Reports Sep 30, 2020 | 5:27 PMby Colin McGourty

Carlsen plays Bongcloud to win Banter Series

World Chess Champion Magnus Carlsen won after starting 1.f3, 2.Kf2 - the notoriously bad “Bongcloud” opening - on his way to beating Wesley So 5.5:3.5 to claim the $12,000 top prize in the chess24 Banter Series. Wesley struggled to get over losing that game and was still lamenting “that’s just so humiliating” two games later. He struck some blows of his own, though, and pushed Magnus all the way until a relieved World Champion summed up, “what a battle!” at the end.

When you start 1.f3 2.Kf2 and beat one of the world's best players

You can replay all the games from the chess24 Banter Series using the selector below:

And of course don’t miss the final from the point of view of both of the players. Here’s Magnus:

And here’s Wesley:

The Bongcloud strikes again

Magnus was late to the start of the match, and was making no excuses:

Sorry for the delay. At this point it’s just a major character flaw that I have to work on!

He had found the time to tweet, however.

What did he mean by, “expect the unexpected”? There was an unexpectedly high number of references to Monty Python, but we were soon to get a bigger surprise. At this point Wesley was live with his own introduction:

Magnus is clearly the big favourite, but you can’t help running into him sooner or later in the chess world these days. We shall give our best and try to fight like lions!

He barely managed to finish that sentence before bursting out laughing at seeing how Magnus had begun the game: 1.f3, 2.Kf2

The World Chess Champion had begun with an opening so bad that chess computers evaluate it at around a 2-pawn advantage for Black. It had been in the news lately, since when Hikaru Nakamura beat Jeffery Xiong with 1.e4 2.Ke2 in the last round of the St. Louis Rapid and Blitz, Magnus had noted that for him that wasn’t the “real” Bongcloud. So he decided to play the real Bongcloud himself, but just to add to the confusion he commented, “it’s called “the Greek” in Norwegian!”

Why had Magnus done it? He explained afterwards:

For the first game basically I just wanted to have some fun and I’d been talking to some of my friends earlier today and they’d been sort of saying, why should we tune in to this? And I think this gave them a reason.

It’s unlikely that’s the whole story. We’d seen earlier in the Banter Series that Wesley likes to do targeted preparation for his opponents and, where possible, to keep the games under control. Magnus’ opening choice avoided any prep and instantly upped the stakes, with Wesley commenting, “if he wins this game, I should retire from chess!” If Magnus lost he could just put it down to the opening and would have plenty of time to recover, while if Wesley lost…

Just as in the St. Louis Rapid & Blitz, Black duly got a good position, but this time it was a game of swing after swing. When Wesley failed to play forcefully enough, Magnus took over, only to blunder a pawn with 24.a4?


Wesley could, and did, play 24…Qxb3, with Magnus summing up:

I just blundered b3! That is just insane. Way to ruin a decent game, huh? Obviously I’m grasping at straws now.

Wesley was back in the driver’s seat, but spoilt everything himself with 43…Rf6?, running into 44.Qc8+!


44…Kh7? 45.Ng6! will soon be mate, while after 44…Qf8 45.Qxf8+ Rxf8 46.Nxc6 the material balance had been restored. “It just comes down to hustle, straight hustle!” said Magnus, and eventually the hustle worked, as Wesley was lost in the final position.

It was a perfect start for Magnus.

He lost on time – good stuff, good stuff. What a bad game! But I liked the end. So at the end if he goes Kh6 I’ve got Ng4 and if he goes Ng8 I go d5, Kf6 and then d6, and my position may actually have been winning. Anyway, some nice trickery there! So we get away with one there, and it’s a good start.

For Wesley it wasn’t so much about the result as that opening. “I should just stop laughing at Magnus’ opening choice and just try to play better chess,” he said, but he could clearly never get it out of his head. Two games later:

It’s just so hard to forget the game when someone plays f3 and Kf2 and just crushes you. That’s just so humiliating.

And at the very end:

If you lose a game against 1.f3 2.Kf2 it’s just very psychologically draining.

Again and again it was confirmation that Magnus’ gamble had been worth a try, since the potential rewards were so great, though not everyone applauded the choice.

Magnus extends his lead

For the rest of the match Magnus returned to playing his typical blitz repertoire, which includes plenty of offbeat stuff, including the Alekhine Defence in Game 2, but nothing his opponent could perceive as attempted humiliation. Magnus in fact played the opening to Game 2 very well and could have seized a completely winning advantage in 19 moves…

…but it didn’t matter as ultimately he managed to squeeze a win out of what should have been a drawish ending. He summed up how things were going:

What’s happening so far is I’m spending way too much time, but I’m sort of dragging him down to my level, in that he will spend a lot of time as well, and then he will get in time trouble and we will both be in time trouble, and so far I’ve handled that a bit better.

