After lots of tension and complicated battles, just one game ended decisively when GM Ian Nepomniachtchi beat GM Alireza Firouzja. That the remaining games would all end in draws was far from obvious during the round.
Round three will begin on Saturday, May 7, at 5 a.m. PT / 14:00 Central Europe.
Despite matching the drawing quotient of yesterday’s round, the games were anything but dull. While the play could be considered careful by some, the action was here, there, and everywhere, and a few games were so complicated that it defies belief that the players managed to play as accurately as they did.
The sole victor in the first round was American GM Wesley So, and he had another game with the white pieces vs. GM Maxime Vachier-Lagrave. Once more, So opted for 1.Nf3, possibly hoping for the Frenchman to play his habitual Grunfeld Indian Defense, an opening he has faithfully stuck by for ages. But Vachier-Lagrave apparently had no appetite for facing So’s home preparation and instead opted for a Queen’s Gambit Accepted, something he has done on occasion the last few years.
In a line that both players had played before but apparently never against each other, Black equalized without too much of a fuss, and the players had barely crossed the move 20 mark before they started repeating moves.
While the above game undoubtedly is the least eventful of the round, the encounter between last year’s winner and Thursday’s only loser, GM Shakhriyar Mamedyarov, and GM Richard Rapport, more than compensated for that.
Mamedyarov, not a person to lie down and lick his wounds, decided that Friday was the day for him to wheel out 1.e4, a move he rarely uses in classical chess. In reply, Rapport went for the French, something he plays with some regularity, including for his crucial encounter vs. GM Vidit Gujrathi in the second leg of the Grand Prix where he needed a win to catch up.
After 3.Nc3 by Mamedyarov, Rapport went for the very unusual and somewhat dubious 3…Nc6?!, a line he has used on a few occasions instead of the normal 3…Bb4, the Winawer Variation. This was the starter-pistol shot to some mind-bending complications that had Mamedyarov question his ability to play chess afterward.
Rather than trying to explain the developments on the board, I encourage you to play through the game. If you want to understand it better, analyze it. However, contrary to my standard recommendation to do it without an engine switched on at first, for this game, switch the engine on right away. Otherwise, it is completely impossible to make sense of it. The fact that the players played as accurately as they did and made relatively few inaccuracies is, quite frankly, incredibly impressive.
In Thursday’s round, GM Bogdan-Daniel Deac held a relatively comfortable draw against Nepomniachtchi, but he also showed a propensity to get himself into unreasonable time-trouble situations with way too many moves to make in a very short amount of time. A similar pattern happened on Friday. He got a pleasant position, the opponent equalized, and in Deac’s time trouble, the opponent got chances.
Friday’s opponent was GM Levon Aronian who has been playing very well recently. Against Deac’s Queen’s Gambit, he went for the Accepted Variation, something that has become incredibly popular over the last couple of years. After the game, Aronian said he felt like he had spent the last year studying little else, particularly after GM Fabiano Caruana‘s adoption of the opening.
Deac chose the 7.b3 line that was also seen in So-Vachier Lagrave in Friday’s round, and while it appeared that he had some chances, Black was never in any serious trouble. Once Deac played the tame 14.Qe2, any trace of an advantage was gone. In the middlegame, Aronian started generating some initiative, and partly aided by Deac’s extreme clock situation, it started to take concrete form.
As the time control neared, Aronian had several opportunities to make White’s life quite unpleasant, but a few moves later the chances were gone, and a draw was soon agreed upon.
Last week, in The American Cup in St. Louis, Caruana and GM Leinier Dominguez played for a spot in the final. There, Caruana won the first game as White and secured a draw with the black pieces. In that game, Caruana met Dominguez’s 1.e4 with 1…e5, entering a line in the currently popular Italian Game.
Here, however, Caruana went for a Sveshnikov Sicilian, something he famously encountered as White when playing against GM Magnus Carlsen in their 2018 World Championship match in London. Apparently, subsequent to that match, Caruana played the Sveshnikov a few times in 2019, but as far as I can see, neither before nor since. Thus, Caruana’s choice of opening variation must have surprised the otherwise extremely well-prepared Dominguez, as he very quickly, on move 14, went for a rather obscure, safe, and non-critical 14.a3 rather than the main line, 14.h4 that has been played in thousands of games.
Despite Black equalizing, White slowly gained a grip on the position and developed a slight plus, but it was never more than that. Even in their mutual time trouble, though more so for Dominguez than Caruana, the equilibrium was never far out of sight.
A fascinating, strategical struggle by two of the strongest American players.
Like round one, we have saved the best for last. The sole decisive game is fittingly the last game to discuss. We should also mention that if the computer evaluation bar does not show up for the next broadcast, it is likely because of the whiplash effects of the action on the board in this particular game. It was intense and very complicated.
At the moment, anything that involves Firouzja is awaited with excitement. Last year, he climbed to the number-two spot in the world rankings, climbing past both Caruana and GM Ding Liren. The latter has reclaimed the number-two spot in the rankings after a month of intense action and peculiar tournaments that were designed to give him the required games to win the spot that became available with GM Sergei Karjakin no longer was eligible to play due to his six-month ban by FIDE.
His second-round opponent was none other than the most recent world championship challenger, Nepomniachtchi, who is highly motivated to show that he not only is strong enough to win this event but also possibly make another claim to challenge Carlsen by winning the Candidates tournament for a second time, a feat previously accomplished by only World Champions Vasily Smyslov and Boris Spassky as well as GM Viktor Korchnoi.
With White, Firouzja played Bishop’s Opening, 1.e4 e5 2.Bc4 that is a relatively quiet and positional opening, but it soon became apparent that this particular description did not fit the bill for this heavyweight bout. The first 15 moves followed previous praxis, but then Firouzja chose a strange continuation that included 16.h3?!, 17.g3?!, and 18.g4, handing Black the initiative. However, as mentioned previously, that is not where the story ends!
In a head-spinning, spine-challenging, roller coaster ride both players had plenty of opportunities to claim advantages of varying sizes and seriousness; sometimes White had the advantage, then Black had something resembling a decisive advantage. Next suddenly White was better, then Black. Then it was “balanced,” and next something else. If you are confused, you are not alone. Clearly, neither of the players nor the commentators, who bravely tried to make sense of the unfolding madness, could keep up with the eval bar’s peculiar boogie up and down the side of the board.
The decisive turning point seemed to be when a time trouble-plagued Firouzja decided to send his impressive knight on d5 via c3 to d1, taking it from dominator to defender and leaving its colleague on b5 where it literally made no contribution to the action on the other side of the board.
In the concluding phase of the game, the Russian continued to play with apparent but unnecessary haste that made Chess.com commentator IM David Pruess utter a wish for Nepomniachtchi to slow down when there is no need to play this fast.
Round 2 Standings
All Games Round 2