Magnus Carlsen took the lead against Ian Nepomniachtchi on Day 1 of the chess24 Legends of Chess final, but described himself as “really, really unhappy” with the way he played. It was a bruising day on which Magnus couldn’t enjoy his win in the first game since he felt he’d made an “unforgivable” blunder midway through. Ian then drew real blood in Game 3 after catching Magnus in the opening and ending with a mating attack. The World Champion was shaken, but won what he called “a battle of nerves” in the blitz games to win the first set.
You can replay the games from Day 1 of the chess24 Legends of Chess final using the selector below:
That meant Magnus had won the first set, but Nepo still has a path to winning the final, and a place in the Magnus Carlsen Chess Tour finals – beating Magnus on Tuesday and then winning a decider on Wednesday.
For live commentary we once again had the honour of 12th World Champion Anatoly Karpov joining Judit Polgar, Alexander Grischuk, Jan Gustafsson and Tania Sachdev:
Ian Nepomniachtchi was, like Magnus Carlsen, born in 1990, but a few months earlier, so that he’s already turned 30.
When they were growing up Ian had the edge, beating Magnus in the European U12 and World U14 events, and although their careers took very different paths Ian managed to add to those wins with “adult” victories in the 2011 Tata Steel A Group and the 2017 London Chess Classic. Magnus only finally scored a classical win in last year’s Grand Chess Tour event in Croatia, making Ian the only remaining elite GM with a plus score (4:1 in wins!) against the World Champion. Given Ian is leading the Candidates Tournament they could easily clash in the biggest match of all.
So Ian is a player with fewer reasons than most to fear Magnus, and he indicated he was ready to take risks when he met his opponent’s Najdorf with 6.Rg1:
After Magnus thought for 2 minutes and 34 seconds play continued 6…b5 7.g4 Bb7 8.g5 and although Magnus later said he was aware of this line he wasn’t ready to take the pawn and played 8…Nfd7!? instead. In a wild position he seemed to be taking over until 17.bxc3:
Magnus’ fury that he here played 17…e5?! still hadn’t subsided by the end of the day’s play.
I was just really, really appalled by my play, especially that I’d gone e5 on move 17. That really is an unforgivable mistake. You absolutely have to go Qa5 here, and I only noticed that this move was possible right after I’d made the move, which really upset me, because I felt that his plan with 14.hxg6 was wrong and I felt that after this move he has to make a really, really awkward move like Bd2, because he’s not in time to protect f3 and play Qd2. That kind of really upset me quite a bit.
You can watch the full interview with Magnus here:
Magnus is right that 17…Qa5! was strong, but his choice in the game made a dramatic impression – the kind of bold positional move that you assume must be good if a player like the World Champion makes it. When a puzzled Alexander Grischuk joined later he asked if Magnus had been very low on time, so that Nepo played for a win instead of going for the rock solid 18.Bxc5 dxc5 19.Qxd8 Rfxd8 20.Ke2 when only White can be better.
But no, at that stage Ian was a mere 3 minutes up on the clock and simply seemed to want to play on. After 18.Bg4!? Qe7 there was no longer the option of exchanging of queens, and then with 21.0-0-0!? Nepo poured more fuel on the fire:
Here 21…Na4! seemed to be the way for Magnus to seize the initiative, but he chose 21…Ne6 instead. With time running out the game developed fast, and a sequence of exchanges led to a pawn race in a queen ending. Magnus said he was “just making as qualified as possible guesses”, but, to no-one’s great surprise, when the dust settled he was winning. 40…Qe5! was the move that clarified the situation:
White would already have his hands full with the passed pawn on h2, but now the additional threat is mate-in-1 on b5! Nepo had no choice but to give up on the pawns on c6 and a3 and resigned 8 moves later after Magnus was about to force queens off the board.
The 2nd game of the day was much quieter, with the most entertaining action perhaps taking place off the chessboard as Judit Polgar and Anatoly Karpov analysed!
