Magnus Carlsen beat two of his closest pursuers, then eased up, leaving the drama to the fight for second and third place.

Magnus Carlsen of Norway cruised to victory on Monday in the Rapid World Chess Championship, successfully defending the title that he won last year.

The third and final day of the competition was a quieter one than the first two. The tournament was essentially decided in the first two rounds of the day, after which the leading peloton slowed down, and the status quo among the leaders was more or less maintained.

Carlsen ended up comfortably ahead of everyone else, but it was only after two really difficult, and slightly fortunate wins in the first two rounds of the day. The first match was between the leaders at the end of day 2, Sergei Zhigalko of Belarus and Carlsen, and it did not disappoint.

Zhigalko showed little fear or intimidation and went for the most principled line against Carlsen’s provocative opening play. It seemed like Carlsen had just what he wanted – a position that he seemed to have studied at home, excellent compensation for his sacrificed pawn because of the activity of his pieces, and a chance to play for more than equality with Black. But Zhigalko kept playing accurate moves to keep up the pressure. However, in the following position he started to go astray and make small inaccuracies, and Carlsen swooped in to punish each one of them with uncannily ruthless precision.

Zhigalko had played excellent chess so far, but here he mixed up the ideal move order to go after the d4-pawn with 27. Nf5. Instead, 27. Rad1…and then 28. Nf5 would have made Black’s life much harder. After 27. Nf5 Ne7, suddenly, the d4 pawn was safe, and Carlsen started creating annoying threats on the a8-h1 diagonal. After some simplifications, Carlsen continued to press in the endgame until:

Objectively this was not a lost or even bad position, but it required too much accuracy for a time pressure scenario, especially against a precise opponent like Carlsen.

In the next round, Magnus faced Vasily Ivanchuk of Ukraine, the unsung action-hero of the last day. While others around him slowed down, and took some easy games, he fought impressively until the last breath in each of his games. (It was doubly impressive because, at 46 years old, he was one of the oldest players in the field.)

Ivanchuk started the day by ruining the expectations of Igor Kovalenko of Latvia, who played overly aggressively and lost. Ivanchuk then met Carlsen in a game that effectively decided the championship.

Once again, Carlsen’s opening was unimpressive. He chose a fairly popular line of the Petroff Defense, but after he made the questionable decision to trade his dark squared bishop with Bxc5, he had virtually no advantage. The game seemed to be headed for a draw, but Ivanchuk continued maneuvering and, suddenly, mostly because of Black’s carelessness, White got a blip of activity. Then we saw the classic, and amazing Carlsen technique begin to take over.

After each tiny, inaccurate move by Black, Carlsen created a new, small problem for his opponent. And even though the position remained equal for a long time, the position became increasingly difficult, until Ivanchuk could no longer stand the pressure.

The critical stretch began in the following position.

For a while now, both the players had just shifted back and forth, and I am not quite sure who was hoping to win this game. Ivanchuk could have easily stopped Carlsen from pushing his pawn to h6, but I guess it did not look too scary. After 36. h6 g6 37. h7+ Kh8 38. Rh6 Rf6 39. bxa4 bxa4, Carlsen found the resourceful 40. c4!.

The position was still roughly equal for a while, but Carlsen kept getting a bit more play with each passing move, until finally he managed to catch Ivanchuk’s a-pawn from the side.

The material was still equal, but the Black rook could no longer leave the a-file. Carlsen then brought his king over to the queenside and collected the a-pawn. A computer points out that the position was still technically a draw. But practically, the position became increasingly harder for Black to play, particularly with the clock ticking away. Not unexpectedly, Ivanchuk just couldn’t hold it all together.

That ended the drama for the title, as it left Magnus 1.5 points ahead of the chasing pack, and he pragmatically made draws in the remaining games to retain his title.

The fight for the remaining medals was wide open, however. Throughout most of the day, several players had chances to finish on the podium. But it was hard for anyone to break ahead as the top boards remained deadlocked in series of draws.

In the end, it was Ian Nepomniachtchi of Russia who secured silver with crucial wins in rounds 12 and 13, while the bronze went to Teimour Radjabov of Azerbaijan, who came through with wins in rounds 13 and 14.

