Magnus Carlsen described his “general mind-set” as “whenever there are titles to be had I want to have them!” after he beat Fabiano Caruana 12.5:7.5 to qualify for the $200,000 final of the inaugural FIDE Fischer Random World Championship. His opponent will be Wesley So, who needed just three rapid games to beat Ian Nepomniachtchi 13:5, though they actually played four games after a controversy over how Ian tried to castle in the first.
You can play through all the games from the Fischer Random World Championship using the selector below:
Wesley So went into the third and final day of the Fischer Random semifinals with a huge 9:3 lead over Ian Nepomniachtchi, and although potentially there were 8 games to be played (4 rapid and then 4 blitz) he knew that he only needed another 3.5 points. Two wins in the 15+2 rapid games would be enough, or four draws, so that all the pressure was on Nepo to play an almost perfect day of chess.
It began promisingly as he took over the c-file in the first game, but on move 13 the encounter was derailed when Ian tried to castle:
He moved his rook first, and although Wesley said nothing the eagle-eyed arbiter stepped in to point out that you can only castle if you touch your king first. Instead of the good move 13.0-0 the “touch-move” rule forced Nepo to play the blunder 13.Rf1?, when the game had suddenly swung in Black’s favour. Wesley duly picked up a pawn on e5, and with the white king in the centre could have played on for a win. Perhaps shaken himself, however, he instead took a draw shortly afterwards.
That was far from the end of the controversy. In a normal game it would be hard to argue with the arbiter, but in Chess960 castling can get much trickier! In this case White needed to move the king from e1 to g1, but there was a rook on g1, so that the whole operation would require a feat of manual dexterity. It was perfect fodder for internet jokes:
After the game had ended peacefully Nepomniachtchi made a formal appeal, and the Appeals Committee supported him. They decided that it was fair to replay the game, and although the first idea was to start again from the position where castling had been attempted they decided that it was better to start a new game instead, since in the meantime the players might have seen computer analysis.
Curiously, it was far from the first time that Ian had been involved in castling controversies!
In the replay both players castled successfully on move 9 and Wesley’s decision to open the g-file on move 22 should have been fatal. After 29…Nc3 an in-form Nepomniachtchi would surely have found a win:
The most crushing is 30.Nd6!!, a move pointed out by Sopiko Guramishvili. After either 30…Ref8 31.Qxf6+! Rxf6 32.Rxf6 or 31…Qxd6 31.Qxf6+ Qxf6 32.Rxf6 Black’s problem is that he can’t take the rook on d1 without getting mated by a discovered check when the rook on f6 moves. Black has ways to try and escape death on the long diagonal, but none of them work.
Instead Nepo gave away most of his edge with 30.Bxc3?! Bxc3 31.d4 Bxd4 32.Nxd4 cxd4 33.Rxd4 Qg7 34.Rf4:
Perhaps he felt it was the practical decision to play for two results with an extra passed pawn, but 34…Re3! was the start of some elegant and resourceful defence from Wesley. If you take the rook it’s of course mate on g2, and in what followed it was White who had to be careful to secure the draw.
Nepomniachtchi found time to tweet his frustration before the next game!
The 2nd rapid game was even more do or die for the Russian, and he got a chance when Wesley So went for unnecessary complications. The last hope for Nepo to alter the course of the match came after 36.Kxf3:
In this crazy position 36…f5! would have left Black on top, but after 36…h2 37.Rd5+! f5 38.Qxh2! Nd4+ 39.Kg2! (39.Rxd4? Qc3+!) it turned out White was ok. For a while the rook vs. knight ending that followed was a theoretical draw, but Ian sank to defeat in 60 moves.
Wesley now only needed one draw in the remaining six games to win the match and, not without some adventures, he got it immediately in the next game to complete a 13:5 victory. Nepomniachtchi’s frustration levels had gone through the roof:
Life was good for Wesley, however, who is guaranteed at least $75,000 for 2nd place or $125,000 for 1st. He compared that to the Grand Swiss on the Isle of Man where he’d had to play 11 tough rounds with up to four hours preparation each day and “if you don’t finish in the top five [he didn’t] you get peanuts”. Chess960 requires no preparation, except perhaps the mental preparation for playing a World Championship match against Magnus Carlsen next!
Magnus Carlsen went into the final day of his “very, very tough” match against Fabiano Caruana with a 3-point lead, but he struggled to relax:
I knew that as long as I scored 2.5 from the first 4 the match would be clinched, so today I was pretty confident that I was going to win, but you’re never quite sure until you get there, and it got really, really nervy in the last couple of games.
