Fresh off his victory in the World Cup, Sergey Karjakin is leading the tournament, but there are a pack of 16 players a half-point behind him, including the defending champion, Magnus Carlsen.

The World Rapid Championship started Saturday at the Bolle Meierei hall in Berlin. After five rounds, Sergey Karjakin of Russia, has the sole lead. But in a long tournament (14 rounds) with such a strong field, fortunes can change quickly. Indeed, with 16 players just a half point behind Karjakin, including Magnus Carlsen of Norway, the defending champion, no one is dominating – yet. 

Complete standings are available on the tournament Web site

There were no serious upsets in Round 1, but many top players faced strong grandmasters. A couple of the lower-ranked players, Ehsan Ghaem-Maghami and Namig Guliyev of Azerbaijan, managed to block everything by playing insipidlywith the White pieces against Carlsen and Vladimir Kramnik of Russia, respectively. I don’t think dropping a half point at this stage worried the big guys too much, however.

In Round 1, there were already quite a few of the typical time pressure swindles, like the Cuban Leinier Dominguez Perez pulling off a pawn down endgame win against an unfortunate Yuri Vovk of Ukraine.

Vovk had been trying all kinds of ways to breakthrough for a long time, but after Ke6! - Bg8 - Kf5, it was impossible for white to defend against Ng4 - and taking the f2 pawn. White didn’t have to lose the game after this, but the big psychological shift was enough to ensure White’s collapse.

In an even more dramatic swindle, Teimour Radjabov of Azerbaijan, managed to avoid getting mated against the Polish grandmaster Jan-Krzysztof Duda by a pure miracle.

White’s attack is of course completely toothless, while Black could play basically any nice move. Duda went in for the kill with 30…Ra5, and Radjabov found the nice resource 31. Nc5! to muddy the waters. Unfortunately for the Polish youngster, he tried to seek a brilliant mate with 31…Ra2, but after 32. Rc4! Rca8 33. Kc1, White’s king was absolutely safe.

Karjakin seemed to cruise in almost all his games - playing sensible, but not spectacular, chess, and taking advantage of his opponents’ small mistakes. Yet things could have been completely different in Round 4. Yuriy Kryvoruchko of Ukraine completely outplayed Karjakin with Black, and finally had Karjakin completely at his mercy in the following technically won endgame.

Kryvoruchko rushed a little too soon to create his h-passed won with g5. Instead he could have just basically moved around with his pieces forever, as such positions are ridiculously hard to play for the defending side. In the end, riding on his World Cup luck, where he won the title, Karjakin pulled off a miraculous save with the following fortress:

It’s actually not easy to prove if Black can win even without the f2-pawn (unless you use tablebases, of course), so there was no way for Black to push ahead and Karjakin managed to draw.

Carlsen annihilated his opponents ruthlessly with White, but in his three games as Black, he was far from impressive. The one game he won with Black was largely due to temporary tactical blindness by Francisco Vallejo Pons of Spain in the following position:

Vallejo became very ambitious here, playing Qa5. If White got his queen to c7, it does look a little worrying for Black. But it wasn’t hard for Carlsen to calculate that after Bxh3! it will be impossible to prevent the h-pawn from queening. Instead of Qa5, White could have played the safe Qa2….Qf2. , Even though the bishop on d1 wouldn’t exactly shine, White’s position would seem far too solid to break through easily. The game ended with Black just bringing his queen back to defend against all White’s threats:

And, in this position, the Bishop on d1 is really sad.

There was an interesting theoretical trend – White beginning games with 1 d4 and then 2 Bf4. Among the players who used this opening were Alexander Grischuk of Russia, Karjakin, and Carlsen.

I wouldn’t expect the theory there to be revolutionized just yet, but it led to many refreshingly fresh positions. For instance, after move only 10 moves, Grischuk got to make a creative sacrifice against Baskaran Adhiban of India.

If Black is able to play Nxf4, then his position looks solid. But here Grischuk went 11.Be5! After 11…f6 12. Bf4 e5 13.Qc4 exf4 14.exf4, Black’s pieces were suddenly in complete disarray, and White had overwhelming compensation.

Unfortunately, for Grischuk, the creativity didn’t always pay off. In Round 3, against another Indian, Vidit Gujarathi, Grischuk went overboard, breaking every rule in the opening book, while Vidit happily crashed through his defences to win his third game in a row.

Gujarathi’s performance was a welcome relief for Indian fans, as Vishwanathan Anand, the former world champion, showed signs of his age (he will be 46 in December) as his play deteriorated through the day. After two nice wins, the Indian legend failed to punish Salem Saleh’s suspicious tactical play and then got smoothly outplayed by the young Russians, Daniil Dubov and Pavel Ponkratov. In particular, Dubov showed some pretty little moves.

The opposite colored bishops give the impression that the position could be drawish, but Black has far too many weak spots. Here, White launched his attack with Nh4,and Black failed to put up much resistance. Soon the knight traversed the board to end up capturing the a7 pawn!

I think part of Vishy’s problem was that he is trying to play strong principled chess, and that gets much harder when you’re 45 and playing 5 games in the day.

On the other hand, Rustam Kasimdzhanov of Uzbekistan, 35, and Predrag Nikolic, 55, had a much better time against their younger counterparts by just playing solid and reasonable chess and ending at 4 points each. Of course, having 3 points or 4 points doesn’t make a big difference at this stage. The key will be to see which players manage to break away with a streak of wins tomorrow. And there are a lot of powerhouse players — like Levon Aronian of Armenia, Dmitry Andreikin of Russia, Vachier-Lagrave, Peter Svidler of Russia, Alexander Morozevich of Russia, etc., — who were not impressive on day one, but could quickly climb into contention for the top spots after a good second day.

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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.