In the tiebreak blitz shootout, the Frenchman defeated local superstar Jan-Krzysztof Duda with 2:1. In the women's event, Bibisara Assaubayeva - the 17-year-old prodigy from Kazakhstan - spectacularly won the Women's World Blitz Chess Championship, securing the title with a round to spare
The open section of the World Blitz Chess Championship ended in a tiebreak shootout where 31-year-old Frenchman Maxime Vachier-Lagrave clinched the title after defeating local star Jan-Krzysztof Duda with 2:1. This is the first world championship title for the 31-year-old French Grandmaster, one of the top-rated players on the planet who came very close to this title in 2015 but had to settle for silver.
The path of Maxime Vachier-Lagrave to the top didn't go in a straight line. On the first day of the event, he lost three games and didn't immediately figure as someone who would win the event. However, his resilience showed on day two – not losing a single game, drawing rarely and winning when it was necessary, including in the 21st round against none other than Magnus Carlsen.
A day of ups and downs
The second day of the open section of the world blitz saw the remaining nine (out of altogether 21) rounds played. Although tournament leader Levon Aronian (who won the title in 2010) started the day well - scoring important victories against top dogs Daniil Dubov and Anish Giri - he then suffered three consecutive losses throwing the tournament wide open.
What made things worse was how Aronian lost: first, playing against Maxime Vachier-Lagrave as Black in Round 17, he equalized comfortably but then allowed the Frenchman to create some threats. In a game full of twists and turns, Aronian overlooked an almost winning move and then lost. In the next round, he fell to former compatriot Haik Martirosyan - after reaching an overwhelming position, he missed a simple move by his opponent and had to sacrifice a queen for a rook and a knight. Levon could have forced a draw by repetition at some point, but he took it too far. In the end, Levon was hoping for a 'fortress', but Black confidently led the white king away from his pieces before exchanging his queen for the rook and leaving his king to collect the remaining two pawns and promote his own.
Then, in Round 19, Aronian lost to Vladimir Artemiev after making a risky choice in the opening. From a comfortable lead of one and a half points, Aronian lost it all in the end but still finished close to the very top – on fifth place, with 14 points. Just behind him is Shakhriyar Mamedyarov, who also finished on 14/21 and had a good tournament overall.
As the sun was setting on Levon Aronian, there was a new dawn for Alireza Firouzja. Having struggled for most of the event, the current world number two made a miraculous recovery, scoring five victories in the final five rounds of the tournament and ending up in shared first place. On his path to the top, Firouzja crushed two players who were at one point leading in the tournament – Daniil Dubov and Levon Aronian. However, at the end of the day, he was left disappointed as he didn't make it to the tiebreaks, due to inferior point breaks.
Unlike Aronian and Firouza, local hero Jan-Krzysztof Duda was much more consistent in his performance throughout the blitz, always playing among the top boards. Apart from losing to Martirosyan and Dubov, the Polish Grandmaster won all his games in the rounds with confidence and vigour, which ultimately landed him in the tie breaks.
This was a very good tournament for the 2018 Rapid Champion Daniil Dubov, who was always just a step behind first place, taking the lead after Round 18. However, Dubov opted to make a few quick draws in the closing rounds of the event, which ultimately ended, costing him a place in the tie breaks as he was half a point behind the top three. Still, with 14/21, Dubov finished alone in fourth place.
Magnus Carlsen, who was defending the title of world champion in blitz, had another bad day – again losing three games – and with 13.5/21 finished on 12th place, just ahead of Russian superstar Alexander Grischuk who also has 13.5 points. In the five-day event in Poland, Carlsen lost two of the three chess crowns in his possession – in rapid and blitz chess.
The freshly defeated contender for the title of World Champion, Ian Nepomniachtchi, lost steam in the final part of the day, making some quick draws and losing two games, including to Magnus Carlsen. Nepomniachtchi finished the tournament in a group of players on 12.5/21.
The Tie Breaks
Before the final – 21st round – six players were sharing first place: Levon Aronian, Daniil Dubov, Vladislav Artemiev, Jan-Krzysztof Duda, Maxime Vachier-Lagrave and Alireza Firouzja. In the final round of the open event, Daniil Dubov drew quickly with Anish Giri in the last game, banking on a chance to get a place in the tiebreak. Jan-Krzysztof Duda defeated Vladislav Artemiev. Defending champion Magnus Carlsen had no chances for first place, as he was on half a point behind the leading pack. He was leading black pieces against Maxime Vachier-Lagrave of France. In a tense game with the advantage changing hands, Carlsen lost, putting Lagrave among three players ending the regular part of the tournament in the shared first place, on 15/21.
After the final round, there were three players tied for first place, on 15/21: Jan-Krzysztof Duda, Maxime Vachier-Lagrave and Alireza Firouzja. According to the rules, only the first two among them (Jan-Krzysztof Duda and Maxime Vachier-Lagrave) could go to tie breaks.
Vachier-Lagrave was leading the white pieces in the first game. However, both players were cautious and didn't show too much appetite for risk, agreeing to a draw. In the second game, Duda was in time trouble and an inferior position, but he managed to consolidate and force the Frenchman to a draw.