Lenier Dominguez Perez of Cuba had the frustration of also scoring two wins and of winding up tied in game points with Nepomniachtchi and Radjabov, but he fell short on tiebreakers.

Vladimir Kramnik played on the top boards throughout the day, but his approach of playing very solidly didn’t quite work and, with five draws, he never came close to winning a medal. 

To Nepomniachtchi’s credit, he recovered quickly from his catastrophic loss at the end of day 2 with a solid draw against Kramnik, and then won an insanely complicated game against his countryman Alexander Riazentsev. In the Round 13, he played another Russian, Boris Savchenko.

Savchenko is an unpredictable player (his rating has oscillated between 2500-2650) and, like Nepomniachtchi, he is known to prefer complicated positions. In their game, Nepomniachtchi was very aggressive early on, sacrificing two pawns. The sacrifices looked tempting at first, but it was hard to find compensation. The crucial position arose at this point:

Basically, White had just set up some traps, like threatening h4, etc. There were certainly tactical tricks, but it wasn’t very hard to find the simple 18 … Rxc5! and 19 … 0-0 after which Black would have been out of danger. White might have then managed to scrape and hold his position together, but it’s certainly nothing like ending up in a winning position in two moves after Black blundered and played 18 … a5?? 19 Qb7 Rc5 and Nepomniachtchi played the elegant, but not too hard to find 20 Ne4!

Now, 20 … de4 would lose to 21 Qd7 and 22 Qd8, mate. 

Nepomniachtchi also had tough, fighting draws in the remaining games, including coming very close to a win in the match for second place against Dominguez in the final round. One particular moment from that game was pretty:

Here, Nepomniachtchi found the nice little move Re1 — developing the rook with a tempo. Ironically, the computer thinks that the other ‘intermezzo’ g3 might be stronger…but Nepomniachtchi’s move makes a lot more practical sense. Nepomniachtchi pushed Dominguez for a while, but the Cuban held hung tough in a pawn down endgame.

Radjabov had started day 3 much more slowly than day 2, when he won his first four games. He picked up some momentum by beating Dmitry Bocharov of Russia rather easily right out of the opening in round 13. But his real test was the penultimate round match with Ivanchuk.

Despite the heartbreaking loss to Carlsen earlier in the day, Ivanchuk was continuing to play with a lot of energy…and after the opening the position didn’t look very good at all for Radjabov:

The position resembles a Scheveningen structure, which I have often played often with Black, but this one just doesn’t look very good. The knight is doing absolutely nothing on e8 — if Black could play g6 and Ng7, he would be comfortable. But, in the current situation, he has no play. To gain counterplay, at some point Black would hope to make the pawn sacrifice b5. But even then, it is not that scary and White could even ignore it.  

Ivanchuk went for the enterprising plan with Bg4…f5. I think he missed some chances in the next moves, however, as Radjabov progressively gained more counterplay. Particularly suspicious was going after Radjabov’s pawns. Though Ivanchuk was up two pawns in the following position, the situation had become easier for Black because of his bishops:

That makes a big difference in rapid games….as it probably did in this one, as Ivanchuk seemed to lose on time in a complicated position.

That seemed to be enough tension for Radjabov, as he forced a quick draw in the final round against Maxime Vachier-Lagrave of France, which also halted Vachier-Lagrave’s late surge.

As was true in the last World Rapid Championship, the gap between most of the top players and the rest of the field was not great. There were many pre-tournament favorites, including Viswanathan Anand of India, Levon Aronian of Armenia, and Alexander Grischuk of Russia, who never could get past the solid layer of strong, but not elite grandmasters. For such mere mortals, “the middle class of chess professionals” as Emil Sutovsky, the president of the Association of Chess Professionals called them on his Facebook page, this was a great opportunity to prove their mettle and show the world that the top players are very far from untouchable. Despite the shroud of invincibility that often accompanies the elite players, many “ordinary” grandmasters rose to the occasion and inflicted many credible blows on the big guys. 

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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.