For Game 3 we returned to the 6.Rg1 Najdorf battleground, and this time Magnus had done some work between the rounds and did grab a pawn on move 9. Grischuk turned up to point out a beautiful trap after 10.Qg4…
Magnus was probably aware of that too, but instead he’d stumbled into the novelty 10.a4!
Why was that move an issue for Magnus?
My notes didn’t say a4 and that was the problem!
He thought for 4 minutes before playing 10…e5, commenting:
I understood while he was playing that the idea had to be 10…e5 11.axb5, but I half couldn’t believe it and I half just didn’t see much else, but clearly my idea here was just flawed since I’d missed this crucial detail of Bd2 that he played later on.
Here’s the position after 11…Be7 12.Rg4! axb5 13.Bxb5+ Nd7 14.Bd2!
The a1-rook is defended so that the e4-bishop now has to move. “Here I used up all my time, but I believed I was just lost,” said Magnus, as he spent 5 minutes on 14...Bb7, which after 15.Nf5! 0-0 really does seem to have been lost:
Magnus said he’d seen 16.Rga4 and was planning to sacrifice a piece with 16…Rxa4 Bxg5 18.Bxg5 Qxg5 19.Bxd7 and at least with 19…Qg1+ and 20…Qxh2 Black might get some compensation. Instead after 16.Rxa8?! Magnus was objectively ok again, but as he put it, “I just went insane after 19.Qh3”:
Magnus was planning 19…Bxg5! when the computer evaluates the position as 0.00, but in a thought process all chess players are familiar with he then wondered, isn’t 19…h5?? even better, and quickly played that move under the hallucination that after 20.Rxh5! gxh5 21.Qxh5 he could defend with 21…Be4 and 22…Bxf5. That fails to 22.g6!, while in the game after 21…Ne6 Magnus resigned, not waiting to see 22.g6! there either.
Pascal Charbonneau takes a look at those two dramatic 6.Rg1 Najdorf games:
The final rapid game was blitzed out by both players, who picked the quietest line possible. It was understandable that Magnus wanted to stabilise, and he later admitted, “I was just massively tilted after losing that 3rd game so I didn’t particularly want to play”.
“Then the blitz was just a battle of nerves - I was fortunate to come out ahead,” said Magnus, but whatever the nerves he decided to stick with the Najdorf. Alexander Grischuk was moved to comment:
I'm in general surprised he's playing the Najdorf. I think he's just making it more difficult for himself. He can play a good opening - the Berlin, the one and only!
Magnus himself had his doubts:
You could say in hindsight that this was not a great choice, but on the other hand, I won with the Najdorf in the blitz game, so it wasn’t all that bad.
Nepo was the first player to deviate, playing 6.h3, and the game was progressing normally until White’s position suddenly collapsed in the space of three moves. 21.Nf6+? was a blunder, and after 21…Kh8 Nepo was left in a tough spot:
22.c3? runs into 22…Qa5! and White is getting crushed, so that the only way to prolong the game was to give up the queen, as Nepo did with 22.Bd5, allowing 22...Rxc2+.
The resulting position was winning for Black, but very tricky to play, since as Magnus pointed out the white rooks and knight on f6 were always only a couple of moves away from giving mate if Black blundered. It turns out that there was a chance for Nepo to save himself by forcing a perpetual with 32.gxh6+! It was Judit who spotted that, leading Grischuk to call himself, Jan, and then Ian “three patzers”:
You could almost say it was four patzers, if Magnus was included, though he had noticed the move even if he didn’t exactly look into it deeply:
I was hoping that I could take the knight – that was my calculation!
In the end, however, there was no miracle escape and Magnus went on to take the lead again in the match.
The final blitz game saw Nepo needing to beat Magnus on demand with the black pieces. Normally you would say that was close to impossible, but he’d pulled off the trick in their match from the preliminary stage. This time as well he got an advantage, but Magnus showed his class to confidently hold what looked like a difficult ending. In fact by move 92 the World Champion had won the game and the set.
That means Nepo must now win Tuesday’s second set to force a decider on Wednesday, or Magnus will win a third event on his chess tour, in the process giving Ding Liren a place in the $300,000 final four event.
Don’t miss the live commentary from 15:30 CEST.
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