However, in the third and final game, in the Ruy Lopez, Vachier-Lagrave introduced an improvement comparing to the first tiebreak game and got out of the opening with a better position. Duda started to spend more time thinking about his moves but was able to free his rook only at the cost of a pawn. The Frenchman seamlessly converted his advantage and forced Duda's capitulation in a rook endgame.
A new chapter in Polish and chess history
It has been a long time since enthusiastic audiences gathered in chess halls (even before Covid) and since important and beautiful victories on the chessboard were welcomed with great applause, but that happened in Warsaw during the rapid and blitz championships, as all tickets for the event were sold out almost instantly.
On the final day of the event, the atmosphere in Warsaw's PGE Narodowy Stadium was electric as a big audience – including the Polish Prime Minister - came to root for their countryman fighting for the world blitz crown. Although Duda played well and held his own in the first two blitz games he lost the third to the more experienced Frenchman. Although disappointed, the local crowd gave a big round of applause to both players.
Regardless of the loss in the tiebreaks, Jan-Krzysztof Duda (who earlier this year won the World Cup ahead of Carlsen and many of the top world players) made history. He gave Poland the first world silver medal in blitz chess, and his achievements are likely to have a huge impact on the popularity of the game in the country where even the Prime Minister got involved in promoting the tournament.
The top three prizes were shared among all three of them equally (150,000 USD altogether, split three ways).
Final standings can be found here.
17-year-old prodigy Bibisara Assaubayeva dominates the Women's Championship
Assaubayeva – who also finished alone in second place in the women's rapid – dominated the women's world blitz tournament, taking the lead from Round 8 and keeping it until the end.
Following the first day of the blitz, where she scored 8/9, the 17-year-old International Master continued in the same fashion, defeating the likes of Nataliya Buksa and Humpy Koneru. She dropped half a point in a game against compatriot Zhansaya Abdumalik in Round 12, but then scored two more victories.
The critical moment for Assaubayeva was in Round 15. With three more rounds to go, she was 2.5 points ahead of the leaders. However, she was facing defending champion (and three-time winner of the world blitz title) Kateryna Lagno who – after a poor performance on day one of the blitz (5/9) - came back guns blazing, winning all the games between Rounds 10 and 14. In a sharp Sicilian, Lagno ended up with an upper hand, creating more threats for the black king in the endgame. Assaubayeva was better on time and demonstrated fierce resistance but it wasn't enough. Lagno won, and by defeating the tournament leader, the defending women's blitz world champion showed everyone that she was back.
For Assaubayeva, everything was now depending on the Round 16 game where she was Black against Aleksandra Goryachkina, the world's second highest-rated woman player. In an even endgame but in time trouble, Goryachkina blundered a pawn, and her position just collapsed afterwards, allowing Assaubayeva to claim the crown with a round to go.
Although the outcome didn't affect her taking the crown, Assaubayeva drew the final game of the tournament. With 14/17, the 17-year-old prodigy from Kazahstan – who earlier this year had made a great mark in the Women's Speed Chess Championship – confidently, comfortably and deservedly won the title of Women's World Blitz Chess Champion and pocketed a prize of 40,000 USD.
The second place (and a prize of 30,000 USD) went to Alexandra Kosteniuk (who won first place in this year's Women's Rapid). In the last round, Kosteniuk defeated Kateryna Lagno, to finish on 12.5/14.
Valentina Gunina started day two with four victories but then lost steam at the end. She and Polina Shuvalova ended up in shared third place, with 12/14.
They are followed by strong players Humpy Koneru, Nataliya Buksa and Nana Dzagnidze with 11.5 points.
Following a slow start on the first day (with 5/9), Kateryna Lagno (who was defending her blitz crown won in Moscow in 2019), came back strongly as she scored six victories in the first six rounds of the second day, including against tournament winner Assayubayeva. However, in the final two games, her momentum finally broke – she lost to Humpy Koneru in Round 16, and then to Alexandra Kosteniuk in the final round, ending the tournament on 11 points, together with the likes of Anna Muzychuk, Aleksandra Goryachkina, Antoaneta Stefanova, Olga Girya and Elisabeth Paehtz.
The young Indian player Vaishali Rameshbabu, who finished day one in second place, completely lost her way, ending with 10.5/17. The tournament didn't go well for former women's world champion Mariya Muzychuk as she finished on 10 points.
The total prize fund for the women's World Blitz Chess Championship was 150,000 USD.
Final standings can be found here.
Three players withdrew from the event
The games of the World Blitz started with an hour's delay due to three players testing positive for COVID-19 before the first round of the day.
The players who tested positive for COVID-19 were forced to withdraw. The decision was then made to do antibody tests on all those who played them. As all the results came back negative the tournament resumed. There was no change in pairings and the opponents who were due to face the three who withdrew got a point without play.
Text: Milan Dinic
Photo: Mark Livshitz, Rafał Oleksiewicz, Lennart Ootes, Anna Shtourman and Michal Walusza
Official website: worldrapidandblitz.fide.com/