At the end of the penultimate day of Saint Louis Rapid & Blitz tournament at Missouri, US in the third week of August 2019, a visibly distraught Magnus Carlsen, the world chess champion, vented out his raw emotions during the post-game interview.
"Everything is going wrong, my confidence is long gone, (and) I don't really care anymore. To be honest, my number one wish is for the tournament to get over... I cannot really be bothered (about my performance) at this point," were the surprisingly frank words from the Norwegian, an outburst uncharacteristic, but understandable.
Saint Louis Rapid & Blitz, US, is the 4th leg of the GCT, after Abidjan Blitz & Rapid, Ivory Coast (May 2019), Zagreb, Croatia (June " July 2019) and Paris Rapid & Blitz, France (July " August 2019), with another three scheduled viz. Sinquefield Cup, Saint Louis, US (August 2019), Superbet Rapid & Blitz, Romania (November 2019) and Tata Steel Rapid & Blitz, India (November 2019), before the finals at London (November " December 2019).
The GCT is contested for a total prize fund of $1.75 million between a pool of top 12 players in the world, who all play at the two classical events (Zagreb and Sinquefield Cup) and any three of the remaining five Rapid & Blitz events.
Carlsen had dominated the Tour from the very start, being the outright winner at Ivory Coast and Zagreb to take an unassailable lead with 33 Grand Prix points. Apart from the GCT too, Carlsen has won five events consecutively in 2019: Tata Steel chess tournament at Wijk aan Zee, Netherlands (January), Gashimov Memorial at Shamkir, Azerbaijan (March " April), Grenke Classic at Karlsruhe / Baden-Baden, Germany (April), Lindares Abbey Stars at Newburgh, Scotland (May) and Altibox Norway Chess at Stavenger, Norway (June).
He holds a whopping 2882 Elo rating in classical chess, 2895 in rapid and 2920 in blitz, all top of the charts.
Considering all, Carlsen's play at Saint Louis was indeed a surprise. He lost four games in the rapids to score eight points from nine games. (In GCT, wins in rapid were awarded two points while draws with one point).
In the blitz too, he lost six games, to finish with nine points from 18 games, as the ten participants played each other twice in the blitz part. He finished sixth among the 10 participants.
Though the 28-year-old Carlsen's domination was still unquestionable with a classical Elo rating of 2882 at that point, he had dropped 46 and 92 rating points in rapid and blitz respectively, enabling Maxime Vachier-Lagrave of France (2867 rapid rating) and Hikaru Nakamura of USA (2871 blitz rating) respectively to overtake him in rapid & blitz standings.
What was the reason for his poor performance in the event?
When it comes to home preparation and playing cutting edge opening theory, Carlsen has always followed his own unorthodox ways. Rather than playing 'fashionable' variations which belong to the 'front-line' openings like other top players, he has occasionally preferred to employ unorthodox systems especially in faster time controls.
When one is in form, such openings produce original middle-game positions which generally suit the stronger player, helping him to navigate the complications better.
However, Carlsen found the going rather tough in the rapid section, as he got into difficulties in such unorthodox openings with black pieces, especially where he compromised on positional soundness, losing to Fabiano Caruana and Sergey Karjakin. Curiously, both of them were his challengers in the previous world championships in 2016 and 2014 respectively.
In other two of his losses against Levon Aronian and Ding Liren, Carlsen erred in tactical complications, an indication of his indifferent form.
In blitz, Carlsen took even more risks to fight back but couldn't find his rhythm. In his game against Yu Yangyi, he sacrificed a full piece on the fourth move itself, thus daring to throw caution to the winds and gamble in search of points but lost the game. He could score only 50 percent in the blitz part.
After this disappointing failure, Carlsen did not have much of a reprieve too, as he was playing the Sinquefield Cup with classic time control scheduled within two days.
In the GCT calendar, these two tournaments are held in succession, sometimes tiring out the players who play both the events.
The Sinquefield Cup too did not start well for Carlsen, as he was caught in a 'draw rut', unable to create any chances for a win. Unlike rapid and blitz, Carlsen was expected to do better in classical time control, as it favoured his ability to probe his opponents' resilience.
Carlsen is perceived one of the best 'grafters' in the history of chess. Someone who has mastered the art of playing long games for bare minimum of advantages when seemingly none exist, often in dry looking endgames.
This single ability perfected enough to defeat even the best defenders of contemporary chess including Anand and Karjakin, has made Carlsen the force he is today, apart from his other strengths. But this seemed to have deserted Carlsen in this crucial time, as he did not make any headway in his games against Caruana, Mamedyarov and Ding, despite holding an advantage. He ended up drawing his first nine games at a stretch. At this point Ding, the third highest rated player in the world at 2811, was leading with 5.5 points from nine games, a full point ahead of Carlsen.
Finally, Carlsen put that extra force and effort and defeated Wesley So and Vachier-Lagrave in the last two rounds, thus tying for the first place with Ding, salvaging some pride. But he ended up losing the title to Ding through the tie-break match, which hasn't happened for the last 12 years. This also gave birth to the idea that Ding might ultimately become the next challenger to Carlsen's throne.
Carlsen is thus considered to have lost a step in these couple of GCT events, which will make his performance in the Tata Steel Blitz & Rapid in November and GCT finals in December watched with extra scrutiny. Though he still continues to be the strongest player on earth, the manner in which he has performed at Saint Louis in the last two weeks has brought the notion under a cloud.