Lack of confidence is maybe the key challenge facing elite chess players from time to time. Despite the many tournament wins in the first half of 2019, I experienced it myself somewhat in the less successful period from August to October. When we arrived in Kolkata for the Tata Steel Rapid & Blitz I was highly motivated to show my best side and at the same time surprisingly confident. Thinking about it in retrospect it could be an effect of returning to a country where you have had career-changing success in the past. Avoiding set-backs in itself breeds confidence, and the steady harvest of points each day in the rapid portion reminded me of the Abidjan GCT in May where I also enjoyed the games and managed to play well most of the time.
In the first round as black against Wesley So I felt a bit rusty, and despite a favorable middlegame I missed some key variations and decided to secure a draw via a pawn down ending. Game two brought the smooth victory I needed to settle in. Nepomniachtchi can play rapid chess game at the highest level, but his level varies more than for some of the other elite players. He made a few mistakes in the early middle game and it was enough for me to win without too much risk. The razor-sharp Najdorf against Aronian turned my way in end to secure a great first day. My play improved the next two days and I had a solid lead ahead of Nakamura and So before the Blitz.
I played decently on the first day of the Blitz portion, and even a troubling stomach on the last day couldn’t stop me from achieving a marginal plus score that day and reaching 27 points overall. It is the best Rapid & Blitz in the 5 years of the Grand Chess Tour. Nakamura came clear second.
Unfortunately I didn’t get rid of the stomach trouble in the days between Kolkata and the GCT final in London. My form varied from day to day and going into the third day of the semifinal against Vachier Lagrave I was somewhat optimistic despite being sluggish and low on energy. The optimism turned out to be unwarranted. Lagrave played quite well, and I needed a bit of luck just to keep the balance into the Blitz phase. The rest was pretty much a disaster. I was fortunately to draw the first game as black, and in the second game I completely lost the thread in the rook endgame and lost. Somehow I managed to play decently in the 3rd game and equalize the score. An uneventful draw in the 4th game resulted in a play-off. I decided on the brave but not entirely wise choice of allowing his Najdorf in the first play-off game. I even got a winning position only to completely collapse later in the game. I soon was lost in the must-win-with-black last game, and never had any chance to equalize. He chose a draw-ish endgame to ensure his advance to the final against Ding Liren who had thoroughly demolished an off-form Aronian.
Ding continued to impress and won the final convincingly to clinch GCT 2019 1st. Congrats!
Aronian was probably in even worse shape than me, and I managed to win the white classical game after he slipped up in the endgame. He had me on the ropes through most of the next classical game, but fortunately I posed enough difficulties for him to allow me to save a draw in the end. That was actually more important than it felt at the time as it would have meant the end of my non-losing classical chess streak throughout 2019.
In the first rapid game I had a completely winning position only to miss a mate. Having already mentally bagged the point, I relaxed too early and for once felt more amusement than anger after a loss. Immediately hitting back with an attractive, although not perfect, attacking game was nice, and the Blitz phase was more of a formality.
In London, the memories of the reasonable successful World Championship Match defense against Caruana in 2018 didn’t transfer as in Kolkata, but the two cases are not really comparable. I’ve played in London many times over the last 10 years. I’ve won a lot but not every time.
Right now, the important thing is of course the Rapid & Blitz World Championship in Moscow starting tomorrow. I’m highly motivated and eager to see if I can prove once again that I’m the man to beat.
Magnus Carlsen, Moscow, December 25th, 2019