go, just playing fast and with the flow, was cause for great satisfaction. Young Duda kept putting pressure on me throughout after winning eight in a row in the middle rounds and never slowing down, scoring an amazing 12/14 after our mutual encounter, facing most of the top players in the process. Fortunately I managed to stay reasonable calm and focused to reach 17/21 and clear first ahead of Duda at 16.5 and Nakamura at 14.5.
Caruana has more or less caught up with me in classical rating, but I do lead all three lists (Classical, Rapid and Blitz) also on January 1st 2019, and it is the 10th January list in a row as no 1 in Classical!
Tomorrow I’m heading for Wijk aan Zee for the 15th time to defend the 2018 victory. Once again the capable organizers have put together a strong and interesting field, and I can’t wait to get started!