In fact the first game of the day, which was overshadowed by the castling controversy in the other encounter, already demonstrated that nerves, and the strange time control, were factors. Magnus had what seemed a totally winning position with a passed a-pawn, but Fabiano managed to limit the damage to an exchange and then with 40…d4! he whipped up sufficient counterplay to trouble the World Champion:
41.g4!? seems to be the best chance for White to break through, but with both players down to under 5 seconds it was perhaps a wise decision for Magnus to force a draw with 41.Qh4+ Kg7 42.Qe7+ and perpetual check. The problem was that although there were 15 minutes for the game there wasn’t a 10-second increment as you would expect in a normal rapid game, but just 2 seconds. That meant that practically speaking you needed to move almost instantly to avoid losing on time.
If that was disappointing for Magnus, the 2nd game of the day would more than make up for it, with Black significantly better by move 5:
Magnus explained that Black can often be better in Fischer Random as the second player has more information while the players are making up the theory as they go along. He also felt, “people feel a bit too much of an entitlement as White” and expect to be better as they usually are in normal chess. In general, though, the game served as a justification for the very existence of Fischer Random Chess:
I think all the players love it and I feel like exactly the second game today, after 6-8 moves I was really thinking this is why we play it, this is why we play Fischer Random. You go g5, you go h5 and suddenly your position is great. You don’t see that in regular chess. It just adds a such a different dimension to the game, and probably he didn’t have those thoughts at that time, but really at that point that was a moment for me, this is the point of the game and I think that’s the game which shows why this game has a right to exist at the very highest level, and I think if you talk to any top player who has tried it they all love it, so I hope it will continue.
The problem with Fischer Random from a spectator point of view is perhaps that it makes an already difficult game more difficult, with most of the chess basics even a beginner learns being cast into doubt. You could also argue that the use of computers has if anything expanded the range of possible openings, so that it took just one day for Daniil Dubov to prove that playing a very early h5 and g5 was also possible in “normal chess”:
The number of potential moves is for practical purposes infinite and, though you can understand how jaded chess professionals feel after heavy preparation, it’s an illusion weak humans are prone to that the game can be exhausted so easily!
Minor caveats aside, there’s no question that the game that followed in the Henie Onstad Art Center was a fantastic advert for chess of any kind. Magnus built up total positional domination with 20…e4, but Fabiano wasn’t going to go down without a fight:
21.Nxe4! fxe4 22.Qxe4 had to be tried, and although objectively it didn’t improve White’s situation Fabiano forced Magnus to find some brilliancies to win the game:
26…Ncd4!! was a killer. 27.exd4 runs into 27…Qxd3, but after 27.Rxd4 Black can’t recapture immediately without allowing White to give mate. Magnus had of course seen that, and with 27…Qh2+! 28.Kf2 Qh4+ he first covered the e7-square before taking on d4. He went on to play b6 and bring his a8-bishop into the game, and that proved to be the decisive factor in a crushing win.
Carlsen was a win away from victory, but Caruana delayed the celebrations with a fine win of his own in the next game. 9…Nd6 left Black uncoordinated for a moment:
Fabiano took advantage with 10.Nd3! Ba3 (10…c5? 11.Nxb4 cxb4 12.Qe1! leaves Black strategically busted) 11.b4!, trapping the bishop, though it might not have been so disastrous if not for 11…dxe4 12.Nxe4 Nf5? That double attack is a hard move to resist, but simply 13.Re2! left Black in a dire situation. It took Fabi a long time to prove that mate ends a game of chess, but he got there in the end!
In what proved to be the final game of the semi-finals Magnus won a pawn in the opening with White, but when he went for a potential knockout blow it wasn’t for purely chess reasons:
Here he played 27.Nxd6+! cxd6 28.Rxd6 and later explained:
I felt that my nerves were failing a bit and I couldn’t really find a plan, so I felt like the course of the game was not going so great for me. I was struggling to find a plan and I really felt like if I continued to just play normally I would probably drift and anything could happen, so I really, really wanted to force the game and I felt intuitively that I should not be risking anything, so that certainly helps.
After 28…Ra7, a move Magnus hadn’t foreseen, he exchanged everything to reach a position with Queen, Bishop and 6 pawns against Queen, Rook and 3 pawns. That was an advantageous material balance, but it also gave Magnus the comfortable situation of playing for just two results, a win or a draw – “I really preferred the bird in hand at this point.” Magnus felt, it seems wrongly, that he’d let the win slip at one point near the end (Sopiko pointed out how it was still winning!), but after 49…Rf6 the match was over:
50.c7! Kxc7 51.Ke5! allowed the king into the position, and after 51…Rf1 52.Ke6 Kd8 53.Be4! Fabiano resigned, since the bishop will come to f5 and block the rook out of the position.
Magnus summed up his day’s work:
I always thought that the match with Fabiano would be very, very tough, so I’m very happy to have gotten through that and whenever there are titles to be had I want to have them – so that’s my general mind-set!
Up next is a 3-day match against Wesley So for the $125,000 top prize and the title of Fischer Random World Champion, while Fabiano Caruana will play Ian Nepomniachtchi for 3rd place and $50,000 compared to $40,000. The format is exactly the same as for the semi-finals, with the action starting at 17:30 CET. You can follow it all live here on chess24!
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