Game 3 was nearly the beginning of the fight back after Magnus “bringing his king towards the centre” with 18.Kf1? was in fact just blundering a pawn.


18…Bb5+! 19.Ke1 Bd3! 20.Ne3 Bxe4. “That’s one of the only things I’m good at in blitz, finding these one-move tricks,” said Wesley, but he didn’t inspire confidence as he commented that although “objectively” he should win he “highly doubted” he’d pull it off. “Going to need a miracle to save this one now,” said Magnus, before rescuing another tricky ending.

Wesley hits back

That miss could easily have seen Wesley lose hope, but he finally had something to cheer about in the very next game. He began with the Italian, with Magnus commenting, “clearly he must have studied my game against Anish Giri and realised I cannot play against the Italian!”

Wesley did indeed credit the “slight advantage” he got out of the opening to the Dutchman:

Our friend Anish Giri is very good in the openings! Everybody should definitely check out his Chessable course.

For a while it looked as though Magnus might escape again, but this time Wesley finished things off smoothly.

“Oh boy! That was thoroughly deserved!” admitted Magnus. He’s always dangerous after a loss, however, and he came straight back in the next game. It was more endgame magic – and while Wesley was wondering where exactly he’d gone wrong it was something that was clear in the World Champion’s mind.


I think he made an instructive mistake there when he went for the plan with a6, exchanging. It meant that he did get to exchange a pawn, but also his rook became really passive, so I don’t think overall it was a worthwhile trade for him.

34…a6?! 35.bxa6 Ra5 36.Rb1 Rxa6 37.Rb4 and, with the black rook out of the game, Magnus smoothly overran his opponent on the kingside.

Wesley wasn’t finished yet, however! In Game 6 Magnus seemed to have survived the worst and was delighted to have got his knight to g6 – “one of my pieces is on a decent square, which is basically the crowning achievement of my game so far!” But 24…Qd7?? saw a sudden end to the knight’s career!


25.Qxg6+!

It’s somehow reassuring that even chess World Champions blunder such things!

Magnus gets over the finish line first

Game 7 was the quietest draw of the match, but that tells you a lot about the match, since it featured a hyper-sharp middlegame skirmish that could have gone either way until Magnus blundered into a draw by 3-fold repetition at the end.  

Magnus didn’t make a very strong case for playing the opening he played in Game 8. This was the most polite version:

Basically the point is that I do have the bishop pair and that means I do have something to hope for, even though currently I have no pawns in the centre and I’m in imminent danger of losing the game.

Things escalated until Magnus played 23…Qe5, commenting, “this is the definition of ugly!”


Wesley could simply have taken a pawn with 24.Qxe5 fxe5 25.Rxe5, while 24.Ne4! seems to be even stronger, but he opted for 24.Re4?!, when after 24…Qb5! it turned out the worst was over for Black. Instead of Wesley levelling the scores, Magnus had made a draw that left him just a point away from winning the event. “That was another narrow escape - very, very narrow!”

The final game saw a complicated middlegame where Black had compensation suddenly clarify in Magnus’ favour.

What followed was not textbook conversion, and Wesley had good chances for another draw, but sheer speed and trickery won out in the end! Magnus had done it…

…again!

Wesley had scored better against Magnus than anyone else in the Banter Series and Magnus knew he’d been in a fight.

That was a real battle. I was 2:0 up and I just barely pulled it off. So many games where I just think, think, think and then he just keeps on coming up with good moves to make it difficult for me. So well done, Wesley, great fight, and what can I say? I’m happy to have made it, even if it was just barely.


Magnus, who took the $12,000 top prize (Wesley took $6,000), had enjoyed the new format.

I thought the event was a lot of fun. I was a little bit sceptical to begin with to have an increment, but I sort of like the increment now – basically it just means that you can yap a lot more, and I like that!

Up next for the World Champion is Altibox Norway Chess, starting on Monday 5th October. How is he feeling about it?

I think it will be very, very interesting to play over-the-board again. I don’t really know what to expect so just a bit unusual to get back, but I think it will be a good event, definitely, with very, very strong and interesting players.

Magnus faces Fabiano Caruana, Levon Aronian, Jan-Krzysztof Duda, Alireza Firouzja and Aryan Tari in a double round-robin, with Vladimir Kramnik and Judit Polgar commentating on the official chess24 stream!

See also:


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