Magnus Carlsen, the defending champion, has been joined at the top of the leader board of the World Rapid Championship by Sergei Zhigalko.

Day 2 of the World Rapid Championships in Berlin was turbulent. As Anish Giri, the top Dutch grandmaster pointed out on Twitter, it was a day that reminded people that more than 10 players are capable of playing good chess moves! Many of the leaders from day 1 found it difficult to keep the momentum going on day 2.

One exception was the defending champion, Magnus Carlsen, who again notched 4 points out of 5 to finish the day tied for first with the big surprise of the tournament so far, Belarusian Sergei Zhigalko. Each player took a different journey through the day to get to the top of the leader table.

The day started with Daniil Dubov of Russia absolutely outplaying Carlsen with Black. It was a very un-Carlsenesque game. The Russian player easily equalized against a sideline of the Slav, but the world champion continued to try to play for more in a position where he should have been happy to just try to hold. Soon, Carlsen had an absolutely hopeless position.

Carlsen was not just a pawn down, his position looked really bad, too. The only trick he had was with Re3 ideas. Dubov could have just played Nd5, but instead he went for the more accurate Rxc4!? Unfortunately for him, when it was time to finish off the game, the Russian stopped seeing the tactics and Carlsen escaped with a draw.

Despite how close he came to losing in Round 6, Carlsen continued to experiment with unimpressive openings the rest of the day.

In game two (Round 7 of the event), he went for a very dodgy Leningrad-Dutch against the Polish grandmaster Radoslaw Wojtaszek that was reminiscent of a game that Carlsen had lost to Wojtaszek in January this year. But this time, Wojtaszek couldn’t quite capitalize on it, and Magnus managed to muddy the waters enough to turn the tables and win.

After a ridiculously easy win against Gadir Guseinov of Azerbaijan, he played a strangely complicated but short draw against Ian Nepomniachtchi of Russia.

That led to a showdown against Teimour Radjabov of Azerbaijan in Round 10. Radjabov had been scything through the field, including a victory in Round 7 against David Navara of the Czech Republic.

Position after 25…Kg7.

Navara’s last move was innocuous enough, but now Radjabov played the amazing 26. f4! Qf5 27. Bh4…followed by g4, trapping the Queen. The final position was picturesque.

How often do we see such a queen trap?

The Carlsen - Radjabov game was rather like the many previous encounters between them. Carlsen side-stepped Radjabov’s favorite tactical territories, entered a dry, drawish endgame and waited for the Azeri to self destruct. In an equal position, Radjabov, who had won five games in a row, decided to push for more, underestimated some of the dangers in the position and lost.

On the other hand, Zhigalko was never in trouble throughout the day. In the only game he drew —  against one of day 1’s stars, Yuriy Kryvoruchko of Ukraine — he was close to winning as well. In general, he has shown excellent technique, and a sharp eye for tactics throughout the competition, as Dmitry Bocharov of Russia found in Round 9, in the following position:

Bocharov played 25 Nb5 here, missing 25 … Nf3! 26 Bf3 Re1 27 Re1 Qc2.

While Zhigalko has been impressive, he hasn’t quite been tested by having to play one of the big guys yet. That will change when he faces Carlsen in Round 11.

Zhigalko’s final game of day 2, against Nepomniachtchi, could have been a big test – but Nepomniachtchi played what he himself described as one of his worst game’s ever and gave away the point after making some very questionable decisions in the opening.

The other prominent “Sergey” – Karjakin in this case – who had raced out to the lead on day 1, started showing signs of fatigue from the just concluded World Cup, which he had won.

His problems started in Round 8 against Radjabov when he kept relentlessly trying things in a drawish Berlin endgame, only to end up being outplayed. After that Karjakin’s play was somewhat rash, as he desperately tried to get back to the top boards.

That ended up helping Latvian grandmaster Igor Kovalenko, who became the other big surprise of the day, with a skillfully executed game against Karjakin in the last round:

At first, White seems was doing quite well here. But now Kovalenko came up with the impressive pawn sacrifice 15…0-0 16. axb5 e5!. Karjakin went for the critical line with 17. Nc6 Bb7 18. c4, but that was met by the powerful 18…axb5 19. Rxa8 Qc6!

The exchange sacrifice is beautiful, but Karjakin was by no means lost. Indeed, as he mentioned after the game, he continued to play for a win, and avoided a chance to simplify into a drawn endgame which he basically could have done by returning the exchange and playing 32 Rf3. Unfortunately, dogged determination to win despite, what’s happening on the board, doesn’t usually end very well.

While the younger players have expectedly dominated the top tables, the members of the previous generation haven’t been sitting completely idle. Rustam Kasimdzhanov of Uzbekistan and Predrag Nikolic of Bosnia couldn’t quite continue the momentum from day one, but Vladimir Kramnik of Russia and Vasily Ivanchuk of Ukraine have risen to within a half point of the leaders. They have done so by playing in very different styles.

Kramnik no longer even pretends that he wants to play as he did when he was younger. With White, he consistently goes for the driest possible positions, and still manages to ensnare younger, unsuspecting victims. With Black, he sticks to super-solid lines that he knows inside out. This strategy banks on his younger opponents, like Dubov and Aleander Riazantsev of Russia, making impatient decisions so that he can then clinically outplay them. To be able to beat Magnus and Co. on the last day, Kramnik might need to inject some energy into his games.

Ivanchuk’s games have just been brimming with energy. Particularly impressive was how he turned a pawn blunder into a strategically beautiful pawn sacrifice in the following game against Wojtaszek:

Here Ivanchuk played 14…e6, which was instantly met by 15. g4 by the tactically alert Polish grandmaster. After 15…Be4 16. g5, Black  had to lose a pawn. Ivanchuk chose an interesting way to do that: 16…Bxf3 17. Bf3 Nh5 18. Bh5 gxh5, when.the position did not look too good for Black. Wojtaskek played the inaccurate 19.f4, which looks good, but Ivanchuk exploited it with an amazing regrouping idea that shifted his knight to f5, via f8, g6, and e7.

With the knight on f5, Black actually had excellent compensation. There was no reason for White to lose of course. But if the direction of the game changes slightly, things can change really fast in a rapid game.

Meanwhile, Viswanathan Anand of India, the former champion at both rapid and blitz formats, again put up a valiant effort to turn around his fortunes - which led to many interesting games and decisive results in all his game. But just like day 1, he couldn’t keep up with the younger generation in terms of energy, and Rauf Mamedov of Azerbaijan blew him away in an aesthetically pleasing fashion

Here, Mamedov found the brilliant 13 Nxe6! After 13 … fxe6  14 Bg6 Ke7, came the key idea: 15 d4!!. It probably doesn’t deserve two exclamation marks in terms of difficulty, but it is just such a nice move.

Black hung on for a while, but there wasn’t much resistance possible.

Looking ahead to the final day, I wouldn’t bet on anything. Things can change fast in rapid tournaments, and playing well on one day is usually not an indication of how a player will do the next day. If Zhigalko can survive his showdown with the World Champion tomorrow morning, the Belarusian would become a very serious, and surprising, contender for the title. On the other hand, Magnus has shown consistently that it is in critical moments that he brings his best to the board.

For more coverage of the championship, see “Karjakin Takes Day 1 Lead in Rapid Championship” 


Parimarjan Negi is an Indian grandmaster who is the second-youngest ever to earn the title (at 13 years 4 months and 22 days). Ranked No. 76 in the world, he is currently a sophmore at Stanford University.